Words Kirk Truman
Illustrations Ross Becker
“…when you come across real talent, it is sometimes worth allowing them to create the structure in which they choose to labour.”
The late Felix Dennis was a legend in the publishing world. The same could be said of the publishing house he founded, which has outlived its creator and continues as an industry leader to this day. The story of Felix Dennis and Dennis Publishing is one that takes place almost entirely in Fitzrovia – the story of a golden age in publishing and of a Fitzrovia institution. From Rathbone Place to 30 Cleveland Street, Felix and his publishing house have left their mark on the neighbourhood, just as they have on publishing in the UK. There are a number of well-known titles you may know from the Dennis empire: Viz, Fortean Times, Cyclist and The Week to name but a few. Today, the site of Dennis Publishing at 30 Cleveland Street is undergoing a vigorous restoration, to again offer an exceptional and inimitable working environment at the heart of Fitzrovia. But as John Stacey of UK & European Investments, which is undertaking the refurbishment, notes wryly “Fitzrovia attracts many of the brightest and best of creative businesses but we’re not expecting the new occupiers to have quite as vivid a story as that of Felix Dennis…”
The son of a part-time jazz pianist who ran a tobacconist’s shop, Felix grew up in Kingston upon Thames, south-west London. His upbringing was a humble one; his dad took off when his son was 12, and Felix lived for a time in his grandparents’ tiny terraced house in Thames Ditton. After brief stints at art college and as a rock and roll drummer, the start of his career in publishing was equally inauspicious: selling copies of the counterculture magazine Oz – a heady mix of sex, drugs and politics – on London’s Kings Road. By 1969, after a couple of years selling advertising and writing music reviews (including the first review of Led Zeppelin’s eponymously titled debut album), he had become one of the magazine’s co-editors. For Felix, the 1970s began with a bang when Oz became embroiled in the longest conspiracy trial in British history. For their infamous ‘Schoolkids Issue’, Felix and his co-editors Richard Neville and Jim Anderson invited a bunch of public school fifth and sixth formers to edit the magazine: a sexually explicit Rupert the Bear cartoon strip proved too much for the authorities, resulting in the arrest and trial of all three editors. With John ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ Mortimer as their defence barrister, the ‘Oz Three’ were initially found guilty on a charge of ‘conspiracy to corrupt public morals’ before the verdict was overturned on appeal and Felix’s convictions were quashed.
As Oz magazine folded in 1973, Felix started his own Cozmic Comics, publishing work by underground cartoonists including Robert Crumb as well as British artists such as Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland. And then came a fateful moment that proved instrumental in his career: Felix saw teenagers queuing for a Bruce Lee movie, and something in his mind clicked. He conceived the idea of publishing a martial arts magazine in a format that would open up into a poster – perfect for adorning the walls of teenagers’ bedrooms. First published under the auspices of H. Bunch Associates, Kung-Fu Monthly became the first publication of the newly-founded Dennis Publishing in 1974. Being eventually sold in 14 countries, the magazine was an immediate success, making over £60,000 in its first year. From here, Dennis Publishing begun to build a burgeoning portfolio, producing within its first few years of business an array of bestselling titles capitalising on the international obsession with Kung Fu and Muhammad Ali’s legendary fight with Joe Frazier. Helmed by British expat Peter Godfrey, Dennis Publishing began selling its publications in the US. It was the start of a highly profitable relationship that led to a decades-long partnership between the two men.
Beginning with Which Bike? in 1976, a number of special interest consumer publications were added to the growing Dennis portfolio. Again, Felix followed his keen commercial instincts; he spotted a good idea, thought about it, and presented it to his team, allowing them to develop it as a title with real market potential. It was a simple but effective formula that resulted in one successful product after another. In his words, “when you come across real talent, it is sometimes worth allowing them to create the structure in which they choose to labour. In nine cases out of ten, by inviting them to take responsibility and control for a new venture, you will motivate them to do great things…”
Through this period Dennis Publishing was based at 39 Goodge Street, but with continued success that showed little sign of stopping, they had finally outgrown their first Fitzrovia nest. Next, the company relocated to 14 Rathbone Place, not too far afield; Felix had discovered the site one day while walking from his Soho flat to the Goodge Street offices. By 1979, amid the success of multiple new titles, the team had grown to 16 strong. It was at this point that Felix struck gold once again. Following his instincts, as usual, he purchased Europe’s first home computer magazine, PC World, for less than £100,000. Growing the title and its readership, Dennis Publishing sold it three years later for a colossal £3m. Adding another title in 1983 in the UK and the US, MacUser was sold in the US two years later for close to $20m.
Dennis Publishing had come to establish itself as a major UK publishing house, but by the dawn of the new century, it was bursting at its seams and the business was spread across a number of sites. With an eye to the obvious benefits to management, overheads and team spirit, it was in 2000 that Felix chose to house almost the entire company’s activities under one roof, over five floors at 30 Cleveland Street. The location was the very beating heart of Fitzrovia, directly opposite the now demolished Middlesex Hospital. The new premises had itself once been used as a private clinic for military officers, which gave it all the more appeal in Felix’s eyes. The publisher remained on the same site for 17 years until relocating to a new site a short distance away in Bloomsbury last year. During this time, Dennis Publishing cemented itself as a leader of the industry in the UK and beyond, with Felix becoming renowned as a publishing legend, famed for his maverick entrepreneurial style. Later in life, he developed a taste for writing poetry, a perhaps surprising new venture in which he enjoyed considerable success before he passed away in 2014.
In the autumn, the revitalised and restored 30 Cleveland Street will emerge from behind its current carapace of scaffolding. Alongside 40,000 square feet of new office space, the building will feature terraces on the upper floors with vistas which should prove suitably inspirational for visionaries from any walk of business. John Stacey observes: “Given its art deco style and rich history, we want to keep the spirit of the building. Certainly, Felix Dennis will always be on any list of great Fitzrovia characters.” Enhanced and rethought, 30 Cleveland Street’s future is assured in Fitzrovia, while keeping true to the legacy of Dennis Publishing.