It doesn’t do to dwell on the public position of Piers Morgan – the unthinking man’s Piers Morgan – but the position of newspaper editor turned morning broadcasting ubiquity is not a new one.
There was a time, and not so long ago, when the words Derek Jameson would produce the kind of allergic reaction many feel when hearing the name of the current presenter of Good Morning Britain. It was an era before the all-enveloping media landscape of today, when a well-aimed tweet from ITV’s Life Stories anchor can remind you of his existence, unbidden. But if anything Jameson was at one stage in the late 1980s even harder to avoid, with his Radio 2 breakfast show, TV residencies and the countless columns from which his unmistakable visage gurned.
This was a man whose every utterance seemed to be a catchphrase launched into common currency: ‘Morning, Morning’, ‘Do they mean us?’, ‘I can’t imagine … CAN YOU?’ If Jameson’s unmistakable cockney tones grated with some, they were lapped up by many others. He did not achieve real national fame until his fifties, but could soon claim to be ‘the highest-paid man in [British] show business’. Yet Jameson, who died in 2012, was a man steeped in newsprint long before a grateful nation got to be familiar with his unmodulated tones.
He titled his second autobiography Last of the Hot Metal Men for a reason: his four decades in Fleet Street ended pretty much exactly when the old mechanical printing presses disappeared from newspaper production, along with the eponymous London thoroughfare that once housed those publications.
Even before his unlikely step into showbusiness, Jameson had a story worth telling. He grew up in poverty in an East End children’s home (alongside what he thought was his sister and later learned was his mother), started as a messenger boy for Reuters before the War and worked his way up to become an executive, was a senior figure on the Daily Mirror, and editor of the Daily Express, Daily Star and the News of the World, where he was capable of putting aside his own leftist sympathies to fall in with party lines, even if the teenage militancy that almost ended his early career had faded somewhat.
His flair for publicity was shown during the launch of the Daily Star in November 1978. Jameson was still in charge of the Express and had oversight of the new Manchester-based sister title as editor-in-chief. His string of TV appearances plugging the new paper that day had the Press Gazette suggesting Jameson was headed for the Palladium. Later he confirmed his already-established reputation as a circulation magician by introducing the first national newspaper bingo game, which soon became a mighty weapon in the tabloid war, with million-pound prizes; it even played a part in saving TV-am, as ratings rose when they started reading out all the winning numbers from each paper each day.
Myths grew up around Jamie, as he was known among newspapermen. When the Star launched, he was quoted as saying it would be ‘all tits, bums, QPR and roll-your-own fags’ – a memorable phrase, though one he claimed never to have uttered. ‘I told the Sun angrily that it as a phoney quote, pointing out that the editor-in-chief of a Manchester newspaper initially circulating only in the North was hardly likely to take Queen’s Park Rangers as his text,’ Jameson wrote in his first volume of memoirs, Touched by Angels. The Sun apologised: ‘Sorry, Derek, but it did sound like you.’
Jameson had distinctly mixed feeling about that public image, encapsulated in his Private Eye nickname, Sid Yobbo. He was hardly ashamed of his background or his achievement in rising from it. But Jameson was also an opera fan who, in a 1978 exchange with Auberon Waugh in the pages of the Spectator, wrote: ‘Would you believe there are people from the working class who can read and write? I was encouraged at school by teachers who felt there was a distinct possibility I was cut out for something else than a lorry driver’s mate. Their way out, and mine, happened to be literature. They didn’t throw the book at me, but the whole bloody library.’
Oddly, Waugh and Jameson had previously been acquainted when the future novelist was a caption writer for the then Sunday Mirror pictures editor. Bron would later admiringly describe Jameson, in his TV pomp, as ‘the second most famous man in Britain – after Prince Charles,’ but Jameson was not always able to win around critics so easily.
It was probably unwise for him to sue the BBC over a 1980 sketch on satirical Radio 4 show Week Ending that described him as ‘an East End boy made bad … who still believes that “erudite” is a glue’. Jameson lost, and by the time the case came to court in 1984 he was out of newspapers, having been sacked from the News of the World. He was wiped out financially, but it proved a spur to the even more extraordinary phase of his career.
