Media: Drugs, babes and information: Simon Garfield celebrates 25 years of unbroken success at Time Out and remembers his own days as editor of the London listings magazine

Tony Elliott is known for only having one great idea, but last night was able to host one of the biggest private parties of the year to celebrate it.

Time Out, the magazine he founded exactly 25 years ago, can construct a pretty impressive guest list these days: all those disaffected middle-class Sixties radicals who helped found it; all those disaffected Eighties radicals who were worried with its political direction and tried to destroy it by launching their now defunct rival; and all those hundreds of others - from Sam Shepard to Jeremy Beadle - who wrote for it, designed it or just walked through it to other things. And all those people sooner or later learn one fundamental truth: its success is less a testament to their own talents than to the power of listings, the value of information.

An easy lesson, you would think, and easy money. Yet Time Out celebrates its 25th year with no serious competition, weekly sales upward of 100,000 and advanced plans to launch in New York. Why? It may just have been one great idea, but it contains lots of little great ideas, lots of guides within guides. If any national newspaper was serious about comprehensive listings, it would have to print more than 100 pages of phone numbers and addresses and starting times in tiny type - and get them 98 per cent right.

I received an invite to last night's party because I worked at Time Out for several years in the Eighties, including 15 months as editor. When I joined in 1983 the place was still reeling from 1981 - a terrible time of lock-ins, picket lines and betrayals as arguments raged over the magazine's political direction and the proposed abandonment of pay parity - originally, everyone had been paid the same. By 1983 pay parity had been abandoned, but there were still vestiges of the pioneer days. Lots of drugs and lots of after-hours desk sex. I hear all this has now ceased.

The journalists responsible for each section had a fine grasp of their field, but great mistakes were made. Bunuel's masterpiece, L'Age d'Or, once appeared in the film listings as Large Door. A German metal band called the Krowns came into the office and threatened to blow up the building unless we took them out of the folk and country listings. And there were some dramatic errors of judgement: I dismissed an early single by The Smiths as 'meaningless wailing from Mancunian no-hopers'. About this time I thought it would be a good move to get out of music writing into other areas of the magazine.

One of the best things about working at Time Out is that you can move about the sections, review some books, write the gossip, lay into a couple of films. And PRs are generous people. In the Eighties you could be flown all over the world if it meant their clients might get a favourable column inch. Things then began to even out a bit, and PRs picked up the American way of working: demanding covers for their clients (and occasionally even picture and copy approval) before granting access to them.

When I became editor in 1988, part of me thought, enough of PR and the Hollywood machine, no more three-cover deals with people who only have one name - Cheryl from Lynne Franks, Bobby-Sue from CBS - it's going to be news all the way. Three months later you're at some Soho launch of a new jeans commercial, with no idea what to put on the front of next week's issue, all the news stories have been spiked by the lawyers and half the office hates you because you've decided to check their expenses, and you end up weeping in the arms of Roger from Rank in an attempt to convince him to give you any out-of-focus potential cover photo from a Hungarian straight-to-video action flick starring Istvan Norris.

It's the covers I remember most - some lousy, some OK, too many with Jack Nicholson, too many with gratuitous sex. Images of sex, which usually meant images of women, were used in obvious ways (some new French starlet had made a third-rate film), in I think-

we'll-get-away-with-it ways (a 'foxy' woman reading on the cover of the Books Issue) and in disagraceful ways (usually following a run of poor sales, when we'd decide to concoct a Sex on TV special and use an image of a woman watching the telly in beachwear). Sales did invariably rise for one issue, but slump back the week after, when all the perverts decided that our laboured deconstruction of the first eight minutes of the trimmed-for-television version of Ai No Corrida wasn't quite the Colour Climax production they had anticipated.

At Time Out you're not encouraged to meddle with a winning formula, so it's the small changes that count. At one editorial meeting I revealed I'd had an epiphany, and that the front section would henceforth include a new Item: Celebrity Fridges, a novel way of judging what people were like from their choice in chilled comestibles. The idea did not go down well among staff. I admitted defeat, but am thrilled to find that the idea has surfaced four years later in a national newspaper - where it looks like a terrible mistake.

I left at the beginning of 1990. Part of me regretted leaving: it was a lovely and exciting place to work. But Time Out can also become a velvet coffin - too comfortable, progressively undemanding - and I felt it was time to move on.

I was editor during what came to be known as the 'party's over' period, when the Thatcher bubble had burst, the GLC had long gone, London was strangled almost weekly by striking workers, few readers had the disposable income they had a year earlier, and City Limits was launching its last serious onslaught before its painful death three years later. The fact that the magazine hardly suffered during this time was testament to its indispensability; sales and advertising revenue continued to rise, which showed us that you can knock and imitate Time Out, but you can't dent its progress. It is in better shape now than it has ever been. Still not enough bald PR, though; and not nearly enough foxy babes in beachwear.

(Photographs omitted)

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