Private Eye Editor and Have I Got News For You panellist Ian Hislop is no stranger to satire. He was in Nottingham recently to launch an exhibition of satirical art at Newstead Abbey. It’s an offshoot of the British Museum’s 2018 exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent. Together with British Museum Curator Tom Hockenhull, Ian has selected nine of his favourite British satirical prints by Gillray and Cruikshank, among others, which are on display all summer...
Tell us about this collection of work...
Hockenhull: Essentially, it's a different exhibition to the one we held at the British Museum from September last year. It uses prints from that exhibition as the basis, but what we’re showing here is the best of the golden age of satire.
Hislop: The main exhibition was about dissent. It was just about people saying “No, I don't accept this, I don't want this. I'd like to make some sort of protest.” And satire is the smart-arse end of that. The bottom end is someone writing their name on a brick or making a rude carving. Satire tends to be people with verbal and analytical skills.
Do you think Lord Byron himself would have enjoyed this?
Hislop: Very much so. A lot of Byron’s poems are about sexuality, the working conditions in England or about how much he hated Lord Castlereagh. I think there's a slight imbalance in his public image. There are pictures of him looking moody and wearing costumes and you think “Oh yeah, that Byron” but the reason he sold vast amount of copies in his time is because people thought he was really funny. What he was selling was comic-verse and gossip and rudeness. He was going to places you hadn't been, around Europe, and telling you funny things about them. There's a real crossover between what he was doing and the satire in these works.
Hockenhull: You could only be thoroughly anti-establishment if you have a deep understanding of the thing against which you're rebelling. The same goes for Gillray, who mixed with the exalted circles his pieces were about, but he was never quite a part of it. The great thing about Byron is he knew everybody he was writing about. They didn't approve of him or like him much, but he knew them personally. In English satire, you end up with people like him and Jonathon Swift, who's the demon of the Church of England, yet was also a Dean of a Cathedral in Dublin.
Ian, you're at the coalface of English political satire with Private Eye and Have I Got News For You. Do you feel you know it from the inside?
Hislop: Yes. I went through public school and Oxford University and mixed with lots of people who are now in Government, so I accept it, absolutely. I feel I know the workings of it too. Everybody who's worked with me at Private Eye will probably admit that we stole most of our jokes from the 250 year history of British social satire too. I love the continuity and feeling a part of it. Originality is rather done, I think. Also the dead can't sue you, which is handy.
How many times have you been sued?
I once did a tally and I'd contested 41 cases of libel and won one. Pretty good record, isn't it?
How do you think the current political climate will be viewed in the future? Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and Trump as President. What do you think future generations will make of all this...
I think they'll look back on it and won't believe it. A bit like the Prince Regent and George, suddenly you've got larger-than-life ridiculous figures to have a go at. Part of the appeal of these characters was that they were so grotesque. You've got people who are quite easily satirised and they are larger-than-life and their flaws are very manifest. You can spend a lot of time watching Theresa May thinking “Yeah, I wanna watch something else now”. The one thing you can guarantee with Boris, is that it won’t be boring. You're spoilt for choice with things to take the mickey out of about him.
They also seem to satirise themselves with the dawn of social media. There's a print in the exhibition where the joke is about a spelling mistake between Wales (the country) and whales (the marine mammals). I believe this is a typo Trump himself made only recently…
Yeah, he's done that as a tweet. I love that. I suppose the difference with these people is, Prince Regent was pretty shameless – you have to find the thing that they don't like, and this lot really hated being described as fat because they're was a lot of hunger about and it was, really, sort of offensive how overweight they were compared to everyone else. Calling them fat all of the time was really effective, and cartoons love it. But it had a real sting for them, and you have to find what the equivalent is.
The Americans have found the thing that hurts Trump is suggesting that he's useless at business. His father gave him a load of money and he lost it all. It's finding the thing that hurts. When he writes a tweet, mostly about Saturday Night Live, and he says “this isn't funny, it's not clever” and you think “yeah, it is though.” And that’s what really hurts. Most of the time, he doesn't care. You can say “you've got stupid hair” or “you’re orange” but so what? If you say “you're really bad at at the one thing that matters to you,” he gets really cross.
Tell us about Boris Johnson. You must have met him a few times as a TV panelist. What do you think he’ll be like as Prime minister?
We've have to wait and see. I think Boris thinks he's a lot more intelligent than he is. People always ask me if Boris a really clever bloke pretending to be stupid. My answer is “No, he’s not.” I’ve said this in a few interviews and I heard that he didn't like it, which made me very thrilled.
You started your career on Spitting Image. Do you think we’ll get it back at some point?
Roger Law (Spitting Image co-creator) contributed and advised on our exhibition. He's absolutely brilliant and an amazing figure. I had that time of my life writing for them, it was absolutely terrific. I’d love to see the show back, but it’s incredibly difficult to do. Television doesn't spend that sort of money anymore. I think Spitting Image bankrupted at least three people.
What would you say to people to encourage them to come and see this, while it's in Nottingham?
Hockenhull: These are touring objects that we don't get to move out of London very often. So it's an ideal opportunity to come and laugh and draw connections. It’s people who are living and laughing at their leaders 200 years ago, just like they are today. I'd say, if you like cartoons, if you like Spitting Image, if you like any of that, this stuff is how it should be done. It's just a joy to look at.
The golden age of satire? Late-Georgian satirical prints is showing at Newstead Abbey until Sunday 6 October. The exhibition is free, but standard entry charges to Newstead Abbey apply.