Has Satirist Gerald Scarfe Gone Off The Wall? To Jane Asher, at Least, He's Still a Brick
Enough. Cut, for relief, to a Victorian house in London overlooking the Thames. It is 6 a.m. Up in his fifth-floor studio, Papa Gerald Scarfe, 46, Britain's most consistently outrageous artist, has made tea and is doing some sketching before driving daughter Kate, 8, to school. Down on the ground floor, Mama Jane Asher, 36, a polished actress last seen in the U.S. as Lady Celia in Brideshead Revisited, is making porridge for little Alexander, 9 months, with the three Burmese cats and the golden retriever, Emily, nearby. True, there are distracting touches in the domestic tableau: the meticulously decorated cakes Jane bakes are sometimes odd (one shows Dracula rising from his tomb). But never mind, luv. Here Scarfe is content: "I am very much in the tradition of the artist working at home with a wife in the kitchen and babies around me."
He and Asher have been together for 10 years. Outwardly, they are a very odd couple. They won't say when they wed. The apparently affable Scarfe made his name as a stepper-on-sanctified-toes two decades ago; he delights in drawing, say, a frowzy Queen Elizabeth wearing a "Britain for sale" sign while riding an old nag—and then seeing his work criticized as "unforgettably repulsive." All that ruffles Jane is that she's still best known (at least in the U.S.) for her five-year romance with Paul McCartney in the 1960s. "I'm more volatile," Scarfe admits. "I explode and throw things around when I'm working. Jane is a smolderer." "I go sort of sullen for an hour or two," she agrees. "It might be better if I could let it out, but I prefer to keep things nice."
But their differences don't matter. They help each other. "Jane knows where I am going and which marks I try to hit," Gerald says. "I may not be able to get a character's phrase quite right [in a caption]. She says it in plain English, like the man in the street. I respect her taste." Jane finds him "a very good critic." In their work, she adds, "We both try to aim at truth."
While Britain can claim many wonderfully acerbic cartoonist-satirists, among them Ralph Steadman and Ronald Searle, Scarfe is particularly savage. His heroes are the satirical artists Hogarth and Daumier—and the great Spanish painter Goya—who often used figures verging on the grotesque as a means of social commentary. To those who say he is harsh, Scarfe replies: "Caricature is a cruel art. I'm appalled by the cruelty of the world, so I do cruel drawings and hope people will say, 'Ugh! People shouldn't kill each other.' I'm a romantic. I'd like to see things better."
Scarfe, who has drawn for the hardly impious London Sunday Times for 15 years, says that he has mellowed: "I started as a rebel, but now I'm almost Establishment." But it was no surprise that he designed and directed the animation for The Wall. Pink Floyd's bassist and chief writer, Roger Waters, had admired Scarfe's work since the early 1970s, when he made a BBC movie about America that melded such elements as images from Playboy and a drugged-out Mickey Mouse. Scarfe did animations for the concert version of The Wall that Pink Floyd brought to the U.S. two years ago. He wanted the film to reflect his dark view of Western life: "I had a vision of decay behind the blossoming."
Scarfe, whose father was in banking in London, spent much of his first 16 years bedridden with asthma, which left him with an enduring "fear of being in the hands of the incompetent." Though he tried school on occasion, he was mostly tutored at home. He also took up drawing, doing morbid sketches of mines collapsing, volcanoes erupting, gorillas on the rampage. "Scarfe," one of his teachers asked, "why do you always draw disasters?" As a youth he worked for his uncle, a commercial artist. Though a lifelong fan of Walt Disney, he emerged from a stint doing art for ads and catalogs with a revulsion against mere prettiness. By his early 20s, he was refining his grotesque style in Punch and the satirical Private Eye, and later in the Daily Mail. One critic sneered that he had a fixation with "nostrils, nipples and navels." Allows Scarfe: "I have broadened my work. I include ears and ulcers now."
He draws standing up, with the radio on. "I like phone-ins," Scarfe says. "The radio gives something like the sense of urgency a journalist gets working in a bustling office." The U.S. holds the same attraction. "I love America. It fascinates me and frightens me in some ways," he says. "When I was growing up in the early '50s, America seemed vibrant and big—a place where you could get things done. Much as I love England, it takes a long time to get anything done."
Jane was also London-born. Her father was an endocrinologist; her mother taught oboe at the Royal College of Music. Her brother, Peter, now a Grammy-winning L.A. record producer for Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, among others, was half of the '60s rock group Peter and Gordon. Jane debuted at 5 in the movie Mandy with Jack Hawkins and Phyllis Calvert and was playing Juliet on BBC-TV by 15. At 17, in 1963, she met McCartney after a Beatles concert at the Albert Hall. She was Paul's prime bird during the Beatles' glory years, and even today she won't discuss their liaison or their 1968 breakup. "People who make a drama out of their lost loves are such bores," she said when they split.
She met Scarfe at a 1971 Private Eye party. He was 35 and recently divorced (he has a teenage son and daughter). "I felt something had hit me," Jane recalls. "Something had arrived. In some ways it was quite disturbing. We both called each other up the next day." Happy as she is as a wife and mother today, she has ended the leave occasioned by Alexander's arrival to film a BBC-TV version of that old melodrama East Lynne. "Acting has my respect to a certain extent," she says, "but when you're dressed up in some daft costume in midsummer speaking some old language, you sometimes feel, 'Isn't this ridiculous?' "