Gerald Scarfe is best known as an acerbic political cartoonist with a sharp, often violent style. He might seem, then, an unlikely choice to provide the designs for the English National Ballet's production of The Nutcracker at the Coliseum. But, as he explains to Laura North, he's managed to balance family festivities and abrasiveness for Tchaikovsky's Christmas classic.
What's a nasty cartoonist like Gerald Scarfe doing in a nice ballet like The Nutcracker? Scarfe is famous as a scabrous cartoonist, deflating political figures with his sharp pen: Maggie Thatcher as an axe beheading the unemployed; a bed-wetting John Major; a graphic portrayal of how Harold Wilson was in the grasp of American president Lyndon Johnson. Compare The Nutcracker: a Christmas treat for the family where the fantastical Sugar Plum Fairy frolics in the Land of the Sweets. A ballet Scarfe admits that "grandmothers take their grandchildren to". But the cartoonist, who has extensive experience in design for theatre and opera, is convinced that he and pleasantness can co-exist happily. "I'm not scaring the children in any way. It's a very very child friendly production. I could make a nasty one if I wanted to. As you say, I am quite capable of being unpleasant in my drawings. But that wasn't my aim here."
Some of Scarfe's hallmark acerbicness has crept its way into The Nutcracker. The design has attracted controversial press coverage, specifically for the battle between the soldiers and mice. In his own words, the rodents are "slightly like terrorists": clad in gas masks and armed with Kalashnikov rifles, they clash with modern military dressed in scarlet and gold camouflage. The Conservatives' culture spokesman John Whittingdale, bubbled over with fury at the perceived decimation of the Christmas classic: he said it was tantamount to depicting Father Christmas as a member of al-Qa'ida. The accusation is dramatic, although it's hard to picture Osama Bin Laden and co in leotards. Scarfe dismisses the notion as ridiculous. "Oh rubbish. This is of course a Tory member who hasn't seen it. I thought, he's just trying to get a bit of publicity for himself. It's just not the case." The leader of the "terrorist" mob is the Mouse King, a menacing creation, but Scarfe is quick to point out that this is customary. "He's supposed to be scary, the Mouse King is always scary. He is immediately done away with by the prince. Children love villains like all of us, because they know that villains get their comeuppance, don't they? They always get it in the end."
"I am quite capable of being unpleasant in my drawings. But that wasn't my aim here."
With the villains swiftly disposed of, Scarfe reveals that his aim is not to scare small children but to make "as much fun as possible": "I'm giving them lots of fun, lots of colourful costumes to look at, lots of funny things happening, a giant owl and huge cake in which the mice live and they go off to the land of the sweeties. I've taken a lot of the traditional Nutcracker and put it into my own weird world". In this weird world the traditional flurry of white tutus is replaced with a host of characters dressed in a kaleidoscope of colours. Clara the little girl wears a bright orange wig; a huge blue bear performs a Russian Cossack dance; a trio of matadors dressed in lime green and searing pink sweep across the stage. The party guests bustling around in the Stahlbaum household give Scarfe an ideal opportunity to exercise his satirical eye: a prancing bishop covered in question marks, a large woman made up entirely of knitted garments, and a pompous brigadier with a plume fixed to his head instead of his helmet. The settings are as outlandish as the characters. Scarfe has relocated the snowflakes that usually "dance in their lovely tutus and so forth in a woodland glade with the snow coming down: I've put them in a giant refrigerator. Clara opens the fridge door – there's a beer and champagne and a lobster in there I think and some frozen peas, and out jump these snowflakes who are dressed like speed skaters in silver lurex costume."
