Media: After 'Viz', everything is coming up roses: A glossy gardening magazine is budding at a company better known for its bottom fixations, reports Michael Leapman

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The Independent Online
JOHN BROWN does not see himself as an interventionist publisher. In eight years, he has made only one futile attempt to influence the editorial content of Viz, the scabrous comic on which the fortunes of his little magazine company are based.

Viz was founded in Newcastle in 1979 by Chris Donald and for years circulated only on Tyneside. Mr Brown, in partnership with Mr Donald, turned it into a national phenomenon six years later.

'After the second issue I was involved in,' Mr Brown recalls, 'I told Chris there was too much about bottoms in it. He said: 'Oh, right.' In the next issue, new characters were introduced called the Bottom Inspectors. We've never mentioned it and I've never made another editorial comment.'

He is unlikely to have to call on the Bottom Inspectors to police his latest publication - although there may be the odd posterior, tastefully clad in dungarees, photographed as its owner bends over an impeccable flowerbed.

Gardens Illustrated, whose first bimonthly issue comes out at the end of this month, will make an odd bedfellow not just for Viz but also for his stable's other mainstay, Fortean Times, 'the journal of strange phenomena'. Will it, then, devote itself to those rude-shaped vegetables that used to excite Esther Rantzen so on That's Life? Or to flowers that eat people and burp noisily, with putrid jokes about dung heaps thrown in?

Mr Brown insists that it will do none of those things. It will be an up-market glossy taking an 'aspirational' view of gardening, a kind of outdoor World of Interiors.

Gardens Illustrated will be glossier and less instructional than the traditional gardening weeklies and monthlies, less learned and technical than the Royal Horticultural Society's monthly journal the Garden - for which Mr Brown vainly sought the publishing contract before deciding to launch this rival. It will contain descriptions of gardens to visit, articles on plants and garden design and interviews with prominent horticultural people.

'If you try to describe us, you could take the gardening elements of House and Garden and Country Living. But for a serious garden lover these are very superficial - and they don't want to wade through a lot of stuff about fitted kitchens or lifestyles in Dorset.'

His wife, Claudia Zeff, is the green-fingered of the two, tending small gardens at the back and front of their Victorian terraced house in Hammersmith. She is also a designer and is the new magazine's art director.

Mr Brown runs his cosy and profitable little publishing company from a converted warehouse by the Thames, close to Fulham football ground. As a corporate headquarters it is as unorthodox as the company itself: cramped offices on three floors linked by a steep, narrow, iron outside staircase.

Negotiating the first flight, I found Ms Zeff playing with layouts on a screen in the office she shares with the magazine's editor, Rosie Atkins, and two others. 'He's having his French lesson,' she announced. When the tutor left, I was allowed up the next perilous flight. 'How was the lesson?' I inquired. 'The worst hour of my life,' Mr Brown exclaimed, flinging himself into his chair. 'I've been having them for about three months. We've just bought a place in France and the idea is that I can talk to people in the local bar.'

Here, then, is a man who does not take readily to instruction but who hates to think he is missing anything - which may help to account for the random, eclectic nature of his company's portfolio. Apart from the 'consumer' titles, it is made up of in-flight magazines for three airlines, including Virgin, which owns 20 per cent of the company. And he has just won the contract for the in-house magazine for the Dorchester Hotel.

Viz, a bimonthly selling 920,000 copies (down from a high of 1.2m two years ago), accounts for two-thirds of the company's revenue and profits. That and the Virgin Airways magazine Hot Air were the two on which he founded the company after stepping down as head of Virgin's book division in 1985.

He took on Fortean Times two years ago as a subscription-only bimonthly record of psychic and natural phenomena with a sale of only 1,700. It is named after Charles Fort (1874-1932), a philosopher who challenged scientific explanations of unusual happenings. Since Mr Brown put it on a proper commercial footing and began distributing it through newsagents, sales have soared to 20,000.

'I like it,' he says of Fortean Times. 'It isn't opportunist or sensationalist - although the recent issue does have a picture of a man with two penises. It never says anything is true or isn't true. The editors call themselves cosmic clerks. Their job is to have a completely open mind.'

He is even more enthusiastic about Viz, which continues to prosper despite a plethora of imitators. 'They come and they go and they're all pitiful,' he says of the upstart clones. 'They think if you get somebody with tits, somebody shooting a puppy and a dog farting, that's it. They've got the ingredients but they haven't got the chef.'

Rosie Atkins, the chef of Gardens Illustrated, will have to prove quite quickly that her new dish has a distinctive taste. Mr Brown has invested pounds 200,000 in the project and calculates that it can be profitable if it settles at a sale of 40,000. If it falls too far below that, he will not sink any more money in to prop it up.

He accepts that not many of the target readership will be Viz fans. 'It's definitely a different age-group but to think of Viz as appealing just to 16-year-olds and gardening just to 60-year-olds is quite wrong. Viz appeals from 14 to 40 and Gardens from 30 to 70. A vast number of Viz readers are 38-year-old lawyers.'

He has already enjoyed one spin-off from the link between the titles. He was keen to persuade two of the country's best gardening writers, Penelope Hobhouse and the Independent's Anna Pavord, to become associate editors, but was nervous about how they would react to a magazine from such an unconventional stable.

He need not have worried. Both agreed readily and when Ms Pavord went to see him, she said: 'As far as my children are concerned this is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me in my life: I'm coming to where Viz is published.'

(Photograph omitted)

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