An Eye inside the vaults: Making sense of Private Eye's messy archives

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Even editor Ian Hislop was surprised by some of the material found for a new history of the publication.

I arrived at Private Eye on work experience in September 1997, at the same time as several sacks full of letters complaining about the disrespectful tone the magazine had adopted over the death of Princess Diana. The Eye's cover, as banned from WH Smith and several other newsagent chains, showed the crowd outside Buckingham Palace with speech bubbles saying: "The papers are a disgrace" and "Yes, I couldn't get one anywhere." The front page of The Sun published on the same day demanded "WHERE IS OUR QUEEN? WHERE IS HER FLAG?" Which of those seems more tasteless now?

I've been working there, on and off, ever since. The place is still full of surprises. The classified ad man who used to sleep under the editor's desk has departed, as has the jazz sextet that so startled proprietor Peter Cook's widow Lin when she made a tour of inspection.

But it was still a decade before I realised that the locked room on the top floor wasn't a stationery cupboard, but the domain of one of Britain's most feared financial journalists – Michael Gillard, writer of the Slicker column since 1969. He only appears at night, when deputy editor Francis Wheen claims to have caught him watching boxing on the telly downstairs.

So when editor Ian Hislop asked me if I fancied writing a history of the mag's first half-century, I was prepared for the unexpected. Even the fact the magazine has lasted 50 years is fairly extraordinary, given that co-founder Willie Rushton predicted "it would die after four or five weeks".

My last book, The King of Sunlight, was a biography of the eccentric Victorian businessman William Lever, but I swiftly discovered that the early 1960s were just as alien an environment to research as the 1850s.

I tried drinking lots of espressos and listening to Helen Shapiro, No 1 in the hit parade when the first Private Eye went on sale, but it didn't really help. I was slightly disadvantaged by the fact I wasn't even alive for the first 14 years chronicled by the mag, and not totally up to speed with political events for a while after that.

Working my way through the nearly 1,300 editions, Google became my best friend as I mutated into a sort of High Court Judge in reverse: "What exactly is a 'Quintin Hogg'?"... "Who on earth was 'Torrey Canyon'?" (Answers: Cabinet minister Lord Hailsham when he was little, and an oil tanker that kicked off the modern fashion for the black oily look among seabirds when it ran aground off Cornwall in 1967).

Other names were familiar, but popped up in unexpected contexts. Raised on Ivor Cutler's Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, I was delighted to discover that he was behind one of the Eye's first regular series, "Knifesmith's Korner". And it will never cease to please me that the shareholders in Pressdram, the Eye's publisher, recruited in 1964 from Peter Cook's address book to prevent his then wife Wendy having to sell off any more of her jewellery to keep things afloat, included Jane "Party Cakes" Asher and Dirk Bogarde. And nearly Hugh Hefner, who was offered the opportunity to invest, but, in Cook's words, "told me to piss off".

And that's just the behind-the-scenes personnel. One of the best things about trawling through back issues was spotting just how many, er, talents the magazine spotted early. You'd have expected Paul Foot to have been on to Jeffrey Archer like a terrier the moment he was elected to the Commons in 1969, but the fact he also namechecked Sharon Levy – later to become better known as Sharon Osbourne – in an article about her father Don Arden's sharp business practices the same year was more of a surprise.

Polly Toynbee first fell foul of the magazine while she was a student journalist at Oxford. Georgia Gould, who Labour tried to parachute into Erith as their candidate for the 2010 election, made her Eye debut even younger, as the baby being cuddled by Neil Kinnock on a cover in January 1987.

And the scoops everyone has long since forgotten to credit Private Eye for! It was the first publication to name both the head of MI6 (earning the editorial team a lecture from the head of the D-notice committee in 1963) and the Kray twins (Cook's decision – he declared "publish and be absent" and went on holiday to avoid recriminations).

Beyond the back issues, there was a wealth of other material gathering dust at the Eye's Soho HQ. Sketches of the office and its inhabitants by cartoonists such as Nick Newman, Michael Heath, Ed McLachlan and Tony Husband were quietly turning yellow on noticeboards.

So too were photos such as the series of Cook at the magazine's 30th birthday party effortlessly reducing an audience to hysterics before slicing into a cake shaped like a pile of libel writs. What was his speech about, I asked? "Twenty minutes on sautéed potatoes. Just brilliant," came the reply.

I spent days in the cellar leafing through dusty files. It was here that I found the long-lost original of that Andrew Neil photo, complete with details revealing the identity of his lovely companion (not, as many people seem to believe, Pamella Bordes. But you'll have to buy the book to find out who).

An appeal to colleagues to ransack their own attics yielded even more. Hislop produced the student magazine in which, aged 20, he had interviewed Richard Ingrams ("Does your attitude to the royal family get you into trouble?") Then, to the surprise of both of us, something else fell out of it – a letter in Ingrams's spidery handwriting dated November 1980, offering the undergraduate the chance to contribute.

Sheila Molnar, the managing director, turned up an old envelope she had stashed away in 1986 after noticing Hislop and Cook scribbling notes to each other on it in court during Robert Maxwell's evidence when he sued the Eye for libel. "BRING ON SIR BASIL NARDLY-STOADS AT ONCE," read Cook's capitals, while underneath Hislop has scrawled the first draft of the statement he gave after the magazine, inevitably, lost: "Private Eye has payed [sic] an enormous fat cheque. To an enormous fat Czech."

Many such treasures will feature in a free anniversary exhibition next month at, of all places, the V&A, which is treating them with unaccustomed reverence. An office swivel chair which used to belong to Maxwell himself is currently the subject of esoteric debate in Cromwell Road as to whether, as an "artefact", it must be displayed behind glass.

Hopefully my book does the opposite of that. I tried to keep two things in mind when writing it: first, that nothing kills a joke like over-explanation – look at Wikipedia's entries for Dave Spart and "Ugandan Discussions" if you don't believe me. And second, that the Eye itself is far from being a dusty historical object.

Recent, record-selling editions – the one covering the phone-hacking scandal shifted more than 250,000 copies – attest to that. So it might really be a history of Private Eye's first forty-nine-and-three-quarter-years, but it does manage to squeeze in Julian Assange's extraordinary phone-call to Ian Hislop in January this year, in which the WikiLeaks boss claimed he was being unfairly targeted by Jewish and "sort-of Jewish" journalists [Assange later denied the Eye's account]. But only because the book is written in A-Z format, and I could slip in an entry for "Zionist Plot" at the end without annoying the page designer. I think he was pleased, actually – the only other thing I had to offer for that section was a Robert Thompson cartoon of zebras.

'Private Eye: The First 50 Years, an A-Z' by Adam Macqueen is published on 20 September (Private Eye Books), RRP £25. To order a copy for the special price of £21.25 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Adam Macqueen will be interviewing former Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams as part of The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival on Saturday

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Darrell Banks’s ‘Open The Door To Your Heart’
music
News
Detective Tam Bui works for the Toronto Police force
news
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Charter Selection: Graphic Designer, Guildford

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Charter Selection: This renowned and well establish...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'