‘I’m sceptical, not cynical’

Next month, one of Britain’s best-loved media institutions celebrates its 50th anniversary. There will be a huge party at one of the inner sanctums of the ruling elite, the Guildhall in London, an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a new book that the PR agency would only let me glimpse after I signed a four-page, 23-clause confidentiality agreement ... everything short of a 21-gun salute in Hyde Park.

At this moment, one would hope that Britain’s leading satirical publication, Private Eye, would leap up and start taking the piss out of the whole business. However, as you will have guessed, the celebrant on this occasion is (as the Eye always likes to say), er, Private Eye.

Still, one of the glories of the magazine is that it is capable of sensing absurdity anywhere, even in itself. The party, says the invitation, is sponsored by the Worshipful Company of Hacks and Jokewrights. “But come on,” I say to Ian Hislop, the editor. “The Guildhall?” He looks a bit sheepish. “Over 50 years we’ve had a hell of a lot of contributors. We need a big venue.”

And there is a lot to celebrate. For this is a most improbable survivor. Born into poverty, it was often a sickly infant, then a wild teenager with a self-destructive streak. In middle age, it has become more mature and comfortable, though it is still not wholly – thank heavens – without impishness and mischief.

Indeed, one could argue that Private Eye has acquired a quasi-constitutional role as the one force in British society that can be relied on to stand aside from whatever current orthodoxy is sweeping Britain or the world by questioning it, investigating it and mocking it.

In the past decade and a half alone, there have been four spectacular cases of national resolve and/or unanimity that had elements of the delusional: Tony Blair’s landslide victory in the 1997 election; the outpouring of grief that marked Princess Diana’s death a few months later; the response to 9/11 in 2001; and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The recent urban riots may offer another example. On each occasion, the Eye has been ready with a douche of cold water. Its Diana cover, which depicted crowds outside Buckingham Palace denouncing the media while clamouring to see pictures of the crash, caused uproar, bans by some newsagents and a slump in sales. Yet nothing else caught the mood quite so aptly.

Only three weeks ago, The Guardian columnist Martin Kettle named Hislop, ahead of David Cameron, as “the single most influential voice in modern British politics”. This was not meant as a compliment. Kettle belongs to a small but significant group within the commentariat which holds that the British are unkind to their rulers. He did not exactly blame this trait on Hislop but named him as chief perpetrator, not so much as editor of the Eye but as an ever-present panellist on the jokey topical TV quiz show Have I Got News for You?

“The current satirical onslaught against politics as a whole, which amounts sometimes to monomania and increasingly to cliché, ought at the very least to be a proper subject for discussion,” Kettle wrote. “Sneering at politicians should not simply be waved through on a permanent tide of approbation.”

But columnists have some influence; most people do not. As the anthropologist Kate Fox observed in her book Watching the English, this is a nation that, when faced with small affronts to civic norms, such as bad service or queue-jumping, does not openly denounce the perpetrators. We whisper, we chunter, maybe we sneer. The same goes for other tormenters. Sardonic resignation, not parliamentary opposition or rioting, is our chief defence mechanism against the impositions of government. If Hislop and Private Eye did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them.

Richard Ingrams, Christopher Booker and Willie Rushton in 1963

Yet the Eye came about by accident, the product largely of four extraordinary men, Christopher Booker, Richard Ingrams, Willie Rushton and Paul Foot, who happened to be near-contemporaries at Shrewsbury School and developed their subversive instincts on its magazine, the Salopian. There were few more fertile breeding grounds for satire than a 1950s English public school.

In later life, the four were never a coherent group. New collaborators appeared; there were disappearances, sackings, fallings-out and makings-up. But in essence most of the group coalesced again in London at the start of the 1960s, at the very moment what became known as “the satire boom” was taking shape, along with the first faint puffs of smoke from the much larger explosion of youth, sex, drugs, rock and rebellion that would define the decade.

After 10 years, the Conservative government, led by 67-year-old Harold Macmillan, was ripe for mockery. The young stars of Beyond the Fringe (Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett) had stormed both the West End and Broadway and created an appetite for undergraduate humour with a political edge. And Cook had just opened his sensational Soho cabaret club, the Establishment, which brought over the wild American comedian Lenny Bruce to enrage bourgeois opinion.

