Pride of Britain founder and Mirror man of 23 years Peter Willis dies

Pride of Britain founder and Mirror man of 23 years Peter Willis dies suddenly aged 54

Peter Willis Mirror man Pride of Britain

Mirror executive editor and founder of the newspaper’s Pride of Britain Awards Peter Willis died suddenly on Friday, he was 54.

Reach editor-in-chief Lloyd Embley broke the news to staff on Monday afternoon, paying tribute to the “enormous” contribution to the company his longstanding colleague has made.

Husband and father-of-two Willis spent 23 years at the Mirror, first joining the newspaper as launch editor of Saturday supplement The Look in 1997 after working at the Manchester Evening News and The Sun.

He edited the Daily Mirror and then the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People before becoming group executive editor and director of the Pride of Britain Awards, which he founded, last year.

In his message to staff, seen by Press Gazette, Embley said: “His contribution to the Mirror and the wider group was enormous but his crowning achievement was to conceive, launch and establish the Pride of Britain Awards.

“Without his drive, creativity and tenacity, Pride of Britain would never have become the national institution it is today.

“He always knew what was needed to add that extra bit of magic and sparkle to the event every year – and he never gave up in his pursuit of perfection. It was something to behold.”

Reach has offered grief counselling and support for staff and said it will make a meeting room in its Canary Wharf headquarters available for anyone who wants to meet and talk about the news in person.

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Reach chief executive Jim Mullen said: “I am deeply saddened by the loss of Peter and my sympathies go out to his family and friends.

“I know that Peter was a much-loved colleague and achieved so much during his career, in particular as the driving force behind the Pride of Britain Awards that have become a national event. We will of course provide all possible support to the family and colleagues now and moving forward.”

The news was covered by both The Sun and the Mirror on Monday, with a Mirror tribute calling him “a man who never understood how loved he was”.

Sun editor Victoria Newton said: “Peter is remembered at The Sun as a brilliant story-getter and a kind, much-loved colleague. With his infectious enthusiasm for newspapers, he was always on hand to help those around him. Peter will be sadly missed by all those who knew him.”

Prince Charles, who knew Willis through his work with Pride of Britain, said: “As The Pride of Britain became an established event, celebrating the great people of this country, Peter always insisted one of my Trust’s young people was included.

“He never shied away from telling the difficult stories of young people who had struggled with drugs, homelessness, imprisonment or mental health issues and managed to turn their lives around. The positive impact of telling their stories will be a significant part of his legacy. My deepest and heartfelt condolences go to his family and friends.”

Peter Willis tributes: ‘Exceptional… warm and kind’

People quickly began to share tributes to Willis, a well-known Fleet Street figure, on Twitter and via email to Press Gazette.

Piers Morgan, who worked with Willis on the Bizarre column at The Sun, described him as a “brilliant journalist, a loving husband and father, and a loyal, decent, kind and caring friend of mine for 30 years”.

Morgan’s former colleague on Good Morning Britain Susanna Reid, a Pride of Britain judge, said: “Great sadness at the loss of such a lovely, kind man. Peter Willis was at the heart of Pride of Britain and presided over each judging day, and the night itself, with positive energy, thoughtfulness and consideration. My love to his family, friends and colleagues.”

Daily Mirror editor Alison Phillips said Willis was “warm, kind, funny and an incredible journalist” and Sunday People and Mirror editor Gemma Aldridge said: “I still can’t quite believe it. A man whose warmth and gentle nature were a rarity. Many memories. Rest in peace, Peter.”

Michael Greenwood, head of Reach’s newswire, said: “An exceptional journalist and editor, Peter Willis was also warm and kind. Be it as Santa for the Daily Mirror kids Christmas party or overseeing a page 1 scoop he was brilliant.”

Daily Mirror associate editor Kevin Maguire said Willis was a “lovely, gentle, funny and fantastic company as well as a great journalist gone far too soon”.

