The death of Yorkshire freelance Tom Hopkinson sees the end of an era in the North dominated by a bunch of characters who were legends in their own lunchtimes – and many a drinking hour after that.
Like contemporaries Roger Blyth at Mercury Press and John Pick of York – sadly departed too – Tom had contacts today’s deskbound mineral watersipping, clock-watching, unsmiling online hacks could only dream of.
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Larger than life isn’t sufficient a term to describe Tom, a self-styled country gent in expensive tweed jackets, twill slacks and driving the inevitable Jag – replaced by a 4 x 4 after his double-hip replacement.
(He proudly told me had brought the pioneering surgeon Sir Richard Charnley out of retirement to have them done.) His office – a hovel in the heart of Bradford’s redlight district – was anything but hi-tech. Once you’d forced the door open past the pile of old broadsheets there was nowhere to hang your coat or even sit down. The pull flush on the overhead cistern had been broken for 20 years or more.
None of this mattered to Tom, who immediately lured visiting staffmen from the nationals to the nearest Tetley’s house, or the infamous Lithuanian Club where the Yorkshire Ripper Squad – and their predecessors – held court.
When he opened his Leeds office, in a garret at the back of Leeds Crown Court, his chief reporter was 17-year-old Gerry Hunt, later to become a Daily Mail staffer and then a National Enquirer man in Florida. Gerry pounded out stories on an ancient Underwood with a faded ribbon on the back of discarded press releases. Tom didn’t waste money on copy paper.
Don’t think that Tom ignored new technology.
When faxing became de rigeur, he brokered a deal with an Asian shopkeeper across the road from his Bradford HQ who had actually purchased a machine. As soon as a transmission arrived, a scribbled note, writ large, would go up in the window bearing the legend FAX COME and a minion would scamper past the midday hookers to collect it.
As Tom’s territory expanded, he patrolled it like a latter-day Wyatt Earp. On one famous occasion, John Pick, the highly successful freelance in York, dared to show up for a shift at the BBC in Leeds. As soon as the tom-toms rattled, Tommy got into his Jag and sped down the A64. There he found Pick’s staff experiencing a slow news day. He took them all to the pub and shamelessly plied them with drink.
Back in Pick’s office at 3.30pm, he settled himself comfortably in Pick’s leather armchair, poured himself a large scotch and dialled the BBC Leeds newsroom: “Hello John,” he said, “Tommy here. I’d just like you to know I’m in your chair, drinking your whisky and I’ve just spent all lunchtime in the pub with your lads. They’re all pissed and fit for nothing.
Now, do you want a range war or what?” Pick’s comments are not recorded but he didn’t do many BBC shifts in Leeds after that.
When I was on the showbiz beat for a while in the early Eighties I found Yorkshire Television a rich and untapped source of stories. If there was a body and a rape Tom was in his element – soap stars and their foibles were understandably anathema to him. They weren’t real and neither were their stories (some lesson there, perhaps).
That didn’t stop him turning on me the moment I arrived at the “Lith” for the farewell party of his long-time and revered sidekick Malcolm Hoddy, now editor of the Keighley News, who started out as Tom’s 17-year-old apprentice in the mid-Sixties.
I got the full hairdryer treatment – in front of a crowded bar – that Sir Alex Ferguson would have been proud to deliver. As I collected my breath, a pint was thrust into my hand. “It’s a free bar all night” was his payoff line.
Tom started work for the Yorkshire Post in Bradford in 1951, aged 16, before becoming the county’s youngest freelance at the age of 20. The Hopkinson agency became legendary for its exclusive news stories, never better than when it broke exclusively to ITN the news that the Ripper had been arrested after years of false leads. It was a belting scoop.
Countless illustrious names emerged from the Fame Academy presided over by “The Silver Fox”: John Craven of BBC Newsround fame was his first recruit, Malcolm Hoddy his second and Ian Cameron, formerly of the Daily Mirror and now Wales News, was his third. Other graduates include John Dale, editor of Take a Break, the Daily Star’s John Mahoney, Matt Acton of the News of the World, Steve Dennis of the Daily Mirror and former Sunday Mirror executive Clive Hadfield to name but a few.
When he knew his cancer was terminal and he had just weeks to live, he called 20 old friends including Ken Bennett and John Sheard (both close Sunday Mirror colleagues) to share a drink with him while he could still manage one. “They should have renamed Yorkshire Hopkinson,” says Bennett, now head of PR for Emap radio station Key 103 Manchester. “He was the archetypal Yorkshireman.”
His devotion to his family and standing in the Yorkshire Dales village where he lived was a curious juxtaposition with his career reputation as a hardnosed hack.
He was made a life member of the NUJ in 1993 and was forced to retire through ill-health in 1998.
“Tom never wanted to retire but he had to in the end,” said his wife, Joan, married to Tom for 42 years. “He was known as a hard taskmaster but I counted up 40 top journalists who passed through Tom’s hands and that says a lot. They always said if you could work for Tom you could work for anyone.
The family have been inundated with calls but that only reflects the standing he was held in by other journalists and in the Dales community. I don’t know how we’ll manage without him but we will.”
Tom Hopkinson faced his impending demise with the equanimity he’d have shown to some awkward sod he was doorstepping. Charm itself in the belted raincoat and perfect shorthand note.
Ian Cameron, who visited him in his dying days, said: “Tom was a great journalist and a great pro. He was a committed Christian and at peace with himself.”
For the hundreds of people whose lives were touched by Tom, his legend will live on in pubs and bars throughout the land – and wherever journalists of the old school gather to share a pint and an anecdote.
And that’s no bad legacy.
Tom Hopkinson, who died on 6 October, is survived by his widow Joan and children Jeremy and Charlotte.
Brian Whittle, founder and editor of Manchester-based Cavendish Press