Broadcaster and journalist Derek Jameson
PUBLISHED: 10:54 19 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:11 20 February 2013
Former radio and TV presenter and national newspaper editor Derek Jameson on life at 80 in Worthing
The voiceis unmistakeable. When Derek Jameson returns my call, I recognise his much-mocked Cockney tones immediately. He sounds pleased, though it happens all the time. When he rang Directory Enquiries recently, the operator asked: Is that Derek Jameson?
Derek considers his accent unique. It contains elements of Manchester, where he worked for eight years, and shades of Hertfordshire, where he was a wartime evacuee. And then there are the Hackney bass notes. Put those things together and you have this strange, indefinable accent, he says proudly. Its not Cockney, its not BBC... its Derek Jameson.
But its done him no favours. Jean Rook, the celebrated newspaper columnist, once likened his voice to an overturned barrow in an East End gutter full of damp cabbage leaves. Michael Parkinson joked that studio technicians worked behind shields when Derek was on camera. And the Arundel Guild of Town Criers decided that actions spoke louder than words and made him their guard of honour.
But people in high places have taken a dim view of his accent. It tickles me when people imagine that my rasping Cockney tones have been my fortune. I made it in spite of my accent, not because of it. The minute I open my mouth, people assume that Im that illiterate oaf, Sid Yobbo, as Private Eye dubbed me all those years ago.
But Derek, now 80, has slipped from public view in recent years, largely because he and his wife Ellen have been living on Miami Beach for the past decade, after selling their home on Hoves Western Esplanade to the now infamous divorcees Paul McCartney and Heather Mills.
But for Derek at least, the Sunshine State wasnt quite as golden as hed hoped. We had a million-dollar view, but its a young persons place and I felt like an interested spectator.
The last straw was banging his head on the tailgate of his jeep. Six hours of hospital care and an aspirin cost him 1,500 dollars, and with a dickie heart and other escalating health problems, he worried about his nest egg. So they packed their bags and headed for home Worthing to be precise. Nowhere comes close to Britain, he says with satisfaction.
We are sitting in Derek and Ellens conservatory, lined with Jack Vettriano prints. Derek is propped on a sofa, nursing a bad knee. Ellen, smartly dressed and 20 years his junior, sweeps in with tea and shortbread biscuits before dashing off to her job as principal of the Razzamataz Theatre School in Littlehampton.
Old habits die hard. Their coffee table is lined with newspapers, laid out in serried ranks. I spy The Sun and Daily Mail, and a smattering of local publications, including Sussex Life.
Why so many right-wing titles, given his political leanings? Oh, I never take the politics seriously. Besides, if newspapers influenced the way people voted, wed have never had a Labour government in a million years!
Todays newspapers are like comics, but the media is so desperate to attract younger readers that they fill their pages with showbiz trivia. He picks up The Sun. TV gossip! Why take it then? Because The Sun breaks more exclusives than all the others put together. Im terrified of missing something!
But Derek has been making headlines himself in recent months since his appearance on the BBC documentary The Young Ones, which took six aged celebrities Derek, Lionel Blair, Liz Smith, Sylvia Syms, Dickie Bird and Kenneth Kendall and transplanted them for a week to a house on the outskirts of London, decorated in the strident fashions of 1975.
The aim was to recreate a famous Harvard experiment led by Professor Ellen Langer, which had explored mental attitudes on the ageing process. The thinking was that by taking them back to their Seventies heyday, they could think themselves young again mentally and physically.
Derek soon began making mischief, however. Forging a friendship with former cricket umpire Dickie Bird, he wasted no time in sending up Lionel Blair, who spent much of the week boasting about the showbiz legends he had worked with. It contributed little to the experiment, but certainly made entertaining viewing.
Hed known Dickie since his days editing newspapers in Manchester, and they were united by their shared working-class background and love of the north. Theyve remained in touch ever since. He also took a shine to fellow Worthing resident Liz Smith, who he has since invited to tea.
But hes unlikely to be swapping reminiscences with Sylvia or Lionel any day soon. Sylvia had been a sex symbol years ago, but on the show she was an old-aged dragon who blasted us for not washing up. As for Lionel, I told him he talked too much. He took it badly and I apologised.
The BBC trumpeted the experiment a huge success, but Derek isnt so sure. I certainly felt better, but Ive got an irregular heartbeat, a bad leg and Im two stone overweight. I couldnt see how a week locked up in a house was going to make all that fall away. Besides, Ive never exercised in my life and wasnt about to start at 80!
