In Memoriam: Stephen Payne, editor and publisher

Publisher and editor Stephen Payne in 2017. Photo © and courtesy Kevin Jon Davies
Publisher and editor Stephen Payne in 2017. Photo © and courtesy Kevin Jon Davies

I am incredibly sad to learn of the death of Stephen Payne, a co-founder of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society (DWAS), former editor of Starburst magazine and founder of Visual Imagination, whose raft of publications predominantly catered for the growing interest in television fantasy and science fiction.

Although I recognised Stephen’s name from my (brief) membership of DWAS, our paths crossed when my chum Paul Mount and I were looking to have work published in newsstand magazines. By happy coincidence, Visual Imagination had gained ownership of Starburst, Britain’s premier magazine of film horror and SF, established back in 1977 by Dez Skin in the wake of Star Wars and, with Issue Four, published by Marvel UK. The company took over publication with Issue 88, and changed the content away from 1980s gore to embrace television science fiction, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Stephen was looking for content and Paul and I were more than happy to provide it, starting with coverage of the BBC’s would-be replacement for Doctor Who, The Tripods.

After a while, Stephen noted that the magazine had probably lost its readership for niche horror and replaced it with fans of TV fantasy of different kinds. Nevertheless, the market for ‘cult’ media was very different to today. ‘Fans’ of SF were devalued as ‘sad’ and a ‘cult’ TV show was one few people had seen and was cancelled (usually by season three). ‘The market for “sell through” VHS was in its infancy, with people wondering exactly why they should buy the (few) TV series that they’d previously watched for “free”. In the early days, some readers would write in questioning why the magazine was covering programmes such as Timeslip and The Tomorrow People, because no one would ever see them again.

Starburst Issue 88, Visual Imagination's first edition of the long-running title
Starburst Issue 88, Visual Imagination’s first edition of the long-running title

Stephen also offered me my first job. I spent a day in the Starburst offices trying out. It was a disaster. I made myself ill with too many chocolate digestives, I couldn’t understand why the word processing package left dots between words and wasted time trying to delete them, and my attempts to sell advertising space came to naught as companies simply said, “Why should we bother? Your readers will buy our stuff anyway and you’ll publicise it for free in reviews”.

During my interview, Stephen, a former maths teacher, asked me to mentally solve a simple math problem. I went blank. He was quick to assure me that my interview was terrible but offered me work because he knew me. After sleeping on the offer, I respectfully declined.

I also have Stephen to thank for introducing me to the joys of Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras, which allowed me to illustrate interviews with my own photographs. Stephen had arranged a trip to the United States to the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation, during which he interviewed members of the cast. On his return, and after publishing his interview with Patrick Stewart, Stephen decided he was a better editor than writer and divvied the rest of the interview tapes to Paul and myself. (Paul and I were influenced by the mischievous writing style of Smash Hits, so Stephen found himself editing out asides such as “Oo-er missus!”, “I’ll have a cup of tea!” and “Spock!”).

One April, we wrote a column for Visual Imagination’s TV Zone title, publicising a completely fictitious TV series, Beyond Belief (an horror anthology with stories such as ‘The Kaghoul’ and ‘Monsters Want our Brains for Food’), and an animated children’s series (Spanglies: Science Fiction Marbles from Outer Space). The “April Fool” column was published, so we thought we’d got away with it. Two weeks later, Stephen rang Paul to tell him, “Don’t do it again!” – something Stephen had to say to me on more than one occasion. (Later, Stephen despaired as Paul, who is no fan of Star Trek, determined not to cover the BBC’s ‘Star Trek Weekend)’.

I last spoke to Stephen when Starburst was under new editorship, and I was trying to organise coverage of the re-launch of Doctor Who. The BBC’s press office were not particularly co-operative, and I ended up having no choice but to watch and report on the location filming. It all became rather fraught, again. Stephen’s support during his tenure as editor helped me build up a portfolio of work and, from there, work on other publications. He gave me many happy memories, something I know Visual Imagination’s publications gave to their readers.

Stephen Payne, RIP.

Tim Robins

Categories: downthetubes News, Features, Magazines, Obituaries, Other Worlds, Science Fiction

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1 reply

  1. I didn’t know Stephen that well, but he was always great with me, despite Doctor Who Magazine, which I once edited, and TV Zone being sort of newsstand rivals (Longtime Who fans may recall we both had the same photo “Curse of Fenric” on our covers one month, which in part prompted my move to commissioned art and photos).

    We were both on location for during the shoot for the Doctor Who story “Survival”, and he kindly gave me a lift back to London, which given the heat that day was very welcome as I din’t fancy walking back to the nearby train station, which was an hour’s walk!

    My sympathies to his many friends and those who worked with him down the years. His passing is a shock to many, I know.

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