Private Eye and on Have I Got News For You for quarter of a century. How does he fare when the focus is on him?
By Ginny Dougary
29 Nov 2012
(Daily Telegraph Magazine)
Ian Hislop is in the first-floor dining-room of the Coach and Horses, a defiantly unreconstructed pub in Soho, London, greeting his guests at the Private Eye lunch he has hosted for the past 26 years, ever since Richard Ingrams made the initially controversial decision to hand over the editorship of the satirical magazine to what the old guard considered a young upstart.
Norman Balon, the notoriously rude proprietor of the pub – who used to slap down the plates of melon followed by meat and two veg, then spotted dick and custard – has moved on, and Hislop is anxious about the new ‘midlife crisis’ menu, which is exclusively vegetarian with haute-gastronomy ambitions – the foodie equivalent, perhaps, of Pseuds Corner, all twiddles and towers and puddles of intense colour.
I have been to a number of these Wednesday lunches over the years as a guest, but on this occasion I am here to observe how our host works the room, which he does in his convivial, eye-twinkling way. The number of women around the table has increased over the decades; Hislop is sandwiched between two of the four here today: a newspaper editor and a television foreign correspondent. He is very protective of the identities of all his guests and story sources of his journalists, so no names, no pack-drill.
Hislop says that the lunches, held fortnightly, are good for making contacts – he would never use the dread word networking – and have often led to stories, although the Eye tends to get beaten to it (gallingly, because of its long lead times) by his journalist guests, rushing off to file the news for the next day’s paper. A case in point was John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP, who got ‘hogwhimperingly drunk’ at one lunch, as a fellow guest described it (the wine does flow), and confessed to the assembled company that his mistress was pregnant and the story was about to be exposed in the News of the World. Cue mass exodus of hacks, clutching notebooks.
At one end of the table today is the dashing writer and journalist Francis Wheen, who was Hislop’s first recruit, and is now deputy editor (although Wheen resists the title). As Hislop recalls in last year’s book by Adam Macqueen, Private Eye: the First 50 Years, ‘Getting Francis was a very important early thing [swiftly followed by the rehiring of Paul Foot]. He was always streets ahead. You could give him stories that were difficult or controversial or tough without him thinking, “Oooh, well… I can’t really make the phone call,” or “I’m a bit worried about my anonymity…”’
At the other end of the table is the only full-time journalist on the Eye, Jane Mackenzie. The rest of the table is made up of young journalists on national newspapers who are telling disobliging stories about their bosses, which may or may not find their way into the Street of Shame column. There is also an academic who may be good for an item on a colleague who has behaved shabbily. There is a leading Conservative politician, who leaves before the main course, and various other diners. Hislop writes notes in full view. He used to be more coy about it, he says, and would scribble away with his hand under the table.
A couple of weeks earlier I had been in the studio audience for the first programme in the new series of Have I Got News For You, on which Hislop has appeared for all of its 22 years: there is nothing fly-by-night about Hislop. The host is Clare Balding on her debut HIGNFY appearance; she is intro-duced as the ‘hero of the summer’ on the back of her new post-Olympics popularity. On Hislop’s team is the Father Ted scriptwriter Graham Linehan, and on Paul Merton’s team, Ken Livingstone. There’s some amusing pre-recording chit-chat. Balding says that she is sometimes mistaken for Sue Barker, to which she usually responds, ‘F***, yeah,’ so at least she has the satisfaction of members of the public thinking the goody-goody Barker ‘has a hell of a mouth on her’. Hislop comments that when he was on a train, a woman said, ‘“Are you Ian Hislop?” And her friend said, “Leave him alone, he doesn’t look anything like him.”’ Big laugh from the audience, who adore Hislop. Paul Merton tops it, with a typically surreal statement. ‘I was in Ireland and someone said to me, “Are you who you think you are?”’
The programme is dominated by Jimmy Savile/ BBC stories, and Abu Hamza and his prosthetic arm. There’s a long chat about Livingstone’s chum Hugo Chávez, whom Linehan is keen on, too, which gets cut right back in the edit that appears on television. The only hitch is at the end, when Balding has to do repeated retakes of her farewells as she keeps pronouncing Ian’s surname in the abbreviated way, as ‘Hizlp’.
After the show we all meet up in the hospitality room on the top floor of the old London Weekend Television building, where HIGNFY is filmed, close to the Southbank Centre. This is a lot more glam – with spectacular views of London lit up at night – than the usual BBC Green Room spread of sandwiches and bowls of crisps. Hislop is drinking Guinness. His wife, Victoria, is there (she is a journalist turned bestselling novelist, and they have been married for 24 years) as is Balding’s civil partner, the newsreader Alice Arnold. Paul Merton is moody, and only wants to talk shop with his director and Linehan. Livingstone is moany, and keeps saying that this is the most difficult HIGNFY he has been on because of the depressing subject matter (later, Hislop tells me that Livingstone, who has been on a dozen times, always says that). The following night, when the show goes out, it zips along with all its customary sparkle and repartee.
