“I always want to bring my creations to life; to bring them off the page and give them flesh and blood, movement and drama.” So proclaimed Gerald Scarfe, the scabrous and ascerbic political cartoonist, whose work in the theatre, film, television and opera is on display at this gem of a gallery not far from the glass and steel canyons of the re-developed King’s Cross. Amongst the exhibits are his work as a production designer on Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Disney’s Hercules and English National Ballet’s The Nutcracker, with storyboards, costumes and props.
His drawings for Alan Parker’s heavyhanded production of The Wall are hardly subtle, as befits the subject matter and the music, but they all have an invention that is certainly on the outside of the envelope. He started to collaborate with Pink Floyd in 1974 on the album Wish You Were Here, as Roger Waters recalled, ‘I remember it was Nick Mason who saw Gerry’s animated film Long Drawn-Out Trip on the BBC and he rang me to say “Check this out; I think we should do something with this guy”. So I did check it out, it was beautiful, exquisitely insane, so I rang Nick and said “He’s obviously fucking mad, let’s get him on board”’. Scarfe already had a reputation by then of being the vicious and vitriolic satirist in Private Eye, who nurtured him from 1961 on, and then the political cartoonist for The Sunday Times, for whom he worked for 50 years and only retired from there in June.
At eighty-one, he still has the skills as a draftsman and the wild designs of an outsider and it is hard to imagine the effect he had on the Disney studios when he turned up and spent a great deal of time and energy fighting ‘cute’. Hercules was anything but cute, and it was a major departure for the Mouse-house to employ someone from another world. The results were startling, and scared the living bejesus out of a generation of kids. At LA Opera, his design work can been seen in Sir Peter Hall’s The Magic Flute, as well as English National Opera’s Orpheus in the Underworld, designs for English National Ballet’s The Nutcracker and Fantastic Mr. Fox, made in 1998. The hundred or so exhibits include preliminary sketches, set designs, photographs and costumes and masks from the productions.
Meeting Scarfe is not a scary confrontation with a poisoned-pen-wielding monster; he is charming, modest and smiles readily. His sketches and working drawings display a free-range imagination from the underworld of Bosch, Hogarth and Brueghel, with a taste of the macabre and the grotesque, and yet some drawings have a sensitivity and beauty all of their own, like the flower sequence from The Wall. Scarfe was commissioned by the BBC to make A Long Drawn Out Trip back in 1972. As he himself recalls, “My Mickey Mouse on drugs” sequence kept its shock value; years later when I was production designer on Walt Disney’s Hercules I projected Mickey freaking out in a presentation at their squeaky clean studios. A gasp ran around the room, “Our Mickey, clean-living Mickey!”, it was unthinkable’.