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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 March 2007, 17:44 GMT
An interview with Alan Coren
The late Alan Coren
The pen isn't actually mightier than the sword - the sword will destroy all pens in time - we don't lie in our beds trembling in case Iran gets hold of a bottle of ink
Alan Coren

Alan Coren - that affable raconteur - was born in London in 1938 and has been a part of that institution of laughter and satire for many years.

After an education that spanned Wadham College, Oxford, Yale and the University of California, he became a firm part of the BBC's News Quiz and Call my Bluff.

But recalling his time as editor of Punch (from 1978 - 1987), he spoke to the Politics Show...

"The first thing to say is that political cartoons aren't important and are important. David Low says, wonderfully, 'I never drew a line that made a difference'.

"We had a great tradition of political cartoons at Punch, established 1841, it came after a long tradition of English scurrilous pamphleteering and if you look at Hogarth and Rawlinson and Cruikshank - all those guys - you see how fierce, how critical it was.

No difference

"It made no difference to kings, it made no difference to governments, no difference to corruption, it never stopped anything.

"The political cartoon never stopped, never changed anything - it doesn't now," he insists.

"Are political cartoons important? Immensely, because they're political cartoons - because they're funny, because they're the greatest demotic art form - much more than journalism.

"Great artistry goes into them. If you look at Steve Bell, Peter Brookes, all the guys who worked for me - Trog, Wallie Fawkes, Gerry Scarfe, Ralf Steadman it's wonderful art.

"It makes ideas very accessible, it encapsulates them. They're the picture that tells the thousand words of crap journalism that's framed around it.

"The artists all saw the grey matter - the text, as a display for the cartoon... they would want to come in, lean over my shoulder and want their cartoon on a page where there was a really dull writer!

"Of course, the writers like me, knew it was the cartoons that sold the magazines.

The Political Cut

Plumb Pudding in danger
Early cartoons were none the less "cutting"

Punch has a long history and in the first days of publication, the printing process was hugely different to the way in which they are produced today. Not that Alan was around in those days, but he recalls how it was done.

"Punch really originated well, what they called the Political Cut - showing the way in which the cartoon was manufactured in the early 19th Century.

"It was a very political magazine, much more radical - which is a word we hardly use now - it doesn't mean anything - basically anti-government, anti-establishment, bigoted in certain ways.

"The stereotypes are amazing - you look at them now and your scrotum wrinkles at the thought that this could actually be published.

"The Irishman with a pipe upside down and a bent hat and a Jew with a huge hooked nose carrying an orphan under either arm.

"When you look at the years of Punch - when you look at real satire - when you look at Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, the great first world war poets, Wilfred Owen - there's none of that in Punch - except for one.

"'In Flanders' fields, the poppies blow, behind the headstones row on row...', which was published in Punch the first time - and it's because of that, we have Poppy Day.

Vietnam vets

"Gerry Scarfe and Ralf Steadman who were the two 'Truman and Statham' or the 'Spitfire and Hurricane' of the Vietnam war in the early days - wonderful graphic cartoons.

"They didn't make any difference. One of the sadnesses and one of the things that worried people like Gerry Scarfe and Steadman - and a lot of cartoonists - Steve Bell, though not Brookes, was that the times aren't terrible enough for them.

Trog's famous Heath © Solo Syndication
One of the famous Punch covers - Trog's Heath

"Spitting Image changed nothing. The only guy that said that Spitting Image changed anything was the guy in David Owen's pocket - David Steel - the little Steel in David Owen's pocket. It irritated him, but of course he is now a distinguished Peer, a nice man.

"One of the things that enables politicians to ignore cartoons, except hanging them on their walls in their bogs in their vanity, is that politicians know they don't count either.

"Roy Hattersley used to get very irritated with Spitting Image and Roy, whom I know and like very much as a friend, doesn't spit when he eats - but that's the image they set.

The mightier one..?

"It's the little things that irritate them 'my nose isn't as big as that', 'my wife's better looking than that', 'I don't have two Jags'. Cartoonists, to some extent, have to work with clichés. John Prescott punches somebody and becomes 'two jabs' because 'two Jags', he's already been saddled with.

"It's like coming up against Billy the Kid and all you had in your holster was a cartoon - you'd draw his caricature, but he'd still shoot you if he wanted to.

"The pen isn't actually mightier than the sword - the sword will destroy all pens in time - we don't lie in our beds trembling in case Iran gets hold of a bottle of ink."

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An interview with Gerald Scarfe...
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