It was against this background, on October 25 1961, that – thanks to Booker’s drive and Rushton’s cartoons – a yellow-paged pamphlet appeared with the production values of a school magazine and a bizarre front page headline: Churchill Cult Next for Party Axe. It is thought 300 copies were sold.

Just over a year later the satire boom reached its apotheosis when the BBC began showing That Was the Week That Was (TW3), fronted by David Frost. Hislop, a toddler at the time, is one of many who cannot understand, having seen a few surviving clips, what the fuss was about. But the programme had a raw edge and phenomenal energy. And the point was that the staid BBC, which had only lately been respectfully asking the prime minister if there was anything he wished to impart to the nation, had now joined in and was mocking the politicians. The nation was captivated and occasionally shocked by the audacity of it all. (As an 11-year-old, I was sometimes allowed to stay up late and share the experience.) But for TW3, Hislop would not now be on TV irritating Martin Kettle. Anything seemed possible.

Except perhaps the 50-year survival of the fortnightly Eye. The Establishment Club folded in 1964; TW3 lasted just two series. The magazine, however, was blessed by a succession of happy flukes. The Profumo affair in 1963 – involving the sexual adventures of Macmillan’s war minister – was satirical gold. Much more lastingly (his family still have notional control), Cook emerged both as the Eye’s proprietor and purveyor of his uniquely crazed humour, still preserved in such Eye staples as the letter writer from the shires, Sir Herbert Gussett (and his “lady wife, whose name for the moment escapes me”).

Above all, the Eye stumbled on the formula that would define it. Richard Ingrams, who was absent at the creation but quickly joined in and supplanted Booker as editor, met the old leftie writer Claud Cockburn, who encouraged him to add journalism to the jokes. “Tell them things they don’t know and make fun of what they do know,” he advised.

And – though every other paper and magazine now looks vastly different compared to the 1960s – the Eye found the mix that has sustained it to this day: the bubble-joke covers; mild scurrility at the front, concentrating on the rackets and hypocrisies of minor public figures; jokes in the middle; and heavy investigative stuff at the back, executed, most masterfully, by the late Paul Foot.

The back pages, known in his pomp as Foot Notes, may be the least read in British journalism. They might also be the most important. “He had the freedom to bang on about things when other editors would say ‘We’ve heard enough about this,’ ” recalls Ingrams. “Paul would go on and on and on.” In the end, however long it took to land the killer blow, his targets usually turned out to be the right ones: in the 1970s he exposed the corrupt businessman-cum-political operator John Poulson and the Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe whose attempts to cover up his homosexual past had led to the most extraordinary conspiracy. Before he died in 2004, Foot was banging on about the private finance initiative, a governmental accounting trick the mainstream press has largely taken at face value.

Foot was granted his freedom by Ingrams, a disarming figure who still says he doesn’t know what satire is. “We were a just a group of ex-university students trying to carry on behaving like university students.” That was perhaps why the magazine was always “anti-” rather than pro-anything. Part of Kettle’s complaint is that the current editor has no political heroes. “I don’t think I’m cynical,” says Hislop, “I’m sceptical.”

Yet the fact that Private Eye has never put its trust in saviours of any kind has been crucial to its endurance – as is its refusal to be identified by any political label. Foot was always on the left; Booker, passionately anti-EU, is most identified with the romantic ruralist right. The Eye could contain them both.

That was largely a function of Ingrams’ relaxed-looking leadership style (which, at 74, he still displays as editor of the gentler Oldie): “I think editing is like giving a party,” he says. “Your job is to jolly everyone along.”

On the Eye, that involved dicing with possible catastrophe in the libel courts. Hislop, plucked out as a 25-year-old for the editorship in 1986 when Ingrams had started to get bored, is far more cautious. “Richard would get incredibly reckless,” says Booker. “He would allow things to go in that were totally unjustifiable. You could say Hizza has made it more boring. You could also say he’s made it more responsible.”

Richard Ingrams and Peter Cook in 1976

Ingrams does not wholly deny this: “There was always certain material that would be untouchable,” he says. “But there would be occasions when I would decide to print something on the basis that I believed it to be true. I’m not sure the present editor would do that.” He doesn’t: “Richard was very instinctive,” says Hislop. “I take a lot more advice and work my way round a problem.”

But those who challenged the Eye also ran risks. When the tycoon Sir James Goldsmith tried to break the magazine in 1976 by issuing 63 libel writs and instituting a charge of criminal libel as well, he was perceived as a bully and his reputation never recovered. Indeed, it has long been seen as uncool to complain about a Private Eye story, however unfair.

