Interviewed by The Preston SF Group 20/6/95
On Tuesday the 20th of June 1995, The Preston SF Group had the pleasure of welcoming Steve Bell as a guest.
Steve Bell was born in London in 1951, and grew up in Slough but moved to North Yorkshire with his family in 1968 where he studied for a year at Teesside College of Art, Middlesborough. He then worked for a year in the publicity department at ICI Billingham drawing fertiliser bags, healthy grass and vegetables.
In 1970 he took a Degree course in Fine Art at Leeds University, where he gave up painting and concentrated on film making and film studies. Meanwhile he kept his hand in by drawing posters for films and strip cartoons entirely for his own gratification. He graduated in 1974, worked for a year in a bookshop and other odd places, doing the occasional day's teaching drawing and doing video projects at Jacob Kramer College, Leeds.
In 1976 he moved to Birmingham and got a job teaching at Aston Manor School, which he hated. The following year he gave up teaching, started freelance cartooning and got married.
He has drawn cartoons and illustrations for periodicals ranging from childrens' comics (Whoopee, Cheeky and Jackpot) to such august titles as New Statesman & Society, Social Work Today, NME, Time Out and City Limits. At the moment he works mainly for the Guardian newspaper, where he has drawn a daily strip cartoon since November 1981 and where he now draws large political cartoons daily on the leader page. He has made several short animation films with Bob Godfrey for Channel 4 and the BBC. He has published at least sixteen books of cartoons and strips.
He now lives in Brighton with his wife and four children. Awards include the Cartoonist Club Humorous Strip Cartoon of the year award for 1984 and 1985, and the XXI Premio Satira Politica International Award in September 1993.
Considering your work is topical, how far in advance of publication do you have to have your cartoons ready by?
In the case of the big ones I do in the Guardian, I do them the day before. I've got to do them by 7 o' clock. In fact, they've just squeezed it back to 6 o' clock. For the strip it's usually the day before, but usually with strips it's easier to do them in batches of three or six, because you develop a story-line and things spin off and I write them together. Now I have a FAX I can get them in the day before. As I live in Brighton and the offices are in London, I can work up to the last minute, and they've got it, it's there. In the old days, I had to do all six at once. Then I'd Red Star it to London, who then read it, and then they'd Red Star it all up to Manchester, who'd them, Red Star it back to London again. So I had to have everything in, that was needed for the Monday, in by the previous Thursday, so there was a bigger gap then.
In some ways it doesn't matter. Up to the minute topicality is, surprisingly, not that important. The issues carry on, and it is only very rarely that something happens that is so urgent that you have to do something. It happened to me when the Falklands war broke out. I'd just done a load about central America and the Falklands thing started the day afterwards. So I had a whole week about central America which didn't mention the Falklands at all, so it was a bit of a problem. Mostly, though, topicality doesn't matter.
Is it a satisfying job for an artist?
It's a wonderful thing to do, because you're straight in there, getting your stuff reproduced in a big paper, and nobody is telling you what to do. You just sort of muse about what is coming up in the news and you sort of make your own statement. That's the joy of it, and if other people enjoy it too then that's even better. If you get a good gag out of it, it's three times better.
Who edits your cartoons?
Generally I do my own editing, I don't submit roughs to the paper. I couldn't stand that it would take years off my life. David Austin who does the Pocket cartoon, he goes in to the paper as he just lives round the corner. He, as a matter of course will submit six ideas and they'll use two. I said, What are you doing that for, you mad fool. He just says he likes to work that way. Some people do, but I couldn't stand it, I'll do my own editing and I decide what I'm going to do and do it, generally it goes in. Sometimes there's a problem with libel.
Have you ever had a cartoon or strip rejected?
Once or twice, it doesn't happen very often. Recently I had to amend a couple. There was one about Aitken I had to paint out a couple of things I put at the bottom. Because he is actually suing them so they are very, very sensitive about that at the moment. Anything you do can jeopardise their position. The lawyers are very hot on that sort of thing. The other thing is that politicians do not generally sue for libel. I hope they don't anyway.
Have you ever been offered money by politicians for you not to caricature them?
No just the reverse. If you get a bastard like Portillo, a slimeball like him, his office phones up and says Mr. Portillo would like to buy the artwork. And you think Ow, piss off, shit. But you're appealing to their vanity. You're spending a lot of your time illuminating their hideous features.
Does that happen a lot?
Yes, since I've been doing the big ones, yea. It's more prominent, they can see it. It's a sort of vanity thing. Just the fact they're being cartooned means they're more likely to be recognised. It's horrible to think that you're doing them a favour.
Are you worried about getting sued?
The only people likely to sue are not politicians but people who are in the public eye. I did one about Anderton which had a specific corruption angle, very early on. That was squashed straight away. They said to take the corruption angle, because they thought he would have sued.
Do you ever have second thought's a couple of days after you've done something?
Well, the way I see it is that it's never really finished until you see it come back in print. You don't really know if it works until it's in print. You have an idea that it works, but sometimes you think that's brilliant but when you get it back it doesn't quite work and you don't know why.
I wondered how closely you worked with Spitting image?
