“[Reg Smythe] is the most popular English humorist with Americans since Charles Dickens.” -
- Al Capp, creator of Li’l Abner, Saturday Evening Post, March/April 1973.
“If Reg was born in America, he would be a legend.”
Ken Layson, former Mirror cartoon editor.
“Oh Andy Capp, you wife-beating drunk. Heh heh heh.”
Homer Simpson, Marge vs The Monorail, January 14, 1993.
Reg Smythe was the greatest British newspaper strip cartoonist of the 20th Century – and second only to Peanuts’ Charles Schulz on a global scale. So why don’t we treat him that way?
Smythe invented Andy Capp for the Daily Mirror in 1957, personally writing, drawing, inking and lettering every line of the 15,000 Andy cartoons he produced over the following 40 years. When he died in 1998, the strip was syndicated to 1,700 newspapers – 1,000 in America alone – translated into 14 languages and read by a combined audience of 250 million people in 52 countries round the world. (1)
Andy’s adventures have inspired a West End musical still revived today, a UK television series starring James Bolam in the title role and a 1973 book using Andy’s antics to interpret the Gospels. His face has been used to sell not only the crisps, canned beer and homebrew kits you’d expect, but also cookbooks, boxer shorts, Royal Doulton figurines, phonecards, disposable cameras and babies’ bibs.
He’s known as Tuffa Viktor in Sweden, Charlie Kappl in Austria and and Willi Wacker in Germany, where FC Nuremberg fans have made him their mascot. In every nation, readers greet him as one of their own, as a 1960s editorial in Istanbul’s Hareket Gazetesi was quick to recognise. “Andy is as much Turkish as he is English,” the editor wrote. “And he is probably Greek, Italian and Polish too.” (2)
Smythe’s successors at the Mirror have published over 4,000 new Andy Capp strips of their own since 1998, continue to enjoy a global syndication of over 1,500 titles and are currently discussing plans for an animated series on British TV. Just a few months ago, in March 2012, Andy became an unlikely spokesman for the British Government’s Change4Life campaign, which sponsored a month’s worth of strips showing his attempts to reform.
Andy’s fans have remained fiercely loyal to the character since Smythe’s death, as Paul Baker, the editor of Pennsylvania’s Lebanon Daily News, found when he accidentally omitted one of the new team’s strips from his paper’s March 1, 2010 edition. The result was a flood of what he called “profanity-laced attacks” from readers threatening never to buy the paper again.
“Who knew a comic strip could mean so much to so many?” Baker asked as the calls subsided. “Particularly this comic strip, set in a foreign milieu and celebrating the life of a character who’s not very likeable?” (3)
Fifty-five years after that 1957 debut, then, Andy is still as unrepentantly alive as ever. That’s a remarkable achievement for any newspaper strip, but all the more so for one that’s not been able to rely on the cute children and animals of a Peanuts or a Garfield for any part of its success.
Andy in his day has been a wife-beater, an habitual drunk, a 40-a-day smoker, a long-term welfare scrounger, a gambler, a cheat, a bully and a liar. That severely limits his appeal as a subject for heart-warming Christmas TV specials, children’s birthday cards or corporate branding campaigns, and yet the strip has still found its way to the very top tier of global success.
Along the way, Smythe proved himself a far more subtle, innovative and stylish cartoonist than he’s generally given credit for. His peers have always recognised this, however, and by 1974, Smythe had won the highest awards his profession could offer on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether you look at the statistics that chart his success or the sheer skill and consistency of the strips he produced, all his British competitors are left in the dust. Even on the global stage, his equals can be counted on one hand. (4)
Some strips today, it is true, syndicate to more newspapers than even Andy at his peak. Garfield, Peanuts and Blondie all claim over 2,000 titles worldwide, and Hagar The Horrible is close behind with 1,900. Of these strips, though, neither Hagar nor Garfield can boast anything like Andy’s longevity, Hagar having so far racked up only 39 years and Garfield just 34. If we restrict the field to strips drawn by their original creator, Hagar drops still further out of contention, as Dik Browne died and was replaced by his son after only 16 years on the strip. (5-8)
That leaves just Peanuts and Blondie, and here I must admit the statistics have Andy beat. Chic Young began Blondie in 1930, writing and drawing the strip right up to his death in 1973, when his son Dean took over. That gives Chic a 43-year tenure, edging out Smythe’s 41, and Blondie a total lifespan to date of 82 years against Andy’s 55. The 47 countries where Blondie runs and 35 languages it’s been translated into are equally impressive. Personally, I think you’d find it hard to argue that Young’s work is anything like as elegant or as funny as Smythe’s, but you certainly can’t deny his success.
For me, then, the real comparison is between Andy Capp and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. Peanuts ended with Schulz’s death in 2000, by which time he’d produced close to 18,000 Peanuts strips over a fifty-year span, but has continued in reruns ever since. (9)
Schulz, like Smythe, wrote and drew every line of his strip personally, and continued doing so for over four decades without ever letting the standard drop. Both men struck out in bravely original directions with their chosen strips, Schulz by reflecting 1950s America’s growing obsession with psycho-analysis, and Smythe by offering a brutal kitchen-sink realism many years before British film or television plucked up the courage to do so.
Peanuts beats Andy on any measure you care to take, whether that be creator’s tenure, syndication reach, total readership, merchandising income, international sales or adaptions in other media. But the truly remarkable thing is that Smythe holds his place in that league at all. Even without the cuddly firepower of Snoopy, Woodstock and the rest to exploit in the mass market, he took Andy to the very top of this hugely-competitive tree, and maintained his place there alongside Schulz for over 40 years. Achieving that level of success with a foreign strip in the vast American market makes him even more remarkable.
And so – I repeat – why don’t we treat him that way?
Schulz fans can buy Fantagraphics’ beautifully-designed Complete Peanuts hardbacks – currently 17 books into their full 25-volume set – which reprint every single one of the strips chronologically, in crisp perfection, complete with an index to help you find your favourites and affectionate introductions by the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Whoopi Goldberg.
Andy’s fans must scrabble around on the internet for second-hand copies of Smythe’s 62 paperback collections, all of which are now out of print. There’s no guarantee any volume will present its strips in proper chronological order, and they contain no supporting information whatsoever. The books appear in four different formats, are consistently numbered for less than half the run, and – as I can testify - getting harder to find every day. About half the strips published in Andy’s first 25 years don’t appear in the collections anyway. (10)
It’s the same story wherever you look. Schulz had a brand new biography published in 2007 (his second), while the only substantial source on Smythe’s life remains a relatively brief essay in Les Lilley’s 1990 collection The World of Andy Capp – also out-of-print, by the way.
Schulz was born and raised in the twin city of Minneapolis/St Paul, where he has a collection of Peanuts statues mounted in a public park, an ice hockey arena named after him and – until 2006 – a full-scale Snoopy theme park at the Mall of America. The only structure honouring Smythe in his native Hartlepool is a 2007 statue of Andy on the Headland, which looks nothing like him and took the council nearly a decade of timid mithering to organise.
No-one expects Smythe’s memory to be honoured with quite the same degree of razzamatazz the Americans give Schulz – that’s simply not the way we do things in this country – but he certainly deserves more recognition than he gets right now. I hope this essay will go some way towards demonstrating what a truly great cartoonist he was, and how unjust it would be to dismiss his strip as a mere relic.
Let’s start with Homer Simpson’s charge that Andy is no more than a “wife-beating drunk”, and consider the single most objectionable cartoon Reg Smythe ever drew.
Flo’s sitting on the living room floor in housedress and pinny, her frowning expression flushed with anger. The table next to her has been tipped over, throwing a cup and saucer to the ground and breaking the saucer into six pieces. A nearby picture has been knocked askance by whatever force landed Flo and the table where they now are.
Andy stands over her with one hand thrust casually into his trouser pocket and the other leaning against the wall. He’s looking Flo straight in the eye, and the smile on his open mouth suggests he thinks this is all pretty funny. “Look at it this way, honey,” he says. “I’m a man of few pleasures and one of them ‘appens to be knockin’ yer about.”
That cartoon appeared in the Daily Mirror on August 20, 1957, just two weeks after the first Andy Capp of them all. Andy was then a single-panel cartoon, appearing only in the paper’s North-of-England edition, and would not get national publication until the following April. Seeing the drawing today, you can’t help but gasp at the casual cruelty it portrays, yet it was thought so uncontroversial at the time that the Mirror chose it to open Andy’s very first collection.
Lawrence Goldsmith is one of the three-strong team chronicling Andy’s adventures today. “It’s an absolutely hideous cartoon,” he told me when I raised this particular gag. “But it was perfectly acceptable at the time.” (11)
“Some of my early Andy ideas were very naïve,” Smythe admitted when discussing this cartoon with the journalist Les Lilley in 1990. “Good God! It seems horrible now!” In another interview, he adds: “That was a dreadful cartoon, and it was terribly naïve of me to have done it. He was too savage, a proper bully.” (12)
We may be shocked by such jokes today, but readers of the 1950s took them in their stride. Sean Garnett, Goldsmith’s writing partner on the strip, first read Andy as a child, but revisited many of the early collections when he and Goldsmith took over in 2011.
“I’ve read Andy Capp since I was a boy, because the Mirror’s always been in our house,” he told me. “It was the family paper from as long ago as I can remember. When I was a little boy, I used to turn to the strips page first after reading the football, so it’s always been there.”
The same early wife-beating gags which appalled him now had seemed entirely unremarkable first time around. “I don’t remember them from my childhood,” Garnett says. “But I don’t remember being shocked by them either.” (11, 13)
I raised the same gag with Dr Nicholas Hiley, who runs the British Cartoon Archive at Kent University. “It’s very brutal, but was presumably something Reg Smythe recognised from the society in which he grew up,” Hiley says. “He accepted that readers would recognise it as well, which they apparently did. I don’t know of any examples of them protesting at the time. It’s regarded as a kind of wry observation rather than anything else.” (11)
Smythe’s working class childhood in Hartlepool certainly gave him an insight into the lives people like Andy and Flo were forced to lead, and he poured much of his own early experience into the strip. For his creator, Andy Capp was as much reportage as simple joke-mongering, a point which his 1958 introduction to the strip’s first collection makes clear.
“A host of readers have written to us to introduce personal Andy Capps – and a number to deny the existence of him and to deplore such goings-on,” he says. “To the former, I send regards and best wishes, and I pray the latter to accept the drawings as a daily report, if nothing else, on a way of life – a true report, so help me!” (14)
Smythe was too honest a reporter not to show the violence that way of life sometimes produced along with everything else. “It’s an acknowledgement of what tends to happen when people in close proximity drink alcohol for long periods of time,” Hiley says. “That’s not often part of our presentation of drinking, but for Andy Capp and Andy Capp’s friends, this is part of the way they live together.”
Garnett agrees. “I imagine when people read Andy Capp at the time a lot of Mirror readers were bordering on Andy Capp themselves, or knew people who were Andy Capp.” He says. “It’s the first time a strip has really been about a readership rather than a character, and Reg Smythe captured that very well.”
It’s also important to remember just how common jokes like the 1957 cartoon were in British comedy at the time. On February 4, 1958, for example, the BBC broadcast a radio episode of Hancock’s Half-Hour called The Male Suffragettes.
Tony Hancock was hugely popular in Britain at the time, pulling in an audience of about five million a week for his radio programme and another nine million for his weekly television show. Then, as now, the BBC was prone to fretting over any offence its programmes might cause, particularly those with the vast mainstream audience Hancock’s Half-Hour commanded.
The Male Suffragettes has Hancock joining with Bill Kerr and Sid James to resist what they see as women’s growing power to boss them about. “I can hold me own against men, but women are different,” Sid complains. “If only we were allowed to thump ‘em now and again, I’d be all right.” The three men – all of whom play versions of themselves in the show - set about recruiting new members with the help of a lapel badge showing “a bird being sloshed over the nut with a spiked club”.
At the inaugural meeting, Hancock announces plans for a pamphlet warning all males over the age of 14 against the evils of women. “The pamphlets will be illustrated with pictures of all the types of women a man can expect to come into contact with, and illustrations on how best to deal with ‘em,” he announces. “Plus an invaluable section on how to hit ‘em without the bruises showing.”
It’s clear from the studio audience’s laughter that women watching the recording found these exchanges just as funny as the men. Audiences of that era found it easier to shrug off such gags than we do in our own politically-correct times, and would have thought us ridiculous to worry that they encouraged violence against women in real life.
“I suppose that people from 1957, looking at the subjects for humour now, would be quite amazed at the things that are accepted and tolerated,” Hiley says. “Maybe tastes will change again.”
Smythe continued to dot wife-beating jokes in among the strip’s more innocuous gags well into the 1970s, but all the harshest ones appear in these first two or three years. Here’s a few examples of those which stop you in your tracks today:
* Flo’s called the doctor round. They confer in the living room, where Andy’s asleep on the sofa. “He’s got me a bit worried, Doctor,” she says. “He hasn’t knocked me about for ages.” (September 4, 1957) (15)
* Flo’s sat on the living room floor with a black eye and a dazed swirl above her head. Andy’s leaving the room, still looking angry and with his fist still clenched. “Where’s yer manners?” Flo demands “When we was courtin’ yer used to take off yer cap afore yer ‘it me!” (January 21, 1958)
* Flo’s lying unconscious on the hall floor as Andy answers the door to Ruby. “She’s out,” he explains. (August 21, 1958)
* Andy and Chalkie, both sober, are leaving a pub called the Riveter’s Arms. “Yer must be missin’ Florrie summat awful, Andy,” Chalkie says. “Remember now, yer welcome to drop in on me missus any time an’ knock ‘er about a bit.” (February 19, 1959)
* Flo’s sat on the hall floor, with a black eye and a dazed swirl above her head. Andy’s just opened the front door for Chalkie, who walks in quite unphased. “Hi’ya, Andy!” he says. “I was passin’ so I thought I’d drop in – don’t get up, Florrie!” (January 4, 1960)
* Flo and Ruby spot a woman on the other side of the pub with a black eye and a plaster on her nose. “I’ve got no sympathy for ‘er, Ruby,” Flo whispers. “When a woman wins an argument with ‘er ‘usband she’s only got ‘erself to blame.” (January 13, 1960)
* A weeping Flo tells Andy that this time she’s going to make good on her threat to let the whole street know how he treats her. She stands on the front step and shouts: “Me ‘usband knocks me about!!” Andy responds with an announcement of his own: “Don’t believe a word she says! – She’s punch drunk!!” (November 21, 1960)
This is the strip’s most brutal phase by far, but we do get the occasional glimpse of Flo fighting back. In December 1957, for example, she slings a hammer at the back of Andy’s head, and in July 1960, it’s a rolling pin. In May the following year, she knocks him cold with a metal poker, and her reaction makes it clear that she’s done so before. “I won’t sleep a wink,” Flo says as she heads off to bed alone. “‘E’s never stayed out this long before.” (16)
That mixture of aggression and affection is very characteristic of Flo and Andy’s relationship, as Andy demonstrates in an October 1963 strip where he threatens to clobber Flo one minute and declares “I love yer” the next. And however much the couple battle between themselves, they’re always quick to defend one another against outsiders: when a copper rushes in the front door to stop Andy strangling Flo in October 1957, it’s her - not Andy - who tells him to “Mind yer own business”. (17, 18)
Smythe underlines this aspect of Flo’s character in his introduction to a 1965 collection of the strips. “Flo is my favourite character,” he declares. “Don’t criticise Andy. She’d be at you like a shot.” (19)
There’s a touch of that same instinctive loyalty in his own defence of the strip against early critics. One of the first was the comedian Bernard Braden, who spoke out in 1962. Smythe summed up his criticisms like this: “Mr Capp is a lousy husband, a bad influence and I should know better”, then gave his reply.
“Cappism isn’t my responsibility,” he writes in a 1963 introduction. “It’s been with us for ages, long before Andy climbed out of the ink bottle. He’s a bad husband? Florrie has been with him for years and is devoted to him. Florrie is a fact, Andy is a fact, and what probably gets the critics is that their affection is a fact.” (20)
By the time he wrote those words, Smythe had already cut back the violence in the strip. “Right back at the beginning, one of Andy’s gimmicks was that he was a wife-basher,” he tells Lilley. “But I’ve stopped that. I found it wasn’t necessary. Real success came when I softened up his character, just a little. When the strip became a real married-life situation.”
Garnett points out that the current team’s jokes – like those of both Smythe and Roger Kettle before them – often shuffle Andy off into the wings to focus on Flo instead. “She’s hugely important,” he says. “ I think the perception of her for people who don’t read the strip is that she’s this doormat who’s just there to give Andy money and clear up after him. But we have a lot of gags with Andy being the butt of her jokes with Ruby and stuff like that. She’s an equal in the whole set-up.”
Smythe’s biggest leap in making the strip more palatable came in 1961’s Valentine’s Day strip, where he first hits on the device of showing fights as a cloud of dust with a few random feet and fists sticking out. In this instance, the fight is between Andy and a stranger in the street, but it wouldn’t be long before he was using the device to depict Andy and Flo’s combat too.
He would eventually refine this dustball into a simple, abstract icon which represented the idea of a fight more than the fight itself. “It’s very much from animation,” Hiley says. “That kind of whirling ball is the sort of thing that was developed in Tom & Jerry and Warner Brothers cartoons. You’re not intended to imagine the damage that’s being done or the venom that’s involved.”
Andy continued to treat Flo badly well into the 1970s – he was still giving her black eyes as late as 1975 – but by then it was very much a battle of equals. Often, Flo is as eager to get her dukes up as Andy, and will agree to fight him for reasons as trivial as warming him up before a pub brawl (1966), trying to get his watch started (1968) or simply to help him relax (1971). (21)
You’ll already see Flo punching Andy as much as the other way round by this era of the strip, and a slow transfer of power between them begins. Here’s a few of the key strips that mark it out:
* Andy punches Flo, but then sees her working out with weights as he leaves for the pub. “One o’ these days I’m goin’ to ‘ave trouble with that girl,” he predicts. (1965)
* Flo tells the HP man what she’s learned about beating Andy in a fight: “Lead with yer left, then belt ‘im with yer right.” (1969)
* Chalkie points out that it’s taking Andy longer and longer to best Flo in a fight. “It’s getting tough,” he replies. “She’s a stone heavier every year.” (1971)
* Flo lands Andy a good one, knocking him clear out of their dustball fight and leaving him flat on the pavement. “Good f’ you, Flo!” says Ruby. “Yer must be the ‘appiest woman in the world now yer know ‘ow to lay ‘im out.” (1971)
* Flo punches Andy out the front door and into the road. Grinning down at his unconscious form, she says: “Blimey – I’ve done it – out f’ the count! ‘E’s never been knocked out before!” (1971)
* A dustball fight leaves Andy flat on the floor, but Flo still standing. “I’m sorry, sweet’eart,” she says. “I’m heavier than you – that’s what beat yer”. (1972)
* Andy gets home drunk to find Flo with her dukes up waiting for a fight. “I’m no match for you any more Pet – look, I’m tremblin’,” he says. The same thing happens again a few months later: “Please, Pet, not tonight, eh? I’m not up to it.” (Both 1981)
* Andy is drunk, but scared to enter the house. We see him hiding behind the door jamb, watching nervously as Flo rolls up her sleeves to batter him. (1987)
Andy stages the odd rearguard action while all this is going on, but there’s never any doubt which way the wind is blowing. More and more, what remains of his violence against Flo is implied rather than shown outright – a process which reached some kind of watershed in a 1973 collection.
