"Bell Époque": 30 Years of Steve Bell at London's Cartoon Museum
As London's Cartoon Museum celebrated three decades of his work, Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell talked about his childhood inspiration, his early work and a piece commissioned for the exhibitionLink to this video
Hitting 60 gives you plenty of food for thought. Having a retrospective exhibition at the same time gives further cause for astonishment. How did I ever manage to draw that small, without glasses or artificial aids? How did I manage without scanning and email? Well, everything went by train. How did I manage with four young children snapping at my heels? I used to work at night, when they were all tucked up. My oldest son, born the year I started working for the Guardian, is now 30 with ankle-biters of his own. He's grown – but have I?
There is no defined career path to becoming a cartoonist. I came to it almost in reverse. I have loved cartoons, drawing and having a laugh, but the notion of doing it for a living didn't take root until very late. I had studied art, but I found the idea of being an artist risible. (Monsieur L'Artiste was one of the first characters I ever drew at university.) So I started out as a teacher, but the stress was unbelievable. I knew things had gone too far when being off to have my wisdom teeth taken out felt like a relief. What I craved was a job where I could shut myself in a room and talk to myself, sometimes very loudly and in a variety of accents.
With my girlfriend Heather's encouragement, I handed in my notice and followed my friend from university, Kipper Williams, into the daunting world of freelance cartooning. I had no portfolio and no contacts, other than those Kipper gave me, and no plan, other than the fantasies engendered by my infinite sense of entitlement. It was the second best decision in my life. The best was to marry Heather, which I did that same year, in 1977.
While I was teaching, I had been drawing strip cartoons and illustrations, unpaid, for Birmingham Broadside, the city's answer to Time Out. I had introduced a character called Maxwell the Mutant: having been exposed to deadly radiation, in the grand old comic book tradition, Maxwell would mutate into someone unexpected every time he drank a pint of mild. Since 1977 was a Jubilee year, he naturally mutated into the Queen. His deadly adversary was Neville Worthyboss, a thinly veiled and rather inadequate caricature of the then Tory leader of Birmingham city council, Neville Bosworth. Despite my ambition and self-belief, I knew I needed to work on my caricatures. I never realised they would become a life's work.
Through dogged persistence (I still cherish my rejection letter from the Beano), I found work writing and drawing children's comics. My first professional effort in print, for IPC's Whoopee comic, was Dick Doobie the Back to Front Man; he sank without trace after a few months in 1978. But I was learning – and I had been paid.
At a leftwing publication called the Leveller, I introduced a strip about a really obnoxious supreme being, Lord God Almighty. But I wanted to draw comics about politics. I tried Time Out repeatedly, which in those days had a leftwing slant, but there was nothing going. Then I went to the magazine's offices for about the fifth time in 1979, immediately after the election of Margaret Thatcher, and saw the news editor, Duncan Campbell. He said they were looking for a comic strip to tackle the new Tory government. Would I like to submit a rough idea? I rushed home, grunted, strained and produced a pencilled rough of an allegorical strip where the animals were the people and the farm management were the government. They wanted one every fortnight; naturally, it became known as Maggie's Farm.
This was a huge break, but my Maggie needed work. I'm not someone who has an easy, natural talent for quick caricature, as Gerald Scarfe and Martin Rowson do. I take my time. It isn't simply a question of getting the likeness: you have to discover the character behind the face. My early Thatchers are no more than press photos rendered into line drawings, but then the woman herself was not yet a fully formed personality. The Iron Lady with Churchill's Trousers was an image that she consciously worked on, along with the darkening of her hair and the lowering and slowing of her voice. For a long time, though, I couldn't identify what it was about her that really got to me. What her government was doing was very, very nasty, but there was something else as well.
I came to realise, while drawing her over the first year of her government, that she was deranged, but in a very controlled way, and this was expressed in her eyeballs. Her utter self-belief, her total conviction of her own rightness, went way beyond arrogance. She was mad. Perhaps I subconsciously empathised with her for this. Even so, I hated her more than any other living being. Within a couple of years, she had managed to triple unemployment, slash services and lay waste to vast tracts of British industry.
