Barney Farmer is the writer of one of the bleakest comic strips around. We talked to him about free speech and how important getting pissed is to British humour.
Barney Farmer, not his real name (though he assures me it's an anagram, one which I can't work out), is the writer of one of the bleakest comic strips around. The Drunken Bakers, which features in eternally beloved national institution Viz, chronicles the dazed, pointless, continuing existences of two alcoholic bakers, who routinely burn down their bakery, dream about their ex-wives and children, land themselves in A&E, and, most importantly, talk about how shit the bargain merlot they've bought is.
Its defining feature is its crushing realism. The bakers are the park bench sleepers, the guys with their hoods up sat in the rain loosely holding onto a can of Special Brew; it comes from a place of dire inevitability for some. Together with Lee Healey, Barney's cartoonist and partner for all his work, he creates extremely funny, extremely dark windows into a fictionalised world not too dissimilar from the one we're in.
But where does this talent for pathos stem from? What happened to him to give him such a piercing insight into the grim state of the country? I met up with Barney in my favourite pub in London to get pissed and talk about alcohol, Viz, free speech and how he fell into being the mouthpiece for Britain's comically jaded sadness.
VICE: Tell us about how you started Drunken Bakers.
The idea for Drunken Bakers came about because I had been on a stag do for a couple of days and we got back to London and it had been proper brutal drinking. I had this one mate who was always the last one to finish, so we rolled off the train at Paddington where he was getting his train back to Croydon and I was getting my train back up north, and we went for one pint. Ten hours later I was lying face down on the floor in his horrible Croydon digs.
It made me think there are always people that make you think 'Who's pulling you along in your life?', y'know? There's always one person who makes you go for a drink and then you end up on the piss five nights out of seven. I was so hammered the conversations we were having in the pub were like chopped up and cyclical chats that kept coming back on themselves and were really banal and funny. I wrote the first strip a couple of days later, and then me and Lee thought we'd get something over for Viz, so I dug this strip out, sent it with about 30 others, and that was the only one they picked out. It was all from heavy drinking, which is quite apt really.
Have you done any jobs where you're out of bed really early in the morning? Like, stupidly early in the morning? When I was a kid there were miles more bakeries. I did a stint as a postman once – you woke up to see the bakers who'd already done their day's work as you were walking down the road, and they were sort of trapped in a different day-cycle to the rest of us. And I figured then, the way bakeries are all closing and being driven out of business with Greggs and the rest of them, I thought it would be quite depressing.
Is the pathos of having a shit job what also inspired Hen Cabin (a strip about a fried chicken shop)? Where it's a crap but you have to kind of make do?
Well I've always been fairly fascinated by shops. I lived in Preston at the time, in a red brick jungle, and there was this corner shop I used to always go past. It was one bloke who didn't have any staff or children to help him and he was there from morning till night. Every time I went past him, his till was facing the door, and he would be sat there, staring out the door, in this room with these things, just staring. I did this stint at an Oxfam shop when I was trying to get back on the straight and narrow, and there were times you were in there with stuff, just staring out the window, and whoever was with you was your company. Like, small shops, when it's just one or two of you, whoever is in there is your company, like in offices, y'know? Office dynamics are fascinating, the people that become friends, the people that fall out. One day they move all of the chairs around and you're sitting in a completely different place, then six months later you have a whole new bunch of friends and whole new set of people you don't like. It's the same thing but with just two people.
When did you start working with Lee?
I worked with quite a lot of magazines before, fairly shabby Viz rip-offs in the 90s. I met half a dozen artists in that time, half of them good, half not so good, very cartoony styles, which didn't really work at all with what I was writing. An editor liked the way Lee drew and said it might be a good fit with the way I wrote. That was around '98-'99? I haven't worked with anyone else since. And the way he draws has actually brought me on a bit as a writer because the potential is unlimited in the way you can describe a physical situation and he can capture it and add to it as well. The faces that Lee draws will help communicate the joke because it's perfectly realised.
How much direction do you give him for the writing in his drawings? The last iteration of the strip Scum Mothers Who'd 'Ave 'Em shows the mum gripping Daz's penis and you see a tiny little bellend just poking out at the top. Did you write that in?
I love that strip! But no, that's all Lee's work. In the Drunken Bakers, he kept putting mice running about, which looked a bit cute so I kept destroying them with PhotoShop. He's quite near the knuckle sometimes. With Viz they're quite demanding. It still goes through them really closely and they still change one or two things in the strip and that's fair enough, because they've been doing this for over 30 years, a lot longer than Lee and I have, so I'm more than happy to accept their advice.
So what's your relationship with Viz like? I'm guessing you were a fan before you were a contributor.
