Kelvin MacKenzie talks tabloid life and tackling Surrey issues from Weybridge
One of the country’s most successful ever tabloid editors, Kelvin MacKenzie has always been known for tackling issues head-on. Now he’s busy doing the same in Weybridge where he has hopes of standing for the local council. Here, he chats to Tracy Cook about everything from his frustrations with Elmbridge councillors and Surrey’s school run mums to his fury at station car parking charges
He’s made a career out of controversy, been dubbed “utterly shameless” and after 12 years as editor of The Sun been accused of dumbing down the face of British media and culture forever.
But it’s perhaps for his infamous headlines that Kelvin MacKenzie will be best remembered. Who can forget ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’, ‘Up yours Delors’ (to the then president of the European Union) and ‘Gotcha!’ after the British sank the Belgrano during the Falklands war?
Certainly no shrinking violet, by all accounts he prides himself on being really rather vile, so it’s no wonder I’m a little anxious about meeting the monster that is MacKenzie.
At home in Weybridge
As I drive up to his large, modern house on a neat estate on the south side of Weybridge, grey clouds are beginning to roll across the blue afternoon sky. I hope it is not to be a metaphor for our meeting.
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But as he opens the front door this Friday afternoon, he seems not only smaller than I had pictured him, but also faultlessly polite. He takes my coat and hangs it neatly in the hall cupboard, offers me a cup of tea and leads me past his study (where the sign hanging on the doorknob reads, “I am already disturbed. Please come in.”) before ushering me into the airy, light sitting room.
Bright modern artwork decorates the walls and family pictures, including lovely photos of his wedding to Sarah McLean, adorn the shelves. His golden retriever, Paddy, trots in for a petting. Contrary to the image he likes to project, Mr MacKenzie, I decide, is actually rather charming.
“We moved here about five years ago when I got remarried,” says the 64-year-old, as we settle down with our cups of tea. “My wife (who is human resources director at publishers McGraw-Hill) used to live in Wraysbury and I used to live in a village outside Sevenoaks, so it seemed a good idea. It’s sort of in the middle.
“I much prefer living here. To use a fashionable term in business investment, I feel I have more flesh in the game. I like my neighbours, and I really like the local shopkeepers and the local shops.” He smiles. “Being a W-list celebrity is not unhelpful in breaking down barriers with people.”
But in your Sun column (which he subtitles ‘Columnist of The Year. Failed’), you call Surrey “snooty”, I can’t help but cry. He looks momentarily sheepish and protests, “You have to! It would be wrong not to! Adjectives have to be used and it sort of makes you laugh.” But he adds, “Funnily enough, I don’t find it snooty at all. I find the people bizarrely down to earth.
“I’m a member at St George’s Hill Tennis Club, which you’d think would be phenomenally up itself. And it’s not like that at all. I was playing a game with a guy in my singles league – I’m no good, by the way – and we were having a coffee afterwards and turns out he was the chairman of Shell in the UK.”
He lives opposite open fields where he loves walking Paddy. “All of the residents on the estate own the land round here. It’s about 50 acres. So anyone with kids or a dog thinks they’ve died and gone to heaven.” Celebrity neighbours include Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech. “I’m a Charlton season ticket holder, but I have walked the dog out the back here with Mr Cech. And Mrs Cech,” he grins.
He got involved with local life when he stood for the council elections in Weybridge South in May of 2008. He tried to get elected on a ‘Red Mist’ independent ticket after becoming furious that the car parking charges at Weybridge station had risen 43 per cent, and famously branded the Elmbridge council “village idiots”.
“The thing I really objected to was that the council said they’d done research that showed people outside Weybridge were using Weybridge railway car park as it was cheaper than their own. I said fine. I said, ‘show me the research.’ I asked for that research a dozen times. I never saw it. I don’t believe it exists. They were just sticking up the price.”
He canvassed the area, handed out leaflets and got 227 votes, compared with Tory Glenn Dearlove’s 679. Was he disappointed Surrey commuters didn’t rise in a tide of fury behind him? “You would have to be right of Attila the Hun to get elected in Weybridge,” he jokes. “I did alright. I beat the Liberal Democrats into third place, which today would be a triumph!”
