When I started freelancing at Time Out in 1998, originally on sport and then with the TV section, I often sat on the “Channel 5/cabsat desk” – the desk for the journalist appointed to review the best Channel 5 and cable & satellite programmes of the forthcoming week (yes, we were so flush we had reporters for each channel,, even C5).
The desk was close to the office photocopier, which was frequently used by a young-looking old man – I mean, he was at least 50 – invariably attired in jeans and a paisley shirt. This chap would engage me in conversation – not unusual in the friendly Time Out office I was beginning to realise – and he usually had an opinion on something I had reviewed. This was more surprising given I was only writing about Channel 5, was an infrequent freelancer and reviewers were identified only by their initials.
I’m not sure precisely when I worked out this was Tony Elliott, founder and owner of Time Out, but it’s safe to say that Tony knew who I was long before I recognised him. Tony seemed to read every single word – and remember each initialed byline – of every magazine and was then happy to discuss your review of Hitler’s Secret Pets, even when you had no idea who he was. Coming from The Sunday Times, where I’d never met the editor let alone the owner, it was a bit of a shock but I soon learnt to roll with it, and it helps explain why there was so much emotion and, yes, love in the room at the Roundhouse on Monday evening when 800 people attended Tony’s memorial service. We all had an experience like that, and it shaped who we were.
Tony died in July 2020 and the memorial event celebrated a wonderful life, kicking off with a speech from Alan Yentob and including reminiscences from significant figures in media and business as well as former colleagues and friends. Several talked about being part of the “Time Out family”, which seems a bit soppy when I write it down but which in that moment, surrounded by former colleagues – including those who had worked at Time Out longer before I started or long after I had left – it made a lot of sense. Others said that Time Out was the best place they had ever worked, the happiest time in their careers. That’s partly because we were young and excitable with unprecedented access to an entire city through our free travel cards and ability to get on any press list – but it’s also because of that welcoming spirit that came from the very top. Time Out wasn’t shangri-la but it had a culture that was intoxicating.
Right at the end of my Time Out career, when I was no longer such a happy member of the family, Tony sought me out to recommend I meet this guy, a bookseller, he knew. He kept on at me so much that eventually I acquiesced – something that ultimately led to one of the most fascinating projects of my career, writing a book about a billionaire who amassed the world’s largest private library devoted to altered states of consciousness. Tony wasn’t doing this with any particular outcome in mind, he just thought me and Carl would get along so went out of his way to make it happen. That was his gift and a microcosm of what he did with Time Out – opening up first London and then the world to as many people as wanted access to it. What you did after that was down to you.
After the Roundhouse, still reeling from all the old friends I had encountered, I was chatting to a lawyer who worked for Time Out during Tony’s long battle to democratise TV listings. This was discussed during the memorial service and the lawyer confirmed all the details in more colourful language. Basically, in the 1980s, the BBC published their listings in the Radio Times and ITV published theirs in TV Times. This was a cartel of information suppression that represented everything Time Out and Tony stood against. Time Out was all about opening things up, allowing Londoners to know about every nightclub or cafe or poetry reading or korfball match – the 24-hour city for everybody. TV listings was just another aspect of this philosophy.
Time Out won their battle but first they were given a unique opportunity – Time Out and Time Out alone could print complete TV listings, a privilege that would not be extended to other publications. For the lawyer, this was the best possible result. It would give Time Out a legal victory and a massive competitive advantage. He urged Tony to accept but Tony refused. He believed everybody deserved the same access. Within 18 months, the Guardian launched their own Time Out-style Guide based on their TV listings, and soon everybody was doing it. Time Out’s circulation began a slow decline.
Back in the early 2000s, some of us would, in idle moments, compare Tony to Richard Branson, another figure who emerged from the counterculture to create a business empire – and who delivered a nice video tribute at Tony’s memorial. But Tony Elliott’s empire was never anywhere near as powerful as Virgin something that we then saw as a flaw – Tony was basically a bit of a control freak who couldn’t move on. But now it’s pretty obvious that the flaw was simply one of principle. You could never imagine Branson making that same decision when it came to TV listings because he simply didn’t have the same desired outcome. He would have placed the profit imperative over principle every time. That’s fine, but there are already enough Richard Bransons in the world. There was only one Tony Elliott.