Whatever Happened To Gob-Smacking Surprise?

Fifty years ago, the Sunday Times launched its colour supplement and broke the mould of weekend newspaper publishing. Former editor Peter Jackson looks at its impact and what future the colour supplement has today.

By Peter Jackson

Imagine a strangely drab and distant world.

Dialling WHItehall 1212, travelling by British Rail, collecting Green Shield stamps, spending pounds, shillings and pence, listening to music heralded by “Greetings, pop-pickers”, enjoying spotted dick pudding, sleeping in beds which had never known a duvet.

An era when you could still buy a daily newspaper with no news on the front page, when the Gentlemen still took on the Players at cricket, when there was an old Etonian at No 10, when the high-kicking Television Toppers were the nation’s favourites at a time of only two television channels – both in black-and-white.

Much the same applied to the Sunday Times of the day, comprising only two sections (News and Review) – both in black-and-white.

Then on Sunday, February 4, 1962, something landed on the doormats of Middle England with the disturbing impact of a Coca-Cola can dropping in the midst of an aboriginal tribe.

What on earth could it be? Nothing like this had ever appeared on the Sabbath before – a slender package of glossy paper printed IN COLOUR. And it was FREE!

Britain’s first colour supplement had arrived.

Initial scepticism

Initial reactions were far from enthusiastic. Traditionally minded readers were suspicious. Was this some sort of elaborate junk mail? Advertisers wondered whether people would bother to read something they hadn’t bought or even asked for. And newsagents would only handle it if it was not called a magazine in case it put people off buying “real” magazines.

The then proprietor, Roy Thomson, groaned: “My God, this is going to be a disaster.”

Yet fifty years later, 200,000 people have queued to see a three times extended exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery celebrating the magazine’s golden anniversary and the show is currently completing a countrywide tour.

So how come a supposed disaster has been transformed into a national institution? Why are there now something like twenty colour supplements distributed across the whole range of weekend papers? And why – if the species was created to give print advertisers their only chance to use colour to exploit the boom in consumerism that sprang from the 60s – do we still need these supplements when all newspapers now carry high quality colour and advertising is a major victim of the economic crisis?

One reason is a simple matter of texture. Colour magazines are very different in feel from their parent publications. While newspapers are inherently disposable (ever more so since being so rapidly overtaken by 24-hour rolling news channels) a magazine is something to hang on to, to put aside and read later. Literally added value.

Even more important, it is no longer seen as a freebie extra but an integral part of the purchase price. Where once its presence was seen as a plus, its absence would now be regarded as a serious minus. With circulations dwindling, which proprietor would want to blink first and ditch his magazine?

Most vulnerable are the ever-thinner supplements produced by the down-market weekend tabloids, offering readers and advertisers little more than soap opera and reality TV gossip plus minimal programme listings when there is a rapidly fading appetite for spurious celebrity.

Sarah Baxter, current editor of the Sunday Times Magazine, is confident of its future although admitting the difficulty of matching the height of content achieved by her predecessors on a much leaner budget.

Those were the days

I was fortunate to edit the magazine in the mid-80s when advertising revenue could top £1 million net in a single week and issues were regularly of 120-plus pages (not counting occasional 32–40pp London supplements). Editorially, money was no object.

Whereas the first thought is “Can we afford it?” when an ambitious idea arises at one of Sarah’s conferences, we could indulge the most extravagant ventures.

We could install Simon Winchester in a Rolls Royce at the Western-most point of Brittany and require him to drive due East until he reached the Ural mountains, analysing the diversity of Europe en route - and recording the reaction of Iron Curtain natives to the passage of an archetypal Englishman riding in a symbol of capitalism.

We could dispatch Ian Jack to travel the length and breadth of the nation retracing J. B. Priestley’s tour of pre-war provincial Britain in establishing that social standards had little changed.

Investigative writer Gitta Sereny spent the best part of a year in a dogged unveiling of the cover-up surrounding the murder of an English socialite in an Italian skiing resort.

War photographer Don McCullin was allowed to prowl the jungles of Central and South America in search of the latest rebel insurrection. Playboy photographer Terry O’Neill became so much part of the Hollywood scene on our behalf that he married Faye Dunaway. Employed on a retainer, Lord Snowdon gave the magazine photo opportunities with the highest in the land.