Daily Mirror royal editor Russell Myers said: “Peter Willis was not only a giant of the industry, he was one of the kindest people you could ever meet. A mentor to myself and many others, his death leaves a huge void. His legacy in creating the Pride of Britain awards will be unmatched. Rest easy mate.”

Stewart Morris, a former producer then executive producer of the Pride of Britain Awards who worked closely with Willis, said: “The utmost professional, he held his ITV partners to the highest standards which, in turn, made us better at our jobs. How he got half the celebrities to turn up for Pride of Britain was always a source of light-hearted speculation but as Peter could charm the skin off a snake, I put it down to that! What a lovely bloke who is gone far too soon. RIP Peter.”

Kathy Evans, who shared a house in Clapham with Willis in the early 1990s when they both worked for News International, said: “He was a bag of contradictions; the epitome of sartorial elegance with the messiest of bedrooms; funny, entertaining, approachable but mysterious. RIP Peter and thank you for that sunny afternoon on the Common. It’s not forgotten.”

Freelance journalist Steve Clark said: “This is such incredibly sad news. Peter was one of the first people working in Fleet Street I dealt with as a young provincial reporter.

“He was kind, supportive and brought real energy to everything he did and obviously made a huge success of The Pride of Britain Awards.”

Mail on Sunday showbiz editor Katie Hind described Willis as the “loveliest, most thoughtful, wonderful man and the most brilliant journalist” while former Daily Mirror head of features Carole Watson said he was a “kind, loyal and super-talented friend and colleague”.

Sun executive showbiz editor Simon Boyle said: “In a tough industry he was unwaveringly a good guy – I know everyone says that when tragedy strikes, but it’s true here. A lovely, kind and decent man who had time for people. Awful.”

Feature writer and editor Clare Goldwin said: “Unbelievably sad. So talented and one of the good guys. Also a boss who took the Christmas party so seriously he once gave us time off to go to a fancy dress shop so our costumes would look fab.”

Amanda Cable said: “Peter was one of the best-loved journos in the business. So sweet and kind and generous to all. A true gentle giant. Once teased in conference about not being fit – he ran the London marathon the year after to prove them all wrong.”

Lesley Somerville said: “I am so shocked – brilliant, kind, warm journalist. I’ll never forget his smile, charm and great chat. A sublime talent taken far too young. Thinking of family, friends and my old colleagues at this terrible time.”

Gary Jones, Daily Express editor

Peter was the Alcatraz of journalism. Once you’d engaged with him on any story, idea, campaign or investigation there was no escape.
His passion, drive and commitment was proof that perpetual motion is indeed possible. He simply never stopped.
You couldn’t help but be swept along by Peter’s unlimited enthusiasm for the job with an intensity and attention to detail worthy of Oxford University’s debating society.
He achieved so much as scoop finder extraordinaire and editor of three national titles in an incredibly varied career. And on top of all that … he created Pride of Britain. This glorious event in our national calendar won the hearts of millions with its brilliant story-telling thanks to Peter’s dedication, flair and genius. He agonised over its content and cajoled the great and the good to attend though such was the show’s popularity that even ‘A’ list celebrities would plead for tickets.
Above everything, Peter was immensely likeable, charming and witty. He was such a gifted communicator and could effortlessly chat to anyone with wonderful warmth and kindness.
Peter’s loss has been felt by so very many of us who are devastated he is no longer with us. Our hearts reach out to his wife Nicky and sons Theo and Henry.

Sunday Mirror and Sunday People editor until March this year Paul Henderson:

Peter was a brilliant, creative and dedicated journalist who warmly welcomed me into the Daily Mirror newsroom 11 years ago.
I shall always remember Peter editing the paper during the London riots in 2011 until late into the night on the backbench. Every evening he was driven to make the edition as good as it possibly could be as we went to press. Then, in the morning he would call me to say how we could have made it even better. And, he would start that day with just as much vigour and determination to make the Mirror brilliant again.  Peter was forever striving for perfection and often achieved it.
Peter’s particular talent was to develop an idea from nothing and he certainly did that by creating Pride of Britain which will be his enduring media legacy.
His sudden death is not just a terrible loss to journalism but also an immeasurable loss to his wife Nicky and their two sons Theo and Henry whose progress he loved to talk about.

