Exclusive interview with the award-winning Northern cartoonist Graeme Bandeira
It is highly likely that the children of the future will learn about the rollercoaster ride that was 2020 for centuries to come. With flooding across the UK, fires raging in Australia and California, the scramble to secure a trade deal between the UK and EU before the Brexit transition period expired, the antics of Donald Trump and, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic that swept the planet, there is plenty to keep them busy.
And just as today’s students learn so much about the past from political cartoons that appeared in publications like Punch, our great great grandchildren will probably study the work of Graeme Bandeira to try and make sense of how we dealt with all that the world threw at us.
The Yorkshire Post’s resident cartoonist made a huge impression during 2020 with his pinpoint forensic analysis of the year’s events. From the raucous hilarity of Boris Johnson and friends trying to pull pints at the Track & Trace pub to the stripped down poignancy of the image of an elderly lady finding nothing to buy on the shelves following the panic buying at the start of lockdown, the Harrogate-based artist hit a nerve with the public in Yorkshire and beyond. The former even scooped him the coveted Gillray Goblet for the Political Cartoon of the Year, named after renowned Georgian caricaturist and satirist James Gillray.
Graeme talked to Northern Life about that honour, the craziness of 2020 and how fast he has to work to keep up with breaking news.
“It’s a nice accolade to get and you’re up there with elite artists. To trump them all was really rewarding and fulfilling. I was really pleased with that,” says Graeme of the cartoon that won the award. “We sat therefor about an hour and came up with a load of drinks to put on the pub drinks board.”
The results of this brainstorm included such tipples as Hancock’s Half, Northern Poorhouse and Shapp’s Schnapps.
“It was to highlight the reopening of the pubs after lockdown on July 4th,” he explains, “it was just a bit of fun. Everybody was so completely demoralised because lockdown had taken its toll, so it was just a feel good factor. You’ve got Dominic Cummings, Jacob Rees Mogg and Boris as the landlord. It didn’t take too much planning, apart from coming up with the names for the beers, which was really good fun.
”When you pore over the full list of entries for the category in which he won, you really gain an appreciation for the work of the political cartoonist. Not only do you have to have the technical artistic ability, but you also need to be politically aware and have a satirical eye too. “You do need a variety of skills. You almost need to be a stand-up comedian, a psychologist and a creative person at the same time” agrees Graeme, “it’s actually hard to switch off. I feel like I’m working 24-7, because you have to keep abreast of the news. It’s developing all the time and if you’re asleep and you miss something, someone else will be out there quicker than you with a cartoon.”
“I do have a cartoon conference at the Yorkshire Post where I have shoulders to lean on. I’ve got the opinion editor, the assistant editor and also the editor of the paper who submit ideas as well, but in the main it’s myself that comes up with the ideas. For the regular Saturday cartoon in the paper, we get together midweek to come up with a plan.”
Aside from the Saturday cartoons, Graeme supplies day-to-day works that go onto the Yorkshire Post website. After years of him sharing these far and wide on Twitter, the paper has decided to put them behind a premium content paywall, as it strives to find a way to fund it’s journalism in a time of declining advertising revenue. “Likes and retweets don’t bring in any money” he observes.
It is certainly testament to his talent and popularity that his creations are seen as a major pull for driving subscriptions, as well as being a reminder of how fast we all have to adapt in the modern, ever-changing world.
And that ever-changing world brings other challenges too. The news cycle seems to have gone into overdrive in recent years, and that can prove challenging for someone in Graeme’s position. “I could do something at 11 o’clock on a morning,” he laughs, “and it could be redundant by two in the afternoon because something else happens.”
“With someone like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, they’re ongoing caricatures, so what they do will never date. They’re great to draw, fantastic, and you’re never short of material with them.”
But what about the new characters that suddenly pop up? Does that throw a spanner in the works?
“It’s a refreshing change when somebody else does come along. Dominic Cummings was absolute gold for me” he says, referring to the former chief advisor to the Prime Minister who controversially took a trip from London to County Durham when there were symptoms of coronavirus in his family, as well as driving to Barnard Castle on his wife’s birthday so, he claimed, he could test his eyesight.
“With his jolly up north, that was gold for a cartoonist, so you’ve got to go to town on that. You can even attack it from a personal point of view. Some cartoons are editor-led, where he’ll request something and you’ll go and do it, but most of the time he gives me free rein to attack any particular subject I feel is right for the paper. My cartoons don’t necessarily reflect my political persuasion, nor that of the newspaper, so basically I can do what I want and draw what I want most of the time. Whatever I do will get a reaction from somebody. The worst cartoons are the ones that don’t get a reaction. The ones that do show you’ve touched a nerve somewhere. ”
Another new political character who has burst onto the scene in the last couple of years is Rishi Sunak. The fact that the Chancellor, who has found himself centre stage during the pandemic due to huge economic challenges that have come as a part of locking down the country, has a Yorkshire constituency (Richmond Yorks) makes him even more relevant for Graeme’s work.
“I studied Rishi Sunak as soon as he got on board. It’s fantastic for the Yorkshire Post to have the keys to the Treasury in effect, so we can challenge him and demand for services to come north to Yorkshire. He’s a fantastic character – really wiry, big ears, big nose – great to draw.”
But his work is not all about mocking politicians. The Be Kind series in the early days of the pandemic saw Graeme look at events from a humanitarian point of view, rather than with a satirical eye. The most famous of these featured an elderly lady, seen from behind in a supermarket, walking stick in one hand and empty basket in the other. She is staring at an aisle completely bereft of products in what became one of the most stark and memorable visual images of coronavirus UK.
As the virus began to spread across the country, shoppers started stockpiling for a potential lockdown, with bread, flour, toilet rolls and other essentials proving hard to obtain for many people. “That was based on a personal experience,” he recalls, “I was in Asda on the Saturday and the shelves were completely stripped. It was carnage. I just saw this lady at the end of the aisle and I had an image in my head straight away, I thought ‘I know what I’m going to do for this’. It resonated with me all weekend. It touched me. So I had to do something on it and I just thought, ‘be kind’.”
“If you notice, there is no colour on it. There was nothing bright about that situation whatsoever. It reminded me of 60s/70s Russia, very grey and drab and, obviously, with food rationing as well. It was very different and that’s something I really enjoy doing.”
The image was shared around the world on Twitter, and featured on TV and in national newspapers, earning countless plaudits for the Middlesbrough lad. Radio 2 host Jeremy Vine even said of it “to me this will always be the defining cartoon of Britain’s coronavirus lockdown.” Graeme is rightly proud of his work and this is one of his images that he has selected to adorn the wall in his own home.
A year on from him completing that striking piece of work, the world is a very different place. And it certainly doesn’t look like Graeme Bandeira will get the chance to rest just yet. He will still be there, casting his eye over proceedings and documenting this crazy time, both for those of us who are living through it now, and for the eyes of those looking back from the future and trying to understand exactly what happened in the early part of the 21st century.
You can follow Graeme Bandeira on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GraemeBandeira where you can find links to buy his prints and find updates about his work.