Enough doom and gloom, says Billy Connolly, quoted in the London Evening Standard: he thinks the news needs cheering up.
“Move obituaries from the back to the front page,” he suggests. “They are the best thing in the paper … [they’re about] great things people have done.”
I’m heartened (as the Daily Telegraph’s obituaries editor) that a legendary comic writer and performer is a fan of obits. But not all obits are about “great things” – and we had such a one the other day in the Islamist terrorist and leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It is one of the questions we are most often asked: how do we justify giving an obituary to a vile person?
Hugh Massingberd – recently praised by Mary Killen in these pages, and the inventor of the modern Telegraph obituary – had an answer to this question: “news values”. The obituarist is merely a recording angel, making no judgments on morality, only on whether this subject is going to interest the readers. You could not make an interesting obituaries page if you only included “worthies”.
For example, it is fascinating to reflect on how bad men or women divide their lives into compartments, allowing them to behave wickedly in one area, yet with kindness and decency in another.
One doesn’t have to be wicked on an epic scale, just a human being, to see oneself in stories like that. As readers of obituaries, we recognise how easy it is to rationalise one’s bad behaviour, selfishness, cruelty – while presenting a blameless “who, me?” face to the world.
Dramatists love this dichotomy when it’s seen in larger-than-life characters: recently Vice, the film, showed the former US vice-president Dick Cheney (played by Christian Bale) as simultaneously amoral and courageously willing to risk his career to protect his lesbian daughter.
Or take Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes in the mini-series The Loudest Voice in the Room: Ailes was the bombastic genius who invented Fox News but resigned after accusations that he had sexually harassed numerous employees.
The Telegraph’s obituary of Ailes reported that one woman had claimed that when she was a young producer at NBC, Ailes had offered her a pay rise of $100 a week in exchange for sex whenever he wanted. Yet at the same time it appears that when he returned to his wife at home he was a loving husband.
If you need a reminder of how sentimentality is linked to violence, you only have to watch that chilling Nazi propaganda film clip of the Führer pinching the cheek of a member of the Hitler Youth during an inspection outside the Berlin bunker; this was as the Red Army closed in, hours before he shot himself.
He had married Eva Braun in a civil ceremony a day or so before. She died by cyanide, as did his adored Alsatian, Blondi, who would sleep on Hitler’s bed.
Would we have done an obit of Hitler? Who knows, but broadening the content as well as the style of obituaries was the essence of the Massingberd revolution at the Daily Telegraph in the 1980s.
Aided by his deputy (and successor) David Jones, who refined the deadpan style, and others, he brought in a daily page of mini-biographies that were gently subversive, at times laugh-out-loud funny, and – importantly – covered every facet of human life. In the recent past I can think of concert pianists-turned-bag ladies to mafia dons to Morris-dancing rocket scientists.
Idi Amin got an obits page to himself. He’s in the al-Baghdadi category: though horrible, he sent waves through the political/cultural world.
The form Massingberd created is unimprovable, and many of the original collaborators are still writing, plus some sharp younger writers who “get it”.
But on the question of giving “baddies” a send-off, I think he might agree with me that there are figures so vile you wouldn’t want to upset the readers by treating them to an obituary.
The problem is neatly summed up by the very funny Willie Donaldson (d 2005) in his introduction to his book Brewer’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics, which refers to the Telegraph obituary: “Respectability is conferred by the sheer perfection of the comic style adopted by his various contributors.
“Better, I think, to admit that by writing about ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser or Freddie ‘the Mean Machine’ Foreman in a (excuse me) marketable way, one is glamorising them – a service one would not wish to perform for the Yorkshire Ripper, say, or Fred West.”
By coincidence, the gangster Frankie Fraser (d 2014) was one of the obituaries we ran early in my time on the desk. The news came through late and I decided quickly. A good handful of complaints poured into the next day’s inbox. I replied to each of them – persuading at least one of our point of view.
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