Christopher Booker

Private Eye’s private life

The first editor of the magazine turns a quizzical eye on 50 years of a ‘national institution’

Private Eye’s private life
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The first editor of the magazine turns a quizzical eye on 50 years of a ‘national institution’

Not long after the 50th birthday of what was once the most successful humorous magazine in Britain, one of the best-known writers of the day delivered a damning judgment. Whereas in its early days, Max Beerbohm wrote in 1899, Punch had made a reputation by its youthful irreverence, wittily lashing out in all directions, it had now become staid and respectable, ‘a national institution’. How strangely has this been echoed in the coverage being given to the 50th anniversary of Punch’s successor, similarly hailing Private Eye as a ‘national institution’. Little could its youthfully irreverent founders back in 1961 have imagined that the longest-lived survivor of the ‘satire boom’ of the early Sixties would be celebrating its 50th birthday with an exhibition at the V&A and a huge party amid the grandeurs of London’s Guildhall, while journalists and celebs queue up to pay tribute to its revered place in national life.

I confess I have viewed all this excitement through somewhat quizzical eyes. Partly this is because, despite having been the magazine’s first editor and having to this day contributed as many words to its pages as anyone, I am used to people vaguely asking, ‘Didn’t you once have something to do with Private Eye?’ A weightier reason why I have followed everything recently written and said about it with slightly raised eyebrows is the extent to which none of these tributes has done justice to by far the most important ingredient in Private Eye’s distinctive character.

Drawing most journalists’ attention have been two of the three main parts of the magazine, its gossip and investigative journalism. But these on their own would never have given Private Eye its unique role without that third ingredient, which has been at the heart of the magazine for longer than either: the parodies and spoof news items known to those who write them as ‘the jokes’. For 50 years, along with its superb cartoons, these have held up a distorting mirror to all the political and social absurdities of our time, ever since those dramatic changes of the early Sixties, between Supermac and the rise of the Beatles, carried Britain into the modern age, where we have all been living ever since.

One reason why this core part of Private Eye has remained something of a mystery is that, almost since the beginning, it has been written anonymously and collaboratively by a little team of contributors whose joke-­writing sessions, hidden away in the editor’s office, have never been witnessed by any outsider. When in 1962 we decided, after three trial runs, to launch Private Eye on a regular fortnightly basis, the first issues were put together by myself and my old schoolfriend Willie Rushton on the floor of his bedroom in Kensington, kept going by his mother with trays of tomato soup and coffee. The reason why Private Eye still comes out only fortnightly is that we agreed that the two of us on our own couldn’t produce it every week.

As we set out to mock Harold Macmillan and the mores of what was to become ‘Swinging London’, illustrated with Willie’s inimitably brilliant caricatures and cartoons, I used to say that our aim was to satirise any established opinion or fashionable absurdity of the time. After a few issues we were joined by another old schoolfriend, Richard Ingrams, and in the summer of 1962 the magazine was bought for £1,500 by my Cambridge friend Peter Cook, who had already suggested putting photographs with bubbles on the cover and who was sporadically to join in joke-writing sessions until his death in 1995.

In the winter of 1962 we were joined by the first real outsider to the original team, Barry Fantoni, a Jewish-Italian artist from south London. By the ‘Profumo summer’ of 1963 the sales had soared to 93,000. There then followed the much-mythologised ‘coup’ whereby Ingrams ousted me from the editorship, with the result that by 1964 the circulation had plummeted to 25,000, with the magazine only being saved from bankruptcy by the generosity of some of Cook’s celebrity friends. In 1965, after Ingrams and I had mended our differences, we gradually established the collaborative joke-writing process which has continued to evolve to this day. For many years the core team consisted of Ingrams, Fantoni and myself, with Ingrams and John Wells collaborating on Mrs Wilson’s Diary and Dear Bill, the features that held up a mirror to the politics of the Wilson and Thatcher eras. In the Eighties we were joined by the young Ian Hislop, and the reason why he was the only man who could have succeeded Richard as editor in 1986 was that he was the only outsider since Fantoni capable of joining in with the peculiar alchemy of our collaborative joke sessions.

So happily does this process of collective improvisation work, with everyone chipping in, each being sparked off by the others, that it becomes hard to remember who came up with any particular joke. Only occasionally can one recall some joke one thought of before coming into the office. Two of mine which later mythology attributed to Peter Cook included a cover of Enoch Powell at the height of his ‘Tiber foaming with blood’ row, holding his hands out wide and saying ‘Some of them have got them this long’, and a parody of the judge’s summing up in the Jeremy Thorpe murder trial. This, which I had scribbled down on arriving in the office, was later famously embroidered by Cookie for a concert to raise funds for the Eye’s libel battle with Jimmy Goldsmith. 

Over the years we have sat around in that room — I always like to hold the pen when I am there to make sure that the free-flowing torrent of ideas retains some order, counter-checked by Hislop miraculously reading my scribbles upside-down from across the desk — I have enjoyed some of the most hilariously pleasurable times I can remember in my life. Between us we have laughed our way through tens of thousands of joke items, from set-pieces such as the Secret Diaries of John Major, the Revd Blair’s St Albion’s Parish News and the romances of Sylvie Krin, to the threnodies of E.J. Thribb and the left- and right-wing rants of Dave Spart and some archetypal cab driver. And if to some the Eye may seem to have become rather tired and formulaic, our only excuse is that some of us have been doing it for a very long time.

Indeed, last year the older members of the team had something of a shock when the editor was panicked into thinking that he might soon come into the office to find we were all dead, leaving him and his friend Nick Newman all alone to write the jokes. So he decided to slash our hours and pay, to make way for a new generation of glittering young satirical talents (not much evident yet). It was quite a blow to be ‘half-sacked’ from something I felt I had in some ways done as much as anyone to create (my response was to ask whether we were to be given ‘half a gold watch’). Fantoni retired to live in France, sadly missed. But those of us who remain are not dead yet, and I trust we may be allowed to continue holding up the mirror to an increasingly mad, sad world, until Ian and Nick do find they are the only ones left to keep that ‘national institution’ we created tottering on into an ever-murkier future.