Hilary Spurling

How The Spectator discovered Helen Mirren

From Enoch Powell to Danny La Rue: Hilary Spurling remembers how she was given free rein when she took over the arts and books pages in the 1960s

A 19-year-old Helen Mirren as Cleopatra in 1965 at the Old Vic. The only professional review Mirren got was in the pages of The Spectator – and it forecast her as a future star. Photo: Barham / Mirrorpix / Getty Images

One of the first jobs I ever did for The Spectator was to find out if professional wrestlers fixed the outcome of their fights in advance. This was 1965. The editor who wanted to know was Iain Macleod, a future chancellor of the exchequer filling in time while his party was out of office by dabbling in journalism. He turned out to be an addict of the professional wrestling screened on Saturday afternoon TV. In spite of the spinal disease that had immobilised his back and neck, he mimed what he meant by throttling himself without getting up from his chair in an Indian deathlock.

His deputy editor, his political editor and I watched this unnerving performance in horrified silence. ‘Wouldn’t it be better if we sent a man?’ asked the deputy editor after a long pause. ‘Don’t be silly,’ snapped Macleod. ‘If we sent a man, they’d screw his head off.’ So I set out to do what he asked. I was 24 years old at the time, and I learned more about life in the next few weeks than in three years at Oxford.

Afterwards I hung on at The Spectator as office dogsbody, useful for filling up the back end of the paper with features on ballroom dancing (this was 40 years before Strictly), comprehensive schools and plans to pedestrianise Piccadilly Circus. In the end they invented the title of arts editor to make the job sound more important, and found me an office in the attic, a dingy little room with a fishy smell and a skylight so small you had to keep the electric light on all day. After a series of embarrassing interviews with potential contributors, I discovered too late that the smell came from my light bulb, which was melting the fish glue on its cheap, ill-fitting lampshade.

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