National lampoon: 50 years of Private Eye's ingenious political cartooning

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

From scabrous caricatures to full-scale skewerings of society, a new book looks back on the satirical publication's ingenious cartoons...

There's a type of telephone call that every political cartoonist dreads. It's the one from an MP – or more likely from their office minion at Westminster – asking the price of a drawing that was intended to cause hurt but will instead end up on the subject's toilet wall as a trophy to feed their sense of self-importance.

It is, perhaps, an explanation for why the art in Private Eye, Britain's most-successful satirical publication of the past half-century, has changed so much in that time.

Fifty years ago, the cartoonists at Private Eye were scabrous. They would sketch their jokes with the scent of a minister's blood in their nostrils, seeking to inject venom into every line of the drawing. Their targets were clearly identifiable members of Britain's ruling class and there was a belief that the cartoon, as a medium, was capable of inflicting genuine pain.

Gerald Scarfe made his name there, depicting Harold Macmillan posing naked in 1963, his wobbly flesh spilling out in all directions from the Arne Jacobsen chair associated with the Profumo Affair model Christine Keeler. He later drew Harold Wilson kneeling behind Lyndon B Johnson in support of the Vietnam War, pulling down the president's trousers as the American leader tells him: "I've heard of a special relationship, but this is ridiculous." So near the knuckle was this cartoon that editor Richard Ingrams made Scarfe draw in a pair of underpants to cover the presidential buttocks.

Gerald Scarfe depicts Harold Macmillan in a take on Christine Keeler's infamous pose Gerald Scarfe depicts Harold Macmillan in a take on Christine Keeler's infamous pose
It is a reflection of modern politics that the Eye today sees Westminster life in terms of the children's comic. Dave Snooty and his Pals – a parody of the Beano strip Lord Snooty and his Pals, is the creation of Private Eye editor Ian Hislop and his close friend Nick Newman, one of the magazine's great cartoon stalwarts of the past 30 years. The strip mocks the Education Secretary as Michael "Oiky" Gove and shows the Prime Minister repeatedly thwarted by his nemesis in a red-and-black striped jumper – Boris the Menace. "When Cameron arrived he reminded us of Lord Snooty and we thought 'How much more childish can politics get?'," explains Newman.

He has now compiled Private Eye: A Cartoon History, a record of how the magazine has illustrated Britain in strips and stand-alone gags since it was founded in 1961.

He acknowledges the cartoonist's sense of irritation when an MP claims to enjoy a joke, and asks for the original. "They are so thick-skinned, it's frustrating. You want to wound but it's really hard to do so. I don't think it's our failure so much as that they are just fantastically vain. They are happy to be pilloried in any which way so long as they are getting publicity." Jeffrey Archer is the biggest offender, apparently. "Maybe he just buys them to destroy them?"

The tradition of the scabrous political cartoon is now left largely to the national newspapers. Private Eye instead will try to puncture a minister's standing through its written articles and all-important cover. As veteran Eye artist Barry Fantoni points out: "We realised that putting a bubble into a photograph had an immediacy."

Mike Williams' reverse joke of a 'human rug' Mike Williams' reverse joke of a 'human rug'
The magazine decided that its drawn cartoons now needed to do something different and the result is that society as a whole became the butt of its jokes. Divided into decades, Newman's collection gives a remarkably clear record of the country's changing values, its hypocrisies and absurd obsessions, demonstrating the power of the cartoon as a social document.

Whereas other media are often content with depicting the 1960s as an era of liberation and fun, for example, the humour of the Eye cartoonists ensured a darker reality did not go unnoticed. Thus, in a minutely detailed sketch of Swinging London, titled "Britain Gets Wythe Itte, 1963", Timothy Birdsall satirises the sleaze of "girlie" magazines, the scandalmongering and hate of the tabloid press, the greed of the legal profession and fledgling advertising sector, homophobic reactionaries carrying aloft placards stating "Hang all the queers." And, gazing down from Nelson's Column, Macmillan implores the masses to "Looke around ye, my people! See what happinesse Ie have brought ye!"

By the 1970s, that strange decade of Cold War paranoia and glam rock, the Eye's artwork had become "more surreal", says Newman. The approach was typified by Ed McLachlan, who drew a giant rabbit raging through the streets of Manhattan as a passer-by comments: "I suppose if it was a gorilla, people would take it seriously."

