Willie Rushton

Willie Rushton

Rushton at a charity cricket match, May 1976
Born William George Rushton
(1937-08-18)18 August 1937
Chelsea, London, England
Died 11 December 1996(1996-12-11) (aged 59)
Kensington, London, England
Cause of death Heart attack
Occupation Comedian, satirist, cartoonist, writer
Years active 1963–1996
Spouse(s) Arlene Dorgan (m. 1968)

William George Rushton (18 August 1937 – 11 December 1996)[1] was an English cartoonist, satirist, comedian, actor and performer who co-founded the satirical magazine Private Eye.

Early life

Rushton was born 18 August 1937 in 3 Wilbraham Place, Chelsea, London, the only son of John and Veronica Rushton, and attended Shrewsbury School, where he was not academically successful but met his future Private Eye colleagues Richard Ingrams, Paul Foot and Christopher Booker.[2] He also contributed to the satirical magazine The Wallopian, (a play on the school magazine name The Salopian) mocking school spirit, traditions and the masters.[2] After school Rushton had to do his two years of national service in the army where he failed officer selection.[2] 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."[3] On leaving the army, he worked in a solicitor's office for a short period.[2]

Private Eye and the satire boom

He was still in contact with his Shrewsbury friends, who had added John Wells to their number and were now running their own humour magazines at Oxford, Parsons Pleasure and Mesopotamia, to which Rushton made many contributions during his frequent visits. A cartoon of a giraffe in a bar saying "The high balls are on me" was not met with approval by everyone in the university administrative quarters. It was Rushton who suggested that Mesopotamia could continue after they left university. During his time as a clerk he had been sending his cartoons out to Punch but none had been accepted. After being knocked over by a bus he quit his clerking, determined not to waste another day.

After almost but not quite being accepted by Tribune (a Labour-supporting journal edited by Michael Foot, Paul's uncle), Rushton found a place at the Liberal News, which was also employing Christopher Booker as a journalist. From June 1960 until March 1961 he contributed a weekly strip, "Brimstone Belcher", following the exploits of the titular journo (a fore-runner of Private Eye's Lunchtime O'Booze), from bizarre skulduggery in the British colonies (where the squaddies holding back the politicised rabble bear a strong resemblance to privates Rushton and Ingrams), travelogues through the US, and the hazards of by-electioneering as the independent candidate for the constituency of Gumboot North. After the strip folded, Rushton still contributed a weekly political cartoon to the Liberal News until mid-1962.

The Salopians finally found a financier and the first issue of Private Eye was published on 25 October 1961. Rushton put it together in his bedroom in Scarsdale Villas using Letraset and cow-gumming illustrations onto cards which were taken away to be photo-lithographed. He also contributed all the illustrations and the mast-head figure of Little Nitty (who still appears on the cover, a blended caricature of John Wells and the Daily Express standard-head). One critic described the original lay-out of the magazine as owing much to "Neo-Brechtian Nihilism", although Rushton thought it resembled a betting shop floor. One feature in the early issues was the "Aesop Revisited", a full-page comic strip which let him work in a wealth of puns and background jokes. With Private Eye riding the satire boom, Peter Cook soon took an interest and contributed two serials recounting the bizarre adventures of Sir Basil Nardly-Stoads and the Rhandi Phurr, both of which were illustrated by Rushton, as was "Mrs Wilson's Diary". In the early days the team also worked on two books, Private Eye on London and Private Eye's Romantic England that make heavy use of his cartooning talents. One of the first Private Eye-published books was Rushton's first collection of cartoons, Willie Rushton's Dirty Weekend Book (banned in Ireland).

Reuniting with his Salopian chums had also reawakened Rushton's taste for acting. After they had finished university he had accompanied his friends in a well-received revue at the Edinburgh Fringe (Richard Burton even appeared one night in their parody of Luther). In 1961, Richard Ingrams directed a production of Spike Milligan's surreal post-nuclear apocalypse farce The Bed-Sitting Room, in which Rushton was hailed by Kenneth Tynan as "brilliant". But it was a cabaret at the Room at the Top, a chicken-in-the-basket nightclub at the top a department store in Ilford, that really launched his career. Rushton recalled meeting the Kray twins in the audience one night and that fellow performer Barbara Windsor "wouldn't come out for a drink that night".[4] The revue also starred John Wells. Rushton’s impersonation of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan caught the attention of Ned Sherrin, a young BBC producer searching for talent to appear in a forthcoming TV satire series.

That Was the Week That Was (aka "TW3") ran from November 1962 until December 1963. It drew audiences of up to 13 million, making stars of its cast, particularly David Frost. Rushton became known for his impersonation of the Prime Minister, a daring novelty in those respectful days. "It's the only impersonation that people have ever actually recognised – so I'm very grateful to the old bugger ... But then I had voted for him, so he owed me something." Rushton also appeared on the original flexi-discs of skits, squibs and invective that Private Eye gave away, having success with two self-penned songs: "Neasden" ("you won't be sorry that you breezed in ... where the rissoles are deep-freezed-en") and the "Bum Song" ("if you’re feeling glum / stick a finger up your bum / and the world is a happier place"). He also wrote songs for TW3, many of which were revisited on later solo albums like Now in Bottles and The Complete Works.

