Interview: He's a legend in his own lunchtime: Personal problems led Richard Ingrams to leave 'Private Eye' and start the 'Oldie', catering to culturally isolated fogeys such as himself

Hunter Davies
Monday 29 March 1993 23:02

ONE of the surprises about Richard Ingrams is that in real life, or what passes for it, he's not a very funny person.

'That is a great insult,' he said. 'I've spent my whole life working on the world's best humour magazine, and you say I'm not funny.'

He turned away in a huff. A rumpled, crumpled figure in his awful corduroy jacket that he has worn for a million years. No, not quite the same one. He has six, identical, and they're clean, whatever his enemies might say. Well, usually they are.

He'd been looking a bit dejected and sad, which is understandable when you hear what has happened in his private life. Now he was in a sulk. 'Utter balls. I make jokes all the time. It's like saying Yehudi Menuhin is not a musical person.'

That could happen. Someone who happens to have a gift for performing need not necessarily like what he performs. Anyway, what I mean is that you are not a naturally funny talker, like Alan Coren, Peter Cook or Spike Milligan, who can be funny spontaneously, spinning it out of nothing. Most of the time you sit silent, grunting away, letting other people be funny.

'I wouldn't include Coren, but I agree I'm not as funny as the other two. The funniest thing I saw in my life was Spike in the play Oblomov, changing the script every night. God, that was funny, watching the others trying to stick to their parts.'

Writing funny stuff, finding and editing funny stuff, then, you are a legend in our lunchtime. Private Eye is part of our national heritage. A 1961 first edition is now worth pounds 500. You took it from nothing to a circulation of 220,000 and a multimillion-pound business when you left in 1986. By the way, why did you leave?

'That was one of the problems. Because we were seen to have become rich, more people sued. I was tired out by all the court cases. I always wanted to pass it on to someone younger, and Ian Hislop was the first person I thought could do it.

'He was only 24 and there was a lot of ridicule, but I've been proved right. Some people believe it doesn't actually matter who edits a magazine or paper. That's rubbish. The reason why Punch failed and the New Statesman has gone down is bad editing. Nothing to do with social trends.'

So if the Oldie fails, it's your fault? 'Absolutely.'

Ah, a nicer subject to talk, or mumble, about. The Oldie is one year old and still alive, success enough in these hard times. 'We got carried away when the first issue sold 100,000, then after three months we rocketed down to 15,000 and it looked as if we might close. We had been overspending on staff and colour. We reduced the staff from 15 to eight, stopped colour printing and I gave up my salary.'

What had that been? He affected not to know, being above such things, as he is above market research and other trivial matters. In fact, it was pounds 40,000. Since then he's worked for nothing, living on his other income from journalism and broadcasting. And a private income?

'I haven't got one. I did have an inheritance of pounds 10,000 when I was 21, but I lost it when I left Oxford and ran a theatre company for schools. Oh yes, there was a family trust. It meant when I married I could buy a house without taking a mortgage. That was a help.

'Hmm, school fees, yes, it did pay for their school fees as well. OK, it has been a cushion in life, but I don't get anything from it now. All goes to the family.'

It explains why he stuck at Private Eye all those years on a low salary, and why he can face running the Oldie for nothing. Its circulation is now up to 25,000. Not quite break-even, but almost. 'The subscription is 10,000, which is the vital thing, according to my box wallahs on the business side. Most people renewed their subs and more are coming in. I'm very pleased.

'Perhaps the best sign is that people are very keen to write for us. William Trevor sent us a short story out of the blue.'

This is despite the stingy fees he pays contributors - pounds 50 mostly, though he has just been forced to go into three figures for Germaine Greer.

'She worked for a year for nothing. Now her agent has just found out, and I've been forced to pay her. I can't tell you how much, or the other contributors will want more.'

They include Barry Humphries and Harry Enfield's dad, but not Barbara Cartland. 'I had to sack her. She became tiresome, wanting to write about her vitamin pills all the time.'

When he left the Eye in 1986 he announced he was going to write books, such as a biography of Malcolm Muggeridge. Still unfinished?

'It's not abandoned. I will do it in time, but I think editing the Oldie is just as worthwhile. I remember A J P Taylor saying it's wrong to think journalists are always inferior to historians.

'A book can be just as ephemeral as any magazine, yet people still have this veneration for authors. I don't. A book is no big deal. My favourite writers were all journalists - Orwell, Chesterton, Cobbett, Dr Johnson.

'Anyway, I found the book too hard. I need perfect peace, eight hours' sleep, a clear mind, nothing worrying me. I couldn't manage that because of what happened. I was flying around from house to house, carrying my papers. I can't write like that.

'That's the main reason I began the Oldie. My, er, personal circumstances. I wanted to escape back into an office situation, do something to take my mind off the other things.'