When they first started out they actually asked me if I wanted to do some of the script writing. I tried, and submitted a few ideas, but it didn't get very far. The real boon about doing something in a paper like this is you do it, it goes in the paper and it's out. There's no intervention by anyone else. Unless you do something so sick it isn't allowed. On something like Spitting Image, everything is done by committee, and you're working for the producer and its the producer's show, and he has loads of gag writers coming to him and he'll say I'll have that one and that one, and he rules the roost.
How did you first start out?
I went to art college. I went to university and did an art course. Came out and thought I'd be of some social use and became a teacher for a year, it was hell on Earth. The worst year of my life. I realised after I'd done it that I was actually dysfunctional, I just wasn't suited to it. I preferred working on my own at a desk, getting on with something. You need a sort of confidence to do that, which is all right, but you need a certain confidence to be a teacher, which I didn't have. To stand up in front of a group of kids, day in and day out and be on the ball about how to draw and what drawing was about. I couldn't do it, I'd rather go and lie out on a piece of waste ground, I'd do anything rather than be there. So I jacked in teaching and decided to go freelance. It was a conscious act. And the first thing I did was something in Street Comix which Hunt Emerson was involved with. That was an autobiographical piece about teaching. It was a set piece; a four page comic.
Then after that I just went around flogging my work around getting what I could. The first paid work I got was drawing kids comics for IPC, which is now Fleetway. I did that for about 2 years. At the same time I was doing political comics, just for love, in the local Brighton What's On magazine. That was where I developed a character called Maxwell's Newt, who used to drink a pint of mild and be taken to a different character each week. That was the first time I did Thatcher. I was doing that just to please myself, and and I was also trying to get illustration work. Then Time Out was the first time I got the break for doing the type of stuff I'm doing now, that was in 1979, which was when Margaret Thatcher rose to power.
Do you feel there is a kind of symbiosis with Margaret Thatcher, if the great enemy had not risen on the horizon, you would not have had the cause to rally against?
Not really, I was doing that kind of thing before she came to power. I would have carried on. But she made her own image. She created her own character as an Iron Lady, and she played up to that role. I think politicians do that to a certain extent, nobody knows who they are when they first appear, and it takes several years to get to know what they look like and who they are and what sort of character they are. When Thatcher started out she was a wispy blond character with a slightly shrill voice, which she sort consciously toned down I think. I don't think she ever read my stuff, so I assume it was a very one way process. I think Major actually does read the papers, but I think Margaret was given a digest of the good news by her side-kick. She certainly wouldn't read the further reaches of the Guardian where I was tucked away.
Are you looking forward to a new Labour Government?
Yes, very much. I'm sick to death of these bastards I've been doing for 16 years, I've been saying the same thing for that long, and you do get tired of finding different ways to say the same thing. So it would be nice to have a new crew to work on. Obviously I wouldn't do them in quite the same way. If they were to do things I agree with I wouldn't slam them for that. But Blair is some sort of neo-Thatcherite.
Do you ever get into trouble by lampooning comic characters?
If you do anything with DC Thompson's characters, they're on top of you like a ton of bricks. It's like Disney, they'll do it too. If you do a Disney character or DC Thompson in vain they'll throw out a lawyers letter at the drop of a hat.
Do you take that into account when you do something like that?
Obviously, you know the way their minds work. I've done this stuff for ages. I did the Broons, only I called them the Prunes. And I put black marks over their eyes to blank out their identities. The Broons are ideal for the illustration of the disastrous poll tax. It was a family of seven adults, living in one tenement, before they paid 50 quid in rates, and after they paid like £950 a week poll tax.
Do you see much opportunity for electronic media?
Yes I see it could be used for all sorts of things. Strips are ideally suited to CD-ROMs, because that's what CD-ROMs are pictures and animation and a soundtrack.
Didn't you do something like that for TV before?
I did one or two, back in about 1985 for Channel 4 with Bob Godfrey. Two five minute animations. It was great to do, they never actually got on the screen. But we finished them, we did them on time and everything. But they were edited out on political grounds, for being too virulently anti-Thatcher. Probably now there would be no problem, but then they were probably too much. They were great to do I learned a lot, but it was such a big production number.
One of the animations was a reworking of a strip I did, and at one point I looked at it and said why the hell did I do it in animation,? Because it's all in the strip. Having said that,animation is brilliant when it brings a new dimension. Like the Snowman, the comic book was great but the animation gave it a whole new dimension. And when I was kid I though Popeye was wonderful, not the strip it came from but the animation, it was wonderful. It was so much more to it than the strip.
Do you think an artist should declare their politics or be sort of politically neutral?
I think a political cartoonist should, yea. I can't see the point of a political cartoonist if you're interested in politics. And being interested in politics suggests to me that you've got an opinion. It doesn't matter if it's right wing, left wing, middle-of-the road or whatever, to do it you have to have an opinion. Because that's where a political cartoonist starts, you start with the opinion, then you try to express it. I don't see how you can do it if you're not interested.
Who, if they got into power, would put you out of a job forever?
If the Maoist got in they'd put me out of a job!
Who would put you out of a job, by your own choice, forever?
As I said before, it's an attacking medium. It's not very good for saying positive things. You don't attack someone you agree with. So in the unlikely event a Government gets in which I agree with everything they're doing, I may be in trouble.
Thank you Steve
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