Torin Douglas MBE, Director of the Chiswick Book Festival
Profile by Bridget Osborne
“Ask Torin” … “Torin will know somebody” … “The person you need to speak to is Torin Douglas”.
I think Torin invented Networking. There will be some American business guru who’s sold millions of copies of his book who claims that he did, but really it was Torin. He knows hundreds of people in Chiswick and if he can help you out by introducing you to someone within his circle of influence, he will do. The Director of the Chiswick Book Festival since it started in 2009, Torin has also run the Bedford Park Festival since 2002 – the two biggest events in Chiswick’s social calendar – and he was awarded an MBE in 2013 for ‘services to the community’ in Chiswick. “I’m not running it any more” he told me at least two years ago, talking about the Bedford Park Festival. “I’m trying to take a step back and let other people run it” but no matter how much he protests, people always point you in his direction if you need to know anything about it, as he is the man who knows.
The day job
Born in Cheshire and brought up in Surrey, Torin got his first job as a journalist on the Weekly News, a very popular paper which did lots of stories about showbiz and the royals. His column ‘Anne Muir talks shop sense’ was an early example of consumer journalism. The paper considered that readers wouldn’t take advice on shopping from a man, so ‘Anne Muir’ he became, which meant that when he road tested a £5 suit for a week he had to refer to himself in the collum as ‘my young colleague’ and do without his wife Carol’s company for the duration, as she refused to be seen with him in his cheap, shiny suit.
Having worked in Fleet St, written regularly for The Times, the Independent, the Economist and Campaign and been one of the founding editors of Marketing Week, it was his knowledge of the media and 5 years’ experience as a radio presenter with LBC which landed him the job of media correspondent at the BBC in 1989, a job which he did for 24 years.
Media Correspondent at the BBC
When he was appointed the role was new, created by John Birt, then Director of News and Current Affairs. The reception from colleagues wasn’t quite what he was hoping for. When he walked in to the Today Programme office for the first time and introduced himself with his new title, presenter Brian Redhead said: , “Oh well, I hope you get a proper job one day.”
Somewhat dejected after his first six reports for the Today Programme were not run, he began to think he’d made a mistake. But John Birt had rightly foreseen that the media world was expanding and changing. BBC Radio News no longer needed three Industrial correspondents as it had in the seventies and early eighties. What it did need was someone who could understand the Internet and its revolutionary potential. Birt was credited with preparing the BBC for the digital age and Torin was soon reporting on stories like the battle between Sky and BSB for supremacy in satellite broadcasting and the first newspapers going online.
By the time Torin left the BBC in 2013 he’d covered major stories such as the Hutton Report, the resignation of Greg Dyke as BBC Director-General, and the death of Princess Diana, when he was on air continually for two solid weeks. In the process he’d become a household name. When correspondents are that successful they can become a little grand and start refusing to do the 6.00 am turn on Radio 5 Live or a two-way with a local radio station. Torin’s reputation with producers was that of a hard worker who would always help you out if he could.
Having moved to Chiswick in 1975 with Carol, whom he met at Warwick university, they got involved with St Michael and All Angels Church. Their three children Richard, Michael and Ellie were baptised there and Torin became more involved in the social life of the church when Ellie started singing in the choir and taking part in Bedford Park Festival events. He found a natural partner in Fr Kevin Morris, who wanted the church to be a cultural powerhouse and make a contribution to the whole community of Chiswick, not just the regular congregation. The two work together in organising both festivals.
Soon immersed in the Bedford Park Festival, Torin saw The Chiswick Book Festival as a natural development, as there had always been a book element to the festival. The first Book Festival was hugely helped by having industry insiders Jacks Thomas – then at Midas PR, now Director of the London Book Fair – and Malcolm Edwards, then deputy chief executive and publisher of Orion on board. (He was the editor of George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones, amongst other things.) The first year’s line-up included Lady Antonia Fraser, Anthony Horowitz, Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Frayn and the rest, as they say is history.
The roll call of famous authors who’ve appeared at the Book Festival is pretty impressive: novelists such as Maggie O’Farrell, historians Max Hastings and Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, children’s writers Jacqueline Wilson and Cressida Cowell, comedy writers David Baddiel, Shappi Khorsandi and Andy Hamilton, adventurers, food and wine writers, people who’ve written their autobiography, such as Jo Malone and Mary Portas, and a fair smattering of journalists and politicians like Hunter Davies, Jeremy Vine and Vince Cable, reflecting Torin’s own contacts book.
I asked him which were the moments that stood out for him from ten years of directing the Book Festival. “The very first event” he said. “When Antonia Fraser filled the church for that very first event, I was so pleased – but what was even better was that she said to everyone at the end ‘What a wonderful church and what wonderful questions from the audience.’” Michael Morpurgo, who three years in got the biggest audience ever – more than 400 people. Torin remembers a little girl standing up and asking him “Why do so many people die in your books?” and the audience laughing when Michael Morpurgo asked her name. “Joy” she told him.
And the Bedford Park Festival? “I got to know Richard Briers quite well” Torin told me. “He was a lovely man. He could be quite grumpy. He didn’t like crowds”. Fr Kevin Morris presided over his funeral at St Michael & All Angels. He recalled how Richard Briers always said “I’m not religious”. Fr Kevin got the last laugh. “You are now” he told a packed church.
The line-up of celebrities for the opening of the 50th Green Days weekend also illustrates the pulling power of Torin’s influence. Downton Abbey actors Elizabeth McGovern and Phyllis Logan, singer Sophie Ellix Bextor and journalists Fergal Keane, Rageh Omar and Jeremy Vine were all there to celebrate the big anniversary.
Not averse to a little gossip, if there is one person with their finger on the pulse of the social and cultural life of Chiswick, it’s Torin. Being a big fish in a small pond can go to your head. Life and literature are full of people who wield a little influence and swan about, using it to triumph in petty rivalries. Torin doesn’t swan, he bustles. He bustles about in a cheerful and entirely productive way for the common good. The opposite of the caricature, he doesn’t seem to bear grudges or make enemies and if there’s a way of working cooperatively, he’ll find it.
He set up an annual networking event a few years ago with Jane Harrison, former Principal of the Arts Ed, because he realised that although he knew lots of people organising cultural events in Chiswick, they didn’t know each other. Providing a forum for the various organisations to meet each other has led to the blossoming of all sorts of productive relationships. The Dog Show talks to the Artists at Home, who chat to the Chiswick Playhouse theatre, who make plans with local writers and so on.
Fat chance of ‘stepping back’. I hate to tell you this Torin, but you are indispensable to the social life of Chiswick!