Longer online version - strong language!

Steve Bell’s podium shaggers and lectern strokers

Steve Bell and his sketch of Neil Kinnock; Hazel Dunlop

Steve Bell (standing) and his former editor Tim Gopsill (seated) with one of Steve's early 1990s sketches of "podium shagger" Neil Kinnock at work

STEVE BELL, speaking at LFB's February meeting, was introduced as "main cartoonist for the Journalist, and also does stuff for the Guardian", where he's spent 35 years chronicling "the monstrous conspiracy we call government."

Says Steve, who's "been in the Union since the Seventies," it "enrages me constantly how media owners try to grab all rights. Guardian contracts are particularly "appalling... getting worse by the day." Although he's a London Freelance Branch member Steve is "busier putting the freelance point of view at the Guardian chapel" (the workplace-based unit of NUJ organisation.) Recently at that publication he's come across one "indentured servitude contract... same terms forever, this is monstrous!"

When he started out he "did kid's comics" including Whoopee, which is where he got his storytelling frames - "strips allow you to develop a story like no other" - and speech balloons. He "worked for The Leveller for no money at all" for a certain Tim Gopsill as editor (now in LFB Committee). Then followed "stuff for (trade unions) NUPE, NALGO, very occasionally for the NUJ" before he "got a break on Time Out which was wonderful" until the staff "went on strike and went off to found City Limits."

As luck would have it, the Guardian in 1980 were looking for stuff to go alongside Doonesbury. He was given a paid-for, unpublished "trial month" with the "If..." strip ("If God was a Social Democrat"and so on.) Then "six months in along came the Falklands War, a surreal moment - a nonsensical cod colonial war suddenly broke out, this task force was sent out... What was happening was obscene and absurd, that's where the strip found its feet."

It was also the first war where the press were "cocooned on battleships." Steve responded by having "Dan Dare-esque" figure Captain Jack Middletar and Mr Kipling sent to the South Atlantic in "armoured punts." His only Falklands strip to be censored was just a series of cartoon explosions: "BOOM! WHAMM! THUDD! PYM!" a reference to then brand new foreign secretary Sir Francis Pym.

Steve Bell and his sketch of Tony Blair; © Hazel Dunlop

An early sketch of Blair's "mad eye" from a party conference, described by the artist

Party conferences, says Steve, "are always fascinating." He takes thousands of photos at party conferences, as well as drawing politicians at conferences from life, trying to "get" the essence of political figures, particularly new ones. Corbyn presents a dilemma. Steve agrees with "just about everything he says" but he "has to take the piss out of him." He hasn't really "found" his cartoon Corbyn character yet, beyond his superficial resemblance to Obi Wan Kenobi.

He described watching the 1980 Tory party conference "one of the most chilling experiences". He drew it as "a gathering of the undead." It was at Thatcher's first party conference as Prime Minister that Steve noticed in Margaret Thatcher "something weird about her eyes." Henceforth he gave Thatcher swirling eyes. Steve noticed at a later New Labour conference, "something about Tony Blair echoing Thatcher... the relationship between the eyeballs, an angry staring left eye and twinkling right eye." Steve showed us his first sketch of Blair with one angry eye and the "twinkly right eye", made after a lightbulb moment when he saw a "flicker" in Blair's eyes on a party conference monitor.

In the early 1990s Steve was "dispatched to party conferences" where he sketched then Labour leader Neil Kinnock at work. Kinnock "very difficult to do... he was a left-wing firebrand going rightwards... I never knew what he was about." While Kinnock at conference was a "podium-shagger", Blair was a "lectern stroker" and Gordon Brown - depicted by Steve as the Incredible Hulk at one conference - used to "wreck" the podium during speeches. According to Steve, Cameron "copies Blair's gestures, as did Ed (Milliband)" - Cameron is just a "Blair tribute act", although he does Blair better even than Blair ever did, including Blair's "rigid clockwork walk". Then there's Iain Duncan Smith, who when briefly Tory leader was "a man with absolutely nil charisma who walks into the limelight but disappears."

There's "something peculiarly androgynous about Cameron, his high-pitched voice, his sleek, smooth complexion". Steve showed a close-up photo of Cameron's chin in an attempt to prove Cameron has "no hair follicles!" Cameron's smooth complexion explains Steve's depiction of him with a condom over his head. (The Guardian's brief Cameron-as-condom ban was ended when their advertising agency pointed out how ridiculously inoffensive it was.)

Steve's encountered Cameron twice, and on both occasions Cameron let him know he didn't like "the condom thing", so Steve made a mental note to continue with it. He originally drew Cameron as a jellyfish after his pledge to run the "most transparent government" ever. But in colour, Cameron-as-jellyfish meant drawing him in light blue ink, followed by a complicated blue-grey wash, which proved "too technically difficult."

How does Steve work? "Two (cartoons) a day, four days a week... Friday a loose day... A strip in the morning, by the time of the end of the play on Radio 4 then I start doing the big one - three and a half hours, four hours... finished by half seven." Sometimes it'll take longer if the Guardian editorial team have a problem with it, such as when "I've gone over the 'fuck' quotient".

Last modified: 29 Feb 2015 - © 2015 contributors
The Freelance editor is elected by London Freelance Branch and responsibility for content lies solely with the editor of the time
Send comments to the editor: editor@londonfreelance.org