Cartoonist Gerald Scarfe interviewed by Wrekin College students

PUBLISHED: 16:59 23 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:46 20 February 2013

A self portrait

A self portrait

Kate Blackie and Alex Perry, both aged 15 and pupils at Wrekin College interview the satirical cartoonist in the last in our current series of School Report

Our London trip to interview Gerald Scarfe was brilliant. Arriving early, we sat in the beautiful park opposite Mr Scarfes lovely house, and for the last time practised our questions. At this point we were extremely nervous, and our teacher could barely control her excitement.
Finally we stepped foot inside his house, and what a house it was, you could definitely tell an artist lived here, the place was strewn with caricatures, paintings and every sort of ornament imaginable but underneath all this was an extremely elegant home, with beautiful ceilings, and stunning architecture; it was simply breathtaking. Gerald welcomed us cheerfully, and after the initial greetings we headed for his dining room where, over tea in bone china cups, we began the interview by asking about his earliest memories.

I was born in 1936 into a very disturbed childhood. Not only was I asthmatic, but I was moved from place to place all the time. During the war my father was in the RAF and my mother and I would follow him round the country to wherever he was posted. Because of the asthma I would often be taken out of school and hospitalised for a week or so. Then when I went back to school I would find that they had started something like algebra, XY=2 squared or whatever, and I hadnt a clue what was going on. So I had a very confusing, miserable childhood. I was quite insecure with all this continual moving around, and my parents thought I was going to die at any moment because of the asthma.

After the war we came back to Hampstead in London but I was still rather sickly and because Id missed so much of the initial foundations in my early schooling I didnt have anything to build on. I didnt know what the teachers were talking about in most lessons, when they talked about the subjunctive or whatever.

We asked whether the drawback of asthma in his early life made him ambitious.
Definitely! I used to feel as if I had lost the first 16 years of my life to illness so I had to catch up on things. I still have that feeling today. I try to make use of every moment and use every ounce of energy I have. Its probably because I have the feeling that it all might stop at any moment. I remember speaking to Sir Peter Hall, the theatre director, and he has the same fear that someday it will all be taken away from him. If you do a job you love then you do have this fear that someone will take it away from you. I always have that fear.
As keen illustrators ourselves we wanted to know how Gerald had started in his career.
I always drew. Being bedridden through my childhood I found that there are only certain things you can do in bed. You can draw, read, and I used to make plasticine models and puppets for my toy theatre. Drawing was the easiest. Spending so much time on my own I was able to put my thoughts on paper. Children who have bad experiences in war-torn countries are encouraged to draw these experiences on paper because it is therapeutic. It helps to get it out of them. And thats what I do... put all my thoughts and experiences on paper. It wasnt that I had a plan to be a satirical cartoonist. I just always drew.

So after school I went into a commercial art studio. I didnt enjoy that very much so I started sending cartoons to a popular magazine of the time called Punch. My first published cartoon was in the childrens comic Eagle. Then Punch started accepting my cartoons, which was a wonderful feeling to be published. From there it went on and on.

From our research on Gerald before the interview we found out that his work is popular round the world. We asked him about this global fame.

I was very flattered when other countries became interested in my work. I had always wanted to go to America because when I was growing up in the Fifties, England was incredibly dull and dreary. On Sundays, in those days, everything was shut except church, which was the only place to go. So I looked towards America, which seemed really exciting to me. It was where all the movies, and cars like Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs were made. And then there was Elvis Presley. The Times newspaper sent me there in about 1964 to travel around the country with President Johnson. I would send back drawings for the paper. I loved America and worked there as much as I could. I did a lot of covers for Time magazine of the Beatles and the biggest names of the day. Everything was exciting.

After that I travelled a lot all round the world, which was fabulous for me after my very restricted childhood. I was free. Miraculously, the asthma continued to get better so maybe the constrictions of my childhood had something to do with the asthma itself. It is a very emotional disease, quite mysterious in some ways. And, of course, the drugs got more sophisticated. I still take a drug every day to stop my lungs getting agitated and irritated. In general now, unless I have a cold or something, Im okay.