When I saw Thatcher for the first time, in October 1980, at the Conservative conference in Brighton, I was horrified and intrigued. The crowd was terrifying; the whole occasion felt like a gathering of the undead. This was where she unveiled the deathless phrases: "You turn. If you want to. The Lady's. Not. For turning." The delivery was leaden. It was like a bad stand-up comedian addressing a particularly slow audience. Tory audiences are well turned-out, shiny and simple-minded, and in all the years I have been studying them, nothing whatever has changed.
The Guardian had informed me, in 1978, that they wouldn't be using my work in the foreseeable future. But in 1981, we had a newborn son and a mortgage in the offing. So in desperation I sent off more stuff. It paid off. In November 1981, the first If… strip appeared. Within six months, the ludicrous Falklands war had broken out, and since all imagery emanating from the Task Force sailing south was so rigidly controlled by the Ministry of Defence, the kind of surreal graphic speculation that only a cartoon strip can provide came into its own.
Nine years later, I was still hard at it when Thatcher fell from grace. It was great fun to draw a visual commentary on the fall as it happened. Her neck had thickened, her shoulders broadened, her quiff solidified.The eyeballs were wilder than ever: one hooded, one roaming free. Thanks to the wonders of fax, I was now able to draw a cartoon for publication the following day without having to go into the office (I had moved to Brighton). I produced my first big comment-page job on the day of Geoffrey Howe's devastating resignation speech, then another on the day Thatcher quit.
It was a horrendous amount of work, but it was addictive. With the arrival of John Major, and the outbreak of the Gulf war, I was sucked into doing two, three, then four large cartoons for the comment page a week, as well as the daily strip. I was so delighted at not to have to draw Thatcher any more that caricaturing Major came quickly and easily, as light relief. The logic was simple. He was one more useless Tory, only he was super-useless. He became Superuselessman, wearing not sleek red briefs over a bright blue body stocking, but Y-fronts over a grey suit. Major's slow death went on for far too long: by 1997, I was overjoyed to be drawing the blazing underpants sinking into the Thames, never to be seen again – except when they reappeared on Edwina Currie's head in 2002.
Tony Blair took longer to capture. It wasn't until stalking him at the Labour conference in Blackpool in 1994 that I noticed he had a little mad eye of his very own: politically and visually, he was channelling Thatcher. What Blair did was the appearance of conviction; what Gordon Browndid was the appearance of substance. Ten years of Blair gave way to the quick-quick-slow death of Brown. It was like drawing a crumbling cliff face, or the north end of a southbound cow.
At David Cameron's first conference as Tory leader, in Bournemouth in 2006, there was a sudden outbreak of pale blue skies, puffy clouds and trees waving in the breeze. The massed simpletons were still there, seething in the blue shadows, but they looked increasingly baffled. Then Cameron himself came on stage and burbled sweet nothings about the NHS. They didn't believe a word of it and Cameron didn't either, but he was channelling Blair. He had all the hand movements, the stiff, deliberate podium body language, and he could do sincerity almost as well as the master. But he's smoother and doesn't appear to possess any hair follicles. It turns out he is made of translucent pink rubber.
Saddest of all is Nick Clegg, a rather poor clone of Cameron, who in turn is a tribute act to Blair, who is himself channelling Thatcher. And who was she channelling? Her father, Alderman Roberts, the grocer of Grantham town? Winston Churchill? Adolf Hitler? Beelzebub? Who can say?
Am I getting cynical in my old age? I don't think so. I have a strong feeling that I was born cynical and that, somewhere within me, a dewy-eyed idealist has always been struggling to get out. I have been lurking under the podium, drawing politicians so closely for so long, that I have almost come to like them. I don't think they are any more venal and corrupt than we are. They talk bollocks because we talk bollocks – and because it's their job. Yet sometimes they say something that pushes a button and lights up the room. It is a rare skill and it doesn't happen often. Mostly, it is a slow slog through cliche and soundbite, followed by a slaughtering at the polls. What is worse is that many of them actually enjoy being done over satirically, since it shows that at least one person is paying them attention.
These men and women are professional idealists and I take my hat off to them. Then I kick them up the arse. Because it's not what they say or what they are, or even what they say they are, that gets my goat: it's the things they actually do to us in our name.
Bell Epoque: 30 Years of Steve Bell is at the Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell Street, London WC1, until 24 July