In the autumn of 1963 a health scare led Macmillan to resign and Sir Alec Douglas-Home became Prime Minister. It was necessary that Douglas-Home resign his peerage to find a safe Parliamentary seat. The Private Eye team were so disgusted by the Conservative Party’s machinations that they decided to run their own protest candidate in the Kinross and West Perthshire by-election. Since he was the most famous member of the team Rushton was the obvious choice to run. Rushton garnered much attention from journalists, since he ran under the slogan "Death to the Tories".[5] He polled only 45 votes, having at the last minute advised his supporters to vote Liberal, the Conservatives' only credible challenger. Douglas-Home won.

Films, TV and radio

When TW3 was cancelled in anticipation of the 1964 election, Rushton and some of the cast as well as some of the members of the Cambridge University revue Cambridge Circus (including future Goodies Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie) went on tour in America as David Frost Presents TW3. Rushton and Barry Fantoni (another Private Eye contributor) entered a painting titled Nude Reclining, a satirical portrait of three establishment types, for the 1963 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition under the name of Stuart Harris, which excited much controversy. He also began a career as a character actor for films in 1963. In late 1964 Rushton was involved as one of the hosts in the early episodes of another satirical programme, Not So Much A Programme, but drifted away as it became the vehicle that launched David Frost as a chat show host. In 1964 he appeared as Richard Burbage in Sherrin and Caryl Brahms' musical of No Bed for Bacon, while his early stature as a personality was confirmed by a cartoon advert he devised for the Brewer’s Society proclaiming the charms of the local pub. Rushton did his own host duties for New Stars and Garters, a variety entertainment show in 1965, where he first met Arlene Dorgan. He also appeared as a guest in programmes including Not Only... But Also with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

During the later 1960s Rushton spent much of his time in Australia, following Dorgan back to her homeland. He married her in 1968. He also had several series of his own on Australian television, Don’t Adjust Your Set – The Programme is at Fault and From Rushton with Love. He said of Australia, "They've got their priorities right, they're dedicated to lying in the sun, knocking back ice-cold beer". During this period he found time to model for She magazine and also appear in a 1967 stage production of Treasure Island as Squire Trelawney, alongside Spike Milligan and Barry Humphries, at the Mermaid Theatre in London. It was on one of his return visits to the UK in 1968 that he also brought back the late Tony Hancock's ashes to the UK in an Air France bag – "My session with the Customs was a Hancock Half Hour in itself."

He appeared in cameo roles in films, including Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Monte Carlo or Bust (1969), The Best House in London (1969) and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972). He played Tim Brooke-Taylor's gay husband in Sharon Tate’s last film before her murder, The Thirteen Chairs (1969), and Tobias Cromwell in Flight of the Doves (1971), as well as appearing in sex comedies such as Keep It Up Downstairs (1976), Adventures of a Private Eye (1977) and Adventures of a Plumber's Mate (1978). His final film appearance was as Big Teddy in Consuming Passions in 1988. As a TV actor in the 1970s he appeared in episodes of popular programmes as different as The Persuaders!, Colditz (episode: "The Guests" – Major Trumpington in a kilt) and Up Pompeii! as the narrator Plautus. He was Dr Watson to John Cleese's Sherlock Holmes in N. F. Simpson's surreal comedy Elementary, My Dear Watson. In 1975 and 1976 he appeared in well-received pantomimes of Gulliver’s Travels; in 1981 in Eric Idle’s Pass the Butler; and in 1988 as Peter Tinniswood’s irascible Brigadier in Tales from a Long Room. Rushton also wrote two musicals:

His last major solo TV project was Rushton's Illustrated (1981). By now he was an established guest on quiz shows and celebrity panel games: Celebrity Squares, Blankety Blank, Countdown and Through the Keyhole. When asked why he appeared on these "ludicrous programmes", his answer was simple: "Because I meet everybody there".

For 22 years until his death, he was a panellist in the long-running BBC Radio 4 panel comedy game show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, which he joined as a regular team member in the third series in 1974. In its later years, the show's wealth of silliness, smut and punning was drawing audiences of up to a thousand people for its recordings. No permanent replacement has been found for Rushton; instead his seat has been filled by a series of guests. Producer Jon Naismith has said that "As befits such an irreplaceable character, he has never been formally replaced." In 1990 he teamed up with his co-panellist Barry Cryer in their own show Two old Farts in the Night, performing to full audiences at the Edinburgh festival, the Royal Albert Hall and the Festival Hall, touring the country irregularly until Rushton's death.