This includes four cartoons which show Flo punching Andy and two dustball fights, both of which she wins. The worst Andy can manage is to chase Flo down the street, shout at her a couple of times and throw his dinner (inaccurately) at her head. The same collection is quite happy to show Andy punching Percy the rentman, the manager of his local dole office and a stranger in the pub, but Flo is now off-limits. (22)
Smythe reflects this new dynamic in the way he draws the couple. He’d always shown Andy as being slightly shorter than Flo, and has her referring to him as “that little whippet” as early as September 1960. As he started to refine the characters’ appearance in the early sixties, rounding their figures into the denser, more compact forms we know today, he accentuated that height difference all the more, and often posed Andy and Flo nose-to-nose so readers couldn’t miss it. (23)
Some see this as marking a shift in their relationship from husband and wife to mother and child, with Flo constantly struggling to keep her naughty offspring under control. In 1967, she’s being questioned by a pollster on doorstep, who asks if she has any children. Spotting Andy approaching down the street, happily bouncing his football along beside him, Flo replies: “Just the one”. By 1974, Andy is meekly asking Flo for a raise in his “pocket money”.
“I like Andy being shorter,” Goldsmith says. “I think it’s funnier. I don’t quite see him as a child, though – maybe a naughty teenager.” Roger Mahoney, who now draws the strip, adds: “Flo is mature and down-to-earth, whereas Andy has never really grown up mentally.” (11)
“Flo is the responsible one,” Hiley agrees. “She knows what should be done and tries to do it. Whereas, he knows what should be done and tries to avoid it. Like a lot of couples all of us know, it’s difficult to figure out why it works, but it does work. They seem to take refuge in each other for some reason. She needs a man, and he needs someone to rescue him when he needs rescuing.”
In one sense, Andy rescues Flo too – if only from boredom. In 1973, Smythe responded to readers who asked him why she didn’t simply leave the rotten little sod. “Flo sometimes reaches the bus shelter and studies the timetable,” he writes. “But where would she go? Some crummy little bed-sit in the next town? No, Flo’s got too much sense for that. She tried it once, and it wasn’t much fun. She knows she needs Andy – warts and all. Needs him to worry over, complain about, nag at and laugh with.”
Returning to the same subject in 1977, he adds: “Flo seems to enjoy the occasional dust-up with Andy. Loves a good argument. Thinks there’s no fun in being given her own way – she wants to fight for it.” (24)
Trevor Peacock came to the same conclusion when writing Andy’s 1982 musical. “In the play, Florrie leaves home and goes away,” he tells Lilley. “And while she’s away, she’s in a state of misery. You see, it’s this terrible little bloke she lives with – she hasn’t got him any more. And Andy is in a terrible state as well – there’s washing-up all over the place, and he’s fed up. Then it strikes you – of course! He adores her. He totally depends on her. His life is locked into hers and hers to his.”
And that’s what Keith Waterhouse thought too. “The curious thing about Andy and Flo is that it takes no effort to see they are genuinely fond of each other,” he said after completing his scripts for Andy’s 1988 TV series. “They are, in fact, made for each other. That came out in the TV performances. The two characters were very touching together.”
Paula Tilbrook, who played Flo in the show adds: “I think Flo puts up with Andy partly through habit and partly because, in spite of all his faults, she does love him. She gives as good as she gets from him. If it was any different, I think she’d be terribly bored.” (25)
Smythe continued the dustball fights between Andy and Flo right through to his death in 1998. We see Andy threaten Flo by words alone many times in Smythe’s final 20 years, but very few signs that he’s actually hit her. For every panel depicting Andy-on-Flo violence – I’ve found just three between 1976 and 1990 – there are a dozen that show Flo punching Andy off his feet.
Since Smythe died, their once-turbulent relationship has been toned down still further. The Kettle/Mahoney strips, which ran from 1998 till 2011, would occasionally show Flo punching Andy out the front door but no other violence between them. In their own scripts for Mahoney, Goldsmith and Garnett have restored the dustball fights Kettle avoided, but otherwise keep the violence under control. Even when it’s Flo attacking Andy, things never escalate beyond a slapstick sequence showing her hurling her kitchen pans at him – and generally missing.
“In the early days, up to the mid-sixties, Andy could be quite an unpleasant character with the domestic violence,” Goldsmith says. “People still refer to Andy like that, but he hasn’t actually been that way for over 30 years.”
It’s clear enough why Smythe felt the need to soften Andy’s initial thuggish personality, and that decision has been paying dividends for the strip ever since. A more intriguing question is whether he had a real-life model in mind for Andy the drunken, workshy wastrel when he created the character in 1957. To answer that, we must travel back to Hartlepool at the time of the First World War. It’s time to meet Reg Smythe’s dad.
Richard Smyth married Florrie Pearce at the Congregationalist Chapel in Hartlepool on December 23, 1916. They’d met less than a year earlier, but Richard had managed to get Florrie pregnant almost immediately, and she was already carrying Reg when she walked up the aisle for what The Sunderland Echo later confirmed was a shotgun wedding. Richard at the time was 23, and his bride just 19. (26)
Florrie’s last job that day before changing into her wedding dress had been black-leading the fire grate at home so the room was spick and span for the reception guests they were expecting later. Everything we need to imagine about working class life in Hartlepool at the time – the pride as well as the poverty – is there in that single image: a bride-to-be, black-leading the grate on her wedding day.
The First World War was then in its third year, and Hartlepool’s status as a major ship-building town made it a target for the German Navy. In just a single night of December 1914, the Kaiser’s ships had rained 1,150 shells on the town, killing 117 residents and causing the first military fatality on British soil since the English Civil War. It was only the fact that Richard was a shipwright – then a reserved occupation – which allowed him escape military service and a spell in the trenches.
Richard’s father had been a ship’s plater, and Florrie’s father an engine fitter, so they both came from very similar stock. But the Smyth family had been Congregationalists since the 1800s – “Independent Chapel” as the locals called them - and Florrie often felt that they resented Richard’s decision to marry outside that faith.
Reg was born on July 10, 1917, and the new baby encouraged the two clans to make peace. “The Pearce and Smyth families would get together and celebrate at one of the many local pubs,” Ian Smyth Herdman says in his family memoir. “Even though times were hard and the First World War prevailed, this family group needed little encouragement to celebrate.” (27)
At the beginning of 1918, Richard found work in Sunderland, about 17 miles up the coast from Hartlepool, again building boats for the war effort. Florrie and Reg moved there with him for a few years, and the new job gave them slightly more cash, but already the couple was fighting. Richard took to spending what little money they had on drink, and nothing Florrie did seemed able to stop him. “She would stand outside with baby Reg swaddled in a blanket,” Smyth Herdman says. “As Richard left the pub, Florrie would shout abuse.”
When Richard’s mother Priscilla and his sister came to visit, they would sometimes take Reg back to Hartlepool with them so he could have a few weeks shielded from the conflict at home. “Reg was spending more time with his aunts and uncles than with his own parents,” says Smyth Herdman.
The end of the war in 1918 put a stop to the North East’s ship-building boom, and from that point on Richard was often out of work. Lily, Reg’s sister, was born in 1919, which added another mouth for the family to feed.
Many other local families were struggling too, as Reg discovered when he started his education at Hartlepool’s Galleys Field School. “There were working class kids who wore shoes to school and then, moving down, there were those who wore boots,” he tells Lilley. “Then came the canvas shoe wearers, followed by the bare foot brigade. Finally, the anonymous, invisible mass at the very bottom of the heap who didn’t go to school at all.”
Reg himself belonged to the canvas shoes group, spared the indignity of slipping any lower only by a sixpenny pair of Woolworth’s plimsolls. “My family was just about getting by,” he says. “We lived on lard – dripping. Dripping was OK for fried bread. It was also very useful for greasing your bike [and] great for putting on your hair!”
The young Reg enjoyed drawing at school, and a teacher called George Carter evidently spotted some nascent talent in the lad. He encouraged Reg to go out and practice his skills by drawing St Hilda’s, Hartlepool’s 12th Century church, and other prominent buildings in the town. “I quite liked drawing when I was at school, but I certainly wasn’t obsessed by it,” Smythe says. “Usually, I was about fourth or fifth in the class when examination time came around and we were told to draw that obligatory bunch of tulips in a jam jar.”
Richard and Florrie’s marriage continued up and down for the next few years until Florrie produced a pair of twins in 1924, who lived for less than a year. The heartbreak caused by this kicked their rows up to a whole new level, and Florrie moved out of the Sunderland house. By 1926, both she and Richard were back in Hartlepool, though now married in name only. Reg and Lily spent most of their time with their grandparents on the Smyth side of the family, who were now more suspicious of Florrie than ever.
Richard managed to find a job down south for a while, working in a Surrey boatyard and sending what money he could back home. He was amazed at how prosperous the South East seemed compared to what he knew. “It is quite a change building boats here,” he wrote in one excited letter. “No oars at all, just motor boats!”
Meanwhile, Florrie had taken an evening job as a singing barmaid in one of Hartlepool’s many pubs. She had to look her best for that, but could not afford to visit the hairdresser every day. Instead, she took to curling her own hair, leaving the curlers there, and covering them with a headscarf until it was time to go to work. This meant she’d be walking around in curlers and a turban-like headscarf all day, which led Richard’s side of the family to nickname her “The Turk”.
That’s how she would have been dressed for one family row which Smyth Herdman relates. Reg was at his grandparent’s house watching, when – according to Smyth Herdman’s account – Florrie turned up determined to pick a fight. Hearing that she was on her way, and knowing this promised an entertaining spectacle, the neighbours up and down Alliance Street positioned themselves in windows and doorways to enjoy the show. Public rows between Florrie and Reg’s grandparents James and Priscilla were a pretty regular event by then, but the procedure was always the same.
“Reg’s grandparents were terrified of the trouble Florrie caused, and often grandmother would hide behind grandfather when he answered the door,” Smyth Herdman says. “Grandmother was terrified of Florrie’s outbursts, and further mortified when she saw everybody in the street watching. During the arguing, she would pluck up courage. Stepping from behind grandfather, she would lose her temper and send Florrie packing with a flea in her ear.
“After the debacle, poor grandfather would have to sit down, and he needed a jug of ale to recover from being shown up in the street. Surely this must have been traumatic for the young Reg, and would no doubt be remembered and sketched into his Andy Capp cartoons in later life.”
Reg turned 14 – then the minimum school leaving age – in 1931, entering the job market just as the Great Depression was reaching its peak. He got work as a delivery boy in Charlie Walker’s Hartlepool butcher’s shop – work he was pleased to have - but found the shop’s weekly “slaughtering day” hard to bear. In those days, butchers would slaughter beasts themselves, usually in an out-building close to the shop. In Charlie Walker’s case, this task was carried out every Wednesday afternoon, and handled by his formidable wife Annie.
“The slaughterhouse was behind the shop, and there was a metal ring embedded in its floor,” Lilley explains. “An animal would be tethered to this, and its head pulled down in preparation for the kill by means of a rope passed through a ring in its nose. The slaughtering of the beasts was done by the woman who owned the shop – a huge, muscular female who frightened the life out of the little lad. She killed animals by hitting them accurately between the eyes with a great bloody spike.”
Reg was sacked from the butchers’ shop job two years later, as his coming 16th birthday would otherwise have meant the Walkers had to buy him a ninepenny National Insurance stamp every week, and they preferred to replace him with another 14 year old instead. In 1933, still just 16 years old, he joined his father – along with half of Hartlepool’s other menfolk - on the dole.
Two years of aimless mooching about followed, then Reg turned 18 and announced he was going to join the army. His father called round to say goodbye on the day Reg was due to leave for his Cairo training with the Northumberland Fusiliers.
“My father was an Andy, cap and all,” Smythe wrote in 1965. “Well, maybe not quite an Andy. Like some of us, he might do the same things, but not with Andy’s poise. He took me down to the Snooker Room, loser pays. The last words I can remember him saying were, ‘Take care o’ yerself, lad. We haven’t seen much of each other – pink in the corner pocket.’ I paid. I never saw him again.”
Twenty-five years later, describing his dad to Lilley, Smythe adds: “He mouldered his life away. The only real difference between him and me was that I said ‘Bugger it!’ and joined the army.”
It’s pretty clear, then, that all the building blocks for Andy and Flo were already there in Smythe’s mind by the time he left for Cairo in 1936. He gave Flo his mother’s Christian name, her maiden name, her feisty attitude and her curlers-plus-headscarf combo. Like the terrifying Annie, Flo would soon show herself capable of taking on any man. Andy got Richard’s boozy ways, his long periods out of work and his love of both snooker and gambling – plus his cap, of course.
“Andy is perfectly content to lay about,” Smythe told the Saturday Evening Post in 1973. “He is a proud, able-bodied Englishman who considers welfare his due, even his duty. It’s not a bad life. My father lived on welfare till the day he died, respected to the end by his family and his community. And do did I until I was 18.” (28)
Andy and Flo, like Richard and Florrie, would always be fighting, and Smythe gave them the same house at 37 Durham Street, Hartlepool, which his mother lived in after the separation. In one 1975 collection, Smythe describes his fictional couple’s street in terms which suggest he’s really recalling his own childhood there: “Little terraced houses with an outside loo, one cold tap in the back kitchen where the walls are always wet, with windows that won’t open and doors that won’t close, and those freezing cold bedrooms where your breath comes out like a cloud of smoke.” (29, 30)
The Hartlepool streets he drew as Andy and Flo’s neighbourhood have the same real-life landmarks Richard and Florrie saw every day, including St Mary’s Church in Durham Street, the breakwater Andy uses for fishing and the Headland’s railed walkway looking out over the North Sea. As in real life, one of the couple is Independent Chapel and one is not – although Smythe gives this faith to Flo rather than Andy to make a particular gag work.
Smythe’s mum would sometimes give interviews after the strip became a success, and was always happy to confirm that Andy and Flo’s constant ructions and reconciliations were based on her own stormy relationship with Richard. But she never failed to point out that there was one important difference too. “Unlike Andy, my husband was never an aggressive man,” she told a journalist in 1976. ‘But, my goodness, although he didn’t like work, he was certainly fond of a pint of beer and a flutter on the horses!” (31)
When Smythe joined the British Army in 1936, he did so for what was known as “seven and five”: that is to say, seven years of active service, followed by five more years as an army reserve. What he didn’t know was that the Second World War was just three years away, and that this would stretch his seven years of active service to nearly ten.
Things started well enough with his Cairo posting, though, at least as far as his pre-war service there was concerned. “We used to do our training in the morning because of the heat,” he tells Lilley. “After lunch, the rest of the day was your own. I used to play tennis quite a bit.”
The system then was that each man would spend the first four years of his active service abroad, then be shipped home to the UK for the remaining three. Homesick soldiers knew that, when the time came to return to Blightly, they’d be allowed just one kitbag and one suitcase for all their belongings. Many bought these suitcases months ahead of time, packing and repacking them to make the glorious day seem a little closer.
Smythe saw an opportunity there, using the artistic skills he’d displayed at school to set up a small business inking each soldier’s initials on to his case in careful italic script. He’d taken to including little cartoon sketches in his letters home too, and soon became known throughout his unit as the bloke who could draw.
When war broke out in 1939, Smythe became a machine gunner and saw action both at the siege of Tobruk and in the El Alamein campaign. He rose to the rank of sergeant and came home with campaign medals for both Palestine and North Africa. He had no home leave during his entire ten years abroad – not even when his father died in 1940 – but only a few spells of R&R in Cairo.
It’s typical of Smythe’s modesty that he would describe this period as nothing more than “the Northumberland Fusiliers and the German troops [chasing] one another up and down the Western Desert”. And yet, as Smyth Herdman points out, Smythe would also rate these army years as one of the biggest influences in his life.
He gave Andy precisely this wartime experience too, establishing in various strips that Andy had driven a Bren carrier in North Africa, that he’d been a sergeant in the Northumberland Fusiliers, that he’d fought in the same battles as Smythe himself, and come home with medals on his chest. Andy never forgot his army years any more than Smythe did, and was still calling himself “an ex-soldier” as late as 1990. “ (32-37)
The war brought renewed business to Hartlepool’s shipyards, which were used to build the Empire Ships Britain relied on to bring vital supplies from America. The town’s people still weren’t rich – far from it – and yet they managed to contribute more voluntary cash per head to the war effort than any other town in Britain. German bombers targeted Hartlepool over 40 times in an effort to destroy the shipyards.
One casualty of these raids was St Mary’s church spire in Durham Street, rendered so unstable by bombs that it had to be demolished as soon as the war was over, leaving just the supporting tower behind. Smythe would certainly have remembered St Mary’s from his old childhood home nearby. He’d later make the church a regular landmark in Andy’s world too, but never acknowledged the loss of its steeple there. Whether this was simple nostalgia on his part or an act of retrospective defiance towards the Luftwaffe, I don’t know. (38)
Peace returned in 1945, leading to mass lay-offs in the Hartlepool shipyards again. When Smythe was demobbed the following year, he found his job prospects in the town just as bleak as before.
“People are surprised when the blokes who worked in shipyards are offered other jobs and won’t take them,” he tells Lilley. “But there was something sort of prestigious about being a riveter or a boilermaker – you couldn’t see yourself working in a button factory or a chicken-processing factory or anything like that.
“I felt the same way about being a soldier, and about being a sergeant. The Army had given me some sort of role to play, and when I left the Army, I felt a bit dismayed to find myself back where I’d started from. So I made up my mind to go down to London and try my luck there.”
His army service helped him get London work as a telephone clerk with the GPO – or General Post Office. Bizarre as it sounds, the Post Office ran Britain’s telephone system then, with a host of switchboard operators noting the details of each individual call on its own slip of paper, and then passing these thousands of slips to clerks like Smythe for sorting by hand. Their job – an incredibly boring one – was to ensure every single slip for every tu’penny call was allocated to the right subscriber for billing.
And this for a man who’d just been fighting Rommel! Smythe dealt with the boredom first by taking a typing course, which boosted his wages from four pounds ten shillings to five pounds a week. This also brought a transfer from his original Cannon Street office to one in Crouch End, where he started volunteering for short-term postings to any other GPO office needing temporary staff. If nothing else, this allowed him to explore different bits of London, some as exotic as Mount Pleasant or Palmers Green.
