Heritage: Comic, cartoonist and Private Eye founder Willie Rushton - the greatest satirist of them all

Willie Rushton

Willie Rushton - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Ima

Comic genius and founder of Private Eye, Willie Rushton, carved a career from his wit. But it was bores who inspired the famous game that led to him being immortalised with a blue plaque, Adam Sonin discovers

As a boy Willie Rushton cut his teeth drawing illustrations for the school publication. Later, in 1961, along with his childhood contemporaries, he established the satirical magazine Private Eye.

Often dressed as if he was heading off on a fishing jolly, he secured a place in the nation’s heart as a brilliant, original and witty performer. On screen, each week, alongside the late Sir David Frost, he entertained audiences in excess of 13 million on That Was The Week That Was (TW3).

According to Who’s Who his recreations included, “gaining weight, losing weight and parking”.

Appearing on Desert Island Discs – with what Michael Palin described as his “famous crusty colonel voice” – he admitted to being “frankly terrified” by the prospect of a plane crash, leaving him “alone on a beach with 600 plastic lunches” as company.

At a literary lunch hosted by The Oldie he once quipped, “Where would we be without a sense of humour? (Very slight pause) Germany!”. But he is, perhaps, remembered most fondly for his 22 years as an irreplaceable team member on BBC Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. Sitting alongside his dear friend and stand-up partner, Barry Cryer, he would have fans in stitches playing the enigmatic game of Mornington Crescent, where a plaque was installed – inside the station – as a fitting tribute in 2002.

William George [Willie] Rushton (1937–1996), cartoonist, comedian and author, was born on August 18, at 3 Wilbraham Place, Chelsea. He was the only child of John Atherton Rushton, a publisher with a penchant for cricket. Young Willie spent time training at Lord’s Cricket Ground, learning the sport which developed in to a lifelong passion. In later years he played for the Lord’s Taverners and wrote a novel, W. G. Grace’s Last Case (1984), based on a fictional episode in the life of the great cricketer.

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Educated at Shrewsbury School his chums included Richard Ingrams, Christopher Booker and Paul Foot. With Ingrams and Booker he produced The Wallopian, a satirical version of the school magazine, to which he contributed cartoons. Ingrams explained: “My best friend at school was Willie. We were in the same house and we were both there because our fathers had been there before us.

“Willie was almost my exact contemporary, being only one day older. He was one of those rare people who didn’t appear ever to change. The torrid period of adolescence left him unscathed, making him the ideal companion for someone like me, prone to write love poetry or harbour hopes of becoming a missionary in Africa.

“Even as a 12-year-old he was a brilliant cartoonist, entirely self-taught, who when left to himself would cover every available scrap of paper with doodles – mostly fat bald middle-aged men with moustaches.”

The young would-be-satirists targeted pseudo-intellectuals, and coined the term “pseuds”, which later gained common currency in Private Eye.

Academically undistinguished, Rushton claimed to have failed O-level maths seven times. When confronted with a specimen in a bottle during a biology exam and asked, “What’s this?”, he answered, “Disgusting”.

His theatrical talent first found an outlet at school. He recalled that when he played Lord Loam in The Admirable Crichton, “the audience wondered which elderly member of staff had been dragooned into playing Loam”.

Failing Latin and unable to secure a place at Oxbridge, where his peers were headed, Rushton did his national service in the army. He failed the officer selection board and served in the ranks. He later commented: “The army is, God bless it, one of the funniest institutions on earth and also a sort of microcosm of the world. It’s split almost perfectly into our class system. Through serving in the ranks I discovered the basic wit of my fellow man – whom basically, to tell the truth, I’d never met before.”

After leaving the army Rushton worked at a solicitor’s office, occupying his time by doodling on case notes and having his cartoons rejected by Punch. He left the law firm after almost being knocked down by a bus, vowing never to waste another moment of his life on something he didn’t enjoy.

The idea for a London-based satirical magazine was developed in a Chelsea pub with Ingrams and the first edition of Private Eye appeared on October 25, 1961.

“Early issues were put together in Rushton’s bedroom in his mother’s house where he alone mastered the art of laying out Christopher Booker’s copy and his own cartoons.”

Private Eye was well received, favourably reviewed in The Observer, and the rest is history. Rushton supplied clever content consisting of jokes, puns, double entendres and, of course, cartoons. His creativity extended further to inventing names for memorable Eye characters, such as Lunchtime O’Booze, the archetypal hard-drinking journalist.

By this time Rushton’s repertoire had extended to include hilarious songs such as Neasden (“You won’t be sorry that you breezed in... where the rissoles are deep-freezed-en”) and Fornicazione … is Italian for Love.

In the same year Rushton made his professional acting debut in Spike Milligan’s The Bed-Sitting Room. Following this he joined Ingrams, John Wells and Barbara Windsor in a bizarre cabaret at the Room at the Top (of a department store) in Ilford, where he was recruited by Ned Sherrin, the producer of the ground-breaking BBC TV show That Was The Week That Was. Willie’s weekly impressions of Tory politicians were hailed “masterpieces of refined cruelty”. Sir David Frost paid tribute saying: “Willie Rushton just went on getting wittier and funnier with every passing year.”

When Rushton left TW3 his talents were employed on Not Only... But Also. He collaborated with Hampstead satirist, comic genius and TW3 alumni Peter Cook. The two also worked together at Private Eye.

During the late ’60s Rushton spent much of his time in Australia, where he met his wife Dorgan, whom he married in 1968. It was on one of his return visits to the UK that he brought back the late Tony Hancock’s ashes – in an Air France bag – referring to the incident as “My session with the customs was a Hancock Half Hour in itself”. His acting career continued to flourish. He had a series of cameo roles in films, including Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) and Monte Carlo or Bust (1969). On TV he took the parts of Plautus in Frankie Howerd’s comic foray into ancient Rome, Up Pompeii (1970) and Major Trumpington in the drama Colditz (1974).

In 1974 Rushton joined the cult BBC Radio 4 “antidote to panel games”, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. The show’s formula, in which the teams of (usually) Tim Brooke Taylor, Cryer, Graeme Garden and Rushton were given “silly things” to do by the chairman, Humphrey Lyttelton.

Garden explains the origins of the eccentric game, Mornington Crescent. “One night in Gerry’s club the members adopted the game as a way of getting rid of bores,” he said. “They would all play as if it was a serious game, but if the bore joined in they would mock his moves and criticise his pathetic play until he gave up and left.”

The beauty of the game lies in it being entirely incomprehensible – with unexplainable rules – or as Cryer reveals, “Just listen to the words!” Rushton always asserted, “Think as the crow flies”.

In 1996 Rushton toured with Cryer in Two Old Farts in the Night, an anarchic run of one-night stands. Cryer described his friend as, “a warm sentimental man who took great pains to conceal it and left a great hole” when he died suddenly of complications whilst in hospital.