The satirical cartoonist on caricaturing Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and the cream of the Northern Irish political crop
Steve Bell has been taking a satirical look at the issues of the day in his cartoons for almost 30 years now. He has produced illustrations and comic strips for many different publications, including Punch, Private Eye, Radio Times, The Spectator and The Journalist, and his comic strip If... has appeared in the Guardian since 1981. Bell has also published an impressive 28 books.
The infamous cartoonist is at the Black Box in Belfast as part of the Out To Lunch Festival, to talk about his trade and the process of capturing politicians in pen. Bell's wit and opinionated banter keep the packed crowd enthralled and entertained, despite the projector failing, which leaves Bell having to use his laptop to show his images.
He recalls early inspiration coming from reading the Dandy, Beano and Beezer and hating the Daily Mail. Showing examples of his work, he explains that his career had been 'based on abusing this old bat', as cartoons of Maggie Thatcher are displayed on screen.
When Thatcher first appeared on the political scene, Bell drew her simply as a 'blonde lady' - at that stage of her career she was unfamiliar to the cartoonist. But that would soon change as the ‘Iron Lady’ became Prime Minister and a hate figure for a generation.
Thatcher's rise resulted with Bell's cartoon developing a mad-eyed look, reflecting her 'obsessive, almost manic' manner. Bell drew her with 'one mad staring left eye and a hooded, hanging right eye'. Bell is remarkably honest in admitting how 'loathsome' he found her.
Proving, as Bell argues, that 'in the cartoon lies the grain of truth', he shows caricatures of Thatcher and Tony Blair, with their typically exaggerated features, followed by photographs of the pair that look eerily like his drawings.
Bell's images of the political mess in Northern Ireland over the years are equally striking, as his slides show: an irate Ian Paisley finds Gerry Adams in the wardrobe of John Major’s bedroom; Mo Mowlam pours cups of tea for Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair; Paisley and Adams get hitched.
Over the years Bell has represented the character of his victims symbolically through visual metaphor: John Major was never without his dull, grey underpants, for example; George Bush ruled the world as a chest-beating monkey; the new Prime Minister, David Cameron, is frequently dressed in a condom.
The condom came about from Bell finding Cameron’s face 'almost sexless', and his smooth skin having a 'rubbery' quality. 'There was something weird about his big face, so I rolled a big condom over it. I can’t explain it.'
Cameron has admitted that he does not favour the depiction, which Bells considers 'a bonus'. 'He came up to me at a Spectator party at the Tory conference in October, and asked me how long I was going to carry on with it, before advising me, ‘You can only push a condom so far’.'
When asked if any other politicians have expressed a dislike of their cartoon selves, Bell laughs about John Prescott exclaiming 'I’m not a f***ing dog, am I?' after years of Bell drawing him as a bulldog. But it is the idea of a politician liking their cartoon that horrifies him most. 'It would make me think I’m doing something wrong.'
As a satirical artist, Bell is not there to flatter public figures - especially politicians - but to keep political egos deflated. 'They’re so careful about their image, which is good for a cartoonist, because you can rip their image to shreds,' he says with a smile.