John Sandilands
Daily Telegraph
8 April 2004
This Is Your Life Big Red Book
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John Sandilands, who has died aged 72, was a scarred and grizzled veteran of journalist's more flamboyant days, a prominent member of a distinctive generation of writers nourished by the magazine boom of the Sixties and Seventies and a dangerous man with an epigram.

He wrote with perception and exuberant humour for newspapers, magazines and television, seeking out the offbeat (camel fights in Turkey), the exotic (palace-hopping with the Nizam of Hyderabad) and the challenging (getting blissed out on kava in Fiji) and finding significance in unsuspected places. In an achingly-funny piece about a Welsh holiday in a gypsy caravan hauled by a wilful (and flatulent) horse, he reported that he had discovered the cause for the decline of Romany culture: "Nobody would feel much like making clothes pegs after a full day spent in horse management."

He had what one colleague describes as "a gift for intimacy" and he accumulated a wide and varied network of devoted friends. Even his plumber wept when he heard Sandilands had died. But though he was loyal and loving, his fierce beliefs, a tendency to truculence and a wit that could be lacerating fatally damaged several once-close relationships and alienated a succession of editors.

A grammar school boy from Brighton, he learned to type doing his national service in the army and followed his accomplished older sister, Chiquita Sandilands, into journalism. He worked at John Bull magazine and in the early Sixties, when Fleet Street was still a boisterous, boozy little village, moved to the Daily Sketch, then joined King magazine, a would-be British Playboy launched by night-club owner Paul Raymond. To save money, Jo Brooker, a 21-year-old editorial assistant, was drafted as the magazine's first cover girl and would later become the editor of Woman, the programme director of Capital Radio and Mrs John Sandilands.

Raymond bailed out after the first issue and Peter Sellers, Bryan Forbes, Bob Monkhouse, David Frost and others were persuaded to invest to keep it going but in 1967 it finally submitted and sank. Fatefully, Sandilands washed up at Nova, the grittily-innovative magazine edited by Dennis Hackett, who famously found and nurtured a stable of new young writers - among them Sandilands, Irma Kurtz, Ian Cotton, Peter Martin – who would go on to become bankable bylines in the fast-expanding universe of Sunday colour supplements.

He travelled to remote and distant places, sustained by parcels of Olivier cigarettes air mailed to him by his wife and by his phlegmatic, imperturbable Britishness. Reputedly, he could say "Do you take me for a fool?" in nine languages.

When not adventuring, he recorded his often-comic encounters with the likes of Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Brigitte Bardot, Lee Marvin, Ava Gardner and Mick Jagger. He got Terence Stamp to talk about the problems of being beautiful, and Peter Sellers to talk about the problems of being Peter Sellers ("When I look at myself, I see a person who strangely lacks what I consider the ingredients for a personality").

In 1980, he became an editor at Now!, Sir James Goldsmith's extravagant but forlorn attempt to create a British news magazine. A year later, on the day it died, he was one of those who led a party of the newly-unemployed to Fleet Street for a fabled Last Lunch before the office credit cards were cancelled. Around midnight, Sandilands could be seen herding stumbling colleagues into the back of Daily Mail trucks after he had negotiated with the drivers to deliver them home. Some actually made it.

He also worked successfully in television, putting in a long stretch as a writer on This Is Your Life and collaborating on a documentary about GI brides, and he co-authored a prisoner-of-war book called "Women Beyond the Wire" with his former partner and long-time friend, producer Lavinia Warner, creator of the BBC series Tenko.

A compulsive collector, he was a well known haggler in the backrooms of London junk shops. He lived hedged in by lead soldiers, early Dinky cars, wind-up toys and sets of cigarette cards recording feats of famous cricketers and the uniforms of the Indian Lancers and the Witwatersrand Rifles. But he had an emotional connection to the sea – for a while he was the proud commander of a 1934 ex-navy admiral's pinnace – and he amassed a serious, recognised collection of nautical art, specialising in paintings of vessels called transitionals, early steam-powered ships that cautiously refused to surrender their sails.

He told elaborate jokes and anecdotes, came armed with a sly, subversive wit intended to provoke trouble among life's stiffs and prima donnas, and was impulsively funny. At This Is Your Life, when the subject was Johnny Speight, creator of Till Death Us Do Part, host Eamonn Andrews was concerned that Speight's cockney father spoke so quickly he would be unintelligible. It was pointed out that it was difficult to break the habits of a man who was 78. "Couldn't we just try him on 33 and a third?" said Sandilands. He went to a theme restaurant in London where the waiters dressed as Roman soldiers, and 45 minutes after ordering he tapped a passing Centurion on the breastplate and asked: "Do the snails make their own way to the table?"

He did his "notes" on an upright Olivetti typewriter, liberated from 'King' when the magazine folded, but he became afflicted with severe writer's block, and comfortably cushioned by shrewd property investments, he hadn't written anything for the last five years, leaving unfinished a book about the Foreign Legion and his long-promised reworking of Eskimo Nell.

John Sandilands died of a heart attack in London on March 15. Amicably divorced from Jo Sandilands, he is survived by his long-time partner, the journalist Liz Hodgkinson, two nephews, Alan and Keir Knight, and a niece, Hannah Hetherington.