From the archive: Ralph Steadman covers the Tory party conference

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It’s October 1985, and the cartoonist captures Tory leaders in a series of photographic ‘Paranoids’

When the Observer Magazine commissioned Ralph Steadman to cover the Tory party conference in Blackpool, it was no surprise that the man who defined gonzo journalism with Hunter S Thompson was eager to let rip his surrealist savagery (‘Party Paranoids’, 20 October 1985).

Russell Davies followed Steadman around, watching him take Polaroid pictures of cabinet ministers whose features he would then distort and warp. ‘It’s a new method of caricature,’ Steadman explained. ‘The emulsion doesn’t set for some time, and you can push it around with a pencil. So you start off with a likeness, and with luck you arrive at a different sort of likeness. I call them Paranoids.’

Thatcher is portrayed as a Janus-faced grotesque, her face twisted to the right where there’s also something of the mad staring eye of her Spitting Image puppet evident. Defence secretary Michael Heseltine is a kind of scarecrow with what looks like a bolt through his neck, but – more disturbingly – recently demoted Leon Brittan is actually less hideous seen through Steadman’s distorting lens.

Education secretary Keith Joseph is rendered as a drooling pig and Davies’s claim that Joseph looks like ‘a crashed helicopter’ in another picture seems like a rather droll reference to the Westland affair.

But why was deputy chairman Jeffrey Archer let off so lightly, wonders Davies? ‘All Steadman gives him is a bit of a nose job,’ he complains. But surely that was his point – he’s grotesque enough as it is.

‘Cartooning in this country is pathetic,’ Steadman told the Observer in 2000. ‘They’re playing a game – eminent politician buys cartoon of himself by eminent cartoonist. I refuse to play that game. I loathe these politicians. I wouldn’t invite them to dinner, so why should I draw them? I’ll only draw their legs – it’s more insulting.’

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