Exploring the very first edition of the long-running tabloid and the way it set out to feel as much like its rivals as possible.
During the heyday of print, daily national newspapers sold in their millions across the UK, yet oddly there were very few new launches. Perhaps because it was felt that readers were rather set in their ways and tended to stick to one newspaper – though the regular circulation wars would suggest that the press barons thought otherwise – very few people launched new publications, despite the obvious opportunities that lay in pitching something to a very different readership than the one you already had. The 1980s saw a bit more of a push towards trying to capture a slice of the pie, often by new upstart publishers who set out to challenge the established titles. The Independent tried to take on the broadsheets like The Guardian and The Times, making itself out to be politically unbiased (an idea that didn’t last very long as the paper quickly saw The Guardian as its main rival and pitched itself towards the same left-wing, middle-class readership). It was later joined by the short-lived The European, a determinedly ‘progressive’ and pro-Europe paper whose demise might have been a warning for the future. Eddie Shah’s Today wanted to be the Daily Mirror – Shah, a local newspaper publisher, was always seen as a bit of an upstart by the press establishment, though he pioneered colour print. Struggling for cash, he sold out to Tiny Rowlands soon after launching but Today struggled to find an audience and lasted less than a decade. Shah’s replacement paper, The Post, was a disaster, lasting just five weeks. Starting with smaller ambitions, The News on Sunday was a furious left-wing paper that would probably have found Jeremy Corbyn a bit of a wishy-washy centrist and quickly vanished; on the other end of the scale, The Sunday Sport – and later Daily Sport – found its very specific audience early on but was never a serious news source (and had no desire to be).
The most successful ‘new’ newspaper to emerge at this time was also the first. The Daily Star was the first new national* newspaper in 75 years when it appeared on Thursday, November 2nd 1978. Its appearance was news in itself and eager collector-minded types like myself rushed out to buy a copy before the newsagents sold out – I picked my copy up en route to school and have somehow or other managed to hang onto it ever since.
Published in Manchester by the Express group – the owners of the very staid and establishment Daily Express (which then was still considered to be a serious, if stuffy newspaper) – the Star set out to appeal to the same readership as The Sun and the Daily Mirror, from its red-top logo to its content, which mixed a bit of news with trivia and celebrity guff – this was before celebrity culture as we know it was a thing, but famous names could still sell a paper with exclusive stories. In the case of the Daily Star, it was a three-page spread with footballer Jimmy Greaves discussing his alcoholism, which seems a bit of an odd thing to have as your big splash story in the first edition, but what do I know?
The front page story is that of John Bentley, millionaire asset stripper and playboy (and the man who set up the Intervision video label) protesting his innocence in the mysterious death of fashion model Kitty Percy, who plunged to her death from the window of his Mayfair flat. For those of you who are curious, Bentley never faced charges and the death was ruled a suicide. The first two inside pages are devoted to TV – a channel guide (Midlands viewers had it best with a late-night showing of The Twilight People) and news that includes a topless photo of Patricia Hodge from the previous night’s broadcast of The One and Only Phyllis Dixey. This gratuitous photo and story about a film that had already been broadcast was a hint of where the paper was going – topless glamour girls were standard issue in British tabloids at this time and not just on Page 3. Any excuse to publish nudie images was leapt upon and elsewhere in this debut issue is a vital story about John Pelling, a Church of England vicar who liked to paint nudes.
Tits were so ingrained in the DNA of tabloids at this time that a major talking and selling point was just what page the Star‘s ‘page 3’ girl would appear on. The Sun had claim to page 3 and the Mirror had its topless totty on page 5 (the Mirror would probably like to pretend that this never happened these days). The Star went with page 7 and as an extra gimmick, devoted the whole page to the photo – in this first edition, it was ‘sparkling gal’ Karen Richardson who was the Starbird. In later years, before colour printing became the norm, the Star would introduce a glossy colour Starbird once a week, showing just how important these glamour shots were to boosting sales.
Like its rivals, the Star had a curious idea about what made a great story. There’s a big story on page 13 about the grief of the parents of a 14-year-old murder victim but tucked away as an afterthought is a 26-word piece about a 12-year-old girl being raped – the sort of thing that would grab the front page in later years but is here strangely treated like filler. In other stories, there’s a warning about a new flu strain – Texas A – and a recommendation for vaccination, the sort of thing that would be met with conspiracy-laden hysteria today. Female telephone operators were ‘up in arms’ because the new official greeting – “Operator services, can I help you?” apparently made them sound like prostitutes. “If that doesn’t sound suggestive, I don’t know what does” complained an operator from Slough who had presumably led a very sheltered life. Multiple-murdering butler Archibald Thompson Hall was convicted of two more killings and the Star reveals that he was called ‘the Uri Geller of jails’ “because he bent so many screws”.
The cartoon strip Beau Peep – which became a Star staple and a genuine hit – made its debut and in the sports pages, singer Frankie Vaughn suggests vandals take up angling, with the catchphrase “throw a line – not a brick.” Sue Barker’s tennis coach is described as “tiny, wizened and stoop-shouldered – a crabby cider apple from Devon, long on tennis experience but short on manners”, the sort of visceral description we just don’t get any more.
As you might expect from the first edition, there are also ‘congratulatory’ letters from celebrities, all of whom have suggestions to make. Both Prime Minister James Callaghan and opposition leader Margaret Thatcher send warm words in the hope of positive coverage, while the celebs are a mixed bag – cabaret singer Ronnie Dukes gets straight into complaining about foreign fashions and suggests that British designers are every bit as good, which is an intriguing thought from a man who looked more like a gangster than a light entertainer; on a similarly nationalistic note, Cilla Black bemoans people running down Great Britain while Tom O’Connor asks for more family entertainment to solve the juvenile crime problem – perhaps he can take the delinquents fishing with Frankie Vaughn? Tim Brooke Taylor, tongue-in-cheek perhaps (or perhaps not) wants more sports coverage of local football teams and the main quote comes from – oh dear – Stuart Hall, congratulating the paper on its divorce from “effete Southern influence”. Hall would, of course, have rather more pressing things to worry about in later years.
The 32 pages of the first edition of the Daily Star are remarkably unremarkable in retrospect. Launched in the middle of the week, it starts off as though it has been around for years, which I suppose was the point – if the paper felt familiar, then there was more chance that readers who picked up this first edition would stick around. The debut issue sold out its 1,400,000 run – something unimaginable now. In the end, it settled for third place in the tabloid war, a position it has occupied ever since.
* In fact, the paper was only sold in the North and the Midlands initially, where the other tabloids had their biggest sales.
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