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Friday, 17 November, 2000, 12:02 GMT
Flirty not dirty at 30

The Sun's birthday suit
According to newspaper business legend it began as a cheap stunt designed to fill a gap on an empty page. It ended up being hailed as a "national institution", writes BBC News Online's Chris Horrie, author of Stick it Up Your Punter.

The Sun's Page Three - the feature that defined tabloid newspapers for a generation - has reached its 30th birthday.

Inventor: Larry Lamb
In 1969 media magnate Rupert Murdoch, already owner of the sex-obsessed News of the World, bought the ailing high-brow Sun newspaper.

He turned it inside out and aimed it at a younger generation which was much more interested in sex than their up-tight parents.

The new version of the paper was filled with articles about sex and scandal the like of which had never before been seen in a daily newspaper. It was an immediate sales success.

Sex Sells

But what was to become the Sun's main claim to notoriety - Page Three - did not appear until November 1970.

There had been nude pictures of girls in daily newspapers before - illustrating po-faced articles about health and beauty or news stories about topless bathing in France, for example.

But using pictures of nude young women just for the sake of it was something very different and more in line with straightforward pornography.

There was an inevitable fuss about this step in the direction of printing pornography in what, up until then, had been a serious national newspaper best known for long and worthy analysis of matters such as science, religion and world politics.

War on Barmy Burghers

But editor Larry Lamb, who died earlier this year, cleverly exploited the carefully manufactured outrage to get people talking about the re-designed paper, tempting them to buy it - in many cases just to see what all the fuss was about.

A glum pimple on the face of the Pennines - we should be thrown out of better places than this

The Sun blasts Sowerby Bridge
The strategy worked like a dream.

And it was immediately boosted by the decision of a local council in Sowerby Bridge, Yorkshire, to ban the paper from the local library because of Page Three and other sex content.

Lamb gleefully took on the "Barmy Burghers of Sowerby Bridge" sending reporters and Page Three girls to the town to generally abuse the place and its civic leaders in a series of brilliant publicity stunts.

The Sun described Sowerby as "a glum pimple on the face of the Pennines" and printed a picture of the 78-year-old council leader and "chief censor" fleeing from a gang of furious mini-skirted Sun girls. The council soon relented and the paper was put back on the shelves.

Antipodean Erotica Horror

Within a few years the Sun would repeat the trick by declaring "war" on Germany and telling the French to "hop off".

Lamb's trick was to goad politicians and elderly "do-gooders" into criticising Page Three so that the paper could pose as the fun-loving champion of a rising generation growing up to the sound of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and eager for a taste of the sexual revolution and permissive society.

Antipodean Erotica Kit - '70s style
Musk candle
Half bottle of champagne
Two dozen oysters
Set of silk sheets and matching pyjamas
Naughty knickers in a tin
Sunbed and supply of suntan oil
Two months' supply of vitamins
The veteran "anti-porn" crusader Lord Longford (or "Lord Wrongford" to the Sun's headline writers) dared to criticise Rupert Murdoch for polluting the British media scene with a "brand of Antipodean erotica".

Lamb replied by removing yet more clothing from the girls, printing Page Three upside down to achieve the "Antipodean" effect and even offering readers an Antipodean Erotica Kit.

After running Page Three for a year The Sun doubled its circulation to more than 2.5 million and was drawing close to its main rival, the more demure Daily Mirror - home to Andy Capp, Marge Proops and popular journalism with a strong social conscience.

Nipples 'too fantastic'

Eventually Page Three settled down into a less outrageous format as, through the '70s and '80s, the girls were chosen to give the paper a cheerful, healthy and young feel.

Sam Fox demonstrates 'Antipodean Erotica'
The pictures were generally shown to women reporters on the paper to make sure that female readers wouldn't regard them as horrible or "dirty". And it was always said that the model's smile was more important than anything else.

The pictures, in addition, were routinely "re-touched" - which meant painting over any natural blemishes and improving the all-important smile with an air-brush.

The skilled application of white lead paint, it was said, could achieve the same effect as thousands spent on dental work.

Make it cheery not leery

Larry Lamb's formula for success
Lamb's successor as editor, Bernard Shrimsley, supervised the process carefully and was determined to keep everything wholesome.

He was long remembered at the paper for once having scrawled the retouching instruction: "Nipples Too Fantastic! - Make Nipples Less Fantastic!" on one of the pictures.

Shrimsely used to tell reporters that their readers had a breast fixation because they were the first generation to be bottle-fed. He added, half-seriously, that Sun readers voted for Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s out of gratitude.

It was the Sun's great hero, Mrs Thatcher who, as education minister in the 1970s, had abolished the practice of giving free bottled milk to every school child.

Star is born

In the 1980s Page Three became "raunchy" again, under the influence of new editor Kelvin MacKenzie.

Raunchier: Kelvin MacKenzie
The paper was now way out ahead in the circulation war with the Mirror (which had unsuccessfully flirted with its own version of nude "glamour" girls) but it was facing competition from a new quarter: the Daily Star.

Armed with the new invention of newspaper "Bingo" and the ability to print pictures of "Starbirds" in colour, the Star looked set to do to the Sun what the Sun had once done to the Mirror.

Topless Darts

MacKenzie hit back with his secret weapon - Samantha Fox - a new type of Page Three girl who instead of being merely pneumatic had a personality of sorts: brash, tarty, clothes-and-money-mad and the ultimate fantasy girlfriend for '80s Essex Man. With Sam Fox batting for the Sun, the Daily Star was safely nipped in the bud.

After the Sam Fox era the formula for Page Three remained the same until very recently.

And after leaving The Sun, editor Kelvin MacKenzie tried to adapt the feature to the new medium of television with a stunt called "topless darts" featured in the '90s on the little-watched and now defunct cable TV station, L!ve TV. boobs

At the Sun itself there was a debate last year about whether Page Three should be removed.

Some thought that it was caught in a sexist "time-warp" and made the paper look both old-fashioned and unappealing to women.

Others said Page Three had become "a world class brand name" and, as the main thing that made the Sun different from its rivals, abandoning the feature would be "insane".

A compromise was reached. Page Three has been toned down with the removal of the leering, pun-ridden captions which, it was believed, were far more off putting to women and non-sexist male readers than the pictures themselves.

At the same time the Sun re-launched its internet presence by establishing, following the example of its old rival the Daily Star which was already running the booming "babes and booze" MegaStar site.

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27 May 99 | UK
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