Each move brought a bit of novelty with its new surroundings, but work that was just as boring as before. He began investigating the Post Office’s many staff associations, wondering if there might be any hobby that interested him there. “The Post Office Poetry Circle seemed retarded to me,” he told the Saturday Evening Post in 1973. “And, as for athletics, I’ll take that lying on the sofa watching telly, but nowhere else. That left the Drama Club.”
He takes up the story again with Lilley: “While I was at Crouch End, the Post Office staff were doing a play called Flowers for the Living, which had been written by a local lady called Mrs Block. They needed a poster for the staff notice board, and I said I’d have a go at doing it because I wanted to be in the swim, but I didn’t much like the idea of acting.
“When I’d finished the poster, one of the group said, ‘Hey, that’s not bad. Why don’t you take up commercial art for a living?’ And I thought that was a good suggestion.”
Smythe’s first step towards fulfilling these new ambitions was to find the name of a commercial art studio in Oxford Street and get a batch of his best drawings together to show the man in charge. Forty years later, when he recalled that encounter, the memory still seemed to sting.
“He sat on the other side of a desk looking extra-special smart in his beautiful blue serge suit,” Smythe tells Lilley. “I passed my small batch of sketches to him, and he looked at them very briefly. Then he said, ‘Look, son, if you want to draw for your own amusement, that’s OK. Why don’t you do that, eh? Drawing for a living is an entirely different matter.’ I stuck my tail between my legs and shambled out of the office, convinced I was no use at all.”
Despite this discouragement, Smythe pressed on. He continued practicing his drawing, managed to get a couple of sketches published in what would become The Hartlepool Mail, and eventually happened to meet someone who had a friend of a friend who knew the commercial art agent Charles Gilbert. Smythe parlayed this tenuous connection into an appointment, and set off to Gilbert’s Fleet Street office with another stack of drawings.
“He said that my drawing wasn’t too good, but that I had a bit of a bent for comic drawing,” he recalls. “He then asked if I could do 30 cartoons for him by the following Friday. He assured me that, if I could do this, he would have a go at selling them for me. Truth to tell, I don’t honestly believe he thought I would come back. Thinking of the ideas and drawing 30 cartoons in six or seven days is a huge task, a mammoth task if you’ve never done it before. But I did manage to go back with 30 cartoons – not on the following Friday, but on the Wednesday.” (39)
Smythe managed this by rushing home from work on his pushbike at 5:30 sharp every night so he could spend the whole evening drawing. He’d grab a sandwich while working, and timed his progress with an old tin alarm clock he’d set to go off every 30 minutes. “He allowed himself only that half hour in which to think of and draw a cartoon,” Lilley says. “He slashed the idea on paper as fast as he could just to maintain the output. If he managed to complete a cartoon in a quarter of an hour, [he] allocated the next quarter of an hour to the next cartoon so he could take that little extra time and trouble over it.”
Gilbert must have been stunned when Smythe turned up with the 30 cartoons he’d asked for two days before the deadline. Perhaps he really had named such a large figure simply to get rid of the young pest, but now he proved as good as his word.
“Exactly one week later, again on a Wednesday, Mr Gilbert rang personally and said he’s sold two of my 30 submissions to a magazine called Everybody’s,” Smythe recalls. “The magazine is long-since defunct, but it paid three guineas for a cartoon at that time. So my gross earnings for the two cartoons came to more than I was making in a week at the GPO! That was all the incentive I needed. From that day onwards, I not only worked for the Post Office, but I also drew 60 cartoons a week.” (40)
Smythe had a good incentive to work hard as the 1940s drew to a close, because he’d met a young woman called Vera Toyne and decided he wanted to marry her. The couple were wed in Edmonton, Middlesex in the summer of 1949, and set up home together.
Fortunately, the market for cartoons in Britain was then very healthy, with the Daily Sketch alone carrying a full page every day, plus a four-page weekly supplement. Other titles like the Mirror Group’s Reveille were chock-full of cartoons too. The best payers, who got first sight of every freelancers’ work, gave contributors as much as seven guineas for each cartoon they bought. Their rejects were circulated down through each successive layer of the market, where magazines might pay five guineas for a cartoon, four guineas, three guineas or two.
At the very bottom of the pile were the cheap and cheerful rags which paid just half a guinea per cartoon – but even that was enough for a struggling young freelancer to buy stamps and set his next batch of submissions tumbling through the process again. “Reg started work for the Gilbert Agency at a time when there was the potential to sell every cartoon you drew,” Lilley says. “If you were funny.”
Smythe’s idol at this time was Leslie Harding, a hugely-popular cartoonist who used the pen-name Styx. Harding was a client of Gilbert’s too, and Smythe contrived to take his cartoons in to the office each week on the same day he knew Harding called there. Soon, he’d got to the point of having a drink in the pub round the corner with the great man.
Harding saw something in Smythe and took the trouble to critique a batch of his cartoons, adding notes on the back with suggested improvements or a word of encouragement when he thought the drawing was particularly good. “It was very, very kind of him to take the time to do this when he was himself very busy,” Smythe says. “I was very grateful, took notice of his comments, and put the cartoons right as best I could.”
Harding had more work than he could handle, so he started passing on a few of the lesser jobs to Smythe. Now the young man was faced with thinking up not only a steady stream of general-interest gags, but also ones that fitted a specific trade magazine. Farmer & Stockbreeder, The Fish Trader’s Gazette and The Draper’s Record all wanted jokes set in their own readers’ unique industry, and it was Smythe’s job to provide them. Five years later, when he won his first daily slot in a national newspaper, that training would prove invaluable. (41)
It was around this point – the early 1950s – that Smythe started signing his surname with the additional “e” he’d use for the rest of his life. His father’s side of the family had always insisted that Smyth should be pronounced to rhyme with “writhe” anyway, and often corrected people who rhymed it with “kith” instead. By adding the “e”, Smythe was hoping to avoid the same confusion himself, as well as creating a signature which he thought might look more up-market to his snootier Southern readers.
Soon, he’d extended his work to the speedway press, inventing a character called Skid Sprocket for Monthly Speedway World, and a regular feature flagged with his own name for the parent magazine. He also started selling a few cartoons to London’s Evening Standard, Reveille and – praise be – the Daily Mirror. The Mirror was then Britain’s most important newspaper for strip cartoons, a reputation it first won in the 1930s. American strips were much more developed than their British equivalents in those days, and much of the Mirror’s early success came from copying American ideas, but adding a twist for the home market.
Garth, for example, which began running in the Mirror in 1943, was Britain’s answer to Superman, while Belinda Blue Eyes (1936) aped Little Orphan Annie. Buck Ryan, who made his Mirror debut in 1937, owed a lot to Dick Tracy and Just Jake (1938) relied on anglicising Li’l Abner. The Mirror’s cartoons also made a significant contribution to the war effort, thanks not only to Philip Zec’s astonishingly powerful political drawings, but also to the delicious Jane, who saw it as a patriotic duty to shed her clothes in every other panel. (42)
Hugh Cudlipp was editorial director of the Mirror from 1952 till 1963, and chairman of Mirror Group for four years after that. In his autobiography, he says a 1936 issue of the paper would comprise 40 pages altogether of which a page-and-a-half (nearly 4%) would be devoted to cartoons. “They were given more space than serious news, and readers still asked for encores,” he writes, adding that, by January 1947, “strips were occupying 12 per cent of the paper’s total space”. (43)
One of the Mirror’s regular cartoon slots in the early 1950s was Laughter At Work, a full column of single-panel gags, topped off by whichever one its editors thought was the funniest of the day. The column’s lead cartoon was always printed larger than those below it, and offered a useful showcase for any cartoonist able to fill that slot. Smythe started to get work accepted for this column fairly regularly, and often found himself given the lead position. One day in 1954, he got a call from Zec – by then the Mirror’s art editor – calling him in for a meeting.
“Apparently, they had thousands of cartoons coming in for consideration for the Laughter At Work spot, and I believe they got fed up with sorting them out and having to make choices,” Smythe says. “When I went in, Mr Zec told me that another cartoonist, Derek Fullarton, and I were the two most regularly used, so they were going to have a little contest to find out which of us was most popular. He would give Laughter At Work to the one that came out ahead of the other on a permanent daily basis.
“I worked my fingers and my head to the bone. I upped my output from 60 cartoons a week to 80 a week, just for that month. Whether that affected the eventual result, I will never know, but I did get the job. Eventually, they stopped calling it Laughter At Work and it was published under my name. Having previously been obliged to think of something to do with work for every cartoon, I was now free to comment on and draw anything that took my fancy.”
Smythe was enjoying a lie-in at his mother’s place in Hartlepool when the telegram came. It was July 2, 1957, and he’d been staying with Florrie for two days so far, with no plans to return to London till his full fortnight’s holiday was done. What the hell did Bill Herbert want with him now?
The message, like all telegrams, was typed out in an urgent, all-caps font:
“SORRY TO INTERRUPT YOUR HOLIDAY. MR CUDLIPP NEEDS A CARTOON TO APPEAL TO NORTHERN READERS. YOU ARE WANTED STRAIGHT AWAY. COME BACK. THAT’S THE NEWSPAPER BUSINESS! – BILL HERBERT.”
Herbert was then the Mirror’s cartoon editor. He knew Smythe’s mother didn’t have a phone at 37 Durham Street – few people in Smythe’s Hartlepool did in the 1950s – so the telegram had been his quickest way of getting in touch. He wrote a letter to Smythe that day too, but must either have scrapped it when he opted for the telegram instead or simply allowed it to be overtaken en route.
It’s always the telegram Smythe recalls when telling this story, so perhaps he never even saw the letter. Herbert’s secretary took a carbon copy as she typed it, though, and the British Cartoon Archive now has a photocopy of that carbon in its files. Freed from the brevity an expensive telegram demanded, Herbert was free to spell out his emergency in full:
“Hugh Cudlipp has asked me to evolve a special humorous character for the Manchester edition, who will appear each day in a cartoon on the ‘Laughter’ page. Obviously, this will have to be the main cartoon on the page, and obviously you are the man to do it – especially as you are from the North.
“Could you please give this some thought, and ‘phone me about it as soon as you can? Naturally, I want to get this new feature into the Manchester edition as soon as humanly possible, and if you could devote some of your holiday to thinking up a name for the character (something like ‘Cock o’ the North’ or ‘Cocky Leekie’ or something like that). I am sure you will be able to suggest something better than these, but they give you the idea.
“I may mention that we have also to prepare a daily gag strip for the Manchester edition. I have a couple of ideas for this which I am working on, but thought you would like to know.
“Is there any chance of you being able to start this new feature sometime next week? Would it be possible for you to get it going, and then take the other remaining week of your holiday. I know there are financial details to be settled too, but we can fix that when we meet.”
You can sense from Herbert’s increasingly urgent tone that he’s got Cudlipp breathing down his neck. First, he’s merely asking Smythe to give the matter a bit of thought while he’s on holiday and then, just two paragraphs later, announcing he wants the feature ready to go in a matter of days. By the time he got to the telegram, he was ordering Smythe to get back down to London right now and stressing it was Cudlipp himself who demanded this.
Being called back to London by Cudlipp, Smythe later said, was “like receiving a personal summons from God on High.” He jumped in his little car and set off down the A1 immediately. Casting around frantically in his mind for anything that leapt out as a killer idea, he found nothing, and decided he’d have to settle instead for a stop-gap character to buy himself some time.
“Somewhere on the road between Hartlepool and London, I remembered Dad, the folk around the back-to-back houses where I was brought up and the well-pinnied, turbaned ladies who were the real backbone of the area,” he tells Lilley. “Little did I realise, but inspiration was striking even as I worried about my lack of a sophisticated idea.”
Arriving back in London after what was then a seven-hour drive, Smythe went straight to his drawing board. “At some time during the night, I did a drawing of my temporary character, and I tried to find a name for him over breakfast,” he says. “I was due to present something to Bill Herbert that morning!
“I’d sketched this little man as a working class type wearing a cloth cap, so I thought Capp would be as good a name for him as any. Cap? Capp? Fred Capp, perhaps? Then, as an afterthought, I drew his face with the cap pulled down well over his eyes. [...] I thought about his character. What would he be like? Perhaps he would be a dead lumber. The type who is a right little handicap to his wife. Handicap? .... Andy Capp! I had it!”
The debt to Smythe’s father is clear enough in that account, and Smythe later confirmed that Richard Smyth, just like Andy, would even wear his cap while playing football. But there were other Hartlepool residents stirred into the mix too, as Smythe told the Mirror journalist Revel Barker one day while chatting. As a child, Smythe explained, he’d been watching a game in the stands at Hartlepool United when he noticed something odd.
“It started to rain, and the man standing next to him took off his cap and put it inside his coat,” Barker explains. “Young Reg said: ‘Mister, it’s starting to rain’. The man said he knew that. ‘But – it’s started to rain, and you’ve taken your cap off,’ said a puzzled Reg. The man looked at the youngster as if he were stupid. ‘You don’t think, do you, that I’m going to sit in the house all night wearing a wet cap!’” (44)
Smythe’s first reaction on coining Andy’s name was to cringe at his own awful pun, but he knew he had no better ideas and no time to muck about either. He scrawled the name “Andy Capp” on top of the night’s sketches and set off for Herbert’s office. “I was dead ashamed of those cartoons and that stupid name,” he says. “They embarrassed me. I put my small pile of stuff on Mr Herbert’s desk and slunk away.”
In one way, he was right to be worried. The conventional wisdom among editors at that time was that readers tended to place themselves in the social class above the one they really occupied. The vast majority of Mirror readers worked with their hands in factories, mills and foundries, but if even they considered themselves middle class, then who was there left to identify with a character like Andy?
Fortunately, Cudlipp still took a personal interest in the Mirror’s cartoons, and was confident enough to trust his own gut. When Herbert and Smythe showed him the sketches, he laughed in all the right places and told Smythe to bring them back again after lunch. If he still thought they were funny then, Cudlipp said, they’d go in. And that was that.
The first Andy Capp cartoon ever printed was a single panel in the Mirror’s Manchester edition of August 5, 1957. It shows Andy and Flo on the seafront at Blackpool, walking past a café with a “Home Cooking” sign in its window. Flo’s about to go in, but Andy spots the sign and pulls her back. “No, not that one, lass,” he says. “I’m on ‘oliday”.
Neither of the characters quite look themselves yet, but Andy already has his cap pulled down well over his eyes and his trademark fag welded to the bottom lip. As in every view of Andy walking down the street for the next 40 years, Smythe draws him with the sole of one foot showing. The cartoon’s holiday theme reflects Smythe’s own interrupted break in Hartlepool.
TheMirror flipped this drawing left to right before printing it, perhaps in deference to the page layout, and this meant Smythe’s careful lettering on the café awning had to be replaced with a crude typeset overlay. Where Smythe’s original tilts each letter to acknowledge the awning’s 30 degree angle, the printed overlay seems to occupy a different plane altogether. (45)
Such tampering was rare, though, and Smythe generally found that Cudlipp’s blessing guaranteed him a free hand. “Mr Cudlipp regarded it very much as his personal baby, so if he didn’t complain or issue directives, no one else saw fit to complain,” he tells Lilley. “I was very lucky.” (46)
In the course of his first 50 cartoons for the new feature, Smythe establishes that Andy is bone idle (10 cartoons), resolutely unromantic (7 cartoons) and a poor gambler (2 cartoons). He loves snooker, darts and football (11 cartoons between them), likes a drink (4 cartoons) and hits his wife (5 cartoons). He also emerges as foul-mouthed, a bad loser, a sexist, a fanatic about his pigeons and downright rude with unwanted visitors.
Far from alienating Mirror readers with this behaviour, Andy proved an immediate favourite. “For the first time, someone had the temerity to show a section of the public exactly what it was like, warts and all,” Lilley says. “And that particular section of the public loved what it saw.”
Smythe wasn’t quite the only one then presenting the sordid side of Northern working class life in such an unflinching way, but he was certainly well ahead of other popular media. Only the most adventurous theatre and literature managed even to keep pace with him, and these highbrow forms couldn’t hope for Andy’s mass audience.
John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which ushered in the Angry Young Men’s revolution in British culture, had its first performance only 15 months before Andy’s debut, and John Braine’s 1957 novel Room At The Top was published in the same year. The first cinema film to venture into this area - an adaption of Osborne’s play - was not released until 1959. Most timid of all was television, where the gritty-for-its-day soap opera Coronation Street did not debut until December 1960, and Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home had to wait until 1966.
“Smythe is dealing with themes that the mainstream media – television and films in Britain – aren’t going to deal with till the sixties, maybe five, ten years later,” Hiley says. “It’s difficult to find anybody in the fifties who’s representing this kind of relationship between man and wife in an industrial town, which involves heavy drinking, which involves violence, which involves real affection and all the complexities of husband and wife.”
Goldsmith agrees. “Reg Smythe was a genius,” he says. “He really was. Because Andy Capp’s been around for so long, people forget how unique it was for its time. It probably was the first cartoon strip to really depict real life – I can’t think of another.”
Smythe’s secret in showing us Andy’s world so accurately was simply that he knew it so well. Where an outsider might have injected cheap sentiment or self-conscious social comment into the strip, Smythe simply produced a slightly heightened version of the streets where he’d grown up.
“Possibly the reason for Andy’s success was not having time to invent [anything],” he wrote in 1965. “The background and the environment are exact, the characters ordinary, the situations commonplace.”
Hiley sees this low-key authenticity as an essential part of the strip’s appeal. “There’s no feeling in it that it’s pastiche,” he says. “There’s no feeling that it’s somebody from outside that world who is looking in. I think if that had been attempted by anybody, it could have ended up being condescending. It’s not apologetic, it’s not analytic, it’s not an anthropological view of a strange culture. It seems to be written by a participant.”
Garnett believes the strip’s class setting is still as important as ever. “At the end of the day, Andy is a working class person,” he says. “I’m from a very working class background, as is Lawrence, so we understand the difficulties of living on a council estate or in a house where you struggle to pay the rent.
“Working class has become a very dirty term. It almost suggests it’s not a working class any more – it’s a sub-class. People who don’t work, who don’t want to work. People who just want to sponge all the time. You’ve got to identify that the working class still does exist, particularly in the Northern towns where Andy Capp comes from. So I think it’s very important, and I think we’ll strive to keep it that way as well. You don’t want Andy to become aspirational.”
It’s instructive here to compare Andy with Frank Gallagher in the UK version of Paul Abbott’s Shameless. Andy’s no less work-shy than Frank, no less drunken and every bit as feckless. And yet he belongs to the traditional working class world of dignity and pride just as surely as Frank belongs to the underclass Garnett describes. Andy may be what some call a “shirking class” character within that traditional world – its court jester if you like - but it’s still very much his home. (47, 48)
“I can see where there are similarities, but I think Frank Gallagher’s got quite a nasty streak to him,” Garnett says. “I don’t think Andy ever goes out of his way to hurt anybody.”