The afternoon after the filming, I go to Private Eye’s office, which is in an old house on Carlisle Street in Soho, to interview its editor. This has been the magazine’s home since 1984. It was built in about 1685 and, according to the journalist Tim Minogue, who writes the Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column, exposing corruption in local authorities, has variously been home to a hatter, a wigmaker, a lacemaker, a goldsmith, a dance academy and, directly before the magazine moved in, a firm of architects. In the dark hallway is what is apparently known as ‘the wall of death’ – photographs of departed Eye stalwarts: Peter Cook, Willie Rushton, John Wells and Paul Foot. There are two secretaries in the first room you enter, including Hilary Lowinger – who is also the office manager and joined the magazine in 1986. The designers and sub-editors work in a large, light room at the back. Hislop is wearing a suit from Marks & Spencer, which looks rather well cut. ‘This is from that nice range, Autograph,’ he says. ‘I always wear a suit because you don’t have to think what to wear. It’s a very easy, convenient uniform.’ He flicks through a pile of typed paper with the chief sub-editor, Tristan Davies, delivering rapid-fire instructions: ‘That’s good for HP [Sauce, the parliamentary news section]’; ‘That’s a Wheen’; ‘Condense these two for the books pages’; ‘That’s his Lance Armstrong piece, we have to run that.’ Afterwards he turns to Tony Rushton, the art director, who has been with the mag for all of its 51 years. There’s a Savile and Boris lookalike photo spread, and various cartoons laid out on the pages. They have a bit of a chat about a cartoonist they like but think they are possibly using too much.
Then we go on a quick tour of the rest of the building. Up the narrow staircase, with walls of large high-quality prints of Hogarth’s four 1754 Election paintings; a gift from Sir John Soane’s Museum, after Private Eye sponsored a show of political art – Hogarth’s Election Entertainment – in 2001. In one room on the top floor there is a female lawyer from Matrix Chambers scrutinising the contents of the next issue for libel, next door to Jane Mackenzie and the journalist Heather Mills (who has had some amusing conversations at Eye lunches, with the guests assuming, what with her long blond hair, that she is Paul McCartney’s ex).
We go back to the first floor to Hislop’s office, which he inherited from Ingrams, who is famous for his untidiness. His successor is rather orderly in comparison. Behind his desk, there’s a framed photo of Peter Cook (17.11.37 – 9.1.95, So Farewell Then), and posters of Denis Thatcher and ‘Grocer’ Heath, which have been there for ever. On a noticeboard are thank-you letters for Eye lunches including one from the MP Tom Watson, which is remarkably effusive. ‘It was a milestone in what I regard as my curious parliamentary career… if I can ever reciprocate…’ and a droll one from Kirsty Young, saying how much she enjoyed herself, ‘although my placement opposite Grayson [Perry] did leave me feeling somewhat underdressed.’
Ian Hislop was born in Mumbles, south Wales, in July 1960. His father, David, was a civil engineer who worked on projects around the world, taking his wife, Helen, as well as his two children (Ian has an older sister, Anne) with him. The Hislops moved to Nigeria, then Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong. His parents revelled in the warm climate and pleasantly cushioned lifestyle. ‘Both my parents had lived through austerity… my father was from Scotland, which I imagine in the 1950s was quite bleak, and my mother was from Jersey, which had been occupied in the Second World War and had gone through austerity-plus.
‘And then they were working abroad and my dad had a speedboat and we had a bar in the living-room, with a sort of leather top and stools and I remember looking at my father and thinking, “With your DJ, you’re wearing a frilly dress shirt?” and then, “But it’s the 1970s! You can do what you like!” I also remember Burns Night and there being a lot of Scottish engineers around who were good fun. My father used to dress in shorts and long socks; my mother in sundresses with very pointy sunglasses. For them, the expat life was extraordinary and very glamorous.’
David Hislop sounds like quite a character. Ian Hislop was sent a photo of his late father – ‘one of the good things about being in the public eye is that people just write to you’ – diving into a swimming-pool that he had just opened (the arresting fact being that he was fully clothed). ‘And I thought, “You must have been the one they asked to make a speech and do something quite silly.”’ In fact, Hislop senior didn’t need to be asked to do daft things. On a trip back to Hong Kong, on a quest to discover more about his father as part of the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are? Hislop met his father’s old secretary, who said, ‘“Have I shown you the photo of your dad leading a conga through the fountains outside the Hilton?” and I said, “No, you haven’t! Can I see it please?” It did look like a lot of fun.’