Ken Pyre's 'Does my bomb look big in this?' Ken Pyre's 'Does my bomb look big in this?'
Cartoon themes peculiar to the 1980s included kissograms and names printed on windscreen sun visors – though the Eye cartoons of this decade were also affected by the misfortunes of a rival publication. The demise of Punch allowed the Eye to publish the work of cartoonists such as Mike Williams, who specialised in classic themes such as the "reverse joke" of a human rug on the floor of a bear cave. For most cartoonists, the enduring subjects (man on a desert island, man on a window ledge, lemmings going over a cliff) are an irresistible challenge.

"If you can get a desert-island joke away, there's a great sense of achievement," says Newman. "Of course you are trying to amuse the readers but the people you are really trying to make laugh are your fellow cartoonists. If somebody says they like your lemming joke, you think you've made it."

Between the 1970s and 1990s, the Eye's political cartooning was led by John Kent and his elegantly drawn strips. Michael Foot was the subject of "Worzel Gummidge", (reflecting the Labour leader's supposed resemblance to the scarecrow), and the perilous administration of John Major (whose father worked in the circus) was captured in "John Major's Big Top". But Kent attracted most admirers for his drawings of Margaret Thatcher in strips such as "Maggie Rules OK".

Ed McLachlan's surreal rabbit Ed McLachlan's surreal rabbit
"So many cartoonists have copied John Kent because he could get a likeness in a few [pen] lines," says Newman. "Margaret Thatcher was actually an incredibly difficult person to get right. When Ian [Hislop] and I were working on [television puppet satire] Spitting Image, they struggled the whole time to get Maggie right. [The show's co- creator] Roger Law said it was because she was quite a good- looking woman, and that they had the same problem with Diana."

Newman and Hislop were among those inspired by Kent as they introduced new political strips. Comics invariably provided the blueprint. "Dan Dire", for example, was based on Dan Dare and with Thatcher as a Mekon alien, Labour's Neil Kinnock floating in space and the Social Democrat Dr Owen as Dr Whoen, the Waste of Time Lord. More recently, "The Adventures of Mr Milibean" – lampooning Ed Miliband and based on a TV cartoon of the hapless Rowan Atkinson character Mr Bean – is drawn by the former Beano and Dandy artist Henry Davies.

In the past 20 years, the Eye has developed some recurring cartoon themes of its own – usually linked to a catchphrase ("Are you looking at my bird?" is one, "Does my bum look big in this?" is another). But bizarrely, the catchphrase which attracts the most competition among cartoonists as to who can use it most innovatively is, "Hi honey, I'm home," according to Newman. "It's the stock line from 1950s American sitcoms. I've no idea why it took off, but it became a challenge for cartoonists to come up with an original version of such a cheesy, corny line and turn it into something funny."

'Dan Dire' poked fun at Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock and David Owen 'Dan Dire' poked fun at Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock and David Owen
Another theme that has recurred through most of the past five decades is the miserable nature of most cartoonists, best exemplified by the famously gloomy – and brilliantly funny observationalist – Michael Heath. It's probably why the man on the window ledge is such a popular topic. "There are a lot of people topping themselves in Eye cartoons," says Newman. "We work in a vacuum and it can be a very solitary profession."

With relatively few outlets for cartoonists now, there's fear about where the next generation will come from. "When I started off, people in their teens and twenties were trying to get into the Eye and Punch, but now there aren't that many young cartoonists around, unfortunately. I wonder if it's because they think they can hit a million people on a YouTube mash-up," Newman speculates.

It takes a collection such as this to make you realise what we'd be missing. Cartooning is a complex tradition of British publishing that goes back to the 18th century. It can be whimsical but also melancholy and still, occasionally, vicious. Of course, first of all it should be funny – but it's about a lot more than just making us laugh. And at its best, it is revelatory.

'Private Eye: A Cartoon History' is published by Private Eye, priced £25

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lois Pryce... Life Without a Postcode. Lois lives on a boat with her husband.. Registering to vote in the election has prooved to be very difficult without a fixed residential post code. (David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Steven Fletcher scores the second goal for Scotland
cricketBut they have to bounce back to beat Gibraltar in Euro 2016 qualifier
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Ashdown Group: .NET Developer : ASP.NET , C# , MVC , web development

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits - see advert: Ashdown Group: .N...

Guru Careers: 3D Package Designer / 3D Designer

£25 - 30K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an exceptional 3D Package Designer / 3...

Guru Careers: Interior Designer

£Competitive: Guru Careers: We are seeking a strong Middleweight / Senior Inte...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing