By Mary Brodbin
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Private Eye: the First 50 Years

This article is over 10 years, 9 months old
An exhibition celebrating 50 years of Private Eye has just opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Te original artwork for over 120 of their funniest cartoons - by artists such as Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman, Wille Rushton, Barry Fantoni, and Michael Heath - is on show alongside a life-sized cutout of Tony Blair, a stuffed dog, a flying Robert Maxwell and a scattering of inflatable bananas once sold to fundraise for one of the many libel lawsuits issued against the Eye.
Issue 363

Since its first publication in 1961, the Eye has lambasted and lampooned a variety of public figures, most notably billionaire businessman James Goldsmith and the newspaper magnate and non-swimmer Robert Maxwell. Goldsmith issued more than 100 writs against the Eye in 1976 alone.

There is a display case showing the writ taken out by Maxwell against the Eye after they had accused “The ‘Cap’n’ of enjoying gambling with other people’s money”. Maxwell denied he was fiddling the pension funds of his employees at the Mirror. His final writ arrived a fortnight before he fell to his death from his yacht in 1991 – it swiftly emerged he had been doing just that.

On one wall Ian Hislop, editor for the last 20 years, has selected 50 front covers from every year of the magazine and they are a reminder of the wonderful job the Eye has done in cutting through the hypocrisy and humbug of the establishment. Hislop’s own favourite is from July this year following Hackgate. He has waited 19 years hoping to use the “Gotcha” headline the Sun used after the sinking of the Belgrano, which he says showed the Murdoch press at its worst.

In a corner the editor’s desk has been recreated, scattered with press clippings and artwork used to produce the cover just before Liam Fox’s resignation last month. There is a phone where you can listen to spoof news items and a boardroom chair nearby was once owned by Maxwell. It was purchased as a souvenir, “so I can have fantasies of power,” says Hislop. Cartoons have a major place in the Eye. Every fortnight Hislop opens dozens of cartoons sent to him in the hope “there might be someone new who’s good.” But the Eye under Hislop expanded beyond jokes into serious investigative journalism with such figures as Paul Foot and Francis Wheen.

Hislop thinks that the mixture of jokes and serious investigation was crucial. He believes Foot was on the right track when he said, “People read the jokes and a week later in the loo they’ll get round to my piece in the back.” Hislop is particularly proud of the disclosures by Foot on Private Finance Initiatives and investigations into miscarriages of justice.

In a way there are too many laughs to digest in one viewing. There are different themed sections. One with ridiculous references to art and literature shows a remote-controlled Ophelia floating in the river; another shows a character I guess troubled by his addiction to artworks by Hieronymus Bosch addiction knocking at a door enquiring “Excuse me, is this Alcoholics Hieronymous?”.

Lord Gnome must be very flattered. The lord’s mighty organ, once banned by W H Smith, always the bane of the corrupt and super-rich, is being feted in the capital’s most prestigious museum space. Dontchajustluvit!

Private Eye: the First 50 Years in at the Victoria and Albert Museum

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