Why former Smash Hits editor loves the Suffolk coast
PUBLISHED: 11:34 06 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:30 20 February 2013
Belfast-born Barry Mcilheney is chief executive of the PPA (the regulating body of the magazine industry) and a former editor of Smash Hits and Empire magazines. He is married to Lola, also a journalist, and they have two teenage children.
Belfast-born Barry Mcilheney is chief executive of the PPA (the regulating body of the magazine industry) and a former editor of Smash Hits and Empire magazines. He is married to Lola, also a journalist, and they have two teenage children. They like to escape London at the weekends to visit their caravan on the Suffolk coast
So it all started on Melody Maker. What were those days like?
I had written the odd review for Melody Maker while still living in Belfast, then started doing more stuff for them after I moved to London in 1982 to do my one-year diploma in journalism. It was a fantastically exciting time. I was 22, single, and being paid to fly around the world with people like The Pogues and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Nice work if you can get it, and I am eternally grateful for being given the chance to learn about magazines and writing at such a young age. They sent me along to Wembley in 1985 to cover the original Live Aid concert and I won a Periodical Proprietors Association award for the article I wrote that day. To be running the PPA 25 years later is just too mad and brilliant to really take in.
Did I read somewhere you used to play in a punk band?
I was the singer in legendary Belfast post-punk outfit Shock Treatment. We released a couple of singles, got played by John Peel, toured Ireland, supported U2, then promptly split up. I think Im better at writing about music than actually playing it, but it was a blast, and I still keep in touch with my old bandmates to this day.
As a journalist who has edited Smash Hits at the height of its fame and also Empire plus managed titles like Q and FHM as well as launching Heat and Zoo is it fair to say you have had the kind of jobs a lot of journalists would have given their right arms for?
I suppose thats true, though when youre in the middle of it, it just feels like youre doing your job, and like any job it has its downside as well as its highs. Its only a few years later that you look back and realise how lucky you are to do a job that you love, that most people would kill for, and that actually youd happily have done for no money. I think the 20 years from 1980 to 2000 will go down as a vintage era of magazines, a period of unprecedented growth and good fortune. The industry is still in pretty good shape, but there are now a whole host of other distractions competing for peoples money and time. I was lucky enough to be right at the heart of it during those years of plenty.
What has been your proudest achievement in magazine journalism?
Probably the launch of Empire in 1989. Editing Smash Hits and taking it to a million sales a fortnight was fantastic, but Empire was my baby, and getting it off the ground and seeing it flourish was an incredible feeling. The fact that it is still the worlds biggest and best movie magazine gives me great pleasure even today. It also introduced me to the wonderful world of the film industry, which was like the music business but on an even grander, madder scale. We launched the magazine in Cannes, which is a long way from Belfast in every sense, and I ended up going to the Oscars twice, then launching Empires own annual awards. I would find myself in the middle of a conversation between Quentin Tarantino and Russell Crowe, trying not to laugh out loud, just thinking to myself, How the hell did this happen? Happy days.
Among all the stars you have met who impressed you most, and who the least?
I shared a table with Tony Blair when he was still Leader of the Opposition and he had come to The Q awards to do a quick speech on the importance of the music industry to the UK economy, and I remember being struck by his extraordinary presence and calm in the midst of all this music biz lunacy. He did a two-minute word-perfect speech with no notes and I just thought: Wow, this guys a bit special. Im not a huge fan of him these days, but back then he was pretty impressive. Bono always seems to remember me on the rare occasions we meet up which never ceases to amaze me, so hes alright in my book as well. Ive been lucky in that Ive never had a really bad experience with any celebrity Ive met, though obviously you get on better with some than others. I spent 20 minutes at a party once talking to Warren Beatty and he was a terrible old bore, though he did seem to perk up a bit when Lola arrived on the scene!
Amid all the great editorial deeds are there any amusing/bizarre stories you can tell us from those days? Printable ones anyway!
Awards ceremonies seem to bring out the worst in celebrities, possibly because theyre all in a room together and theres a real sense of competition and battling for your place in the pecking order. We had one famous actor at the Empire Awards who we flew in from New York on Concorde, all expenses paid, and his only comment was to complain that the windows on the plane were too small. There are lots of scandalous tales I could tell to do with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but Im saving them for the memoirs!
