The truth about Tatler – the upper-class bible

A new fly-on-the-wall documentary takes a look inside the pages of the high-society magazine - but is it a whitewashed portrayal?

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If film and TV are to be believed, magazines are explosive places to work. In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep’s glacial fashion editor reduces her underlings to quivering wrecks with 3am phone calls and comments about their weight. In Trouble Between the Covers, a 2000 BBC2 fly-on-the-wall series about lads’ mag Front, life at the magazine appeared so chaotic that the publisher sought an injunction to prevent broadcast.

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And then there was The Lady and the Revamp, Channel 4’s look at what happened when Rachel Johnson, the gloriously opinionated novelist sister of Boris, was drafted in to edit Britain’s longest-standing women’s weekly, a publication she merrily dismissed onscreen as “a piddling magazine nobody cares about or buys”.

Now there’s another account to add to the list – Posh People: Inside Tatler, a three-part glimpse behind the scenes at Britain’s 300-year-old high-society bible. A magazine so laden with mischievous articles about dinner-party etiquette and aristocratic bed-hopping, you’d expect it to make for rollicking viewing. Instead, Tatler’s editorial team comes across as disappointingly demure – a likeable bunch of plummy hard workers.

“What did you think of the programme?” editor Kate Reardon (above) asks gingerly at the start of our interview. I thought it was very calm and collected, I say. No bust-ups, no firings. “Oh I’m so glad!” she replies with audible relief. “I’m a fantastically unconfrontational person. I can’t bear living in an environment where people are shouting and crying. I’m responsible for the atmosphere in which all of us here have to work and I want it to be as pleasant as possible.”

If the series is anything to go by, she has succeeded. Tatler HQ comes across as convivial and stress-free; a light and airy magazine kingdom full of polite, glossy-haired women in expensive blouses. Despite this, she was initially reluctant to let the cameras in. “I sat with a cold towel on my head for about six months, dithering, driving everyone crazy. We had no guarantees, no control and we gave them access to everything, which is a huge leap.”

Eventually, good business sense prevailed. The chance to plaster your publication across three hours of primetime television isn’t to be sniffed at. “Every magazine markets itself relentlessly anyway and you use any tool you can lay your hands on,” explains Reardon. “Nowadays, I don’t think there’s an editor in England who doesn’t think of themselves as a brand that needs to be marketed. Probably the biggest driving force for us was that there may be a disconnect between what people who haven’t read the magazine think Tatler is and what we think it is. In my dreams, Tatler is the shaded area on the Venn diagram between glamorous and funny.”

By her own admission, Reardon is too close to the programme to predict the public’s reaction to it. But isn’t there bound to be a discrepancy between what Tatler’s PR team considers a success and the warts-and-all exposé that viewers will be hoping for? Rachel Johnson (above), who’s watched the series, certainly thinks so.

“It’s basically a three-hour promotional puff for Tatler and Condé Nast,” she explains matter- of-factly. “I think Tatler has blandified it. It comes across as a lovely place to work with well- bred girls with small dogs but there’s no blood on the carpet. The documentary that was made about me going to edit The Lady magazine had more jeopardy and friction in five minutes than in three hours of the Tatler documentary.”

She has a point. By lunchtime on her first day as editor, Johnson [who lasted just over two years in the role] had announced the existence of a “death list” of long-serving staff who she wanted to oust. Editors who invite the cameras in should, she believes, be realistic about what makes good television.

“The Tatler documentary has its moments but it’s a slightly missed opportunity. I would have thrown it all back [at the production team] and said ‘Come back with three proper stories to carry the three hours.’ With The Lady, there was nothing they didn’t film. I knew it was car-crash television but we let the car hit the wall at top speed because it was heart in mouth.” 

At this point, I should confess that Tatler and I have history. As an aspiring journalist, I spent a week there on work experience in 2010. It was before Reardon’s time and, while not a wholly unpleasant place to work, it certainly wasn’t populated by the softly-soften, self-deprecating characters (above) who appear in the programme.

I was addressed not by my name but as “workie” (short for “work experience”) all week and spent a lot of time refreshing the parking ticket on the editor’s car and fetching the managing editor M&S cupcakes. As far as work experience placements go, it could have been a lot worse, but it makes you wonder whether TV can accurately portray an office dynamic when people know they’re being filmed.

“Who knows whether there’s stuff going on behind closed doors, but I doubt it,” says the programme’s executive producer Danny Horan, who has history of examining the world of unbridled privilege, having worked on Inside Claridge’s. “Nothing really was off the table at Tatler. Where they got a bit wary was where, in my experience, all businesses get wary, which is when talking about profit and loss.” 

The series is at its most interesting when examining the decision-making behind the magazine’s production. In one scene, Condé Nast President Nicholas Coleridge makes last-minute changes to a Kate Middleton cover (below), moving the subhead “slut” from her eyeline to the foot of the cover. “They were uncomfortable us showing with that and asked us if we’d remove it,” explains Horan. “We said no because the cover was already published by that point, and it was interesting to see how those processes work.”

Horan dismisses any accusation that the show lacks the back-stabbing and tension that turn fly-on-the-wall series into compulsive viewing. 

“We didn’t want to make a documentary about the workings of a magazine. It was the world they reported on. It uses Tatler as a prism to tell the story of class. We didn’t change our tactics halfway along, thinking ‘This is boring’. Had there been lots of mud-slinging, we would have made more of the magazine, but there just wasn’t.”

But there will undoubtedly be questions as to why the BBC has dedicated three hours to what is essentially the promotion of Condé Nast and its most socially exclusive title. Johnson believes that a lot has changed since The Lady and the Revamp. “When I did the same for Channel 4 in 2010 it was much shorter, and I think there was a real sense that public money shouldn’t be used to promote another company.”

Horan has his defence ready. He hopes that viewers will see Tatler as only one element of a series that aims for broader social commentary. “It’s about class distinction and how a privileged few still maintain the decision-making in this country. Tatler is the champion of that world. Getting really posh people to take part [in television] is really difficult. That’s why TV companies do it through Claridges or Liberty because you can’t get into this world without assistance or telling it through an institution. I hope it’s not seen as just an advert for Tatler.”

Reardon, meanwhile, is nervously anticipating the series’ broadcast, knowing that she and her colleagues will be subjected to the sort of social analysis they’re more used to dishing out.

“It’s kind of like going on a date with the whole nation,” she giggles nervously. “You’ve got an hour to win them over. I’m either going to be trolled from here to Christmas or I’m going to be ignored. You can brace yourself for greatness and then find that nobody mentions it because everyone’s thinking ‘Oh golly, mustn’t bring that up. She must be frightfully embarrassed.’ ” How very British. How very Tatler.

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Posh People: Inside Tatler is on BBC2 tonight (24th November) at 9.00pm