It’s Andy’s working class roots that led Ultras Nuremberg, the German team’s supporters’ club to adopt him as their mascot. “He’s a straightforward guy,” the club’s Christian Moessner told one journalist. “Someone who stands for his beliefs and loves the old-school football. Football without the high-priced tickets that only the upper class can afford.” (49)
For the first eight months, Smythe drew both Andy’s daily cartoon for the Mirror’s Manchester edition – which appeared in his old slot topping the Laughter At Work column – and a general interest cartoon every day to fill that space in the rest of the country. By April 1958, though, the Mirror was confident enough to give Andy a national showing, and added him to the Southern editions as well.
Two months later, Bruce Bairnsfather, the creator of a much-loved wartime cartoon character called Old Bill, sent the Mirror a tribute drawing with Bill and Andy shaking hands. Bairnsfather’s 1915 cartoon of Old Bill sharing a trench with a complaining squaddie as shells burst above them remains one of the most famous in the world, and Bill’s frustrated comment in its caption has entered the English language: “Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it!” Echoing this in his new drawing, Bairnsfather captioned it: “If yer knows of a better Capp, wear it!”
The Mirror grasped this as precisely the passing of the torch Bairnsfather had intended, and printed the drawing with his accompanying letter on page two. “Last week, a reader wrote that Reginald Smythe (creator of Andy Capp) was the greatest humorist since Bairnsfather,” the paper begins. “Captain Bairnsfather has this to say: ‘Seeing Mr Smythe and myself mentioned together in a reader’s letter the other day, I thought a meeting should take place between Andy and Old Bill. I therefore enclose a drawing which may interest your readers.” His gesture was made all the more poignant when Bairnsfather died just 15 months later. (50)
By 1959, Smythe was drawing Andy more often as a strip than as a single-panel cartoon, and something like the format we know now started to emerge. The paper was quick to recognise Andy’s success, and treated the strip very well as a result. For a while, it was even promoted to page three, where only the daily political cartoon had been thought been thought worthy to appear before.
“He went like a bomb!” Smythe says. “He forever disproved the theory I had that humour in the North is different from humour in the South. Andy was appreciated everywhere.” With a national audience now at his command and a position in the paper no-one could miss, it wasn’t long before Andy’s reach was challenging that of the TV soaps.
“There are some parallels between Andy Capp as a representation of a very local Northern, working-class culture and the early development of Coronation Street,” Hiley says. “That’s not too unrealistic a comparison, because the circulation of the Mirror was so big in the sixties. You’re dealing with millions of people being exposed to Andy Capp and knowing who he is, and you’ll probably find that’s more than the initial audiences for Coronation Street. So people are going to be seeing both of them.” (51)
The figures back this up. In 1961, the Mirror was selling about 4.5 million copies each day, giving it a total of some 12.5 million readers, while Coronation Street’s viewers ranged from 3.8 million to 7.5 million per episode. Three years later, the Mirror’s average daily sale hit 5 million, leading it to claim a readership of 14 million at a time when even the most popular Coronation Street episode pulled in only 9.7 million. (52, 53)
For thousands of Southerners, then, their first glimpse of headscarfed women in the snug bar of a Northern pub would not have been Ena Sharples and Minnie Caldwell in the Rover’s Return, but Flo and Ruby’s visits to their own Boilermaker’s Arms. (54)
It’s a curious quirk of Andy’s history that a 1957 syndication deal introduced him to readers in Scandinavia before those in the South of England ever saw him. Another early foreign buyer for the strip was the tiny Majorca Daily News, which served the growing number of English-speaking tourists on the island, and that sale proved far more significant for the strip than anyone could have imagined.
“An American newspaper man holidaying out there saw it, and was so impressed that he immediately came to London to acquire the syndication rights for the American market,” Smythe tells Lilley. “He pulled off the deal, went back to his own country, started selling Andy Capp over there, and the Chicago Sun-Times became the first American paper to run my cartoon.”
That was in 1961, and it makes sense that Andy found his first US toe-hold where he did. Chicago treasures its identity as a tough, blue-collar town, and Sun-Times readers would have found much they recognised in the strip. The details of life in Andy’s Hartlepool were strange to them, of course, but not its basic contours.
Just like Andy’s neighbours, his Chicago readers relied on insecure manual work to keep the family fed, booze to keep themselves entertained and indomitable women to run their households. Andy’s brutalist urban environment, his occasional punch-ups and his neighbours’ amused tolerance of a local chancer would all be familiar too.
Andy racked up 45 American newspapers during his first year’s publication there, and added another 350 in year two. By 1990, that total would climb to nearly 1,000 titles in America alone, and somewhere around 1,500 globally.
A few years after the Sun-Times deal – most likely in 1965 - someone on the Mirror noticed that Andy shared a surname with one of the most successful newspaper cartoonists in America. Al Capp’s Li’l Abner strip had reached 70 million readers at its peak, making him a national celebrity in the process. He’d proved himself a shrewd businessman too, wresting control of the strip back from United Features to handle its lucrative syndication and merchandising business himself.
Knowing Capp was on a visit to London, Mirror features editor Michael Christiansen arranged a “summit” between him and Smythe, sending reporter John Edwards along to sit in and write the whole thing up later. The venue was Capp’s suite at the Savoy, where lunchtime drinks and canapés were arranged.
Edwards later recalled the encounter for Bill Hagerty’s Mirror history. “Reg had never been to a suite at the Savoy before,” Edwards says. “He was surprised and excited. He and Al got on fine and Al drew Li’l Abner meeting Andy.
“Then Al Capp told Reg that Andy was becoming a cult in the US, and [said that] he must be making a fortune. Reg said he wasn’t at all. I believe he was getting something like £7,500 a year – a lot then, but not much to Al. Al said he had a syndication set-up of his own, would be quite happy to represent Reg in the US, and would guarantee him a fortune. Reg talked of nothing else as we walked back to the office.
“Christiansen was pleased with the stuff and, almost as an aside, I mentioned Al Capp’s offer to represent Andy in the US. His face went white, he marched me into his office, and told me to repeat what had happened.” (52)
At 6:00 o’clock that evening, Edwards was packing up his stuff and preparing to join his colleagues in the pub when Smythe tapped on the feature department’s window. He beckoned Edwards to join him over in the art studio, where they’d be able to talk in private.
“He said he had been called in to see Cudlipp mid-afternoon,” Edwards recalls. “Referring to my conversation with Christiansen, Cudlipp said something had to be done for him financially. Between about 3:30pm and 6:00pm, Reg had his salary increased to about £20,000, plus a cut of the Christmas annuals and other ancillary rights – massive sums of money for those days. In thanks, Reg gave me a gold pen.”
At 1965’s prices, £20,000 would be worth about £317,000 today, which is a measure of just how much Cudlipp wanted to keep Smythe on board. The Mirror already owned Andy outright, and had done so from the day that first 1957 cartoon appeared, but perhaps Cudlipp felt those rights would prove useless without Smythe himself there to write and draw the strip.
It’s also possible that the Mirror’s international syndication rights were open to challenge in Smythe’s contract, as no-one had anticipated big foreign sales at the time. Cudlipp may have feared Capp would encourage Smythe into the same sort of legal action he’d used himself to win Li’l Abner back from United Features.
Whatever paperwork Cudlipp had Smythe sign to secure his new payments would presumably have set the Mirror’s mind at rest on all these matters, but the price of achieving such reassurance was Smythe’s hefty pay rise. “Talent is scarce, and cartoonists are well-paid,” Cudlipp had written in his 1953 book. Now he was putting that principle into action once again.
Smythe brought Capp up to date with these developments when the two men met in London again, this time to dine at the Savoy Grill for a 1973 feature Capp had agreed to write in The Saturday Evening Post.
“Two events changed my life,” Smythe tells him in the finished article. “When the Mirror asked me to try a new comic strip and then later, about eight years ago, after it was a success, when I first met you here at the Savoy.”
“Meeting ME changed your life?”
“Definitely. We had our pictures taken together if you recall, and a Mirror reporter interviewed us jointly. Back at the paper, the reporter mentioned that Al Capp had offered Reg Smythe a job in the USA.”
“I didn’t.” (55)
“I know you didn’t, but I felt it would be best not to deny it. When I got back to the office, they were so worried, they offered me a $30,000 a year raise to stay on. Since then, I’ve been the highest-paid cartoonist in England.”. (28, 56, 57)
Elsewhere in the Saturday Evening Post article, Capp shows himself to be both a big fan of Andy’s strip and a keen observer of just what made it work. He already had 40 years of Li’l Abner strips under his belt when he sat down with Smythe that day, and no-one knew better how tough it was to keep a daily strip fresh for year after year.
Smythe, a novice by comparison, had already picked up 60 million American readers in little more than a decade, and Capp marvelled that this had been achieved without the strip being mercilessly re-tooled for the US market. That’s what the US networks did when they bought British sitcoms like Steptoe & Son or Till Death Us Do Part, after all, but somehow Andy had managed to reach American readers in his full, undiluted form.
“Although we may be puzzled by references to the English dole system, English pub morality, English sports, English betting, rent-paying and courtship practices, English food, money and bureaucracy, Smythe makes not the slightest attempt to explain these matters to us,” Capp writes. “He is confident that, although such references may be parochial, his humour is universal. And he’s right.”
Capp compares this to an anthropological experiment of the 1940s, when a very primitive tribe in Africa was shown its first Charlie Chaplin film. Nothing in Chaplin’s world was familiar to them, and yet still they laughed. “They didn’t know what a street or streetlamp was; they didn’t know what a fire hydrant was, or even fire; but they knew what was funny,” he writes. “And, because Smythe knows that everyone knows what’s funny, no matter how little they may know of anything else, he doesn’t deign to alter Andy Capp by an eyelash.”
Smythe’s own explanation for the strip’s universal appeal was that everyone not only knows what’s funny, but also knows that members of the opposite sex are frequently baffling, frustrating and almost impossible to bear – and never more so than when they’re sharing your accommodation.
“It doesn’t matter if the strip appears in Japan, China or Timbuktu,” he tells Lilley. “Everyone reading it has the same thing in common – some kind of home life. My version of the domestic strip echoes the battle of the sexes that has always raged between the male and the female. On a day-to-day level, it seems to me that men and women spend their lives trying to get the better of one another, and it is this primeval quirk of behaviour that is reflected in Andy and Florrie.”
It’s also in this article that Capp makes his comparison between Smythe and Dickens – though he’s quick to contrast Smythe’s approach with the gloopy sentimentality which Dickens ladled on his own characters.
“In one major respect, Smythe differs from Dickens, and from most of the popular humorists who preceded him,” Capp writes. “In the world of Dickens, there is nobility and sentiment among the laughter. [But] there isn’t a shred of nobility in Smythe’s characters, or of sentiment.”
That’s true of the strip as a whole, and very much one of its strengths, but it seems a little rough on Flo. Capp acknowledges as much when he calls her “the closest thing to a heroine to be found in Smythe’s world”. It’s Flo’s combination of continued affection for Andy and her utter lack of illusions about him that gives the strip its heart, and Capp catches these contradictory impulses in her well. “Hers is the sentimentality for a lover who is now a bum,” he writes. “But who she recalls, unsentimentally, always was one.”
The aspect of Smythe that frustrates Capp in their conversation – and it pops up again and again – is the Englishman’s habitual self-deprecation. He quickly realises this is an act, noting for example that the supposedly modest Smythe has not demurred in the slightest at being compared to Dickens, but it nags at him nonetheless. The final straw comes when Smythe dismissively remarks: “I still can’t draw, you know”. (58)
“I know no such thing,” Capp splutters. “I know that Phil May, Daumier, even our immortal TAD could draw low-life no more convincingly than Smythe, and if he uses less drawing in drawing them, then possibly he is the more expert drawer.
“Why does Smythe claim he can’t draw? Anyone with the skill and understanding to create characters recognised all over the world must be clear-sighted enough to know that it’s no accident, no trick – that it is a talent as solid and persuasive as that of Norman Rockwell, Smythe’s favourite artist. Rockwell would never say that Smythe can’t draw. Why does he say it? To remain in the Andy Capp character? To amuse?”
Seventeen years later, Smythe still hadn’t lost this habit, and it was Les Lilley’s turn to be infuriated by it. “Times without number he refers to the simplicity of his cartoons, the paucity of his backgrounds and his lack of technique,” Lilley writes.
“Yet I have heard cartoonists, when instructing young beginners, referring them to the Andy Capp drawings by Reg Smythe. Their advice to these beginners is to study the clear and accurate layout of each panel, to look at how well each panel sits with the one before and the one that follows, and to analyse the perfectly-balanced use of black and white shapes. No-one does it better.” (59)
Having shelled out all that extra cash to secure Andy for the Mirror, you’d think Cudlipp might have been anxious to squeeze every merchandising penny he could from the character. In fact, he took a very cautious line in exploiting Andy outside the strip itself, and did so partly because he knew Smythe was against it too.
“Cudlipp was wary of exposing the character too much,” Lilley says. “He was most concerned with keeping it fresh and useful for the newspaper, not for what he considered outside interests. If any suggestion was made vis a vis merchandising or the licensing of the character, his immediate inclination was to reject it.”
Part of that protective attitude sprang from the fact that Cudlipp had come to believe Smythe couldn’t have created Andy without his initial shove. “He thought of Andy as his baby,” Lilley says. “His baby and Reg’s baby. It was a joint creation. If, in the beginning, he had not been the instigator of a special cartoon for the Mirror’s northern editions, Reg would never have been pushed into creating this collarless oaf.”
Deluded though that attitude is, it did at least mean Andy had a champion on the Mirror’s board, and this in itself saved him from some of the tattier spin-off products that might otherwise have resulted. It was only after Cudlipp was kicked upstairs to chair the board of Mirror owners IPC in 1968 that those particular floodgates opened.
One of the few deals Cudlipp did let through was the group’s decision to have its Fleetway arm launch a children’s comic built round a character called “Buster: Son of Andy Capp”. The Mirror’s announcement of May 21, 1960, shows Buster as a scruffy young tyke of about ten years old, with a checked cap just like Andy’s pulled down over his eyes.
“The secret is out!” it begins. “It can’t be kept from Mirror readers any longer. Andy Capp has a son – Buster. He is a real chip off the old block. The apple of Florrie’s eye. The most mischievous, cocky young devil to be found anywhere. But lovable, laughable, irresistible.”
In other words, he was a generic naughty kid more or less indistinguishable from the dozens of others dominating UK comics at the time. Andy made a couple of brief cameos in the new title, with artist Bill Titcombe drawing him in three frames of a June 1960 story, and adding a father-and-son photo to the family’s home two weeks later. Buster’s mum was called Flo, and drawn to look much as Andy’s wife does in the Mirror.
Smythe remained unimpressed throughout, and refused to even mention Buster in Andy’s own strip. That was clearly the right decision, because there’s very little in Andy’s behaviour that would be remotely funny if you imagine a young child added to the house. “It would bring a whole world of responsibility to Andy that he wouldn’t be comfortable with,” Goldsmith says. “A drunk and abusive parent? I don’t think a kid would work at all.” Hiley adds: “It wouldn’t work if Andy had children. I think he’d probably leave home.” (60, 61)
Smythe may have been suspicious of Andy spin-offs, but others were not so fastidious. In 1973, the Presbyterian minister and “worship consultant” Daniel McGeachy published The Gospel According to Andy Capp. No doubt his publishers hoped this would duplicate the success of Robert Short’s best-selling The Gospel According to Peanuts eight years earlier. You might think it would be difficult to draw much of a Gospel message from Andy’s antics, but actually McGeachy finds quite a bit to admire in the pugnacious little devil.
“Andy Capp is authentic man,” he writes. “There is both good and bad in him, as there is in each of us. He has strengths that remind us he is created in the image of God, and he has faults that shout of his predicament as a fallen man. He contains both grandeur and misery.” (62)
McGeachy splits his analysis into two chapters, tackling first Andy the Sinner and then Andy the Saint. “Andy enjoys his sins, and doesn’t intend to change,” he writes in the first of these. “This does not mean, of course, that Andy doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong. If that were so, he would be a purely amoral being, like the beasts of the field, and his behaviour excusable on that basis. But, more important, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Stolen melons are sweeter. For sin to amount to anything, it has to be deliberate.”
Hiley made a similar point when I asked him how far Andy could be allowed to reform without losing his soul. “It’s rather like those little cartoon figures indicating people’s conscience that always pop up – there’s a devil on one side and an angel on the other,” he says. “We want Andy Capp to be the devil. We don’t want him to suddenly put wings on and be the angel on the other side. Somebody else can do that job.”
McGeachy turns next to Andy the Saint. “Good or bad, there are few men who can attack life with genuine joy, live it for its own sake, and come off a winner,” he writes. “There is Andy, philosophically and theologically crying both to God and to man, ‘Leave me alone!’ Let me survive in the least noticeable kind of way. I don’t ask to be famous. Don’t try to sell me a Calvinist work ethic. Don’t expect me to be an evangelist or a change-agent or anything else that is my neighbour’s. Just leave me alone!” A little later, he adds: “There is a kind of celebration about Andy, a sacramental view of life that views it as a gift not to be tampered with.”
In other words, Andy seems like a happy man. “Yes,” Hiley replied when I put this to him. “But not in that kind of parody of welcoming Northern happiness. He’s happy, but he doesn’t care if you’re not. There’s a lot of Mr Punch in there, really. You know, Punch beats his wife, he kills the baby, gets arrested, ends up hanging the hangman and beating the Devil. Andy Capp is Mr Punch in a lot of ways.” (63, 64)
The Cudlipp deal left Smythe with a big chunk of Andy’s syndication income, which continued to grow as more and more foreign newspapers picked up the strip. Bill Hagerty, who was then features editor of the Mirror, lunched with him on March 2, 1971, and later published his diary entry from the day: “Lunch with Reg Smythe, who says he knows he is wealthy because he earned £40,000 a year (I was earning £5,600), and is £20,000 in debt. He said when he was getting £40 a week, he never owed a penny.” (65)
Mirror cartoonist Ian Gammidge had his share of jolly London lunches with Smythe at around this time too, telling Hagerty that their typical meal would be “ten gins and sardines on toast”. By 1976, though, Smythe had seen enough of the capital, and decided to move back up North. He and Vera bought a luxury five-bedroomed bungalow called White Gates in the West Hartlepool’s Caledonian Road, a couple of miles from the Headland.
“Reg and Vera lived in a very nice bungalow, quite lavish, but still very Andy,” Mirror cartoon editor Ken Layson tells Hagerty. “There was a snooker table in the hall. He was very rich, of course, through syndication fees, which were always paid a year in advance.”
“I have seen unemployment, hard times and I left Hartlepool with very little money to my name,” Smythe says in Smyth Herdman’s memoir. “But my heart has always been in Hartlepool, my home.”
Smythe had always visited the town fairly regularly, and had drawn many of his old mates there into the strip as Andy’s supporting cast. Jack the landlord, for example, was based on Jack McLean, who ran a Hartlepool pub called The Seaton where Smythe sometimes drank. “Jack and Reg were great pals,” his wife Madge once told the Mirror. “Jack would always stand behind the bar with his arms folded on the counter – just like Andy’s landlord.”
