Brian Hitchen: 'Incorrigible mischief' behind 'the greatest scoop in British newspaper history'

"Superlative reporter", "inspirational editor" and "incorrigible mischief".

This was how former Daily Express editor Peter Hill described Brian Hitchen at a service of thanksgiving for the life of the former Daily Star and Sunday Express editor.

Hitchen was killed aged 77 along with his wife Nelli, 80, in December after they were hit by a car whilst crossing the road in Spain.

Hill told last Thursday’s packed memorial service at St Bride’s Church on Fleet Street: “Above all, I loved Brian for his incorrigible mischief.

“The mischief that led him to come down from frustrating board meetings and say, ‘Peter, get your jacket on, we are going to fine the company heavily.’

“This meant we were going to have a long, expensive lunch at the Savoy Grill for where in those marvellous days editors had signing rights and the company picked up the bill. The managing editor got a lot of such bills.”

He said: “I treasure the times I spent with Brian and Nelli. Brian was a great editor to work with, a father confessor to his flock, generous, courageous. He managed a bunch of bickering, egotistic rascals and kept them in order. We loved him for it and always will.”

Former Sunday Express deputy editor Henry Macrory recounted how Hitchen had trenchant views on “absolutely everything” from “namby pamby journalism courses” to Nelson Mandela.

And he noted that one of Hitchen's bugbears was St Bride's memorial services. Hitchen once said: “I don't recognise the paragons of virtue they’re spouting about.

“I long to hear someone say: ‘Charlie Whatnot was a right bastard. But he was a professional through and through".

Brian Hitchen order of service cover (courtesy of Daily Drone).

Macrory told the congregation: “Well, Brian was a professional through and through. But I’d struggle with the other bit. For beneath that tough exterior he was the warmest and most generous of men – loyal to his friends, devoted to Nelli, tremendously proud of [his children] Claire and Alex, and adoring of his grandchildren.”

He recounted how when meeting gangster contacts as a Mirror reporter Hitchen kept a commando dagger in the glove box of his Sunbeam Alpine “just in case”.

Macrory also reminisced about the day in 1994 when it was announced that the official London parade to mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day would include a contingent of EU troops.

Yours truly had the task of telling Brian. ‘EU troops?’ he exploded.  ‘You mean Germans?’

The Daily Star’s front page next day declared SIEG HEIL

DOWNING STREET’S SHAME…GERMAN STORMTROOPERS SET TO MARCH DOWN WHITEHALL ON D-DAY ANNIVERSARY

Needless to say, the invitation to the Germans was withdrawn.

Macrory also explained how Hitchen “orchestrated what remains to this day arguably the greatest scoop in British newspaper history” – the 1974 Daily Express front page revealing that train robber Ronnie Biggs had been arrested in Rio.

Colin Mackenzie discovered that Ronnie Biggs was living in Brazil, but Brian’s brilliant planning and execution made the story happen.

He showed typical cunning when Slipper of the Yard flew out of Heathrow to arrest Biggs in Rio.

Brian didn’t want him spotted by the airport news agency, Brennards.

So he invited all twenty of the Brennards team for drinks at a local pub.

“It’s time I got to know you all,” he said disarmingly.

Brian plied them with alcohol until Slipper was airborne.

As he left he asked innocently: “What would you normally be doing at this time?”

“We’d be in Terminal Three checking out any interesting departures,” they burbled merrily.

I didn’t know Brian then. But I DID work in the Black Lubianka. And I’ll never forget the excitement we all felt the day the story broke. And our pride in Brian and his team.

Though I imagine Brennards thought he was a right bastard.

Actress Nichola McAuliffe read out a piece Hitchen himself wrote last year for the programme of her play about a couple who had spent all their lives together, Maurice Jubilee:

Anyone who believes that after 50 years of marriage, irritations fade, has been reading the wrong agony columns. One of the joys of my fifty years old marriage to Nelli is that she irritates the hell out of me. I'm still never certain what she'll do, or say, next. Her likes are as irrational as her dislikes. And she is unwilling or unable to explain why she hates
someone.

There is a whole lot of someones out there. And most of them are my friends!

She has retained the ability to drive me mad. But after all these years, I still adore her – even more than I did as a young Fleet Street reporter – when I first caught sight of her phoning her mother in Ireland. It was April, and pouring rain. She was in the dry, on the inside of the bright red telephone box, beneath the branches of a huge chestnut tree in Buckinghamshire, and I was outside. In the wet. With the rain dripping off the tree, and down my neck. Life's been a bit like that for five decades.

I started in newspapers as a messenger boy, and wound up editing two of Britain major national newspapers and founding the second most successful newspaper in Ireland. And I couldn't have done any of it without Nelli. While I worked like the devil, she brought up our two children, and taught them right from wrong.

Nelli and I have a mutual dislike for most politicians. Politically we both march to the same drum, which is a good thing. Because if we didn't there would be bloodshed at the breakfast table. We despise money-grubbing MPs, and sticky-fingered Peers in the House of Lords, and we hate crooked policemen, of whom personal experience has shown us there are far too many. We'd flog child molesters, and hang child killers.

At breakfast, while Nelli reads Britain's most popular, mid-market tabloid, with its daily diet of misery, pictures of gorillas, and cures for every known ailment, I explode over the pages of a broadsheet daily for grown-ups, when I read of the scroungers and layabouts who are living off the tax on my private pension.

While I fume and butter my toast, Radio 4's Today programme is carrying the voice of a semi-hysterical woman who is interviewing a chair that apparently speaks. Which is quite a challenge, even for the politically correct, hopelessly biased, BBC. I pray for the measured Welsh tones of John Humphrys to interrupt and stop the bloody caterwauling choking the airwaves. How can anyone be a chair I rage? They can be a chairwoman, or a chairman, or if they aren't sure what they are, they can be a chair person. But not a chair, for God's sake woman. I throw marmalade at the radio!

Now that there is more of our life behind us, than there is in front, given the chance, I'd do it all over again. Same woman, same family, same job, same decisions. Marriage to Nelli has never been dull.

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