When Hislop was 12, his mother came to his school – Ardingly College in Sussex, where he had boarded since he was eight – to tell him that his father had died of stomach cancer. The family had known that David had been ill but it was only a few brief months between diagnosis and death, at the age of 45. How did his mother handle the loss? ‘She was pretty devastated; I don’t think she ever really recovered. My mother was fab and a very capable and strong woman but she was, well, you know, very much in love with my father and missed him for the rest of her life.’
Hislop is famously reserved and private. In his late 20s, his mother – still in her 60s – was dying, at the same time that his wife, Victoria, was in hospital having suffered a miscarriage, and yet no one at Private Eye had a clue. Part of the Hislop mythology is the true story about him recording an episode of Have I Got News For You while suffering from acute appendicitis. He seems to be the living embodiment of the stiff upper lip, which was the title of his most recent television series, exploring how this phrase came to be seen as the defining English characteristic when we had started out as a nation of wusses and emotional incontinents. He admits that the series – a perfect example of erudition worn lightly – was a way of considering his own attitude to this fascinating subject.
Now that he has revealed something of his feelings in this series (although it’s hardly Oprah), it makes it easier to ask more sensitive questions than would normally feel appropriate. We have known one another, I should say, as friendly acquaintances for two decades, but have never talked about anything deep and meaningful. I ask him how well he felt he knew his father and what effect that early death had on him as a boy. He replies that he didn’t know him nearly well enough (something he hopes to have remedied with his two children, Emily, 22, and William, 19, neither of whom were sent to boarding school – ‘It was a selfish thing. I wanted them to be near me and around’) and as for the other matter, ‘I think losing a close relative early is a fairly hardening blow – in that my childhood sort of ended when my father died. Once that’s happened you haven’t got a huge illusion about what life may or may not hold. I think it made me increasingly independent, because I had to be.’
In Stiff Upper Lip, Hislop returns to Ardingly, where he was head boy, and tries to reconnect with what it felt like to be sent to boarding school at such a young age, saying that he wants to try and ascertain what that experience had done to him. Did he find out? ‘Well, as I said, with distance the nature of those boarding schools does begin to look like a very odd thing to do – and most people who come through it don’t do it to their own children. I mean, they’re much more parent-friendly now – everyone has a room of their own and goes home every afternoon,’ he laughs, ‘but when we were there, there was just one large Victorian room with 30 boys in it, and it didn’t have any curtains and it was cold.
‘So, yes, I was always homesick, but usually I was flying from somewhere like Hong Kong and there was quite a time-lag – which meant I did the being homesick on the plane, then I arrived and there was this world of friends and excitement and interest.’
Does he think the experience has made it harder for him to express himself emotionally? Would he say, for instance, that he has been scarred by it? ‘Er, well, I am trying to answer that honestly… I mean, one of the reasons I wanted to do that programme was to have a look at that – and it ends up being a very nuanced answer, rather than, “No, no, I’m fine. It never affected me.” It obviously did affect me. It moulded a certain sort of Englishness and a certain sort of response to things. It’s that British thing – in that it’s not that we don’t feel it but we don’t think it’s appropriate to show that feeling in public, or at all times, or with people we don’t know. So I still probably behave like that – but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing going on. I am not without emotion.’
Is he able to examine himself with any depth? ‘Erm… probably being very busy suggests that I am not doing so.’
In such a rationalist age – where the prevailing culture among media types tends to be aggressively atheist – Hislop’s Anglican faith is an intriguing anomaly. The avowed raison d’être of his two main gigs – HIGNFY and Private Eye – is to knock bullies off their perch, expose idiocy, corruption and moral weakness. While I am extremely grateful for its existence (the Eye goes from strength to strength – with recent record sales figures of 267,834 for its anniversary issue, and 253,000 for the Gotcha – Murdoch Goes Down issue) it hardly fosters a warm feeling towards one’s fellow man and the human condition. I wonder how harmoniously his religious beliefs sit with his love of satire. Ingrams, before him, shared a similar duality, and there are notable antecedents, such as, for instance, Jonathan Swift. He starts by telling me about a funny phase at his Anglican school, when two old boys came back on an evangelical mission as born-again Christians, and metaphorically set the whole school on fire, swelling the membership of the Christian Union from a membership of 12 to 300.
‘It was very, very bizarre – we didn’t go to bed, and people were having prayer meetings in dormitories, and the staff were terribly worried because most of them were Anglicans and they were thinking, “What if this is the real thing?” and not knowing whether or not to stop it because it was getting completely out of hand.
‘You know, being sort of C of E, people want a very quiet and moderate faith. They don’t want hundreds of boys singing Kumbaya and getting up in the middle of chapel services and confessing that they’ve seen the light.’
