|Private Eye receives about 500 cartoon submissions every week, |
from which only 50 or so are chosen.
Photograph: Reuters/Guardian Design Team
‘Looking blankly at absurdity’: inside the world of Private Eye’s cartoonists
Every fortnight the satirical magazine chooses a selection of the best topical cartoons, but as the artists tell us, the competition can be brutal…
Sunday 5 November 2017 08.00 GMT
very other Monday no more than a dozen people spread across Britain sit at desks in their homes and try to come up with that week’s funniest joke. One of them is Robert Thompson, a cartoonist based in a village not far from Frome in Somerset. “It’s like being on Bake Off every week,” he says of his chosen role in life. “You are all trying to make the best sponge cake out of the same ingredients. You can get real gag envy. The others are always more brilliant. But that does mean when you get one chosen, it feels very rewarding.”
Fellow cartoonist Richard Jolley (“RGJ”), who works in his loft in north London, agrees. Like Thompson he has been chasing the rewarding feeling that results from getting a topical cartoon into Private Eye just about every fortnight for the past 25 years. None of the magazine’s regular spot cartoonists are on contracts or retainers, so the stakes are quite high. “It’s strange,” Jolley says. “As the week goes on you start to hear phrases, and you know for a fact the others are hearing them too. A couple of weeks ago the phrase ‘sex robot’ cropped up a couple of times in the news or on the telly and you immediately think: there has to be a joke in that.” Jolley came up with a robot with an on-off button and a line about an on-off relationship. Not bad. But he knew as he was sending it that a rival would have something better. Sure enough “Adam Singleton had a bloke holding the pipe of a Henry vacuum cleaner,” he recalls. “And another bloke saying: ‘You’ve been ripped off mate, that’s not a sex robot.’ Perfect. That was the joke I wanted, but my brain never quite got there.”
That’s what the job is about. “Cartoons are mostly people looking blankly at absurdity,” Jolley says. “It rarely hurts to have a dog looking at it, too.”
|Richard Jolley has been submitting gags to the Eye for the last quarter of a century. Illustration: Richard Jolley|
Every other Monday Jolley and Thompson and a few others send their best thoughts into the offices at Private Eye, where they are sifted and judged. There can be few places in our island nation more to gladden the heart than the little Georgian terrace in a side street in Soho in which these decisions are made. When I visited a week last Thursday, all the pages for the next issue were laid out on a desk in the downstairs art room. Each page had its own cardboard backboard and a little clear plastic wallet of possible copy and jokes ready to be pasted on to it. There were cutting boards and scalpels and pots of glue, tools that haven’t been seen in most newsrooms for 20 years. What could possibly be more fun?
The art room is the preserve of Bridget Tisdall, who has been doing Private Eye layouts for 30 years. She shows me the little wire trays in which the cartoons are filed. Probables and possibles, Trump jokes and Russia jokes and Brexit jokes paperclipped together. She talks me briefly through the cardboard pages of mostly white space that is the coming issue. However hard they try to plan, about three quarters of the layout gets done on the Monday they go to press.
Nick Newman is sitting upstairs in the editor’s office, in the absence of Ian Hislop, who is at a funeral. As ever, Newman is wondering what to smile at that week, and fretting a bit about all that white space. He has worked with Hislop ever since schooldays and early forays in writing satire for Spitting Image. A celebrated cartoonist himself, Newman tends to oversee the visuals in the paper. They run maybe 50 cartoons in an issue, from around 500 submissions. Most, these days, come by email but there are still a few that arrive by hand, or, quaintly, by fax.
“Luckily most of those that come in on spec are absolutely terrible and can be easily dismissed, lunatic ravings,” Newman says. “But there are always some gems.”
They always know pretty much what the cover should be, but a really good one can add 50,000 readers. Newman’s proudest recent cover was a very simple joke: a pre-election Trump pointing his fingers to his head like a gun, with the line: “Vote Trump, it’s a no brainer”. “The great thing was that Trump tweeted it, saying ‘British media gets behind me,’” Newman says.
