SubScribe: Life after death: the art of the obituarist Google+

Thursday 5 September 2013

Life after death: the art of the obituarist

St Peter's cultural reception area will have been more crowded than usual after the skytrain from the British Isles pulled into the terminus this week.

Cliff Morgan, Seamus Heaney,  David Frost and David Jacobs were all in their seventies and eighties when they boarded that final shuttle - but who alighted? A rugby international or a broadcasting chief? A young satirist, a jet-setting talk-show host or a media entrepreneur?

It seems fair to assume that those whose earthly lives earn them admittance to the ultimate penthouse should not be required to spend eternity with the rickety joints and stilted gait that come with advancing years. The experience and wisdom acquired over a lifetime, yes, but in partnership with the physical and mental energy of youth. If there is a choice, I for one should prefer to be stuck at 28 or 38 rather than 58 or - if spared - 88.

Down here, it is the obituarist's privilege to determine at which point the clock should be frozen. A picture may be able to paint a thousand words, but finding one image to sum up an entire lifetime is a greater challenge. Take someone like Frost:, a man whose face has been familiar to most people in this country for the past half-century. His death made most of the front pages and in almost every case the photograph chosen had been taken in the past year or so. The Mail went for a slightly younger Frost - presumably on the basis that it was the best available picture of his wife - but only the Guardian looked back to the Sixties.

A figure such as Frost will always cause something of a tussle between the news and obits departments because there will have to be a potted life history up front as well as the inevitable 'tributes poured in last night to xyz, who has died, aged xx.'  And with someone who has lived almost their entire life in the public eye, there will be no shortage of pictures. Without disciplined picture editing, a page really can be spoilt for choice.

The Telegraph ran the story across the top of pages 2 and 3, with the Nixon interview photograph in the centre across the gutter. The intention may have been to make it the focus of the montage, but the monochrome picture is overshadowed by the shot of Frost and his wife at Ascot and the strange assortment of surrounding images. They don't tell a story and the pictures have been sized to fit a grid without proper consideration of their content.

The sofa picture of the TV-am crowd top right is full of character and brings back memories of the Eighties, but it's a ridiculously small slot for the Famous Five. We are also reminded of his old flames - Diahann Carroll, who dumped him virtually at the altar, and Lynn Frederick, to whom he was briefly married. Now here he is in the Sixties with Paul McCartney and there with Mrs Thatcher with her face split in two - is the picture supposed to echo the one of Nixon above? And to top it off, an utterly pointless picture of Frost with the Goldsmith women. Has the Telegraph still not got over its Jemima fetish? Nothing from ground-breaking That Was The Week That Was, nothing from the Frost Report. There is, however, a postage stamp of Frost and family at Buckingham Palace after he was knighted in 1993.

The obits page is far better with a portrait similar to the one used on the front of the Times, Frost (looking astonishingly like Michael Sheen looking like Tony Blair) with Nixon and our first view of the man as the host of TW3.

Most papers joined the Telegraph in going for montages inside - with rather too many clumsily splitting pictures across the gutter. The Mail, generously giving Max Hastings two bylines, focused on the family in the first of two spreads, and the socialite interviewer on the second. The Petula Clark picture is an odd choice for a main image - her legs perhaps? - but the end result is better composed and more easily navigable than the Telegraph's. There is nothing  from the earliest years but, for today, the Mail is forgiven almost everything for unearthing this gem from 1968, which deserves a bigger show:

Of the rest, the Express went in for shameless self-promotion, while the Guardian and Independent both opted for a small collection of pictures on the news pages with a strong portrait to illustrate the obit. The Guardian's captioning was the most helpful with the simple device of putting the year first.

My favourite combination came from The Times, whose uncluttered coverage managed to span the key points of Frost's 50-year career in six pictures. I particularly liked the use of the class sketch cutout of John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett as that, more than anything, tells you straight away what the Frost Report was about. We also have a picture of the entire TW3 gang, portraits from two eras and a couple of the Sheenalike Frost with Nixon.  My only quibble is that, with the exception of Millicent Martin, it's a mite too male; a photograph of Frost and Lady Carina might have helped.

Ian Brunskill, obituaries editor at The Times, explained the balancing act: 

'There is no hard and fast policy, just that rather unsatisfactory process of finding what we hope is "the best pic". With less-than-public figures, it's often a case of making the best of whatever we can get from family or friends. Given more choice, there's obviously a strong case for using pics of people in their prime, if only because that's generally the period of the life that the obit will focus on. That was what we did with Frost - that main obit picture seemed to sum up his personality at the time of his greatest impact, as described in the piece.

Personally, I think that characterful older faces can make for very striking pictures and with someone who has lived to a great age or had one of those lifelong careers, I've often been inclined to go with something older. The present editor is a very firm believer in younger/prime pix every time, so that's the way we'll go whenever we can.'

The philosophy was seen in practice at the weekend with the death of Cliff Morgan, who started out as a rugby player, became a consummate broadcaster and rose to become the BBC's head of outside broadcasts and sport, overseeing coverage of the Olympics, the Queen's Silver Jubilee and the Charles and Diana wedding. A picture of an executive in a suit - or sports jacket - in front of a microphone or wearing earphones s never going to be as appealing as one of a fit young man, so it is unsurprising that most papers went with pictures from his playing days.

