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Obituary: Oscar Turnill

30 May 2014

Glyn Paflin writes:

HORACE "OSCAR" TURNILL, who died on 13 May, aged 84, was a journalist and editor who made a lasting contribution to the Church Times. His legacies include the paper's title line/masthead in its current form.

When John Whale was to take over as editor of the Church Times in 1989, he commissioned Oscar, one of his former colleagues at The Sunday Times, to redesign it for the new era in which the Church Times no longer had its own composing-room, but used outside computerised typesetters.

Oscar, although he wrote from time to time (and had, for example, reviewed Ian Fleming's children's book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for The Sunday Times), was primarily a sub-editor and layout man. After being managing editor of The Times Literary Supplement, he had redesigned The Times for Harold Evans in the early 1970s, and was now semi-retired. Evans described him as "a small, polite and pedantic man", whom printers loved.

The brief that John gave him was to produce something very like the new daily broadsheet The Independent, with an emphasis on good pictures run large, and a classical approach to typefaces, but all this in a tabloid format. The Times had not yet become tabloid; so there was little precedent for this approach. Another requirement was that the layouts on which the new typesetters at some distance in Colchester were to base their paste-ups - pencil designs drawn on paper grids to as accurate an estimate as we could achieve - had to be straightforward enough to be managed by journalists with no training in design.

Oscar did as he was asked, given technical restrictions: for some reason, headline sizes could not go above 36 points, and John wanted the body text to be larger for legibility - it became 9½ points - which put a premium on space. "Leading" (white, which had been used to stretch stories to fit, and to make the paper readable) was generally sacrificed.

The result was initially disappointing, to say the least. On the newsprint that we had, Times New Roman was not shown to advantage, and always seemed to come out feint. Stunning photos were seldom to be had, and longer articles without regular crossheads looked daunting. Those of us who were at the sharp end of complaining letters and phone calls quietly cursed the redesign that had been imposed on us.

It soon became clear, however, that we were all far too busy, and that the editor should not be laying out so many pages himself. Oscar was therefore asked to come into the office part-time, and this made an enormous improvement. His elegant draughtsmanship was a work of art in itself, as well as helpful to the typesetters, and his advice was invaluable. I remember him exploding only once, when I dared to run a headline in 36pt roman capitals across a photo spread, and was told very sharply not to break the rules: these were only to be used for section headings, which we had in those days.

Oscar was a reporter's sub, and adept at cutting copy in ways that did no violence to the sense or balance. He could make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. He bought cheap sources of images to illustrate cookery and gardening columns; and even a delivery company's pizza leaflet was used when we had nothing else, although Oscar made his feelings known. When John was on holiday, the day before George Carey was announced as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Oscar expended long effort on rescuing a dull front-page photo of a church by superimposing cutout figures on it. It must have been a sign: his trouble was wasted, as the next day our chief reporter, Betty Saunders, jumped on a train to Colchester with a mugshot of the Bishop of Bath & Wells in her handbag to take its place.

Oscar also had a flamboyance we were yet to see. When John retired after five years, he seemed to be about to leave, too; but the new editor, Paul Handley, asked him to liven up the design for more popular appeal. Type sizes grew like Topsy, white space was back, and "Christmas Books" looked enticing again. A particular pièce de résistance was a special design for the cover and a "Review of the Century" supplement in the last issue of 1999. And there was a special issue of General Synod election results, again during the editor's holidays, when Oscar designed a handsome layout for them which had to be ditched at the very last minute when far more came in before we went to press than were expected.

When he finally decided to leave the Church Times, he requested that he should be given no gathering in the pub or elsewhere to mark his departure. We thought it a pity, since he was an amusing and much respected figure in the office, who gave us fascinating glimpses of a golden age in Fleet Street, when we could elicit them (which was not often), and who, while quietly drafting page layouts in a corner, could surprise us by revealing that he knew far more about what was going on around him than we suspected.

A father and grandfather, whose wife, June, predeceased him, he was also a family man in the sense of being a keen genealogist.

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