Happy Clappy Tony gets a `Private Eye' pulpit

`We didn't have to spend any time at all thinking this one up'

There are aspects of British political satire that grow into traditions more venerable than some of the institutions they seek to satirise. Private Eye started a fortnightly Prime Ministerial lampoon in the 1960s with Mrs Wilson's Diary and this week continued the tradition with a fresh take on the Blair administration.

Following the fictitious Mrs Wilson's Diary, the Dear Bill Letters that baited Baroness Thatcher and The Secret Diary of John Major Aged 473/4 the satirical magazine has started a weekly parish magazine in its pages written by a happy-clappy vicar who insists his parishioners call him Tony.

The Rev Tony peppers his copy with enthusiastic! exclamation! marks! to help spread the good news of the new Government and insists on informal clothes and guitar playing in church.

The St Albion Parish News, as the column is called, is written by the Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, the former editor Richard Ingrams, and the veteran Eye journalists Christopher Booker and Barry Fantoni.

The Rev Tony is the latest in a succession of attempts by cartoonists and comedians to get a comedic handle on the Labour leader's personality. Early attempts to portray him as a pushover "Bambi" character were quickly junked once he started to ruthlessly change Old Labour into New Labour.

But Blair the evangelical moderate seems likely to be a rich satirical seam: "As one old parishioner said to me last week, `Vicar, you've certainly made some changes.' I told her, `Firstly, it's Tony, not Vicar! And, secondly, you mustn't be afraid of change! Because change is good for us all! In moderation of course! Too much change and you don't know where you are!'"

Private Eye's happy clappy vicar exhorts his parishioners against too much formality: "And talking of change, don't think you have to change to come to church! Come as you are - jeans, leggings, trainers, whatever you feel comfortable in! It's not what you wear that matters, it's your attitude that God notices!"

Like its predecessors the purpose of St Albion Parish News is to tickle the belly of current issues, this week Blair's meeting with Mrs Thatcher was one issue: "I gather some of you are a bit upset about my having tea with a former incumbent of this parish. OK, so she left under a bit of a cloud, but it's my job to build bridges and heal rifts - not to go around throwing stones! Enough said, I hope!"

"We didn't have to spend anytime at all thinking this one up," said Mr Hislop yesterday. "I just looked at him moving in to Downing Street with his guitar and I thought Hello, I know what he reminds me of."

"And all that call-me-Tony stuff is very curate-like, wanting to include everybody. We also wanted to get away from doing a diary again and the parish magazine gives us the chance to have Mandelson as the church warden."

The original fortnightly Mrs Wilson's Diary was the idea of Private Eye's then owner, the late Peter Cook. It irritated Mrs Wilson by portraying her as a vacuous Hampstead Garden Suburb housewife with a resolutely middle- brow view of political events. This did not stop the column becoming a successful West End revue.

The same fate befell its successor, the fictitious letters of Denis Thatcher to his supposed drinking and golfing partner Bill Deedes. Dear Bill was turned into a play that the Thatchers actually went to see. It was revealed last year by his daughter that Denis Thatcher played up to his Dear Bill image in order to stay out of the limelight.

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