The Very British Tradition of ‘Verbal Cartooning’

A centuries-old British newspaper tradition continues to find humor in the politically mundane and provide commentary in the era of Brexit.

A Banksy mural depicting an EU flag being chiseled by a workman
Parliamentary sketch writers use satire, much like the street artist Banksy, to depict Britain and its politicians in the age of Brexit. (Glyn Kirk / AFP / Getty)

LONDON—When Boris Johnson joined a London-based radio program last month to discuss his ongoing bid to be Britain’s next prime minister, he was quizzed 26 times about the origins of a mysteriously timed photograph of him and his partner, Carrie Symonds, the Conservative Party’s former communications chief. Each time, the prime-ministerial hopeful evaded the question with his trademark bumble and bluster. In all, the four-minute exchange was awkward, incessant, and painful to watch. For John Crace, however, it was perfect.

“Did he know who had taken the picture?” Crace wrote in his sketch of the interview for The Guardian the following day. “‘Um... er...,’ mumbled Boris. There had been so many photos and so little time. Could he even remember when the photo was taken? A look of panic crossed his face. When you’ve told so many lies, there’s always a danger you might accidentally tell the truth.”

For Americans, it’s difficult to imagine a journalist writing about a politician in such a pugnacious way—not least in one of the country’s most recognizable newspapers. But Crace isn’t an ordinary journalist. He’s a parliamentary sketch writer, for whom poking fun at the U.K.’s political class is simply part of the job.

Sketch writing is essentially “verbal cartooning,” Quentin Letts, the parliamentary sketch writer for Britain’s The Times, told me. “Like cartoonists, we deal in caricature, character assassination, whimsy, broad-brush generalization.” The goal of sketching isn’t to report on what a politician said—that is the job of traditional journalists—but to reflect how the politician said it, why it matters, and what kind of reaction it sparked. Parliamentary sketch writing at its best makes readers feel as if they were there. It also, of course, should make them laugh.

Parliamentary sketch writing is, fundamentally, a British institution. To date, no other country has a media tradition quite like it—a fact that can be attributed, at least in part, to the history of sketch writing itself. Some of England’s greatest literary figures, including Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens, began their career reporting on the inner workings of Parliament. In his autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, in which the eponymous main character is a parliamentary reporter, Dickens appears to sum up his own experience sketching: “Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify.”

Such sensational reporting wasn’t always tolerated in Westminster, the London neighborhood where the Houses of Parliament sit. In fact, there was a time when journalists weren’t allowed to publish what was said in Parliament at all. “In the early 18th century, people who printed accounts of what was being said in the House of Commons regularly got carted off to jail for weeks and months at a time,” Andrew Sparrow, a political correspondent for The Guardian and the author of Obscure Scribblers: A History of Parliamentary Journalism, told me. These barriers forced reporters to find creative ways of illustrating what was happening within the Commons, often by using secondhand accounts or gossip, or simply by making things up. In the 1740s, when Johnson, Britain’s preeminent sketch writer, discovered that his parliamentary reporting for The Gentleman’s Magazine was being cited in history books, he was reportedly mortified. Even though his reports were only a sketch of what had occurred in Parliament—an impression of what was said in debates, as opposed to a transcription—they were effectively being treated as fact.

“Among his other distinctions,” Sparrow wrote in Obscure Scribblers, “Johnson deserves to be singled out as one of the few writers in the history of British journalism to have been embarrassed by the fact that people actually believed what he wrote.”

Reporters were finally granted a space in Parliament in 1803, but that didn’t stop them from being creative with their stories. In addition to reproducing what was said in parliamentary debates, newspapers began running general summaries of what they deemed to be the most newsworthy parts—a precursor to the modern news story. “But they were also in some way the precursor of the modern sketch, because they editorialized a bit,” Sparrow said, noting that over the course of the 19th century, people began referring to these summary authors as sketch writers because they were seen as being interested in only the drama and ephemera of the Commons, such as what people were wearing. “Frankly, the view was that they were not serious, because they were not just transcribing what was said.”

Now parliamentary sketch writing is a vital part of Britain’s media tradition. The job of a sketch writer is to find humor in even the most mundane parliamentary proceedings and use it to provide a commentary on the political happenings of the day. For sketch writers, this often means making fun not just of policy, but of politicians themselves. “You might write about the way a particular politician lies or dodges questions or even the way he or she looks,” Michael Deacon, the parliamentary sketch writer for The Daily Telegraph, told me in an email. “Nigel Farage looks like a toad plotting a practical joke. Theresa May looks like a depressed waxwork. Boris Johnson looks like a sheepdog peeping out from under an upturned colander of spaghetti. That sort of thing.”

The Times’ Quentin Letts (Dave M. Benett / Getty)

The goal of sketch writing, of course, isn’t to be needlessly mean—though many sketches can be. Politicians tend to crave the attention sketch writers give them, even if it’s not the most flattering. (“They are such vain buggers,” Letts said.) Rather, sketches are meant to give readers a sense of who their leaders are and how their character influences the politics around them. For perhaps no British lawmaker has this been more true than the country’s outgoing prime minister, May—or as she is sometimes known, “the Maybot.”

“The media had been presenting her as this great person who was the new Iron Lady, the new Margaret Thatcher,” says Crace, the Guardian sketch writer who first conceived of the popular nickname in November 2016, just months into May’s premiership. “I kind of realized that actually, she was talking nonsense a lot of times. She was saying things like ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘Strong and stable,’ and it felt very much like this was the sort of stuff an old computer might say, so I just called her the Maybot.” Nearly three years later, the label has stuck.

