Steve Bell is a cartoonist best known for his regular work published in The Guardian, beginning in 1981 with the strip If…, which he continues to this day alongside one-off pieces. Steve’s career comprises 40 years of political cartooning, so there aren’t many major political figures he hasn’t given the Bell treatment. Before he began working at The Guardian, he drew a strip for Time Out called Maggie’s Farm. These days he can be found at his home in Brighton, rendering David Cameron as a human condom or George Osborne in a gimp suit.

I spoke to Steve the day after the bombings in Belgium, ahead of his appearance in Sheffield at the Festival of Debate on 21 April.

How do you arrive at a new character?

It’s never the same for two politicians. Some come quickly and some take much longer and you have to work much harder at it. Some are naturally caricaturable, some aren’t. Some of them it’s difficult to get a handle on them. It does take a long time, and my caricatures tend to evolve. You work out a basic way of doing it, and if it works you can stay with it, and then you sort of amend it in accordance with what they look like and what they’re actually doing.

So you’ve got somebody like George Osborne, who has evolved quite a lot since I started drawing him. My caricature has boiled down to two features: his eyes and his nose. You don’t really have to draw anything else because those two things will sum him up. He has these dark, blank, dead eyes, and very dark brows. The reason I go on that is firstly because he has these features, but also I noticed when I was watching him once on the campaign trail in 2010 that Peter Mandelson and George share a kind of evil look about them. They’ve got that same dark, dead-eyed look. Not exactly the same, but there’s a great similarity, and that struck me.

The other feature of George is his bum nose. He has got a bum on the end of his nose, if you look at it.

I know that you go to party conferences as well. That must put you in awkward situations sometimes, going into the belly of the beast.

Yes, there is that problem, but I think I’ve managed to get over it, over the years. It can calm your caricature if you allow yourself to get too close to them, but it’s not really a problem. I’ve met them all now. All the current bunch, anyway, except Corbyn. As people, they can be quite pleasant to you. It doesn’t worry me at all, because it’s not them I’m ripping the shit out of, it’s what they do I’m ripping the shit out of. That’s the important distinction to make. I use personal things about their appearance in order to make serious points about what they’re up to.

You’re trying to break down that image that they present to the world.

Yes, that’s very much what it’s about, because image and presentation are so important, and have got more and more so. And it’s important to unpick it, to break it down, to lever it and rip it open, as it were. I think cartoons are very good at doing that, because they can do it in ways that other mediums can’t.

Are there times when something really massive happens and you have to re-approach or completely redo a cartoon?

Mercifully, only once I think I’ve had to do two cartoons. It was when John Major challenged himself to the leadership in 1995. That was a big story. I’d already done my cartoon – I’d actually filed the damn thing – and they rang up. I think John Major didn’t announce it until 5, which in my terms is hopeless. So I did another one quickly for the later edition. But that’s the only time that’s ever happened.

You’re dependent on events. For instance, yesterday [22 March], under the normal scale of things I would’ve been doing George Osborne replying to the Budget, but then this hideous bombing happened, so I did that. It’s such a big, horrible thing that sometimes you have to react in a different way.

As terrible a thing as the bombing was, it was a stroke of luck for Mr Osborne.

Yes, it’s the ultimate ‘dead cat’. I’ve been following the dead cat theme in the strip – the Lynton Crosby method of politics, where you throw a dead cat on the table, so everyone’s talking about the dead cat and not your blunder. Yesterday was a textbook example of it, though I wouldn’t accuse George of having done it deliberately…

Does the medium you’re working in allow you more freedom to say things that you could never say if you were a writer, for instance?

I think so, in some ways. There is a strong tradition of visual abuse and humour which goes back over 200 years. That’s something precious. It’s very unlikely, in this country anyway, that you will get sued by a politician for taking the piss out of them, because politicians know – by precedent, going back a long, long way – that if they do, it’ll make them look even more stupid.

It’s peculiar the levels of personal abuse you can get away with – probably stronger than what my European colleagues could get away with. In America they’re much more prudish, even though there’s loads of really great American cartoons.

And it really depends on the person you’re caricaturing. I know you’ve said that you don’t think Margaret Thatcher was aware of your work, but that John Major was.

As I recall, she was given a digest of the newspapers by her press secretary, a vile man called Bernard Ingham. I doubt she was aware of anything I ever did, whereas John Major was somebody who did actually read the papers and did notice it. I never had any direct contact with him, but I read in a biography that he came out with the memorable line, “It’s designed to destabilise me, so I ignore it.”

Somebody like Blair would never let you know. I have actually spoken to Cameron. Cameron came up to me during the 2010 election campaign, on the campaign trail at a service station. He came straight over, looked me in the eye, and said, “What’s this condom thing all about?” To which I said, “It’s to do with your extreme youth and your smooth complexion,” which is true. It doesn’t tell it all, of course, because there’s more to the condom than that. I’ve followed him about, and if you get very close to him you can see the man has no hair follicles, and he is a kind of pinkish colour.

Do you think you’ve been lucky with the way politics has drastically changed during your career, particularly in the 80s?

You could say that about any 30-year period, really. We’re always condemned to live in interesting times. There are always huge things happening and they’re always unpredictable. Actually, the underlying themes of politics are largely the same as they were when I was starting out. I remember in the 70s, when I was a teacher, I had a badge saying, ‘No Cuts’. Some things never change.

belltoons.co.uk
festivalofdebate.com

Sam Walby