Super satire: The art of Private Eye

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Sharp, funny and often cruel, over 50 years Private Eye has perfected the art of the satirical picture caption, says John Walsh

The perfect Private Eye cover makes you gasp and guffaw at the same time. In March this year, after stories appeared in the press about the Duchess of York's financial troubles and Prince Andrew's friendship with a convicted paedophile called Jeffrey Epstein, the magazine displayed the Yorks on thecover in their party finery. A speech bubble had Andrew saying, "Epstein is prepared to give you £15,000," and Fergie replying, "Is that for Eugenie, or for both of them?".

Jonathan Swift, in full "A Modest Proposal" mode, would have approved of that joke. It's shocking, disgracefully unfair, clearly actionable and it skewers the chronically troubled Yorks with admirable economy.

Over the past five decades, royals, politicians, judges, presidents, religious leaders, Eastern potentates, Europhiles, criminals, left-wingers, right-wingers and media potentates have warily approached the news-stands every fortnight, praying that their transgressions and hypocrisies do not feature in the satirical scandal-sheet, nor (please God) their smiling countenances appear on the cover, nailed beyond repair by a killer caption in a rectangular box.

Private Eye is 50 years old this October, and among the celebrations attending its anniversary will be an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Expect to see plenty of the magazine's distinctive covers here: they represent a half-century chronicle of political scandal and public folly – but also 50 years of exposure, opposition, subversionand ridicule.

The earliest Private Eye covers didn't feature photographs, let alone captions. Issue No 1, published on 25 October 1961, was printed on mustard-coloured paper (a link to the Yellow Book, the bible of 1890s decadence?) and featured just one satirical squib, at Conservative politician Iain MacLeod. A display box announced, "You've been sold a dummy – of what we hope, after further experiment, will be a weekly newspaper to appear regularly in the New Year".

Issue No 3 (30 November) featured a young woman on the cover dressed as Santa Claus, saucily revealing a stockinged leg. A speech bubble issued from her mouth, saying "Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam". The words ("To the greater glory of God") are well-known to Catholic schoolboys, but seem meaningless in this context. Nonetheless, this was the magazine's Eureka moment: the first photo-with-words joke. From now on, every fortnight for 1,200 issues, almost every cover would carry a topical photo subverted by a satirical headline or a caustic speech bubble.

The next issue carried a photo of the Albert Memorial, headlined "Britain's First Man Into Space"; the appended caption – "He he very satirical" – should have issued from the mouth of Prince Albert's statue, but was given to a random spectator.

Issue No 6 was the first that properly married picture and caption. It showed Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, tête-à-tête with a fellow clergyman, asking him: "And what are you giving up this Lent, eh?" – more nudge-nudge than funny. It's touching, half a century on, to watch the magazine gradually learning to be both sophisticated and devastatingly simple.

Among these early covers, one finds several mis-hits, poor jokes and topical allusions that would mean nothing to later readers. On 5 April 1963, a balding man sitting on a bed says to another man, "And if Private Eye prints a picture of me on a bed, I'LL SUE THEM!". It takes some cudgelling of the memory to recall that the man is John Profumo, embroiled up to his neck in the Christine Keeler scandal. But even when you're not sure of the context, you can feel the teeth of moral accusation.

In a modern world in which any red-top newspaper can abuse members of the Royal Family, and link their names with scandal, sex and drugs, without the least outcry, it's amazing to recall the shock value of the Eye's royal covers. I first saw the magazine in a Battersea newsagents in October 1964 – I was just 11. The cover showed the Queen making a speech for the opening of Parliament and saying, "And I hope you realise I didn't write this crap". A four-letter word! Printed on actual newsprint! Attributed to the Queen! You could feel the ground shifting slightly beneath your feet. You could almost feel centuries of deference starting to give way to something new.

When the magazine put a grinning, toothy picture of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon on the cover of issue 226, smiling through an even more shocking caption, you could hear the nation's sharp intake of breath. (Could it be true that the royal marriage was on the rocks? Could Private Eye have broken the news any more bluntly?)

By the mid-Sixties, satire had gone beyond the jokey lampooning of domestic figures into savage international territory. The scribbly, herbivorous cartoons of Willie Rushton were often superseded by the grotesque anti-American rudeness of Gerald Scarfe, whose cartoons, like the Eye itself, displayed an obsession with arses.

A lurking homophobia, characterised by the words "poove" and "ducky" (as seen on the cover featuring David Bailey's famous photo of the Kray twins) was a constant theme. A hot diplomatic embrace between General Nasser and King Hussein of Jordan had Hussein saying, "I'll be buggered if I do this again" – probably the first time the word was seen in print. When Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, was assassinated in 1966, the Eye cover carried the caption "Verwoerd – A Nation Mourns" beneath a picture of four cavorting South African tribesmen. It was a joke that would be applied to many more unlamented dead world figures.

The early Eye years are a fascinating record of British satire taking hold of a new world of posturing politicians, assorted poseurs in the arts world and ill-advised grinning public figures, and roasting them alive with just a few words. Subsequent years saw the brand become more streamlined and polished, but without losing its edge. When the triumphalism of Mrs Thatcher was at its height, during her Falklands adventure, any number of photographs could have been employed to ridicule the gap between her achievement and her striking of heroic attitudes. Typically, Private Eye used the pointing figure of her husband to suggest the couple were on a ferry crossing to the Isle of Wight.

And does any picture encapsulate the dawn of New Labour better than that of Cherie Blair embracing her husband on the steps of Number 10 on 2 May, 1997? "Happy?" she's asking him. "Sorry," comes the reply, "You'll have to ask Peter Mandelson."

Like Wilson, Brown and Macmillan in the 1960s, Heath and Callaghan in the 1970s, Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s, Major, Blair and Brown thereafter, like the Royal Family from 1961 to 2011, like every rogue, pseud and chancer from Robert Maxwell to Rupert Murdoch, you can imagine every object of Private Eye's stiletto-like scorn reading the cover – and wincing with recognition.

Private Eye: The First 50 Years is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7, from 18 October

Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
News
news
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
sport
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Graduate Sales Executive

17.5k + Commission (£18.5k after probation period): ESI Media: You will be res...

PPC Account Managers

£25k - £30k (DOE): Guru Careers: Two expert PPC Account Managers are needed to...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary