By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine
As August draws to a close and Tony Blair returns to work, that's it for another silly season. Despite there being no shortage of serious news this summer, 2005 has been a vintage year.
The Sun subsequently also found a Page 3 girl in space
Spool your memory back to Tuesday 9 August and you might remember the crop of fairly hum-drum headlines that graced the front pages that day.
"New drinking laws will end in violence," ran the Times' lead story; "Biggs has MRSA," was the Mirror's offering while the Guardian and Express led on the latest development in plans to deport extremist preachers. The Independent revisited the famine in Niger.
The Sun, still Britain's best selling daily paper by a long chalk, gave its verdict on the biggest story of the day, thus: "Victor Meldrew found in space".
It was pure silly season from a paper that knows, perhaps better than any other, how to lift the national mood.
For those who need reminding - too much sun and round-the-clock holiday drinking tend to take their toll on the memory, after all - the silly season is the period from mid-July to the end of August when, in lieu of serious stories, the media - not just newspapers - indulge in the lighter side of life.
No one actually sets its parameters. Instead the silly season exists by dint of a lull in politics during Westminster's recess (although Parliament does not reconvene until October, September signals a return to form with the party conferences).
But that doesn't mean the silly season shuns politics completely. An enduring theme of seasons past has been how Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott handles his stint while the boss is away.
WHY ALL THE SILLINESS?
"It's all about fear of white space" says former Guardian news editor Peter Cole
"Editors fear there won't be enough news to fill the paper, so tons of stories are prepared in advance"
"Papers do slim down, but they don't want to look like bad value for money"
Newsrooms are also hard up as reporters tend to go on holiday in the summer, he says
This year, Tony Blair himself has been the focus of a mini silly season saga after Downing Street asked newspapers to keep the prime minister's holiday destination a secret for security reasons. The papers, though, persisted in printing pictures of the PM frolicking in the sun, while dropping hint after hint about the location.
It was eventually revealed to be Barbados, but only after we learned that the PM had got a touch of sun burn, on his chest, stomach and arms (Daily Express); that he sports French-made swimming trunks that sell for almost £100 a pair (cue 1,600-word feature on men's swimwear in the Independent); and that his toned physique is starting to sag - prompting the Sun to ask: "Who else has great man boobs like Tony Blair?" Johnny Vegas, Michael Winner and Iggy Pop, to name but three.
Back of the net
The ebb and flow of celebrity love lives is not limited to the silly season, but in August the column inches devoted to Jude and Sienna; Brad, Angelina and Jennifer; and, of course, Kate and Pete seemed to grow.
Perhaps the most unlikely celebrity coupling though was that of Alan Partridge creator Steve Coogan and Kurt Cobain's widow Courtney Love, with Love claiming to be pregnant with his baby. The story, broken by the News of the World, would have had that "wow" factor at any time of the year, but in the silly season it found its way into the more serious pages of the Guardian, the Independent and, indeed, the BBC News website. Not bad, given that both Coogan and Love deny the claims.
What's your favourite Silly Season story from this year?
Meldrew found in space 28.93%
Coogan and Love 24.90%
Piano Man goes home 7.76%
Tony Blair's holiday 2.56%
Does Prescott wear a wig? 6.40%
Makosi was an actress 3.71%
Busty barmaid ban 9.47%
Parfitt forgot Quo chords 5.62%
Killer mozzies loom 2.43%
Charlotte Church drinks 8.22%
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
Meanwhile, uber celebrity Madonna had the good grace to fall off a horse just when news pickings were looking particularly slim in the middle of August - allowing the Times to run an opinion piece on the perils facing middle-aged women riding horses.
From celebrities to a nobody - which is exactly what Piano Man was until the Mirror revealed he had upped and gone home to Germany. The news set Fleet Street alight, although the award for best follow-up must surely go to the Sun's claim that Andreas Grassl (for that is his real name) had run away from home because he couldn't cope with being the "only gay in the village".
Campaigns are also good fodder, partly because they allow editors to prepare stories some time in advance. The Sun went into campaign overdrive at one point this summer, running two simultaneously - one on "potty political correctness" the other urging Britain to be proud of itself.
And never under-estimate the power of a good old scare story - the papers delivered with news the EU wants to "ban" busty bar maids, and a threat to the UK of giant killer mosquitoes.
Sometimes though, it's impossible to define exactly what makes a silly season story - although if a pop academic were to devise a formula it would doubtless make the news.
Not just the papers waited for news of Madonna's injury
Other examples this summer include the Independent asking Has John Prescott got a wig? The Sun's page three exclusive that Status Quo guitarist Rick Parfitt used to forget his chords; orange food is good for you; James Bond will drive a Fiat Panda in his next film; and Mick Jagger's not well-endowed says Keith Richards... followed by Mick's fallen out with Keith over "willy jibe"... followed by "Keith says sorry".
And pictures are always the silly season's finest friend. So it was we got Madonna with red hair; Richard and Judy looking glum on holiday; Michael Douglas driving a Skoda; the lithe girl from the iPod ads revealing she doesn't actually own an iPod; Angelina Jolie in curlers; dozens of screen-grabs of busty Big Brother contestants; the world's ugliest dog and evidence from the night sky that, yes, a constellation of stars can be joined up so they look like Victor Meldrew's face.
The Meldrew story meant I actually bought a copy of the Sun for the first (and only) time in my life - I did buy the Guardian that day too to mask my embarrassment.
Iola, Leeds, UK
"The Sun" prints these crazy stories all year around so instead of calling it the silly season we should call the summer "The Sun"ny season.
Andrew Lewis, Cardiff
The silly season shows how poor most of our media is - clearly the world carries on when the UK parliments / journalists go on holiday. I guess the point being is that most media is in fact entertainment not education. Those sections of the media that don't rely on being spoon fed stories (eg The Economist, The New Internationalist, Schnews) manage to carry on with real stories. Is the silly season part of the reason for the decline of newspaper circulation as people realise that the news isn't in the papers ?
Does today's story on the BBC's News Website 'Welsh Air Up for sale on the web' make it into this years silly season list? 'Welsh expatriates missing the sweet smell of home can now buy a bottle of air from the hills of Wales - for £24.'
I love 'silly season' stories - it shows that nothing horrific has happened, when we need to fill up pages with news on celebrity break-ups or couplings, the PM's holiday destination and Ronnie Biggs. Bring on the white space!
Jen , Norwich, Norfolk
Patronising rubbish. This is another example of how the Westminster/media circus thinks only the things that politicians and pundits do or say have any importance. You should all step outside the bubble more often and find that most people are indifferent to the media village - I bet they relate more to so-called silly season stories than the usual dreary gossipy rubbish. I mean Madonna falling off a horse - got to be more interesting than whichever nobody is next Tory leader
Big Mike, London
Surely the ultimate silly season story is in fact a story about silly season stories - like this one...
You missed out Ken Clarke to win the Tory Leadership Campaign and bring them back to power...
Parag Gajendragadkar, Cambridge, UK
The silly season never ends. It just decamps to the house of commons...and the pages of the magazine of course.
Martin Willoughby, Stevenage, UK
The biggest silly season story of all is always the "are exams getting easier?" rubbish. The only reason this surfaces year after year is because the exam results come out in August. Here's an idea. Round up all of the critics and journalist claiming the exams are getting easier, and next summer get them to resit their exams. Now that report might be worth reading!
Trevor Wenman, Diss, England
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