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When Barry met Maggie. Cartoonist Nicholas Garland created Barry McKenzie, drew Margaret Thatcher for the Telegraph and was exasperated by Boris. By Louise Flind

Blog | By Louise Flind | May 16, 2024

Photo by Neil Spence

What are your earliest childhood holiday memories?

When I was 10, I emigrated to New Zealand. So a lot of my holiday memories are travelling around New Zealand. Before that, during the war when it was more possible to travel, at least one or two holidays in South Wales in summer.

Did you draw as a child?

It was my thing; what I could do – I could draw. My mother had also been at the Slade. A gifted sculptor, she taught me quite a bit as a child. I remember my older brother asking for a slide rule for his birthday. He liked geometry and I was thinking, ‘God, that’s so weird.’

What did you initially want to do?

My father paid me an allowance while I was at the Slade, but afterwards I had to find a job. I worked in a factory for a while just to pay the rent. My ambition was to pay the rent.

Why did you work in the theatre after the Slade?

In New Zealand, I had a great interest in the theatre, and belonged to the theatre club at school and worked for the New Zealand Players, and learned stage management. I worked at the Royal Court Theatre for four years after leaving art school. And I learned an awful lot, among other things, that I’m not cut out for the theatre...

And you worked for the Establishment Club?

At the Royal Court, I got to know John Bird very well. And later, when he, with Peter Cook, Eleanor Bron, John Fortune and Jeremy Geidt set up the Establishment Club to do cabaret, I got the job of directing it.

Did it seem like a golden age?

It was like a growing-up age. And looking back, I see what a terrifically influential and important period that was. There was a sort of relationship between the satire boom and the political cartoonist I became later. Peter Cook, who was the great genius of the satire boom, owned half of Private Eye. He said, if you come up with an idea for a comic strip, I’ll publish it in Private Eye.

What was Peter Cook like?

He was a marvellous man who helped make things happen, and his influence was enormous on me.

How did you invent Barry McKenzie? Did Barry Humphries take the credit?

I came up with this idea of an Aussie loose in London. With the influence and help of Peter Cook, I came up with this character. I drew him with his slouch hat, double-breasted suit, striped tie and weird big chin. I took that to Barry and his script breathed life into my idea. To that extent, Barry is completely justified in saying the idea was his.

How do you go about creating a look for, say, Margaret Thatcher?

I noticed her slightly sloping eyes – most people’s eyes slope upwards from the nose; hers slipped downwards – her sharp little nose, the rosebud mouth and quite strong cheekbones.You just began to see the way other people drew her. I was always indebted to other cartoonists more gifted than I was, who could see the likeness which I could then develop.

Do you have some favourite characters?

Politicians? No, I don’t think I have a favourite.

Did you have a favourite cartoon?

The cartoons you remember are the really, really terrible ones, when you think, ‘I can’t do this. This cartoon is so bad that I won’t survive publication,’ and you hope everybody will forget.

What was it like to work with Bill Deedes, editor of the Daily Telegraph and ‘Dear Bill’ in Private Eye?

Bill was enormously charming and you always came away feeling pleased to have been in his company for a while. I also felt a bit exasperated by him when he didn’t get things done.

How did you get along with Boris Johnson?

OK, while he was a harmless journalist. He was irritating and exasperating and he was also capable of charm – but always out for himself. He had something that sort of set him aside from all the rest. A friend of mine was editor of the leader page and Boris was a columnist. And he was always late with his copy. And one day when Boris was an hour late, the editor said, ‘OK, forget it, Boris. We’ll put in the other column.’ And when somebody told him the page had gone, he exploded with rage and threatened the editor.

Were you surprised he became Prime Minister?

No, because I think the Tory party was just off its trolley at that time and also the leader of the Labour Party that Boris trounced was Jeremy Corbyn.

What was the highlight of your career?

Getting a chance to have it.