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Private Eye: happy 50th, Lord Gnome
Ironically, the only time it might have wobbled was when Ingrams resigned and anointed Ian Hislop as his successor
October 7, 2011 | By:
As the distinguished organ approaches its half-century, William Cook (Who he? Ed) salutes the satirists whose coruscating wit and burning zeal for… (cont’d on page 94)

Private Eye birthday illustrationAs high50 readers (and writers) know all too well, 50th birthdays can be a tricky business. Even the best celebrations can be muted, tempered with reflection and regret. No such doubts at Private Eye, which toasts its half century this autumn with a lavish tome called Private Eye: The First Fifty Years (Private Eye Productions, £25).

Once you get past the self-indulgent introduction – does anyone outside journalism really care what happens on press day? – Adam Macqueen’s coffee table book is really rather a good read. It’s arranged as an A-Z, so you can dip in and out of it, rather than ploughing through the whole thing from cover to cover. The handy timeline at the front doubles as a useful crib sheet for lazy hacks like me, summing up the main landmarks in the history of a publication which, more than any other, sums up the British sense of humour.

Like a lot of our most subversive institutions, Private Eye is a product of one of Britain’s top public schools. The Eye’s founding fathers, Richard Ingrams, Christopher Booker, Paul Foot and Willie Rushton, all met at Shrewsbury School and cut their satirical teeth on the school magazine, the Salopian. At Oxford University, Foot and Ingrams edited a student rag called Parson’s Pleasure; and in 1961 Booker became the inaugural editor of a new satire sheet – first published on 25 October – called Private Eye.

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Re-reading facsimiles of those early issues, what’s remarkable is how much of the Eye’s unique style was there from the beginning. Rushton’s dishevelled crusader adorns the masthead of the first issue, and though Ingrams replaced Booker as editor in 1963, and put his own stamp on the magazine, the Eye’s personality was shaped by countless contributors, rather than one individual.

Peter Cook, the magazine’s proprietor, was an elusive but influential guiding light. Claud Cockburn introduced investigative journalism, a tradition cultivated by Paul Foot. The late Auberon Waugh’s Diary further refined the Eye’s flair for the surreal. This rich melange of fact and fiction has incited countless writs, of course, but through it all, the Eye has held firm.

Ironically, the only time it might have wobbled was when Ingrams resigned and anointed Ian Hislop as his successor. Hislop was still in his mid-20s and there were some grumbles from the old guard, but this crisis swiftly passed. “At the time, I thought the change was unnecessary and a great shame, and I thought the magazine would collapse without Ingrams,” reflected Waugh. “But in fact it jolly well hasn’t, as anybody can see.”

So what’s the secret of Private Eye’s success, and has it changed at all these past 50 years? Well, from where I’m sitting (leafing through Macqueen’s A-Z), one reason for its longevity seems to be its refusal to move with the times. While other publications are constantly innovating, Private Eye still has the same tone of voice, even some of the same production values. Some of old in-jokes have vanished, and not before time – I’m surely not the only straight reader who was glad to see the back of words like ‘pooves’ – but despite the shifting subject matter, many of the gags are much the same.

The other reason for its success, of course, is its willingness to print what other people won’t – at least until Private Eye has published first. This has resulted in countless coups, and, inevitably, the odd setback. Yet the Eye’s most significant legacy is the way it has defined our idea of satire, spawning no end of imitators. Nowadays there’s hardly a TV show or newspaper report that doesn’t wind up with a wry smile and a knowing wink. It almost makes you yearn for some wide-eyed sincerity, now and then.

So will the Eye last another 50 years? Undoubtedly. Will it still be the same in 2061? More or less. Hislop will still be editor in all probability, orchestrating the same cast of stock characters; the boring stories will still be continued on page 94. And the reason it will continue is that there will always be enough readers for whom it remains the highlight of their fortnight, a respite from normal newspapers and magazines.

I should know. I’ve been an avid reader since my early teens, when it was sometimes stacked alongside the porn mags in my local provincial newsagent. And having survived two tests of friendship, I know I’m stuck with the Eye for life.

First there was an attempt to write for it, which ended in ignominy. (Just as well; I would have been useless.) Then there was a piece in the Eye about a book I’d written, regarding someone I’d upset along the way. Did I feel this article was an entirely fair reflection of my side of the story? Of course not. Did I write an indignant letter to the editor? Of course I didn’t. I’d been buying the Eye for 25 years by then, and it was time to take my medicine. So I returned to the newsagent’s a fortnight later, and bought the pesky magazine all over again.