Formats Unpacked: Lunch with FT

How a newspaper column uses an old trick to reveal someone's character

Hi All,

And hello to new subscribers. Where have you all been?

After last week’s book debut on Formats Unpacked, this week we have another first - a magazine column, brilliantly unpacked by a friend of Storythings George Walkley.

George spent more than twenty years in the publishing industry and is now working freelance helping companies with digital transformation, innovation and strategy.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have lunch with George on several occasions. Over these lunches I discovered that he’s incredibly smart, humble, and great company. I’ve since discovered he’s very good at unpacking formats too.

Over to George…

What’s it called?

Lunch with FT (newspaper column)

What’s the format?

The Financial Times invites interesting people to be interviewed over lunch. The subject chooses the restaurant. The FT picks up the bill. The write-ups are published in the weekend edition. The result is seldom dull. It is invariably the first page I turn to on Saturday mornings, and it has spawned a couple of books collecting the best of them. You really don’t know who you’re going to be reading, other than that they will be eminent in their field. World leaders, industrialists, oligarchs and economists feature heavily (but then it is practically their house journal). But it might as easily be a playwright, an artist, or a startup CEO, Jean Paul Gaultier, Greta Thunberg or Diddy

What’s the magic that makes it special?

There’s something about conducting an interview over a meal that gets the subjects to drop their guard. I think it goes back to the old piece of recruitment advice that if you really want to see someone’s character, observe how they treat the waiter. And whatever you feel about the interviewee, there’s something wonderfully revealing about their choice of restaurant, food and drink. A single description of gluttony, rudeness or bad table manners can be more damning than paragraphs of direct speech. Sometimes you get theatrical displays of frugality like the ghastly sounding but perfectly on-brand sandwich lunch with Michael O’Leary at Ryanair’s offices. On other occasions it is an epicurean treat such as chef Fergus Henderson inviting the FT to his own restaurant (and then on to the Groucho). With the world locked down this year, the column could have lost its way, but just as we’ve all adapted to the temporary loss of cafes and restaurants, readers have got used to Annie Leibovitz ordering in sushi and Anthony Fauci making himself a turkey and cheese sandwich.

Favourite Episodes:

I always enjoy the subjects I wasn’t familiar with in advance: last year, a two part lunch with Armenian president Armen Sarkissian diagnosing contemporary politics through the lens of his experience as a particle physicist; the year before, Lucy Kellaway interviewing Andria Zafirakou, the North London secondary school teacher who had won the title of the world’s best teacher.

There’s also something quite special about bad behaviour, and Henry Mance’s menacing, profanity-laced and eye-wateringly expensive lunch with press baron and pornographer Richard Desmond is a masterpiece of letting an interview subject reveal their self image, and allowing the reader to see the contradictions.

However, the last word ought to go the late poet Gavin Ewart, who started a remarkably bibulous lunch with several negronis (“not an amateur’s drink”, as the FT wrote) and carried on from there. The next day, his wife called the interviewer. “There are two things you need to know. The first is that Gavin came home yesterday happier than I have seen him in a long time. The second—and you are not to feel bad about this—is that he died this morning.”

Thanks for the unpacking George.

I’m really keen to find out who is writing about formats or thinking about formats in a similar way. Who are you all reading, listening to, or watching? Any recommendations would be appreciated.

This newsletter was partly inspired by the Rule of Three podcast, which invites people in comedy to talk about something that makes them laugh. Give it a listen, it’s wonderful.

Thanks for reading and if you have a favourite format that you would like to unpack get in touch. More unpacking next week.