Steve Bell's key to cartooning

Chitra Kalyani
6 Min Read

There’s always a key to unlocking a character, celebrated British cartoonist Steve Bell said.

Margaret Thatcher’s “mad left eye, for instance, was Bell’s key to depicting the former British prime minister. “I unlocked it, says the bushy bearded Bell, whose work is published at The Guardian UK under the title “If .

A freelance cartoonist since 1971, the award-winning Bell was listed by The Observer among the 50 funniest acts in UK alongside famous comedians such as The Office’s Ricky Gervais and Mr Bean’s Rowan Atkinson.

An evidently exhausted Bell spoke to Daily News Egypt last Friday following his trips to Jordan and Palestine, where he toured with the “Lighting Lamps exhibition and conducted workshops with local cartoonists.

Sponsored by the British Council, the “Lighting Lamps, which showcases the works of some of the leading cartoonists in the Arab world, opened at Cairo’s Journalists’ Syndicate on Saturday.

Thanking the British Council and the syndicate for the project, Bell made his stance clear while responding to audience queries.

Asked why Palestinian caricaturist Naji El-Ali, killed for his political cartoons in 1987, was not honored at the exhibition, Bell said, “Because the British Council is the British Council, said Bell, “it’s not going to make a political statement.

“The British government is funding their agenda, but it’s not my agenda, said Bell.

Funny Politicians

It is no surprise that the cartoonist known for lampooning British politicians would say so. “Politicians are funny, said Bell.

“It’s strange these little details that you pick up, he said, recounting many years of having sketched Thatcher, even before she came into office.

“It takes a while to establish the character, to get to grips with the character, and that [mad left eye] was my key to her. Tony Blair seems to inherit the trait, Bell said, and his caricatures testify the same.

His caricature of John Major sporting underpants over his clothes depicts him as a “useless Superman.

“When you draw a cartoon, it’s never entirely finished until you see it on the page, said Bell, adding that cartoons did work in an interactive context. “It’s not a particularly hard and fast rule. You test things out.

“Most of the times, you try something and nothing happens, Bell says about the creative process. But sometimes, you strike gold, as when Bell stumbled upon the simian Bush.

In a cartoon about Bush’s election, titled “Bigtime for Bonzo (inspired by the 50s’ film comedy “Bedtime for Bonzo starring Ronald Reagan), Bell portrayed him as Reagan’s chimp. “The moment I drew it, I knew I was on to something, said Bell holding an invisible key in his hands.

Receiving the British Press Gazette award for Best Cartoonist in 2004, Bell famously thanked Bush “for looking like a monkey, walking like a monkey, and talking like a monkey.

Bell’s “Apes of Wrath carries cartoons portraying the former US president as a chimp in a bomber jacket with a Darth Vader obsession.

Not surprisingly, the cartoonist rated Bush as the most fun to draw, although not as fun to live with. “It’s a bit unfair to chimps, said Bell about the comparison, “because chimps aren’t that stupid.

Prominent local cartoonist Gomaa Farahat, seated next to Bell, said cartoonists worldwide “share the same soul. In keeping with Egyptian timing, said Farahat, they “paint at the very last moment.

Bell, whose strips at The Guardian have been republished in a series of “If paperbacks, e-mails his strip last-minute from his house in Brighton.

Bell upped this as good practice, “because if you give it early, they’ll have the time to find something wrong with it. And they always will.

On the journalism front

“The fundamental principal of journalism is to tell the truth, Bell told the audience. Bell who says he faces little censorship, said “cartoons do it in a way that journalism can’t.

“Strip cartoon is never going to go away, he said, noting the current growing interest in graphic novels. Bell believes the same is true of newspapers, “There’s an important element of touch about it.

Bell said the profession of a cartoonist – unfortunately one that doesn’t come with a “cartoonist wanted sign – was one that required the development of two key ingredients: knowledge and attitude.

“It’s a way of arguing really, Bell told Daily News Egypt, “because you can’t really do this job unless you’ve got some views you’ve got to express.

“It’s also fun, he added.

“There’s nothing political in here, he said, revealing a notebook with a collection of color drawings. “When you’re drawing cartoons day in, day out, you’re dragging it out of yourself. Sometimes it’s nice to put it back in.

Responding to a request for tips from a female Egyptian cartoonist, Bell suggested firstly to keep drawing. “Above that, said Bell, “is to enjoy what you do.

“Keep the search, said Bell, “keep an appetite, a lust for the truth.

Follow Steve Bell at Catch the “Lighting Lamps on exhibit at Zamalek’s Sawy Culture Wheel till April 10, and then at Agouza’s British Council on April 15-30. For more information on the exhibit, visit

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