‘Private Eye’ – the first 50 years…

3 11 2011

Issue 1300 of the fortnightly ‘Private Eye magazine (28th October 2011) is currently available at your local newsagent – priced £1.50.  

The best-selling current affairs publication, an irreverent, satirical, thorn in the side of establishment, is also celebrating its 50th anniversary with an exhibition at the self proclaimed ‘world’s greatest museum of art and design’, the V&A Museum.

I went along last Saturday afternoon and, after a bit of a trek through the V&A’s labyrinthine interior, eventually found the display dedicated to this most ‘notorious’, ‘particularly British phenomenon’, tucked away in Studio Gallery 17a and 18a – admission free!       

It was quite a cosy affair (as the actress said to the politician – ‘geddit?’) to say the least, but none the less enjoyable for that.

The compact display focuses, in particular, on how ‘Private Eye’, since its first publication on 25th October 1961, has made such effective use of ‘graphic satire and humour’, as an adjunct to  serious investigative journalism.      

‘Private Eye’ was born out of the ‘Salopian’, a mid ‘50s Shrewsbury School magazine, created by old boys: Richard Ingrams (1937- )‘PE’ editor from issue 40 – 1986 (he is still chairman of the holding company) and also founder and editor of ‘The Oldie’ magazine – launched 1992, Willie Rushton (1937-’96) cartoonist, comedian and much-loved panelist on Radio 4’s ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’, and Paul Foot (1937-2004) journalist and political campaigning nephew of former Labour leader Michael.

Following national service, Ingrams and Foot were to meet fellow collaborators Peter Usborne, Andrew Osmond and John Wells, as Oxford undergraduates.

It was Osmond who provided the financial backing to launch ‘Private Eye’, after Usborne discovered that a new printing process, called photo-litho offset, meant anybody with an Imperial Typewriter,  ‘Letraset’ stencils, a pair of scissors, and pot of ‘Cow Gum’ could produce a magazine.      

Christopher Booker (1937-) another old Salopian and currently a journalist with the ‘Sunday Telegraph’, known for his counter – mainstream views on a number of contemporary issues (notably global warming, passive smoking and the theory of evolution), was the first editor of ‘Private Eye’ while Willie Rushton was responsible for the lay-out.

What originally began life as a silly jokes publication with cartoons – a sort of alternative ‘Punch’, soon  got caught up with the satirical movement of the early ‘60s – popularised by the comedy stage revue ‘Beyond the Fringe’ and the ground breaking Sunday night TV show ‘That Was The Week That Was’.          

Following its initial success additional funding was made available for ‘Private Eye’ by comedian Peter Cook (1937-’95), once described by Stephen Fry as “the funniest man to ever draw breath”, and fondly remembered by many for his ‘Pete and Dud’ collaboration with fellow ‘Beyond the Fringe’ comedian  and renowned jazz pianist Dudley Moore (1935-2002).

The rest, as they say, is history and from there on the ‘Private Eye’ publication became fully professional, although it has always retained much of the amateurish feel from its earliest ‘cut and paste’ days, which somehow adds to its enduring appeal.   

It is still produced largely in black and white, with the exception of the front cover and a few cartoons. Even the ‘Colour Section’ remains, ironically, black and white although much of its content might be described as colourful. 

A timeline of the famous speech bubble front covers, one selected from each of its 50 years, forms a central part of the V&A display – and sadly I’ve been around long enough to recall the headline story behind each and every one of them!    

Elsewhere, Willie Rushton, Bill Tidy, Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman, and Royston Robertson are just a few of a whole host of talented and influential cartoonists, associated with ‘Private Eye’, who have their artistic contributions on display.  

‘Private Eye’ has always specialised in scurrilous gossip and publicising scandalous behaviour of the powerful and famous, often trespassing where mainstream publications have feared to tread for fear of legal reprisals. Many of its specialist contributors, including those from the world of media, hide their identity behind humorous pseudonyms.   

The publication has, on more than a few occasions, caused public offence by its use of humour considered by some as distasteful, and has at times stood charged of bigotry and blasphemy.

