John Sandilands


Obituary, March 2004

Date published: March 2004
Publisher: Daily Telegraph

This fine obituary was written by John’s great friend, Dermot Purgavie.


John Sandilands, who has died aged 72, was a scarred and grizzled veteran of journalism’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 nightclub 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, Bridget 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 extravagent 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 a longtime 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 longtime partner, the journalist Liz Hodgkinson, two nephews, Alan and Keir Knight, and a niece, Hannah Hetherington.


Some fragments from Sandilands’ letters to Purgavie, then the Daily Mail bureau chief in New York. ……

I have examined you letter carefully for any signs of genuine information or even the sort of second hand gossip you seem to be able to get away with in the Daily Mail now that dear old Don Iddon’s been inched out by what I call the new chaps. The USA certainly seems to have quietened down a lot since you got there although old Al Coooke is still turning the stuff up good as ever. I sometimes wonder how the wife and I would manage without the wireless


I managed to get hold of a paperback on how to open a vein so I’m fairly cheerful at the moment, although I can’t pretend the work has been going all that well. But, after possibly the worst year since I started the business with just a couple of rooms in the East End, I have come into contact with a thrustful young publisher who has put a thrustful young book subject my way. I’m a bit rusty after such a long lay off but I’ve been running in the morning in ammunition boots and copying out chapters from Dombey and Son, and some of the old reflexes are coming back.. If it happens as planned, I would probably come to States at the end of March so I would have something to put on the dust jacket.


Sometimes in the evenings I take a paper and pencil and make up an England XI to play the Rest of the World but I just end up in a temper again. Somehow you can’t imagine Wilf Mannion sitting down and writing out lists of great feature writers who could have saved the Saturday Evening Post.


Everyone in England now has to work a 3-day week, which has put a big strain on me because it means I have less time to myself. All the street lights have been switched off so you can’t see who you’re accosting at night and there are bombs going off all the time. They gave the docks a pasting the other night. We take some blankets and a flask of tea down the Hammersmith Tube, although the wife wants us to move to somewhere nicer on the Central Line. It’s all extremely miserable, what with the TV going off at 10.30 and although I tell a few jokes and mime to records I think everybody misses the commercials


I am writing this at 33,000 feet over the Congo because my office is an awful mess as usual. I am going to Johannesburg to see Gary Player for one of the papers and if they like the interview they’re going to put my name on the top. I know you find that sort of thing exciting. I’m on an airline called UTA and we have been issued with a customs declaration, a disembarkation card and a will form. Two highjackers got off at the last stop to wait for the next flight. We have all been invited to help ourselves to the duty frees and there’s an Irish priest doing confessions at five quid a time.


I must close now in order to catch the postman. I find the best way to do it is to wait until he’s in the middle of undressing the woman downstairs. I hope you don’t mind paying for the stamp




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List of John Sandilands articles

John Sandilands

John Sandilands Articles

  1. Obituary, March 2004 >>
  2. Introduction to Articles >>
  3. Article2 >>
  4. When the cure is sun, sea and mud >>
  5. Interview with Ava Gardner >>
  6. Interview with Dustin Hoffman, Los Angeles Times, 1968 >>
  7. Fiji >>
  8. Patrick Moore >>
  9. Mr Pastry >>
  10. Interview with Jane Fonda >>
  11. letters to and from John to editors >>
  12. Ballooning >>
  13. The Toad Cross Code >>
  14. Peter Sellers; that is the problem >>
  15. In bed with John Sandilands plus Jilly Cooper, Zandra Rhodes and Peter Cook >>
  16. Know the Type >>
  17. Animal poems >>
  18. The Toad Cross Code >>
  19. Albert and the Jaguars >>
  20. Herogram >>