Tag Archives: Tony Elliott

There was only one Tony Elliott

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.

Disappearing London: Food For Thought

I have a piece in the Guardian about the closure of Food For Thought, one of London’s most charismatic and seemingly nuclear-proof (and I’m not just talking about the consistency of the scones) restaurants. It closes on June 21, rising costs – basically rents and wages to cover staff’s rents – forcing the owner Vanessa Garrett, to shut a business that has been successfully operating since 1971.

Food For Thought is one of those places that’s always been there. It was there when I prowled Neal Street on amateur shopping trips in the early 1990s. I knew, instinctively, that it was some sort of hippie joint, so went elsewhere, a teenage boy in thrall to the twin thrills of the Sex Pistols and bacon double cheeseburgers.

Years later, grown up somewhat, I began to eat there regularly, usually nabbing a takeaway from the ground floor during lunch breaks at Time Out. It always felt more than just a lunch venue. Without wanting to get too Sinclair about it, waiting in line at Food For Thought felt like a visit to polydimensional London, somewhere that had been quietly doing the same thing, for the same people, in the same place, for generations. Close your eyes, and you could be in 1970s London or even London in 2015. For secular souls, there are few areas that carry this atmosphere in quite such an effortless way, not so much a timewarp as timeless. It wasn’t dated, retro or old-fashioned, it just was.

I didn’t realise then quite how entwined Food For Thought was with the counterculture that spawned Time Out. When I tweeted about the closure of Food For Thought, the writer Richard King responded thoughtfully that: “FFT felt like one of the final remaining traces of the original Tony Elliott vision of London for Time Out.”

It was an astute observation. Food For Thought was born in the same spirit as Time Out, a desire to make London new, fresh, exciting, modern and funky, but also to make it, for want of a better word, good: cheap, utilitarian, healthy, an experience to expand the mind and reward the soul. London can still do this, but not in such a distinctive and understated political manner.

It went deeper. One of Food For Thought’s first chefs was Sue Miles, the wife of Barry Miles, founder of International Times, the underground newspaper from which Time Out hatched in 1968. Sue had learnt her trade at the Arts Lab, a counterculture take on the ICA that operated from Drury Street, and she later worked at Time Out, writing its first pair of London guides, which included enthusiastic reviews of Food For Thought.

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What’s particularly depressing about the closure of Food For Thought is that it wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was popular, it was serving good food at reasonable prices. They could have expanded, sought outside investment and gone into the franchise business, but they felt that would dilute the experience. Why should they change when they were doing what they wanted and doing it well?

And it was this commitment to offering value for money – that deeply held desire to not rip off the consumer – that led to its demise. That was at the heart of what Food For Thought represented, and it is precisely the sort of thinking that doesn’t wash in rentier London, where even success is punished and landlords feel duty bound to wring more profit out of something they have done nothing to create, like Mafia bosses demanding their cut. People revolt when a government behaves this way, so why is it acceptable for landlords?

What a city we have created.

Time Out – logo-agogo

As has been reported elsewhere, the big glowing Time Out sign came down this week from the front of the TO office in Tottenham Court Road where it has lived since around 1993. It has gone into storage, ahead of a proposed office move and will at some point, we are promised, be restored to wherever the magazine ends up next. I hope it does. This is, after all, one of London’s few bursts of neon and probably the only one that is halfway decent to look at.

That’s because the logo is a design classic, the work of Pearce Marchbank, an art school student who drifted into the more agitated end of the counterculture after the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam demo. ‘The impact on me,’ he said, ‘Was blowing away all that love and peace shit which I thought was bollocks and complete pretence.’

After working on Friends, Marchbank was asked by Time Out founder Tony Elliott to redesign his shambolic magazine. ‘I hated the unadventurous way it looked,’ said Marchbank. The entire magazine was redesigned, with the logo being created at the last minute on a Sunday afternoon in November 1970. ‘It was supposed to look like an out-of-focus neon light,’ Marchbank explained. ‘It was Letraset Franklin Gothic, shot out of focus so it had a glowing fuzziness to it. I put a negative over the positive and the gap between the two made the glowing neon outline, which I shot in line then again out of focus. It was deliberately transparent, so the cover images could read through it, as if it were on the glass of a window.’

This distinctive, blurry effect was intended to be a short-term solution, but Elliott refused to change it. It was a wise decision although not everybody liked the new look. One reader wrote in asking if the magazine could include a pair of glasses with each issue as the typeface was now too small to read.

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Marchbank continued to work for the magazine on-and-off throughout the 1970s creating some of the best covers in the history of publishing. He was back there in 1981 when it imploded in a series of strikes, stand-offs and occupations between staff and management over wages and the historic equal-pay system. As Elliott attempted to regain control he learnt that the logo – which was now being branded all over London and which the strikers were hoping to claim as their own – actually belonged to Marchbank.

Elliott called Marchbank, saying ‘I want you to write me a letter saying you’re giving the logo to me.’ Marchbank figured it was probably worth as much as £100,000 but, strapped for cash and short of time, asked Elliott for a mere £2,000.

‘What? £2,000! How can you do this to me after all the things I’ve done for you?’

The conversation ended. Shortly afterwards, however, Marchbank was offered a job with Richard Branson’s new London magazine, Event. As his parting gift, he presented all rights to the logo to Elliott. To turn into a real piece of neon was both a no-brainer and a stroke of genius. I hope one day the sign will be back above the door in some London street – if not, I’m sure it’ll fetch more than £2,000 on eBay.