Two or three things I know about Tony Elliott

When I heard, from a friend who works for Time Out, that Tony Elliott (1947-2020) had died the previous evening, I wasn’t entirely surprised; though he appeared, on the last occasion I saw him in late January, to be in reasonable health and good spirits, I knew that he’d been engaged in a grim battle with lung cancer for many months, since Tony had had to cancel a couple of lunches we’d planned due to his ongoing treatment. So the news wasn’t exactly a shock, but that didn’t make it any less saddening. Besides, Tony was one of those rare individuals who deserve, perhaps, to be called ‘an institution’. He was an important fixture in the lives of many who knew him, not least of those who had worked for film – in my case for over 20 years. 

So it’s taken a while to take in the news and work out what, if anything, I could write here about him. I didn’t want simply to come up with the usual homilies, but at the same time I felt I should pay tribute somehow. After all, my working life has turned out to be very interesting and for the most part very satisfying, and that is in no small part due to the opportunities I was afforded by Time Out. Like the other section editors of the magazine, as far as Tony was concerned I had a lot of freedom. This, after all, was a man who would always back his editorial team when major film distributors or exhibitors threatened to withdraw their advertising in response to an unfavourable review of a new release. He was an independent himself, and he understood the value of editorial independence.

I knew Tony for three and a half decades, but I never really got to know him very well; he was, as some reminiscences have mentioned, a surprisingly shy man for someone so well known and well connected. But I liked and respected him enormously. When I worked for Time Out, first as a member of the film section, then as film editor and senior film editor, and finally as an external contributing editor, we often discussed particular films and British movie matters in general. On one memorably enjoyable occasion he invited me to dinner with himself and his wife Janey at their holiday home in the south of France (when my then partner and I left the next morning, I had a terrible hangover, even though Tony had by then long been a teetotaller!); he, in return, came to my wedding party, my fiftieth birthday party, and my leaving party when I finally (and not a little reluctantly) left the staff of Time Out because my BFI programming job had turned into a full-time post. After that, our paths crossed less frequently, though we kept in touch and we did manage to fit in a few long and very enjoyable lunches in recent years.

Much has been written, rightly, about Tony’s visionary approach to covering London – its arts and entertainment, its social life, its politics – in founding and directing Time Out; about the expansion into further publishing enterprises; about his many other influential activities in the cultural life of London and the UK; and about his energy and his fastidious, almost obsessive attention to detail. There is little I can add on those fronts, but I do just want to mention a few other characteristics of Tony that particularly impressed me and made him seem, to me as to many, a rather special person.

Tony seemed to have a boundless curiosity about the world. He appeared to be interested in almost everything. Despite his shyness, he liked to ask questions; he seemed genuinely keen to hear other people’s opinions. With me, he was always eager to know what I thought about a film, a filmmaker or a film organisation. (He was something of a cinephile, and knew plenty of people in the film world.) Even when our opinions differed, he was never dismissive of mine. That was very typical; he had a lot of respect for the specialist knowledge of his staff, and seemed proud of them. (Whenever I wrote a book, he always asked for a copy.)

Tony seemed to know just about everyone of importance or influence in terms of the cultural life of London. That in itself was remarkable, but perhaps still more remarkable was the fact that this never manifested itself in terms of name-dropping. (Similarly, it was only after his death that I realised he’d been made a CBE; he would never have mentioned it to me himself.) You would usually only find out by accident that he knew someone, unless it happened to be the case that you needed help in some matter, in which case he might offer to put you in touch with someone useful. Also impressive were his ability to remember so many people’s names and faces, and the fact that he appeared to treat everybody in much the same friendly, curious manner, regardless of how well known (or not) they might be. 

Finally, the thing that struck me most in recent years was what seemed to me to be a diminishing of Tony’s shyness. In all my years at Time Out he was amiable, polite, fair and sometimes even quite chatty; he was also, as many have noted, an extraordinarily generous boss, even taking the entire staff of the London magazine to New York and Paris on trips to celebrate publications in those cities. At the same time, there was something about Tony in those years that made him appear, to most staff at any rate, a little reserved. But after I left the magazine, things seemed to change. If I bumped into him at some event, he seemed rather more talkative than in the past, and during our last few lunches together, there was not only a genuine warmth in his conversation – we were no longer professional colleagues, but friends – but an entirely unexpected back-slapping tactility to his behaviour. I enjoyed those unprecedentedly relaxed get-togethers with him enormously, and it’s saddening to know that there will be no more. Like a huge number of others, I shall miss Tony. He really was one of a kind.

Copyright unknown for the portrait of Tony Elliott.

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