Madge herself became Jack’s barmaid in the strip, and Doris Robinson, who pulled pints in the real Seaton, was shown working as Jack’s cleaner. The copper who often confronted Andy on his way home from the pub was based on a local bobby Smythe knew called Alan Goodman, and Percy the rentman took his surname from Anthony Ritson, who’d become Smythe’s step-father when Florrie remarried in 1948. (66)
Smythe found the town’s stoical outlook on life was just as he’d remembered it, and its people remained a constant source of inspiration. “The mindset’s exactly the same,’ he told one reporter. “I can still go down to the Boilermakers’ Club and get two or three ideas just listening to the conversation.” To Lilley again, he adds: “I go to pubs and the dogs and the sort of places Andy might be”.
Hartlepool’s shipyards had been silent for 15 years by the time Smythe moved back there, and the town’s dole queues were growing fast. “Industry has gone,” he said in 1990. “It’s almost a residential town. They’ve even closed the mines.”
Smythe had always declared himself a Socialist, but refused to make Andy a mouthpiece for his own political views. He’d vetoed proposals for Andy to declare himself a Labour supporter in the 1960s, and remained true to this stance ever since. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson is mentioned in one 1969 strip, but only because Andy’s roped him into some fantastical excuse for being so late back from the pub. When Flo and Andy argue about Margaret Thatcher in a couple of 1980s strips, it’s her gender rather than her politics that makes them disagree. (67, 68)
Andy’s sexism would make him suspicious of any female PM, but Smythe thought he and the Iron Lady actually had a good deal in common. “Andy always goes straight for what he wants, and is never swayed by sentiment,” he says. “Let’s face it, with a change of sex, he might well stand in for Mrs Thatcher!”
The closest Smythe gets to electioneering anywhere in the strip’s run is a 1986 joke showing Andy arriving home from one of Hartlepool United’s away games. “I asked a local where the ground was, and he told me to follow the crowd,” Andy says as he takes his coat off. “And I ended up at the flippin’ dole office”. (69)
Margaret’s Thatcher’s policies in the 1980s had seen Hartlepool’s unemployment climb to 30%, making it the highest in the country, so Smythe had every reason to be angry when he drew that cartoon. But transforming the strip into a soapbox, he believed, was not the answer. “I try never to draw things about which I am serious,” he tells Lilley. “As far as I am concerned, passion and humour are bad mixers. Maybe it’s just me, but I believe things are only funny if they’re said in fun. I never try to teach lessons in my cartoons.” (70)
The Mirror set Smythe up with a secretary in London to handle his correspondence, sent more drawing boards up to Hartlepool whenever necessary, and he remained as productive as ever. Once in a while, he’d come down to London to deliver a fresh batch of strips in person, but otherwise his days down South were done.
Layson would travel up to Hartlepool from time to time to buy his star cartoonist a few drinks and a roast lunch. “Smythe and Vera were just like the strip characters,” he tells Hagerty. “They had no children either. On one trip, we were sitting in the kitchen while she bustled around and Smythe said, ‘There’s something wrong, pet.’ ‘What’s that, pet?’ Vera asked, and Smythe nodded at his coffee cup. The handle was facing the wrong way so he couldn’t pick it up without turning the cup. Without a word she turned it round for him.” (71)
I’ve always thought that incident sounds like a little skit Reg and Vera had worked out between them to have some fun with gullible Southern visitors, but Goldsmith insists I’m wrong. He’d heard the story directly from Ken Layson himself, who maintained that was simply the kind of old-fashioned couple they were.
“Kenny told me that, for all his millions, Reg liked just going down the working men’s club, going to watch Hartlepool and drawing his cartoons,’ Goldsmith says. “He worked really long days. That’s all he wanted to do. He didn’t travel anywhere. He used to buy himself a nice car – a Bentley or something – but that was his only concession to his wife. He was happy just drawing.”
There’s more evidence here of how firmly Smythe had based Andy’s tastes on his own. Andy may have lacked his creator’s work ethic, and Smythe preferred gin and tonics to Andy’s pints, but both men were happiest when left in peace to pursue their own enjoyable routines. “Andy just wants an easy life, doesn’t he?” says Goldsmith. “He just wants to be left with his pigeons, his beer, his football, his snooker, and he’d be quite happy.”
“He doesn’t make long journeys,” Hiley adds: “He meets the same group of people, and he’s very happy within that small group. He doesn’t have a boss. He does what he wants. He has a rhythm in his day, but it’s set by himself .” Smythe ensured his own life worked in much the same way and, just like Andy, he seemed to be all the happier for it.
The 1970s saw a fad for stage musicals based on newspaper cartoon strips, with both the Peanuts show and Little Orphan Annie enjoying long runs in London and New York. Mirror executives began wondering if Andy might be able to pull off the same trick.
Their plans got rolling when Mirror editor Mike Molloy happened to meet the musician Alan Price while on a trip to New York. Price, who’d played keyboards in The Animals’ first and greatest line-up, now had a very successful career writing his own chart hits and film scores. He’d been wondering if it might be fun to tackle a musical next, and as soon as he let this fact slip, Molloy pounced. Why not build a musical round Andy?
The beauty of this idea was that Price had grown up in Newcastle, which lies just 25 miles north of Hartlepool, so both he and Molloy knew he could portray that part of the world well. Back in England, they pitched the idea of an Andy Capp musical to Smythe, and it was Price’s local links which helped to win him over. Trevor Peacock signed up with the project as its writer, and struck up an immediate rapport with Smythe.
Peacock had written and acted in plays at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, and also made a name for himself as a songwriter for the likes of Joe Brown and Adam Faith. His biggest hit came with Herman’s Hermits, who made Peacock’s Mrs Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter a US Number One in May 1965.
It was agreed that Price would write the music for the new show, both he and Peacock would contribute lyrics, and Peacock alone would write the plot and dialogue that tied all the songs together. Smythe was there to act as a consultant and make sure nothing crept through that distorted the strip’s world beyond all recognition. “Mostly I told them what Andy wouldn’t do,” he tells Lilley.
Staring at a blank sheet of paper, Peacock decided that his first problem was the nature of Andy’s strip itself. All the successful comic strip musicals of the past 30 years – Li’l Abner, Superman, Peanuts, Little Orphan Annie – has been based on strips with a continuing storyline carrying readers forward from one day to the next. Andy, on the other hand, was a series of very short stand-alone gags, with only the cast of characters and the setting to link them together.
The Mirror had sent Peacock a handful of Andy Capp annuals to help his research, so he ploughed through these, tearing out the strips which he thought showed the essence of Andy’s world and pasting them up on the walls all around his desk. “I kept looking at them to see how I could make the thing come to life,” he tells Lilly.
“I had to invent a plot, so I introduced a young couple who were getting married. Then, because Andy is always so bossy with Florrie, I created another family in which the man is completely under the thumb of the woman. I seem to remember it was Andy’s nephew who was the boy. He was called Elvis Horsepole, and he was marrying the daughter of this other family in which the mother was on top.”
Meanwhile, Price was busy composing songs for the show. The 21 numbers finally selected include titles like I Ought To Be Ashamed of Myself, Good Old Legs, The Trouble With People and Oh Gawd, Men...Beasts! Tom Courtenay, another Northern lad, agreed to play Andy, and Price himself kept everything moving along as an on-stage narrator at the piano. The set was decorated with a selection of stories torn from the Mirror, all blown up to enormous size and pasted into a gigantic collage to form the stage backdrop.
The tone Price and Peacock aimed for was broad and jaunty, and judging by The Guide To Musical Theatre, they hit it square on. “It is a faithful evocation of the cartoon,” the guide says of their show. “Full of mother-in-law jokes, drunken escapades, big-bosomed, mini-skirted women wielding rolling pins and paunchy, cloth-capped men stomping about in boots.” (72)
Andy Capp: The Musical opened at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre in June 1982, enjoyed a successful two-month run there, and was given a transfer to The Aldwych in London’s West End that September. Critics were generally positive, sometimes tutting at Andy’s habits, but granting that the show was hugely entertaining.
The New Statesman described it as “anecdotal, larky fun,” and the Daily Telegraph called it “an innocent, warm-hearted, gutsy frolic”. Bhob Stewart, writing in The Comics Journal, noted that Courtenay couldn’t really sing, but that this problem had been solved by having him “sing-speak” the lyrics, much as Rex Harrison had done in My Fair Lady. (72, 73)
Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail gave the show a review which sums up its overall reception pretty well. It offered, he said, “a fat slice of accessible folk history which audiences can immediately relate to, and sends you out with a warm satisfied glow and a lot to think about.” (74)
A little further on, he lists the same stereotypes which The Guide To Musical Theatre mentions, and frets a little over whether Andy’s world is one where he or the Mail’s gentle readers would really wish to live. But then he relents: “Alan Price’s very first song puts any such lofty thoughts to flight, reminding us that, in Andy Capp country, 30 out of every 100 are unemployed. Morality is for those who can afford it – a social comment never far below the surface of a production which deliberately keeps reality at bay.”
Looking back on the show for Lilley’s book, Peacock remembers two particular highlights. The first was the moment when one of Andy’s pigeons had just won a race. “We used to release a pigeon up at the back of the circle, and it would fly right down over the audience and land in Andy’s hands,” he says. “The audience loved it.
“The second high point involved the hen-pecked dad of the bride-to-be, who cashes in his life savings to pay for the wedding. He takes all this money, goes to the pub and says, “I just want to say two things. The first is, I want to say BOLLOCKS to my wife. The theatre used to erupt. Audiences went mad. [...] I thought to myself, this must be the essence of it – the male/female thing.”
Smythe remembers the show as running for six or seven months at The Aldwych, which was respectable enough but nowhere near Little Orphan Annie’s class. It picked up two Olivier nominations – one for Val McLane’s portrayal of Flo – but won neither category. (75)
“It was quite successful, considering,” Smythe says of the show. “But the musical was very different from the cartoon. Other people don’t see Andy the way I see him. I see him as a belligerent but naturally perky sort of little bloke. They made him a bit flat-footed. Andy is sharp.” (76)
But others saw exactly that intelligence in Courtenay’s Andy which Smythe felt had been missing. “It is easy to see how he became captain of the darts team, demon of the soccer side and philosopher of any bar,” Tinker says of the performance. “His pot belly may denote the body of a sloth, but his dancing eyes reveal the mind of a wit at bay in a cruel, harsh world.”
The musical went back up north in September 1984 for a month’s run at Newcastle Playhouse, where Auf Wiedersehen Pet’s Tim Healy played Andy. Its next stop was Finland where, according to the BCA website, it proved a big hit. It’s still revived pretty regularly today, most recently by the Great Barr Musical Theatre Company’s Birmingham production of 2006, and Rush Musical Society’s County Dublin run earlier this year.
“Andy Capp was one of the first musicals staged by Rush Musical Society 22 years ago,” the company’s Helen Kavanagh told me. “Although he’s so politically incorrect, we thought reviving it would give the audience a good laugh. We liked the idea of a cartoon set and props, and the script is so clever and outrageously funny. Everyone knows at least one Andy.” (11)
The Rush production played to about 1,000 people altogether during it’s nine nights at the tiny 140-seat theatre. The company kept Andy as a Hartlepool resident with his Geordie accent in place, and refused to pander to lily-livered modern sensibilities.
“Andy and Flo have a big noisy bust-up at the end of Act 1,” Kavanagh says. “Nothing physical, but very verbal. Andy has a fag hanging out of his mouth for most of the show. He gets drunk after the first bar scene, and Good Old Legs is sung by a very drunk Andy and Chalkie. The audience of all ages loved it.
“We removed nothing, and I don’t think Andy caused any offence – apart from him telling Flo she was as ugly as a crow, which made him look really bad. He had to crawl back from that one.”
One of the thousands who saw Andy’s musical at The Aldwych was Jimmy Gilbert. As BBC Television’s Head of Comedy from 1973 to 1977, he’d helped produce a stream of massive hits, including The Two Ronnies, Last of The Summer Wine and Open All Hours. He’d since moved on to a big job at Thames Television, which held the London franchise in Britain’s commercial ITV network.
As Gilbert watched Courtenay, McLane and the rest taking their bows on the Aldwych stage, he began wondering if Andy might have a sitcom in him. “I thought there was basically a good idea there,” he tells Lilley.
The first thing he needed to get this idea off the ground was someone to write Andy’s pilot script. The ideal candidate would be someone who understood the North of England’s gruffly sceptical humour, knew how to get those jokes down on paper, and had plenty of experience writing for film and TV. If he happened to be familiar with Andy’s core audience of loyal Mirror readers, then so much the better.
Enter Keith Waterhouse. Born in Leeds, Waterhouse had worked for the Mirror as a young reporter for most of the 1950s, then left to write a string of popular novels. His biggest hit as a novelist had been 1959’s Billy Liar, which also did well as a film starring – wait for it – Tom Courtenay. He’d written gags for David Frost in the 1960s’ TV satire boom, worked as a script doctor on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 film Torn Curtain, then returned to the Mirror as a star columnist in 1970. He was almost uncannily perfect for the job.
When Gilbert approached him, Waterhouse agreed in principle to write the pilot but said he wasn’t going to waste any time on it till Gilbert had the Mirror’s approval sewn-up – and, as it turned out, that would take another four years.
Even with Cudlipp now out of the way, Mirror executives seemed incapable of deciding whether the Andy sitcom was a good idea or not. “The management dithered and buggered about and wouldn’t release the rights,” Waterhouse tells Lilley. “They were always slow to exploit Andy Capp.”
Gilbert hoped things would speed up when Robert Maxwell bought the Mirror in 1984. Maxwell was a famously hands-on proprietor, but he had many concerns on the paper that took priority over Andy, and it wasn’t until 1987 that he finally gave the sitcom proposal a green light. Smythe agreed to act as a consultant on the project, just as he had with Price’s musical, once again taking the view that his main job was to ensure any glaring errors in Andy’s personality were avoided. (77)
Much to Gilbert’s relief, Waterhouse could now sit down and start writing at last. His first problem, as Peacock could have told him, was finding a way to make all Andy’s disconnected strips link together in a continuing story.
He and Gilbert decided the answer was to give each episode of the planned six-part series a theme of its own: Flo wanting a new frock, for example, or Andy attempting to turn over a new leaf. Every script could then start with a few quick scenes recycling Smythe’s best gags on that subject, then open out into a longer, less choppy narrative that picked up the same theme.
They’d already decided to make the show with real actors and sets rather than animation, but both men were determined the series should reflect the look and spirit of Andy’s cartoon world. Gilbert sent Waterhouse’s first script to John Howard Davies, a former BBC colleague he’d worked with on Monty Python, The Good Life and Fawlty Towers, asking if he’d like to direct the new series. “I read the first script and decided on the spot to do it,” Davies says. “It was just beautifully written.”
The next step was casting, and everyone found they had the same name at the top of their lists: James Bolam. Bolam had made his name as Terry Collier in Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ 1960s BBC sitcom The Likely Lads, and it’s ten-years-on sequel Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads.
Terry, like Bolam himself, was a Tynesider, and the first series showed his adventures as a young factory worker in Newcastle with his mate Bob. In the second, we met both men again in their thirties, with Terry now unemployed after a spell in the army, but Bob moving into the middle class. Terry was shown throughout as what amounted to a younger version of Andy, happiest with a pint and a packet of fags in the local pub as he chatted up the barmaid.
Gilbert, Davies and Smythe all agreed Bolam was perfect for the part – not only because of his experience as Terry, but also because the actor was a Geordie of the right age to play Andy. “Rodney Bewes, the other Likely Lad, used to describe Bolam’s character as an Andy Capp,” Smythe tells Lilley. “He was a natural in everybody’s mind.”
“We always had James Bolam in mind,” Gilbert confirms. “He read the first script, and then a development script from Keith. He loved it. That was it. He immediately wanted to do it.” Paula Tilbrook, a veteran of shows like Coronation Street, Open All Hours and Last of the Summer Wine – all set in the North of England - agreed to play opposite Bolam as Flo.
By the time it was fully cast, the show had 17 regular characters in all. Andy, Flo, Chalkie, Ruby, Jack, Percy, the vicar and the policeman were all there, as were the bookie, the milkman, the pawnbroker, the HP man, the debt collector, the marriage guidance officer and Andy’s (off-screen) mother-in-law. Waterhouse rounded off the cast with a couple of composite roles, using Shirley to represent every floozie Andy had ever pursued in the pub, and Walter to replace the many drunks Smythe had drawn him meeting in the canal.
It was a big cast for a sitcom, but Waterhouse decided each character must have at least one brief scene in every episode. “Everybody had to have his bit with Andy or about Andy, and that technique kept him constantly on screen,” Davies says. “Even if he wasn’t on the screen, somebody would be talking about him. Andy Capp was the only subject.”
“Andy is very real to me,” Waterhouse adds. “I thought I would have trouble with him because his only interests are his sport and his boozing and his womanising. But I began to realise he is the catalyst for other people’s reactions. His very presence makes things happen. People get furious with him and make remarks about him. This is good for an actor – only having to walk on to a set for things to happen.” It certainly seemed to work for Bolam. “Once we started filming, I became totally immersed in the role, and just felt the character of Andy coming to life,” he tells Lilley. (78)
Gilbert and Davies decided to shoot the series’ exterior sequences on film in various locations round London, including Acton, Willesden, Wood Green and Southall. They took the brave decision to do without a studio audience for the interior scenes, and opted not to dub on a laugh track either. The extra expense of film meant the show would have to succeed in a prime-time ITV slot to make it profitable, but Gilbert thought that was a risk worth taking.
Bolam decided to soften Andy’s accent rather than play him in unadulterated Geordie, which he knew would annoy viewers on Tyneside, but help the show’s prospects everywhere else. Price agreed to sing one of the musical’s numbers as a theme song for the TV show, so that was soon sorted too.
Throughout the shoot, Davies worked hard to retain the visual trademarks Smythe had established in the strip. Andy was dressed in his usual check cap and muffler, and given a fag end between his lips in every scene. Flo wore headscarf, curlers, and – when seen late at night – her traditional ratty old housecoat.
Percy’s rentbook had the word “RENT” written on it in big bold capitals, and he always held it so that was prominently displayed. Other cartoon techniques were used too, such as Andy hearing a tweeting noise when Flo clouts him with the rolling pin, or having him run out of the marriage guidance office so fast that the glass in the door shatters behind him.
Waterhouse had been careful to include the strip’s occasional asides to camera and its character’s post-hoc reactions to one another’s punchlines in his scripts, and Davies shot these to look exactly as they had in the cartoon. He often showed Andy and Chalkie from the back – another trademark of Smythe’s – and shot scenes at the pub through a frosted glass window to echo the cartoon’s frequent use of silhouettes.