Oh god yeah, the main comic I read was Viz. In my teenage years, somebody had a copy of Viz when we were in some dismal car park of some kind and said, 'Have you seen this?' It was probably the 16th or 17th copy of Viz, passed it backed to us, and it absolutely killed us. I'd never seen anything as funny in comic form, and I genuinely think it's been hugely influential on British comedy. If you look at alternative comedy in the 80s it was terrible. Viz is about working class people. Although it's educated and intelligent, its base and low at the same time, it's witty and foul, like Frank Carson with Chris Morris' brain.
You mentioned that you sent a load of strips in initially, yet they only picked one. Was that encouraging in a way, because their fine-tooth comb means your work is in safe hands?
Well I was doing nightshifts at the post office in Manchester, an air-conditioned nightmare, and I got a letter through from Viz saying they were going to publish something of mine and I was encouraged purely by that. So I looked back through that wad of stuff I sent them and thought, 'Maybe if I changed that last bit I could send it again.'
What sort of writing were you doing before you did the strips?
It was all shabby, low-end magazines, mostly for one called 'Zit'. They were owned by this scrap metal dealer from Brighton. You know how Andi Peters used to do a Watchdog-type show for kids? He turned up on that because he was running a bent fan club, and I was like, "Oh that's my boss!" He was shouting through a letterbox at Andi Peters on the telly. Then it was run by a porn baron from Cambridge for a while which was fun. He took us in his limo round his porn empire. Then it got picked up by a couple of lads in Tottenham who made a bit of money in the docklands, and it was an all right thing by the end. Me and a couple others were editing it, but then it got wiped out along with a load of others. To be honest that was a good thing, cos we were terrible.
I think one of the reasons Viz has managed to stay afloat is that in the drastic, desperate bid for digitisation, a lot of magazines lost their identity, whereas Viz always stayed true to itself.
People like novelty most of the time, but if things keep the same and keep their shape then people value them for that. Viz does exactly the same thing, even though it's not on that same dirty brown paper. As you say it does pretty much exactly the same thing as it did back then. On better paper.
If it went online all for free, it would probably have died. Where do you stand on things being made available for no cost where before they'd have come with a price?
One thing I've done this year is more stuff on Twitter, cos at the end of last year, we'd never done anything to promote ourselves. I had a job and Lee had other stuff on the side, so there was never that spur. We started doing stuff on Twitter and created a new character, the Male Online guy. I've managed to adapt Lee's original artwork for that to make it more like a newspaper strip with five panels. It's basically just a guy raging in front of his computer.
And that strip is just for Twitter?
We've done a couple of full pages for Viz, but I've just taken eight or nine really simple panels which can be rejigged in any order and it's a lot more about current affairs, and that's gone really really well for us. I think we've got a decent amount of followers for cartoonists anyway, and we're always promoting Viz, so they're more than happy with it. The strips we do for Viz probably take us about eight hours to write and two days to draw, and another half a day to get the words right, so we never give it away for free. After the Viz Annual is out, there's no chance they'll use them anyway, so then we use them for Twitter. The Male Online strips for Twitter are about 20 minutes' work, so we don't mind giving it away for free.
I like The Male Online because it's very simple and very real. There's blatantly some guy sitting at home in his rec-room everyday getting irate and looking at Anthea Turner's tits.
I did one about Louise Mensch – when she took a screengrab of her Google search about Corbyn and it came up with something like Corbyn Hitler or Corbyn Nazi, some real fucking dumb shit, which basically showed what she had been searching for. I did a Male Online piece about that which was up about 20 minutes after she tweeted that, which she then held up and was like "See! See! This is what Corbyn supporters are like!" That got about 700 retweets and I got 400 new followers off that.
I feel like the stuff you do online is more politicised than Drunken Bakers. Do you feel it's more important to keep your political opinions away from the stuff you do in your Viz strips?
I'm not massively political, although I am massively interested by politics. The reason there's so many things about Corbyn is not because I'm a Corbynista, although I have no axe to grind with the man. What's interesting to me is the media's response to him, which as someone who has watched politics and the news their whole life, has been unprecedented. The scrutiny and criticism is hilarious. I've worked as a journalist for 15 years as a day job, so it's me trying to create a balanced view, or as much as humanly possible in the current environment.
People like Dan Hodges are hilarious so it's easy to write, because he's just saying these ridiculous things all the time. The whole bowing at the cenotaph thing, the whole national anthem thing - who the fuck knows the fucking national anthem? I know the Sex Pistols' guitar solo in "God Save the Queen" better than I know that, so we don't give a fuck about that. So to come back to you, it's easy to write because it just sort of drops in your lap. Like the George Bestial strip. Now I've become a known bestiality presence on Twitter, so people send me stuff all the time.
How did the George Bestial strip come about?
In amongst the stuff we sent to Viz, me and Lee tried to have a stab at this one called the Wooden Whores of Roy, which was a very piss-poor version of Fru T. Bunn, where one character was a back-street sexual adventurer whose partner in his sex games was a pig. So this idea that there was a character who was sexually vile with animals had been around for a bit, and then there was this amazing documentary on Channel 4.
