Since the spring, documentary-maker Mark Halliley has been making When Toby Met Julie. The film, the story of the life and death of the Modern Review, goes out on BBC4 at 9pm on Monday June 27.Mark Halliley
MediaGuardian.co.uk"Making a film about that lot?" said a fellow-producer after hearing I'd decided to do a documentary about the Modern Review rather than about the history of Modernism. "Dangerous decision! Watch your back."
Shit, I thought. Everybody's warning me off this crowd, and I've landed myself bang in the middle of their world. I could have had it easy making films about dead people. Instead, I've picked live ones who hate each other. People who (in the case of Toby Young and Julie Burchill, at least) drove each other to the very depths of insult and character assassination
It all came to a head in a vicious row 10 years back when Young unilaterally closed down the magazine four years after they started it. They had the mother of all public spats, so vitriolic some thought it must have been a publicity stunt. Among Burchill's milder insults was her declaration that she wanted him out of the country ("He's bald, bilious and he'll have to leave, like everyone else who falls out with me"). He just wanted her dead ("It would have been better if she'd died in a car crash."). Even now, Burchill maintains Young is like a sad old gold-digger obsessed with the past. Whereas Young maintains that betrayal is simply part of Burchill's nature.
Cosmo Landesman wasn't too happy either. In the middle of the debacle, Burchill dumped him for a Sapphic fling with Charlottte Raven, who wanted to replace Young as editor. He says with amazing loyalty: "Julie likes her legends. It's best not to touch them." But what do you do when legends hurt?
Young, Burchill and Landesman created the magazine. I started to realise what I was in for when it transpired they couldn't even agree whose idea it was in the first place: I was entering the antechamber to the hall of mirrors.
Inside, Burchill recounted how she and Young used to mix blood by cutting each other's thumbs in the toilet. ("We weren't hood," she says, "so we didn't carry knives. So we used to do it with pencil-sharpeners, hacking away. It got really messy." ). So I was disconcerted when Young more or less denied the whole thing, implying it was little more than a Burchill fantasy. "We may have done it once," he smiled, as if talking about a naughty child's habitual porky. "But I think my recollection is more accurate then hers." In terms of imagery for the film, I'd use blood and pencil-sharpeners anyway: fantasy, truth or lies, they'd serve as an emblem of "fast love" - bonds meant to last till death, but which turned out to be illusory.
Some rooms in the hall of mirrors contained a third party without such an apparent axe to grind. Enter Will Self, who once had a fight with Young in a West End club. Burchill said Self had offered Young a derisory sum for the magazine. Young was so furious, she said, that he set about stealing all Self's girlfriends. "That's why Will 'it 'im!" she laughed. I laughed too. She has immaculate comic timing. Later, Young confirmed there'd been a punch-up, but it was all because of Martin Amis's teeth. He'd been castigating Amis's apparent hypocrisy (as the declared enemy of the moronic inferno of mass culture) in spending 20 grand on cosmetic surgery for his choppers.
Self didn't claim to have delivered any tasty punches, but he did confirm he'd thrown Young in a fire. Young was behaving like a "noisome little tick" (and Self is about a foot taller). Girlfriends never came into it. The issue was: yes, Martin's mouth. "That's not what Julie says," I said. "No", conceded Self. "But think about it. I was there. Toby was there. Julie, we believe, was not. It would have been quite difficult to conceal her under one of the silk-draped divans. Draw your own conclusions." To which, I have to add, draw yours.
Then there's the money. Burchill told me on film that she put a lot of it into the Modern Review. Company documents indicate she only put in a few grand. The biggest investor by far was Peter York, her mentor. Mystified, I quoted the figures to her. She at first demurred and then conceded with a disarming smile, "Perhaps I forgot." She said in the same interview she had to admit she was a far less reliable witness to the past than Landesman or Young because she enjoys herself too much in the present to be as obsessed as they are by historical minutiae (what they call "facts").
And then there's the drugs. Landesman and Burchill both talk proudly of how the hard-pressed workers from the Modern Review used to come to their Bloomsbury pad for "R'n'R with stimulants" (Landesman). Young, who's since gone clean and sober, told m this happened very rarely and that he felt the film exaggerates the cocaine use. But even he didn't deny it happened. As for Landesman, he was quite proud of the fact. "People shouldn't turn against their drugs" he said. "I enjoyed my drugs, I was entertained and entertaining on drugs, and I'm not going to say otherwise." They even held Modern Review ping pong championship, played by budding journalists low on funds but high on coke.