What did his mother think about all of this?
‘She was marvellous. I had told her, “I have to see you because something incredibly exciting has happened – I’ve been converted! We’ve all been converted!” And my mother asked me two things. She said, “You didn’t sign anything, did you?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “They didn’t ask you for any money?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “Oh, that’s fine, dear.” Because she was brilliant, my mother, she realised it was all fine and that it would probably die down and there was nothing to worry about. And after everyone went away for the summer holidays and came back, it did die down.’
I ask him about how he feels surrounded by so many Dawkinsian non-believers. He remembers going to the launch of Francis Wheen’s book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World and Martin Rowson, the cartoonist, drew a picture of all the people there ‘and there was an arrow next to me in the middle of all these ultra-rationalists and it just said, “Anomalous God-botherer”.’
His faith waxes and wanes and it is going through the latter phase at the moment. Hislop sounds a tiny bit downhearted about the whole subject. He goes to church but not very often, and at the moment, not at all. ‘I go through periods of lack of enthusiasm and increasing doubt… it’s not a great, confident, burning faith, really. I can’t do the ultra-rationalism denial of it all and all the sort of human bits that I feel come through that but then, you know, sometimes I worry that my faith is so vague as to be sort of not really there at all. I’m so lukewarm I’m about to be spat out, I think.’
What comforts him in times of sadness? He laughs. ‘I thought you were going to do the Simon and Garfunkel song… well, all the normal things.’
Like? ‘Oh – family, friends. Other human beings.’ His voice becomes a bit curt. Not nature or music or books? ‘Any of those things can, but it’s the people first.’ So not faith, in that regard? ‘Yes, it can – but faith is often shown through other people. Faith working through other people tends to be goodness working through them or sympathy even if it’s not declared as religion… it doesn’t have to be the vicar coming round.
‘But I do like the rituals of the Church and, yes, I have found them comforting.’
Hilary Lowinger and her colleague had been joking with me, while I waited for Hislop to appear, about the deranged people who sometimes insist on coming into the office, with this or that conspiracy theory. Shortly before the conclusion of our interview, a wild-haired man bursts into the office and I fear, for a moment, that the lady gatekeepers have not been able to keep the lunatics at bay. ‘So sorry to barge in like this,’ the man begins with elaborate courtesy. ‘It’s so, so rude of me. I’m ever, ever so sorry…’ and then he proceeds to tell Hislop that if the editor ever has the opportunity to commission a nice oil painting for the magazine, he’s the man.
It turns out that the interloper does draw for the Eye and is feeling the pinch; he needs more money, he needs a bigger byline, he is a man full of all-too-recognisable needs in these tricky times. Hislop listens to him, doesn’t make him feel uncomfortable or shoo him away and, actually, seems to care.
It is this sense of decency that, I think, is a strong motivating force in Hislop. He’s by no means perfect; for instance, for a Christian – even a rather half-hearted one – he seems incapable of forgiving his enemies (Piers Morgan, and the diarists Peter McKay and the late Nigel Dempster among them). But his instincts are always about picking on the powerful, not the weak. For this reason, he is pretty scathing about a lot of today’s comedians in the Ricky Gervais vein (with whom he had a well-publicised spat). ‘I do have a residual belief that, if at all possible, you should try not to mock the weak. There seems to be a slight tendency in contemporary stand-up to have a go at the weak and say you’re being edgy. You know, attacking the disabled. I think you should go for stronger targets.’
He is not a political tribalist, having voted for all the three main parties, as well as the Greens. ‘Most of your judgments are about whether people are behaving well or not in your eyes – and that doesn’t matter whether they are left or right. You know, are they corrupt or are they bent or are they trying to make things better or worse for people? That is where my bottom line is, and so that must be what drives me.’
I ask him what he is insecure about. ‘Oh, health,’ he says quickly. Is his health OK? ‘I think so, but you never know. If you have a history of your family keeling over you’re never sure how much time you’ve got left yourself. That may be another reason why I try to cram a lot in.’
We part on a more upbeat note. I ask him what he considers to be his most lowbrow tastes, and he struggles to answer. Later he calls me to say that it is Toy Story 3. ‘It’s incredibly funny, beautifully made and very good on being a boy.’ And also: ‘I’m quite big on Elvis. I went to a show in Las Vegas with three Elvis impersonators – young, middle and old – and it was one of the best nights of my life.’ Who knew?
But in his office, he says that it’s box sets of Clint Eastwood westerns and ‘sort of terrible war films’. Do you blub when watching the latter? ‘Oh, no, I’m taking my example from Brief Encounter!’ I beg to differ, saying that I have even seen him get moist-eyed on television.
‘Surely not. No. I’m going to end the interview now, and I’m going to storm out!’