The World’s Marco Werman speaks with British political cartoonist Steve Bell about the legacy of cartoon artist Ronald Searle. Bell has currated several exhibits of Searle’s work and calls him the greatest British cartoonist ever.
British cartoonist Ronald Searle, best known for creating the fictional girls’ school St Trinian’s, has died aged 91.
His daughter Kate Searle said in a statement that he “passed away peacefully in his sleep” in a hospital in France.
Searle’s spindly cartoons of the naughty schoolgirls first appeared in 1941, before the idea was adapted for film.
The first movie version, The Belles of St Trinian’s, was released in 1954.
Joyce Grenfell and George Cole starred in the film, along with Alastair Sim, who appeared in drag as headmistress Millicent Fritton.
Searle also provided illustrations the Molesworth series, written by Geoffrey Willans.
The gothic, line-drawn cartoons breathed life into the gruesome pupils of St Custard’s school, in particular the outspoken, but functionally-illiterate Nigel Molesworth “the goriller of 3B”.
Searle’s work regularly appeared in magazines and newspapers, including Punch and The New Yorker.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World. Britain is mourning the passing of one of its great graphic artists. Cartoonist Ronald Searle died this past weekend at the age of 91. Searle was best known for his series of comics depicting a girl’s boarding school called St. Trinian’s. Its hysterical teachers and anarchic pupils were later featured in a series of popular films in the 1950s. Ronald Searle himself thought of St. Trinian’s this way:
Ronald Searle: Trinian stuff came up quite accidentally. They got published, it only lasted six years. My principle has always been if the moment is successful, kill it, because it can only get worse. Basically, I was more interested in illustration and reportage.
Werman: And reportage is what Steve Bell focused on when he organized an exhibit of Searle’s work in London last year. Bell is The Guardian’s cartoonist based in Brighton, England. Now, Steve, you curated this exhibit of Searle’s work at The Cartoon Museum in London. And I understand that Searle made his first foray into reportage when he was a prisoner of war at the hands of the Japanese in WWII. Tell us about that.
Steve Bell: Yeah, that really is the most horrifying story. He was a prisoner of the Japanese I think from 1942 right through to the end of the war. He was actually a slave laborer. He had a hell of a, he had an awful time. He worked on the Burma Railway, the one they made that Bridge on the River Kwai film about. He was very near death quite a lot of the time. He was severely beaten, punished, as they all were, yet he kept drawing at great risk to his own life, and he preserved these drawings. He had this kind of urge to record what was happening.
Werman: Well, he did speak about the fact in this BBC documentary a couple of years ago that there were no cameras around and that’s what prompted him to draw. Let’s hear that.
Searle: I said to myself you are going to be an unofficial war artist. And I spent my next four years recording as best I could everything that happened in the prison and in the jungle.
Werman: And Steve Bell, as you say, to rather great risk for Ronald Searle.
Bell: Yeah, I mean they would’ve destroyed the drawings and he would’ve been severely punished, not to say beaten to death. He hid the drawings apparently underneath cholera victims. There were people dying all around him of cholera all the time and of course, the Japanese were not keen to catch cholera themselves, so they left them alone. So it was an amazing thing for actually a young artist freshly out of art school to do, but it’s something that gives his art an underlying seriousness and stature because it was an amazing work of reporting what happened, this great crime.
Werman: Steve, what are some of your favorite non-reportage drawings by Searle? Nigel Molesworth, the evil prep school boy from…
Bell: I suppose my favorite was Molesworth. That’s probably where I came to know the name Searle because somebody lent me a copy of a book of Molesworth drawings, which was written by Willans in this wonderfully misspelled style. There were so many, these cadaverous looking masters with their long noses and their cloaks that looked like bats and crows, their spindly legs and their funny shoes. The way he drew fingers, I always loved the way he drew hands and fingers; they would fold around things, just the sheer scratchiness of it. There’s the characters, their…
Werman: I’m trying to think of illustrations that might prompt our American listeners to remember who Ronald Searle was. And perhaps the best aside from a few New Yorker cartoons, he did the cartoon title sequence in the 1960s comedy film, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.
Bell: That’s right, yeah, that was a great success, these funny spindly weird little machines that flapped about. He did work a lot in America. I mean he drew reportage for Holiday magazine. He had an immense amount of stuff. He went to Alaska. He went to Florida. He went all over the place. He went wherever he was sent. He was a roving eye as it were. Sadly, not many magazines seem to do this kind of stuff anymore, so it was the age of the magazines now long gone. We’re in the age of the blog now, but drawing is still a vital thing to do. And he was just the greatest draftsman ever for me. And I think a great artist, British artist, bar none.
Werman: Steve Bell, The Guardian’s cartoonist speaking to us from Brighton, England. Thank you so much for talking to us about Ronald Searle.
Bell: Thank you.
Werman: We have a couple of videos looking back at Ronald Searle’s career. They’re at theworld.org.
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