Most of the coke seems to have been Burchill's - she said that, and everyone else we spoke to corroborated it. She was by all accounts stunningly generous with her substances. She probably spent far more on coke for the workforce than she did on funding the magazine. Novelist Nicholas Blincoe confirmed that she dispensed her gear from a little brown medicine bottle. Burchill couldn't remember any such thing, ("A little brown bottle? Did I? Bless!") But she clearly thinks it probably occurred. What she could remember was writing out people's names in lines of coke for them to sniff - great for those called Nicholas, but not so hot if you were called Tom. Toby, however, says "this simply never happened". Maybe he just wasn't there at the time, or was blotto in another room.
Oh yes, and then there's the infamous photo of the magazine's name written in lines of coke. As soon as Landesman mentioned that, I was pretty hopeful the film wouldn't degenerate into some boring arts doc only watched by the people who appear in it. No, it would at least have titles in coke. When Landesman couldn't find the elusive Polaroid, I was disappointed. Fortunately for me, Burchill adamantly confirmed its existence saying that, yes, she'd done that (perhaps with material from the brown bottle itself). She'd written it out as a special reward for Young, who had done so well producing some early edition of the mag. And yes, Tobes had sniffed the lot, only to complain it hurt his nose, she said, guffawing at the memory of Young then complaining to her dealer that it had "hurt his nose. Daw!! It's meant to." Young said this too was utter rubbish. However, he did confirm that Landesman was the author of the coke title. Young added that anyone who snorted that amount of coke would probably keel over straight away with a heart attack. But even he conceded there was enough coke around to write the title - and it's not that short, is it? I mean, we're not talking Arena or iD. We're talking the Modern Review. Are you still in the hall of mirrors? Some of the walls have coke all over them.
Then there's the big one, the whopper of whoppers: sex. When it comes to characters from the Modern Review rewriting or suppressing history in a way that really hurts others, this one takes the biscuit. I had thought, from initial interviews, that Julie's main reason for turning on Young was that she disliked the increasingly "laddish" element of the magazine. But Burchill maintainrf she had no problem with that. In fact, she was all for the Keanu Reeves cover inscribed "Young, Dumb and Full of Come". And she was clearly amused to listen back to the Modern Review's complimentary tape of Liz Hurley reading the dirty bits from Julie's pulp novel, Ambition. Gloriously, incongruously funny it was, too.
No, said Burchill, what turned her against Toby was that he was "using the magazine as a knocking-shop". She now appears to believe that she believed this in 1994-95. He'd told her (she said) he was going to "shag" Charlotte Raven and then decide if he wanted to give her a job. Young virulently denies any such conversation ever taking place. Landesman can't remember Burchill referring to it either. According to Young, Raven was the only contributor to the magazine he ever slept with, and their brief affair had nothing to do with her getting published in its columns. For much of the time in question, Young had a live-in girlfriend at the flat where the magazine was produced and where "the knocking-shop" is supposed to have been. In the last phase of the Modern Review his live-in girlfriend was the ex of Will Self over whom (pace Burchill) they never fought.
But she remained insistent on the knocking-shop allegation. She uses it to justify her treatment of her erstwhile "best friend" all those years ago. This rejection still clearly pains Young even if she (as she claims) remains unhurt by anything any human being says about her. The rejection of Young conceded with the peak of her supposed affair with Charlotte Raven, at a time when Raven was apparently very keen to replace Young as editor. Blincoe states that in the spring of 1995, Raven was indeed talking to staff members and mobilising them individually against the beleaguered Young. Raven's former lover, Derek Draper, also a former aide to Peter Mandelson, denied there was " a plot". But he confirmed that Raven and Burchill used to meet to "slag off Toby" and that they hoped for a "coup". Raven herself declined to be filmed so I have no idea whether or not she feels she was plotting, or whether she expected the coup to sort of happen spontaneously.
So let's suppose (just for a minute) that the knocking-shop charge is a false one (and certainly I've come across no evidence to support it other than Julie's passionate say-so). Why would that be? Why would someone in Burchill's situation, and with her status, cook up such a humungous, king-sized monster of an untruth? Could it be because she was poisoned against him by someone else? If so, why does she still make the allegation so vociferously so many years later? Is it because she's an altruistic and cavalier entertainer who knows what makes a good story? Or might there be a less flattering explanation?
But hey, if you're interested (and it's a hell of a human story) watch the film to help yourself find out. Me, I'm just watching my back. I suspect I still will be, for at least a week or two after transmission, and perhaps for a long time after that. The trouble is, in a hall of mirrors, people seem to come at you from all angles. Even if they're not flecked with cocaine or dripping with blood."
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