The PPA show must go on: some outrageous nights in the past 40 years
A view from Barry McIlheney

The PPA show must go on: magazine Oscars turn 40

As this year's ceremony takes place on Zoom, the long-time PPA boss recalls some of the biggest and most outrageous awards nights of the past four decades.

Isn’t it amazing what you can get done during lockdown?  

Only the other night, for example, I sat down and finally worked out exactly just how many PPA Awards ceremonies I have been to ever since the "magazine Oscars" first started way back in 1981.

Sadly, Roy Castle is no longer with us to confirm, but my own personal tally of 30 shows in the 39 years to date must surely be something of a record-breaker. 

Most of it, of course, is a complete blur, especially in the drinking years back in the day, with the early noughties in particular now seeming like one long endless combination of rubber chicken, hotel rooms till dawn and Jimmy Carr shouting from the stage.

Three particular years, however, do still live long in the memory.

The first is 1993, the year when I only went and won the bloody thing. My overwhelming memory is one of relief, having been nominated as Editor of the Year a number of times before for my stints on Smash Hits and Empire.

This particular year was for Empire and I was thrilled beyond belief. I went outside and rang my mum back in Belfast from the old pay phone near The Grosvenor, then shared a cab back home to Stoke Newington with my boss Tom Moloney, who spent most of the journey telling me not to let it go to my head.

Wise words, which I almost certainly ignored, especially when it was time for the annual pay review. 

The second would have been two or three years later, at the height of the Loaded era. Editor James Brown was a fan of both Smash Hits and Empire, and in some act of editorial solidarity kindly offered to share his supply of LSD with me on the night.

I politely declined, the idea of spending what is already an intense enough event tripping out of my gourd being just a bridge too far.

A very wise decision, based on James’ own recollections of that evening, with an entire chapter of his forthcoming memoir being devoted to the ensuing chaos and full-on panic attack. 

The third and final memory is from just two years ago. By 2018, the drinking and the acid were thankfully long gone and I was no longer the young hopeful nominee of a quarter-of-a-century before, but now the much older – and hopefully somewhat wiser – veteran of this wonderful event, there in my capacity as host and chief executive of the PPA itself.

I had been in the role since 2010 and, by now, The PPA Awards were firmly established as by far the biggest event in the magazine media calendar, with more entries, more attendees and more downright hoopla than ever before. 

Some years the stars just align for you and 2018 was just one of those years.

We had the easiest winner’s walk-up music pick ever with Country Walking’s "Walk 1000 miles" campaign, the first glimpses of the long-overdue social revolution coming our way with Vogue’s Edward Enninful winning the PPA Chairman’s Award for his pioneering work on diversity and John Bird’s Lifetime Achievement Award for The Big Issue, and, perhaps most memorably, we had the entire team from indie darlings Mixmag literally dancing with joy on the stage to The Chemical Brothers as they took home the big one for Magazine Brand of the Year.

This year’s event – when these magazine Oscars should have been wildly and very publicly celebrating their 40th birthday live at The Grosvenor – will of course be very different, subject as we all are now to the rules of the brand new normal.

So, instead of all piling down that magic staircase together on Tuesday night as we hear "Ladies and gentlemen, The PPA Awards are about to begin", we shall instead be sitting on our own at home on Tuesday afternoon, watching it all unfold on Zoom.

There will still be more than 1,000 of us there, though, the very best of this beleaguered but brilliant industry will still be rightly recognised and celebrated, and the Editor of the Year will still be absolutely the Editor of the Year.

And my money is still very much on he or she ringing his or her mum straight after to breathlessly impart the glad tidings. 

Barry McIlheney was chief executive of the PPA from February 2010 to April 2020. He is an ex-editor of Smash Hits and Empire, and former publisher of Q, Mojo, Elle and The Face. In 2018, he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the magazine industry in his native Ireland

The 40th PPA Awards will take place on Zoom tomorrow (Tuesday) at 4.30pm. Go to ppaawards.co.uk to register to attend

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