“The idea was still to think of it as a strip,” Waterhouse says. “Which John Howard Davies did very cleverly by using techniques like holding the camera still so people could move in and out of frame. He was also very careful when shooting scenes of Andy and Chalkie walking. He had them lifting their feet and showing the soles of their shoes, as in the cartoon strip.”
The Mirror published a special collection of Andy’s strips to tie in with the TV show, and had Waterhouse provide an introduction explaining its approach. “Our boozing, womanising, pigeon-fancying, snooker-playing, plain-speaking hero would be lost in the slick world of supermarkets and fast cars,” he writes. “He may be larger than life, but it has to be his own kind of life. So we’ve placed him in a kind of timeless northern limbo where they still donkey-stone the front steps.” (25)
The series was shown on national ITV over six weeks in February and March of 1988. I was spending most of my own evenings in the pub then, so I never saw it in what remains its only broadcast to date. Luckily, Network DVD was just about to release the series on disc as I prepared this essay, and the company was kind enough to send me an advance copy. (79)
I was a bit nervous as I sat down to watch it, because I’d already read enough about the show’s making to know there’d be no middle ground in my reaction to it. It was clear that everyone’s heart had been in the right place, but any show as ambitious and as stylised as this was going to prove either a triumph or a disaster, and I didn’t yet know which it would be.
In fact, I enjoyed the show enormously, noting with pleasure all the little grace notes I’ve mentioned above and a dozen more besides. Jack was there in his yellow check waistcoat, and the pub he ran was still called the Boilermakers’ Arms. Whenever a real newspaper was shown on screen, I noticed, it was the Daily Mirror. Andy and Flo still lived at number 37, a fact confirmed by exactly the same shot of their open door Smythe had so often drawn.
When Andy was ejected from the pub he flew through the air in a fine demonstration of the strip’s cartoon physics, and Bolam’s pose when napping on the sofa was spot-on too. I counted 20 verbatim gags from the strip in the show’s first episode alone, all delivered with great aplomb by the cast and filmed with a clear respect for Smythe’s own style. I loved it.
And I wasn’t the only one. “James Bolam, from the moment he sways into view, cap on head and fag in mouth, is Andy Capp,” Janet Street-Porter wrote in her 1988 review for Today. “And Paula Tilbrook is perfect as poor Flo, the long-suffering spouse. I’ve never been quite sure why TV executives try to turn one successful and popular art form – the comic strip – into another, but in Andy Capp they have achieved their best results yet.” (80)
Sadly, back in 1988, not enough viewers agreed. Despite being launched with the fanfare of a TV Times cover, the show lost about a third of its viewers during the six-week run, and was never granted the second series everyone involved had hoped for. “I loved doing it so much,” Bolam says. “I was really looking forward to doing the next series.”
What no-one could agree on in the post-mortems was whether the series’ mistake has been making Andy too nasty or not nearly nasty enough.
Waterhouse had taken an early decision to avoid of any suggestion of Andy as a wife-beater in the show, and limit what violence it did contain to strictly cartoon forms. “It doesn’t do any lasting damage when Flo clonks Andy with her rolling pin.” he writes in the Mirror’s tie-in book. “And when Percy the rent collector sustains a black eye for pestering Andy about the arrears, it’s miraculously gone when he turns up in the Boilermaker’s Arms a few minutes later.”
Gilbert and Davies had both endorsed that decision at the time, but for Alan Coren in The Mail On Sunday, the result was a show that both sugar-coated Andy and robbed him of his edge. “James Bolam as Andy is a delight,” Coren writes. “Which, sadly, brings us to the flaw. The truth is, Andy shouldn’t delight at all, he should enrage. Andy Capp has become the victim of the grotesques with whom his life teems – not, as he is in the original cartoon, their scourge. We end up hating the wrong people.” (81)
“If you make him lovable, then he’s accessible,” Davies sighs in response to this criticism. “And if you make him unlovable, then people won’t watch the programme. It’s a very difficult balance to get right.”
As it is, the series fell between the two stools of making a show palatable enough to attract the mass-market audience which Thames’ investment demanded, and finding the cult viewers who might have appreciated its more stylised elements. It deserved a better fate, so let’s hope the DVD release prompts people to take a second look.
Smythe was philosophical about Andy’s adventures in other media, though he did confess that he’d occasionally felt frustrated when taking ideas to the two projects’ directors. “They would listen patiently, then say ‘Okay, you’ve been consulted and we know how you feel,’ then hurry away and do nothing about my suggestion,” he tells Lilley.
“I felt I could have offered a little more than I did, but at the same time, I know there are horses for courses, and that a theatrical or TV director is more expert at his particular craft than I could ever be. I wouldn’t expect a writer or director to try and write or draw my strip, so why should I expect to be able to do his job for him or make the sort of decisions he has to make?” (82)
Waterhouse had certainly taken the view that writing the TV scripts was his job, and that there was nothing to be gained by inviting Smythe to second-guess him at every turn. “I didn’t exchange a word with Reg,” he says. “I thought, and I’m sure he would agree, this was the best way of doing it.”
By the time the TV series was screened, Smythe was 71 and nearing the end of his latest five-year contract with the Mirror. Lilley asked if he has any plans to retire.
“Why the heck should I stop working?” Smythe replies. “My health is pretty good, and I have a whole year’s supply of strips on hand in case I should want to take time out for any reason at all. But truth to tell, I want to carry on because I wouldn’t know what to do if I stopped. I couldn’t be idle. I’d still be drawing cartoons, and they might as well be cartoons of Andy Capp – they pay better.”
That year’s stockpile of strips was Smythe’s answer to the Mirror’s request that he start grooming a successor to take over Andy after his death. He could never bring himself to relinquish even that degree of personal control over the strip, so instead he used his remarkable energy and determination to continue producing as many as six new Andy strips a day. “Even towards the end of his life, he would sit in a room he called ‘the den’, sketching away from 9am often till 2am next day,” says the BCA website.
For Smythe, it was still Andy and Flo’s small domestic struggles that gave the strip its fascination. Andy’s slapstick antics in the pub may be what pulled readers in, but it was his scenes at home with Flo that kept them coming back for more. “When characters are as deeply-felt and understood as Andy and Florrie, ideas aren’t all that difficult to come by,” he says. “I suppose the strip will continue to be interesting for as long as people go on fighting and arguing about things. It certainly hasn’t got stale so far.”
Smythe’s one concession to the increasing years was his decision to give up smoking, which came in 1983. Andy followed suit soon after, with a strip from around August 1985 showing him with a fag in his mouth for the last time. A January 1986 strip has Flo congratulating him for giving up the habit. (83, 84)
“Andy had to stop smoking,” one journalist quotes Smythe as saying. “Too many kids read the cartoon, and it was time to set a better example.” Turning to his own decision to give up the weed, Smythe adds: “I doubt Andy would have stopped on his own.” Health groups such as ASH (Action on Smoking & Health) declared themselves delighted at the move, but Smythe was quick to reassure fans that all Andy’s other bad habits remained firmly in place. (85)
Even in his seventies, Smythe still found plenty of battles to fight in protecting the strip’s integrity. A 1989 Department of Health campaign using Andy was allowed through the net, but he put his foot down when the advertising agency J Walter Thompson suggested removing Andy’s cap for a campaign promoting Tyneside as a business destination.
The resulting row was lively enough to make news on both sides of the Atlantic. “The concept involved a series of drawings showing Andy gradually sprucing up, throwing away his cap, putting on a suit and tie and brushing his hair,” Sheila Rule writes in The New York Times. “The drawings’ captions explained that, in the past 30 years, no city had changed as much as Newcastle.” (86)
As soon as Smythe heard of the campaign’s plans, he let it be known that he didn’t think much of the idea. “That would be like Groucho without his moustache, the Lone Ranger without his mask or Beetle Bailey without his helmet.” He told reporters. “I couldn’t believe anybody could be so stupid.” Papers like The Northern Echo fell on his remarks with glee, producing such headlines as: “No Slicked Back Capp”; “Yuppie Andy Gets The Boot’ and “Dunce’s Capp For The Ad Men”.
Whether the campaign’s managers had hoped Smythe himself would draw the ads, I don’t know. Even if they’d been able to persuade the Mirror to let them use Andy without his permission, though, they had decades of evidence that no other artist could quite get the character right, and in the end Smythe’s veto was enough to scupper the whole idea.
“Smythe, 72, does not own the copyright in the cartoon strip,” Rule writes. “He signed it over to the Daily Mirror when he first started drawing Andy. But he believes the wide syndication gives him ‘weight and authority’. Simon Burridge, an executive at the agency, said the Andy Capp concept was effectively dead because Smythe ‘doesn’t want anyone taking the cap off’.”
The next big battle came in January 1997, just 12 months after Piers Morgan had taken over as the Mirror’s editor. That year’s biggest stars for the UK tabloids were The Spice Girls, and Morgan decided a cartoon strip starring a similar “girl power” character was just what the Mirror needed. She would be, he announced, “a mischievous ladette daughter of miserable old Andy”.
The mystery here is why Morgan – or anyone else on the Mirror for that matter – thought that linking the new character to Andy would be anything other than a liability with the Spice Girls fans she was supposed to attract. As sometimes happened with his commercial campaigns, though, Andy’s sheer fame seemed to trump all other concerns, and the idea was pushed forward regardless. (87)
“Brendon Parsons, the then deputy editor, wanted Reg Smythe to create Mandy Capp, daughter of Andy,” Layson tells Hagerty. “Reg had a fit. Well, it just didn’t go with his image, and everybody knew that he and Florrie had no children. But Parsons insisted, so I got Roger Mahoney to draw it and Carla Ostrer to write the stories and dialogue. Soon, it replaced Andy as the strip at the top of the page, which really upset Reg.”
Mandy’s debut strip appeared in the Mirror of January 6, 1997, together with some promotional copy. “She’s sexy, sassy and independent,” the blurb announces. “She’s a Nineties woman with a job, a young child and a string of adoring men. She’s Mandy Capp, a young, hip, female version of the Mirror’s famous cartoon character Andy Capp.”
The contrast between Mandy’s shallow roots in the Spice Girls craze and Andy’s deep grounding in his creator’s troubled childhood could hardly be greater. Smythe refused to acknowledge Mandy even existed, Andy was never allowed to visit her strip, and soon she was following the same trajectory Buster had taken 37 years earlier. First the Capp surname was dropped from her strip, then all suggestion of a family relationship was quietly forgotten.
She didn’t retain her position at the top of the page for long either and, although she still appears in the Mirror every day, it’s now as the fourth of its sixth strips - and Andy’s back at the top where he belongs.
Both these run-ins show just what a strong hold Smythe’s unique status as Andy’s creator still gave him over how the character was handled. By 1997, though, even he couldn’t deny that his health was beginning to fade. Goldsmith, who was working on the cartoon page’s production desk by that time, believes the strip was starting to suffer. (88)
“Piers Morgan was actually going to cancel Andy Capp towards the end of Reg Smythe’s life,” Goldsmith says. “When he was in ill health, he was struggling. The standard fell off dramatically. Piers Morgan really hated it, and said to Ken Layson, ‘I want to cancel this strip and put something else in there – something modern’.”
Layson was able to fight off that suggestion by replacing the odd sub-par strip with one from Smythe’s stockpile, but very soon matters were taken out of his hands.
The beginning of the end came on May 6, 1997, when Reg’s wife Vera died at the age of 80. “Vera died and Smythe’s long-time girlfriend, Jean, whom Vera had known about, moved in with him,” Layson tells Hagerty. A year later, Reg and Jean married in a private ceremony at the White Gates bungalow. And a few weeks after that, Smythe himself died, succumbing to lung cancer on June 13, 1998, aged 81.
The funeral at Stranton Grange Crematorium Chapel produced tributes from Hartlepool United, former Mirror editor David Banks and Labour’s Peter Mandelson, who’d been a Hartlepool MP since 1992. It’s not clear from the reports whether Piers Morgan attended the funeral in person or whether he simply sent a wreath, but we do have his final comment on Smythe: “His creation will live on”.
“Yes it will, mate,” the cartoonist might have replied. “But no thanks to you.”
By the time Smythe died, he’d built up his stockpile of unused Andy strips still further, giving the Mirror a store big enough to keep the feature running for over two years. That bought Ken Layson some time, and he was determined to use it well. He had a keen respect for Andy’s heritage as a classic UK strip, and refused to let it die without a fight.
Layson approached Roger Kettle, who was already writing A Man Called Horace for the Mirror’s strips page and asked him if he’d be interested in taking over the writing on Andy’s strip too. Kettle had been writing Beau Peep for the Daily Star since 1978, and commissioning Horace from him ten years later had been the Mirror’s bid to bring Beau Peep fans over to its own paper.
Both those strips would be continuing too, and asking their writer to take on a third daily was no small matter. Kettle produced both Beau Peep and Horace with artist Andrew Christine, but knew he’d need a new partner for Andy. As long as that could be arranged, he said, he was prepared to give it a go.
Layson’s next stop was Roger Mahoney, the artist he’d commissioned to draw Mandy Capp with writer Carla Ostrer. Mahoney, a remarkably versatile artist, sold his first cartoons to the Mirror and the Daily Sketch in the early 1950s, and had since contributed strips to the Scottish Daily Record, the Sunday Express and the Daily Star too. He’d taken over a popular Express strip called The Gambols when its creator Barry Appleby died in 1996, and drawn it in flawless imitation of Appleby’s style there for the following three years.
These were just the chameleon skills Layson needed in anyone drawing Andy, so he must have been relieved when Mahoney said “yes” too. His set his new team to work, and began slowly feathering their contribitions in with the pile of Smythe strips he was still using. At first, the new strips were uncredited.
“I think Ken decided not to risk upsetting the fans with a sudden change to a new by-line,” Goldsmith says. “Because Reg Smythe had left a huge weight of material, he was able to mix and match. Some strips were the two Rogers’ and some were Reg Smythe’s. So he kind of eased it in to a new transition.”
Mahoney was very aware of the weight of Andy’s history as he studied Smythe’s style and taught himself to copy its smallest quirks. “It’s a tremendous responsibility taking over a world-class cartoon strip like Andy Capp,” he told me. “You need to remember that, with all one’s experience in this field of work, and all the strips of your own that you’re created and sold, you have never achieved the success that Reg Smythe did.
“Every detail of the Andy Capp strip has contributed to its worldwide fame. You have to keep in mind how many editors round the world are checking what you do every day – and there are hundreds of them in more than 30 countries. An attitude of ‘This will have to do’, or ‘I’ll just knock this out quickly’, will soon bring disaster. It needs constant attention to detail to keep the drawing from developing away from the original.”
Given how difficult many commercial artists have found it to capture Smythe’s style, it’s all the more remarkable that Mahoney managed to catch it so well. “Even if it’s Andy Capp’s head in profile on a bag of Salsa Fries, you can see that those few lines weren’t done by Reg Smythe,” Hiley says. “It must be very difficult to take over from somebody else, to follow somebody else’s style and remain true to their interpretation because that’s what the readers want.”
Once the two Rogers had found their feet, Layson felt confident enough to defend Andy’s future with the Mirror bosses again. “Ken was very passionate about it,” Goldsmith says. “Because he’d brought the two Rogers on board, he was able to show Piers their material and persuade him to give it a chance and carry on. But Andy Capp nearly came a cropper. Syndication was dropping off and nobody was interested in merchandising. Roger Kettle and Roger Mahoney really brought the strip back to life, and started to pick up the syndication again.”
David & Charles Publishing liked the revived strip enough to start collecting it in book form, publishing collections in both 2004 and 2005. Kettle and Mahoney got a printed credit on the strip from 2004 onwards, just as Goldsmith, Garnett and Mahoney do today. Titan Books has already published one Andy Capp collection as well – again using the Kettle/Mahoney strips – and recently signed a deal with the new team for the first of their own collections.
Since Smythe’s death, Andy has scored a second mention on The Simpsons and been shown on Family Guy in the midst of a dustball fight with Flo. He’s also been given a statue in Smythe’s native Hartlepool - and if you think that was simple matter to arrange, then you obviously haven’t met the town’s council. Plans for an Andy Capp statue there were first mooted just after Smythe’s 1998 funeral, but it took the council a full five years even to decide which sculptor should make it. (89)
On January 10, 2003, the Hartlepool Mail reported that town councillor Kevin Kelly had discussed the shortlist of four possible artists with member’s of Smythe’s family, and they’d approved a Shrewsbury sculptor called Jane Robbins for the job. “It’s really being done as a tribute to Reg Smythe as much as to Andy,” Kelly said.
The estimated cost of the statue was then put at between £16,000 and £18,000, but Kelly was quick to assure Hartlepool ratepayers that they wouldn’t have to shell out. “The Mirror has made millions out of Andy Capp,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if they gave some of it back?”
Fourteen months passed in deafening silence. Then, on April 20, 2004, The Headland Environmental Improvement & Public Art Programme announced it had included some funds for the statue in its £2.5m spending plans. They were happy to stump up £8,500 of the total cost – which had now grown to an estimated £18,500. (90)
A year later, plans for the statue were shelved. “Beer-swilling, chain-smoking womaniser Andy Capp is thought by some to be politically incorrect in this day and age,” the Hartlepool Mail explained. (91)
The paper sent a reporter out to ask Headland residents what they thought of this decision and everyone they quoted said they thought Andy was a great lad and that they saw no problem with the statue at all. “It’s not offensive to women,” Nicola Whittingham said. “Most blokes like to drink and there’s nowt wrong with that”. Carolyn McCarthy added: “I can’t see anything wrong with Andy Capp. I think he’s a canny little fella, me.”
All Andy’s supporters were identified by name, but no clue given to who his supposed opponents might be. The closest anyone came to naming somebody offended by the statue was that “thought by some” quote above.
Another two months passed, bringing us to July 10, 2005, when Councillor Edna Wright announced that Andy’s statue was now back on the agenda, and had won a unanimous vote from members of the council’s North Hartlepool Partnership board. “There was no reason for it to be shelved,” she told reporters. “The statue was my main priority when I was chair of the Single Regeneration Board two or three years ago, and I proposed it again. We will now start looking for the money to do it.” (92)
The Hartlepool Mail took this opportunity to survey its readers again and found that “a massive 88% of the people who voted wanted a statue of Andy”. There was still no sign of any named individual or named organisation prepared to come out against the statue, merely a mention of what the Mail called “opposition in certain quarters”.
Five months after Wright’s announcement, the NHP announced it had just written to the Mirror asking for a contribution to the statue. “If the Mirror want to see Andy Capp, let us see some of their cash,” said NHP chairman John Marshall. The Mirror confirmed it has received his letter, but had no more to say about it than that. (93)
“The idea of an Andy Capp statue was first discussed by the NHP around four years ago,” the Hartlepool Mail slyly noted. “And it was a priority at that time.”
