“If Scarfe was in the newspaper when it arrived on the breakfast table it would be just as if the family dog had shat on the table. It was an outrage within their little world.” There is more than geography that seperates Gerald Scarfe’s rooftop studio from the “homes around the Shires” that he is referring to. The difference is in the mindset, an almost pathological mistrust of authority and those who wield it.
Examples of his latest works of irreverence adorn the wall behind him, huge caricatures of Tony Blair and George Bush, waiting to be sent off to the pages of The Sunday Times and The New Yorker. Next to them, amongst printed emails is a smaller cartoon, with the word FAITHLESS printed above it. “Have you heard of them?” he asks, “It’s an old cartoon but one of the band’s a fan, apparently, so they want to use it for a single cover.” The room is littered with memorabilia amassed throughout his career, a gold disc of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which he designed the artwork for and provided animations for the film, a mug with Disney’s Hercules on it, for which Scarfe designed all the characters, videos of Yes Minister, for which he famously drew the opening sequence. On his desk, amid the paints and the vast sheaves of papers, sits a copy of his book, ‘Drawing Blood’ which collected some of his most famous political cartoons alongside uncensored drawings that his employers had refused to print.
Unsurprisingly, there are no shortage of these drawings, as Scarfe has never been afraid of tackling taboo subjects. “I thought, being an artist, I should be able to draw everything, you know? I can draw life and death and love and sex and whatever.” he says. However, early in his career Scarfe was shown that there were limits to what even he could draw, when the Daily Mail sent him to Vietnam. “The Daily Mail didn’t know how to handle me, because the stuff I’d been doing in Private Eye was fine for a cult audience, but for the general public it was too much. So they sent me off to Vietnam. I suppose they thought, “cruel, grotesque artist, let’s send him to a cruel, grotesque situation”. It was my first experience of war, I’d only seen war on television up till then, and I was drawing it symbolically, I was drawing President Johnson shitting bombs on Vietnam, and that sort of thing, but I hadn’t actually realised what it was really like, young guys who’d been pulled out of college and flown to the other side of the world and told to kill these people, told to ‘shoot these gooks’, as they called them. I had great difficulty in Vietnam really, drawing it, I found it too much to stand, the blood and guts of it all, and the incompetence of it all and the sort of stupidity of it all. I went into the morgue in Saigon. I went in there and I was just shocked by what I saw, because it hadn’t struck me that there’d be bits of bodies, heads without torsos and torsos without heads and torsos without limbs. Some were just like lumps of meat, and they were all being cleaned up by American medics. Some of them were whistling, because to them it was just a job, they were whistling and doing a daily job, in their white coats spattered with blood.”
The Mail refused to print some of the drawings he sent back, particularly those that showed Americans in Vietnamese brothels, but Scarfe has never regretted working for papers that don’t share his political views. “There’s no political censorship at all. I’m often against what the leader page in the paper is saying. I think it’s just that sort of sexually overt drawings are not acceptable in a ‘family’ newspaper, but I’ve never had any political, touch wood, interference at all. I’ve obviously been against the Iraq war, I’ve been against the Vietnam war, but I enjoy preaching to the unconverted. There are some newspapers who hold my point of view completely, and I’m therefore just doing the party line within that paper, really. The idea of a cartoonist is like an opinion writer on a paper, you’re there for your opinion, even if it is opposite. The great thing about this country, I guess, is that one can do that. It’s very healthy. There are different points of view in the same newspaper. When ‘Drawing Blood’ was printed in China, they wouldn’t print the pictures of Chairman Mao. I had to go to Hong Kong, which is still China but it’s kind of capitalist China, to print. So there is censorship. They even censored – there are some very large willies in here, some erect penises, and they said they wouldn’t print them, I said ‘Why not?’, and they said ‘Oh…too big’, so I said, ‘That’s the way we are in Britain.’ So there is a lot of censorship around the world, and I do appreciate that we have a huge ability to print freely.”
Totalitarian control was one of the central themes of The Wall, which Scarfe worked on with Roger Waters. “Roger came here with his Wall tapes which he’d done with a synthesiser himself, and he said at that time, “We’re going to make a film, we’re going to make a record, we’re going to make a show out of it.” Which, to his credit, all three happened. The show part was fun. That was travelling around from LA, the rock’n’roll stuff with black limos and helicopters and all the stuff backstage that you can imagine. But then when it got to the film, it got more difficult, because the director Alan Parker was brought in, and Roger and I had worked for say three or four years before Parker even appeared on the scene, but being a director naturally he wanted complete control, and Roger and I were not about to relinquish control, so there was a lot of pulling and tugging and angst there. I found myself at the very end, when we were doing post-production at Pinewood Studios, driving there at nine o’clock in the morning with a bottle of Jack Daniels on the passenger seat, and I had to have a kind of slug to go in and meet what I knew was going to be an onslaught of misery. But it’s very good because it keeps me in touch with a younger audience. My sons and their friends know about the Floyd, so I know it has applied to your generation as well as my generation at the time. God knows what it was in it that somehow struck a chord, about something that was happening at the time, I don’t know what that chord was but we all hit it. I don’t know what that magic ingredient is.”
