Last Wednesday evening I was at a party in London and during that party I spent some time talking to someone in publishing about this keenly anticipated documentary. Love it or hate it, read it or not read it, recent changes at The Lady have caused quite a stir. A documentary on this would be an insight and enlightenment, yes? Sadly, not quite.
The Lady is the longest established women’s weekly magazine in the UK, said to be the Queen’s favourite read. But for proprietor/publisher Ben Budworth and his family, it’s haemorrhaging cash and needs an update to bring it kicking it and screaming into the 21st century. So, Mr Budworth employs Rachel Johnson as the new editor and the documentary follows her progress – and the magazine’s – from her first day into her first few months.
With a readership concentrating on older ladies and advertisements for incontinence aids and Stannah stair lifts, Budworth declared that the aim of the magazine for this millennium is now women at 45+.
During the opening scenes, I cringed, I winced, I clamped my jaw. It was such uncomfortable viewing, but I kept watching. Here was my first source of enlightenment: clearly, I have a deeply buried masochistic streak I did not know about. This was an ill-conceived and ill-advised documentary; why did the employees agree to take part, I wonder?
Johnson arrived with a “death list”; this was a list of employees set for the chop, or, as Johnson added, it would be kind to “cut them loose”. But kindness appeared to be in short supply.
On what appeared to be day one, Johnson met Lindsay Fulcher, the Assistant Editor, who – we were told, by Johnson – had been with the publication for eighteen years, had applied for the Editor’s role and was not pleased that she hadn’t got it. Prior to meeting Fulcher, Johnson announced to the camera that Fulcher “… is on the death list. She may turn out to be the next… Tina Brown, but I’ve a feeling if that was the case – ”, then Fulcher arrives and all smiles as she turns to her, Johnson continues “Hi, hi Lindsay. Nice to see you.” And there came the first dollop of syrup. Here we had an Editor already wielding the Sabatier for a planned slicing, but it was dripping in Tate and Lyle’s most sickly as it set its shadow over Fulcher.
“…We have a lot of favourite things stacked up…” said Fulcher, only to meet with the response “Ah well…Favourite Things is one of the first things I’m going to probably change…that page is going to be given over to a man ranting.” Had the existing loyal readership been considered here? A man ranting, let alone writing for The Lady was surely a first? Loyal subscribers were set to experience a shock.
First for the chop was actually Literary Editor, Paul Blezard. At a staff meeting, possibly Johnson’s second day according to the reel and given her change of clothes, “Blez” arrived late. He apologised and received the reply “…you’re early compared with our expectations of when you were going to come in … I haven’t seen you till just now.” (Cue second syrup and Sabatier moment, the accompanying smile said: I love you not.)
“I’ve been here,” replied Blezard.
Then Johnson announced the chop for the magazine’s short story, stating that perhaps she should have said so in a “private moment” to Blezard.
“…we can talk about it,” added Johnson.
Cut to Johnson again to camera saying that that there had been “a lot of talk but not enough copy”, then to Blezard saying he had produced “more than enough copy”. Due to the (poor) editing, he was portrayed as one of the longstanding dinosaurs that needed to be “let loose”, but there’s more to that than meets the eye. Cue first salt mine moment, in the interests of accuracy: Blezard joined The Lady as Literary Editor mere short months before Johnson came on board as Editor. Indeed, his appointment was announced to the press in April and Johnson’s in July 2009. In his bit to camera, he declared he’d had arguments to achieve the changes that had already taken place.
Curiously, because of the lack of portrayal of accurate chronological timelines for developments during the programme, the demise of the short story and its backtracking return appeared to have some weeks between them. Anyone reading at the time might think differently. In one week, shortly before his departure, the Lit Editor announced in his column that he had been told the short story would go. Only one week later, in her editorial column, Johnson recorded that he had been premature with his comments and the short story would be absent for a while, but would return. (I remember wondering why she appeared to miss the comments in the copy of the previous week, before it went to print…)
Later in the programme, the use of editing to dramatic effect became more evident. As various developments took place, we again cut to Johnson talking to the camera in her office for her not-so-private thoughts. The problem here was that when she arrived, she had no wallpaper in her office; thus, that obviously came later. Up she popped, again and again: wallpaper; no wallpaper; wallpaper; no wallpaper. At this stage, a viewer can only accept that are sitting on a sofa in a salt mine as they watch.
Johnson’s appointment was said to be down to her contacts – oh, how I’d love her to be taken on her own merits for once – and in they flowed, with new contributors and higher profile articles. Joan Collins came for afternoon tea, in a beret reminiscent of a jumble sale in the 70s. Julie Andrews accepted an audience for an interview and to be cover girl for the double Christmas edition. Budworth was impressed with the cover image and thought Andrews looked good for someone in her 70s. (In reality, the image’s air-brushing had more sweeping power than all the street cleaners employed by Westminster Council.)
We saw Johnson visit Rigby & Peller for a feature, leaving well-supported. The subsequent article’s images looked more akin to vintage plates from the Erotic Review. (Loyal subscribers would have been more used to special offers for matronly smock nighties and bed jackets.) We saw meetings concerning the cover images and the debacle to make change. Again, curiously, for a mag aimed at 45+, the cover girls could be 40+ according to Johnson. (Not quite fully embracing the target demographic then…)
At the start, we were told that Budworth had successfully run helicopter companies. Now installed at The Lady, we saw him playing with a model helicopter in his office, evoking thoughts of “Nero fiddled while Rome burned”. His model crashed near the door to his office – I hope his publication does not go the same way. It does need updating; it does need a return to profitability. But in this documentary, cost control was not mentioned. They were focusing on change in editorial and circulation statistics. I feel the haemorrhage of cash will require a major transfusion before the final outcome can be fully determined. Now, The Lady comes across as a weekly version of a Cosmo/Woman and Home hybrid for the upper middle classes. Is there even a market for this?
Budworth’s younger brother Adam, more optimistic than Ben, was seen declaring “All publicity is good publicity, I think, is a way of approaching it… ” Oh yes there is, sorry, Adam: this programme is the epitome of such. Friends who watched this programme who have contacted me have been in unison: “How dire. I will not be buying.”
Their PR campaign concentrated on “Get Rach on sofas”. She pulled it off, including a coup in the Sunday Times – for which she received limited recognition from her employers – but this programme must also be included surely? It was produced and directed by one John Dower for Channel 4 – he was also the director for C4’s “When Boris Met Dave”.
Finally, on address books and connections: Ben Budworth was previously MD of One Word Radio, where Paul Blezard was employed.
Watch this at your own peril. It gets less uncomfortable as the hour moves on, but that feeling never leaves. It’s a Mad Hatters’ Tea Party, one tea cup short of an effective revolution. It’s also – when it comes to the mag in question – at least one Tena Lady in need of wings to make it fly!
This documentary was aired in the week that foul-mouthed, cosmetic surgery devotee, Sharon Osbourne was on the cover of The Lady. I’ll leave you to decide on that one.
Watch it here on 4OD.