But Morgan (who happened to share a birthday with Frost) retired from the game 55 years ago, which means we are presented with an unfamiliar image of a familiar face. This works only if paired with a more modern picture somewhere on the page as a point of reference. There is also the fact that photographers worked in black and white in the Fifties.  Can a mono picture hold up a page of grey type, given that the obits pages tend not to go in for the whistles and bells  that we see in the news section?

We can see from this quartet that it can and does - but it needs to be given room to breathe. The colour picture in the Times seems static. The Telegraph, bottom right,  has a clear shot of Morgan, ball in hand, which ought to count as the perfect obit photograph, but there is more dynamism in the picture chosen by the Guardian and the Independent. The Independent has tried to cover both bases by pairing it with the armchair portrait, but it loses the drama of the game that we can see in the Guardian's version. 

The Mail and the Telegraph both chose that picture for their sport spreads - each of them splitting it over the gutter. The Mail also managed to dig out a really old picture and some really old words  - the late Ian Wooldridge's review of  Morgan's autobiography - for the news pages. Quite why it had to turn the death of a much-admired public figure into an assault on the BBC is hard to fathom. It's hard to imagine that Morgan will have held a grudge for 15 years after being taken off air prematurely.


Morgan obviously found his way into most sports sections and the natural choice for these pages would be the action shots. But the Independent, above, went completely left field with a straight portrait of a man in later years with half his head chopped off. There was also a double with a repeat of the obit photograph.

For David Jacobs all four broadsheets turned to the archive, two to the Fifties DJ era and two to the later years of the suave man-about-town. They all have charm and that smile has an impish aura that clearly never faded. Seeing the four together demonstrates that whatever the setting and whatever the age of the subject, a good photographer can capture the essence of a person in a single frame.

Harry de Quetteville, the Telegraph's obituaries editor, says his objective is 'absolutely to get a picture of someone in their prime'.

'The Pope is the one person where we would definitely go for a big picture of an old man, because that is how people know them.

Sometimes it is hard to get hold of what we want, so we are stuck with pictures of people in old age. But with people who have spent years in the public eye, we can use several pictures showing the evolution of a career. With David Frost we could go from the fresh-faced graduate straight out of Cambridge to the elder statesman of broadcasting.

When Michael Jackson died we ran three photos of him side by side from the black boy with the Afro hairstyle to the almost white adult with the delicate nose. Practically everything about him had changed.

With David Jacobs we could have done something with his early life and later career, but we decided not to do that - we thought the one big photo did the job. Unless you are stonkingly famous, one good photo usually does the job.'

I'm not sure that the photograph above meets the 'in his prime' criterion, but few papers covered themselves with glory when Seamus Heaney died. Here we had the passing of a  literary giant, but half of our Press didn't seem to care. Because he was not British? Or because he was Irish?

The Mail's first mention of his death came on page 33, and even there, Heaney wasn't deemed worthy of a full page - he had to share the space with a house ad. The Express did at least manage a page 2 teaser to its obit on 39. The Telegraph's news coverage was confined to a double-column page 13 lead over a 25x4, and while the Times did manage to put him on page 4 - it was halfway down the page. Pride of place at the top was surrendered to a puffy bit of country house and garden porn.

There was never any hope of a mere Nobel laureate making the front page in these four papers with the Duchess of Cambridge appearing in a pair of skinny jeans that she had - heavens alive - worn before she was pregnant.

The obituary pages are a bit of a law unto themselves, though. And long may that continue. It is here that you can find fantastic writing and the most amazing life stories - look at this one in the Telegraph today for example. This is the place where we can find the diamonds of the newspaper world, surrounded by the grey carbon of thermal underwear ads, lonely hearts and racecards. Here, at least,  the Telegraph and the Times teams realised the significance of Heaney's passing.

But the stars of the show were the Guardian and Independent. Both devoted the top half of their fronts to Heaney. A foreign poet. On a Saturday. With a war brewing. Hurrah. 

The Guardian had secured Colm Toibin, whose piece started on the front and continued on the whole of page 3. This was complemented by a full-page obit. The Indie gave the poet three spreads: pages 2 and 3, which featured a photograph of Heaney as a 30-year-old nursing a pint in a pub, the obit and the piece de resistance, his Nobel acceptance speech across 28 and 29, below. Unless I am mistaken, it was also the only paper to print a Heaney poem. Copyright issues can be tricky - and pricey. So hats off to the most poverty-stricken paper on the street for paying up and serving its readers well. True style.

This august quartet from England, Wales and Ireland were sadly joined on the skytrain by another literary great from Scotland. Alan Hamilton, the Times's appropriately titled Special Writer and royal correspondent, died last Friday aged 70. He was accorded an obit in his own paper and in the Telegraph. A youthful or mature photograph? A mature man relaxed in retirement. But this gentleman of letters never changed. He was magnificent at every age. 

And finally, SubScribe set itself a challenge. Was there anybody with a public career spanning a lifetime whose whole life could be told in a single photograph. Certainly not the Queen, nor Paul McCartney. No sportsman or actor. But I believe there is one person for whom it could work.
If you have other ideas, please share them. 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating stuff Liz, keep up the good work. Good, too, to include Alan Hamilton and interesting to note how generous newspapers are towards rival hacks in death. The Telegraph had a Hamilton obit and Matthew Engel of the Guardian was very generous in praise. There have been several examples recently: Rick Beeston was given column inches everywhere, as was Ronnie Payne, Telegraph veteran, great character (and friend) and Bill O'Hagan, legendary Telegraph late-stop, drinker and 'real sausage' campaigner. As an occasional obituarist myself, I just wish my friends would stop dying!