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Steve Bell: The Art of Comedy

Steve Bell cartoon Blair and Bush
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If the deputy prime minister wants to thump you, you know you’ve touched a nerve. This, reputedly, was John Prescott’s reaction to his comic strip portrayal as a limp, loyal, dim-witted bulldog. Will Henley discovers that when it comes to biting political satire, Steve Bell, cartoonist for the Guardian, pulls no punches.

Comedy is often likened to a fine art; routines require careful crafting. But art itself is rarely lauded as comedic. And so it was with some surprise that Steve Bell was named by the Observer in 2003, alongside the ilk of Ricky Gervais and Peter Kay, as one of the 50 funniest acts in Britain.
 
Bell chuckles in a distinctive baritone voice, seemingly slightly embarrassed, when reminded of the commendation. “I see myself more as a journalist really,” he says somewhat modestly. He has been cartooning for the Guardian for more than a quarter of a century. These days he works from his home in Brighton, pencilling away, painting and emailing his strip and op-ed pieces to the paper’s Farringdon headquarters.
 
Satirical cartooning has an illustrious history. For more than two centuries, illustrators like Bell have used art to take pot shots at politics and society. The late James Gilray, who parodied the indulgences of 18 th century high society in the pages of Punch magazine, was a past master of the quill-aided quip. Continuing in his predecessor’s lauded footsteps, Bell leads a pack of cartooning columnists who daily rain on the parade of today’s political figures. His sketch’s are boyish, ludicrous and desperately comic.
 
Borrowing its name from Rudyard Kipling’s famed poem, Bell’s strip, If…, runs like a surreal sitcom with absurd characters – politicians, penguins and naval seamen. Unlike a comedy show, however, Bell operates without script, routine or plotline. “I start off one week and don’t really know where it’s going to end,” he says. His work is a stream of consciousness, snowballing in ink. “I’ll flog it and flog it until it just dies,” he says.
 
While Bell admires the work of more traditional comedians, he prefers to rely on his own impressions of physical and behavioural characteristics when trying to capture his targets on paper. “I admire what Rory Bremner does, but I’ve got my own ideas and I just go with them,” he says. While Blair is portrayed variously as silver-tongued and fickle by Bremner or as a holier-than-thou parish vicar in Ian Hislop’s Private Eye, Bell has the PM down as sinister, wild eyed and self-obsessed. “Blair hasn’t changed much in essence since he became leader. He’s built himself up for a fall the way he sees himself as this political icon,” Bell says. “But to be honest,” he continues, “I don’t hate him the same way I hated Thatcher.”
 
Bell began cartooning for the Guardian in 1981 at a time when Margaret Thatcher was a fresh faced premier. A consummate leftist, he relished the platform to parody the Iron Lady as a screeching psychopath. “People were quite deferential to her at first,” he says. “Maybe because she was a woman they didn’t want to be rude about her.” His cartoon, Maggie’s Farm, caused such a stir that it roused outraged questions in the House of Lords. The reaction only spurred Bell on. He was similarly merciless throughout the 1990s with his lampoons of John Major, brutally characterised as a wimpy y-front wearing anti-superhero.
 
These days, however, Bell is better known for his caricatures of George Bush. He was one of the earliest, if not the first, to spot the President’s uncanny resemblance to Pan troglodytes – the chimpanzee. “As soon as I drew him as a chimpanzee it fell together, it all worked,” he recalls. With the character’s pointed ears, perennial pout, drooping arms and backward-trailing palms, Bell deftly surmises widely held prejudice’s about Bush’s mental aptitude. “It’s an insult to chimps really,” he jokes.
 
Derided and adored in equal measure, Bell admits that his fans are not always ideological bedfellows. Many readers, who hold political views a polar ice cap from his own, are huge Bell fans. “They enjoy what I do even though they disagree with me because they like the comic medium,” he says. At the same time, his cartooning is too trivial a tool for many ardent leftists. “A lot of people on the left actually resent comics,” he says. “Some absolutely loathe what I’m doing.”
 
“It’s stupid to say I don’t have an effect, as I’ve got a regular slot in a daily newspaper,” Bell admits. But he dispels the notion that a cartoonist can make or break a politician’s career. “You can influence how people think, but you have to go with the grain,” he says. “ You’re not really creating anything new. You’re simply highlighting a truth about someone. You have to have an element of what they are about.”
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