‘The cover is like a piece of art in itself’: 32 years of Guardian Weekend magazine

·9 min read

In 1988, Guardian editor Peter Preston was feeling jealous. The recently launched Independent had a new supplement on Saturday. Edited by the late Alexander Chancellor, it was shot artfully in black and white, and was receiving praise for its inventive use of photography. Meanwhile, the Guardian had barely any feature writers; interviews usually ended up buried in the middle of the paper.

“Saturday had traditionally been the weakest day of the week in terms of circulation,” says former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger who was, at the time, the parliamentary sketch writer. “The Guardian had experimented with some not very successful newsprint sections – one called Friday had flopped. The Independent had broken the mould with their magazine and it had given them a massive boost in circulation. Something had to be done.”

Preston responded by launching a new Saturday section: Weekend, edited by Rusbridger. “We couldn’t afford to produce a proper magazine: it would have to be a newsprint tabloid section,” says Rusbridger.

At the beginning, the new Weekend Guardian was run on a shoestring. The first cover story was written by beer columnist Richard Boston – he’d gone on a trip to the south of France where he attempted to live with a group of naturists. But the Guardian refused to budget for a photographer to go with him – “So a London-based freelance, Nobby Clark, was dispatched to Aldworth in Berkshire to shoot a naked Boston in a deckchair,” Rusbridger says. Boston’s modesty was hidden only by a portable computer.

The best ideas are come up with straight away. If you’re still working it out five meetings later, it’s probably no good

The cover set the tone for a magazine that was to be more playful than the broadsheet it was tucked in. And it worked. Saturday went from being the worst-selling paper of the week to the best. The threat from the Independent gradually receded. Weekend also provided the Guardian with a new canvas with which to make stories come alive. Having a huge, colour magazine cover with which to sell a story was a designer’s dream.

“It’s like a piece of art in itself. There’s something about the totality of it, the full-page image and nothing else – particularly in the early days of the magazine when it was massive. It felt so impactful,” says Simon Hattenstone, who has been the magazine’s lead interviewer for decades. “It’s that mix of creative typography, great photo choices and ingenious cropping. So much of that is down to Maggie Murphy; she’s got a brilliant journalistic mind.”

Art director Murphy has been designing Weekend covers for over 20 years. She joined when Deborah Orr was editor – and was shocked by the culture. “I’d come from the Sunday Times where each Friday, the editor would come round like the Queen and you’d have to stand at your desk and present your work for that week. I couldn’t believe it when Deborah sat down in my chair and started writing in the captions herself. And she swore all the time. But she was so creative and it felt quite relaxed in the madness of it all.”

Over time, covers – and Weekend itself – became more ambitious. Perhaps the most dramatic turning point came in April 2001 when the magazine, by this point edited by the paper’s now editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, underwent a dramatic rebirth as a glossy magazine. Helped by increasing interest from readers in journalism about the way we live (not to mention the ad boom of the early 2000s), by September of that year the new Weekend had grown to 184 pages, a record for a UK supplement. The new glossy version of the magazine introduced memorable lifestyle columns such as the pseudonymous All the People I’ve Ever Slept With and Losing Sight... Still Looking, by Rebecca Atkinson, about dating while going blind. The revamp also saw the introduction of Hannah Pool’s column, The New Black, which offered weekly beauty advice for women of colour, a first in the mainstream British media.

Other favourite columns were later added, too, including Experience, in 2005 and Blind date, which was introduced by Viner’s successor Merope Mills in 2009.

By this point, Weekend had established a network of star writers including Jon Ronson, Louis Theroux, Gary Younge, Suzie Mackenzie, Decca Aitkenhead, Gordon Burn, Andrew O’Hagan, Zadie Smith, Sally Vincent and Arundhati Roy. They would be joined by

the biggest names in photography, including Sebastião Salgado and David Bailey, who debuted pictures on the cover. Artists Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili did takeovers of entire issues.

Jonathan King, Weekend magazine cover, 2001
Jonathan King, 2001 Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

But what made a great Weekend cover? Picture editor Kate Edwards says that no matter how ambitious the cover, it’s easy to tell which ones are going to work. “I think the most successful ones are the ideas we come up with straight away. If you’re still working it out five meetings later, then probably the idea isn’t that good.”

“To me, it’s just being playful; making the coverline words work with the image,” Murphy says. “When we ran a piece about an aeroplane crash that led to the deaths of 121 people, the story was all about whether one man had forgotten to flip a switch, so I knew we had to have a giant switch on the cover which cast the subtle shadow of an aeroplane. It was really simple and not expensive to do. It told the whole story.