The refrigerated snowflakes appeal across the generation gap, and Scarfe is clearly playing to the adults in the audience as well as the children. "I'm used to dealing with an adult and a child audience in the same production." Grandpa, usually portrayed as a decrepit old man, is transformed into an ageing playboy: "I thought I'd do away with Grandma and have Grandpa's bit of stuff who is obviously someone on the make. She's dressed in a white sparkly lamé costume with a Marilyn Monroe type stole around the shoulders." This entirely new creation is called Miss V Agra. The sole reference to her name is tucked away in the programme and consequently only evident to especially vigilant audience members. Onstage, however, Grandpa downs a potion which instils in him such vigour and acrobatic skills that unmistakably implies viagra. Do any especially aware children grasp this? "I don't think they understand that. He's given this potion which makes him dance faster, that's what it amounts to." The elderly gent is also given a zimmer frame which is not just a walking aid – "one of the first things I said to the choreographer was can you do a zimmer frame dance". Grandpa's kilt flies up mid-dance to reveal an enticing flash of holly underpants.
"I'm not looking for a traditional show because what's the point? It's not my bag."
This is not the first time that Scarfe has assailed a nice family tradition. He was invited to reinvigorate the graphics of Hercules for Walt Disney, the company that takes cute to an extreme – as well as creating the ultimate range of singing animals, Disney Store's male shop assistants wear pastel-coloured cardigans. Disney fundamentalists must have been terrified when the wolf entered the fold; it's clear that Bambi would be barbequed in the hands of Scarfe. He set about removing the cutesy edge which proved "difficult because they're all trained to be cutesy at Disney. It is quite a challenge to make them into real characters. There was one Scarfe and about 900 people working for Disney, so I was heavily outnumbered." The stand off between Scarfe and Disney produced a cartoon where Hercules still saved the world and got the girl, but with a few jagged edges. Hades, Lord of the Dead, is most distinctively Scarfe's creation. The rounded edges of the cartoons are sheared off with Scarfe's sharp angular designs; combined with the James Wood's laconic voiceover, the final product was a deadpan and sharp-featured animation. "I was quite pleased when I saw the final film that I'd had any effect on it at all because you can see that some of them are my characters."
Even when surrounded by Sugar Plum Fairies or 900 cartoonists brandishing purple cardies, his satirical bite is never far away. To help mark the new millennium he produced a series of sculptures for the Dome in Greenwich which expose "the general violence underlying the veneer of our civilisation", where politics is configured as a talking backside with red and blue rosettes for eyes. His colleague Jenny Page summed him up: "You smile while the knife goes in. That's your style, Gerald." Every week he sharpens his knife and hews out a merciless political caricature for the Sunday Times; despite extensive forays into design for theatre and film, he feels he is still regarded as a cartoonist. "Most people know me as a cartoonist. The Sunday Times in which I work sells three million copies and for three million people to see The Nutcracker it would have to run for six centuries or something." He started drawing when he was seriously ill as a child, which may go some way to explain the dark side of his humour. "I'm an asthmatic and I was bed ridden and I couldn't do much else except read and draw and make toy theatres and puppets and things like that because I was severely ill. So a lot of my childhood was spent in bed and I think drawing became my way of expressing myself really and has been ever since. It possibly did have something to do with the kind of black side of my life, the black humour."
"Iain Duncan Smith has got no personality at all. I'd just do an empty circle for his face."
With a career spanning over four decades, with cartoons cropping up in Private Eye, Punch and the nationals, many celebrities and politicians have been subjected to his satire. He is adamant that there are as many targets for satire these days as there were in the sixties when he started out. "There are always foolish politicians. We're all pretty foolish really. I think there's just as much material as there ever was around." So should any particular politician watch his back? He is reluctant to single any out, as the whole category is deserving of attention: "All of these foolish politicians, all of them." But he must have his favourites. "I like Mrs Thatcher in that she's a definite strong woman – wasn't a fan of hers or anything, but she has a very definite personality whereas some of them are a little bit wimpish, like Iain Duncan Smith who's got no personality at all." He then delivers the most damning of judgements available to a cartoonist – he refuses to draw him at all: "I'd just do an empty circle for his face."
The weird world of The Nutcracker is far removed from the political arena. Instead, Scarfe keeps the venom at bay and concentrates on creating an original spin on the vintage ballet. "I'm always looking for something different, I'm not looking for a show that you would see from anybody else, I'm not looking for a traditional show because what's the point? It's not my bag."