He soon became a favourite on ITV chat and game shows, though was beaten out for a role on LWT’s 6 O’Clock Show by another future star of breakfast radio, Danny Baker. David Frost soon had Jameson giving his views on the Sunday papers from the TV-am sofa (Derek Jameson on the TV-am sofa is as 1980s an image as Bob Geldof, Derek Hatton and Lady Diana raising money in a crumbling football stadium for a policeman to hit a coalminer with a rolled-up copy of the Sun).
But his main breakthrough came from his nemesis, the BBC, who hired Jameson to front a series titled Do They Mean Us?, in which he screened and commented upon foreign TV reports of the British. It was just the vehicle for some earthy patriotic wisdom of the kind Nigel Farage likes to imagine he dispenses but which somehow rang true from Jameson (now he was happy to play up the salt-of-the-earth East Ender image).
It even led to a novelty Christmas single, to the tune of ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’, which does in fact mention Hatton, just in case you need to carbon-date it.
He appeared on seemingly most other TV programmes in 1985 as well, though it was a stint sitting in for Jimmy Young on Radio 2 – never missing a chance, in his words, to ‘comment freely on this and that as I went along’ – that earned him his real break. In April 1986 Jameson took over the station’s breakfast show from Ken Bruce, who had been handed the poisoned chalice of replacing TV-bound Terry Wogan. Occasionally interrupting catchphrases like ‘Morning, Morning’ and ‘Do they mean us?’ for plain common sense news comment, interviews and music, and with big ratings Jameson lasted five years in the slot.
It’s probably the kind of thing Rupert Murdoch would look for as he searches for a frontman for his new British news channel. We know this because the man who sacked Jameson from the Screws hired him in 1990 to be the signature star on the newly-launched Sky Channel with a nightly chat show (though he didn’t prove as capable at emulating Wogan’s success in that format as on the radio). Oddly, one of Jameson’s writers at Sky was Peter Hickey, who had coined the phrase ‘East End boy made bad’ for the offending Week Ending sketch,
However, once the 1980s was over, so was the peak of Jameson’s fame, shifted to late night on Radio 2 and decreasingly a TV fixture ahead of his retirement in 1997, though by then he’d more than made back the money lost in his libel action against the BBC (mainly from the BBC). His death in 2012 certainly made the papers, which is what he spent most his life doing one way or another, but Derek Jameson’s name seems to have faded from view.
It’s hard to say a figure who revelled in an old-school image (with the odd old-school sentiment to match) was a pioneer in broadcasting. Plenty of newspaper editors have found a second life in broadcasting, though probably only the Morgan character has quite moved over to become the showbusiness star that Jameson did, though I have had my suspicions about the ambition of Kelvin Mackenzie and Andrew Neil.
But while the Radio 2 breakfast show eventually returned to a Terry Wogan-style format, hosted by Terry Wogan, there’s something of Jameson in the morning bluster of Nick Ferrari, though lacking the catchphrases, opera records and ability to pop up on the That’s Showbusiness panel alongside Dora Bryan and Julian Clary. Or for that matter to sell his house to Paul McCartney and Heather Mills despite interest from Noel Gallagher (his next door neighbourn was Norman ‘Fatboy Slim’ Cook).
His brash tones irritated many (though a loud London accent mixed with a surprising hinterland was not so unusual on 1980s TV, an era of Janet Street-Porter and the aforementioned Danny Baker), but there is something refreshing about a personality so seemingly uncontrived – not a word that could be applied to another former News of the World editor turned broadcaster who I have already mentioned enough here to make anyone nauseous.
Even without the first chapter of his story, from the children’s home to the pinnacle of Fleet Street, Derek Jameson’s sudden stardom in his fifties is a bizarre tale. As a hot-metal newspaper man he was a figure of an era which had, by his own admission, disappeared not long after he lost his last editorial job. Yet he somehow managed to become one of the faces and voices of a time that liked to think of itself as more glitzy and mid-Atlantic than a booming cackle straight from Hackney.