Secrets of the Private Eye crossword

There’s something odd about cryptic crosswords. They appear in every newspaper as if they’re self-explanatory, yet they have extremely intricate rules and customs. As the many hours I wasted in the school library, staring at the back pages of the broadsheets, if you don’t know what they’re about, you can’t even get started (I think the only cryptic clue I ever got in school was a Times clue along the lines of “A shock on a clear day (1,4,4,3,4)”). At least Sudokus always come with an explanation.

It was Cyclops that got me into crosswords – when my student digs were full of old tattered copies of Private Eye, the crossword (and its generous £100 prize) tempted me to pick up the organ. By then, the wonderful blog Fifteen Squared had started, with its explanations of each puzzle, and so I could gradually pick up the tricks of the trade. Compared to the broadsheets, Cyclops – real name Eddie James, or Brummie from the Guardian – is usually a bit easier. The wordplay is a bit more straightforward, and the answers are mostly drawn from current events and slang, which makes it a good place for beginners to start.

But solving the Eye crossword has its own challenges. Alongside the usual abbreviations (you know, L for “left”, C for “cold”) and handy letter combinations (“promises” are usually IOUS, a “revolutionary” can be a RED like CHE), there are some that are unique to the Eye‘s puzzle and its political, risque tone. Since I haven’t found a list of them anywhere, I thought I’d list them here.

A load of Balls

The worst thing about the 2015 election, from a crosswording point of view, was the dethroning of Ed Balls. ED is always a useful letter combination – it can appear at the end of any word in the past tense, or in reversed form, at the word’s debut. (When you see “Miliband” in a puzzle, it also usually clues these two letters.)

So when Cyclops says “Balls covering behind when high? (6)”, he’s asking you to put “LATE” (behind) inside “ED” (Balls) to make ELATED (“high”).

But that’s not all “balls” can mean. It can be ROT (balls as in nonsense), NUTS (balls as in testicles) or OO (balls as in round things). And “balls up” – itself a common phrase – can indicate the reverse of any of these – DE, TOR, STUN… It’s a versatile word, so watch out for it, as in this ornate clue from a recent puzzle:

Gone off Balls and his coveted score? (6)

Here, we have ROT for “Balls”, but we also have “his coveted score”. When this puzzle came out, Ed Balls had captured the heart of the nation in Strictly Come Dancing, in which the top score is TEN. What a ROTTEN clue!

Brenda and family

Understanding these clues means knowing Private Eye in-joke from nearly half a century ago. Back in 1969, the royals – worried they were seen as too aloof – commissioned a fly-on-the-wall documentary about their lives. The first reality TV show, really. The documentary focused on what a normal family they were, and Private Eye thought it would be funny to give them normal names to go with it. So Elizabeth became Brenda, Charles became Brian, Margaret became Yvonne, and so on.

So in a clue like:

Advance at an end: thus Brian’s demand of Brenda? (4,4)

just make the conversion (“thus Prince Charles’ demand of Queen Elizabeth II”) and the answer is pretty clear: MOVE OVER! There a couple of useful letter combinations that can be clued this way – “Brenda” can be ER (“Elizabeth Regina”), and “Brian’s ex” is DI – but mostly, it’s just the same as “queen” would be in a normal crossword.

Organs on display

In Private Eye speak, a newspaper or magazine – especially Eye itself – is an “organ”. So if an organ – especially “Cyclops’ organ” – pops up, it shouldn’t be hard, so to speak. Just put in EYE.


Finally, there are a few names that appear regularly in Cyclops puzzles who you need to know a couple of details about. Contemporary politicians crop up a lot, especially those with useful letters in their names – Vince Cable probably showed up more than David Cameron during the coalition era – and you might be expected to know some of the Big Beasts of the past. However, there’s one that dwarfs all others: Jeffrey Archer

A lord, novelist and former MP, he can define-by-example any of these professions, and having been convicted of perjury, the crossword can safely call him a liar in clues like:

Not showing yourself to be Archer-like: vulgar (5,3)

and use him as an example of a convict in clues like:

Exaggerate what Archer was given (7)

both from this year’s Christmas puzzle. Finally, he can simply be misdirection:

Archer — using another name in Piccadilly (5)

This Archer isn’t really Jeffrey, but that mythological archer Cupid.

(Side note: the best Archer-themed clue ever remains Araucaria’s in the Guardian: “Poetical scene with surprisingly chaste Lord Archer vegetating (3,3,8,12).”)

So, a few tips that I hope help. If there are any others I’ve missed, please leave a comment below!

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