Eight more months passed. Then, in August 2006, NHP set about delivering leaflets to every house in the area to gauge support for an Andy Capp statue. “The NHP is prepared to explore such a scheme, but only if there is clear support for it among local residents,” Marshall explained. The cost of the statue was now put at £20,000. (94)
Marshall didn’t say how much the leafleting campaign would cost, but the results duly came in and were reported in the Hartlepool Mail’s September 27 issue. Of the 527 people who replied, 406 voted in favour of the statue - a share of 78%. Once again, no-one could name a single individual or organisation who objected to the statue, assuming only that it must be “thought by some” in “certain quarters” that “some people” would find it offensive. (95)
A site for the statue was chosen outside the Headland’s Harbour of Refuge pub, the landlady there said she’d be delighted to have it, and all that remained was to confirm the planning permission. “So what if Reg Smythe’s boozy hero was a workshy womaniser?” the Hartlepool Mail thundered. “His sins were only committed in someone’s imagination, and have amused millions of people around the world.”
The final deal struck with the Mirror was that they would provide £2,000 of the statue’s £20,000 price, with NHP coughing up the rest. On April 20, 2007, Marshall and his colleagues visited Robbins’ Shrewsbury studio and signed off on her final model for the statue’s design. “It’s a brilliant likeness,” said Marshall. (96)
Given the go-ahead at last, Robbins worked quickly, and the statue was in place for its unveiling ceremony on June 28, 2007. Jean Smythe, Reg’s second wife, whipped back the cloth to reveal a five-foot-tall bronze figures of Andy, posed leaning against a section of bar with a full pint glass at his elbow.
“I didn’t think it was going to be an emotional day, but it has turned out to be one,” she said. “The area where the statue is based is ideal. Reg grew up here. He used to muck about on the rocks and his first job was as a delivery boy for a shop just round the corner. He would have liked it.” (97-99)
Kettle continued writing Andy alongside Beau Peep and A Man Called Horace for much longer than he’d originally expected. “It was supposed to be a temporary thing, but Ken never organised anybody else, so Roger ended up doing it for ten years,” Goldsmith told me. “He virtually had a nervous breakdown, so he had to stop doing it.”
Mahoney was happy to continue drawing Andy, but Kettle’s resignation towards the end of 2010 meant the Mirror needed to find a new writer for the strip. Fortunately, there was a promising candidate right there in the office.
Goldsmith was then handling production and admin work on the paper’s strips page, but he also had 30 years as a working cartoonist under his belt. “I did a kids’ strip for a long time called Canaryman,” he says. “I’ve even drawn Desperate Dan for DC Thompson, for the annuals and things. I was doing a lot of kids’ stuff for Marvel UK – The Care Bears, The Popples, Masters of the Universe – all TV tie-ins. I was an artist, but then I came into writing as well.”
Knowing it’s always useful to have a partner to bounce ideas off when writing jokes, Goldsmith invited Sean Garnett, one of the Mirror’s subs, to join him as Andy’s co-writer. “Sean’s a very funny guy, who gets all the funny stories and funny headlines to write,” Goldsmith says. “He’s been a friend of mine for years and years, so I thought he’d be a perfect fit to help me with Andy.”
“I’d done a couple of strips with Lawrence before, but not on a daily paper like this,” Garnett says. “We did a strip called The Ref for a children’s magazine, and we also used to do Canaryman together in Children’s Mirror. That’s my only experience of writing cartoons, so this is a completely new thing for me to do on a daily basis.”
Kettle had left enough scripts in the bank to get the strip through till the end of January 2011, which gave the new writers two months to prepare. They set about reading a mass of old Reg Smythe Andys to reacquaint themselves with the character’s roots, and I asked what had particularly struck them from that process.
“Just how good his jokes were really,” Goldsmith replied. “And how good an artist he was. It was a revelation to us just how brilliant Reg Smythe was.
We liked Roger Kettle’s style, but he was more about the well-crafted joke – whereas Reg Smythe was more of the slapstick: Andy falling into the canal, having fights, getting thrown out of places. We wanted to take it back to the Reg Smythe slapstick type of thing, so we stuck more with those.”
The two friends settled into a routine of meeting in a West London café once every two weeks, each with a batch of about 20 ideas roughed out on sheets of A4. Working about a month ahead of publication date, they whittle down those 40 roughs into 14 good solid ideas – enough to fill Andy’s strip for a full fortnight and keep them up to schedule.
“We come here with our roughs, and we decide which ones we like,” Goldsmith told me at the café’s table. “We work on some as well to get them up to scratch. Then I go away and draw them up in a rough form, panel by panel, how the action should be. I send them off to Roger, and then he draws them up. He always adds more, using his vast experience. He’s a really, really talented guy.”
”Roger can actually rescue scripts that aren’t quite there,” Garnett adds. “His drawing just breathes complete life into them.”
When the finished drawings come back from Mahoney, Goldsmith looks them over, then passes them to Garnett so he can use his subbing skills to put a final polish on the words. “I think we all bring something to it that makes it a good whole,” Goldsmith says.
The new team’s most controversial run of strips so far came in February and March of 2012, when the Mirror signed a lucrative deal with the UK Government’s Department of Health to run 28 sponsored strips in Andy’s regular slot. Each of these would be branded with the Government’s Change4Life logo, and show Andy struggling to adopt the kind of healthy lifestyle that campaign recommended.
“We really had great reservations about it, because obviously then the strip becomes a commercial enterprise rather than just a strip,” Goldsmith says. “But it actually worked out quite well. We got a lot of good humour out of it.”
“We were worried about how it was going to be perceived, and people getting the wrong idea that this was the way the strip was going to go,” Garnett adds. “But we basically decided, if it’s funny, it shouldn’t matter too much. Because we didn’t change Andy’s character by any means.”
The strips they produced showed moments like Andy taking more exercise (because Flo’s lost the TV remote), worrying about his five-a-day (because he’s praying hops might be a vegetable), beginning to lose weight (causing his trousers to fall down), and saving loads of money (to spend in the bookie’s). He has a couple of spectacular lapses along the way, both of which show him as drunk as he’s ever been, and ends the campaign by confirming everything’s back to normal. (100)
“We had him struggling to give up,” Garnett says. “That was the whole point. It wasn’t him preaching to the world, ‘You’ve got to stop drinking now’. He did fall off the wagon quite spectacularly – it was a struggle. We got through it with the gags, rather than preaching to anybody, because that’s what we didn’t want to do. And to be fair to the Change4Life people, they didn’t want that either.”
The British strips carried a clear Change4Life logo every day, so at least UK readers were clear what was going on. But the same strips were carried in America with no logo, which left readers there rather puzzled about Andy’s new habits. (101)
“I’m curious about the change here,” Sean Kleefeld writes in his Kleefeld on Comics blog. “Is this something the creators are trying to slide in on their own? Something mandated by their syndicate acting on comments from a health agency? Just an attempt to change things up because newspapers are flailing and willing to try anything?” (102)
He wasn’t the only one feeling confused. “You couldn’t put a sign in there saying, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll be back to being a piss-head in a few weeks’, so a lot of Americans thought that was the way the cartoon was going,” Garnett says. “A lot of them did think, ‘This is it – Andy’s changed for good’.”
There were positive reactions from America too, notably from one reader who announced Andy’s change of heart had inspired him to give up his own heavy drinking after 40 years. Another wrote in to say he thought the new strips made a welcome change, as Andy’s old ways had already been milked for every joke they could possible yield. Men’s Health magazine bought all the campaign strips and reprinted them alongside its usual photographs of toned and buffed male models.
“It’s interesting, because the reaction was pretty evenly-balanced,” Garnett says. “I was fully expecting a torrent of criticism.”
Some of the campaign’s gags worked better than others, of course, but there were genuine jokes there, and the strip came through with its dignity more or less intact. Even if Goldsmith and Garnett had decided to dig their heels in over the campaign, I doubt they’d have been able to stop it. Smythe’s unique authority as Andy’s creator had been what gave his veto its power, and without that his successors carry little weight in setting commercial policy. Like it or not, we probably will see more campaigns in Andy’s future, and Goldsmith and Garnett handled this one about as well as anyone could realistically hope.
“I’m not generally in favour of applying campaigns to strips,” Mahoney says. “But if the jokes are funny – which is the difficult part – then it can give the strip an up-to-date feel. I think the DoH campaign was successful because Lawrence and Sean produced some very funny gags. The job of writing in today’s style, but blending it to the Andy Capp formula, is no easy task, and they’ve written some crackers.”
Smythe used to boast that the Mirror had never rejected one of his strips, and so far the paper’s accepted everything the current team has put through too. “The only editorial pressure we get is sometimes to tie in with a commercial activity,” Goldsmith says. “They launched some Andy Capp beer kits in Morrisons, and they wanted us to write a couple of strips with Andy making home brew – not referencing Morrisons or anything, but just to keep them happy. Those are the only pressures we get. As far as editorial content goes, we’re pretty much left alone.” (103)
That autonomy comes partly thanks to the fact that, after a spell in the doldrums, the Mirror’s strips page has returned to profit, reminding the paper’s bosses once again just how important this part of its heritage is. The strips have become a vital part of the Mirror’s website too, where they can be relied on to pull readers back day after day for their regular fix.
“Andy Capp syndicates hugely, and we’ve done a deal with the Simon’s Cat people that makes the syndicate money,” Goldsmith explains. “Then we have two reprinted strips, The Perishers and Garth, which cost us nothing, but they syndicate as well. It makes money, and that allows us to pay for the two original strips, Horace and Andy. So, at the moment, the page is quite highly-valued.”
On the merchandising side this year, Andy has already produced the home brew kits, some Olympic T-shirts, greetings cards, an iPhone app and proposals for some animated shorts on TV. No wonder the Mirror’s executives have started paying attention to his future again. “The managing editor there has a huge interest in the strips page,” Garnett says. “He comes up and says, ‘That was a really funny one today,’ or, ‘Didn’t think much of today’s’.”
“And our colleagues are ruthless,” Goldsmith adds. “They tell us in no uncertain terms. There’s a guy from Barnsley we work with and he said, ‘You two can’t write Andy Capp – you’re both Londoners!’”
Tough as these workmates can be, they’re nothing to the die-hard Reg Smythe fans who fill the comment sections on Andy’s various web platforms. For them, any tiny deviation from Smythe’s own template is sacrilege, and they often forget that even Andy’s creator was constantly evolving the strip to keep it alive.
“There’s a small army of people who want to resurrect Reg Smythe and get him drawing again,” says Garnett. “You can’t do anything about that. We’re not Reg Smythe, and we never will be, but we’ll do the best we can for the strip. When I was presented with the opportunity to write Andy, I jumped at the chance. To me, it’s still a great privilege.”
“Andy Capp is still Andy Capp, but it’s been three different strips,” Goldsmith adds. “It’s been Reg Smythe’s Andy Capp, Kettle and Mahoney’s Andy Capp, and now it’s our Andy Capp. They’re all subtly different. We obviously keep the same characters, the same location and the same style of humour, but we’re never going to replicate what Reg Smythe did. It was his creation, he was a genius, and nobody can fill those shoes.”
Appendix I: A gallery of Reg & Andy in action
Each of the links below will take you Reg Smythe’s original art for that particular cartoon in the British Cartoon Archive’s online gallery. The collection holds over 2,000 of Smythe’s originals from the first ten years of Andy’s life (1957-1966) in a searchable database.
This was an era when Andy often appeared as a single-panel cartoon rather than a strip, and Smythe was still in the process of refining his characters’ appearance. Many of his trademark techniques can already be seen in the gags below, but he’d polish them much further in the years to come.
“I’m a man of few pleasures...” (Aug 20, 1957)
“Drop in on me missus any time ...” (Feb 19, 1959)
“I’m goin’ to ‘ave trouble wi’ that girl.” (July 23, 1965)
“C’mon, lass, get up on yer feet...” (July 30, 1958)
“All right, I’m ‘oldin’ it still... (Sept 2, 1961)
“I’ll never understand...” (June 1, 1962)
“Oh-ohh! Valentine’s Day...” (Feb 14, 1961)
“A bit of a warm-up.” (Feb 18, 1965)
“This is ridiculous, Pet...” (March 26, 1965)
“I’ll never forget the day we got married...” (July 25, 1958)
“I’ll always ‘ave a soft spot for Teddy...” (Jan 9, 1962)
“I’d still pick a lad who likes a drink.” (June 28, 1961).
Breaking the Fourth Wall
“So after I licked ‘im at darts...” (March 2, 1961)
“Crafty Florrie!” (June 29, 1964)
“She’s got t’ be kiddin’” (Feb 24, 1966)
“Florrie! – Gimme the ‘ammer!” (Dec 10, 1957)
“Shall I bury yer, Andy?” (July 28, 1960)
“‘E’s never stayed out this long before.” (May 9, 1961)
“D’yer really love me?” (October 8, 1964)
“Hey! Gaffer!” (January 9, 1965)
“There ‘e goes again.” (August 23, 1965)
“But I’ve got over it an’ mebbe ‘e ‘asn’t!” (March 27, 1963)
“I’ve finished wi’ votin’, mate...” (Nov 18, 1963)
“If yer take one step out of this door...” (March 31, 1965)
The Flat Plane
“Would yer lend us yer whitewash brush, Tom?” (April 6, 1965)
“Will yer lend me five bob?” (May 4, 1965)
“What did yer get out of ‘im?” (May 17, 1965)
“If that barmaid doesn’t keep away...” (Aug 21, 1963)
“Tch! Disgustin’!” (Dec 18, 1964)
“Scuffle. Bop! Scuffle. Thump!” (Feb 4, 1965)
Appendix II: Reg’s top tips
i) The penultimate punchline panelReg Smythe is seldom recognised as the sophisticated master cartoonist he was. I’m going to use these seven boxes to point out a few of his key techniques – many of which Smythe seems to have invented for himself.
Let’s start with what I call the postscript panel. Often, Smythe would time a gag to deliver its punchline in the third panel of a four-panel strip, then use the final frame either to have a character comment what’s just happened, or simply to show them walking away.
Like the dying fall of a clerihew’s last line, this has the effect of ending the joke with a string of softening dots rather than a crass exclamation mark.
“I go for a smile, a remembrance rather than a big laugh,” he tells Les Lilley. “I feel the strip is more sophisticated and textured with the gag in the third frame and a non-sequiter in the fourth. Less hard-edged.”
Smythe used this technique throughout his full 40 years with Andy, but some of the earliest examples come in these three 1963 strips.
* Andy approaches a neighbour and asks if he’ll be using his mower that afternoon. The neighbour replies that he will. Panel 3: Andy says: “Good, then you won’t be usin’ yer football boots will yer?” Panel 4: Andy walks off in silence with the boots.
* Andy warns Flo against talking to a certain bloke in the pub because he used to kiss her before they got married. “So did you,” says Flo. Panel 3: Andy replies: “I know – but I’ve got over it and maybe ‘e ‘asn’t!” Panel 4: Flo gives Andy a little hug as his reward for being jealous over her.
* A copper sees Andy chasing Flo down the street with violence in mind. He warns Andy that he’s going to end up sending her to the doctor. Panel 3: Andy replies: “That’s all right – she ‘as a cold an’ ought to see ‘im anyway!” Panel 4: The copper glances to camera as he walks away and wearily remarks: “It’s a livin’.”
In all three of these strips, the joke itself is finished by the third panel, but it’s the fourth’s little grace note which lifts it above the ordinary.
The other effect of this technique, as Nicholas Hiley points out, is to embed each individual joke in a continuing flow. When we see Andy walk away after delivering the punchline, it implies that his life continues whether we happen to be watching or not. Rather than a snapshot, each strip becomes a glimpse of movie footage from what we know must be a much longer film. “It’s interesting because it hints at the passage of time in the cartoon, which is so important,” Hiley says. “Time’s kind of flowing through it. The joke is something that the characters live through.”
“But I’ve got over it an’ mebbe ‘e ‘asn’t!” (March 27, 1963)
“I’ve finished wi’ votin’, mate...” (Nov 18, 1963)
“If yer take one step out of this door...” (March 31, 1965)
ii) ‘Ow t’ speak in yer real voiceIn his determination to make Andy and Flo speak like a real Tyneside couple, Smythe would spell their dialogue phonetically to mimic the local accent. “It was very colloquial in the way it was written,” Sean Garnett says. “Lots of apostrophes and missing letters and things like that. God knows how the Americans understood it.” There are some speech balloons where almost every word is shown in dialect form. “C’mon, kid,” Andy says to Flo in one 1965 strip. “Yer goin’ t’ beat Ed Bradshaw’s missus wi’ one ‘and tied behind yer back!”
Smythe addresses this habit in Les Lilley’s book. “I used words like ‘owt’ and ‘nowt’ to reinforce my written version of what a Tyneside accent should be like,” he says. “Some readers in the South were worried about this, but the editors didn’t touch it. They left me to educate the readers in my own style.”
Music hall comedians from the North had often found their accent a bar to success anywhere else, but this never seemed to hinder Andy. “Frank Randle never made it in the South, but Andy Capp does,” says Hiley. “I don’t know why. I suppose for the English, maybe the fact that his accent was written down makes him less foreign? But he was designed for the Northern edition. It must have been quite amazing when he escaped.”
Once again, Smythe deployed this trick with great skill, using it to subtly indicate the particular class of each character within the strip. There’s a 1964 gag, for example, which shows Andy visiting the doctor. Andy’s own comments are spelt with his usual accent, but the doctor – being an educated man – replies in perfectly-spelt middle class tones. Another strip from that year positions the vicar neatly between these two extremes – more refined than Andy, certainly, but still not quite in the doctor’s class. Smythe reflects this by letting him drop his Gs, but not his Hs. “It doesn’t ever appear condescending,” Hiley says. “It’s just accepted as the way that they speak.”
Smythe toned down the phonetic spelling in the 1980s, saving it mostly for times when he wanted to show a character was particularly angry. In one 1988 collection, for example, Flo pronounces “how” and “with” perfectly every time when she’s calm, but reverts to “‘ow” and “wi’” the minute Andy drives her too far. Northern endearments like “pet” and “flower” pop up in Smythe’s strips too, but that’s the only element of the old dialogue style that survives today. “We get the occasional ‘pet’ in,” Garnett says. “But the language and the dialect is very different now.”
Andy’s accent also produces some quandaries when putting him on stage, but the Irish company who revived his musical in 2012 ploughed bravely ahead. “We thought the accent might be difficult to understand,” says Helen Kavanagh. “But the language of the script needs the cadence of that accent. We mastered it, and nobody had any difficulty being understood.” (104)
iii) Gently breaking the fourth wallRight from the strip’s earliest days, Andy and Flo would address the readers directly - sometimes with no more than a glance.
There’s an early example in a 1961 gag showing Andy home from the pub, late and drunk. He’s so keen to tell Flo about his success in the night’s darts and snooker games that he’s unplugged the telly she’d happily been watching from her armchair opposite. Smythe draws Flo facing Andy, but with her eye cast back over her shoulder towards us. It’s a gesture that reads as: “See what I have to put up with?” All Smythe has done here is shift Flo’s eyeball a millimetre, but it makes us instantly complicit in her plight. All of a sudden, we’re co-conspirators. “It tickles me the way he has the little eyeball just looking out like that,” Garnett says. “It’s as if you’re in the room with them.”