Former Daily Mirror editor Richard Wallace:

I knew Peter for more than 30 years. We were showbiz rivals as boy reporters. When he saw the light and moved to the Mirror, he established himself very quickly as an executive dynamo.
There was always room to improve a headline or tighten up an intro & he was forever coming up with idea after idea – often late into the night! During my editorship I relied greatly on that dynamism, that relentless drive and his wise counsel. He was a fantastic Deputy Editor in my last years in the chair.
Of course, his greatest legacy will be Pride of Britain. A great idea, but like all great ideas, very simple in its concept: let’s celebrate and salute ordinary people for doing extraordinary things. And get celebrities to take a back seat for a change and do the saluting. It became a remarkable phenomenon from day one, but only thanks to Peter’s extraordinary energy & determination.
Unsurprisingly, Peter became known in celebrity – and latterly royal – circles as the man you couldn’t say ‘No’ to. If you did, he’d just keep calling & emailing until you relented.
If he bumped into members of the Royal Family or celebrities anywhere, in any context, his opening gambit was always: ‘I hope we’ll be seeing you at Pride of Britain this year?’ The sensible ones knew ‘But of course, Peter’ was the only acceptable response.
Fleet Street has lost one of its greats. There are few who devoted their lives quite so passionately to journalism and in particular to highlighting the stories of those in our society who often go unheralded or are simply ignored. He was their champion. Above all, my heart goes out to Nicky and the family. We have lost a bright light. Thank you for everything, Pete.

Nick Owens, Willis’ deputy at the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People:

As Peter‘s former deputy editor I saw, each day, the kindness, compassion and drive that ran through everything Peter did in life.
What struck me about Peter more than anything was the interest he always took in the lives of his journalists outside the newsroom.
He cared deeply about them and their families.
I recall him once ringing me at home one weekend to discuss that day’s edition and me finding it hard to get my mother, who was round for Sunday lunch, off the call.
From then he became known to her as, not my boss, but that ‘nice man from The Mirror’.
He will be missed by so many people. My thoughts and prayers are forever with Nicky and the boys.

Jane Ridley worked with Willis for seven years in the Mirror features department:

Peter had unbridled enthusiasm for every story he assigned and would give writers full, exacting briefs. He’d even dictate the precise questions he wanted you to ask interviewees which usually guaranteed a fresh new angle and arresting headline. I continue to use many of his journalism tips and techniques today.
Peter’s love of old-school tabloid stunts was legendary. For example, in June 2003, he hired a Prince William lookalike to sneak into an intimate family birthday party thrown for the notorious Windsor Castle gatecrasher Aaron Barschak.
One of Peter’s craziest, most ingenious ideas was to stage the so-called “Mirror Wedding” in Piers Morgan’s expansive corner office. Rules had changed and marriage ceremonies had been sanctioned at venues other than churches and register offices.
We launched a massive reader competition in search of a prospective bride and groom to tie the knot on Valentine’s Day 2003. Columnist Sue Carroll picked a young couple from Exeter who had written in with a touching love story.
Peter coordinated the whole shebang. The event featured the 3am girls as bridesmaids and Carroll as matron of honour. Paul Burrell arranged the flowers while Richard Branson donated a honeymoon in the Caribbean. The reception was held at Marco Pierre White’s Criterion restaurant in Piccadilly Circus.
The most bizarre moment was Peter somehow persuading bemused onlookers in the newsroom to form a human arch which the newlyweds had to walk under. We all stood to attention holding rolled up copies of The Mirror like swords at a military wedding. The whole thing was bonkers – but typical of Peter’s cleverness and sense of fun.
He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of The Daily Mirror.
One of his favourite stories was the time in January 1923 when the aristocratic Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, newly engaged to The Duke of York, naively gave an interview to an audacious Mirror hack who knocked on the door of her London residence with a photographer in tow.
Elizabeth’s future father-in-law, George V, was furious about the breach in royal protocol. It was the first and last time she ever spoke to the press in all her years as a royal.
Peter frequently had everyone in stitches with his impression of the future queen’s awkward conversation with the reporter. It was all the more hilarious as he’d employ a plummy, high-pitched voice straight out of a pantomime.
He truly was the heart and soul of the Mirror office and his loss will be sorely felt by everyone lucky enough to have worked with him.

