13th October, 2018
Palace Green Library
Review by Dani Watson
Few prominent politicians have escaped the satirical wrath of Steve Bell and his ‘caustic pen’. Over a career of more than thirty years, Bell has hilariously caricatured key figures on the political scene, from Margaret Thatcher to the current Prime Minister. Bell’s cartoon strip ‘If’ has been a feature of The Guardian since 1981; over the years, its satirising of the daily power-play of British and international politics has garnered both controversy and critical acclaim.
Over the weekend, Steve Bell arrived at the Durham Book Festival to discuss his new collection Corbyn: The Resurrection: a hilarious series of cartoons charting the rise of the previously dubbed ‘unelectable’ Labour Leader, as well as reflecting on his own impressive career as one of Britain’s most popular cartoonists.
The event was chaired by former Labour MP Chris Mullin against the impressive backdrop of the Palace Green Library. Through a presentation of some of his most iconic cartoons, Bell discussed the creative process behind his work, and the key political figures who have acted as inspiration.
Bell gained prominence as a cartoonist in the Thatcher Era, and began the event by discussing his journey in caricaturing the divisive former Prime Minister – a woman he loathes. Bell explains that there is more to a caricature than simply achieving a resemblance to the person in question: ‘you need to find the character behind the face’. In some cases, this character is a work–in–progress; it was only when Thatcher settled on her own persona – the ‘slow lowering of her voice’, for example – that Bell could fully develop her cartoon alter–ego. Through a series of slides, Bell shows the evolution of the Thatcher caricature, from his preliminary sketches to the full-blown grotesque of his more recent cartoons of her. One of them depicts Thatcher being lowered into an ominous grave (following the news of her death) with the hilarious speech bubble ‘Why is this pit still open?’
Bell has a talent for homing in on a particular idiosyncrasy in each of the subjects of his caricatures. In Thatcher’s case, he depicts her with an exaggerated right eye to bring to the surface her inner ‘madness’. In addition to providing insight into Bell’s creative process, the event was a whistle–stop tour of recent politics via some of his most inventive caricatures: John Major in grey superhero Y–fronts; John Prescot as Blair’s hapless bulldog; David Cameron as a giant condom; Theresa May as a sadistic clown in leopard print shoes – and Jeremy Corbyn as Bob the Builder.
As witty in person as he is on paper, Bell amused the audience between slides with anecdotes of his run-ins with the subjects of his cartoons. He recounts the time he was approached by then-Prime Minister, David Cameron, at a Tory Party conference. He asked him ‘what’s this condom things all about?’, and advised the cartoonist that ‘you can only push the condom so far.’
It was a fantastically witty talk, which reflected on Bell’s impressive career as one of Britain’s best-loved cartoonists as well as on the general state of UK politics. I look forward to reading his latest collection of cartoons, Corbyn: The Resurrection, which will be released for sale on 1st November.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.