The Queen, Ronnie Kray, Robert Maxwell and George W Bush: Private Eye's First 50 Years

By Jennie Gillions | 09 November 2011
A photo of the front of a magazine showing two smiling politicians below the words world's first face transplant a success
© Private Eye
Exhibition: Private Eye: The First 50 Years, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until January 8 2012

Guffaws of laughter are rarely appropriate at V&A exhibitions. This particular show, however, would have been wrong without them.

Never has the cliché "a picture tells a thousand words" seemed more apt than in this enthralling display, summarising 50 years of politics, trends and society more eloquently than would be possible in words.

A photo of the front of a magazine showing two smiling politicians below the words world's first face transplant a success
Issue 1147 (December 2005)© Private Eye
Visitors looking for details of Private Eye's ground-breaking investigative journalism will be disappointed; this is a celebration of the magazine’s illustrations.

The walls of the relatively small space are crowded with satirical commentary by cartoonists including Gerald Scarfe (whose notorious portrait of Harold Wilson as Christine Keeler features), Willie Rushton, Ralph Steadman, Tony Husband and Ken Pyne; the latter stars in a short video on the cartooning process.

One wall is devoted to editor Ian Hislop's 50 favourite covers (10 for each decade); this visitor and guest spent a lot of time giggling.

From a 1962 cover hinting at President Kennedy's sex life and the Queen meeting Ceausescu to George W Bush and mass murder in Zimbabwe, this is a brilliant potted history of world affairs in all their ludicrous, seedy glory.

A photo of the front of a magazine showing a black and white satirical picture of two people holding a stuffed toy cat
Issue 594 (September 1984)© Private Eye
The beauty lies in the subject choices – serious, sometimes scary, subjects with a thread of ridiculousness which enables us to laugh.

The covers also serve as essays on 50 years of British news. Ronnie Kray's sexuality, a worrying number of Government scandals and uncovered lies, Princess Diana’s death, the phone-hacking scandal...the stories are familiar, and a lot will contribute to moments of reminiscence.

Nostalgic readers will also take pleasure from the array of companion books, including Dumb Britain, The Secret Diaries of John Major and Dear Bill, the latter a fondly-remembered series of imaginary letters between Denis Thatcher and Bill Deedes, then editor of the Telegraph.

There is also a full-scale replica of the editor's desk, complete with empty Pret-A-Manger sugar sachets (there are no signs telling you not to touch it, but you’ll get told off if you do), and a cabinet on the production process.

An image of a magazine showing a picture of the Queen and a visiting dignitary with the words Britain sold shock new man at palace around it
Issue 340 (January 1975)
© Private Eye
The Eye has never shrunk from telling the grubby truth, a stance that has contributed to the rather glorious complementary display in the middle of the room – a whole case dedicated to libel action.

Private Eye was regularly sued by Robert Maxwell (a cardboard model of "Captain
Bob" flies from the ceiling), built up an adversarial relationship with law firm Carter-Ruck and won a partial victory over Sonia Sutcliffe, the wife of the Yorkshire Ripper, who sued for libel damages.

There are poignant elements, too. The 1995 cover following proprietor Peter Cook’s death reads simply "So. Farewell Then." A 1982 cover references the Falklands – Margaret Thatcher’s head atop a memorial reading "They Died To Save Her Face".

Ultimately, though, this exhibition is akin to a really fun modern history exam; your knowledgeable laughter is the test.

You either enjoy Private Eye or you don't. If you do, this is a hugely entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

  • Open 10am-5.45pm (10pm Friday, closed December 24-26). Admission free.
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