I’ve been writing for Private Eye for 24 years and am unlikely to take offence at much – in fact, I am generally the one making the most tasteless suggestions in any editorial meeting.
But even I was slightly concerned about what I might find in the dusty back issues when asked to compile a book celebrating the magazine’s 60 years of outraging and delighting readers.
Over more than 1,500 fortnightly editions, the Eye, with its unique mixture of jokes and investigative journalism, has had a ringside seat for most of the significant events of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
It started exactly 60 years ago, in October 1961. In those days it was a mere eight pages, distributed around pubs and fashionable hangouts in West London, such as the Troubadour in Earl’s Court, the sixpence cover price largely ignored, along with the honesty box provided.
One of those first editions united the newly elected and newly erected, in a cartoon of President JFK relaxing alongside a stretch of the Berlin Wall, following his ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech.
Its 1,539th edition, this February, marked the exit from the White House of Donald Trump – JFK’s first successor to attempt a coup against his own electorate – with one of its famous photobubble covers. It showed the stranded Statue of Liberty from the post-apocalyptic ending of Planet of the Apes, announcing, ‘You can take over now, Mr Biden.’
In between them came the Cold War, man landing on the moon, Mrs Thatcher (and husband Denis, whose imagined correspondence with his fictional friend Bill was continually leaked to the magazine), two wars in the Gulf and one in the Falklands, the 9/11 terror attacks, Brexit and a global pandemic.
The magazine covered them all, making up to 250,000 readers at a time laugh, and a few cancel their subscriptions in outrage. On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by how much my predecessors had come down on the right side of history.
Enoch Powell’s incendiary provocations on immigration in the late 1960s were given short shrift. ‘Another amazing statistic produced by Mr Powell shows that young immigrant women between the ages of 17 and 30 have more children than white women aged 70-95…’ the magazine noted in November 1969. ‘Further statistics revealed that less than 1% of Mr Powell’s brain was grey matter.’
A longer version of this article appeared in the October 2021 issue of Saga Magazine: subscribe today
Also featured in Private Eye: The 60 Yearbook is the 1966 cover that marked the assassination of South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the ‘architect of apartheid’, which helped get Private Eye banned in his country for decades: ‘Verwoerd – A Nation Mourns’ it reads, with a photo of four Nguni men in full ceremonial dress jumping for joy.
Other issues involved a bit more discussion. As a long-term attender of Pride marches, I find the Eye’s 1969 take on the emerging Gay Lib movement – ‘Mass Mince in Hyde Park: all of us will put on some nice clothes and go and walk about. If it’s a rainy day we’ll all stay at home and get on with some things around the house’ – considerably funnier than does the magazine’s editor, Ian Hislop.
Ian Hislop speaks to Saga Magazine
But we both agreed that the decriminalisation of homosexuality two years earlier, with the caveat that you had to be over 21 and ‘in private’, must be marked with Willie Rushton’s genius cartoon of a policeman addressing two men in bed in an open street. ‘Consenting you may well be, sirs, but I would query the privacy of Lowndes Square.’ The particular brilliance of it is that the two gents in question are not stereotypes but look like bufferish retired colonels: in fact, either could pass for the Eye’s legendary writer of letters to the Daily Telegraph, Sir Herbert Gussett. The pure silliness of the set-up mitigates any offence anyone could take – although given the culture of the past few years, which have seen Scots Nats, Corbynites, Brexiteers, Royalists and plenty of others loudly expressing their outrage at finding satirical jokes in a satirical magazine, I expect someone will try.
In some cases, potential offensiveness has dissipated over time, as opposed to the other way round. The September 1997 edition of Private Eye published directly after the death of Princess Diana was famously whipped off the shelves of newsagents for daring to point out the hypocrisy not only of the newspapers that had funded her pursuit by paparazzi, but the complicity of the readers who bought them. ‘The papers are a disgrace,’ one member of the crowd outside Buckingham Palace says on the cover. ‘Yes, I couldn’t get one anywhere,’ comes the reply.
While that front page was being hidden beneath counters across the country, the Sun’s one demanding, ‘Where is our Queen? Where is her flag?’ remained on display. Lest we forget, the answer to that question was ‘At Balmoral, with her bereaved grandchildren.’ Which of those covers seems more obscene now?
It was one of those occasions you suspect that the Eye’s take on a topic reflected the feelings of a large part of the population better than the wall-to-wall homogeneous coverage elsewhere. When Britain applied for membership of the European Economic Community for the second time in 1967, many papers produced page after page of dense and graph-heavy explanation as to what this would mean; Private Eye put four snoozing pensioners in deckchairs on its front cover with the caption: ‘Common Market – The Great Debate Begins’.
When we did go in six years later, the magazine captured the sheer bathos of Ted Heath’s vision with its own schedule for a ‘Fanfare for Europe’. Among the attractions listed were a special display of Danish Blue cheese in branches of Sainsbury’s. As we went out of the EU in equally as chaotic a manner after the 2016 referendum, the magazine’s criticism of Brexit caused disquiet among some readers, understandable given its long-standing critical coverage of European institutions in the Brussels Sprouts column - though this was less a specific Euro-scepticism, and more the Eye’s general scepticism of all institutions.
I arrived at Private Eye as a junior journalist in the autumn of 1997, when the magazine was at one of its lower circulation points. (It now sells 237,000 although I’m not taking all the credit for the 60,000 jump.) In part that was because Blair’s 1997 election win, like Wilson’s in 1964, was one of those rare points where the British people temporarily put aside their cynicism: it felt like a fresh beginning. It took a while for some people to catch up with the Eye’s default position to dig dirt and expose secrets on all administrations. The honeymoon was short; the magazine was in early with a lot of the scandals that would dog Blair, the man Eye christened the Vicar of St Albion.
This combination of journalism and jokes is the key to the Eye. As Ian Hislop notes, ‘The magazine evolved over the decades into this rather strange entity where you get both scoops and spoofs… watching that grow over the 60 years is really interesting – how the journalism informs the jokes, and vice versa.’
As New Labour got older, the Eye was helped by the psychodrama between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which in the end was almost too much for the magazine’s jokes pages to contain. I remember at one Monday editorial meeting after the latest tell-all memoir by a Whitehall insider had been serialised over the weekend, Ian Hislop mused, ‘If I put a joke in that the Chancellor had refused to show the Prime Minister his budget and told him to f*** off, people would think it was over-the-top.’
Yet that is what was alleged to have happened. The gruesome twosome did at least oblige the Eye by making their mutual loathing so apparent that photos of the pair of them were a regular shoo-in for the front cover - to the despair of managing director Sheila Molnar, who would point out that readers were so sick of both that they didn’t want to look at their faces, even when the mickey was being taken.
But then if Private Eye has proved anything over the past 60 years, it’s that you can’t please all the people all the time. The day you’ll know something has gone seriously wrong is when the angry subscription cancellations actually stop.