Former showbiz journalist Pauline Wallin:

This is devastating news. I can hardly believe it. Peter brimmed with energy, wit and fun. I was lucky enough to work with him more than twenty years ago when we were both showbiz reporters, Peter on The Sun and me on Today.
We went on location trips to Spain and covered the Montreux TV Festival together, working like demons and laughing loud and long into the night.
He was magnetic and when my Fleet Street days were over, I revisited those colourful times often in fond memory. This is a terrible loss for all those who knew him and a great loss too for the newspaper industry in which he was a giant.

Jenny Johnston, formerly of the Mirror:

I’m an interviewer at the Daily Mail now, but, like so many, I wouldn’t have my career without Pete.
I was part of a formidable features department he led at the Mirror. The fact that so many of us are still friends today, twenty years on, (and reeling about his death) says a lot about his ability to build, and inspire, a team. He WAS the heart of the Mirror and, I believe, exemplified everything that is good about tabloid journalism.
My favourite memory of him was calling him from South Africa where I had spent the morning with a baby dying from Aids. He talked me through how to write the story. The call ended with him regaling me about how he had booked an Elvis impersonator for the Christmas party. That was Peter all over.
He was someone to laugh with and cry with, and all the bits in between. There are some very sore hearts in our industry today.

More tributes to Peter Willis from Twitter:

Picture: Arthur Edwards – WPA Pool/Getty Images



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6 thoughts on “Pride of Britain founder and Mirror man of 23 years Peter Willis dies suddenly aged 54”

  1. I worked with Peter for years at The Sun when he was deputy to Piers Morgan on Bizarre. He was brilliant at working the room at a party or reception and finding stories.
    He told the story of when, after Piers had become Editor of the News of the World, he was leaving The Sun office on a rainy night and Piers’s Jaguar pulled up. The window wound down and Piers asked if he’d like a lift.
    He got in the the back with Piers who said: ‘Peter do you remember all those wonderful stories you got for Bizarre which all went in the paper under my byline?’
    ‘Of course,’ said Peter.
    ‘Well,’ said Piers, opening his arm to encompass the Jaguar limo and the chauffeur, ‘Look where it got me!’
    Peter had the personality that would have made him a success in any career he chose. We are luck he chose to join our trade.
    Chris Stevens, former Assistant Editor of The Sun.

  2. There was never a dull day on the Mirror Features Desk with Peter. He brought his excitement, energy, perfectionism, craziness and drive to the 22nd floor of Canary Wharf every day. It was exhausting, infectious and fun.
    In 1999, I was part of the team working on the very first Pride of Britain Awards and even early on, it didn’t go completely to plan. We had to hastily move the judging panel, including the Spice Girls’ Mel B, Carol Vorderman and Dr Miriam Stoppard, to Richard Branson’s dining table at home when a fire destroyed his office. The ceremony at the Dorchester Hotel wasn’t even televised that year, but it was thrilling to see how Peter’s idea for an awards show for ordinary people became such a phenomenal success.
    Celebrities would greet Peter like an old friend (because they usually were) and he could have filled a book with his bonkers tabloid tales.
    He put as much effort into throwing the legendary Christmas parties as he did the front page splash and loved an excuse for fancy dress.
    Peter was very persuasive. Only he could convince us three reluctant Features Desk colleagues to squeeze into skin-tight satin jumpsuits and ABBA wigs for a humiliating karaoke rendition of Dancing Queen, just to give the writers a laugh.
    He was funny and kind, with an unrivalled attention to detail and an unforgettable laugh. I was privileged to work with Peter for more than ten years and I am so sad to hear that he has gone.

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