Posted: March 11th, 2015
Sunday People reporter LEN ADAMS died suddenly on March 4 (2015) aged 88. (Wendy Bowring (Len’s younger daughter) advises that a service of thanksgiving for Len is taking place on Monday, March 23 (2015) at 2.00pm in St James’s Church, Avebury, Wiltshire, followed by refreshments at the Red Lion, Avebury. She adds: “All Dad’s friends and ex-colleagues are warmly welcome to give Dad the biggest and best send-off possible.”)
Colleagues’ tributes to and memories of Len follow this obituary by DENIS CASSIDY:
The sudden and unexpected passing of Len Adams last month (March 4, 2015) brought memories flooding back of the glory days of The People. From the late 1950s, through the 60s, 70s and 80s, with a circulation reaching around six million on a Sunday, The People was second only to the (now defunct) News of the World.
Len’s was a time of powerful and moving stories – the terrible tragedy of Aberfan (where a mountain of coal slurry engulfed a school in a small Welsh village, killing 144 people including 116 children); the Profumo Affair; the Lord Lambton scandal (when the 6th Earl of Durham was caught in flagrante with two women on the bed of an Irish call girl, Norma Levy, who had hidden a cine camera and a tape recorder in a teddy bear lying beside them.)
Then there was the major exposure of international insurance fraudster Dr Emil Savundra, who ruined many lives. Len Adams was at the heart of all of these stories, and many more.
Len was sent to Aberfan within hours of news of the disaster breaking, and from the moment he arrived he let his heart rule his head. He stripped off his jacket, grabbed a shovel from an already worn out, would-be rescuer and began digging, looking for survivors but finding only battered and blackened bodies.Finally, at dawn, exhausted, covered in slime and coal dust, with tears rolling down his cheeks, he reluctantly handed over to a fresher rescuer. It was probably the only time in his long career that Len put his own feelings above the story he had been sent to cover.
Three years earlier Len got a great interview with Christine Keeler during the scandal of ’63. (War minister John Profumo was forced to resign after lying to the House of Commons over his affair with high-flying hooker Keeler, whose affections he was sharing with Russian naval attache, Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, at the height of the Cold War.)
Emil Savundra’s Fire, Auto & Marine Insurance Company left thousands of people without cover while he lived the life of a millionaire, and he fled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) refusing to be interviewed. Len tracked him down, blagged his way into the house and got a good talk with the crook, who was lying in his sickbed. After the pleasant chat, Savundra suddenly put his hand under the pillow and pulled out a pistol. Pointing it menacingly at Len, he demanded: “Tell me why I shouldn’t shoot you.” Charmer Len managed to talk himself out of the situation and escaped unscathed.
But it was the Lambton affair, or rather the story behind the story, that put Len forever into People folklore. Everyone in Fleet Street wanted Levy’s tale but The People got it, and Len was sent to a secret hideaway in Casablanca, with Norma and her husband Colin, to write it. Unfortunately their whereabouts were leaked and “The Pack”, including deadly rivals the News of the World, headed for Morocco.
As soon as this became known, Len was ordered by the then news editor to up sticks, take the first plane out of Casablanca and find another safe haven. Dressed as Arabs in case they were spotted, Len and the Levys headed for the airport and jumped on the first flight out – to Sao Paulo, Brazil! Len probably expected a thank you and perhaps a pat on the back for outwitting the enemy, but an incandescent news editor demanded to know what the hell he was doing on the other side of the world. Len explained he had done exactly as ordered and taken the next flight out. But it seems that budget was considered to be more important than exclusivity of a great story, and Len had been expected to find somewhere closer to home – such as the coast of Spain or North Africa. Len’s actions, though, made him a hero of the newsroom and that tale is recounted whenever People old stagers meet.
Another Len legend was his revenge over a Mirror reporter who had stolen Len’s story and used it on the Saturday, the day before The People came out. The following Tuesday, Len stormed into The Stab – the office pub – and poured a bottle of milk over his rival’s head. Next morning Len found his office desk covered in milk bottles and a note saying: “Well done the Milky Bar Kid.”
Len’s younger daughter Wendy tells the tale of being turfed out of her bed in the early hours to make way for Miss World. After interviewing her, Len had brought her home to stay the night to keep her from the other papers.
Len took a somewhat circuitous route to journalism. His father had been a customs house blacksmith who forged chains and anchors in London Docks but he later launched a cab firm. Len became one of his drivers and that, indirectly, put him on the road to Fleet Street.
One regular fare was heavy-drinking journalist Tommy Riley, also known as Riley of Harold Hill, where he had a freelance agency. Tommy was also a news editor on the Sunday Pictorial (which later became the Sunday Mirror) and on the way home on Saturday nights Tommy would regale the young Len with the stories and reporters that would feature in the paper the following morning. Tommy regularly invited Len to come up to the office on Saturday evenings. Soon, instead of just watching Len began to make himself useful, making the tea and running errands for the desk and the reporters like an old-fashioned copy boy.
Len knew then what he really wanted to do – become a reporter.
