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Tribute to the man at art of Liverpool; Tomorrow will be a very special day for the Liverpool ECHO's veteran Arts Editor, Joe Riley. PADDY SHENNAN reports.

Byline: Joe Riley

IT'S been the life of Riley: Joe Riley. And it's about to be celebrated in the grand, gothic surroundings of the Anglican Cathedral.

The Liverpool ECHO Arts Editor will tomorrow be honoured for his ``outstanding contribution to the arts on Merseyside'' with an honorary degree from Liverpool John Moores University.

A larger-than-life character, in more ways than one, Joseph Stubbs Riley (yes, that is his full, real name) says: ``I'm delighted to be receiving the fellowship - but it makes me feel very old!

``When I was a junior reporter, I remember such honours going to people who seemed very elderly.''

Joe, for the record, is a mere 52. A spring chicken. It's just that he's been around for a long time.

He was appointed Arts Editor of the ECHO on January 1, 1974 (he had joined the ECHO's sister paper, the Daily Post, four years earlier). Joe was 24 - and the youngest journalist to hold such a title in the country.

``The job hadn't existed before, so I remain the only Arts Editor in the ECHO's history,'' recalls Joe.

The Crosby-born music-lover was given the much-coveted role despite showing a criminal lack of knowledge about playwright Alan (now Sir Alan) Ayckbourn during his interview.

``I was asked to name three of his plays. I named two, which were How The Other Half Loves and . . . I can't remember the other one I mentioned. Unfortunately, I couldn't think of a third.''

Things have changed. Today, 28 years on, he can only name one.

But the then managing director, Ian Park, still took him on, although he told Joe: ``You've got a lot to learn, haven't you?''

Joe was given a free hand to cover anything and everything in the arts and entertainment world: ``I was the first person to review the work of Liverpool writers and actors who would go on to be famous - people like Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell and Pete Postlethwaite.

``Pete still walks around with a cutting from 25 years ago. He appeared in Henry IV Part One at the Playhouse and I gave it a terrible review - but I was very surprised when he recently brandished it in front of me during an interview!''

Others haven't been as forgiving or philosophical as Mr Postlethwaite.

Joe explains: ``I won't name them, but I've been assaulted by three different theatre directors ov-er the years - oneslap in the face and two punches to the body. Some people don't take bad reviews very well.

``Basically, if you say something is good, you are the most knowledgeable and erudite person in the world. If you say something isn't good then you don't know anything.

``You are dealing with egos and, in the arts and entertainment world, many people have eggshell-like egos. But, to be fair, it should be remembered that I am marching into their profession and pronouncing on it to others - the ECHO's readers.''

Many people have said many things about Joe - some of them have even been nice.

He says: ``One local theatre director, Barry Anderson, said `The great thing about Joe is you can be out having a drink with him the night before he sees your play but, if he doesn't like it, he'll still be brave enough to say so. He never soft pedals'.''

Mr Riley, in a TV review for the ECHO, famously dismissed the first episode of The Royle Family. It went on to be a huge hit, while the critic's scathing review later prompted Ricky Tomlinson to say only two people didn't like it - Joe and his late mother.

Having spent 32 years with the Post and ECHO, Joe is often asked whether he was ever tempted by the `bright lights' of London.

He explains: ``I was once offered the job of deputy theatre critic on the Sunday Telegraph. But, as well as only being a deputy, I would only be able to do theatre. This is my patch - and it's the best patch outside London.

Liverpool is an exceptional place in terms of the arts and entertainment, including television and film-making. We've got it all here. And we've also got a better quality of life.

``And if I'd gone to London, I wouldn't have been able to cover the range of things I've written about for the Liverpool ECHO.''

But every job has its downsides. What's the worst thing about being the Arts Editor?

``The sheer stamina needed for it. On average, I've been reviewing threenights-a-week for nearly 30 years.

``Everyone likes to go to the cinema and theatre, but it is work and I do have to go and see a lot of things I wouldn't choose to go to.''

The best thing? ``Well, I have had pounds 150,000 worth of free tickets over the years!''

Joe has also met an enormous amount of famous people - everyone from Sooty to Sir Paul McCartney - and his personal favourites remain Jack Nicholson and Noel Coward.

``And I've often interviewed people long before they became famous. I remember a time in the 1970s when Antony Sher, Bill Nighy, Julie Walters, Pete Postlethwaite, Trevor Eve, George Costigan and Mat-thew Kelly were all jobbing actors at the Everyman.''

Joe is currently busy promoting Liverpool's bid to be European Capital Of Culture in 2008 - and, having been immersed in its culture for the past 30 years, he's well-qualified to talk about the city's chances of success.

He says: ``Liverpool deserves to win and, if the decision is made in a non-political way, it WILL win. We are streets ahead of our rivals.''

Joseph Stubbs Riley. Liverpool salutes you.


FAME GAME: Joe Riley now (below) and (above from left) with Miss Piggy, Richard Attenborough and Paul McCartney
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jul 15, 2002
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