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How Vogue’s editor turned the tables on TV

“I admire Shulman for not playing the game and for playing Macer instead”

Published: Thursday, 8th September 2016 at 12:45 pm

In idle moments, the moments when I’m not writing “I’m Mrs Aidan Turner” over and over in my Special Notebook of Dreams, I wonder what it would be like to be followed by a documentary crew. Boring for everyone, surely, as I sit at my desk, sorting my pens into separate pots – felt tips, ballpoints, waterproof fine-nib – and straightening my blocks of sticky notes. On Thursdays I sharpen my pencils.


Of course, life is much more exciting in the wider world of Radio Times. There are our inter-departmental cage-fighting competitions on the editorial floor every Friday, and the daily lottery to see who gets to feed the tame parakeets that live in the stairwell. And will it be my turn to take home the office pet rat this weekend? Fingers crossed!

But, oh, I hope the editor doesn’t go into one of his wild rages and make me sit in his fetid Houmous Cave as a punishment for not liking Catastrophe anywhere near as much as he does.

Watching Absolutely Fashion (Thursday BBC2), documentary film-maker Richard Macer’s eavesdrop on Vogue magazine, I realised that my tepid little working life would never translate to good telly. Besides, I am preternaturally unsuited to work on a fashion title, though I read Vogue every month because I like to look at pictures of earrings.

For a start I didn’t know a pair of jeans could cost £750 (as an awe-struck journalist tells Macer in hushed tones) and I’d spend an entire day stunned into silence by the fact that Vogue people set out a whole trestle table bearing rows and rows of huge multicoloured resin bangles for a photoshoot. I love bangles.

Then there’s Vogue’s British editor-in-chief, Alexandra Shulman, who clearly sees Macer as the ferret in the face cream. She gives nothing away, talks to him as if someone is pointing a crossbow at her off camera and, it emerges in next week’s concluding episode, comprehensively shafts him over a huge exclusive. She’s great.

I admire Shulman for not playing the game – and for playing Macer instead. These fly-on-the-wall documentaries are such controlled PR exercises now that subjects might as well get what they want out of the whole experience. In the really early days, of Paul Watson’s The Family (a 1974 series about a real and painfully honest family) and Roger Graef’s Police (his remarkable 1982 series about Thames Valley Police), anyone watching felt they were seeing something of real substance, something without artifice or evasion.

To this day I’m still appalled and shocked at the mere memory of the Police episode A Complaint of Rape, when a group of detectives browbeat a woman into dropping her allegation. Mercifully, there was an immediate uproar and the way such women were treated by police officers was changed forever, overnight.

Much later, in 1996, BBC2’s The House showed, in the most jaw-dropping way, the backstage back-stabbing at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. People were fired on camera. That would never, ever happen today. The cameras would be shooed away and the office door would be shut. Besides, the whole genre has been subverted by The Office and every other faux-doc comedy series, so the snake has pretty much swallowed the rabbit.

I can’t think of an organisation that hasn’t allowed in cameras – police forces (Inside Scotland Yard with Trevor McDonald starts on ITV on Thursday), prisons, hotels, airports, hospitals from A&E to maternity, air ambulances (An Hour to Save Your Life) and the RNLI (Saving Lives at Sea).

Good for them. Why wouldn’t they? But I’ll stick to sorting my pens. In private.


What time is on TV? Absolutely Fabulous: Inside British Vogue is on BBC2 at 9pm tonight


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