Interview with Richard Blackledge: Sheffield as satire from the pen of cartoonist Whitworth
James Whitworth on his economy-style sketches which appear in The Star on a daily basis.
“The wonder of a good cartoon is that it can make the same point as a 1,000-word feature, it’s there in one sentence. The whole point is that it’s an instant hit – it’s the espresso of the newspaper.”
James Whitworth is explaining how he creates the sketches that appear under his signature in The Star every day – simple line drawings that sum up often complex issues with a few pen strokes and a pithy caption.
“They should crystallise a point of view – they have an amazing value because they encapsulate a whole debate or story,” says James, having just finished his latest drawing, taking a typically wry look at plans for a walking trail of Sheffield’s modernist architecture. His studio at home in Fulwood is a haven filled with artists’ materials, a sizeable collection of cartoon books and an impressive computerised graphics tablet.
He spends up to 12 hours a day there working on drawings, from the Star cartoons to submissions for Private Eye and an array of other publications.
“I feel immensely lucky,” says James.
“It’s a privilege that you get to be in a newspaper every day, people look for your work and you get to present it to people.”
James was born into the world of cartoons. His father, Ralph Whitworth, drew for the Sheffield Telegraph in its daily and, later, weekly formats until his death in 1998.
“I don’t think I realised I was being inspired, because it was normal. But it was brilliant, he was a very funny man, very quick.
“He taught me to draw, definitely, but I think he also encouraged within me an appreciation of cartoons, because he introduced me to British cartoons, American strips like Peanuts but also things like BC and The Wizard of Id, which are brilliant strips.
“I think what they all have in common is an economy of style. They’re not over-drawn. There’s an adage in the cartooning world – ‘The worst-drawn cartoon can still sell if the joke’s really good, but the best-drawn cartoon will never sell if the joke’s no good.’
“I don’t like cartoons where there’s too much going on, because I think it takes away from the caption, and the caption is king.
“I had one just before Christmas about a council carol service and it said ‘We two kings and Frosty the Snowflake’, and the caption was just ‘cutbacks’. One word! I thought that was a right result.”
James drew ‘all the time’ while growing up in Fulwood, but being the son of Whitworth Snr was a double-edged sword, particularly during his days at Hallam Primary and Tapton School.
“Teachers, for example, would shove a piece of paper and a pen in front of me and tell me to be funny. That’s not what you want. It put me off really.
“It’s not guaranteed that you can do it by any stretch, and it’s an infamously hard career to get into, because there’s no course, no qualification.”
James’ love of newspapers led him to study English and journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, and he worked as a freelance writer after graduating, eventually becoming a communications manager for the Royal Bank of Scotland. He carried on drawing continually but only took to cartoons full-time in 2009.
He was first paid for a drawing in The Weekly News, which publishes about a dozen cartoons in each edition.
“One week they bought something and it was just the best feeling in the world. And then gradually they bought more and that gives you confidence.
“Then you aim for the big four really – Private Eye, Spectator, The Oldie and Prospect.
“There is a definite pecking order, unless you’re one of the incredibly lucky few who are one of the national newspaper cartoonists; there are only about seven or eight in the country.
“Everyone else is doing it on spec, basically. The way to do it is to have your finger in many pies.”
Even specialist publications such as Hi-Fi News, The Author magazine, and Greetings Today – for the greetings card industry – have accepted a drawing from Whitworth, who is the official cartoonist of Record Store Day.
“It’s not a young man’s game, because it takes so long to make any progress,” says James, aged 46, who lives with his wife of 13 years, Lisa, an area director for RBS.
“You have to approach people who don’t take cartoons and persuade them that they need one. I did that with the Jewish Chronicle. You need a lot of motivation.”
He also writes the DCI Miller crime novels set in Whitby, which have sold thousands of copies – “Definitely a sideline, I much prefer being a cartoonist,” he says – and lectures at universities on their journalism courses. It is no secret that print media faces increasing challenges in a digital age. But James believes cartoons are a prime attraction of printed newspapers.
“There’s a reason the Matt cartoons are on the front page of the Daily Telegraph – they’re what readers look for.”
He picked up the baton from his father on The Star in 2011, and last year began appearing in the relaunched Sheffield Telegraph.
“I was really chuffed, because I wanted to do it,” admits James.
“I love Sheffield, I think it’s a fantastic city.
“As a news cartoonist, you’ve got to be a bit angry, or at least frustrated, because that’s where humour comes from.
“I see it as a city that has massive potential but it keeps getting let down by those in power and endless strange decisions – which make for good cartoons.”
‘Attacking the council for the sake of it is just boring’
So far Whitworth has produced 30 drawings on Sheffield’s tree-felling saga – his highest tally on a single topic.
“It’s been running for 21 months and brilliantly, when it was falling off the news agenda, they had the council’s 5am raid which just instantaneously put it on a national news footing,” he says of the ongoing controversy.
“It’s not just about the trees, and it’s not been about that for a long time – it’s a David and Goliath story.
“One of the most popular cartoons I’ve done is of a councillor with a roulette wheel divided into things like ‘save our buses’ and ‘save our trees’, and he just said ‘Let’s see what we’re going to ignore today’. It hit a nerve.
“Your job is to try and hold people up to a little bit of ridicule.”
But he adds: “I try not to attack the council for the sake of it, because that’s just boring.”