Punch: Not As Funny as It Used to Be

Publishing

Our young correspondent Margot V. S. “Meg” Burns of Manhattan writes: “This is one of a handful of articles rejected by a little online rag called SpliceToday, which I contributed to briefly, 2018-2019. Writing on spec, I had about a 75% acceptance rate. The unaccepted pieces were insufficiently frothy, too factual, or anyway of no interest whatsoever to the editors. I do hope they will be embarrassing enough for Was My Face Red!


 

Remembering the unfunny, ill-advised 1996 revival of Punch magazine.

A couple of years back I started getting e-mails from an online wine-and-spirits organ calling itself Punch. “Good Lord, what effrontery!” I sneered. Not only was this rag totally unconnected to the long-gone London comic weekly, It didn’t even acknowledge its famous namesake. Surely a little disclaimer was in order? “Mistah Punch, he dead. We steal his title.”

I was even more exercised when I discovered that this blurb for beverage alcohol was really a promotional blog for an obscure Penguin Random House imprint I worked for. I wanted to hunt down the person responsible and give him a piece of my mind.

First, though, I had to share this with somebody who knew the real Punch during its last incarnation in the 1990s. I thought of veteran editor Alexander Chancellor in London. Well actually, he was the only person I had an e-mail address for.

Take a look at the new Punch,” I wrote, with a link to the drinks blog. “It’s not as funny as it used to be.”

Alex sent back a reply from his office at The Oldie (a kind of bastard Punch for old folks): “Ugh—very interesting!” Alex didn’t want to be reminded of our Punch fiasco. The magazine was relaunched as a glamorous, glossy weekly in 1996 but quickly degenerated into a mindless gossip rag.

I wanted to reminisce further with Alex, but he dropped dead shortly afterwards.

Alex Chancellor and I were two of many people who got sucked into the Punch-relaunch vortex in the summer of 1996. Officially Punch had folded in 1992, after a run of 150 years, but its name and archives had been purchased by Harrods owner Mohammed al-Fayed. Because, you know, that’s what you do when you have that kind of money.

The Egyptian Mr. Fayed bought Punch because it was a matchless totem of British civilization. But mainly he wanted to use it to attack the Establishment and the Royals, who year after year refused to give him a peerage, or even British citizenship!

Fayed’s minions engaged editorial offices in Brompton Road (across from Harrods) and ordered up some layout artists and copies of QuarkXpress. Then, for a hefty sum, they hired a convivial Fleet Street scapegrace named Peter McKay to edit the thing. (“Peter McLie, the World’s Worst Columnist,” Private Eye called him.)

The result was like a mashup of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, but thicker, with more illustrations and better cartoons. We had a huge launch party in September, published some impossibly lavish issues, and invited every idle hack we knew to help fill the spaces between our deeply discounted four-color ads. A weekly magazine on this scale chewed up copy at a terrific rate.

It also chewed up cash. After the first few weeks, our retail tycoon went into panic mode. He had his dogsbody fire both Peter McKay and the deputy editor (a savings of about £350,000 right there). Then, gradually, management tried to figure out ways to cut back on contributor’s fees and advertiser discounts.

Eventually it became a loud, ugly fortnightly. We started out aiming for the Tatler and Country Life crowd, and in the end we got something as subtle and tasteful as VIZ. But for a little while, we had fun.

In July 1996, about six weeks before the Punch launch, I attended a writers’ luncheon at the Groucho Club, hosted by Oldie founder Richard Ingrams. Richard had come up with the idea for The Oldie in 1992 when he bought the original Punch mailing list and found it was mostly old-age pensioners. Us Oldie writers weren’t all old, but most of us had been through a career or two. Out of 15 people in that upstairs room, maybe ten of us were eking out a precarious freelance existence, and it turned out we were all pitching to Punch.

In those days, I remember, the Spectator and The Oldie and the Observer all paid £100 or less for freelance submissions, and that didn’t go very far in London. But this new Punch—ah hah!—was paying £600 per printed page. Let’s you do six pages a month; that’s £3600 (close to $6000 in those days). We thought we’d struck oil.

Our skyscraper-tall, teetotaling host Mr. Ingrams gazed at us indulgently from his heavy-lidded eyes, while we got drunk on Groucho Club wine and mentally measured the drapes for our new Battersea maisonettes. Richard knew the new Punch was going to come to grief. It was being founded out of it pure spite, and proposed to serve a need that didn’t exist.

The two publications Richard created, Private Eye and The Oldie, always had explicit purposes and definite, if narrow, audiences. The Eye is for undergraduate satire and libelous gossip; The Oldie is aimed at folks whose cultural referents are Christine Keeler and Philip Larkin (1963 was a good year). A general-interest humor book like the 1996 Punch lacked a built-in audience, so no matter how many advertisements for scotch and gin you sold—or gave away—you were never going to convince readers or advertisers that you had a core target market. (And, to repeat the obvious, Punch already had a successor in The Oldie—still going strong today, after 26 years.)

Mr Ingrams, last espied with Louis at the Gare du Nord

The new Punch was never going to find its way; its owner was too impatient. When the top editors got sacked in November 1996, the rumor was that they weren’t responsive enough to Fayed’s grudges. He would hand over a list of politicians and journos to be flayed, tabloid-fashion, but jolly Peter McKay was too decent a guy to do it.

And so Punch began its descent into Nigel Dempster gossip hell and inchoate editorial rants. Snippets from May 1997:

Q. Could you tell me what that columnist Petronella Wyatt is like?
A. Petsy worries me, not least because she’s the only person who refused to bonk Taki Theodoracopulos. I think she just doesn’t bonk.

We at Punch say the country has had enough. AWAY WITH THIS DISCREDITED GOVERNMENT!

Hard-hitting satire, no?

The peak event of Fayed’s war with the Establishment occurred three months later. His son Dodi was romantically involved with Princess Di. One August night in Paris they got killed while driving through the Alma tunnel. Misadventure or murder? Clearly the latter, Fayed declared: a murder arranged by MI6, sanctioned by Tony Blair, and done at the request of the Royal Family.

The fact that these accusations might be plausible is really beside the point. From here on in, the editorial direction of Punch became completely unhinged. Instead of satire, it was crammed with tawdry sensationalism and lost up to £2 million a year.

Finally, in 2002, the debt-encumbered Mr. Fayed pulled the plug on Punch. Almost nobody noticed.