11 Mar 2017

Steve Bell: drawing dissent

From Saturday Morning, 11:06 am on 11 March 2017

Steve Bell cartoons have outraged, entertained and provoked readers of The Guardian since 1981.

Steve Bell

Steve Bell Photo: Supplied

He first established a reputation with the cartoon strip Maggie's Farm - a ferocious serial attack on the government of Margaret Thatcher - which appeared in London's Time Out from 1979.

Two years later he began another (still running) satirical strip, If, for The Guardian.

At The Guardian, Bell soon began to work as an editorial and political cartoonist alongside New Zealand-born Les Gibbard, whom he succeeded as principal cartoonist in 1994.

Bell has produced cartoons for a range of magazines and made short animated films for the BBC and Channel 4 and has published nearly 30 books.

Bell characterised former British prime minister John Major as wearing his underpants on the outside of his trousers, George W Bush as a chimpanzee, Tony Blair as having one mad Thatcher-like eye and David Cameron as sheathed in a condom.  

He is unapologetically partisan and says while he doesn’t see it as his job to poke fun at all politicians, he does poke fun at the ones he personally disagrees with.  

“I choose my targets, if I disagree with somebody I will rip the piss out of them, if I agree with them I’ll only rip the piss out of them if they do something I disagree with!”

Some politicians are relatively easy targets.

John Major, who followed Margaret Thatcher as PM, was easy to satirise, he says.

“He turned out to be a colossal, useless nerd. He was like a Super useless Man that was the logic that led to the underpants.”

Bell told Kim Hill he despairs at the state of the UK Labour Party.

“It’s just dire. The Tory party are in complete chaos and disarray so what do the Labour Party do?

“They don’t attack the Tories they attack bloody [Jeremy] Corbyn if that is sensible strategy, I’m Mickey Mouse - it’s absurd. It’s idiocy of the highest order.”

Bell says he likes to get up close with politicians, often at political party conferences, and that has given him some of his more memorable visual motifs.  

The inspiration behind Tony Blair’s ‘mad’ eye for example.

Steve Bell

Steve Bell at the 2016 Labour Party conference. Photo: Wikicommons

“I did happen to catch this flicker in his eye and made a little note of it, an angry left eye staring and a sort of twinkly right eye. I thought where have I seen that before? Of course! It’s Margaret Thatcher. I’d been drawing her with a mad eye for years.”

The current British PM Theresa May is a kitten-heel leopard skin shoe wearing harlequin. 

“That’s because she’s an evil scary clown.”

“She’s tremendously incompetent, but she’s got a reputation now for quiet competence, and they’re [Conservative Party] riding high in the polls because Labour are so screwed. At the moment she’s sitting petty, she can do no wrong.”

Bell says only once cartoon has landed his paper in front of the Press Council, when he depicted Henry Kissinger as a turkey – which was seen by some as anti-Semetic.

“The charge of anti-Semitism is often thrown around when you’re criticising the Israeli state for militarism and racism - It’s pretty well automatic.”

He has also annoyed former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who threatened to head butt him after repeatedly being portrayed as a neutered dog.

“In this game you’re always going to offend somebody, you’re almost guaranteed to.”

His idea for portraying Theresa May’s predecessor David Cameron also came from a close encounter.    

“He is very pink, if you see David Cameron in the flesh, he’s as pink as can be and he’s very smooth, he’s unusually smooth, he’s smoother than smooth.”

But having him sheathed in a condom took a while to get past The Guardian’s then editor, Alan Rusbridger. He says Rusbridger eventually relented.

“He has a rather phallic-looking head at the best of times.”

You might imagine Donald Trump as an open goal for a cartoonist - not so says Bell.

“He’s too easy, you can’t satirise him. He’s orange, and he has this ridiculous hair, he’s the most odd -looking bloke.”

Bell’s solution is lavatorial.

“It was born of the despair. On the morning waking up to the news that he’s actually come to power and I just despairingly did him as a toilet bowl. His hair is a kind of golden toilet seat, but it kind of works, there is something utterly disgusting about Trump.”

Steve Bell holds honorary degrees from five British universities. He'll be visiting the University of Auckland as a Hood Fellow from 6 to 17 March.

He's taking part in a panel discussion with Kiwi cartoonists Sharon Murdoch and Chris Slane on Tuesday 14 March, and giving a public lecture on Thursday 16 March, Abusing power: The cartoonist in a post-truth world.