Private Eye: The first 50 years, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Jokes so old they should be curated...
Sunday 16 October 2011
Once upon a time, a group of Oxford students put together a scrappy little magazine.
They stuffed it with jokes and called it Private Eye. Fifty years on, it's still scrappy and some gags are the same, only now they have entered popular culture, and the V&A has given the Eye its own exhibition.
It's just two rooms, though for some sniffier bods at the V&A, even this was too much. "We wouldn't do this for, er, Heat magazine," explains curator Julius Bryant. No need to apologise. As he says, the Eye's is "a heroic tale of surviving against bullying millionaires and captains of industry". But it's mainly the cartoons that are celebrated here. Since the demise of Punch in 2002, the Eye is almost the sole outlet for political cartoons, a tradition going back to Hogarth and Gillray, whose works form part of the V&A's collection.
The idea was to choose 50 of the Eye's greatest cartoonists, though in the event, more than 60 are represented. Regular readers will recognise their distinctive styles, and even some of the jokes, though they're just as funny second time round. Take the Kerber gag, of a mother and child walking past The Vagina Monologues: "Mum, what's a monologue?" Or the fly visiting his doctor: "You should try and take things easier, Mr Blue Arse."
As well as the cartoons, Bryant wanted to show the creative process behind the magazine, still a low-tech operation centred on a notoriously shambolic office in Soho. He has recreated some of that chaos here – to more lip-curling from colleagues – by filling two cabinets with the "autumn leaves of chaos that they live with". But, as he says: "There are certain things you might do in Soho which you wouldn't do in the V&A." So there are no Diana jokes, and when they were handed the office's stuffed dog, they put it in a fridge, to avoid a break-out of mange or fleas throughout the museum. The day I visit, there's a lively debate over whether to erect a disclaimer for one potentially offensive joke: a bishop walks into a church lined with choristers and says, "God, it's like everyone I've ever slept with is here".
Some of the best cartoons draw on cultural references that will amuse even the driest V&A curator, like the Escher-style labyrinth with the caption: "I'm sorry, Mr Escher, but yes, you will have to fit disabled access." And words can't do justice to the man standing by a lake playing with his new toy, a remote control Ophelia". All great fun, but why not just buy the magazine? "The fact is there is nothing like Private Eye outside Britain," says Bryant. "Why shouldn't somebody see this and go back to New Zealand and set one up over there?"
A highlight is the "interactive" recreation of the editor's desk. Pick up the Bakelite telephone and you hear a reel of spoof calls from some of the Eye's most regular victims, such as John Prescott jabbering away in garbled English.
The paperwork has been loaned from the Eye offices, and to Bryant's horror included some genuine correspondence from MPs and lawyers, which he hasn't included. "Anyone could take them and leave them on the Tube!" he explains. Even when celebrating its birthday, the Eye knows how to make mischief.
To 8 Jan (0207-942 2000), admission free
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