Brighton-based cartoonist Steve Bell
PUBLISHED: 00:16 25 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:57 20 February 2013
Angela Wintle discovers that when it comes to biting political satire, Steve Bell – who this year celebrates 30 years at The Guardian – pulls no punches
During the dog days of the last general election campaign, Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell and a colleague pulled in at a service station between Glasgow and Carlisle for a well-deserved burger. Theyd been trailing David Camerons election bus for hour, and were tired and hungry. Whats more, a 36-hour nightly dash southwards still awaited them.
But, just as they were savouring the last morsels of their flame-grilled specials, who should stroll past them but Cameron. Imagine Bells discomfort. A consummate Leftist, his dislike of the Conservatives was scarcely a secret. But worse much worse he had been depicting Cameron for weeks past as a moon-faced idiot with vacant, staring eyes and, wait for it, a condom over his head.
But such a trifle was apparently of little consequence to Britains future Prime Minister, who made a beeline straight for him. It was strange because Id never spoken to him before, laughs Bell, speaking in the cluttered environs of his Brighton studio.
He said: The condom... where does that come from? and I said it was to do with the smoothness of his complexion. He seemed genuinely interested, claiming to have enjoyed the one Id drawn of him that day as a large sausage on a butchers weighing machine. I said he wasnt supposed to, and ventured to ask what drugs he was on for this lunatic election marathon. He laughed and said hed just bought a Patricia Cornwell novel to put himself to sleep on the bus.
So, um, he had been perfectly charming to Cameron then? People are people, arent they? he shrugs. Theres no point in saying: You scumbag, I hate you. In any case, I dont hate Cameron. I dont hate any of them, though I did hate Thatcher. But expending all that venom... what a total waste of time that was! He emits the first of many booming laughs.
Bell works from his home in Brighton, painting and emailing his cartoon strips to The Guardians London headquarters. His studio lies deep within the bowels of his late-Victorian abode near Preston Park, accessible only via a series of steps and cramped entrances. Quite how Bell, a man of bear-like proportions, has managed to negotiate this daily trek without doing himself a serious injury is beyond me.
His studio, sprayed with bottles of ink, books and newspapers, is as unkempt as his impenetrable beard. I clear a space by moving a pair of pliers and a mountain of papers, and look about me. One wall is devoted to books on his illustrative heroes everything from Hogarth to Heath Robinson. His desk is littered with a photographic rogues gallery of assorted politicians, which serve as an aide memoire.
Bell has been drawing blood in The Guardian since 1981 when Margaret Thatcher was a fresh-faced premier. He relished the platform to parody the Iron Lady as a screeching psychopath, though the fact she was a member of the fairer sex meant that most cartoonists were initially quite deferential, he says. Bell took a different view, and his earliest cartoons in his strip Maggies Farm for Londons Time Out magazine caused such a stir that they roused outraged questions in the House of Lords.
It only spurred him on and he famously depicted her with a piercing rogue left eyeball, a trait hed observed when she quoted St Francis of Assisis Prayer shortly after becoming PM in 1979. Her right eye was hooded and her left stared madly like the Terminator.
Former Guardian editor Peter Preston has argued that without Thatcher there may, ironically, have been no Steve Bell; she was his muse. But when she quit the stage, Bell soon found fresh meat in the shape of Prime Minister John Major.
Initially, he was absorbed by his upper lip hes got what I can only describe as an ingrowing moustache but eventually devised a more enduring image of Major as Superuselessman, who wore his underpants over his trousers.
He was a supernerd; a very useless person, he says laughing. The theme was reinforced when Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell revealed that the PM did actually tuck his shirt into his underpants convincing Bell still further of the mystical connection between Major and his underwear.
Conversely, he only mastered Tony Blair when he made his first speech as Labour leader at the 1994 Labour Party Conference. It was then he noticed a trait hed first spotted in Margaret Thatcher that psychotic left eyeball. It inspired one of his most memorable cartoons, a reworking of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, where God touches the hand of Adam; only Thatcher was substituted for God and Blair for Adam. His message was clear New Labours political philosophy was little more than watered-down Conservatism.
Quite how Bell continues churning out ideas at such a relentless rate is anybodys guess. Not only does he produce four comment page cartoons a week, but four If... strips, which borrows its name from Rudyard Kiplings famed poem, and runs like a surreal sitcom with absurd characters.
He is as all-pervasive as some of the Guardians leading political columnists, but does he actually think he has the power to change things? Well, you can influence the way people think, but my perceptions only work if youre highlighting a truth about someone. Thats why I spend hours trailing senior politicians at party conferences because you pick up little details that the camera doesnt tell you.
The smoothness of Cameron, for example, was simply as a result of looking at him closely with a telephoto lens and realising he had no hairs on his chin whatsoever. Hes also very rubbery and bouncy. His exchanges with Labour leader Ed Miliband at Prime Ministers Questions are quite interesting because hes so full of himself, and bounces up and down. But while he may be irrepressible, theres also something insubstantial about him. Hes essentially about presentation, like Blair.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has been harder to pin down. Theres nothing much there. Hes just a nice young bloke who looks a bit like Cameron. He has sunken, sad little eyes, a pronounced chin and a distinct shape to his head, which ends in a little top knot. Im still working on him. Ed Miliband, in contrast, is ridiculously easy with those great panda eyes and death-ray stare which could burn through concrete. I was very glad when he won, not least because I couldnt draw his brother!
Bell admits his fans arent always ideological bedfellows. In 1983, when, as he puts it, Michael Heseltine was a particularly loathsome defence secretary and had taken to strutting around in a combat jacket, his office rang to ask if he might buy some artwork. Bell was horrified, then hit upon the wheeze of asking Heseltine to make his cheque out to CND. At the time, CND was the arch enemy, so instead he offered to make it out to the charity of my choice. I said: CND is the charity of my choice.
Tory chancellor George Osborne is another unlikely collector or, at least, his mother was while he was in Opposition. Osborne is a joy to caricature because hes got a split at the end of his nose, which gives him this wonderful bum nose. And whenever I drew him, his mum would buy the artwork. But she doesnt buy it anymore! he roars, implying her enthusiasm has dwindled now that his caricatures have grown increasingly unflattering since Osborne assumed office.
Bell cheerfully admits he frequently crosses the boundaries of good taste and his work provokes a stiff mailbag. The standard complaint is that my work is puerile, badly-drawn filth, he laughs. But cartooning is supposed to be low, scurrilous and rude, though there is a serious point buried in there somewhere. The best ones are where you hit the spot and make people laugh.
This year marks Bells 30th year at The Guardian, though hes well aware, particularly now hes pushing 60, that his position is far from unassailable. Does he see a future for his art form, given that newspapers appear to be in terminal decline?
People say its a dying art form and maybe theres no more need for it. I feel differently. I think theres more need for it because the society we live in so visually driven. There will be a place for political cartooning for as long as there are politicians to expose.
If...Bursts Out by Steve Bell is published by Jonathan Cape at 16.99.
To find out more about Steve Bell and his work, visit www.belltoons.co.uk