He was advised to try to get a job on a local paper but that was easier said than done. He eventually got in through PR and house magazines while retaining a Saturday stint at the Sunday Pic until he was offered his dream job there. Later he was head-hunted by The People where he stayed for the rest of his illustrious career, during which he won the prestigious Cudlipp Award for consistently good journalism.
After retiring from The People Len continued to work freelance with former Mirror staffer Colin Crawford, and they were talking about their next project just a couple of days before Len died.
So far I have remembered only Len Adams the journalist, but he was more than that – much more. Len was multi-talented. A useful amateur boxer as a youngster, he won a range of trophies and medals in ABA tournaments long before becoming a Fleet Street big-hitter.
And I will never forget the first time I went to the home in Hornchurch he shared with his lovely wife Joyce and their daughters, Susan and Wendy. From the outside it was just like all the other houses in the road, but once through the front door I was gobsmacked. It was a mini stately home. Len had completely gutted and refurbished the place and installed huge Elizabethan-style beams. He was also a cabinet maker and had created much of the furniture, as well as dolls’ houses, tree houses and toys for the girls – what a dad!
I must mention Len’s prowess at film making. Not for Len the all-singing, all-dancing, auto-focus video machines of today, but an old-fashioned cine camera which he used like a professional. I well recall the People London to Brighton walk in 1967 when I was stupid enough to wear a pair of brand new leather boots. By the time I reached Reigate my feet were slashed to ribbons and when we arrived in Brighton they had to be cut off (the boots, that is – not the feet.)
My feet were plunged into a basin of soothing, warm water which immediately started to turn blood red. Cameraman Len focused on the crimson basin, panned up to my anguished face, and then did a brilliant cut-away to a Spanish bullfight – poignant, since my wife was Spanish and I was a noted Hispanophile. The following Tuesday, Len was outside Covent Garden tube station to film my colleagues wheeling me to the office on a market porter’s handcart because I couldn’t walk.
Len, of course, could push his luck with his camera, like the time he took it to Hollywood when he went to interview film idol Hedy Lamarr. Anxious to bring back some special mementoes for Joyce and the girls he decided to get himself filmed with some of the stars he met. He needed some assistance, and as he stood on a drive in Beverley Hills he spotted a gardener mowing the lawn of the mansion next door.
Len darted across and collared the bemused gardener. “It’s OK,” Len reassured the man, “I’ll show you exactly what to do.” He carefully explained the intricacy of the cine camera and told the man exactly where to stand and what angles would make the best shots. Afterwards he took back the camera, thanked the gardener for his help and complimented him on the way he had picked up the new skill so quickly.
It was only later that Len’s host told him the man he had recruited was not, in fact, the gardener but the director of the blockbuster movie Ben Hur.
Len had other strings to his bow. He told me a couple of years ago he had taken up choral singing and joined the village choir.
Shortly before he died Len completed his autobiography – “I’ve Been So Lucky”. He said he got the title from a meeting in 1972 with moon walker Commander James Irwin. The astronaut lent him a pair of cufflinks made from chips of moon rock. He told Len the chips were four million years old and said he hoped they’d bring him luck.
Len Adams was a great journalist, a gentleman and a master of all trades, but above all he was, to me, a great and loyal friend. As a long-term FOC at The People, I sometimes had disagreements with management. I often needed friends and I knew I could always rely on Len’s unstinting support.
In fact he only ever let me down once, and that was the last time we met – two years ago. Over a pint in a pub following John Du Pre’s funeral, Len, looking as dapper and suave as ever, he assured me he was going to live to be 100 and I believed him.
But he slipped quietly away, following a massive heart attack aged 88, and will be sorely missed by all who knew him. On March 23 (2015) the ancient church of St James Avebury, Wilts (where, we were told, Len had built the crib and the notice board), was packed to the rafters with friends and family saying farewell to Len in a service of thanksgiving for his life.
Maurice Krais, former associate news editor: “Len was one of the Sunday People’s finest reporters and one of the leaders of a brilliant news room team. If the job required a 24-hour stake-out of a villain’s premises, Len never complained or sought assistance. A tough boxing enthusiast, he was also a charmer who could persuade superstar ladies to tell all.
When Coronation Street’s favourite scarlet woman Pat Phoenix disappeared, it was Len who found her love nest near his West Country home.
Clutching a bunch of flowers, Len knocked on the door, which Miss Phoenix partly opened and then promptly slammed in his face.
We advised Len to give the star half an hour to cool off before returning to the cottage. This time a furious Miss Phoenix shouted abuse at Len before he interrupted the rant to explain that he was suffering from a painful migraine and would appreciate a glass of water before returning to London.
Miss Phoenix immediately changed her tune and invited him to rest on the sofa while she fetched the water. The Adams guile and charm had paid off once again and he was soon on the phone filing the most intimate details of the star’s love affair. A wonderful front page story.
Working with talented reporters like Len was a privilege. Thanks to him and his colleagues on the features, picture and subs’ desks, The People was selling five million copies. Those sales will never be achieved again but because of journalists like Len we have memories of a great Fleet Street era.”
