A Farewell to Brian Whittle – by Peter Reece
Whittle collapsed and died on December 9th at an event dubbed A
Farewell to Ancoats, to mark the final departure of the Daily Express,
Sunday Express and Daily Star from Manchester. He would have been 60 in
It was fitting that he was in the company of
journalists, for tabloid ink ran through Brian’s veins. A superb
reporter and feature writer, in latter years he was principal of one of
the few remaining great freelance news and photographic agencies,
This extraordinary career began with a childhood
in Yorkshire, although he was born in Stockton on Tees, and an initial
desire to be either journalist or an artist.
Brian took a trainee
reporter’s job at the Harrogate Advertiser followed by stints at the
Northern Echo in Darlington and the Morning Telegraph in Sheffield.
1967 Brian moved to the Sketch in Manchester during the dizzy years
before it merged with the Daily Mail. Then as a reporter with the
Sunday People, showbiz editor of the Daily Star when its HQ was
Manchester, and as news editor of Eddie Shah’s ground-breaking Post in
Warrington, his gravelled voice was heard at every major story
emanating from the north of
England: the Moors Murders, Louise
Brown the first test tube baby, George Best’s off-field adventures,
Marjorie Wallace and the Miss World Diaries, John Stalker and the
Northern Ireland ‘shoot to kill’ investigation, the race-riots in Moss
Side, the siege of Strangeways.
Extracting plot-lines from
Coronation Street and recording the love-lives of its stars was bread
and butter to Brian, who also travelled to America in pursuit of
trans-Atlantic soaps like Dallas. It was there that he persuaded the
delectable Dolly Parton to be pictured sitting on his knee, as a
memento for a friend in Manchester – a picture that finished up on page
one of the Star.
Whilst working for the Florida based National
Inquirer Brian was tipped off that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
has both booked into the same London hotel with their new partners.
Brian waited patiently in the hotel lobby and when Burton appeared with
his new wife, Susie – the former wife of world motor racing champion
James Hunt – he stepped forward. Brian introduced himself, only to be
told in a rich Welsh baritone: ” Sir, if you represent the National
Enquirer, kindly f*** off.”
Brian loved the story, and told it
against himself. He was justly proud that he had earlier written the
splash story in the final edition of the Daily Sketch.
with photographer Brian Taylor, Brian joined his close friend Peter
Reece in the Manchester News Service. The three freelances discovered
an ambitious young reporter called Wendy Henry at the centre of a
political storm which brought Manchester University to standstill, and
watched with an enormous pride when she became Fleet Street’s first
women editor. Wendy was the first of many successful Cavendish Press
graduates who went on to high profile media careers.
If there was
a Manchester story, Brian’s name inevitably appeared in a by-line. In
an era when Manchester actually printed more newspaper editions than
Fleet Street ever did, the name Brian Whittle was as synonymous with
Manchester as the headlines the city generated.
Brian set up
Cavendish Press in 1979 with just a telephone on a window-sill of their
house overlooking the eponymous suburban Cavendish Road. Brian
developed not only one of the most respected agencies in Europe, but
trained a string of young reporters for success in Fleet Street. The
agency continues under the leadership of Jon Harris.
freelance business has become tougher, Brian always embraced new ideas
and technology. As a member of the National Association of Press
Agencies (NAPA) he was a vociferous champion of fair treatment for
freelances. He took Cavendish Press into association with multi media
Brian Whittle was frequently cantankerous,
legendary for his grumpiness, laced everything in life with black
humour and we all loved him for it.
He also had a rich and varied
life outside work, indulging his passion for movies, securing
friendships on the golf course and badminton court and, most of all
with his wife Maureen seeing their sons Mark, Chris and Peter grow into
talented young men: Mark is Media Relations Manager at the Football
Association, Chris a photographer with Splash agency in California and
Peter is also a photographer with his Cavendish Press.
years, two stories were particularly important to him. Cavendish Press
were responsible for the first pictures of little Kirsty Howard, the
little girl born with a back-to-front heart, who has helped raise
almost £5 million for the children’s hospice, Francis House. It was
Brian who persuaded the Sunday People to take the campaign on board,
giving the charity national coverage. The British public took the
inspirational girl to their hearts and she helped open the Commonwealth
Games with David Beckham.
Mass-murderer Harold Shipman was the
other. Brian had the foresight to spot very early both that it was a
huge human tragedy but the political implications of how Shipman got
away with it for so long. He devoted hundreds of hours of his own time
to digging into the Dr Death’s background in Hyde, near Manchester, and
became the expert on the subject, interviewed by newspapers and radio
and TV stations around the world.
The story also enabled him to
fulfil an ambition. He recalled: “I decided I would have to work out of
Hyde for a few months and found a pub landlord who would rent me a
room. It was every journalist’s dream – having a key to let yourself
into the pub.”
My own favourite Whittle story involves George
Best and the alleged theft of Miss World’s diary and a fur coat. I had
bought George’s story of his affair with Marjorie Wallace for £5,000
and sold it twenty minutes later to the Sunday People at a very
handsome profit. Brian, a People staff man at the time was placed
alongside as co-writer.
We travelled to London to hear the
Marlborough Street Magistrates state that in the absence of Marji as a
witness, George could leave the court without a stain on his character.
I do recall several wine stains on his shirt! We adjourned to the
Russell Hotel for a celebratory drink, held a brief press conference
for the dailies, and tried to persuade George to fly immediately to
Spain where we could contain the exclusivity of the tale.
had other ideas! He insisted that he keep his promise that evening to
play five-a-side football for his Manchester night-club team, Slack
From Euston to Manchester we drank the travel bar dry and
drunkenly fetched up at a sports centre close to Old Trafford. Brian
and I were wasted. George changed into football kit, drunk as he was,
and turned on a display which would have done credit to Rudolf Nureyev.
retired to Slack Alice where George entertained a female admirer in his
office until well after 1 a.m. Then, with his business partner, Colin
Burne, we drove the twenty miles to Prestbury for some sleep. Brian was
ordered by his office to sleep over the threshold of George’s bedroom,
just in case he did one of his famous disappearing acts. I drove to my
home and returned at
7 a.m. to resume guard duty.
had gone! I woke Whittle to tell him his bird had flown and knew
exactly where to find him. I rang Mrs. Fullaway, his landlady in
Chorlton, and she confirmed he was safely tucked up in her council
Then a white-faced Colin Burne grabbed the ‘phone. He
asked Mrs. Fullaway to look under the driver’s seat of the Slack Alice
van in which George had made his getaway. A few minutes later she came
back to the telephone to say she had rescued a paper bag containing
£2,500 in bank notes – the entire takings from the night club.
Leatham. then a Manchester Evening News staff man first stumbled across
Brian at Manchester Airport early on a Saturday when a Dan-Air plane
had gone down over Spain. Both were dreadfully hung-over from a
traditional Friday night ‘think tank’ in the Nags Head.
They forged a life-long friendship with a duly considered report fuelled by
28 bottles of Blue Bass and four aspirins!
said: “Brian was a journalistic giant, superb company, a good friend
and a devoted family man. I and many others will miss him deeply.”
Whittle died at the bar of the Crown and Kettle, the pub adopted by the
Daily Express as their Manchester watering hole for the best part of 75
years. It was to have been one of those great parties where aging hacks
rubbed shoulders with old inkies and share hopelessly tall tales of hot
metal and headlines.
Brian was a cracking reporter, a lovely
writer, a spinner of unlikely yarns, a loving husband and father and
the warmest of friends. He will be deeply missed.