In many ways, now would appear to be a golden age for parliamentary sketch writing in Britain. The country’s 2016 Brexit vote to leave the European Union, and the political uncertainty it has caused, has ushered in everything from prime-ministerial resignations to new party formations. It has created a fascination with British politics that extends well beyond the country’s borders—so much so that the BBC’s Parliament channel briefly had more viewers than MTV in the U.K.

To hear sketch writers tell it, though, the seemingly inexhaustible source of farce created by Brexit hasn’t made their job any easier. “In the last few years, … making politics funny has literally been reduced to a transcription service,” Tom Peck, the parliamentary sketch writer for the Independent, told me, noting that some events, such as May’s “Dancing Queen” entrance at last year’s Conservative Party Conference or the viral Brexit protest involving a ceremonial mace, “are so farcical, you just have to type them out.”

“Everyone says it’s the best job in the world,” Ann Treneman, who is now a theater critic for The Times, told me of her 12-year career sketching for the newspaper. “But of course, they don’t have to do it.”

For one, it’s a competitive field: Of Britain’s broad media landscape, only five outlets—The Guardian, the Independent, The Times, The Daily Mail, and The Daily Telegraph—employ regular sketch writers. Those who hold the posts tend to do so for a while, making opportunities to join their small and selective ranks few and far between. None of the regular sketch writers today are women.

Then there’s the job itself. All the sketch writers I spoke with described a similar routine: identifying what promises to be the most newsworthy events of the day, attending them, and then finding an amusing way to write about them. Though some events, such as May’s infamously cough-ridden Conservative Party Conference speech in 2017, practically write themselves, most do not. “You have to have an extremely high boredom threshold,” Treneman said, adding that the best material can often be found at the end of dull committee meetings and press conferences.

But perhaps the hardest thing about being a parliamentary sketch writer today is that you must make humorous a politics that has become much more serious—even if the players within it have not. “I miss the good old days when ... the most pressing story in Westminster would be about a proposed new tax on sausage rolls,” Deacon, the Telegraph sketch writer, said. “Now that the country is collapsing about the ears, you feel as though you have to smarten up your act slightly … Being silly is a privilege and I’m not sure we have it anymore.”

Yet the writers still find much to lampoon. “We’re in an age where there’s almost a surfeit of [satire],” Charlie Beckett, the director of the media think tank Polis at the London School of Economics, told me, adding that sketch writers are no longer the only gatekeepers of humor in British politics. Indeed, humorists such as the Guardian columnist Marina Hyde and the Times columnist Hugo Rifkind have emerged as unofficial, if less frequent, chroniclers of the ongoing Brexit saga—both in print and online.  

The Guardian’s John Crace (David Levenson / Getty)

As much as Brexit has highlighted the more ridiculous aspects of British politics (such as the less-than-diplomatic things certain British politicians have said about their European negotiating partners), it has also revealed grave consequences that a chaotic exit from the EU could have for the country, including access to medicine, food shortages, and an uncertain immigration status for the more than 3 million European nationals living there. These more serious topics aren’t off-limits to sketch writers. “On slow days when not much has happened, the sketch is probably no more than an entertaining sideshow,” Crace, the Guardian sketch writer, told me, “but at key moments it should do what all good satire should do, and that is to hold power to account and actually tell a truth that maybe straightforward news reporting can’t always get to.”

Sketch writers can, and often do, go outside the realm of what is considered traditional reporting standards. Unlike their news-reporting colleagues, sketch writers are expected to be subjective. They don’t rely on anyone to be their sources, nor are they required to reach out to the lawmakers they write about for comment or confirmation. In fact, all the sketch writers I spoke with said that they try to avoid speaking with politicians altogether. “If I got to know them, there’s a risk I might actually like them, and that would ruin everything,” Deacon said, adding that “you see them more clearly from a distance.”

When I asked the sketch writers why they thought the U.S. didn’t have a similar tradition, most surmised that it had to do with the lack of daily political theater in Washington. Unlike in Westminster, where British prime ministers are compelled to take questions from their fellow lawmakers every week, American presidents don’t have to answer to the legislative branch on a regular basis.

“I think it’s a real shame America doesn’t have sketch writers,” said Treneman, the former Times sketch writer—herself an American—musing that perhaps American politicians would “take themselves too seriously” if it did. Though the U.S. has its own satirists, such as Stephen Colbert (on television) and Alexandra Petri (in print), none have leveled the kind of attacks frequently practiced by their colleagues across the Atlantic.

With the race for Britain’s next Conservative Party leader—and, consequently, prime minister—well under way, many Britons are already bracing for a Boris Johnson premiership. Still, the sketch writers I spoke with aren’t convinced that the clownish politician’s ascension to Downing Street will necessarily make their job any easier—or British politics any more amusing.

“In the early days when he was London mayor … one would sketch him as Boris the Buffoon,” Crace said. “Now my sketches about him have become darker and more serious and more about the character of his untrustworthiness.” He said that regardless of what happens next with Brexit, Britain, and who will lead the country, the sketch writer’s role will ultimately remain unchanged. “Brexit has exposed our politicians more—their limitations, their lies and untruths,” Crace said. “I think the sketch writer’s job is to call that out.”