Looking for ways to celebrate Private Eye’s 50th anniversary? Well, buy the book and go to the exhibition, then. But if you’ve already done both, you could always go on a piss-up/pilgrimage around the staff’s favourite licensed premises over the years.
“Private Eye was virtually edited from a pub,” recalled jokewriter John Wells of the early days. “The mood was rough, bluff, philistine and beery.” When I interviewed him, Richard Ingrams used this to excuse the fact he can remember very little about the magazine’s early years: “There was a certain boozy haze over Private Eye in those days.”
1. The King’s Head and Eight Bells, Cheyne Walk
This is where Andrew Osmond finally tracked the gang down to when he returned from Paris, cash for founding Private Eye in hand. “Willie Rushton and Ingrams were addicted to the pinball machine,” recalls a friend.
Note: Now a gurt posh brasserie.
2. 28 Scarsdale Villas, Kensington
“Willie Rushton’s bedroom,” recalls Booker fondly of the place where most of issues two and three were put together. “Me sitting at a battered old typewriter – my old Hermes – and then we’d stick down the pages.” Rushton’s mother kept them regularly topped up with “little trays of tomato soup and beer”, for which she finally got her credit in issue five: “Thanks for help are also due to Mrs Rushton.”
Note: You are unlikely to get a drink here. Bring your own beer and soup.
3. Neal Street, Covent Garden
Gareth Powell, a paperback publisher, picked up a copy of the new magazine and was wildly enthusiastic. He offered the Eye team free use of an enormous room in his warehouse in Covent Garden, then largely empty after the fruit and flower market’s recent relocation to Vauxhall. “We briefly occupied that while we prepared the fourth issue of Private Eye, which came out in February ’62,” says Peter Usborne.
Note: Now that the whole of Covent Garden has been taken over by clothes shops, number 41 is part of a vast store selling Speedo swimwear. Console yourself with a pint in the Crown and Anchor on the corner, and try to picture when it was a spit and sawdust joint where the Eye team would play darts.
4. Establishment Club, 18 Greek Street
When Peter Cook and his business partner Nick Luard bought the magazine in June 1962, they moved it briefly into their Establishment Club. It was not ideal. “We worked in the waiters’ changing room, and had to leave by the time they arrived to get changed,” remembers art director Tony Rushton. “It was also where John Bird and Fortune would change too, for the performance in the evening.”
It didn’t last long. Three issues later, the magazine announced that “we have yet again been forced to change our abode, and are now settled (we hope) finally at 22 Greek Street.”
Note: It’s now “Zebrano at the Establishment”, a bar promising “smooth lounge sounds upstairs and noisy beats downstairs”. Don’t forget to look for the plaque on the wall commemorating Peter Cook, unveiled in 2009 by the inexplicable combination of Nicholas Parsons and Mike Read (after one of the Bee Gees dropped out).
5. 22 Greek Street
“It was a very small office,” remembers Tony Rushton. It wasn’t even big enough to fit all the boxwallahs in – the appropriately-named Dave Cash, who joined as an accountant in April 1963, stayed four doors down: “To get to my little office I had to go into the Establishment Club, up the stairs and across the stage and up a little windy staircase.” The editorial team did, however, find room for a pinball machine (described by Ingrams as having “rather a swing to the left, like Claud Cockburn”). Cockburn himself recalled arriving at the office in 1963 to discover it “was located between a strip-tease and a betting-shop, into which some gangster had recently thrown a more or less abortive bomb.”
One wall of this office was entirely covered in a mural painted by artists including Barry Fantoni, Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman, a reproduction of which is in the V&A exhibition.
Note: The building’s chief attraction was that it was close to the restaurant Kettners, where Ingrams would bulk buy his booze “Richard would buy big bottles of wine which he’d put in this carrier bag to take home for the weekend,” recalls a colleague.
6. The Coach & Horses
In 1969 the Eye settled even further down the road, at 34 Greek Street.
This was even handier for the Coach & Horses, the pub across the road run by legendarily rude landlord Norman Balon.
“It was our pub,” says Ingrams. “Everybody used to go there at lunchtimes. Pretty well the whole staff of the Eye went to the Coach. We had our own table there, round the corner by the gents, which was very useful, because anyone who wanted to – they knew we would be there, and they would come in.”
Eye staff from L-R: Tony Rushton, Tessa Fantoni, Martin Tomkinson, Richard Ingrams, Auberon Waugh and Nigel Dempster. Photo by Eric Hands.
It was here, in 1967, that Ingrams’ drinking days ended, when he received what he describes as “a semi-death sentence.” “I got to feeling very ill, and I was convinced that I was dying, and the doctor said my liver was several sizes too big and I should give up drink.” Balon, who was behind the bar from 1943 until 2006, had noticed quite how much Ingrams had been contributing to his tills: “He used to be an amazingly large drinker. He’d put it down by the ton.” But from that day onwards, Ingrams has never touched a drop.
Note: The Coach and Horses is still the venue for the legendary Private Eye Lunch, held once a fortnight in the upstairs room.
7. Carlisle Street
In 1984 the Eye decamped a couple of hundred yards up the road and took over the premises of “a firm of architects who were in financial trouble.”
Conclude your pub crawl with a choice of establishments: for the ladies, the Candy Bar, “the UK’s premier lesbian bar featuring the capital’s hottest female talent: an all-star all-girl team of DJs, MCs and pole dancers.” Gents should grab a can of Special Brew and head up the alleyway round the corner to the doorstep of the homeless hostel – re-branded the “Contemporary Urban Centre” as if just to annoy the Eye.
Have a drink at every stop, and by the end of it, you should ideally be looking like this.