The Bishop of Gnome

With his conservative instincts, strong views on drugs and constant air of moral indignation has Ian Hislop, of Private Eye and Have I Got News For You, possibly missed his vocation?
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The Independent Culture
It has never been difficult to distinguish between Ian Hislop and the young Marlon Brando. The nattily-suited Top Banana of British satire and the torn-vested Top Biker of The Wild One have little in common, except one moment of conversation. It's when some short-haired, Ivy League phoney, taking his life in his hands, goes up to the greaseball outlaw played by Brando and demands: "Look - what is it exactly that you're against?" Marlon regards him contemptuously and says: "Whadd'ya got?"

Trying to extract from Hislop precisely what he believes in, or votes for - or even enjoys - is likewise doomed to frustration. His life has been defined for so long by satire, by scorn, by piss-take, by adverse reaction, by negativity, that he just isn't happy dealing in positive thoughts. He is not one of nature's enthusiasts.

You suspect that, if you were to offer him a bowl of strawberries, rather than praise their juicy, fruity, summery qualities, he would disgustedly remove the less appealing ones, and eat the remaining two or three with wary fastidiousness. You construct lists in your head of things that Ian Hislop would never say aloud. Like, "I'm thinking of getting one of those little Nokia chrome-phones. They're sooooo cool." Or, "Get me two tickets for The Blue Room, would you?" Or, "I take The Times, because it is a newspaper of record." Or imagine him telling you about his "hobby". Or quoting some words of advice and saying, "That's my motto." When you've been editor of Private Eye for 12 years, maybe people stop expecting you to find anything cool, fun, life-enhancing or amusing.

Except, of course, "amusing", in the old Coward/Mitford/Waugh use of the word - to mean deliciously absurd, laughably foolish. It's an amusement based on a superiority reflex, and its most obvious modern incarnations are Private Eye and Have I Got News For You. Hislop is at the centre of both. How does he cope? What is it like to live your whole life in, as it were, opposition?

We meet at the ramshackle Private Eye HQ in Soho, the walls lined with paparazzi photos of Hislop, Peter Cook and friends in party mode. There's a nicotine pall over things, as if the rooms were under tissue paper. It's old-fashioned and dog-eared and run-down, but then they wouldn't want anyone mistaking it for the offices of GQ Health, would they? One lady receptionist makes me tea. The other is fielding a call from a pushy woman freelance, desperate to intercept one of the Eye staff. The editor appears in a Crombie pin-stripe suit and floral red tie, a little late, apologetic and fantastically polite. Upstairs, his office is dark and Dickensianly dingy. His desk is small, as if on loan from a schoolroom. A half-full ashtray is tucked away on the far side, near me, but out of the editor's sightlines. You imagine incorrigible employees, hearing the boss arrive, surreptitiously stubbing out gaspers on his desk.

He asks what I thought of A Sermon from St Albion's, London Weekend's series of 10-minute dramaticules based on Private Eye's fortnightly parish newsletter from the Vicar (A R P Blair) the Churchwarden (P Mandelson) and various walk-on clerics (J Prescott, R Cook, G Brown) all impersonated by H Enfield. I say I couldn't understand why the Mandelson figure went around smiting his palm with a cosh and whacking the congregation, just like the Spitting Image Norman Tebbit. "But I've always seen him like that," says Hislop, "since the What the Papers Say lunch when he came to address the hacks. For the first 20 minutes he was mildly self-deprecating. Then he said, `Let's look at the Dome', and someone shouted, `Do we have to?'. Mandelson's mask dropped. He said, `That's enough of that', and got very stroppy. I thought, `Oh, so that's what you're like'. I think his good nature is superficial. I think he does the organising. The character in St Albion's is `The Man Who Makes It Happen'."

The basic joke of St Albion's, of course, is inclusiveness - the Government's desire to seem to be all things to all shades of political opinion. "There's an undercurrent of control," says Hislop. "Behind all the gathering-in, they're saying `Be included - or else'. The thing about Blair, which becomes more obvious all the time, is that after he'd won, he thought, `There really is no need for oppositional politics any more. There used to be two parties, but now there aren't - there's me. I'm Tony, and I've won. You don't need the Tories, so you give some of them jobs; you don't need the Liberals, they're the same as us - except that I'm in charge'."

Hislop suddenly stops being the Prime Minister. "I was brought up in a system of quite vicious oppositional politics, and we've suddenly entered an era where it's no longer important. That's quite odd."

What's just as odd is Hislop's own religiosity. The air of moral indignation that comes off him, even at his most humorous, carries a strong whiff of the Church Sarcastic. Is this what happens to ageing satirists? As he points out, all four of the St Albion's co-writers practically go around in surplices: "[Richard] Ingrams famously plays the organ in church. We used to call Christopher Booker `The Deacon', because he was such a churchgoing figure. Barry Fantoni actually used to run a parish magazine. And I'm an occasional churchgoer, and I also did that documentary about the C of E."

