It’s tempting to describe the feverish, slightly surreal times we’re living through as being beyond satire. But, in Ian Hislop’s view, ‘nothing is beyond satire’.
Take today. The Private Eye editor is talking to Weekend in the magazine’s Soho offices as a blimp depicting the President of the United States as an angry baby hovers above London. ‘An inflatable cartoon, flying over a city!’ he marvels. ‘I’m very impressed, and a bit jealous.’
In truth, he has little to be envious about: in recent years, the Eye has enjoyed the highest circulation in its 56-year history, its mix of barbed satire and painstaking investigative journalism helping it shift close to a quarter of a million copies every fortnight.
‘Ludicrous, isn’t it?’ says the man who has been in the editor’s chair since 1986. ‘I’d like to claim all the credit personally, but I think that might not be entirely true. With Brexit, Trump and rising populism, it’s a time of uncertainty, where people aren’t quite sure what’s true, or what makes sense. People look to the Eye to tell them what’s going on, which I’m very pleased about.’
Hislop is a born satirist, his love of lampoonery fostered during a peripatetic childhood accompanying his civil engineer father around the world.
‘My parents had been to see [legendary 60s revue] Beyond the Fringe, and they took the LP of it with them abroad,’ he recalls. ‘So I heard it a lot. I had a rather strange childhood, in Nigeria, Kuwait, Jeddah and Hong Kong, where my parents’ love of things like Flanders and Swann and Beyond the Fringe meant there was a real sense of Britain always playing somewhere.’
At Oxford, he and Nick Newman, an old school pal, collaborated on a magazine called Passing Wind, for which Hislop interviewed Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams and his Beyond the Fringe hero Peter Cook, the Eye’s majority shareholder. A few years later, Ingrams stunned colleagues by announcing this eager but largely unknown 26-year-old as his replacement.
‘I was very young, but I thought, yes – I can do this,’ Hislop recalls. ‘I had no idea what it took. I had no idea of the strength of my predecessor – I knew he was funny, but I didn’t know how tough he was.’
Not everyone was so confident: gossip columnist Nigel Dempster and his Daily Mail colleague Peter McKay attempted to stage a coup, by getting Cook drunk (never much of a challenge) and marching him into the office to fire the young upstart. Instead, Cook just said ‘Welcome aboard!’
‘It was a rather feeble, failed coup,’ says Hislop.‘It was just the fury of the overlooked. Peter Cook and Richard Ingrams had essentially decided I should get the job, so there wasn’t much to argue with.’
Over the next decade, Hislop witnessed Cook, a childhood idol, effectively drink himself to death. ‘Peter was brilliant, absolutely brilliant, but perhaps we just indulged him,’ he reflects. ‘No-one actually said, “You know, it would be better if you got hold of yourself”. He was obviously a very difficult man, but he was very nice to me. I was in awe of his talent, really.’
Hislop is the first to acknowledge he looked to the likes of Ingrams and Cook as ‘substitute father figures’, having lost his own father when he was just 12. ‘I suppose I quite liked older blokes because I didn’t have one in my life,’ he says. ‘I was interested by them, rather than thinking they were terrific old bores. I thought, maybe they’ve got something I’ve missed, which I still believe now I’ve become an old bore myself.’
In what other ways did losing his father affect him?
‘I suppose it made me grow up very quickly, and I perhaps became more independent more quickly than was altogether desirable. It also meant there was a freedom, because there no father figure saying no.’
He thinks being at Ardingley College, an independent boarding school, probably insulated him from the full force of his mother’s grief. It was there he first met Newman, who remains a close friend and colleague to this day. As well as being an Eye cartoonist of almost 40 years’ standing, Newman has collaborated with Hislop on numerous television and radio scripts – most notably a five-year stint on Spitting Image – and several plays including The Wipers Times, which is about to embark on another UK tour, followed by a six-week run at the Arts Theatre in London.
The pair’s latest theatrical creation, Trial by Laughter, is a courtroom drama based on the story of William Hone, a Regency bookseller, pamphleteer and satirist who stood trial for blasphemous libel. ‘I thought I’d go outside my comfort zone and let my imagination run wild,’ laughs Hislop, famously no stranger to litigation himself.
Even he, the satirist’s satirist, admits he’d never heard of Hone until the story was brought to his attention. ‘But he was incredibly important at the time – unbelievably famous, and his trial [in which Hone defended himself] was an absolutely extraordinary event.’
Given that Hone’s most incendiary parodies were illustrated by his friend, the caricaturist George Cruikshank, the parallels between Hislop and Newman are irresistible.
‘I don’t think we were so vain we thought, we must write a piece about ourselves,’ says Hislop. ‘But we did think, well at least we know about this.’
