Gerald Scarfe: The king of cruel

He draws spectacularly vicious cartoons, but is married to the wholesome Jane Asher. His projects range from biting political caricature to ballet and Walt Disney. Ryan Gilbey went to meet the brilliantly contradictory Gerald Scarfe on the eve of his major new exhibition
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Gerald Scarfe would like to make it known that he recently designed a production of The Nutcracker for the English National Ballet. He first mentions this less than a minute after we have met, in response to my description of his illustrations as "nasty and grimy". The second time he brings up The Nutcracker, it is to steer us away from discussing those bodily functions - urinating, defecating, vomiting - toward which his nib is irresistibly drawn. His third reference to The Nutcracker arrives as he tells me that his wife of 22 years, the actress Jane Asher, sees all his work, however vile it might be. "She knows I do that sort of thing," he says. "But she also knows that I do..." Can you guess what he's going to say next? Here's a clue. It's a ballet, and it's not Swan Lake.

It should be noted, though, that there are Nutcrackers and there are Nutcrackers, and it isn't every day that you come across one featuring mice with gas masks and Kalashnikovs. Scarfe might invoke his design work on that production to illustrate a cheerier side, but paradoxically he is just as proud that it caused a ballyhoo among ballet critics. "They hated it that I screwed with their classic," he beams. You're not certain whether he wants to be regarded as naughty or nice. Neither, possibly, is he. The polarity runs deep. He's the subversive on Walt Disney's payroll, the spiffy fellow who snacks on his wife's yummy cakes in between drawing carbuncular politicians doing the breaststroke in an ocean of vomit. Or something.

Today he has decided to be nice. Ruddy cheeks, big smile, a pair of thick, sloping eyebrows that he has exaggerated in those self-portraits where his eyes are represented by Catherine wheels. The top buttons of his shirt are undone, and his hair looks windswept, as though he has recently been touring the Riviera in a convertible. In fact, he has been bumper-to-bumper in Trafalgar Square. "Ken's London," he hisses.

Livingstone is one of more than 50 famous Britons who are on the sharp end of Scarfe's pen in Heroes and Villains, a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, with an accompanying glossy book that you can leave out on the coffee table to spook the vicar. Perhaps a vicar these days would be unlikely to drop his Jammie Dodger at the sight of Ken Livingstone with a loudhailer stuck up his anus, or Tracey Emin on the toilet. "Ah, Tracey!" coos Scarfe. "Wonderful girl. She didn't like being shown like that, though. She said she'd rather I'd drawn her throwing up into the toilet than sitting on it."

Scarfe, a father-of-three who at 67 has been drawing professionally for more than four decades, denies that he is mellowing. "That nicer side has always been there," he protests faintly. But it isn't so much that he designed an entire Disney movie (Hercules), or a children's opera (Fantastic Mr Fox). It is more that his adult assignments appear tamer now that his brutal style has been assimilated into, even overtaken by, the mainstream media. His portrait of Tony Blair dressed as Ronald McDonald can't equal the bitterness of a recent Sun front page that recast the Prime Minister as an undertaker. And Scarfe's inky jabs at celebrity culture look borderline arthritic next to an animated series such asMonkey Dust; he has the effect of an after-dinner mint on those palates that have survived, say, a subscription to Viz.

He agrees that the world has caught up with him. "When I began, cartoons were dull. I was the first person to draw these nasty things." He had come to Punch, and later to the pioneering Private Eye, in the 1960s after years as a commercial artist, "drawing tatty old blankets and making them look soft and fleecy". At Private Eye, he was urged by Peter Cook and Willie Rushton to deliver ever more scalding portraits. "I think they knew my talent before I did," he reflects.

The classic Scarfe style, nurtured at the Eye, suggests an explosion scarcely contained by the edges of the paper - a bouillabaisse of sphincters and sockets, plump lips and unspooled tongues, creeping gooseflesh and bodily grunge. The page might be splattered with ink blots like melanomas. Eyes are hooded, noses elongated into bugles that tug at the faces of their owners; the physiognomy of the typical Scarfe character suggests half-man, half- anteater. With rabies.

The tone is broadly anti-politician, anti-corruption. One of Scarfe's most notorious works depicts Harold Wilson licking Lyndon B Johnson's arse. It is, for the artist, still pertinent. "You could put Blair in Wilson's place, and Bush instead of LBJ, and it would make sense."

But the drawings, with their emphasis on bodily secretions and contortions, can also seem anti-human. Does his own body repulse him? "Not repulse, no. I'll sometimes catch sight of myself and think, 'Oh, you've put on weight.'" Is he shocked by bodily functions? His eyes search the room. I wonder if he's thinking of someone squeezing a zit, or breaking wind. "No," he decides. "But I always liked how Francis Bacon painted our bodies. He showed that we're just butcher-shop meat, but by some miracle we function."

Scarfe can only recall one occasion when he felt he had gone too far in a drawing: he depicted Dudley Moore as a glove puppet being manipulated by Peter Cook. "That was unfair," he says sadly, "because Dudley was a talent in his own right. I misinterpreted that one."

