Formats Unpacked: A Life in the Day

How a format makes the little rituals of the rich and famous so fascinating

Hi All

A few weeks ago I got an email from a friend of Storythings, Nick Parker. He asked if I thought one of those celebrity ‘Day in the Life’ formats would be worth unpacking? Of course! I love them. Especially the one that Nick has chosen, for reasons you’ll discover as you read on.

Nick’s previous unpacking of Repair Shop is definitely worth a revisit after you’ve finished this.

Nick writes one of my favourite Substacks, Tone Knob, which takes a close look at a brand’s tone of voice. It’s BRILLIANT! You really should subscribe. He’s also founder of That Explains Things, an agency that helps brands find their voice, and writes another great newsletter, The Notices.

Over to Nick…

What’s the format?

A Life in the Day’ is a Sunday Times magazine feature, in which people - often famous, sometimes not – talk about the small details of their daily routines. It’s been running since 1977, and was invented by then editor, Hunter Davies.

‘I suggested we did a series concentrating only on the non-working part of their day: the mundane, the domestic, trivial – the stuff we can all identify with, such as what time do you get up, do you have tea or coffee, do you leave your clothes out the night before?’

Colleagues on the magazine weren’t convinced: even if you’re a celebrity the rest of the time, what could possibly be interesting about hearing about your routines and ablutions? 

So Davies did a test: he asked members of the magazine’s staff how they began their day, and in particular, how they chose what to wear. Patrick Nicholson, the chief sub-editor, responded that he ‘consulted his diary’, because he regularly kept a note of what he’d worn each day to avoid repeating an outfit too soon.

That clinched it. ‘If Patrick had this little ritual that no one knew about, imagine what gems we might dig out of Famous People’.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

These days, our media is awash with intimate trivia. I find it almost impossible to imagine how Davies’s colleagues couldn’t see we’d be fascinated.

That’s partly because ‘mundane’ details of other people’s lives are often not mundane at all: Nile Rogers saying he can’t work unless he has the television on in the background (so his house has 11 of them blaring away); The Dalai Lama praying while jogging on a treadmill; Pamela Anderson talking about how most nights she swings nude on a giant swing suspended above a grand piano, while her then husband Tommy Lee plays below. 

Partly, there’s a gentleness to the format that’s different from the self-conscious ‘curating’ (or straight-up monetising) of celebrity lives which is more common these days. And this often allows other more serious themes to emerge. These aren’t ‘high status confessionals’ like, say, Piers Morgan’s ‘Life Stories’, set up deliberately for the conspicuous sharing of ‘revelations’. Nor are they interviews where revelations are winkled out reluctantly, investigative journo-style. It feels like the humdrum nature of talking about day-to-day things allows space for people to open up: Oprah Winfrey talking about childhood abuse; Michael Jordan on the physical and mental shock of having a stroke in his 50s.

Partly the magic is  - or perhaps was – that Life in the Day appears in the Sunday Times. Sunday papers are different now – they cover everything, and the endless supplements and the infinite space of online allows all the time and space in which to do so – but for a long time in newspapers, space was finite and ‘lifestyle’ was faintly disdained. A column on the small details of our lives, in the Sunday Times, made readers pay attention differently.

Partly the title ‘A Life in the Day’ has an alchemy to it: the simple reversal of ‘a day in the life’ adds that extra philosophical twist: that this, really, is who we are, the sum total of our daily habits and routines.

And of course, there’s the vicarious pleasures. Not least the game of working out whether the celebrity in question is actually a bit of an arsehole, or fails some implied self-awareness test, or just generally sounds like they might be hard work to live with. (See Orlando Bloom, below.) And Dan Brown’s interview in 2020: ‘I wake naturally at 4am with Zeus on my chest and Winston beside me. We sleep in a turret… I make a cup of matcha tea then meditate for 22 minutes in a round room…  by 5am I’m at my desk. Every hour my computer shuts down for three minutes and I do push-ups and stretches’ is so close to Stephen Fry’s parody of the form – Tom Murley: Me & A Stapler of My Own (Paperweight, 1991) ‘I work in ten-minute bursts, in between I go for long swims. I built our swimming pool myself, to my own design. It is shaped like the Burmese symbol for eternal serenity, which is a rectangle…’ –  that I’m still half-convinced Brown’s is a homage.

Favourite episode?

The absolute gems are when the format is treated as a literary form. In fact, the entire reason for writing this is to share my love of Tom Hollander’s ‘Life in the Day’ (2020). Hollander wrote it himself (as opposed to being interviewed), and the whole thing is note-perfect comedy. I found it via this pinned tweet from @emilyashpowell – who contrasts it with Orlando Bloom’s performatively OTT Hollywood day. (‘can’t believe we all picked the wrong heart throb for so long, we were such fools’). I’m among many who return to re-read Hollander’s piece often.

Perhaps the greatest of them all, though, is Tom Baker’s ‘Life in the Day’ – written in 1978 when Baker was 44, by his friend and Soho lowlife chronicler Jeffrey Bernard. It’s arguably one of the finest descriptions of happily losing a day to the befuddlement of drink ever written: ‘I went to the Yorkminster in the hope of seeing Eva Johansen and also hoping for the miracle of seeing someone I’d never seen before. I bought 10 pence of money off Gaston… I was introduced to a Welsh school teacher who said he was delighted to meet me. We shook hands and he promptly had a heart attack. Astonishingly enough there were two doctors in the house – well, three if you included me…’ 

I just found out that it’s ‘tradition’ to re-share this on Tom Baker’s birthday every year. 

How perfect that there should be such a long life in a life in the day.

Similar formats:

There have been several collections of columns printed over the years – most recently this 2021 collection of 100 interviews. (Which is where I got the Hunter Davies details from.)

Parodies also abound. For years, Private Eye ran a column called ‘Me and My Spoons’, mocking the ‘celebrity trivia’ interview.

The magazine that has consistently used similar formats to the greatest effect is The Oldie – particularly ‘I Once Met…’, in which people recount their unexpected encounters with the famous or infamous. It has the same aura of unearthing stories that it would otherwise never have occurred to anyone to share.

Thanks Nick.

Not just for writing this, but for introducing me to Tom Hollander’s piece. What a glorious read that is!

If you have a suggestion for a format to unpack do what Nick did and get in touch. If someone forwarded this to you, and you’re not a subscriber, simply hit that subscribe button below to get it delivered to your inbox every Wednesday.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you all next week.

Hugh

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