Timing is everything with comedy, especially with cartoons. The day after Diana died it was press day. Newman did what he felt was a “pretty respectful” cartoon of the pearly gates, paparazzi up on ladders taking pictures over the top. “Even so, we had a lot of cancelled subscriptions over that,” he says. The heightened sensitivities that used to be expressed by monarchists now seem to come from humourless “Ukippers or Corbynistas”. They try not to be chastened. “The great standalone gag is like the last scene of a sitcom, it makes you aware of a much wider story,” Newman says.
You can see all these judgments of editorial timing and propriety being brought to bear in the current issue, which went to press last Monday. The big story of the week had become the spreadsheet of sleaze disclosing MPs’ sexual harassment. Robert Thompson came up with the best gag, which made it on to the prime slot on the Eye’s Street of Shame page: a Tory MP and his assistant are looking in a sex-shop window displaying several large dildos. The dildos are labelled “Black Rod”, “Big Ben”, and “the Honourable Member”. Richard Jolley’s effort, two pages later, was a worthy runner-up: a couple looking up at the Houses of Parliament and the wonky hour and minute functions of the Elizabeth Tower’s clockface, groping for the time: “Oh look,” says one, “wandering hands.”
Hislop and Newman obviously decided they couldn’t put three dildos on the cover but they used the essence of both Thompson’s and Jolley’s gags on the front page. “House of Commons to relocate during building works,” runs the cover line, above a photo of a Soho sex shop.
What looks like the highly commended entry in this week’s unofficial national joke competition went to Kathryn Lamb, whose first cartoon appeared in Private Eye when she was a student at Oxford in 1979, and who has been submitting jokes ever since. In that time she has raised six children in Devon. When I speak to her, she is out walking her dog. Most of her gags, she says, start with a little play on words; sheep often feature “because of her surname”. Though she has been doing this for a very long time for a variety of publications she sounds chuffed to have done an Eye cartoon this week that “almost made the cover”. (Her joke was a speech bubble rising over the Houses of Parliament: “What’s this about misconduct?” a voice asks. “I have never met Miss Conduct! Her allegations are entirely false!” several voices from the back benches reply).
Lamb is one of the Private Eye regulars Nick Newman mentions when I ask why cartooning seems a male preserve. The other is the often inspired Grizelda, whose work also appears widely. Last week Grizelda got into a Twitter spat with Tim Benson, editor of Britain’s Best Political Cartoons, over the fact his book did not contain a single one by a woman last year. “There are lots of female cartoonists who publish online or draw for the Morning Star,” Benson had claimed, “but they are unpaid.”
|The desert island is one of the recurring devices in cartoons, as this one by Robert Thompson shows. Illustration: Robert Thompson|
“I looked at that and just thought fuck off!” Grizelda says, in moderated tones in her shared studio, when I speak to her the following morning. “This bloke had decided that the only political cartoon that counts is a large one on the political page of a newspaper done by a man. He completely dismissed all of us who make a living doing pocket cartoons.” She has no idea why no woman has ever been asked to be a newspaper’s editorial cartoonist – “you’d have to ask the editors” – but it’s not for want of applicants.
Lamb and Grizelda both came to their obsession in a similar way. They used to copy out the cartoons in Private Eye as girls – Lamb was the daughter of a diplomat and Private Eye was a little slice of home in far-flung embassies; Grizelda’s older sister used to get the magazine and her mother encouraged her to draw from it. They went from there.
No one in their right mind, Robert Thompson suggests, sits down and thinks: “I’m going to make a living as a cartoonist!” Most find it having discarded all other options.
Richard Jolley read politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. “Everyone else I was on the course with has gone on to bugger up the country,” he says. He had no artistic training. He got a job in the Bodleian library and started sending off cartoons he did in his spare time.
