Half a century of satire, spoof, comedy and wit have served Private Eye well. So well, in fact, it’s got its own exhibition

Words: Carol Driver

To twist Oscar Wilde’s quote, when it comes to Private Eye, there’s only one thing worse than being written about – and that’s not being written about.

Renowned for its satirical onslaught against politicians, businesses, celebrities and the media, the magazine is this month celebrating its 50th year. And, in a very uncharacteristically Eye way, it’s blowing its own trumpet with an exhibition at the V&A, Private Eye: The First 50 Years, and a new book of the same name by Adam McQueen. Or, as its editor Ian Hislop likes to put it: “At last, Private Eye makes an art of itself.”

And it has much to shout about. Having started out as a yellow-paged pamphlet selling about 300 copies in 1961, the Eye has grown into an institution, with sales of more than 200,000 each fortnight. As well as its cutting articles and spoof columns (HP Sauce; Streets Of Shame; Funny Old World; Rotten Boroughs; Glenda Slagg), the current affairs magazine is also famous for its illustrations – both on its cover and inside.

For the exhibition, Hislop, who is celebrating his 25th year at the helm and is also known as a panelist on BBC quizshow Have I Got News For You, has chosen 50 favourite covers, arranged in a timeline offering a graphic satirical history of the news. And it will also boast a display of cartoons – single illustrations with captions, long-running strips and caricatures – representing some of the 90 artists whose works the Eye has published.

Nick Newman, a cartoonist and scriptwriter (above), went to uni with Hislop and has worked at the Eye for about 30 years.

“What I tend to do are topical jokes, based on the week’s news,” he explains. “It can be very difficult. You’re always confronted by horrors in the news. [When Princess Diana died] we had to cover it in some way and you couldn’t make a joke about it, but you could make a point.

“I did a cartoon about the paps taking photographs over the pearly gates, so it was a bit of a comment about her hounding. You can get round difficult subjects sometimes – not all the time. I have done quite a few jokes which people have found in very poor taste which I blame entirely on the editor for publishing them,” he laughs.

Although Private Eye enjoys a dedicated readership, which it relies on to send in information for articles, because of the nature of the magazine – holding others to account – they’re a vocal bunch. When they believe the mag has fallen short, they’re quick to write in to complain or cancel their subscriptions. So how does the staff cope with the criticism?

“There’s always a good intention behind the jokes,” Newman explains. “They are not just there to shock. They’re there to make a point. Sometimes people get the wrong end of the stick. They think because you’ve done a cartoon about the subject that you’re laughing at it, whereas, in fact, you may be making quite a valid point.

“I drew a cartoon when two competitors were killed in a winter Olympics, doing the bobsleigh. There was shock and outrage that these boys had been killed doing this sport, so I did a cartoon of a coffin going down a bobsleigh run.

“There were a lot of cancelled subscriptions as a result of that and people saying ‘this is just sick’. In fact, I’m not trying to laugh at the event, I was trying to make a point that this is an extremely dangerous thing and what do you expect?

“Last year I did a cartoon about army Land Rovers being inadequately protected and not armoured and they were being blown up all the time by landmines. I did a cartoon of an army Land Rover and a sticker on the back saying ‘my other car’s a hearse’. And I got a letter from an officer saying, ’I’ve had my legs blown off and this has really upset me’.

“I wrote back to him and said my intention was not to do this, and I explained that I’m on your side, you shouldn’t be driving around in very dangerous equipment. And he then came back to me immediately and said ’sorry, I had sense of humour failure’ and he said ’I now see what you were trying to do’. So we’re not setting out to shock and appall. They’ve got to be justified.“

The same philosophy is applied to the magazine’s articles. Although being a self-styled “thorn in the side“ of the British establishment doesn’t come without its pitfalls.

Hislop, who is the third editor, after Christopher Booker and Richard Ingram, is no stranger to writs landing on his desk – he was once described as “the most sued man in Britain”.

Elizabeth James, V&A curator of the exhibition, says the exhibition will be paying homage to this phenomenon.

“There’s a display case featuring the theme of libel which has been such a feature of Private Eye’s history,” she says.

“It has always taken on powerful people who have often tried to sue it out of existence and it has survived all of this and some of the famous libel cases are going to be drawn attention to.

"In one or two cases, they have had to appeal to their readers and supporters to make donations to enable them to meet some of the costs which in some cases have been significant.”

Visitors will also be given an insight into the magazine’s unassuming Soho offices, with a recreation of the editor’s paper-strewn desk. Newman insists that despite the pressures of regular lawsuits, it is a fun place to work.

“We always have a laugh – whatever we do, we usually come up with something that makes us laugh. It’s not work, really. You’re just going along to have a laugh with a mate,“ he says.

Newman, who worked with Hislop writing the political satire TV series Spitting Image, also reveals he’s involved in the covers meeting for the magazine. Like most publications, what’s on the front page can directly affect demand.

The Eye’s best-selling issue to date was in July and was about the phone-hacking scandal. Under the screaming headline ‘Gotcha!’ (used by The Sun in 1982), were the photos of media tycoons Rupert and James Murdoch and News International CEO Rebekah Brooks. It sold 254,000.

“It’s serendipity how well a cover works and they are very important to the sales of the magazine,” Newman says.

“Some weeks you have a very obvious cover photograph, like the week when Osama Bin Laden was killed and we got that iconic photograph with all the American high command and [Barak] Obama and Hilary Clinton all watching events unfold on the television.

“It was in the same week the Lib Dems were in crisis so we combined the two stories and had Obama and Hilary saying something like, ‘Oh my god, it’s absolutely horrible, poor Lib Dems’. And people absolutely loved it as a cover. It’s luck as well as skill.”

Private Eye takes no prisoners. When it comes to critiquing those deemed guilty of incompetence, inefficiency, corruption or self-importance, it doesn’t beat around the bush, and there’s no one who’s out of bounds – from local councils and governments to royalty and billionaires.

But rather than be outraged about making the rag’s pages, Newman says the effect is quite the opposite.

“It’s extraordinary how people in the public eye just will do anything to stay in the public eye,” he says. “Lots of people take it on the chin.

“From my own experience, I’ve sold lots of cartoons to politicians and they quite like to be noticed.

“Edwina Currie was reviewing the new Private Eye book and she revealed she’s got Eye covers about her in her loo and they’re not kind to her, they’re generally quite rude.”

Fifty years after it launched, Private Eye is still going strong, while other magazines that have tried a similar format – such as Punch – have failed.  What is the secret of its success?

“It’s a magazine which is really in tune with its readers, and there’s an appetite for pricking pomposity and exposing humbug and it isn’t really there isn’t an outlet for it anywhere else in the press,” Newman says.

“Plus the jokes are very, very good.”

Private Eye: The First 50 Years is on display in the V&A's Studio Gallery from 18 October 2011 to 8 January 2012.
Admission to the display is free