“Even the Spice Girls cover,” Murphy adds, of one from before her time on Weekend, “probably the most famous cover we’ve done, where almost the entire photo is cropped so all you can see is their feet and lots of white space, with the coverline ‘The world at their feet’. Not many editors would have had the confidence to do that.”

It wasn’t just the editors who took risks to secure a cover. With space for longer interviews and big shoots, journalists could get to know their subjects better – sometimes in unusual environments – and even shadow them for a few days. “I remember being with Snoop Dogg and the room was full of people smoking these huge blunts,” Hattenstone says of his 2013 cover interview. “I didn’t even know what a blunt was at the time. They smelt fantastic. Snoop says, ‘Welcome to LA. Here, have a toke.’ I’d not smoked anything for about 20 years – I thought, if I do, I might get sacked because it’s not legal, or I might get sacked for refusing Snoop and being a bad journalist, so I said yeah. Then I thought I’d put him at ease by continuing to smoke it, so it just felt like we were having a chat. It was the strongest hallucinogenic thing ever but also tasted gorgeous, so I kept taking it back off him. At the end of the interview, the publicist said, ‘Are you OK, Simon?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, why?’ And he said, ‘Because you’re crawling on the floor.’”

Snoop was one of many celebrities who have posed in striking ways for Weekend covers: Daniel Radcliffe was captured smoking; Coleen Rooney was transformed into Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring; Boy George looked the world in the eye from beneath a red feathered hat; Johnny Vegas recreated Demi Moore’s Vanity Fair cover, posing topless (an image now in the National Portrait Gallery). “One of the strangest ones we did was with TV presenter Kate Garraway,” Edwards says. “She’d done a TV programme about breastfeeding and an idea was hatched to photograph her breastfeeding a calf – to highlight what she saw as the absurdity of giving babies cow’s milk.”

A calf was chosen (the photographer went to a barn in Kent) and rented for the day. “Kate wanted an element of discretion,” Edwards remembers. “There was quite a lot of negotiation about how much breast was on show.”

Covers like that are often organised by publicists who hope a glossy magazine profile will shine some stardust on their client. “But I think the best ones are those long-term investments where we’ve built up trust over years,” Hattenstone says. The interview that took the longest time to secure was his profile of Amanda Knox, who had been convicted of murdering her housemate, Meredith Kercher, then had that conviction overturned. “I’d interviewed her mum, after her trial in Italy. Then I sent Amanda a copy of the magazine – and she loved the fashion and Q&A. She said, ‘I really wanted to be a journalist but now I don’t trust any of them.’ But we kept writing to each other over the years.

“The editor, Merope Mills, was determined to get an interview. Eventually she got Amanda’s number off me and talked to her herself, and then went out to America just to meet her and sort out the interview. The piece was memorable because it was the week leading up to her third trial in the US, so at the start of the piece she was innocent and by the end she was guilty – although it seemed obvious to me that she hadn’t done it. I found it really upsetting when she was convicted.”

Takeovers and special issues of the magazine have become more common. In 2018, Weekend, at that point edited by Melissa Denes, partnered with gal-dem, the media collective of young women and non-binary journalists of colour. Michaela Coel was their dream cover star and she agreed to a rare interview and shoot. In keeping with the mission of the collaboration, everyone involved – makeup artists, photographers and stylists – were women of colour. “So many people were messaging me saying: ‘Oh my God, this is the first time I’ve picked up a paper and it really shows someone who looks like me,’” gal-dem editor Liv Little said at the time.

Related: The best magazine covers ever?

Denes says now that it’s only really possible to realise the best covers with the benefit of hindsight. “You appreciate and enjoy a magazine you made only months after it was published – when you no longer remember the near-misses, the bigger ambitions and the things that got away.”

One major near-miss was a 2019 interview with New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardernwhich was about to go to press on the day of the Christchurch terror attacks. “We were able to hold it, talk to Ardern again a week later, and run her first substantial interview on the cover,” Denes says.

Next week Weekend will have its next evolution, when the Guardian launches a new magazine, called Saturday. It will feature many reader favourites from Weekend, alongside new regulars and a big new culture, lifestyle and travel section.

Nearly 33 years and almost 1,700 issues after its launch, this is the final Weekend; Yotam Ottolenghi its final cover star. “Compared with today’s covers, the first issue now looks very drab and primitive,” Rusbridger says. “But it was the start of something special.”

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