At the time, Scarfe expressed a fear that certain aspects of the film might strike too much of a chord with far-right groups, and indeed a now defunct American neo-Nazi group, calling themselves the Hammerskins, adopted his crossed hammer design as a logo. “I was worried, yes, because when you’re railing against something, it means that you have to depict it, and there might be those that enjoy that depiction. They might enjoy the violence in the drawing. What I’m really saying is I am against violence, and I think some people mis-state that and think I’m advocating violence, which is the last thing I’m advocating. When we filmed the sequence a lot of young guys came along and they had shaved their heads, and shaved the crossed hammers mark into their haircut and I thought ‘Shit, this is a bit worrying’ because the last thing I wanted to do was start some kind of pseudo-fascist movement. It was the complete opposite of what we were saying really. What we were saying was that these are bastards. These are horrid people, not how wonderful they are.”
Irreverence is a key theme of Scarfe’s work, something that he traces to his bedridden childhood. “I think I very much mistrust authority, and I think that comes from relying on doctors. I’ve had some dodgy treatment. There was an osteopath who used to rabbit punch me on the back of the neck because he thought my vertebrae were out of line. I think I mistrust people. I mistrust politicians, obviously, and I think we’re all fallible. I mean, I’m part of it. I’m often talking about myself in my drawings when I talk about fallibility. We’re all here not quite knowing why we’re here, what we’re doing or why we’re doing it. Really, its all very mysterious, the whole question.”
I ask Scarfe about the impact technology has had on his work. “I’m an artist and I think you can’t beat hand drawn. When I was working on Hercules with Disney they did a whole sequence with the Hydra, which was perfect to computerise because as you remember, with the Hydra when you cut off one head, two heads grow, and you cut those off and four heads grow. So it was perfect computer stuff, you just regenerate. I did one Hydra drawing and then they made a model from that and computerised it. I think it took about six or seven months to do this whole sequence, which was probably only about half a minute, and it just looked computerised when you’d done it. It’s like computer games, they are brilliant but they look computerised. My sons play football games, and there’s the atmosphere and so on, but they’re still slightly inhuman, as this sequence was. They then had to spend a whole stash of money to redo it graphically. To make it look graphic like my work, and I said to them at the end, “Wouldn’t it have been quicker to do it in the old Walt Disney way?” and they said, “Yeah, probably, and cheaper too.” The ultimate result of the film, I thought there was some of me in it. There were 900 of them, and one of me, so I didn’t do too badly, considering the odds. But it was a great experience, and I would say it’s the nearest I’ll ever get to being Tom Cruise.”
Technology has also aided his ability to work internationally. “I used to have to send my New Yorker drawings on Concorde. It used to arrive before it left, so I could work all night. If they rang me on a Wednesday I could work until five in the morning if I wanted to, then a courier would come and take it to Heathrow, and put it on Concorde, which left at nine and arrived in New York at eight, so it was there at the start of day. But now of course it goes electronically, it’s brilliant. But also I can alter things electronically. If I do a drawing of Bush and Blair, and Bush is ok but Blair I didn’t like, then I can do another Blair on a separate piece of paper and marry them on a computer. Certainly some of the drawings don’t exist, as an entity, now.”
Another aspect of Scarfe’s work is his theatrical designs. He has designed stages for productions of The Magic Flute and Fantastic Mr Fox, and is currently working with Jim Steinman on a theatrical version of Bat Out Of Hell. “That’s great. It’s collaboration and being an artist is a lonely life, but when you’re working in the theatre you’re working with a director and all sorts of other people. But it’s a collaboration so you do have to listen to what other people say, whereas I as an artist, whatever I want to put on paper, appears on paper.”
“I think the people who employ me know the kind of stuff I do, they don’t expect me to do normal theatre but people giving you their opinion, of course someone as experienced as Peter Hall, who’s spent his life in the theatre, can help. I upset a lot of people at the ballet, I did ‘The Nutcracker’ three or four years ago, and the ballet critics really didn’t like what I’d done to their darling Tchaikovsky. So I did a drawing of all the critics up one another’s arse, Critic’s Circle, I called it. But, as I say, most people when they employ me, I think assume that I’m going to do something a bit weird. That’s my job. I wouldn’t do an orthodox production.”
Finally, I ask about his remaining ambitions, but he replies contentedly that it is “Only to go on”. Fittingly for someone whose work has spanned artistic mediums and insinuated itself into popular culture, he says he has no more burning ambitions. “I’ve been very, very lucky, considering where I started, as a timorous, asthmatic, anxious child in the war; I’ve done what I wanted to do for years, and still feel incredibly privileged to be able to walk up here in the mornings and draw.”
Originally published in the LSE’s The Beaver, 27 February 2007.