Plain John Smith (from Florida): “I was a colleague of Len’s on The People and much admired his professionalism, determination and ability to snatch a great story from under the noses of the opposition – all the attributes, in fact, of a great reporter.
“He was the news desk’s version of the SAS, someone you sent in on last-minute rescue missions when all the odds were against you. On many an occasion The People could only keep a watching brief as the dailies pecked away all the week at the big story of the day until it seemed there was little more that could be squeezed out of it. Come Thursday or Friday it was time to send Commando Len over the top and he went in with all guns blazing, shouldering aside the opposition and using a mixture of guile, cunning and charm to breathe new life into the story and emerge with an exclusive angle which had the rest of Fleet Street seething with envy and breathless with admiration.
“I remember doing an ‘At Home’ feature with Cynthia Payne, the notorious ‘Luncheon Voucher Madam’ who twice went on trial for brothel-keeping in the 1970s and 80s. Sitting in the lounge of her south London home in Ambleside Avenue, Streatham, scene of many wild parties where gentlemen clients were given luncheon vouchers to access ladies in the upstairs bedrooms, I asked her about her own experiences with men and why she had never married.
‘There’s only one man I really fell in love with and I would have married him in a minute. But he was unavailable, already happily married,’ she said.
‘Really? I said, pen poised expectantly over my notebook. ‘Who was that?’
‘You know him,’ she replied. ‘He works on your paper. He covered my story.’
Then, with a wistful look, she added. ‘Len Adams, that was him. So handsome, so charming. What a lovely man.’
Absolutely right, Cynthia. What a lovely man.”
Margaret Parish, (People news desk secretary for a number of years before her marriage to People reporter Clive Cooke) from Australia: “I am so sorry to hear of Len’s passing. I was lucky to be included in his very funny film of the People London to Brighton Walk and grateful that he thought to send a copy to Australia for me. I now have a lasting memoir of friends and colleagues from my time as news desk secretary at The People. Len was always the gentleman, pleasant and helpful, and will be fondly remembered. My deepest condolences go to Wendy and Sue.”
Mike Warner: “It’s August 20, 1974. Biggin Hill Airfield, 11.25am. I’m getting airborne, en route to Stapleford in Essex to pick up Len (and his cine camera). We’re going flying. The ‘Remarks’ column in my logbook records: ‘Filming with Len Adams’. From the grass strip at Stapleford we flew back to Biggin. Lots of shots of aircraft taking off and landing, the Kent/Essex terrain, endless rooftops, the Thames. I then flew Len back to Stapleford before returning again to Biggin. A member of our flying club converted my copy of the film to VHS. Pretty grainy I’m afraid, old technology. I’ve just re-run it for the first time in many years. There are one or two handsome shots of messrs Warner and Adams in the cockpit at 2,000ft. Not quite reach-for-the-sky stuff and don’t we look young! Len filmed himself by holding the camera at arm’s length. The word ‘selfie’ hadn’t been coined. Two gentlemen (Len was certainly that) of the Press in a flying machine. Not a bad bit of Memory Lane, eh?”
Mervyn Pamment: “So sad to hear the news about Len. Great journalist, a proper gent and someone who helped me greatly in my early days at The People with some sound advice.”
Tony Purnell: “Sorry to hear about Len Adams passing. Death is such an ugly word. Can’t believe he was 88… I have nothing but fond memories of Len and everyone else on The People.”
Frank Thorne (from Australia): “Another dawn patrol for me. Still dark here in Sydney and such sad news to wake up to. I remember Len introducing me around the pub to other journalists of the day when I was first freelancing around the old People newspaper and we were working together (I was with Terry Lovell’s news agency in Romford at the time). Len said: ‘This is Frank, he’s 24. I wish I’d been in Fleet Street when I was 24.’ He said it like he was a proud dad, and was very kind and something of a mentor to me.
“We always got on well and, of course, worked together many times when I became a full-time staff reporter many years later. My memory tells me Len and his lovely wife lived in Hornchurch in those days, and it was only many years later that they moved to the Swindon area. More antique shops in tiny towns down that way, I dare say, for Len to browse around looking for the old flat irons he collected at the time.”
Ken Bennett, former Northern news editor: “As a veteran and survivor of the infamous London to Brighton Manifold-Gabbett march (which Manchester won 3-2 with me being last home) Len was always there, smiling, kind and full of fun. Rich memories Len: RIP and sincere condolences to the family.”
Graham Gadd: “Before Len moved to The People, where he served for so many years, he was previously on the Sunday Pictorial. I think fondly of some of the great stories Len brought home, but many colleagues will also remember that his talents with a cine camera (I think he secretly would have liked to have been a film director) resulted in his film of the annual People London to Brighton walk.
Len brought home one last great exclusive: he completed his own memoirs – I gave him carte blanche to say whatever he liked about me! The greatest comfort and joy of Len’s retirement were his two daughters to whom he was devoted, and he was enormously proud of their progress in life.”
By PETER THOMPSON
© Peter Thompson 2021. Extracted from Cudlipp’s Circus by Peter Thompson, Kindle Edition.
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