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27 November 2014

Rah to the people: the mad world of Tatler brought to life

A magazine peopled almost entirely by those who think Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners is full of genuinely useful advice.

By Rachel Cooke

Inside Tatler

Why has the BBC made three hour-long films about Tatler (Mondays, 9pm) the magazine for posh types? I’ve absolutely no idea. All I can tell you is that they’re appalling fun (emphasis on the appalling), being peopled almost entirely by those who think Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners is full of genuinely useful advice. “A gentleman is never rude unintentionally,” announced Kate Reardon, Tatler’s editor and self-confessed “honking great Sloane”, when asked to pick out her favourite bit of guidance from this hallowed text. One of the “incredibly controlling” things she does as editor is to give every new employee a copy of it – and no, this is not a joke. Across the office, Matthew Bell, one such recruit, confessed delightedly that, until now, he’d had no idea at all that the “smart way” to eat a pear is with a spoon.

Bell had come to Tatler from – ugh! – a newspaper, and when this documentary was made was still finding his feet. Reardon liked his suggestion for a feature that would explore the idea that the middle classes have “destroyed everything”, but she was markedly less keen on his attempt to gatecrash the Queen’s garden party. Poor Matthew. For him, humiliation was the order of the day. First, he had to admit to camera that his roots were middle class (his ma – just imagine it – is a teacher); then he had to pretend to be a waiter in order to blag his way into the party for the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. (Though he “channelled” the thoughts of a waiter – convincing himself he was broke and genuinely in need of a shift serving canapés to Tracey Emin – alas, he was soon discovered and thrown out.) He also found himself offering to visit Switzerland, where he would be “finished off” – cue excited squawking from his colleagues.

The climax of this initiation was his appearance at Tatler’s art-themed fancy-dress party, clothed in breeches and a wig, like a chap from a Gainsborough portrait. Uh oh. I was reminded powerfully of the days when I used to believe that if I attached strips of pink loo roll to my cheeks with Vaseline, people would mistake me for Adam Ant.

The world of Tatler is a parallel universe, and you enter it at your peril. Long ago, I had an interview there myself – don’t all throw your shoes at me; I was very young, and somewhat desperate – and when the editor asked me where I was from, I unaccountably said: “Yorkshire,” hoping that she might picture Castle Howard rather than the Sheffield semi in which I was born. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. My vowels, I expect. But doubtless they did me a favour. How would I have coped? I would have spent my days veering between coming over like Wolfie from Citizen Smith – “Power to the people!” – and trying not to collapse into hysterics.

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As I watched Sophie Goodwin, the magazine’s style editor, perform an “ironic” dash around the Notting Hill branch of Poundland – “This place is completely brilliant!” she yelped, throwing a “luxury” shower cap into her loaded basket – I felt more than a touch bolshie. “I’ll give you cocktail umbrellas!” I thought. But then Christopher Biggins would hove into view – he was at the Queen’s Club polo, along with Jilly Cooper, Charlotte out of Sex and the City, and a couple called Andy and Patti Wong, who resembled waxworks – or some Scottish aristo would show us the ghastly mural he’d painted on the side of his castle, and my blood pressure would drop. How irrelevant these people are, and how batty.

Back at the office, Reardon bounced a cut-out-and-keep Kate Middleton doll on her desk happily. All, it seemed, was right in her world. Very soon, her 160,000 readers would discover that the whippet is now the “chic dog du jour”, that side-saddle racing for the ladies is making a comeback, and that while red cords are very “old country”, red wellies are definitely “new”. Nicholas Coleridge, the managing director of Condé Nast, which owns Tatler, had proclaimed himself thoroughly satisfied with her latest issue, so long as she was sure to move the cover line “Are you a slut?” just a little further away from the end of the Duchess of Cambridge’s nose. Her work, until next time, was done.