He married Mary Morgan, then a secretary on Private Eye, in 1962. They had three children, one of whom, Arthur, was born with cerebral palsy and died aged seven. Not long after, Mary became depressed. They had rows, he left for a while and they didn't speak to each other for eight months.

Then he came back and all seemed well. She opened a bookshop near their home in Berkshire, which was very successful. He enjoyed helping out. 'Until about 18 months ago I still thought that I had a very happy marriage.'

There are clearly two sides to what happened next. He didn't like her drinking, especially as he himself has not drunk since he was 30 after a doctor said his liver was dodgy and he could die. She accused him of having an affair with an American journalist. He denies it.

The upshot is that they are now living separate lives. The bookshop has been sold. He is alone in their Berkshire house. She is in a house in Sussex.

'She wants a divorce. I gather I haven't much choice, but I don't want it - for financial reasons as much as anything. It's all taken some getting used to after more than 30 years of marriage. At home I just sit around, incapable of making any decisions.'

His two children and three grandchildren come to visit and he has a cleaner who comes in once a week. 'The only positive thing is that I've taken up the piano seriously. I did play the organ for years in the local church, but not very well. Now I practise my scales all the time, which you can't really do if there's someone else in the house.'

Domestically, Mary spoiled him and he never had to cook. He can manage to boil an egg and fry fish fingers, but is now trying to branch out.

'On Saturday morning I go to Waitrose and find it fascinating. In fact, I'm looking for someone to write a supermarket column in the Oldie. Would you like to?' Pass.

He can use a washing machine, when he remembers, and most days he manages clean underwear. He never was interested in clothes or his appearance. A case of inverted vanity? Look at scruffy old me, I don't care, because I'm so confident in myself?

'No, it's not that. I'm absent- minded and very untidy. Someone cleared my office desk the other day and it took me two days to reclaim it.'

His old fogey persona is real, though he hams it up, especially on radio in The News Quiz. 'I had to review a video the other day and someone called Al Pacino was in it. I'd no idea who he was. It was only yesterday that it was explained to me what Pink Floyd are. Or is. Or was.

'When Freddie Mercury died I wrote a piss-taking piece about all the memorials, but it was because I'd honestly never heard of him. The Oldie is for people culturally isolated, like me.'

He is also buttoned up and excessively introverted. He puts that down to being sent away to boarding school from the age of seven. Left to himself, without talk coming to him, he lapses into silence, which can't have been much fun for his wife all those years. Even after a Private Eye lunch, with the great and the bad spilling the dirt, he'd come home - and not talk.

'I blame it on commuting. You arrive home and the only thing in your head is the hassle of the train journey. You've forgotten the day's events. I'm sure that's why most commuters don't talk to their wives.'

He puts part of his anti-social nature down to giving up drinking. Until he was 30 he could enjoy himself in any company, given a few drinks. Now he never talks to strangers.

'I only like the company of my friends. When they are convivial I find that I can become intoxicated with them, which is strange. I start acting as if I've been drinking. People think I have, but it's not true.'

A pitiful image, then, this tired old fart of 55, sitting with his little shopping bag between his feet. Hold on, why are these young girls at the Groucho Club, where he lunches most days, fussing over him, cooing and cuddling? I had to look the other way. Richard, what is this?

'Didn't you read Options magazine? I am one of their 50 sexiest men in Europe.' Gerrof. An old buffer like you, down on his marital luck. Anyway, you wouldn't have an affair with any of them. You're an old prude. For 30 years, you've been attacking public figures, and your own colleagues, for any unseemly sexual behaviour.

'Perhaps in my time I have been too censorious. When you're young and have a secure and happy married life, you tend to be critical of people with chaotic lives. I was genuinely appalled by Profumo's behaviour all those years ago. Now I would be more tolerant.

'I would have mocked and attacked the Bishop of Gloucester in the past, but now I feel very sorry for him. I believe he succumbed to a mad urge which he nows regrets. I think his case is tragic. And Sir Alan Green. And the Bishop of Galway.'

What about your own sad case? Have you found another lady friend? 'I'm not answering that one. I was totally faithful in my married life until we parted. I do have several girl friends. But I'm not thinking of getting married. I'm not used yet to the idea of being not married.'

We walked back in silence to the Oldie office where his staff, one young man and seven pretty women, mostly Sloany, were busy working away. 'Aren't you going to ask me why it is that in a magazine for old people all the staff are so young?'

I can guess. It's because you can get away with paying them pounds 15 a week. There was a small, but well-bred, cheer.

He sat down at his cluttered desk. On a board behind him were snaps of John Betjeman, William Trevor, Mavis Nicholson and his grandchildren.

'That's Jessica,' he said, waving his hand towards one of his staff, head down concentrating on her computer.

'Fiona actually,' she said, without looking up.

'Oh God, I don't think I'll bother any more.'

(Photograph omitted)

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