Hislop has often made light of his own reputation as ‘the most sued man in Britain’ – but he admits there have been sleepless nights along the way. ‘Part of me thought, oh how marvellous – I’ll edit the paper from prison, and it’ll be very exciting. But another part of me thought, hmmm, no, I’ve had a look round some prisons, it doesn’t look great.’
While he’s relieved to be working in a time of greater press freedom than Hone enjoyed, he’s a firm believer that ‘every generation has to fight the battle again’. Blasphemy, he notes, is a particularly invidious charge. ‘There are journalists and bloggers all around the world who’ve been locked up on the grounds their work is blasphemous. Which is isn’t – it’s political.’
And in 2018, censorship doesn’t always come from those in power – Twitter’s army of the permanently offended are ever-vigilant for people going off the agreed script.
‘There is a sense in which people just want you to shut up,’ says Hislop. ‘They don’t want to argue it down, they just want you to be quiet. And you feel, no come on – let’s have the argument. This is what we do.’
Recently, Hislop felt the sharp end of this when his suggestion that women might be too modest and self-effacing to put themselves forward for Have I Got News For You received short shrift.
‘I was attempting to say something which didn’t come out the way I hoped it would come out,’ he offers by way of explanation. ‘But I’ve been in journalism a long time, so I can’t complain about it. I’ll just say that we’re aware of the criticism [of the show’s gender imbalance], we’re doing our best, and I should probably leave it at that.’
In every other respect, HIGNFY remains in remarkably rude health: after a gravity-defying 55 series, it’s still one of Britain’s top performing TV shows, and in 2016 won the BAFTA for Best Comedy. But Weekend surely can’t be alone in detecting an air of slight tension between Hislop – every inch the clubbable public school boy – and his fellow team captain, Underground train driver’s son Paul Merton…
‘Slight?’ says Hislop , amused. ‘Yes, there always has been, and it remains. Someone said that all English comedy is about class, and I think Paul thinks I’m a stuffed shirt.’
One thing both men did publicly agree on was that original host Angus Deayton’s position became untenable following lurid tabloid revelations about his private life. Presumably they felt Deayton had surrendered the moral high ground necessary for a satirical panel show?
‘Well, you don’t need much of a moral high ground, but you need an inch or two,’ argues Hislop. ‘I don’t want to be puritan and smug about it, but it became impossible to do. It’s a shame, because he was brilliant at it, but in many ways I think the show would probably have been history by now. It’s that rotating change of host that keeps it fresh.’
Hislop’s own private life came under the spotlight – or rather didn’t – when then Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan launched a high-profile vendetta during which he pledged to ‘severely humiliate’ the ‘poisonous little twerp’ – only to draw an embarrassing blank. Is that because it’s part of the Private Eye editor’s job to maintain a squeaky clean sheet?
‘No he’s just no good at it!’ Hislop chuckles. ‘There are skeletons in every cupboard. He’s just useless.’
It’s hard to imagine what those skeletons might be. A lifelong Anglican (unusual, he admits, in his line of work), Hislop lives an apparently blameless life in Chelsea and Kent with his wife, the bestselling novelist Victoria, with whom he has two grown-up children. (One of them, awkwardly, was in the same class as Piers Morgan’s son at the height of their public feud.)
He has never resisted being portrayed as a young fogey ('That would be flattery now,’ notes the 58-year-old) – but how does he feel about being that most devalued of public commodities, a celebrity?
‘Well, I mean, there’s not a great deal I can do about it,’ he shrugs. ‘It would be foolish to say, “Oh how awful, I never sought it”. I’ve been in your living room for 28 years! So I think you just have to cope with it. And you know, it has a lot of advantages, so I think one should not be too whingey about it.’
What was it then, in Hislop’s perfectly establishment upbringing – Africa, Ardingley, Oxford – that turned him into such a natural rebel?
‘Satire in this country tends to come from inside the club,’ he reasons. ‘Jonathan Swift was a cleric in the CofE, Byron was a member of the House of Lords. It tends to come from people who know the class they’re criticising.’
But has he ever asked himself what it is about satire – and satirists, from William Hone to Peter Cook – that has made it his life’s abiding passion?
‘I suppose it’s some sort of personality defect,’ he jokes. ‘I talked to [Spitting Image co-creator] Roger Law recently, and he said, “It’s just about belonging to the awkward squad”. That’s how you react to things. You do it because you do it.
‘I’m sure it would be possible, for example, to react to Trump’s appearance in this country by extreme fear, or a desire to take him seriously,’ he adds, before taking his leave to go check out that balloon. ‘I’ve never been struck by that desire.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, August 16, 2018
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