On the 30th anniversary of the story of a donkey who changed Fleet Street, we've been sent an eyewitness account of the day that the press went to war over who could claim the rescue of Blackie Star from a Spanish Festival.
Memories of a day when reporters and photographers mingled with heavy-duty bodyguards and the dockyard echoed to the tune of scuffles, broken ribs, cameras crashing onto the concrete and quite a bit of shouting!
Throughout all the excitement Blackie, who had been rescued from the Peropalo Festival in Villanueva de la Vera in Northern Spain, remained cool, calm and collected despite the hue and cry... perhaps mayhem might be a better word!
The scene was set as Blackie, in the travelling box which had been his home for the crossing from Santandar, was ready to be brought out to quickly meet the press who were waiting for him on the dock.
Tempers amongst the journalists were already high from devious activity the night before sailing. Hugh Whittow of the Sun had been despatched to outdo Don Mackay of the Daily Star by claiming the rescue of the donkey for his newspaper. Whittow had paid a farmer for a donkey, gleeful at pulling off the coup of taking Blackie from under the noses of their competitor… the trouble was that The Sun hadn't bought Blackie, it was another donkey and a female at that!
Back to Millbay Docks in Plymouth... where Blackie was brought out for 30 seconds of TV filming from BBC and ITV crews. Reporters from the Daily Star, flanked by bodyguards, proudly opened the door to introduce their rescued donkey with a specially crafted Daily Star inscribed blanket on his back, to the rest of the press. All of a sudden reporters and photographers from The Sun rushed over to try to cover the Daily Star’s blanket with one of their own, complete with The Sun’s logo.
Well think rioting in the streets, think hand to hand combat! This was it, bodies crashed and crunched as they hit the ground, cameras shattered, grown men had clothes ripped off their backs, punches were thrown and Blackie stayed cool, calm and collected and safely out of the way! It made great TV, The Sun were seen off , never to get a sniff of the story, the Daily Star reporter Don Mackay returned to London a hero while The Sun reporter got a new job!
A few days after he arrived at The Donkey Sanctuary, I got a call from the Daily Star to photograph my dear friend Dr Elisabeth Svendsen (who I always called Betty) with Blackie and his new stable. After we’d finished photography, and over a nice cuppa, I gave Betty a full account of what had happened when "The Donkey Had Landed" – I’ve never seen her laugh so much and, if I’m not mistaken, I think Blackie joined in with a laugh too.
Meanwhile Blackie soon settled down, no doubt chewing a carrot or two, as he reflected on the showdown, and made his way to his new home at The Donkey Sanctuary where he lived a wonderfully happy life until his death in 1993.
Great memories RIP Betty and Blackie.
Richard Lappas (working for the Daily Mail on the night, although I would have covered for free it was so funny!)