If it has to be done, then it can be done only with style, achieved most memorably by a civil servant called LE Dale in 1970 whose letter of complaint was a limerick:

You publish (page four, column two)

A tale which can scarcely be true.

For Mandarin Dale

(About whom your tale)

Was not even there. Nor were you!

Some would say the magazine rarely manages to be that original. There is a formula to the humour: indeed, there is even a Wikipedia page called “Recurring in-jokes in Private Eye”. But many of these have passed into the language: the Guardian newspaper is still The Grauniad, though the constant misprints that prompted the gag ceased 25 years ago. “Tired and emotional” has become a national euphemism for drunk.

There is comfort in familiarity. And it is hardly surprising. Half a century on, the two former editors Booker and Ingrams still come in every fortnight to help do the jokes. But many of the Eye’s stalwarts died far too young: Foot, Cook, Rushton, Auberon Waugh and John Wells – mainstay of the glorious “Dear Bill” letters purportedly written by Denis Thatcher during his wife’s imperium. Hislop has skilfully renewed the magazine with his own contemporaries, including his own schoolfriend, cartoonist Nick Newman. The Eye these days is more modern (less anxious to expose “pooves”); more forensic (the Rotten Boroughs column, for instance, is the national database of local council corruption); and less insular. Hislop once did a job swap to work on the French equivalent, Le Canard Enchaîné. “A lot of jokes were similar,” he says. “The only thing they didn’t do was sex. They thought we were Anglo-Saxon and prurient and pathetic.”

And the Eye is all that still, to general approbation, even in the internet age. Its circulation is steady and above 200,000. When the Murdoch empire started to totter in July, issue No 1,293, with the headline Gotcha! on the cover, sold 253,704, thought to be an all-time record. “Trebles all round!” (Another recurring in-joke.)

Under the circumstances, Hislop can afford, when attacked, to appear relaxed and amused, which has to be the default position of Private Eye’s editor. But he is not immunised against criticism

“We don’t say politics is a waste of time,” he insists. “Orwell said it was as important to laugh at politicians as to vote for them. Both bits of that are true. It’s impossible to say the Eye doesn’t care about politics. Why on earth do we write about it? It’s a lot easier to do jokes about what’s in my fridge.”

Private Eye: The First 50 Years’ by Adam Macqueen (Private Eye, £25). An exhibition with the same title is at the V&A from October 18

Richard Ingrams on the making of a Private Eye cover

In a way it was easier to do the cover in the old days because there were so few photographs to choose from. Keystone Press delivered a batch of topical black and white prints on Monday morning (press day) and then there was a file of old ones. But the choice was limited. Nowadays, thanks to the internet, there are thousands of colour pictures instantly available.

Like most of the jokes in Private Eye, the covers are thought up by a team. For many years it consisted of myself, Barry Fantoni and the cartoonist Michael Heath. These days the team is Ian Hislop, his long-time collaborator Nick Newman and me. More often than not the final choice is made independently by Ian Hislop.

Sometimes the cover joke came easily but there were often occasions when it was sticky. And what could you do when the main item of news was the assassination of President Kennedy?

Only once, I think, did a cover nearly result in a libel action. As the first rumours of the Profumo affair began to circulate, we ran a picture of Profumo sitting on a bed with the bubble, “And if Private Eye prints a photo of me on a bed, I’ll sue them”. He instructed his solicitors to issue proceedings but, wisely, had second thoughts and sued a French paper instead.

My own experience was that almost always the first idea that got a big laugh from the team was probably the best and that second thoughts would result in something inferior.

It was Peter Cook who first recommended putting speech bubbles on the photos of politicians. Cook was also responsible for one of my favourites, the picture of Enoch Powell with arms outstretched, saying, “And I tell you, some of them have got them this long”. (A wonderfully effective way of puncturing Enoch’s racist agenda.)

From the same period, old timers may remember our response to Emperor Hirohito’s visit to Britain in 1971: “Hirohito Flies In: Nasty Nip in the Air. The Eye says Piss off, Bandy-Knees”.

Has it all changed now? I was alarmed recently when the management revealed the view of the distributors, which was that covers featuring pictures of politicians didn’t sell – ominous news for those of us whose livelihood depends on making fun of our political masters.

Former Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams will be speaking about the magazine at the Soho Literary Festival on Saturday September 24

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