The current editor, Ian Hislop, who took over from Ingrams in ’86, and is equally well-known as a team captain on the popular, long running topical panel show ‘Have I Got News For You’  (he has never missed a single episode in its 42 series history), is also the most sued man in British history.

Not surprisingly ‘Private Eye’ has always maintained a ‘fighting fund’ to stem the flow of libel law-suits that have come, and continue, to come its way. Only  one legal case has ever been won by the publication in its entire 50 year history.

Following, what turned out to be another rather expensive joke, and yet another defeat in the courts, Hislop famously paid out a fat cheque (£250,000) to a fat Czech – ‘Mirror’ mogul Robert Maxwell.

But revenge is a dish best served cold and later, after ‘Captain Bob’ had literally ‘gone overboard’ – for the final time, it was  Hislop who had the last ‘laugh’, acquiring the corrupt media man’s chair for the ‘Private Eye’ office, in order to satisfy his ‘fantasies of power’.  

An interactive corner of the V&A display is evocative of Hislop’s editor’s office, a desk overflowing with papers, artwork, press clippings, past editions of the magazine, and a telephone link to ‘breaking news’.    

Alongside its investigative journalism, ‘Private Eye’ has always been a home for recurring jokes, parody and cutting edge satire.

Writer and actor John Wells (1936-1998) one of the original ‘Private Eye’ contributors, first gave us ‘Mrs Wilson’s Diary’, a parody of the popular ’60s BBC radio series ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’, detailing the fictional life of the wife of, the then prime minister, Harold Wilson.

In later years he followed this up, in similar vein, with the ‘Dear Bill’ letters, purportedly from ex-prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s late husband Dennis to veteran journalist W.F. Deedes, in which DT is portrayed as an amiable golf playing, gin sodden drunk. He further lampooned Dennis on stage and in TV performances.        

‘Colemanballs’, which owes its name to ex BBC sports commentator David Coleman, is a long-standing ‘Private Eye’ favourite, inspired by commentary gaffes in poor or accidentally inaccurately humorous English.

More recent popular additions to the cast have included ‘Dumb Britain’ which feeds off examples of poor general knowledge taken from TV quiz shows , and ‘Let’s Parlez Franglais’ which mocks politics in Europe through imaginary transcripts written in a mangled combination of English and French.   

Prime ministerial parodies have formed part of the ‘Private Eye’ reader’s staple diet for many years.

Neil Kinnock, when leader of the Labour opposition, was portrayed as ‘Dan Dire’ attempting to unseat prime-minister Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Maggon’ – super ruler of the universe; a parody of the 1950s ‘Eagle’ comic-strip Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future and his arch-enemy the Mekon.    

‘The Secret Diary of John Major’ was written in the style of author Sue Townsend’s best-selling ‘Adrian Mole’ series, while Tony Blair, the  guitar playing ‘Vicar of St Albion’s’, penned a sanctimonious Parish Newsletter .   

The lastest in this genre, ‘Newsletter from the New coalition Academy’ (formerly Brown’s Comprehensive), brings us bang up to date, with its portrayal of David Cameron as head-teacher and Nick Clegg his incompetent deputy,   

Gordon Brown and his ‘supporters’ featured in the ‘The Broonites’, a pastiche of the popular Scottish comic strip ‘The Broons’ – written in broad Scots speech-bubbles.

Following the last election he was replaced by ‘Dave Snooty’ and his public schoolboy cabinet, drawn ‘Beano’ style.                        

When asked, in a BBC interview, how important satire is in contemporary society, Ian Hislop responded, “very important, of course”, before making reference to an 18th century definition that, in Britain, satire has always been about ‘the exposure of vice, folly and humbug.’

No change there then, and on the same basis, there is certainly no cause for concern that ‘Private Eye’ will ever run out of suitable material.

Ian Hislop told a reporter from the  ‘London Evening Standard’ that the V&A’s ‘Private Eye – the first 50 years’  exhibition is, “a celebration of the power of pen and ink and shows that print is in no way dead.”

And so say all of us – here’s to the next 50 years of irreverence and notoriety!





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