Owen: expert knowledge of arts
Michael Owen, who has died at the age of 59, was for almost 20 years the arts editor of the London Evening Standard, a job to which he brought passion, expert knowledge and more than a little mischief.
In his heyday, he was the interviewer of choice for the cream of both British arts personalities, and for visiting stars from abroad, who knew that in his Friday People pages they would get a fair and sympathetic hearing.
Unlike most showbusiness journalists, Owen was more interested in their work than in their private lives.
But if his column often featured the famous – Diana Rigg, Maggie Smith, Placido Domingo, Judi Dench, Franco Zeffirelli, Kiri Te Kanawa and Andrew Lloyd Webber were among those he regularly profiled over the years – he also had a sharp eye for fresh talent.
Owen was the first to spot the young actress Nicola McAuliffe, after Arnold Wesker wrote a one-woman show for her, and on another occasion he devoted the whole of his doublepage spread to the first London International Festival of Theatre. It was a project organised by two young and inexperienced university graduates, whom few took seriously at the time. Owen, however, spotted their potential, and LIFT went on to become a landmark in London’s cultural life over the next 20 years.
As well as writing the Friday arts pages, which he inherited from his mentor, Sydney Edwards, after the latter’s sudden death in 1979, Owen was responsible for organising The Evening Standard Drama Awards.
Under his guidance, they came to rival the Tony Awards in New York for prestige and glamour. His famously comprehensive contacts book – invariably kept locked in the bottom drawer of his desk – ensured that the roll call of stars attending the event was unmatched.
But if Owen, in his smart suit at the Standard Awards, looked a model of decorum, there was also a wilder, darker side to his character. Evenings that began in hilarity (and no one was funnier than Michael when he was on form) could sometimes end in vicious abuse. At his funeral, McAuliffe, who became a close friend, affectionately described him as a hooligan, and he belonged to the hard-drinking tradition of the Street of Shame, which the dispersal of the national press to Wapping, Canary Wharf and Kensington seems to have all but killed off.
In the years when I worked under him as arts reporter, Michael would arrive most mornings at 9am, often seriously hung over, chain-smoking untipped Gitanes accompanied by numerous cups of coffee, before the magical hour of 11am, when the pubs opened. He would then adjourn to The Cheshire Cheese for restorative pints of Marston’s Pedigree, before long lunches accompanied by “buckets of red”, either at the Cheese or other watering holes such as the Albion, Mother Bunches and the Bottlescrue. His interviews were often conducted at the best West End restaurants or the American Bar at the Savoy, and each Thursday morning he would arrive at the Standard offices at dawn to write his column against the clock.
It was sometimes a close-run thing, but he never failed to meet a deadline and the Friday People pages, accompanied with superb photographs of that week’s featured stars by Roy Jones, were rightly one of the Evening Standard’s most admired and popular features. He defended his patch with ferocity, and looked particularly askance at anyone who wanted to interfere with his pages or muscle in on his territory.
Working late in an otherwise empty Standard office late one night, he discovered that a reporter he viewed as a rival had left a smart velvet jacket hanging over his chair. It was the work of a moment for Owen to chuck it into a large metal wastepaper basket, drench it with lighter fuel and set it on fire.
This writer, too, has vivid memories of sitting peacefully at his desk of an afternoon, trying to write a piece, only to discover that his heroically refreshed boss had set fire to a sheet of broadsheet newspaper and sent it flying in the direction of my lap.
But beneath the booze-fuelled bravado – if service proved slow in a bar, he would sometimes climb over the counter and start dispensing the drinks himself – there lurked in Michael Owen a man of great kindness and sensitivity. When I had a breakdown on the Standard, he couldn’t have been gentler or more sympathetic, and he was devoted to his two daughters, Judith and Ruth, who spoke so movingly about their father at his funeral.
One of the stories about Michael (and they are legion) that I most cherish, concerns the time he interviewed a famously glamorous actress, then fancied by almost every red-blooded male in Britain.
They were getting on swimmingly in the hotel restaurant – so swimmingly, indeed, that she suggested that they continue the interview upstairs in her bedroom. Michael admitted that he was sorely tempted, then glanced at his watch. “I’m sorry, love,” he announced firmly. “I’ve got to get back to Surrey and pick up my daughters from the Brownies.”
Michael Owen both loved, and was fiercely proud, of his job on the Standard, so it came as a terrible blow when Max Hastings became editor, shook up the paper’s arts coverage, and dispensed with Michael’s services in 1998.
He had worked there since 1969, after stints on the Surrey Advertiser in Guildford (where he met his wife, fellow reporter Penny Rowbottom, with whom he remained close after their divorce), the Birmingham Post and with the Press Association.
The Standard was his life, however, and he never really recovered from the blow of losing his job, though he greatly improved his redundancy package after storming in to see Lord Rothermere personally.
He went to live for a time in Majorca with his girlfriend Andrea Ustinov, daughter of Sir Peter, but when that relationship broke up, he returned to England to live alone in Sheffield.
He retained his passion for theatre (regularly attending first nights at the Sheffield Crucible) and for Liverpool FC, and found a new one in gardening – an interest that seemed wildly improbable to those of us who remembered his hell-raising days.
But he was subject to terrible bouts of depression, and in his final years sometimes seemed a shadow of his former self. He took his own life in a Sheffield hotel.
The only consolation for those of us who loved and admired him is the knowledge that his generous, troubled soul is now at peace.
Charles Spencer, theatre critic, The Daily Telegraph (a truncated version of this article appeared in last week’s Press Gazette)