Yeah, blokes with long hair shagging horses and stuff, right?
Well, there was a woman on there who married a labrador. So we had an idea about people who looked like Wurzel Gummage having sex with animals, but we thought we'd bring it into a suburban domestic setting. Instead of it being this weird thing where some guy fucks chickens, these people were normal, like, here's this woman, here's the two-up, two-down she lives in, and here's the labrador she's married to. It's entirely based on that documentary. It's really fun to write and Lee takes great relish in the detail he puts into some of the things.
Lee couldn't make it today, sadly. Could you tell us a bit about the man behind the pictures?
He's a very self-deprecating, quiet bloke. We did a bit of work for Alan Moore, a magazine called Dodgem Logic; it was this stupidly beautiful magazine he'd made on basically cardboard. Then he invited us along to this church in Whitechapel and Lee came along. Then when the cartoon awards did a Viz thing, he came to that and it ended very badly.
He ended up in a hospital ward. I was laughing it up with Charlie Brooker at the awards. Well, I was laughing it up, I think Charlie Brooker was trying to get away cos I was hammered. We always get brutally, brutally drunk when we get together, me and Lee. There's these pavements in Bloomsbury that feel like they're about four or five foot high, a massive drop off the kerb. I came out the gallery to go to the pub for the afterparty, Lee went back in to the gallery to get some books and when he came out he went arse over tit off the kerb and smashed his fucking head in. He tried to ring me but I was three sheets to the wind so I missed all of his calls till the next day.
He smashed his fucking bonce in.
Yeah, the whole lot, and as I said he's a really quiet bloke – it's hard to imagine him in this era of loudmouths. There's no tortured artist about him. He just happens to be a quiet bloke who's the best artist working in Britain, in my opinion.
With your raised presence online and Viz's traditional and unchanging level of offensiveness, do you ever worry that in these sensitive times, you'll be chastised for being offensive?
It's a freedom of speech thing, so no, never. A lot of people who do cause offence are setting out to cause offence. I'm not like that. If you write something that you believe in and it causes offence, that's something different from setting out to cause offence. Katie Hopkins, that's her stock and trade. It's like the old story that Richard Littlejohn is actually some liberal in Hampstead, which is obviously not the case, but then, is it? Is he just some jaded liberal eating a lentil burger listening to progressive rock in his sandals?
The cover of Charlie Hebdo after Paris massacres struck me as the best piece of work in any medium in the year just gone – the cover with the guy drinking the champagne with the holes in it. Some people would be grievously offended by that and they are wrong to be offended by that. Well, they can be if they want, but they're idiots.
One of the main criticisms about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons after the attacks, was that yes, freedom of speech does exist, but freedom of speech doesn't just mean you have carte blanche to say and do whatever you want.
Well the thing is we're living in an era where theoretically we have freedom of broadcast speech, even though in some cases it might only be to a dozen people. Twitter is an amazing democratic tool for things like this. There are horrible things that come with free speech, like Donald Trump who says some disgusting stuff, but it can't be denied that these arguments and opinions exist, and the worst option is to try ban them.
People want to ban UKIP and Katie Hopkins, but that doesn't take away from the fact that these opinions exist and they won't go away. You have to debate these things because they're real. I did this one piece about people trying to get food from a food bank, and the guy was trying to find out if she had a big telly or not. All the way through she denied she's got a big telly or that she drinks Stella and he gives her a couple of tins of shit to eat, and lo-and-behold when she gets back she has a massive telly and is drinking Stella. And people got offended by that and I said well, who do you think is keeping Booze Bin open? It's not your local magistrate. One thing about Viz is that it's apolitical.
In terms of your career, are you happy just doing Viz, or do you want to move into animation or TV or anything like that?
I've been reading Viz since I was 17/18 years old. I hope it does have a place in the nation's affections, probably quite low down, like a Kenwood Chef, but it does have a place. So I always will do Viz as long as they publish my stuff. For 30 odd years, all it's done is take the piss. They've never done anything in any way remotely serious.
How important is a) piss-taking and b) getting pissed, to British culture?
I think it's human nature to take the piss. Twitter is like a newsfeed of piss-taking, like a pissfeed. And most people on Twitter are just trying to take the piss, they look at the news so they can find something to take the piss out of, they look at the news photographs to see what they can take the piss out of today. That lad who was eating the bacon sandwich? Away we go, we'll have the piss out of that for a couple of weeks. Find out that David Cameron fucked a pig, we'll take the piss out of that forever. And that's why Twitter is democratic, because someone who's not working in the media, who's on a building site and works in the pub, will see one photograph and make a really good gag about it, and it'll get picked up by just one or two people and then you'll see it go past four or 5000 people and that's fantastic. So yeah, we're all piss-takers, all of us British. The world is taking out the piss of us, and we're taking the piss out of the world.
More from VICE: