Alex Leith meets Steve Bell

Alex Leith meets The Guardian‘s veteran satirical cartoonist

Steve Bell, If…, The End, 2021

Steve Bell, a seventy-something bear of a man, answers the door with a big grin, makes me a well-brewed cup of tea, and leads me through his sizable Brighton townhouse and out through the garden to his ramshackle, lean-to studio. Here he has been drawing comic strips and political cartoons, for The Guardian , for the last 25 of his 42-year career at the paper. “It looks like two cartoonists have been having a paint fight in here”, I say, and he erupts into a flattering guffaw, the first of many over the next hour of conversation. “The roof’s started going, the table’s fucked, bits are falling off, dust gathers”, he replies. This is where the magic happens.

If you are a Guardian reader, or an ex-Guardian reader, you will be more than familiar with Bell’s off-the-wall, satirical, left-leaning cartoons. He was hired in 1980 on the back of his success at Time Out, where he had created a strip called Maggie’s Farm , peopled by caricatured representations of Margaret Thatcher and her ministers (the subjects they ruled over were farm animals). He had also gained kudos for his inner-sleeve illustrations accompanying the Clash’s lyric-sheets for their triple album Sandinista (“I went to see them when they were recording it. Got stoned as a parrot.”)

His three-panel Guardian strip, If…, took off during the Falklands War, with a cast of characters – including a corrupt penguin, a street-smart cockney monkey, and an everyman sailor – who featured regularly afterwards throughout its 40-year existence, alongside Bell’s expletive-spouting French alter-ego, Monsieur l’Artiste. 40 years! That period saw seven different Prime Ministers in office, every one of them savagely lampooned in the strip: Thatcher with her rogue eyeball, Major with his underpants worn outside his trousers, Cameron with a condom over his head, Johnson, with an arse for a face… The Guardian finally axed If… in April 2021, more of which later.

In 1990, Bell was asked to take on an additional role at the newspaper, penning what he calls “the big ones”: single-frame leader cartoons for the editorial page, demanding a satirical view of the day’s main story. At the height of his productivity, he was creating four of these a week, on top of six cartoon strips: “that was a staggeringly brutal routine,” he says. “Plus four kids to bring up. Luckily, I thrive on a deadline.” Nowadays his output has been reduced to one or two ‘big ones’ a week, and he says he doesn’t know what to do with himself half the time, even though he has several projects on the go. “If you need a job done…” he says, “ask a busy man. And all that.”

We go back to his childhood in Slough, where he grew up in the fifties and sixties reading “The Beano, The Dandy, The Beezer, The Eagle, occasionally. My parents used to take Punch. In 1968, when I was a late teenager, they gave me The Penguin Book of Comics, where I first encountered Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat. The scales fell from my eyes.”

He loved drawing cartoons himself, and went to art college, going on to study film and art at Leeds University, where he “went off the idea of being a painter.” Instead, he decided to become an art teacher, a bad move. He only lasted one year in the job: “I was so shit at it, I had to get out.” By now it was 1977: this was when he decided to become a professional cartoonist, encouraged by the success of his university mate, Kipper Williams.

There were a lot of rejection letters, but he eventually got a chance at IPC Magazines, working on kids’ comic titles such as Whoopee, Cheeky, Whizzer & Chips and Jackpot. “My first strip was influenced by the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man. About a kid who gets badly injured in a wreck: they rebuild him, but with his head on back to front… What was it called? Dick Doobie, the Back to Front Man.” He also did unpaid work, including a strip for a Birmingham what’s-on magazine called Maxwell the Mutant. “It was about a bloke who goes into a pub and drinks a pint of mild ale that’s been tainted by radioactive fall-out, don’t ask me how. He turns into a mutant, every time it happens: one time he’s a punk, the next time he’s the Queen.” Like Mr Benn on acid, I venture. Another of those guffaws.

The next unpaid job, as the Thatcher era began, was for The Leveller, “one of those leftie news mags,” which gave Bell the chance to explore more serious topics: “I always wanted to do political comics,” he says. “I was quite political.” He wangled an interview with the news editor of Time Out , Duncan Campbell, who happened to be a Leveller reader, and knew his stuff. “This was my first real break.” Out of that conversation, came Maggie’s Farm, an excoriating send-up of the political characters of the day: Keith Joseph, Geoffrey Howe, Lord Denning, Willie Whitelaw. And, of course, Thatcher herself, scrawny-necked, goggle-eyed and recognisably a prototype of the If… version.

I indulge in an inward chuckle when Steve Bell tells me he was quite political. I have him down as a dyed-in-the-wool leftie, very much of the old-school variety. On the way through his house, I’ve spotted a copy of The Morning Star on his dining room table; during our conversation he’s revealed he’s been a member of the NUJ since 1978 (I proudly show him my card) and even a cursory run-through of his recent cartoons – which you can access on the Guardian website – reveals his political colours. The morning I write this piece, his latest ‘big one’ is a riff on the 1986 film The Mission, with Keir Starmer, a red rose between his teeth, thrusting a sword, floating vaingloriously towards the edge of a waterfall, standing on the supine body of a crucified Jeremy Corbyn. A caption attached to the cross-cum-raft reads ‘Join the Labour Party and the world is yours’. It’s a long way from Maxwell the Mutant.

Steve Bell, The Mission, 2023

I ask him about the difficulty of coming up with fresh ideas, day after day, week after week, year after year. “Every time, you’re up against a blank page,” he says. “It’s you and that blank page and the blank page sometimes seems to be winning. But there’s always an answer somewhere. It’s like doing a puzzle.” Half the time he’s at his desk, he tells me, he’s working out what he’s going to draw. He does this in absolute silence. “I’m talking it through to myself – a narrative – performing it to myself, if you like. Once I’ve cracked it, I draw at great speed, even though I’m slowed down by holding my pen in a peculiar manner. Sometimes the speed you need to do it at makes you draw daringly in a way you wouldn’t otherwise try.” Of course, the whole game is somewhat hit and miss. “Sometimes it works better than others, but it has to work on some level. If you’ve got a good drawing, a laugh, and you’re making a point, then it’s win-win-win. But it doesn’t always work like that.” The hardest one to crack was the Dunblane massacre. “I mean, what the fuck do you do about that? It had to be quite stark.” Steve Bell’s influences date back to way before the 1950s Beano. He’s something of a student, it seems, of the long history of English satirical cartoonery, from the days of Hogarth, “the first graphic novelist”. We get to talking about how censorship of political satire has been practiced as long as political satire has existed. He cites James Gillray, who, in the late 1700s, “set the standard for political cartoonery; he was making political statements in a time that there really was no freedom of the press.” Gillray, it seems, savagely satirised both George, the Prince of Wales, and his father George III: “he only got away with it because the King enjoyed the stuff that took the piss out of the Prince of Wales, and the Prince of Wales enjoyed the stuff that took the piss out of the King. The King tried to bribe [Gillray] to portray him in a less unflattering way. He took the money but didn’t stop doing it.”

Steve Bell, Dunblane, 1996

The next great political satirist, he tells me, was George Cruikshank, who in 1819 collaborated with the publisher William Hone to produce the pamphlet of his woodblock cartoons The House that Jack Built. “They printed thousands and thousands of them, this was where mass media really started. They eventually prosecuted Hone on a blasphemy charge. He was banged up for a bit, but he fought them off three times. He contrived it so that he could read Cruikshank’s satires out loud in the court. And he eventually won. I think that’s where the expression ‘laughed out of court’ comes from.”

I wonder out loud how much Steve Bell has been censored, and accidentally-on purpose open a can of worms. The nature of censorship, it seems, has dramatically changed. Nowadays it doesn’t come so much from on high, as from within “I need to self-edit,” he says. “I don’t want anyone else to edit my work… One reason why I’m doing less now is because something’s changed about The Guardian. It’s become much more cautious, much more interventionist. This particularly applied to the strip (If…). Nobody used to get hung up about what I produced, and no-one used to interfere. Then in the last few years I was getting more and more interventions, and more and more stupid interventions. It was quite insulting: effectively being edited for political reasons. My work was going against whatever party line they were pushing – something about the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn – and I was getting pushed back, with no rational explanation. That aspect of The Guardian has become more craven lately… There’s a kind of bureaucratic groupthink going on, and it’s quite difficult to second guess it. And people will make the oddest enquiries about what something means. ‘Well, it’s a joke! It’s a metaphor!’ I’m not someone who’ll just roll over. I’ll argue the point.”

“Don’t you worry about telling me all this?”, I say. “I mean, won’t the newspaper mind you saying all this stuff about them?”

“Fuck ‘em!” Again that booming laugh, this time with a note of outrage. “If The Guardian worry about mild criticism like that, then God help them.”

Our hour is nearly up, so I ask Steve Bell about his future plans, while taking photos of the artist-satirist dipping his paintbrush into his watercolours, beaming a smile for the camera. He’s working, he tells me, on a book with a French friend, hopefully to be published alongside an exhibition at a cartoon festival in St Just-le-Martel near Limoges. The title is The Windsor Tapestry: “It’s going to be like the Bayeux Tapestry, but incorporating hundreds and hundreds of cartoons I’ve drawn, over the years, of the Royal Family – particularly King Charles an`d the Queen [Elizabeth]”. The royals are in for another roasting, then: Steve Bell has been gently and not so gently ridiculing them for more than 40 years, and they’ve provided him with plenty of material to work with. A knighthood may be deserved, but it doesn’t look likely any time soon.

I’m led back through the house, past that copy of the Morning Star , to the front door, and out into the drizzly afternoon. I wave goodbye to Britain’s greatest living political cartoonist, strangely elated. The spirit of Gillray and Cruikshank lives on, in a ramshackle lean-to in Fiveways, where I’ve just spent a hugely entertaining and insightful hour, peppered with those hearty laughs and liberal expletives. Bollocks, as Steve Bell might say, to ‘never meet your heroes’.