None of the above comes faintly within the remit of a present-day budget.

The ever-expanding Sunday Times

But an even bigger constraint on the magazine’s content sprang from the Sunday Times itself. At its beginning and for more than a quarter-of-a-century, the magazine saw itself as the complete lifestyle package.

Then, in the reign of Andrew Neil, the newspaper exploded from a boutique operation into a veritable department store, churning out as many as ten different specialist sections, including magazine-style supplements on fashion, cars, travel, homes and the arts. These very subjects had been staple ingredients of the original colour magazine. What else was there left to cover?

Moreover, this situation coincided with the emergence of the Saturday supplements where those of the Times and the Daily Telegraph, in particular, are free to be all things to all readers. So, too, are same-day competitors produced by the Sunday Telegraph, Observer, Mail on Sunday, Sunday Express and even the Sun on Sunday’s Fabulous supplement (a surprisingly sophisticated package).

More serious still and rapidly becoming more of a rival than a companion, the Sunday Times’ own Style section (easily the glossiest and most vibrant of all the current supplements) feels able to revel in an uninhibited range of content - taking in fashion, beauty, cookery, home, shopping and celebrity.

Sarah Baxter’s solution has been to major on “good reads” by top writers and is proud of the weekly 12-page Spectrum pictorial section. Unable to send her own photographers on distant missions, she calls in pictures from around the world.

On the plus side, the magazine still boasts the flair for pedigree presentation established by legendary art director Mike Rand over a span of three decades and in Relative Values and Life in the Day Of has regular features with a devoted following among its two million readers.

But is this going to be enough?

Views of former editors

During the 50th anniversary celebrations, I talked to several former editors.

Hunter Davies (1975-78) was pessimistic that that magazine could ever regain its pioneering triumphs when hamstrung by limitations on content and resources: “It’s very difficult to create a big surprise on a small budget.”

Robin Morgan (twice in the editorial chair – 1991-93 and 1995-2009) felt the newspaper’s obsession with bulk rendered the whole enterprise an exploding star: “The bigger the overall bundle, the more money it’s losing. And not only cash, it’s lost the element of friction with the readers – the ability to surprise.

“You could throw away fifty pages and nobody would miss them. I’d put all of the sections back in the newspaper and have a 150-page magazine that had a clean sheet to tackle anything it liked.”

Philip Clarke (1987-88) admired the introduction of the Spectrum section as aiming to maintain the magazine’s reputation for photo-journalism but felt it could not avoid creating a distinction between pictures and words: “In the best photo-journalism, the words and pictures are one, they spring from the same idea. Buying in pictures rather than being able to send your own people out to get them means the story is someone else’s.”

While sharing his fellow editors’ regrets at the narrower field of content and budget limitations, Godfrey Smith (1965-72) insists that within its parameters the magazine still does an elegant and intelligent job: “Every now and then though it might recall the only instruction we were given in those early days by our old editor-in-chief, Sir Denis Hamilton: Variety and Surprise.

“Variety it does of course do every week. Surprise – true gob-smacking surprise – is harder to come by.

“Every now and then, there comes a moment when it’s worth throwing out all of the usual features and going for broke on one theme. The magazine must by now be considering how to cover the two biggest stories of the year we know about so far – the Olympic Games and the Diamond Jubilee.

“For the first, I’d have no hesitation in recalling the great Don McCullin to bring his unequalled authority to the photo coverage; and I’d unleash a whole coven of women columnists on the Olympic village for the duration of the games. Lyn Barber, Rachel Johnson and Camilla Long should spin out some sizzling copy.”

As for the Diamond Jubilee, Godfrey would start by thinking of ways of getting the Queen into the popular back-of-the-book feature, ‘Life in a Day Of’.

There is some sort of precedent. During my time as editor, America’s First Lady, Nancy Reagan, was only too happy to occupy that slot to mark a Presidential visit to London.

Her account of typical White House routine concluded by admitting she enjoyed a bedtime snack of fruit as some consolation for finding it difficult to get to sleep. Which produced the somewhat Freudian revelation that she would end her day sitting up in bed, alongside the easily slumbering President – munching silently on a banana.

It’s well documented that the Queen breakfasts from Tupperware dishes. Would we ever learn what really goes on when she and the Duke adjourn to separate rooms at bedtime?