Tuesday 23 January 2018

Obituary: Alexander Chancellor

Writer and editor who reinvented 'The Spectator' and worked for papers and magazines in London and New York

WITTY: Alexander Chancellor
WITTY: Alexander Chancellor

Alexander Chancellor, the journalist, who died yesterday aged 77, became editor of The Spectator in 1975, and rapidly made it the most admired journal in the English language.

Under a series of different editors and proprietors, The Spectator, like its left-wing rival, the New Statesman, had entered apparently a terminal state of decline. From the radical weekly of 1828 which lead the campaign for the Great Reform Bill ("the Bill, the whole Bill and nothing but the Bill"), The Spectator had become a shrill and monotonous voice against Edward Heath and Britain's membership of the European Common Market.

When Henry Keswick, a Hong Kong millionaire, bought the magazine, he offered the editorship to Chancellor, who had been a friend of his at Eton, and for the previous few years had been working in Paris and Rome for Reuters, the news agency, of which Chancellor's father had formerly been the chairman.

Chancellor returned to London from Rome having no familiarity with British weekly journalism and no particular interest in parliamentary politics.

Perhaps unconsciously he set about making The Spectator not a polemical tract like its 19th-century predecessor but something more like the first Spectator founded in 1711 by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Like them, he made it a paper written by people on subjects which amused them, in a style which entertained as well as informed.

Like Addison and still more Steele, Chancellor was a sociable and convivial man who believed in running the magazine as much as possible from restaurants and public houses. Had not Steele written a famous essay called "Twenty-four hours in Soho and Covent Garden"?

Chancellor started by taking on as his deputy Simon Courtauld, a newspaper libel lawyer who gave the magazine prudent advice on journalistic and legal matters. He kept on some of the staff from the old regime such as Peter Ackroyd, then an up-and-coming novelist.

Chancellor's real recruitment drive started in Soho, especially at the lunches given by Private Eye in the upstairs room of the Coach and Horses.

There he met and persuaded to write for him Christopher Booker, Patrick Marnham, Geoffrey Wheatcroft and not least Richard Ingrams, the editor of Private Eye, who became the magazine's television critic. Auberon Waugh, who had left The Spectator under a previous editor, came back to write a column of superb wit and savagery. Waugh and Chancellor became close friends, linked eventually by the marriages of Waugh's son and Chancellor's daughter.

Within a few years Chancellor had to fight off famous politicians and journalists who sought the prestige of having their names in The Spectator. Nevertheless, he continued to look for new and unfamiliar contributors.

There was Peter Kemp, who had fought on Franco's side in the Spanish Civil War and many subsequent battles; Roy Kerridge, a lavatory attendant and devotee of West Indian gospel churches; Shiva Naipaul, the Trinidadian novelist, whose wife Jenny was also Chancellor's secretary; John Springs, the caricaturist, aged 19; and Jennifer Paterson, the cook at The Spectator's Thursday lunches before she became its cookery writer and then one half of the TV duo Two Fat Ladies.

Chancellor and Courtauld together created The Spectator's famous double act of Jeffrey Bernard's Low Life column and Taki Theodoracopulos's High Life. Chancellor persisted with the double act even when, as often happened, Jeffrey Bernard was "unwell", and when Taki was sent to prison for a drugs offence. On the eve of the High Life columnist's incarceration, Chancellor hosted a dinner for Taki and other Spectator writers at a Chinese restaurant in Soho.

His colleague Richard West once printed this joking account of Chancellor's working day: "10.55 am: arrive at Spectator office. 11.00: Lose article by Solzhenitsyn. 11.05: To Duke of York for vodka and tonic." But Chancellor's relaxed approach was not universally welcomed. Algy Cluff, the oilman who bought The Spectator in 1981, noted in his memoir (2016) that the magazine was losing "the equivalent of about £1.5m a year in today's money" and that although the editor had revived the magazine's reputation, "all was clearly not right".

Alexander Surtees Chancellor was born near Ware in rural Hertfordshire on January 4, 1940, the son of Sir Christopher Chancellor and Sylvia, the daughter of Sir Richard Paget Bt, a Somerset landowner and amateur scientist. Alexander attended Eton and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, before joining Reuters in 1964, staying for 10 years, after which there was a brief stint at ITN.

Although he made his name at The Spectator by his skill at picking and handling contributors, he proved to be a stylish and witty writer of the Spectator Notebook under his own name. Therefore when Henry Keswick sold the magazine and Chancellor was dismissed as editor in 1984, he soon established a new career as a freelance journalist for newspapers as various as The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph.

When The Independent began in 1986, Chancellor joined its staff as the New York correspondent. Back in Britain he edited The Independent's bold new Saturday colour supplement from 1988 to 1992.

He later returned to America for a not too happy stint on Tina Brown's New Yorker, which he described in his one published book of memoirs, Some Times in America (1999).

In 2012 he returned to The Spectator with a column at the back called Long Life and in 2014 he succeeded his friend Richard Ingrams as editor of The Oldie.

He married Susanna Debenham in 1964. She survives him with their two daughters and another daughter from his relationship with Emily Bearn.



Promoted Links

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Promoted Links

Also in Business