He is keen to stand again. “I’ve still got ambitions in that area. The problem is local councils are going to be short of money. We should shout out hooray! ‘Look after the old ladies and don’t do much else’, should be their mantra. They have been protected from the commercial environment and I don’t want my money going to them. My ticket will be: I’m going to cut councillors’ pay in half. I’d probably do okay.”
Tackling local issues
Full of irrepressible cheer, and in full flow, he turns his attentions to another group he’d like to cut down to size: Surrey mums. To get to his house, you have to drive down an extremely narrow lane, past a large comprehensive school. Clearly, the mums’ school run habits really annoy him.
“Those fat mothers, who think legs and shoes are things you put on in the morning, and their very fat and ugly children, who are being dropped off down an amazingly narrow lane. It’s literally a nightmare, twice a day. How dim are these mothers? Why don’t they drop their kids at the end of the road? Do they think little Janey is going to collapse and die if she walks 365 yards?” And he adds, “Go on put that in. That’ll get them going.” And there is a twinkle in his eye and he is enjoying being vile. I warn him they might start an e-mail hate campaign against him on Mumsnet. He laughs. “I’d enjoy that!”
He started out in journalism at the age of 17, having left school with one O-level. Both his parents were journalists and he joined them to work on the South London Observer. “I was brought up on the smell of printing ink. I loved that life. I knew what I was going to do since I was seven or eight. And journalism has always been easy for me, because of that. It’s a talent. I’m lucky I don’t have to work at it.” His three children from his first marriage, now in their thirties and forties, also followed him into the media.
From South London, he moved to Fleet Street and in 1981 started editing The Sun, which became Britain’s best selling tabloid. From there, he had stints running BSkyB, the Mirror Group and LIVE TV (complete with topless darts and bouncing weather dwarves) and then flexed his entrepreneurial muscles with mixed results. He emerged bruised from a bid to turn round the debt ridden magazine publisher Highbury House, but is proud of his success at Wireless Group where he took over an ailing Talk Radio and turned it into talkSPORT.
Now he enjoys writing, contributing to The Spectator and his weekly Sun column. “A rather vile column,” he says irrepressibly. “I tell you, never be a columnist if you’ve got a wide circle of friends. At the end of the first year, you will have a very small circle of friends.
“I don’t care. I’m not there to be helpful. I like anti-establishment attacks on politicians – that always cheers me up. If you can humiliate a politician, you must be doing something right.”
In addition to all of that, he’s also stood in for Nick Ferrari on LBC and often guests on television shows like Question Time and Celebrity Apprentice.
A life in print
Soon it will be 50 years since he started out in journalism. I ask him how he will celebrate. “By being even more vile,” he says cheerfully. And then, very politely, he fetches my coat, helps me back in it and shakes my hand. Later, he sends me a text. “Very nice to meet you.
Suspect fat mums might be slightly irritated.” What’s this? The tabloid legend worrying about the feelings of Weybridge mums! Can Surrey be turning Kelvin soft?
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: “It would be The Plough at Effingham. The food’s always good. And La Casa in Weybridge. We don’t really have an upscale restaurant round here…”
Shop: “Dandini in Weybridge. I buy my wife flowers there every year.”
Place to go: “I like that horticultural place, Wisley.”
Place to chill: “I enjoy walking the dog on the fields round the back of our house.”
View: “Box Hill. We haven’t been there much, but it would be right up there.”
Kelvin MacKenzie on Surrey issues…
On local elections: “You would have to be to the right of Attila the Hun to get elected in Weybridge.”
On local councils: “I’d cut councillors’ pay in half and then ask them if they still want to do it!”
On Weybridge traffic: “Something’s got to be done. The High Street from about 3.45pm is absolutely shocking. I feel sorry for people coming out of those business parks and spending hours every night trying to get to the motorway.”
On Surrey mums: “Those fat mums with their fat ugly children. How dim are they?”
On his celebrity status: “I’m a personal hero of the over 70s. I do daytime television occasionally and it’s a funny thing; you could have done loads of things in your life, but TV has this amazing effect.”