Rick Poynor

Striking A Blow Against Thatcherism

David King died before research into his archive began and this leaves us with many questions about the making of his designs that he could have answered easily. The poster he created in 1980 for the scathing political play A Short Sharp Shock! by Howard Brenton and Tony Howard is a case in point. 

The art historian Dawn Adès shows the poster in the third edition of her classic study Photomontage, which was recently reissued by Thames & Hudson. This is an untrimmed copy – possibly a proof – now in the collection of the Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography in Pasadena (it was donated with other posters by David King’s estate). The Adès image is slightly different from the version of the poster shown above. The theatre names and phone numbers are double-printed in red and black, as they are on the flyers below. 

In the second edition of Photomontage (1986), Adès reproduced the black-and-white photographic print of King’s photomontage, rather than its final use in the poster. The print also appears in Photomontage: A Political Weapon by David Evans and Sylvia Gohl, published the same year. It might seem odd that this “process” image was in circulation. However, it had featured in James Woudhuysen’s profile of King (the first to appear) in Blueprint no. 12, in November 1984, and it showed up again, in September 1985, on the cover of Creative Review, where King holds a framed copy – a measure of the montage’s personal significance. These are the likeliest sources. Thatcher was by then in her second term of office, “Thatcherism” appeared to be an unstoppable political force, and King’s anti-Thatcher visual tirade would have been of great potential interest to many readers. 

David King photographed by Ben Rice for the cover of Creative Review magazine, September 1985

Seen today, this violent montage is deeply uncomfortable, all the more so, perhaps, for viewers who perceive Thatcher only as a receding historical figure and not as the towering force she was for British people who lived through those years. Before it shows anything else, the image depicts an act of shocking violence directed at a woman. While the cinema, then and now, was full of violent acts against fictional women that were taken for granted by many as mass entertainment, a single-image poster of one of the most famous women in Britain, displayed in public spaces, was potentially visible to anyone. Today, we have become acutely sensitized to the issue of violence against women. A British theatre would be highly unlikely to sanction such an image, and a designer would be highly unlikely to propose it in the first place, even if all the parties involved agreed with its political slant. 

The theatrical event represented by the poster was savagely satirical and absurdist, a scandalous forerunner of the Spitting Image TV show launched a few years later (and now revived). “We want to damage the Government, to show that in human, moral, and political terms these people are intolerable,” Brenton told the Guardian (20 June 1980). A Short Sharp Shock! opened in London at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, on 21 June 1980, and transferred to the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square on 16 July 1980. “Can a play bring the Government down?” asked the flyer. “It can give you a good time trying.” An amateur production opened simultaneously at Sheffield University. The theatre script was published by Methuen as Thirteenth Night & A Short Sharp Shock! in 1981 and the book is now a rare item. 

Sheet of untrimmed flyers for the two theatres. There is information on the reverse

A couple of quotations will give a good idea of the play’s ferocity and scorn: 

Sir Keith Joseph, Secretary of State for Industry, is speaking: “Arrgh! There’s a tube going down my throat! It’s sucking me inside out. Something strange. Like a reptile. Scaly, obscene, sterile. It’s called – [He contorts. A Voice from his bowels.] Mon-et-tar-ism.”

American economist Milton Friedman, a leading proponent of monetarism – a key idea for Thatcher’s Conservatives – then bursts from Joseph’s chest like the monster in Alien

Later in the play, Thatcher outlines her Government’s plans: “Keith means, if industry isn’t profitable, doesn’t thrive, we close the country down. Let people protest in the streets, let them strike for months, let their factories fall apart. We have friends abroad who will support us. People are very cheap. Let them suffer.”

Within a few years of this imaginary outburst, Thatcher was waging a brutal war of attrition on Britain’s coal miners, to name only one blow against ordinary working people. 

Margaret Thatcher with husband, Denis, and son, Mark, on election night, 1979

Thatcher was a deeply divisive politician: revered by the right and detested by the left. King was a peaceable man shocked to the core by social injustice. Influenced by the uncompromisingly acidic political photomontages of John Heartfield, King used images of political violence in his work, usually of victims, as a howl of outrage and protest. He loathed everything Thatcher and her cronies stood for. The “violence” of his theatre poster is directed not at Thatcher as a flesh-and-blood person who should be liquidated, but at Thatcherism as a political idea to be torn down like an offensive statue. The montage was a decapitating polemical blow against the right-wing political ideology she espoused and imposed on Britain as Prime Minister. 

A Short Sharp Shock, photomontage by David King, 1980. He left space above the image for the type

In the photo, King wields the hammer; his equally committed colleague, Judy Groves, wields the sickle. The “communist” sympathies of the image are remarkably explicit. In the play, Keith Joseph reports a nightmare: he sees “Communism, coming like a beast.” It was hardly surprising that both play and poster drew the Tories’ attention and ire. Teddy Taylor, a Conservative MP, wrote to the Arts Minister, Norman St John-Stevas, complaining about the play and publicity images. It was “unbelievable”, he said, that tax payers’ money should be used to back “offensive and silly propaganda” (Evening Standard, 18 June 1980) – the theatres received grants from the Arts Council. St John-Stevas said he deplored the play (Guardian, 23 May 1980). 

When it comes to how the image was made, there is some uncertainty. The full credit on the poster reads: “Design and photomontage: David King Photo: Gil Galvin”. This seems to suggest either that Galvin, who died in 2013, took the picture of Thatcher, or that he took the picture of King’s montage. However, Groves doesn’t recall Galvin being there for the photography; she suggests King operated the camera with one hand, while holding the hammer in the other, although that would be awkward. King’s photographer friend Red Saunders, who shared his studio with Galvin in the 1970s, also thinks it unlikely Galvin took the picture. He suggests King used a tripod. 

Originally, Guglielmo (Gil) Galvin was a professional printer of colour photographs. He worked for King at The Sunday Times Magazine and made the colour prints for King’s Muhammad Ali book, I am King. In 1979, Galvin launched himself as a photographer and went on to make his name as a portrait specialist, working for magazines. He wasn’t a news photographer and, so far as I can tell, the picture of Thatcher – by an uncredited figure – was most likely taken on election night in May 1979 when she came to power (see the photo above). So, on neither count is the “photo” likely to be by Galvin. Perhaps Saunders is right when he suggests Galvin simply printed the picture. King needed a large blow-up of Thatcher’s face to construct the montage. 

To amplify the effect, King added areas of darkness to Thatcher’s hair, across her eyes and the side of her mouth. Her face has been torn from its background, leaving a tattered edge. There may be further darkening on the hammer and sickle. The double-printing of red and black makes the montage even harsher. Thatcher has ceased to look jubilant and has become abject. The image could seem too extreme to us now – despite the extremity of our times – but, like so many of King’s political posters, it vividly recalls the battle lines of its era and just how much was at stake. 

Updated on 2 May 2022