CRAIG BROWN: Why celebrities are just like vegetables
Legend has it that in the 1920s, the maverick journalist Claud Cockburn staged a private competition among his colleagues on The Times.
The winner, he said, would be the person who managed to write the dullest headline. Cockburn himself is said to have carried the day with ‘Small Earthquake In Chile. Not Many Dead’.
For years, my favourite magazine, The Oldie, has had a regular column, inspired by this competition, called Not Many Dead. Oldie readers send in items of exceptional dullness that they have spotted in newspapers.
Craig Brown has long been a fan of The Oldie which has a regular column inspired by Claud Cockburn
One or two have even come from this newspaper, among them ‘Philip Schofield Brought Dead Goldfish Back To Life With Whisk’. But local newspapers, with fewer opportunities for world-shattering excitement, remain ahead of the game.
Recent winners include ‘Friction On Family Road Trip’, from the Henley Standard and ‘Two Men Arrested For Toothbrush Head Theft’, from the Dundee Courier and Advertiser.
It must be reassuring to live in an area where the theft of a toothbrush head is enough to hit the headlines. On the other hand, it makes the job of the local journalist an uphill struggle.
‘Doughnut Theft Is Alleged In Keswick’ was a recent headline in the local News & Star, while the Somerset Mercury ran with ‘Puddle Splash Victim Vows Revenge’.
Back in 2011, in what must have been a particularly un-newsy week in Kent, the Folkestone Herald featured as its main headline ‘Out-Of-Date Pasty Is Sold To Young Mum’. Beneath was a photograph of the mother and child clutching the pasty, both looking suitably aggrieved, along with the sub-heading ‘Toddler took bite of food three days past its sell-by date’.
Thankfully, not all local news is doom and gloom. Cheerful headlines greeted readers of the Wetherby News — ‘Woman Finds Hat In Tree’ — and the South Wales Argus: ‘Newport Man Grows Huge Tomato’.
In rural areas, vegetables — big, small or even, in a particularly quiet week, middling-sized — have a habit of hogging the headlines. A past winner of the Oldie’s Not Many Dead was a report that ‘Shoppers In Diss, Norfolk, Buy More Brussels Sprouts Than Anywhere Else In Britain’.
If you are a celebrity, it’s easy to make the local news. In this way, celebrities are just like vegetables: ‘At a Chelsea cinema, Sandra and Michael Howard were debating whether to get Revels before the Performance.’
‘Passengers on a London to Leeds train watched fascinated as playwright Alan Bennett ate home-made sandwiches wrapped in foil.’
And: ‘Donny Osmond Gets A Haircut In Nottingham.’
One of my favourites was this wonderfully uneventful celebrity news item, which featured in a give-away London newspaper back in 2009: ‘Catherine Zeta-Jones nearly took a tumble as she negotiated a flight of stairs in a pair of impractical espadrilles…She was steadied by husband Michael Douglas, 64.’ On closer inspection, the operative word in that somewhat breathless report is ‘nearly’.
Of course, some of the stuffiest headlines are to be found in the world’s grandest newspapers. ‘Prevent Burglary By Locking House, Detectives Urge’, ran a headline in The Boston Globe, while The New York Times recently featured ‘Debate Goes On Over the Nature of Reality’.
The witty satirical magazine The Onion parodied these portentous statements of the bleeding obvious with this gem, from 1997: ‘The Spice Girls: Can Scantily Clad Young Women Make It In the Entertainment Industry?’
In rural areas, vegetables — big, small or even, in a particularly quiet week, middling-sized — have a habit of hogging the headlines
All of which brings me to what must surely be a shoo-in for this year’s awards. It featured in Claud Cockburn’s old newspaper, The Times. Accompanying a photograph of Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall, and an interview with Tindall, came the immortal headline: ‘Mike Tindall: “Being A Royal? There Are Positives And Negatives.”’
Pity the poor headline writer. The quotes on offer were hardly going to set the world on fire.
They included this, about his wife: ‘She’s always been my best friend’, and this, about their next baby: ‘It was always an interesting question whether we’d go for a third and I think both of us wanted a boy, so hopefully we’ll get one. We’re not finding out — I think it’s better that way. At the end of the day, you’re just happy if it’s got ten fingers and ten toes and it’s healthy.’
But, then again, it is the primary job of every member of the Royal Family to say nothing of interest. In this respect, Mike Tindall is setting a shining example to the others. Might Her Majesty be persuaded to consider fast-tracking him as her successor?
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