Ken Pyne, who is based in north London, has been sending cartoons in to Private Eye since he was 20, 46 years ago. After about five years of doing it, he realised that he was pretty much unemployable as anything else. “People think political cartoons are about a clever drawing of Jeremy Corbyn as Napoleon or whatever. I prefer gags that are funny, but humour is not in vogue really is it? Newspapers are frightened of upsetting anyone.”
In all the years he has been submitting cartoons Pyne has never understood what an editor likes. “Generally you send a few in, and include one that you don’t think is that funny to make the others look funnier,” he says. “Invariably it is the one you thought was a dud that they use.”
|Ken Pyne’s view of the cartoonist’s lot. Illustration: Ken Pyne|
Drawing jokes in little squares can be quite an isolating profession. When Arena made a documentary about Private Eye cartoonists years ago they focused on Kevin Woodcock, who drew, surreally, for the Eye for 30 years from the 1970s. “No one here ever met him,” Newman recalls. “The Arenapiece featured only the back of him disappearing into his basement flat.” Woodcock killed himself in 2007.
The cartoonists I speak to stress that it is a solitary rather than a lonely life. Still, it is for that reason, Pyne suggests, that the staple of cartoonists is the individual on the desert island or the psychiatrist’s couch. “Those jokes are often self-portraits.”
Social media is mostly another opportunity for a gag, rather than a personal interest. “Private Eye is now competing with the internet and mashups and YouTube,” Newman tells me, by way of explaining the relative “maturity” of his cartoonists. “One young guy who does things for us did one of these mashups and it went viral and got 45 million hits.”
I’m not quite sure what a mashup is and I’m not quite convinced that Newman is either.
Robert Thompson is equally low tech. “I don’t even have a mobile phone, I have never looked at Facebook or Twitter. I have no interest in any of that at all,” he says cheerfully. “A gag written with a wax crayon is as funny as one on a screen. Maybe funnier. Where a lot of publications go wrong, I think, is that they forget what people loved about newspapers and magazines,” by which he means the quickness, the humour, the human and tactile nature of it all, rather that the platforms and the gadgetry and the hits.
“One of my cartoons went viral once,” Jolley says. “It was two art galleries: the national portrait gallery, upright, and the national landscape gallery, on its side. It went round the world, millions of views. I didn’t make a penny from it of course. People say: ‘Why don’t you tweet your cartoons?’ Well, I will do that the day Twitter starts paying me. Until then if I come up with a good idea, I tend to want to be paid for it.”
The cartoonists have different methods of conjuring those ideas. Mostly they agree that the best time for cartooning is the morning. After that the cares and complications of the day muddy the clarity of thought required. Long walks are good. And baths. The problem with the job, Pyne says, is that after a while you are never off it. “If you go to a funeral you find yourself constantly looking at situations for cartoons.”
|Grizelda imagines a perfect working week. Illustration: Grizelda|
Deadlines concentrate minds. “You can spend all day filling pages pulling you hair out and then in the last five minutes before deadline you have –ding ding ding ding ding – five ideas,” Grizelda says.
Mostly though, “you have to be the kind of person,” Jolley argues, “who, faced with something on the news, their first thought is: ‘That sounds like bollocks.’ Whatever is going on in politics you are looking for a way to cast that as happening to some poor sod in an overcoat, with a blank expression.”
Some of that expression seems fuelled by the sadness of rejection. Private Eye’s cartoonists steel themselves in different ways to have their jokes turned down, but it still hurts. “Hit rate? I think I send in a dozen each time. And hopefully one will get taken,” Kathryn Lamb says. “That never gets much easier.” Thompson agrees. “It’s still painful, but my recovery time has got quicker.”
And what about when it works out?
Well, they all say, in a cartoonist’s life that is the best feeling around. And if it’s not this Monday, then another Monday, with its fresh seam of national absurdity to mine, will arrive soon enough.