Tomorrow morning a new editor will be announced for Tatler, the glossy society magazine that is celebrating its 300th anniversary. The appointment follows the departure last week of Geordie Greig, who is leaving to edit the Evening Standard after it was bought by his friends Evgeny and Alexander Lebedev. Nicholas Coleridge, chief executive of Condé Nast, which publishes Tatler, says he has received 39 applications for the job, of which he has interviewed 10 candidates. These have been whittled down to a shortlist of five, one of whom will be informed of their success this weekend.
Whoever lands the job arrives at a difficult time for glossies, with reports that luxury goods advertising has dropped by as much as 80 per cent. But according to Coleridge the magazine has never enjoyed a more stable circulation level than over the past 10 years, hovering around the 90,000 mark. And he is not expecting the new editor to make any radical changes. "Interestingly, none of the five on the shortlist said they wanted to change its positioning," he says.
Tatler's position is a curiosity. Although ostensibly a women's magazine, of all Condé Nast titles it attracts the widest age range and draws a much larger proportion of male readers. But its remit as a society bible, unembarrassed in its dedication to the rich and double-barrelled, is perhaps what makes its success so remarkable. Despite its apparent absurdities, reporting in slavering detail on the parties and pastimes of a tiny moneyed elite, the magazine has a sense of knowing irreverence that sets it apart from celebrity titles such as Hello!.
The modern Tatler was created by Tina Brown, who arrived aged 26 in 1979. Back then it was all about debutantes and hunt balls – "a bit Colonel Mustard", as Coleridge puts it – and sold only 5,000 copies. Brown ripped up the old formula and introduced a mild spirit of subversion. Her arrival coincided with the romance of Charles and Diana, and suddenly royals and toffs became fashionable. "Tina made Tatler like a school magazine – suddenly everyone wanted to be in it," says longstanding contributor Mary Killen. "But it had a sense of humour and mocked them in an affectionate way." This continued under the hugely popular cartoonist Mark Boxer, who took over when Brown left for New York four years later.
Following Boxer's death from brain cancer in 1988, by which time circulation had risen to 64,000, the magazine was edited by Emma Soames, granddaughter of Winston Churchill. Her two-year stint was not considered a success; according to Coleridge, the direction had become "a bit narrow".
When Jane Procter was brought in to turn it round, circulation had fallen to 50,000. "I was asked to try and mend it and they said that if I couldn't, they would shut it," says Procter. "I remember getting a card from Stephen Quinn [a director of Condé Nast] saying 'good luck, but don't worry if you can't turn it round. It's an impossible job.' "
Procter's strategy was to ease off the posh, and to promote people who captured the zeitgeist in different ways. "Liz Hurley was a Tatler creation," she says. "She was perfect Tatler fodder."
Anthea Turner's image was transformed when she appeared on the cover naked save for a python. Stunts like this helped Tatler attract publicity. "Every month our stories would be followed up by the papers," says Procter. "We invented the idea of editing to press." Coleridge says: "Jane did a very good job, certainly at the start."
With the arrival of Greig, previously a war reporter and literary editor, heavyweight literary interviews were added to the mix of parties and fashion. Salman Rushdie, VS Naipaul and Martin Amis are among those to have granted Greig an audience, something of which he is proud. While the mantra remains "society, not celebrity", cover girls are as likely to include rising film stars like Gemma Arterton or Rosamund Pike as established models such as, for March, Jacquetta Wheeler.
Despite its reputation as a handbook for the rich and titled, for the past 30 years Tatler has also been a springboard for talent. Brian Sewell, Craig Brown, AA Gill, Giles Coren, Alexandra Shulman and Isabella Blow all had their first break there. Michele Lavery, editor of the Saturday Telegraph magazine, was a secretary; Catherine Ostler, editor of ES magazine, spent eight months as an unpaid intern; Claudia Winkleman and Laura Gunn did work experience. It was a place where people "cut their teeth", says Coleridge.
Despite the apparent anachronisms Tatler may present in a meritocratic age, the future of this perhaps uniquely British phenomenon is, for now, safe. "The new editor will obviously bring his or her own ideas, but Tatler will carry on as the only glossy that can be irrelevant ... I mean irreverent," says Coleridge, laughing.