He played a recurring character as a policeman in Southern Television's 1970–73 children's show Little Big Time with Freddie Garrity; his policeman's helmet bore a blue flashing light. His manner and voice meant Rushton was in constant demand for adverts, voice-overs and presenting jobs. In the mid-1970s, reading Winnie the Pooh for the BBC's Jackanory, he won over a whole new audience of young children. He also provided all the voices for the claymation animated series The Trap Door in the late 1980s. He was a popular choice for narrating audio books, especially those for children. In particular he recorded 18 of the books by the Rev. W. Awdry for The Railway Stories series. He also recorded adaptations of Asterix books and Alice in Wonderland, and provided the voice of the King in the early animated Muzzy films. In the early 1980s he wrote and illustrated a series of children’s books about "The Incredible Cottage", and provided illustrations for many children‘s books.

Rushton had not been involved in Private Eye since the latter part of the 1960s, other than a brief stint illustrating "Mrs Wilson's Diary" when the Labour Party came back into power in the mid-1970s. He returned to Private Eye in 1978 to take over the task of illustrating "Auberon Waugh's Diary", which continued until 1986. The cartoons perfectly complemented Auberon Waugh's scabrous and surreal flights of invective, and when Waugh moved his column to The Daily Telegraph as the "Way of the World" in 1990, Rushton followed. The Victoria and Albert Museum, recognising his accomplishments, commissioned 24 large colour illustrations that were collected as Willie Rushton's Great Moments of History. (Rushton had previous experience with the V&A when he had pulled a prank on the institution by labelling an electric plug socket in one of the galleries: "Plug hole designed by Hans Plug (b. 1908)", which remained for a full year – to the great annoyance of a cleaner who had to use a hefty extension lead for 12 months so as not to damage the exhibit.) This large scale excursion into the use of colour was good practice for the monthly colour covers he created for the Literary Review when Waugh became its editor in the late 1980s. Rushton drew these covers along with the fortnightly caricatures for Private Eye's literary review page until his death.

Rushton had always been conscious of his weight, listing his recreations in Who's Who as "gaining weight, losing weight and parking", and in 1973 he had been the host of a slimming programme, Don't Just Sit There. His first major health scare had been the onset of diabetes (the cause of his father's death in 1958). Having to give up beer, Rushton became, according to Ingrams, "quite grumpy as a result, but his grumpiness had an admirable and jaunty quality to it." A sudden loss of three stone had prevented him from playing in Prince Rainier's XI at Monte Carlo, Monaco. Rushton was always passionate about cricket. His father had sent him for coaching at Lord's before he went to Shrewsbury. His cricket and general knowledge were called upon in his role as a regular team captain on BBC Radio 4's quiz show Trivia Test Match with Tim Rice and Brian Johnston, which ran from 1986 to 1993. Rushton was always an enthusiastic cricketer, playing in the Lord's Taverners, a charity celebrity cricket team.

In 1989 he performed in The Secret Policeman's Biggest Ball. His act consisted of singing Top Hat, White Tie and Tails and acting out the lyrics, which left him standing in top hat, white tie, and tails – but no trousers. In his later years he was part of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and even had the "privilege" of being invited back to Shrewsbury to open a new wing at his old school, the entirety of his speech being "The bugger’s open."

Rushton died of a heart attack at Cromwell Hospital, Kensington in 1996,aged 58.


Willie Rushton's blue plaque

He is honoured by a Comic Heritage blue plaque at Mornington Crescent tube station, a reference to the game Mornington Crescent on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue.

BBC7 showcased his contribution to I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue – in the week of the 10th anniversary of his death – by rebroadcasting five episodes of the show, one on each weekday night (11–15 December 2006). The broadcasts chosen included the last shows he recorded for the programme.

According to the autobiography of Nicholas Parsons, Rushton's ashes were buried by the boundary line at The Oval Cricket Ground.[8]



Solo works

Private Eye books

With Auberon Waugh

With Dorgan Rushton

On sport

Children's books

Books illustrated by Rushton


  1. "OBITUARY : William Rushton". 13 December 1996. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Ned Sherrin, ‘Rushton, William George (1937–1996)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 accessed 23 Aug 2015
  3. Hugh Massingberd (2012) Daydream Believer Pan Books ISBN 1447210220
  4. Marnham, Patrick (1982). The Private Eye Story. Fontana/Collins. p. 49.
  5. Padmanabhan, Leala (16 January 2015). "Al Murray and other celebrities who have decided to run for parliament". BBC News. Retrieved 18 January 2015.
  6. "The Queen's Theatre listing of Quatro's performance in Tallulah Who?". www.queens-theatre.co.uk. Hornchurch, UK: The Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch. 2003. Retrieved 16 December 2004.
  7. "Tallulah Who?". www.guidetomusicaltheatre.com. Accrington, UK: The Guide to Musical Theatre. 2012. Retrieved 25 January 2012.
  8. Parsons, Nicholas, With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation: My Life in Comedy, Random House, 2010
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