Inside Tatler: A new programme will lift the lid on life at the glossy magazine

The writer Matthew Bell left 'The Independent on Sunday' for the society magazine a year ago, little realising he was about to star in a fly-on-the-wall documentary. What could possibly go wrong?
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In a few days' time, you are going to hear a lot more about Tatler. The glossy magazine, which was founded in 1709, has been chronicling the lives of the rich and titled ever since, is the subject of a fly-on-the-wall documentary airing on BBC2 next Monday. For six months, a camera crew followed the staff as they went about their daily duties. These include hunting for toffs in Scotland, setting out the etiquette of threesomes, and dressing up in a lot of fancy dress.

I know, because I'm one of them. Almost exactly a year ago, I left The Independent on Sunday for a post on the features desk at Tatler. It may seem an unlikely move – from a liberal Sunday newspaper to a fashion magazine with an obsession with dukes, but that's the joy of journalism. It is as varied as life itself.

So, what is it really like to work there? The first assumption is that we are constantly going to parties. Strangely, this isn't true. It's less useful to attend a book launch than to go to the country for the weekend. Though Tatler is, as its name suggests, a purveyor of society gossip – our logo is an 18th-century figure called the Bystander – the stories we generate are subtly woven into our articles, rather than splashed sensationally across the cover. If you are writing about a tribe of people – in our case, the upper classes – you need to immerse yourself in them. You have to observe their habits and understand their foibles before you can write about them with any authority. Which is the tricky part: being both an insider and an outsider.

Then again, this is true of all journalism. If you are a business reporter, you need good contacts in the City. The trouble comes when you land a story which might upset them. At Tatler, we are not in the business of annoying people. We like to get alongside them, so that we can show the readers a glimpse into their world. We also like to tease them and to have fun, and not slavishly lap up the world of privilege. This is what makes Tatler successful: it is a winning combination of information and jokes. It recognises that the world is full of colourful and fascinating people, and that some of them exist in a rarefied bubble.

One of the questions the camera crew kept asking was: "Why is it relevant?" To which we countered, relevant to what? It may be of no interest to a lot of people, but then nor is Model Rail, or, even, You and Your Wedding. For the 84,000 people who buy Tatler every month, it is simply a burst of pleasure.

What surprises some people is that Tatler is doing so well. Contrary to the prevailing trend in magazines, circulation remains strong. Why should a magazine about posh people thrive in 2014? You might ask the same question of Downton Abbey and the National Trust. For all that we have a supposedly egalitarian society, we can't help be fascinated by our past, and by the old hierarchies that, for better or worse, shaped the way we live. This year, in the centenary of the start of the First World War, we are especially conscious of how much Britain has changed in the last hundred years. We have got rid of domestic servants, and the old class system, but we have replaced them with other pecking orders.

The grand houses and art collections of the aristocracy still exist – it's just that they now belong to Russian oligarchs or hedge-fund managers. The cast of characters populating the pages of Tatler has changed. In the 1970s, they were ruddy-faced hoorays from the shires. Today, they are a more exotic and eclectic crowd. Like all sections of society, the posh bit has evolved. We have written about Britain's top lesbians, and had a mixed-race marchioness on the cover.

Matthew Bell in the new BBC series Posh People: Inside Tatler BBC

In truth, Tatler as you see it today has only been around since 1979. It was reinvented by Tina Brown, who became editor aged only 25, and over the next four years captured the Princess Diana zeitgeist. She ditched the po-faced hunt reports, and brought in jokes and features about pointless people. Before then, no publication ran the sort of light-hearted articles that all broadsheets fill their second sections with: quizzes, parodies, riffs on modern trends, problems pages, and guides to the dos and don'ts of social situations. Tina's Tatler launched the careers of some of our funniest writers: Craig Brown, A N Wilson, Jonathan Meades and Mary Killen.

The other assumption is that Tatler is staffed exclusively by toffs. That we are all called Annunziata and live on the King's Road and spend our days filing our nails, waiting to bag a billionaire. It probably was more like that once, and we do occasionally give the odd duke's daughter a week's work experience. But these days we are, like any magazine in the Condé Nast stable, a tight team of dedicated, hard-working journalists.

There are some elements to life at Tatler that may seem a trifle eccentric. We like animals. A lot. The editor's assistant has a dachshund called Geoffrey, who prowls the floor looking for affection and cake. You may have read about his predecessor, Alan, who was a casualty of Vogue House's high-speed revolving doors.

Thankfully, we have moved on. Kate Reardon, the editor, is mad on horses, and we do spend a lot of our time discussing dogs and horses. My first article was an essay on how whippets have replaced pugs as the fashionable dog du jour. Frivolous? Maybe. But as it happens, completely true, though I've noticed lurchers are on the up. As my colleague Sophia Money-Coutts points out (yes, that is her name – it's not her fault she is descended from a banking family), the upper classes are more interested in their animals than in humans. So the back page is a monthly pet of the month, in which we interview anyone from Snowy, Michael Gove's bichon frise to Percy, Brian May's hedgehog.

For the current issue, I charged about meeting people who keep cows, from a retired senior spy at MI5 to the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava. For the piece, I spent weeks persuading grandees to let us picture them with their cattle, then persuading the cows to stand still and not charge while the photographer asked for "just one more" shot.

When Tatler's former fashion editor Isabella Blow produced a similar piece 20 years ago, about people who kept exotic animals, she ended up having to hire most of the animals from a zoo, and at her own expense, having discovered that far fewer people kept leopards than she thought.

When the BBC finished filming the three-part documentary, they spent a lot of time trying to come up with a name for the programme (it ended up as Posh People: Inside Tatler). One of the wittier suggestions came from John Haney, our brilliant sub-editor and one of the few other men on the staff. He suggested "The devil wears Barbour", which neatly encapsulates everything you need to know about Tatler.

Posh People: Inside Tatler will be shown from 24 November on BBC2