They used to say that nothing lasts forever, but that was before the 21st Century, when things curl up and die like they used to, but then just rise up and stagger on in zombie form. Formerly huge popular successes get by, somehow, on their name and their past – what creatives call ‘brand recognition’ – and the ‘just enough’ thin trickle of interest that never totally dries up. The list goes on – The Simpsons, Star Trek, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And now, most regrettably, we can add Private Eye.
I have in my hand the latest issue at the time of writing. The glorious Craig Brown diary page, brilliant as ever, aside, it is desperately thin, tame stuff.
Obviously, no one has ever read the pages between the opening gossip and the skits – the tedious investigations, the ‘Rotten Boroughs’ bits, etc. Whenever Private Eye has gone anywhere near something I knew about or was involved in, its coverage has always been laughably wide of the mark, so I never trusted a word it said about anything else. These pages are as dull as ever, still presented in the cribbed unreadable small print, typeset in boxing gloves, which seemed ancient in 1981.
But the juicy centre comedy pages, which were hilarious not so very long ago? Gags that everybody heard on Twitter two weeks before, and a general tone of weak snark and of treating the world of 2023 through the eyes of 1993.
Private Eye was very funny in 1993 and its staff and readers were so happy then they haven’t moved on. Look, I also wish it was 1993. I had hair. I believed the Labour Party were going to be great for the country. My best friend was alive.
Why did Private Eye work then, and indeed from its inception right up until the descent of the ‘Age of Stupid’ that kicked in around 2013/14? Because it was cynical and horrible about everyone and everything on an equal basis. This is the only way political satire works – the ugly angle of Thersites outside Troy or Juvenal or Peter Cook. It’s the one art form which envy, spite and misanthropy make better.
When you’ve taken a position, by contrast, you’re just performing the social bonding rites of that tribe, which is deadly. And ‘Calm down dear’-ism – I won’t call it centrism because turning a blind eye isn’t centrist – is a tribal political position. You have to be able, at the very least, to laugh at your own side. There is not a hint of that in the issue I’m reading. Not a word on the weekly Hamas hate marches in the streets of London, or the laughable police response. Not a sausage on the never-ending rise of ‘trans’.
What is Private Eye’s side? It has a palpable dread of going near anything that might make it look gauche and low status. It toed the establishment line on Covid and lockdowns. It called Graham Linehan “unhinged” for objecting to the well-documented sexualisation and drugging of kids.
There is a whiff to Private Eye that everything will be fine, and that the British institutions still just about work, or they would do if someone decent and sensible was in charge, like Rory Stewart. There is not a hint that the country has been changed immeasurably and possibly irretrievably for the worse by a combination of uncontrolled mass immigration and bourgeois academic rubbish. Private Eye thinks Britain is the same old place. In a way, I envy them that.
Unfortunately, this makes it look, at best, Carry On Up The Khyber-complacent; at worst blind. And you really can’t have a blind satirist. It has taken, very publicly, the most banal consensus position on Israel’s response to the Hamas atrocities. Its recent hit job on Triggernometry was laughable for all the wrong reasons, like an Edwardian old buffer spluttering about those damned infernal ‘orseless carriages.
The trouble with what we call ‘woke’ is that it is tedious to satirise – because it is already ridiculous. A lot of its works are deliberately goading and deliberately silly, a dare on the public – a man calling himself ‘Mandie Monroe’ taking his employer to a tribunal, ‘anti-racists’ supporting Hamas. The entire point of them is to provoke a reaction, to confirm the low status of those provoked into criticism or laughter, and thus firm up their own cultural dominance.
This is very hard for comedians and satirists to get their heads around, particularly for people like Private Eye who are of the class that prides itself on never being visibly either angry or sincere. That’s a very sensible approach to take when your civilisation is ticking more or less happily along in the background. But it’s a dead loss when your civilisation is rapidly crumbling to bits.
Far comfier to stick your head in the sand. Comfy but not funny.
Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter, novelist and columnist for the Spectator, Spiked and UnHerd. His new book, Gay Shame: The Rise of Gender Ideology and the New Homophobia, is due out 2024.
Stop Press: Ben Sixsmith makes a similar argument about the decline of Private Eye, focusing on its centrist dad editor, in the Critic. Definitely worth reading.