Gilbert Johnson: 'Actor, joker, romantic'

Gilbert Johnson, who has died at the age of 81, was one of the last men standing from the golden age of the British press.

Always with a twinkle in his eye, and often with a trick up his sleeve, he worked on most of the national tabloid newspapers in a career that began in the 1950s and never really ended.

Within the last few weeks, as Gilbert lay in a hospital bed, his family took calls from a friend who needed help writing an obituary about an old Hull boxing contact.

Gilbert was born on 25 May, 1930, in Mexborough, South Yorkshire. His education included five years at De La Salle College in Sheffield and on returning from National Service with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in Kenya it was expected he would resume his studies for the priesthood.

‘But he told the priest he had decided mortal sin was much better, so he became a newspaperman,’said Susan Last, one of Gilbert’s daughters.

He joined the South Yorkshire Times in his hometown and in 1955 moved to the Hull Daily Mail. Within two years he was working for the nationals, covering the Yorkshire area for the Daily Herald, then the Daily Sketch and then the Daily Express, where in 1964 he earned £32 per week.

He was a staff reporter when Rupert Murdoch changed the face of the industry by relaunching The Sun and he also worked on the News of the World. A book compiled by members of his family and presented to Gilbert in 2006 charted some of his career highlights.

There are bylines with his reports on the John Poulson scandal in 1972, an undated photograph of the reporter with Harold Macmillan, reports from three weeks Gilbert spent on board a Hull trawler during the Cod Wars and coverage of the mining disaster in 1973 that claimed seven lives at Lofthouse Colliery near Wakefield.

Yorkshire Ripper

He was the first reporter to knock on the door of Viv Nicholson, who in 1961 won more than £150,000 on the football pools and famously declared she would ‘spend, spend, spend.’He was at the heart of the newspaper coverage into the crimes of Peter Sutcliffe, and was one of the first to coin the chilling ‘Yorkshire Ripper’identity.

In 1973 Gilbert Johnson wrote a front page exclusive for The Sun in which he revealed Captain Mark Phillips’s love for Princess Anne. He died the day before the wedding of their daughter, Zara.

‘Rupert Murdoch never increased his reporters’ pay by much but he did provide other benefits,’said Shirley, who married Gilbert in 1956. ‘He came up with the idea of paying wives to answer the phone.”

Apart from a few years in Leeds, Gilbert and Shirley lived in Kirk Ella, West Hull, raising four children who in turn delivered four grandchildren.

On leaving The Sun in the late 1970s Gilbert worked as a freelance journalist, covering such major news stories as the Lockington train disaster. He also reported on Hull City fixtures from the press box at Boothferry Park and would usually arrive at the ground with three versions of his report already drafted – one each for a win, draw and defeat.

On one occasion he accepted a challenge from a drinking companion to work the name of a well known Hull pub into a match report. It was too easy: ‘Hull City’s bonny boat foundered on the rocks of the Blackburn Rovers defence…”

One of his biggest passions was boxing. For many years he wrote a column, Straight Left, for the Hull Daily Mail’s Sports Mail publication. On one occasion he met the legendary American boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and was lost for words – but not for long.

Race named after him

Gilbert was also a keen racegoer, never missing a meeting at York. The book of his life includes one of his poems about racing on the Knavesmire. A birthday surprise when he turned 80 in May 2010 was to arrive at Beverley Racecourse to find the 3.10 race named ‘The Gilbert Johnson 80 Not Out Handicap”.

The book used Gilbert’s own words to recall his early reporting colleagues: ‘Some found fame, like Michael Parkinson, but a lot found drink and another byline in the bottom of a glass. After all, it was how news worked before mobile phones, computers and the rush for instant news.”

Throughout his career Gilbert used phone boxes and pubs to files his stories with copytakers. Even in later years he eschewed mobile phones and computers, usually bashing out his story on a well-worn typewriter and handing the paper to a grand-daughter to re-key and send electronically.

Family and friends remember a remarkable man who always had a smile and a story and who was at the centre of countless anecdotes, few of which are suitable for a family newspaper!

The book describes his first meeting with Shirley, asking her for a dance at the New York pub in Hull one Saturday night when he was 25: ‘She was wearing a stunning cocktail dress… I walked up drunk as a skunk.”

And Shirley’s response: ‘In those days it was not polite to refuse. I can’t remember how he got my number or how he found out where I worked.”

She wasn’t at all keen but was won over by his charm, among other things: ‘On Friday nights he had to attend the dinner dances around Hull, dressed in his dinner suit. Monday was film review night and we used to get into the cinema free. It just started to be quite a lot of fun. He led me astray though!”

Susan recalls a football match in Hull in which George Best played for Northern Ireland against Spain: ‘The teachers were going round the ground picking up kids who had taken the day off school, but I was in the press box with Pop so they never found me. It was very exciting growing up with him in the house. Every day there was a new story.”

‘Formidable news man’

Journalist and PR consultant Mike Ackroyd, who worked for the Hull Daily Mail during the 1950s and 1960s, said: ‘Boothferry Park had an enclosed press box so you got to know everyone, and Gil could make it a party atmosphere. He was a very entertaining man who had a fund of stories.

‘His wide knowledge, interest in current affairs and well-honed journalistic skills made him a formidable news man even if his imagination (an essential attribute) sometimes ran away with him! Above all he was a real character who was very well known.”

Brian Lavery, a former national newspaper journalist and Hull Daily Mail news editor, recalled when Gilbert was asked by The Sun to speak to children who had seen their parents in moments of intimacy. ‘Gilbert said he would do it if he could interview Murdoch’s children first and then the editor’s,’said Brian.

‘He was a first-rate newsman and sports writer who was great company and could tell stories at the bar as well as he did in the papers. The old adage that ‘people make news’ was written for Gilbert. He had the journalist’s biggest asset – contacts – he knew everyone.”

Mike Ulyatt, who worked in the Hull Daily Mail’s advertising department, later became a professional boxing promoter and would invite Gilbert to the top table of all the dinner shows. ‘I know he was always thrilled to meet boxing names such as Henry Cooper, John Conteh, John Stacey, Barry McGuigan and Jim Watt,’said Mike.

‘He brought up the idea of ‘ cloning’ a fighter, physically perfect and helped by men who had hundreds of years boxing experience between them. Made in jest, it did catch their imagination until he was KO’d by someone who brought the house down with a warning, ‘Before you mess with my sperm, you’d better see the wife!’ “

Gilbert Johnson’s funeral will take place in Hull but details are to be confirmed. ‘It would be great to see anybody and everybody there,’said Susan. ‘Pop knew so many people from so many walks of life. He just liked people and he didn’t care where they came from.”

Gilbert Johnson (25 May 1930-29 July 2011) is survived by his wife Shirley, their son Chris, daughters Kate, Susan and Vicki and grandchildren Amy, Hayley, Matthew and Max.

In his own words: ‘The actor, the joker, the romantic – not bad eh?”

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