We found Geralds amazing work inspirational and wondered about his own inspirations.
As far as cartooning goes my hero was Ronald Searle. He was very influential when I was growing up. He was the creator of St Trinians. Wanting to be a cartoonist, I found out where he lived in Bayswater and would compose all these questions in my head as I cycled over to his house. I can see it now. There was a big brass doorbell. But my courage failed me before I could push it and Id get back on my bike and cycle home to Hampstead. I did this time and time again. Anyway, years later, my wife (the actress and cake-maker Jane Asher) engineered a meeting between Ronald Searle and me. He now lives in Provence as a bit of a recluse in a sweet little village. Jane organised this surprise lunch. I walked in and there was Ronald Searle and his wife, which was a big treat for me. Hes now about 88 and still drawing. The great thing about being an artist is that you dont have to retire. Something about doing what you like keeps you going strong.

I became known primarily for creating grotesque cartoons but Ive since branched off in all sorts of directions. What you are comes out in your drawings. My style was certainly influenced by Walt Disney and Ronald Searle early on but it is ultimately my style. Early in my career I was doing very cruel drawings for a magazine called Private Eye, which is where I came to prominence. My drawings were very outspoken. They said things about politicians and people in power that hadnt been said in that way before. I was the first person to draw a politician (Harold Macmillan) naked since the cartoonists of the 18th century. One does these things without thinking. I just draw what I feel.

We were keen to find out about the work Gerald has done as a theatrical designer.
I like opera but Im not an opera buff so when Im commissioned to design the set and costumes for an opera the very first thing I do is to listen very carefully to it to see what ideas come into my mind. Overall Im an illustrator of ideas. In the case of an opera, ballet, animation or film it is my job to interpret the script visually to entertain people. The next step would be for me to create a series of sketches for myself and when I feel confidant enough I will then create a storyboard of the action. At that point I will bring in the director to get his input on any necessary changes. Then I would do further costume drawings, which are sent to the costume department who are brilliant at interpreting my designs. I cant sew but I can go up to a costume and say the shoulders need to be higher or whatever. Its the same with the backcloths. I make a drawing say two feet by three feet and it is then squared up to be copied onto the backcloth. Thats how I go about my theatre work. It has to start with my ideas but it is a collaborative effort, which is nice. With my cartoon work it is just down to me, and the editor.

Geralds cartoons have commented on conflicts from Vietnam in the Sixties to the present day situation in Iraq. We asked whether growing up during the Second World War had any effect on him.

I lived through the Second World War but my only memories of it are of seeing a German parachutist come down in some allotments and of being scared to go down in our cellar during the air raids. A friend had told me that there was a wolf down in the cellar. I wasnt worried about Hitler bombing London flat; I was worried about this wolf. My real experience of war came when I was sent to cover the conflict in Vietnam. Vietnam did have a big effect on me. I saw horrible things, which stay in my mind even now. I was shocked to see how young the American soldiers were. They all seemed to be about 19 or 20. They had been taken from their studies, flown half way around the world and told to kill the people. And these people themselves whose country had been taken over were the most gentle, kindly folk who just wanted to be able to get on with their lives.

The war was run by politicians and bull-neck sergeants who would bellow orders at these young boys. It was just chaos and a tremendous waste of these boys getting killed for nothing. It was supposedly a war against communism, which has now long disappeared. I didnt go to the Iraq war but I can imagine what must be going on there and I feel so sorry for everybody on all levels. So these feelings tend to produce strong drawings. Usually I attack the people at the top like George Bush who took us into that war, and Tony Blair who was idiotic enough to follow him. People like caricatures because they poke fun. They like to see their so-called leaders brought down and losing their dignity. I am not keen on politicians, I suppose they are a necessary evil but I think its very arrogant for them to say that they know how the world should be. They set themselves up and its my job as a satirical cartoonist to point out their mistakes.

After another cup of tea we finished off by asking Gerald what he enjoyed drawing the most. I enjoy drawing the villains of life best. For Disneys Hercules movie I enjoyed drawing Hades much more than boring old Hercules. And its the same in politics with George Bush and Blair. The true villains, of course are the Hitlers, Stalins and Mugabes. My latest book is called Monsters and its all about politicians whether they be monstrously lazy, monstrously inept or whatever. President Nixon, Bush and Blair Ive enjoyed drawing but I find Gordon Brown boring and dull to draw. Mrs Thatcher was good for me because I could turn her into any number of weird things.

My parents did live to see my success. At my first exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery my editor came and asked my mother what it was like to have a genius in the family, which was very flattering. She replied saying that it was very good but she wished I would draw something nice. They hated those rude, grotesque drawings. My output is enormous as I produce two or three drawings most days. Not all of it is good and not all of it is bad, but it is a continual flow. In art I still feel I have a long way to go. I still feel as I did as a child. Theres more to come.

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