When I first met David English, he had yet to receive his
I was taken to a meeting in the old Fleet Street headquarters of
Associated Newspapers and, as I was standing in the editor’s outer
office waiting to be told to go in, I remember the overwhelming smell of
printing ink and fresh newsprint. The so-called ’new technology’
had yet to burst forth and make its mark on the newspaper industry.
From behind the door came the raised voice of the man I was about to
meet. Soon the doors opened, several white-faced journalists made a
hasty exit and the door closed behind them. Now it was our turn to enter
the lion’s den.
As I walked into the huge office, I could almost hear my knees
The room was all polished wood - with a continuous blue sofa around
three of its walls - and in the centre of the room was the man himself.
He stood up from behind his huge desk, removed his glasses and, holding
them by one of their arms in between his teeth, greeted me with a
politeness and a smile that came as a pleasant surprise. Surreptitiously
wiping the sweat from my palm on to my trousers, I shook his hand.
What followed was only to last a few moments but it made a lasting
impact on me. We were there to discuss an urgent script and although Sir
David was busy putting the next day’s paper to bed, the whole meeting
was held up and the deadlines put to one side while Sir David took an
interest in me. For those few moments, he made me feel like the most
important person in the room and I soon felt at ease in the company of
this great Fleet Street editor. Most importantly of all, it was not
superficial: there was nothing superficial about Sir David, whose
smiling eyes spoke volumes. A master at translating body language, he
never ceased to use its vocabulary himself. What you saw was definitely
what you got.
From that day on I loved my meetings with Sir David. They were very
stimulating and I enjoyed watching the great man at work. Out would come
the old typewriter, out would go our words to be replaced by what was
usually pure genius. When a client takes your script apart it’s usually
frustrating, but when Sir David took your script apart it was bloody
exciting. The visual would usually come out completely unscathed but he
crafted the words. Words were his passion and no-one knew better than
him how to sell a newspaper.
So our words he edited - that was his job after all.
He once said of his team at FCB: ’I’m sure you work for me. I just treat
you as part of my team, just as though you were in an office along the
corridor.’ That was a brilliant compliment and very flattering to us
He respected and repaid loyalty. His ability to know what the public
wanted was staggering. Like the time he bought the Windsor love letters
I told him I thought it was tacky. He told me I was wrong. I was wrong:
the circulation rose by a massive 22 per cent.
We weren’t always wrong, though. He tried to sell a serialisation on
Linus Pauling, a nuclear physicist, with the line: ’A cure for radiation
sickness by the man who invented it.’ We told him in no uncertain terms:
’You really can’t do that, it’s pure hot metal.’ There was a silence, he
looked up from the typewriter, looked me in the eyes and smiled, first
with his eyes and then with his whole face. He threw his head back with
a laugh and said: ’You’re absolutely right, it’s appalling.’
FCB’s relationship with the Mail goes back a long way. Robert Ballin,
the board account director, and I have worked with this client for 18
years. The foundations for this sort of commitment were laid by the
great man himself. I enjoyed his company, I enjoyed his wit and I
enjoyed his talent. I’m very, very proud to have known him and very
privileged to have worked so closely with him. I’ll truly miss this
giant of a man.
Brian Watson is the deputy creative director of FCB.