Is becoming chief executive of the PPA a little like a poacher turning gamekeeper?
More like the lunatic has taken over the asylum.
Any plans for your new role?
Clearly these are very testing times ahead.
Primarily, Im there to do what our members want me to do, which right now is fight the good fight against any plans to impose a tax on reading in the form of VAT on magazines, help try to navigate the path through the digital revolution, and make sure that through our training we bring along the next generation of journalists, editors, and publishers. All that and throw a cracking party at our annual awards ceremony on June 16!
Whats your overview of the magazine industry?
I think that rumours of our impending decline have been greatly exaggerated. There are still millions of magazines sold every week in the UK, millions of pounds spent on advertising in them, and millions of people who get a great deal of pleasure out of reading them. And I see the whole digital revolution as far more of a golden opportunity than a threat, as its just one more way of communicating our unique and brilliant content to our audiences through a computer, phone, e-reader, or whatever it is the boffins are going to dream up for us next. Beam me back here 100 years from now and somebody, somewhere will still be reading magazine content in some shape or form.
How did you discover Suffolk?
Lola and I have two old friends, Fay Sweet and Susan Marling, both journalists and about 10 years ago they both bought a house in downtown Westleton. Id never even heard of it before then, but of course after one or two trips to visit Fay and Susan, we were hooked and kept coming back for more. Initially we thought about going down the second home route, but life here in London is busy enough, so we just felt that a caravan might involve a bit less maintenance. We drove past the Dunwich Cliffs Estate one day, and that was it. Weve been there about five years now, and I dont think well ever give it up. Theres maybe a bit more maintenance than we imagined, but thankfully Michael and Lynn who look after the site take care of all that for us!
Any favourite haunts? Pubs, restaurants, etc.
We actually have a pretty set routine now for every weekend visit. Leave London early on the Saturday morning (or even better Friday morning) and keep the boot down until we hit the Farm Caf in Little Glenham. Stop there for a massive Suffolk breakfast, then its only another half hour till we get to the site. Settle in, then Lola will insist upon a visit to her favourite shop, Coopers in Halesworth, followed by a cream tea at Bridge Nurseries in Dunwich on the way back. I always like driving to Aldeburgh for classic fish and chips on the beach, and Mary can be partial to a bit of Jack Wills while were there, then back to the van to collapse for the night. Then up early on the Sunday for the Friday Street car boot sale, followed by Sunday roast lunch at The Crown or The White Horse, both in Westleton. We now have a group of friends from Stoke Newington who also have caravans on the site so there can be around 10 of us for lunch in the pub if all the kids are there and its a right old racket. Then back home down the A12, sadly, back to reality.
Best advice you have been given?
You should get yourself a dog.
You have recently flown back from Delhi, can we ask what you were doing there?
One of the perks of the PPA job is that you also become a director of FIPP, the Federation of International Periodical Publishers. And three times a year you get together with all your counterparts from all around the world to find out whats going on in the various national magazine markets, to hear some amazing examples of editorial innovation in different countries, and to get to know one another a little bit better. The most recent meeting was in Delhi, and the next one is in New York in September. Theres not a great deal of time for sightseeing, but its still a real privilege to do this sort of networking and actually really useful in helping me do the job back here at home.
What is it you like about the county?
I love the big skies, the light, and the sea. And the fact that I can leave the madness of North London at 9am and be walking Roxie on a deserted beach by lunchtime. All this and Adnams too. Whats not to love?
Favourite book, film and song and why.
Book: Paris To The Moon by Adam Gopnik. We lived in Paris for a year 10 years ago when I was launching FHM France, and Gopniks memoir of family life there always takes me right back to a very happy period.
Film: The Godfather. Predictable maybe, but it is simply the greatest film ever made. Fact.
Song: Danny Boy. Im just a sentimental old Irish fool deep down.
Cheeky question but what is your opinion of our magazine?
I love the magazine. It has a great mix of real day-to-day Suffolk stuff and that unique glossy magazine lifestyle editorial and design. We always look at it to see whats going on in the county, and also to indulge in some serious house envy. I think well be spending more and more time in the area as we get older and the kids flee the nest, so I look forward to many more years of reading the mag, and exploring my favourite part of the world in much greater detail and depth.