Britain's satirical mainstay still steers the country's cultural dialogue
In 1961, a group of young Englishmen (and they were men, graduates of Shrewsbury School in Shropshire) launched a satirical bi-weekly called Private Eye that is still Britain's leading magazine of wit, gossip, news, and mockery of public figures and politicians who can be nailed for self-importance, hypocrisy, malfeasance, and peccadilloes of various types. The magazine is carefully crafted to look home-made—a schoolboy's project—and deliberately designed in old-fashioned fonts with a cut-and-paste layout that contrasts with today's glossy periodicals. In fact, Private Eye is sophisticated and clever and has managed to stay in sync with British humor and public attitudes, playing an influential role in the country's culture and language.
Americans will see elements of The Onion, The Daily Show, and Spy (which had a successful newsstand run in the 1980s). Remarkably, Private Eye is still in the hands of its surviving founders. The chairman is Richard Ingrams, who was editor from 1963 to 1986. The editor since then has been Ian Hislop, who joined the magazine in 1981 at the age of 21. The magazine has endured a cascade of libel suits from those it has criticized, and despite paying out substantial sums in settlements it continues to make its way with the help of a large and devoted readership. What is distinctive are the euphemisms developed over the decades that makes reading the magazine like belonging to a club. To truly appreciate Private Eye, it helps to live in Britain or read it regularly. For example, since 1967, "tired and emotional" has been synonymous with excessive drinking and subsequent public display. An item in 1973 about goings-on at a London cocktail party involving a former Ugandan government minister became short-hand for sexual intercourse. "I can reveal," said an item in the "Grovel" column, "that the expression 'talking about Uganda' has acquired a new meaning":
As I was sipping my Campari on the ground floor, I was informed by my charming hostess that I was missing out on a meaningful confrontation upstairs where a former cabinet colleague of President Obote was "talking about Uganda." Eager, as ever, to learn the latest news from the Dark Continent I rushed upstairs to discover the dusky statesman "talking about Uganda" in a highly compromising manner to vivacious former-features editor Mary Kenny. . . .
That settled it.