It is more the dread of being misinterpreted, rather than misinterpreting others, that haunts him. His wife will tell him if the message isn't coming through: "She's good at spotting if something's not clear." But he continues to be troubled by his own inarticulacy. "I irritate myself incredibly. I can't get things right sometimes. Can't express myself." He will rise before 6am at the Cheyne Walk home that he shares with Asher, and head upstairs to his studio at the top of the house. He can polish off three or four drawings before lunch on a good day. Then there are the bad days.

"Your hands are like lumps of iron. They won't follow what the mind's telling them. Or I'll keep doing the same drawing over and over, throwing each one behind me on the floor, making the same mistakes each time." Is there anything you can do in that situation? "Swear."

When Gerald Scarfe was young, he spent a lot of time trying, with difficulty, to communicate. He started having asthma attacks at the age of one, and spent the next 14 years in and out of hospital. "I was put in with the adults. People were dying right in front of me. Men at the window gasping for air. The next minute, they'd be dead." Has it made him less afraid of death? "It made me aware of death. I don't know if I'm afraid. Puzzled, certainly."

One incident in particular helps explain that abiding fear of being misunderstood. He had suffered a nasty asthma attack at home. "My nails turned blue. The doctor gave me a shot of adrenalin, then sent me to hospital with a note to the ambulance driver that said, 'On no account give this child any more adrenalin...'"

I think we know where this story is headed. We might even imagine it rendered in the spiky strokes of a Gerald Scarfe cartoon. The feeble child cowering behind the bars of the hospital bed as the bug-eyed doctor looms over him, brandishing a syringe as long as a lance. "I said to them: 'Didn't you get the note?' They said, 'What note?'" He shakes his head. "That's a big fear in me now. Cock-ups. We are so close all the time to something going wrong. People go out to work in the morning, and they don't come back at night."

You could forgive Scarfe for sounding doomy, even frail, given his childhood. Whereas most children are sheltered from all knowledge of death, he was surrounded by adults who were either certain that he was about to perish, or themselves close to the end. Confined to bed, frequently isolated from his parents and friends, he took to drawing. Later, he made miniature puppet theatres, complete with figures and painted backdrops. His parents didn't so much encourage the hobby as tolerate it. "I was left to my own devices." During the war, with his father serving in the RAF, the family were always on the move. "We never settled. It was a nomadic existence."

He used pencils and paper to "explain things" or to explore his fears. He was especially troubled by the suspicion that there was a wolf in the cellar; he dreaded the air-raid sirens because it meant taking refuge in what he had convinced himself was the animal's lair. I ask if he sketched the wolf. "Nooo!" he shudders, as though the very idea might bring its snapping, carnivorous jaws to life. "But I did do Peter and the Wolf as an ice show in Paris. Horrible creature it was, too. Seven feet tall."

He isn't keen to draw parallels between his childhood and his preoccupations as an artist, but they are there if you want them. When he reminisces about being taken by his father to see Disney's Pinocchio, it is hard not to recognise its influence on him. The donkey boys featured in the tale, for instance, would fit neatly into his own portfolio. "They were terrifying. When Lampwick was laughing and suddenly he broke into that awful hee-hawing..." He acts out the scene, and gets a coughing fit for his trouble. Pinocchio is present, too, in Scarfe's fondness for a good proboscis. "I drew Clinton as 'Clintocchio' during the Monica Lewinsky scandal." Rest assured it wasn't the president's nose that expanded with every lie.

He still favours political cartoons, and has contributed to The Sunday Times for 35 years, but the weekly necessity to get angry about something - anything - can take its toll. "Sometimes you've got to make a point about some minor political thing, drum up some thoughts." It is difficult upon hearing this not to be reminded of an attack launched on Scarfe by the cartoonist Martin Rowson in 1989. Rowson wrote: "Scarfe has been known to turn up at the Sunday Times offices with a captionless caricature of Roy Hattersley, which hours of editorial input have finally cobbled into something relevant to the week's events."

But it is possible both to take Rowson's point that "as the fears subside, so the muse becomes elusive" and also to sympathise with Scarfe's need to advance with the world, and to communicate those advancements in spattered ink. Still, he seems compromised by the pressure to perform. "You don't always get the result you want," he complains, "but it still has to go in the paper. You want to start again, but you can't. It means that I'm not happy with a lot of the stuff I produce."

A lot? "Well, some." He gives the impression of having clarified matters, though there is no decrease in vagueness. "A certain amount. Perhaps 'a lot' is an exaggeration." Does he need to get worked up before drawing? "Ideally." I ask if there's anything that has riled him recently. "I got very angry about all this 45-minutes-and-the-sky-will-fall-in stuff. Dragging us into war like that." Recently he has found some distraction from the deadlines by taking the Gerald Scarfe roadshow on tour - it's a talk illustrated with slides of his drawings, as well as excerpts from Pink Floyd: The Wall, for which he provided the disturbing animation sequences.

The audiences are politely enthusiastic, he says. "Lots of blue rinses. I feel embarrassed standing out there next to these drawings. There's a sense of shame. It's like taking off my trousers in public. But then you must remember, I also did The Nutcracker." He holds up his hands. "I plead The Nutcracker, m'Lud."

Heroes and Villains opens at the National Portrait Gallery on 30 September. The accompanying book is published on 29 September, price £20