He looks across, as if daring you to object. That alarming tilt of the chin, that set of the face and widening of the eyes, so familiar from Have I Got News For You - there's something both clerical and pugnacious about it, as if you were about to be mugged by a short bishop.

When were you last in church? "Remembrance Sunday." You go every year? "Yeah, I try and get to that one." Are you very devout? "Not very. I once

appeared on a radio programme called Devout Sceptics." But why do you go? "Because I feel I should, and then I sit there thinking, `Duh, what am I doing here?', and then at other times I feel there's nothing else to do, except be there."

To sum up, then, how would you describe the state of your faith? "In the documentary I made, Canon Edward Norman says, `There's a long tradition of Christian agnosticism in the Church of England'. I thought that's a wonderful description of, er, people who don't know, but if they did..."

See what I mean? Ian Hislop, it seems, can no more make a positive statement of belief than he can make a Harvey Wallbanger. It's not in his nature, or his rhetorical lexicon. Instead, he offers you arm's length quotations, in post-modernist style. We talk about reactions to St Albion's, and a grumpy piece in the Sunday papers by Bryan Appleyard, bemoaning the end of satire. What had become of the salutary anger of Swift and the young Peter Cook?

"That was an incredibly bad piece," snaps Hislop, roused to Swiftian indignation by this invasion of his territory. "Saying all satire should be like Swift's is like saying all plays should be like Macbeth. I remember Swift's Sermon on the Poor, in which he said 99 per cent of them are on the fiddle and deserve no help, while the remaining 1 per cent are lazy or drunk. His level of compassion for those left out of society was generally nil. And he got paid by the Tories to run The Examiner, the equivalent of me taking money from Tebbit in the Eighties."

Nor does he buy the idea that satire has lost its big targets, and is reduced to sniping at presentation and spin: "Working with Ingrams and Booker and Co, you discover that when Harold Wilson came to power, he was just like Blair. All these issues, and targets, come round again and again."

I say I know of a recent dinner party where Hislop eloquently defended the death penalty - an ideological position pretty well unheard of among liberal-minded graduates in the last 30 years. Was it true? "I think I'd just read a particularly grotesque account of a child murder that day and, having young children, one's immediate emotional response is... I was fervently in favour of topping murderers. But then you start reading about miscarriages of justice, and the difficulties of evidence, and how children sometimes make up stuff, and it all becomes much more difficult."

Was he getting more judgmental? Hislop does his "Do-my-ears-deceive-me" face. "I love that word `judgmental', because it absolves anyone from making judgements about anything. As if we don't make judgements all the time." But was he? "I think, at the Eye, my instincts are probably more conservative, then I'll get someone like Francis Wheen or Paul Foot saying, `Oh come on, think about it', and they'll come up with some Spartist agenda, and I'll say, `Oh for God's sake, grow up...'."

But does he emerge from these Socratic exchanges with firmer convictions these days? "I find I know what I think about something when I write it down." But most of what you write in the Eye is parodic, where you believe the opposite of what you've written. After all the negatives, where's the colour print? Hislop leans across his desk. "I'm not a politician. I'm not an ideologue. People want to know what I don't approve of, not what I do. I think that's the job - saying, `That's bent'; `That's crooked'; `I really don't think that works'."

Young Ian went to school in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, before heading, a scholarship boy, for a boarding school called Ardingley College in Sussex. There, it seems, the blueprint of his future life was inscribed. It was a place of muscular Christianity, full of talk of "duty", where Ian edited the school magazine, and was (aha!) head boy. A moral place, where he learned to express opinions ("I was debating abortion seriously when I was nine, without knowing what anything meant"), and met Nick Newman, the cartoonist and his future co-writer, who founded Passing Wind, the magazine Hislop was later to run. His English teacher, Colin Temblett- Wood, encouraged them to put on satirical revues.

He was never a joiner-in with the obvious pack activities of the young. What happened to him at 16, when punk broke out? "I wrote a parody of a punk song, and we dressed up in safety pins and went on stage to take the piss out of it. I was just too young not to find it funny." Did he take drugs at Oxford? "Not at all. I found all the drugs people very boring. It wasn't a moral objection, but an aesthetic one. I thought, `you guys are so dull'. It was such an exciting place and time for me, and I thought, `hang on, I don't want to spend half of it out of my head. I want to get on with it'."

Take that, reefer fiends. There's always been more than a little of the head prefect about Mr Hislop. Later, I expressed incredulity that he'd never wanted even to try cocaine ("Trying to work with people who are on drugs is totally pointless, because they have no timing and no judgement. And it makes you paranoid"), but I had to stop, because I was beginning to sound like a pusher.

At 38, he is greeting with resignation the prospect of hitting 40. "It will seem very old. I have a picture of myself as an enfant terrible, although I haven't built a career on youth culture. I think young readers are interested in the same things as everyone else. We don't cover pop or football in the Eye, yet loads of young people buy the magazine because they're interested in how Britain works. It is quite an interesting subject, I think." Absolutely, bishop.