The main feature of Private Eye: The First Fifty Years, at the V&A until 8 January, is a large wall plastered with the magazine’s covers. A monumental celebration, on a grand scale, of a scruffy little rag whose production values, to this day, owe much to its memorable antecedent, the British Railways lavatory roll. It’s a good thing that only one of them has lived to tell the tale. And a pleasure to see the Eye crowing over its longevity and many narrow escapes – several fools and villains have tried to kick it off the dung-heap and wring its neck. But, as the covers on this wall of fame remind us, fools and villains are the lifeblood of the paper. Every reader has a cherished bubble photo, from Wilson and Biafra through Kissinger in South Africa (HK to Vorster: ‘I’m only here for De Beers’) via James Goldsmith, Robert Maxwell, Rupert Murdoch, to Mugabe, Bush and Blair. For fans of a pensionable age, Verwoerd’s assassination (‘A Nation Mourns’, 17 September 1966) is a star cover. Younger readers may prefer a ghoulish photo of Norman Tebbit, the Tories’ ‘New Caring Face’ in 1986, and his prince-of-darkness bubble: ‘I can’t speak to you now. The sun’s coming up.’ But if a long-lost favourite is not on view at the exhibition, it can be found again on the Eye’s website, in the covers library.
LRB 15 December 2011 | PDF Download