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Happy 60th birthday, Private Eye! By Christopher Matthew

Blog | By Christopher Matthew | Oct 06, 2021


Sixty years ago, give or take a week or two, I walked into my college room at Oxford to find a large parcel wrapped in anonymous brown paper and string, and attached to it an envelope with my name on it. Inside was a handwritten letter on two sheets of lined, exercise-book paper from Andrew Osmond. It read:

‘Dear Chris, One lot of 100 and one of 50 of our new paper. (N.B. This is just a trial run!) Could you arrange for the distribution of these as soon as poss this week (note date of printing!) We would like you to create a rudimentary tins-in-cafés organization for the pile of 100 (Kemp - Town & Gown - Tackley and all others you can think of). Mention that this is the first of three trial runs of a new weekly starting in London and done by the old Mesopotamia team (Foot, Me, Usborne, Ingrams, Rushton, Wells, Picarda). That should get them.’

What that prototype Eye, roneo-ed and stapled on Rushton’s mother’s kitchen table in Scarsdale Villas W8, actually got - for that first week, anyway - was £2. 9s. 3d. In Oxfor

My qualifications for this appointment were based entirely on the fact that I had been a member of an assorted troupe of actors, singers and humourists called the Oxford Players, who had performed a few months earlier at the 1961 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

While the official university entry to the Fringe, the Oxford Theatre Group was based in Johnston Terrace just below the Castle and performed in the Cranston Street Hall, in the High Street we lived in a masonic hall in a small street called Cowgate,and performed in Edinburgh University’s Wilkie House Theatre.

Paying customers lucky enough to find us were treated to a musical version of The Plutus by Aristophanes, directed by John Albery – a delightful Wykehamist who later became Professor of Physical Chemistry at Imperial College, London, and Master of University College, Oxford. His musical expertise was limited (he was once heard to ask the band, whose members included Jane Asher’s brother John on the piano, ‘Could you please play that tune again, but all on the same note?’), but his enthusiasm was unbounded and so was ours.
The musical was followed a late-night revue directed by the legendary wit and satirist Noel Picarda, who not only looked like a character out of Commedia dell’Arte with his rumbustious styleand his lascivious grin, but often behaved like one, too. No one else I have ever known would have thought of performing a sketch consisting entirely of a detailed demonstration of how a man should shave his legs using soap and a safety razor.

He it was who had invited me to be in the revue alongside Willy Rushton (known in those days as Bill), Richard Ingrams, Andrew Osmond, Picarda himself, and Candida Betjeman We were all given small roles in the Plutus and I have vague of memories singing a mock Italian aria in a piping tenor, but our main efforts were devoted to the revue sketches which we
rehearsed in a barn in Oxfordshire. Candida lived not far away in Wantage and her mother supplied us with cakes from her famous café – King Alfred’s Kitchen: ‘Burnt cakes a speciality.’

The show was called In Revue Order and had a military theme. The opening number - with a corny boater-and-striped-blazer song and dance entitled ‘Hello, Edinburgh’ was interrupted by the arrival on stage of two soldiers (me and fellow artiste Ian Davidson in battledress and purple Wellington boots with garden spades on our shoulders), and a suitably dressed officer (Rushton) who put a stop to the show, ordered the singers off stage and took charge of the proceedings.

At the time he was an articled clerk in a solicitor’s firm in St Paul’s Church-yard and a part time cartoonist for Liberal News, had not been on the stage before this moment and his monologue, explaining our regimental history, was one of the best things in the show.

We were, he explained, part of the Horticultural Corps – specifically the Herbaceous Borderers, known as the Greenfingers. The spades were a reminder of our ceremonial duties at events such as the Trooping the Colour, hence our regimental motto Post Equos Venimus - ‘We come after the horses.’

The purple Wellington boots dated from our time in India where we cultivated an unusual grape variety and once a year, following the
vendange, the grapes would be spread across the barrack square and the soldier would march up and down treading out a very acceptable little
table wine.

Ingrams had his moment as a rock watcher; Picarda gave a demonstration of a new product called dental floss which involved borrowing a set of false teeth from a friend of Rushton’s called Hebblethwaite, concealing them in his mouth and, having explained how you can save time by winding the floss in and out of all your teeth and pulling it through in one go, producing Hebblethwaite’s dentures, dangling on the end of a line.

We all took part in a night club sketch in which I had to shuffle round clutching Candida Betjeman, watched one night in some bewilderment by her father in the front row, while she muttered into my ear, ‘Letch! Letch!’
The big play at the Edinburgh Festival in 1961 was Luther, starring Albert Finney, who took up with the beautiful Nancy Lane, now a retired Professor of Zoology at Cambridge, then a member of the Oxford Theatre Group late night revue down the road.
They, us and the Cambridge Footlights would meet nightly after our shows in a bar created specially for the Fringe called Festival Late where one could eat and drink and perform one’s sketches for those who hadn’t managed to get to see them.

Albert would there with Nancy, and agreed to take part in a quickie sketch in our revue, which had a monk sitting on the stage holding his stomach and groaning. (Luther, as festival-goers had discovered if they didn’t know already, suffered from constipation.) Another monk, played by Andrew Osmond would appear and enquire ‘Luther?’, at which the first monk would sit up and groan, ‘No. Tighter.’

It was hard to tell how many in the audience recognised Finney. I imagine some must have thought they were seeing things.

There was much talk of the so far unnamed magazine that the principal members of the revue were planning to produce when they got back to London, and I remember Nick Luard being around for a while, but though because I was due to to Oxford for another year or two, I took little part or notice.

By the time I finally caught up with Rushton, Ingrams et al in the Coach and Horses in Greek Street, they had moved into another world that I barely recognised and to which I never contributed a single word; though to this day I can never quite resist the feeling that in some tiny way I helped the infant Eye on its historic way.