Posted: December 14th, 2003
by Patricia Smyllie (who withstood the Marshall slings and arrows for many years)
Bill Marshall, one of Fleet Street’s great eccentric writers, died aged 76 on December 14, 2003.
Few people knew that for the last 11 years he was in failing health and for the last two years he was in a wheel chair. But it didn’t stop him firing off letters to The Times and Telegraph about his pet hates. Nor did it stop him writing novels.
Marshall, tall and lanky, was born in Barrow-in-Furness. His long, floppy hair looked quite out of place with his expensive suits. Whatever smart image he attempted was often spoilt by the dirty trainers he preferred. They were part of his ambition to be a good athlete. Most mornings he ran, and he was also difficult to beat at tennis, though how he managed it with his frequent hangovers defies understanding.
He was a wacky, moody, unpredictable character but he could also be the life and soul of any pub.
He argumentative nature was the bane of the feature subs. “If you change a word I’ll take back the copy,” he would shout.
And well he might complain. He was the first tabloid writer to win Feature Writer of the Year, in 1983, and he won the Hugh Cudlipp Award two years later.
Nick Kent, now a publisher but then a Mirror features sub, said: “He had an almost poetic feeling for English. His TV reviews were sensational and caused some mayhem at the BBC and ITV because they were so rude.
“After watching one of David Attenborough’s shows he wrote: “I trudged off to bed wiping the primeval soup off my carpet.”
He was recklessly sent to interview Oliver Reed. He then got completely plastered and Reed chucked him out of his Rolls-Royce in the middle of nowhere. There was a memorable line in his copy: ‘He offered me a large drink and like a fool I accepted.’ ”
“Bill was a lovely person,” said Nick. “He was one of the great writers of Fleet Street.”
Colin Dunne, the novelist and feature writer, thinks Bill was one of the best journalists to hit Fleet Street.
“He was writing all these hilarious spreads. What he said about the people he was interviewing was just as funny as their quotes.”
When Hugh Cudlipp went to the Stab one night for a drink, he announced: “I want to be a journo again, just like you guys.” Whereupon Marshall, well oiled, jumped on his back and demanded a piggy-back to the office.
Said Dunne: “Cudlipp couldn’t say ‘fire this bastard’ because he was being one of the boys. It was very, very funny. He tried to ignore Bill but it was very difficult with Bill stuck to his back yelling:
‘He’s real, he’s real, he’s warm’. We were all weeping with laughter.”
When Richard Stott was features editor, he sent Bill to cover zany occasions which usually finished up as centre spreads.
The Marshall/Stott friendship was a volatile one. Stott got so fed up after one argument that he grabbed Bill’s dirty old trainers and locked them in the office safe. A couple of hours later, Stott demanded: “Where’s Bill?” He was told: “In the pub”. Stott looked amazed. “But he’s not wearing any shoes.” He was told: “Bill doesn’t need to when he’s desperate for a drink.”
Bill’s book, The Man Who Sold the Beatles, which he ghosted for their first manager, Alan Williams, is about to be made into a film at the Ardmore Studios in Ireland. And Bill’s voice was well known on Radio London from his wildly impulsive programme, Bill Marshall’s Week.
Bill was married three times. His present wife, Jane, survives him.
Other former Mirror colleagues were also ready with their memories of wild Bill. Ex features sub and promotions manager John Garton, now subbing in Florida, recalls:
“When as a young Mirror reporter in Manchester, Bill was called from the pub to cover the nightly Moss Side murder, he met up with, I think, Mail reporter Sean Bryson. They covered the story, returned to the pub and got stuck into more bevvies. The drink overcame the young Marshall who slowly slid to the floor. At this point, Bryson looked down from his lofty 6ft 4 at the quivering heap and remembered he hadn’t filed.
“He went to phone, dialled the Mail, and filed his piece. He then realised: ‘Billy hasn’t filed either.
Bryson returned to the phone, dialled the Mirror, and filed the story with a new intro for Bill.
Next morning, Bryson was taking the morning livener in the pub when in rushes an excited Marshall clutching a copy of the Mirror opened at the murder page lead, including, Bill’s by-line. Said Bill: ‘Don’t ever fuckin’ tell me I can’t write when I’m pissed!’
Revel Barker sent this quote from Ian Skidmore: “I will not be going to Bill’s funeral. To go would be an admission that he had died. He will only die when I do; until then he will live rumbustuously in my
heart and my memory.
“There was the time when he got Hoagy Carmichael to play Stardust down the phone to Bill’s news editor, Roly Watkins; the time he sought to raise cash by selling hashish and made me ask Bert Balmer, the Deputy Chief Constable of Liverpool, to identify it. Bert sniffed and said: ‘Tell Bill it is probably azalea but might be rhodo’.
“He also made me sell my passport and buy a black shirt and white tie to finance our roulette table, which he installed in the Press Club. It cost us £40 in eight minutes.
“He got me an invite to one of his wife Kathy’s parties in return for my promise to pick a fight with the film star John Gregson. The amiable John refused to be angry, smiled and said: ‘Bill put you up
to it. He does it all the time.’
“There was the time when he divorced his second wife Rita. He asked me to meet her off the Liverpool train ‘because we were divorced this morning and she is pretty upset.’
“I met her, took her to dinner and when I said I knew she was upset, she said: ‘Do you know why? The bastard came to the hearing in his oldest clothes and pleaded poverty with such eloquence the judge awarded me the minimum alimony.’
“He got me involved in so many scrapes I wonder how it is I loved the silly bastard.”
Ex-Mirror man Eddy Rawlinson provided these thoughts:
“Those who knew Bill in his early days in the North will have many memories… One of mine is when we set sail out of Salford docks on a Manchester liner bound for Canada to do a feature about a young, newly married couple who were starting a new life over there.
Our accommodation was a cabin next to the young lovers and it proved embarrassing to them with our being next door, so instead of consummating the marriage they stayed up all night drinking with us.”The drinks were with the compliments of Manchester Liners, and Bill had no intention of going to his bunk. The two of us had to disembark the next morning at a point along the Manchester Ship Canal and return with pics and story.
“When they took the pilot aboard we jumped ship and were stranded in some ungodly place when Bill started being really sick. ‘It’s not the booze, Eddy, it’s that bloody ship. I’m always like this when I go sailing,’ he said, holding his handkerchief to his mouth and looking up at the young couple, who were none the worse for the session and waving goodbye as they sailed away along the mill-pond surface of the canal.
“Few of ’em left… neither people nor stories.”
Don Walker, former features chief sub, forwarded one of Bill’s best lines. About Frank Sinatra Bill wrote: “He stood before us, this little Italian man, wearing somebody else’s hair.”
Report and picture from FRANK THORNE
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