22 October 2021
Style and satire
What happened when Private Eye went to Town? Anne Braybon reveals a curious link between two very different 1960s magazines
In March 1962 Private Eye published About, a parody of About Town magazine, writes Anne Braybon.
The masthead, a sans serif pastiche of Tom Wolsey’s peerless design for the magazine that was soon to become Town (see ‘Town shaped the Sixties’ in Eye 96) hides the words ‘for pseuds’ in the final ‘t’, while the colophon credits designers ‘Thom Woolsack’ and ‘Brennan LeSmoothe’ and editor / publisher Clive Brilliantine, a swipe at the magazine’s ambitious owner Michael Heseltine. A photo story about ‘Slagville’ is credited to ‘John Bullfrog’, a rather lame swipe at superb photographer John Bulmer.
Why did this cheaply produced, financially-strapped and scabrous magazine, launched six months earlier, dedicate four of its sixteen pages to lampoon a glossy men’s magazine. About Town was a rarity at the time, a title avowedly directed at an ‘above-average young man: age 20-40 … anxious to keep up-to-date with the theatre, films, books, and politics?’
Third page of Private Eye’s parody of About Town, with a profile of publisher ‘Clive Brilliantine’.
‘In the Regency drawing room of his riverside Chelsea pied a terre he sipped a daiquiri and listened to Dave Brubeck on the hi-fi.’
The Eye’s parody presumed a shared readership that was sufficiently ‘in the know’ to enjoy this mockery, dropping in references to Lindsay Anderson, for example, and Sight and Sound. Unravelling why they did this reveals an intertwined cast of young, creative people in the forefront of cultural change.
Feature from About Town, March 1961. Photograph: John Bulmer. Art director: Tom Wolsey. See Anne Braybon’s article in Eye 96.
About Town, November 1961. Art director: Tom Wolsey. See Eye 96.
Private Eye, 28 October 2011. Art director: Tony Rushton. See Eye 82.
Private Eye founders Christopher Booker, Paul Foot, Richard Ingram and Willy Rushton met at the public school, Shrewsbury, where they edited the school magazine Salopian together. They launched Private Eye in 1961, and by the spring of 1962 it took off. The magazine’s mix of low humour, caricatures and political insights that others feared to publish brought a receptive audience. Booker described Private Eye as ‘against MacMillan and therefore radical, but also against the upper middle-class world of striped shirts.’
W. H. Smugg’ ad in Private Eye.
About Town’s Heseltine* had preceded the Private Eye founders at both Shrewsbury and Oxford, and he was on track to be an MP – and then Prime Minister. In March 1961 About Town had published a respectful cover story ‘The Tories Scrutinised’. The design was pitch perfect, the cover portrait outstanding, the eleven-page feature respectful and the interview with Prime Minister MacMillan was heralded as an ‘exclusive’.
The notorious ‘Tory’ spread from About Town, March 1961. Design: Tom Wolsey. See Eye 96.
But it was out of sync with the prevailing political disenchantment of the time, when a swathe of young voters refused to align themselves with a political class responsible for increasing industrial decline and political scandal … and with the snobbery and condescension of the period.
In 1963, a year or so after the parody was published, Heseltine invited the Private Eye team to a meeting in his offices on the Edgware Road. There, he offered them the front three pages of Town. Both magazines were highly visible but financially fragile at the time, though their design and content could not be more different.
Whether these were editorial or ad pages is not known; memories vary, and the archives are currently inaccessible. Maybe it was the magazine’s readership that Heseltine was interested in when he made the offer to Private Eye.
‘What has made them submit to this unscrupulous and shoddy publicity stunt?’ Private Eye poured further scorn on Town in this parody ad, published in issue 48, 18 Oct 1963, in which the targets included Bernard Levin and Clement Freud.
However Usborne, Ingram and the two Rushtons turned it down. Later that year, they published a full page attack on a Town photograph of prominent Town contributors posing with a sports car and a Bunny Girl. As Tony Rushton (Private Eye’s first designer) wrote on a postcard to me nearly six decades later, ‘we lived on to fight another day.’ Town closed in 1967.
Anne Braybon, art director, curator and photo historian, London
Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.