It is impossible to tell the story of late twentieth century Britain without reference to The Sun. For right or wrong, the tabloid newspaper is central to the narrative of a country that, in the 1980s particularly, was more divided than at any time before or since. On its pages – and most especially on its front pages – The Sun embodied the dominant political and social spirit of the times. Seldom can graphic design have been used to such dramatic effect.
Few, if any, other newspaper front pages will have lodged so steadfastly in the public consciousness as those produced by The Sun under former editor Kelvin MacKenzie. A reminder of the brutal power of some of these compositions will be available shortly at Memorable Moments, an exhibition of Sun front pages to be staged by London’s Proud Galleries from 12 October.
In a curious and somewhat tortured piece of “brand synergy” the exhibition is co-sponsored by the paper and tea brand PG Tips (something to do with both being integral to British daily life, apparently). In the accompanying press release, MacKenzie, who edited the paper during its years of maximum influence (1981 to 1994) claims that The Sun’s front pages relate “history, but with a smile”. Such a rosy view may not be shared by the relatives of the 1000 men who died when the Royal Navy sunk the Argentinian cruiser, the General Belgrano during the Falklands conflict: an event joyfully celebrated by The Sun with the infamous single word headline, Gotcha.
This was graphic design that epitomised an era in British history: Brash, brutal, utterly tasteless. To its supporters it was wonderful, knockabout fun, and anyone who didn’t see it as such was a killjoy leftie – and probably a lesbian to boot. But to those on the receiving end, such as the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, the striking miners and their families in 1984 or those unfortunate enough to have been caught on the wrong side of the latest viciously one-sided diatribe, it was not such a laugh. For its opponents, The Sun’s graphic style illustrated everything that they had grown to hate about the paper – its bullying, its boorish crudity, its relentless sensationalism and unabashed bigotry. The spirit of the Thatcher government and the spirit of its greatest supporter were perfectly aligned and they split the country down the middle.
The impact of those 80s front pages stemmed in large part from the technological changes in the print industry at the time. In 1986, Murdoch’s newspapers famously abandoned Fleet Street, the traditional home of the London press, for a new site in the re-generated Docklands. In doing so, they entered into a prolonged and bloody battle with the print unions. At the heart of this confrontation were the introduction of new technology and the end of the restrictive practices. The Sun became one of the first British newspapers to introduce electronic page make-up systems. Whereas before, changing a headline was a lengthy and expensive business, now MacKenzie and his executives could tinker to their hearts’ content. The screaming headlines, already an established MacKenzie weapon, became bigger and louder. A completely new kind of newspaper, one that bellowed its views at the top of its voice and didn’t give a damn if the neighbours complained, was born. When White Van Man spoke, he did so in 300 point extra bold.
As well as its graphic power, The Sun invented a new language. In SunSpeak, no-one is ever questioned by the police when they may be “quizzed”; children are always “tots”; men are “fellas” and women, providing they measure up to the paper’s exacting aesthetic standards, are “lovelies”.
And then there are the excruciating puns: Tears We Go when England’s football team was knocked out of the 1990 World Cup; It’s Paddy Pantsddown when former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown’s affair was revealed.
In more recent times, the paper’s art department has embraced Photoshop with a gleeful passion. Among the victims of its crude compositions was former England soccer boss Graham Taylor whose career never recovered after The Sun ran an image of his head superimposed on a turnip.
Particularly at election time, the paper really flexed its muscles. Its front page featuring then Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s head inside a light-bulb alongside the headline “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”, struck a devastating late and low blow to Labour’s chances in 1990. The labour party of the day simply had no answer to such hugely effective propaganda.
You won’t see these front pages in any design awards annual, but in their own way, they are among the most powerful pieces of graphic design ever produced.