On camera, he said his life had come to a virtual standstill. Are things really so bad? Put it this way, when youre 80, you live in the past. You dont think of the future. People say: Look ahead. Stay positive. What comes next? Well, when youre 80 not very much comes next... apart from whats happening in Coronation Street.
In America, they respected the fact that Id climbed out of the gutter to edit four national newspapers. In this country, wisdom, knowledge and experience dont count for tuppence. Theyd rather have someone with a trendy haircut than a silly old sod like me whos been round the block a few times.
He still has nightmares about his childhood. He grew up in Ma Wrens shelter for lost souls, a home for orphans. Unwanted babies were dumped on the doorstep and they slept five to a bed. It was some time before he discovered that Elsie, one of the older girls in the home, was his mother.
In 1939, Derek was evacuated to Hertfordshire. Occasionally, his mother would send a letter, but it did little to counter the suspicion that no one gave two monkeys. I had no family; no prospects; no hope. Later, when I returned to London and the buzz bombs went over, I used to stand on the back wall at Ma Wrens and pray theyd blow us to bits.
Salvation came in the form of one Ernest Hare, a teacher, who bought him a season ticket for the twopenny library. Derek became a voracious reader and began to excel at school. Longing to use his newly discovered gift for words, he determined he would conquer Fleet Street, never doubting he would succeed. His first job was as a lowly messenger boy at the news service Reuters, but he rose to became managing editor of the Daily Mirror and went on to edit the Daily Express, Daily Star and News of the World.
But fate plays strange tricks. In 1984, Rupert Murdoch fired him from the News of the World and he lost his lifes earnings in a disastrous libel action against the BBC, when the Radio 4 show Week Ending described him as an East End boy made bad. Though he won the case, the jury decided the comments were defamatory, but not malicious, which meant he had to meet all the costs.
He later observed that as a piece of satire, the Week Ending sketch had enjoyed all the literary merit of a Christmas cracker joke. Perhaps, but it doesnt explain why it had rankled so. It didnt. It rankled with the management of the Daily Express [his then employers]. I wouldnt have done anything about it, otherwise.
Why hadnt he revealed this in his autobiography? It would have spoiled the story, he shrugs. Having forced his hand, the Express declined to pay his costs and Derek was out in the cold. Well, not quite.
In another bizarre twist, it was the BBC that came to his rescue, offering him a plum TV presenting job, which led to the coveted Radio 2 breakfast slot, which in turn resulted in a late-evening radio show which he co-presented with his wife Ellen. Oddly enough, none of it would have happened without that libel action. The British public loves an underdog and realised Id been fighting for my honour. So did the BBC. Instead of leaving me to rot, they picked me up, dusted me down and made me a star.
Derek seemed unassailable. Rupert Murdoch even offered him a chat show on his new baby, Sky television, making him one of the highest-paid men in broadcasting. But eventually, Derek decided to call it a day and retired to Sussex, a favoured weekend retreat.
Worthing suits him down to the ground. I wanted to retire to a place with a row of shops supplying everything I need. Ive got a medical centre, a dentist, a chemist, two supermarkets and a regular bus service into town. It used to be the height of my ambition to have my ashes scattered over the River Lea near my East End home, but I wouldnt say that was true today. No, Id like them scattered on Worthing Promenade instead.
MY FAVOURITE SUSSEX
The Highdown Hotel on the Littlehampton Road at Goring, where I regularly take my family. But do I prefer it to Indigo in Steyne Gardens in Worthing? Theyre both fine restaurants.
The Lanes in Brighton. Theres nothing quite like them anywhere else in the South of England.
The sight that greets you from the last roundabout on Worthing Promenade. Youve got the sweep of the Channel and Worthing in the distance. Ive always loved the prom and when I die I want Ellen to buy a bench and dedicate it to me with the words: This was Dereks favourite spot.
Place to visit:
Worthing Pavilion when theres a good show on. I like the atmosphere and the fact youre surrounded by the sea.
Ellen Jameson is the principal of the Littlehampton-based theatre school Razzamataz, part of a national group of theatre schools ranked among the top five in the UK. It offers professional singing, dance and drama classes for youngsters of all ages, embracing everything from pop, street dance and hip hop to musical theatre and film and television acting techniques. The group came to national attention when it was featured on the BBCs Dragons Den in 2007, and business tycoon Duncan Bannatyne was so impressed he became a business partner. Ring 01903 207923 or visit www.razzamatztheatreschools.co.uk