Sometimes the strip’s characters will speak directly to their readers too. One 1965 strip, for example, begins with Andy throwing Flo a few coins as her racing winnings. Flo waits till he’s safely out of the way, then turns to us and explains: “I ‘ave a system. I let Andy pick me ‘orses – then ‘e’s too big ‘eaded to tell me ‘e picked ‘em wrong.” A few years later, Andy expertly deflects a neighbour’s demand for a loan repayment, then turns to us in the final panel and confides: “I should be charging you f’this sort o’stuff, y’know.”
“I’ve always liked the way Smythe drew his characters speaking directly to the reader,” Roger Mahoney says. “It made me feel as though I was in on the joke – part of the action, so to speak.” Lawrence Goldsmith agrees. “I think it draws the reader in,” he says. “Of course, that’s become standard on TV now, with The Office and so on. Reg Smythe was ahead of his day there.” Keith Waterhouse was careful to retain this feature in his own scripts for Andy’s sitcom. “Those comments are very televisual,” he tells Lilley. “Someone just turns to the viewer and makes a remark.”
By 1985, Smythe was so comfortable with the technique that he was able to make the strip’s fourth wall appear and disappear at will. In one of that year’s strips, Andy marches off to the pub in disgust, telling Flo he’s sick of her nagging and that all he asks is to have a quiet life. She rehearses her sarcastic response with us in the third panel, realises it’s a good one, and then yells it to Andy’s departing back in the fourth: “You could do that just by living within my income for a change!!” The gag lies not in her comment itself, but in our recognition of Flo’s behaviour. Who hasn’t repeated a treasured comeback in exactly the same way?
Breaking the Fourth Wall
“So after I licked ‘im at darts...” (March 2, 1961)
“Crafty Florrie!” (June 29, 1964)
“She’s got t’ be kiddin’” (Feb 24, 1966)
iv) The power of a good back shotSmythe picked up the habit of drawing his characters from the back when covering council meetings for papers like the Hackney Gazette in the early 1950s.
“I suppose my gags were all right,” he tells Lilley. “But I was held back by my drawings. I couldn’t get a likeness of the people I was supposed to be putting in the cartoons, so I started showing back views of them! I think this must have started me off on a life-long habit. Even now I like to draw a back view of Andy occasionally. “The back view always seems more potent. The back of the neck can look very aggressive. You can also make your reader feel sorry for a character when you show the back of his head.” Smythe was deploying this trick in the Mirror as early as 1958, when he drew a spin-off cartoon featuring Flo, and chose to picture her from the back. (105)
In Andy’s strip itself, the rear views often come in the final panel, showing the characters walking away as a grace note to the main gag. One panel like this in a 1974 strip gives us our one and only picture of Flo’s mum, who’s always shown elsewhere merely as an ankle inserted from outside the frame.
John Howard Davies, who directed Andy’s 1988 television sitcom, saw the back views as so characteristic of the strip that he let them guide him where to place his camera. In the TV show, just like the strip itself, we often find ourselves staring directly at Andy and Chalkie’s backs as they stand at the bar, or watching them disappear down an alley with snooker cues propped on their shoulders. “There are certain Andy poses that people have stamped in their memory cells,” Davies says. “And I wanted to keep that flavour.”
Mahoney, who took over drawing Andy after Reg’s death in 1998, has retained it too. “I think Smythe might have been the first strip cartoonist in this country to show his characters with their backs to the readers with great success,” he says.
“D’yer really love me?” (October 8, 1964)
“Hey! Gaffer!” (January 9, 1965)
“There ‘e goes again.” (August 23, 1965)
v) Your setting is a character tooEvery reader tends to imagine Andy as living in the tattier section of their hometown. “People see him in the slum district of their own environment,” Waterhouse says. “The other side of the tracks from where they happen to be.”
Smythe was happy to accept this as a tribute to his character’s universal appeal, but there’s no doubt that he actually set the strip in Hartlepool. More specifically, it’s set in the oldest part of Hartlepool, the Headland, where Reg’s own family lived. Every location shown in the strip really can be found within a short walk of Andy and Flo’s Durham Street home, as I confirmed during my own trip there. “It’s completely Hartlepool,” Goldsmith says of the strip today. “We had him at a Hartlepool United match the other day. I think if you start messing around with that, you’re tampering with the magic a bit.” (106)
Smythe kept the strip’s internal geography consistent too, with key sites like St Mary’s church, the crane-dotted skyline of the docks and Andy’s house each held to a fixed point on the map. “Andy doesn’t stray far from his surroundings, which I see as being about a square mile or so,” Mahoney says. “The clock tower, for instance, constantly appears on Andy’s way home at night.
“Sometimes one familiar background can follow another and a mental picture is formed where they are in relation to each other. I would say the building site and the cranes are on the outskirts of his area, the church tower is in town and the pub not far from Andy’s house. “All these recurring backgrounds make for a believable environment for the Capps to live in. The fact that Andy walks everywhere gives us an idea how far away everything is.” (107)
For Goldsmith, the furthest Andy should ever be allowed to roam is the occasional trip to Blackpool or Skegness. “The syndicate was pushing for some strips in America, but Reg Smythe wouldn’t do it,” he says. “I don’t think Andy’s ever been on a plane.” (108)
Hiley agrees this small world is crucial to the strip’s success. “It’s very much an urban landscape,” he says. “Do you get trees in Andy Capp? I don’t know. You get flagstones and bricks. There aren’t any rivers, there are canals. It’s not the seaside, it’s the docks.” (109)
The one location Hiley mentions there which can’t be found on the real Headland is the canal Andy sometimes falls in to when he’s drunk. “My wife and I can’t remember any canal in Hartlepool,” the local historian Stan Laundon told me. “We remember many of the pubs Smythe used to feature in his strip, and there’s no water apart from the lock gates and docks anywhere near.” (110)
Smythe could perfectly well have used the docks instead of inventing a fictional canal if he’d wanted to, but perhaps he felt that would be a step too far in pinning the strip down. As it is, he seemed to strike a perfect balance, creating a town for Andy to live in that was utterly specific and yet familiar to readers on every continent. “It has that old industrial feeling to it,” Hiley says of the strip. “So it has to be set in an area like that. It’s accepting of work, but also of being out of work. Perhaps part of the appeal is that there are areas like that all over the world, from the American rust belt to the middle of Europe.”
“I’ll never forget the day we got married...” (July 25, 1958)
“I’ll always ‘ave a soft spot for Teddy...” (Jan 9, 1962)
“I’d still pick a lad who likes a drink.” (June 28, 1961).
vi) Find your rules and don’t waverImagine each Andy Capp panel as a three-dimensional room. Where in that room did Smythe place his “camera”? In his early single-panel gags, he’d often place it one of the room’s top corners, producing a three-quarters view of the action inside from something like ceiling level.
Once the strip settled down, however, he’d always choose a spot bang in the centre of the room’s front wall, looking squarely at the action opposite from the reader’s own eye-level. The effect is to present everything as a flat vertical plane. Angled perspective, where it’s used at all, is kept to an absolute minimum. The characters are posed with equal care, looking either directly at the “camera”, directly away from it, or placed in a precise 90 degree profile. Panels which break these rules once Smythe had settled on them around 1970 are very rare indeed. “Fancy camera angles would be a distraction from the gag,” says Mahoney.
“It’s interesting how wrong people get it when they try to make a three-dimensional Andy Capp,” Hiley adds. “It doesn’t work, because you only see him in a series of set poses. It’s like Mickey Mouse’s ears always being seen from the side whether he’s facing you or not. Putting Andy in the round just doesn’t work.” There’s ample evidence for this in the BCA’s collection of Andy Capp merchandise. Of all the Andy-shaped products they’ve gathered there - ceramic figures, teapots, salt cellars - only Avon’s 1969 talcum powder bottle looks remotely like him. (111)
The Flat Plane
“Would yer lend us yer whitewash brush, Tom?” (April 6, 1965)
“Will yer lend me five bob?” (May 4, 1965)
“What did yer get out of ‘im?” (May 17, 1965)
vii) Less is always very much moreThe US papers’ Sunday format demanded an extended cartoon on that day, so Smythe would reluctantly add extra panels to his existing Sunday strips. He assured British readers that these extra panels were “only padding”, and told Lilley that he thought their chief effect was to ruin the pacing of what had previously been a perfectly good gag.
Ravette’s published a few collections of these US Sundays for the British market, and these confirm Smythe’s view. Set an original British strip alongside the US Sunday it became, and it’s immediately clear that the extra panels add nothing but flab. This must have been particularly galling for Smythe, who was always keen to boil down every element of the strip to its crispest possible form. “Too much writing can overdo it and kill the joke,” he tells Lilley when discussing Andy and Flo’s speechballons. “I pare them down to an irreducible minimum.” (112)
He brought exactly the same approach to drawing Andy’s world, using just four ruled lines to create a bar for him to prop up, and a mere three to indicate we’re now in Flo’s hallway. Coupled with Smythe’s absolute mastery of facial expressions and body language, that’s all he needed to make a completely convincing world. “I consider Andy Capp to be among the world’s best-designed cartoon characters,” Mahoney says. “Reg was a brilliant designer, and could reduce an object to pure simplicity. “The strip appealed to me most when he started eliminating everything but the bare essentials. The artwork was clean and simple, and I try to keep this style in my own drawing.”
The cartoonist Al Capp underlined this point when writing about Smythe in 1973. “Dickens created his world with a torrent of words – Smythe his, with a few brief lines,” he says. “Without, indeed, seeming to bother to draw it at all, he has made us know the meagreness, the drabness and yet the unquenchable respectability of the Capp home and neighbourhood as intimately as we know Dombey Manor or The Old Curiosity Shop.”
Hiley contrasts Smythe’s approach with the highly-detailed drawings of British cartoonists like Giles. “That style of drawing, where everything is filled in, is quite different from what Reg Smythe is doing with Andy Capp,” he says. “His style is settled upon quite early, and continues virtually unchanged throughout the run of the strip. And it is this simple, uncluttered style with a universal joke in it.”
Appendix III: How old is Andy and when did he and Flo marry?
Looking at the Reg Smythe strips alone, a reasonably consistent picture does emerge.
There are many references to Andy fighting in World War II’s West Africa campaign, which ran from 1940 to 1943. He doesn’t seem the type to volunteer, so let’s assume he was called up, for which he would have had to be at least 18 years old. That implies that he was born in 1922 at the very latest. (33, 113)
He celebrates his 20th wedding anniversary with Flo in a 1962 strip, which suggests she was at least 18 by 1942, and hence born in 1924 or earlier. Many years later, Flo reminds Andy they’re both the same age, so let’s assume they were both born in 1922. (114, 115)
In a 1960 strip, Andy boasts that he’s been using the same Hartlepool pub for 25 years, which suggests he started boozing in 1935, when he would have been just 13. He confesses in another strip that he was then the school bully. (116, 117)
Flo is 16 when Andy the bad boy first whistles at her, and he instantly looks more exciting than the nice-but-boring Percy – who we know was already sweet on her. Flo keeps a photo of Andy under her pillow through the war, and they marry at age 20 when he somehow manages to get some home leave in 1942. (24, 118)
The war ends in 1945 and Andy – like Smythe – is demobbed the following year. He returns to Hartlepool and briefly finds employment as a signwriter. In 1946, Flo finds a job of her own, and Andy gratefully hands over the breadwinning to her. (119, 120)
By September 18, 1946, he’s already started to neglect her and 25 years later Flo remembers this date as the last time her husband took her for a proper evening out. (121)
We meet Andy and Flo in 1957, when the first Andy Capp cartoon appears. They’ve been married for 15 years now, both are aged 35, and Andy’s started hitting his wife. He toasts their “next 30 years” in a 1973 strip, confirming that they wed around 1942. (14, 122, 123)
In a 1968 strip, Flo tells a pollster she’s in her forties. Two 1974 strips acknowledge that both she and Andy are now over 50, a 1975 one has Flo admit she’s in her declining years and even Andy is forced to admit he’s “getting a bit past it” in 1978. (29, 124-127)
All these dates remain pretty consistent until about 1980, when Smythe starts gently fudging them to ensure his characters remain usable. References to Flo and Andy’s exact ages disappear, and the length of their marriage is never allowed to stretch beyond 30 years.
James Bolam was 53 when Smythe approved his casting as Andy for the 1988 television series, suggesting that’s roughly the point at which he remained frozen in his creator’s mind. “I don’t put any age on him,” Smythe tells Lilley. “But when he starts moving the salt and pepper shakers around and saying, ‘Well, there was Rommel and there was me,’ you’ve a fair idea he has to be pushing on a bit.”
Smythe’s death in 1998 produced an opportunity to subtly reboot Andy’s age, and now he seems to be frozen at somewhere between 37 and 45. Goldsmith and Garnett both told me they think of him as being in his mid-forties, while Mahoney imagines him in his late thirties. “He’s still young enough to get out and play rugby, drink copious amounts of beer and play football with a hangover,” Garnett says. “So, mid-forties is probably about the limit.” Hiley agrees, placing Andy in his own mind at between 35 and 40. “He’s old enough to get married, and he’s obviously in the world of work, if not actually working himself for several years,” Hiley says. “But how old is anyone in a world where time doesn’t pass?”
Andy’s current team also warn against trying to impose a real-world calendar on this fantasy realm. “With anything creative, once the readers have it, they make of it what they will,” Goldsmith says. “So Andy could be any age to them – they put their own skin on it.” In the case of a recent strip showing Andy and Chalkie recalling their days in the army together, for example, it’s left entirely open just when those army days took place, and which conflict the British Army might have been embroiled in at the time.
“Andy is ageless, really,” Mahoney says: “Perhaps he is of the age that every individual reader thinks him to be. That could be one of the secrets of his success.”
Appendix IV: Does Andy live in the past or in the present?
Since Smythe’s death in 1998, the strip has built jokes around karaoke machines, mobile phones, e-mail addresses and even computer games consoles. But the current team all agree that such elements must be used sparingly.
“It is quite a timeless cartoon, but you don’t want to be too remote,” Garnett says. “I think you have to have reference to today’s world without having Andy himself taking part in it.” Goldsmith adds: “Andy’s world is kind of a precious thing, really. It’s easy to break it if you start messing around with it too much.”
It’s a tricky balance to strike. Mahoney will often draw houses in Andy’s street with a TV aerial on their roof, for example, but never a satellite dish. “Andy’s world is so complete it doesn’t need any drastic changes,” he says.
The team who made Andy’s 1988 TV sitcom took a similar line. “There is nothing overtly modern,” Waterhouse tells Lilly. “If we showed a car, it would be a Morris Minor.” Smythe faced a similar dilemma himself, as Hartlepool was already changing very fast even when he began Andy’s strip in 1957. “They were already knocking down the terraces and so on then,” Waterhouse points out. “But the best characters don’t belong in a period. They just ‘are’.” (128)
Smythe mentions computers in the strip as early as 1968, showing one that’s the size of a small car four years later. There’s one 1985 strip which mentions a home computer, a video recorder and a microwave in the same panel. For the most part though, as Hiley points out, Andy’s Hartlepool has remained in the era Smythe remembered there from his own youth.
“It would be difficult to think of any other popular cultural medium that stays as unchanging as, say, Andy Capp in the Mirror, or Fred Bassett’s suburban world in the Mail,” he says. “I think strip cartoonists create worlds that people get attached to, and they don’t want them to change. “I don’t want to see Andy driving a car out to some multiplex in the suburbs of Hartlepool or going to some huge Weatherspoons pub. He deserves to drink in a proper back-street pub.”
Doing my research for this piece, I’d noticed that neither Smythe nor his successors have ever shown a black face in the strip. I could believe the town really had been that monocultural in Smythe’s day, but asked the current team if they were ever tempted to bring in a black character today. “You’ve got to be a bit wary of bringing in ethnic characters just for the sake of it,” Garnett says. “I’m in the North quite a bit, and I think the demographic is still the same. It hasn’t changed that much.”
The most recent source available for Hartlepool’s demographics – the 2001 census – lists its population as 98.8% white. “We’ve got the cast of characters and we need to stick with that really,’ says Goldsmith.
Appendix V: Peter Cook and Andy Capp: Secret brothers?
Five of the remarks below were made about the British comedian Peter Cook, and five about Andy Capp. All I’ve done is remove the names. But can you guess which is which?
1) “This is a figure from the parables: a publican, a sinner, but never a Pharisee. In him, morality is found far from its official haunts, the message of a character like [his] being that a life of complete self-indulgence, if led with the whole heart, may also bring wisdom.”
2) “He can walk past a pub any time he likes - unless it’s open.”
3) “He may well have decided at quite an early stage that there are more important things in life than good health – against all the flow of modern thinking. But did he ever decide what they were? The love of a good woman, as he eventually found in [her], perhaps.”
4) “Why is the world so prim, puritanical and judgemental about everyone else’s lives? Why this school-report, could-do-better, needs-to-pull-his-finger-out attitude to others?”
5) “Idleness is being free to do anything.”
6) “He is admirably satisfied with what he has. I don’t know if he’d regard it as being limited or constrained. And I suppose contemplating somebody who has all that they want and all that they need is rather satisfying.”
7) “Idleness comes naturally to me.”
8) “He has a happy arrogance, which may be essentially selfish, but which is close to that genuine liberation that is born of a true faith in the forgiveness of God.”
9) “I’m inclined to think of him as the last of the cavaliers. He seems to do exactly what he wants, when he wants, without fear or favour.”
10) “[He] was waylaid by the first pub they passed, went in for a drink, and didn’t emerge until closing time.”
SCROLL DOWN FOR ANSWERS.
1) Alan Bennett on Peter Cook. (2) Flo Capp on Andy Capp (3) Auberon Waugh on Peter Cook. (4) Stephen Fry on Peter Cook. (5) Andy Capp on Andy Capp. (6) Nicholas Hiley on Andy Capp. (7) Peter Cook on Peter Cook. (8) Daniel McGrath on Andy Capp. (9) Reg Smythe on Andy Capp. (10) Harry Thompson on Peter Cook.
SOURCES: Something Like Fire: Peter Cook Remembered, ed Lin Cook (Methuen, 1996); Andy Capp Number 26, by Reg Smythe (IPC Newspapers 1971); The World of Andy Capp, by Reg Smythe (Mirror Publications 1985); Personal interview (April 2012); Peter Cook: A Biography, by Harry Thompson (Hodder & Stoughton 1997); The Gospel According to Andy Capp, by Daniel McGeachy (John Knox 1973); New York Times, June 1, 1990.
1) British Cartoon Archive (www.cartoons.ac.uk/artists/regsmythe/biography).
2) Hareket Gazetesi (date unknown). Quoted in Time, November 1, 1963.
3) Lebanon Daily News, March 7, 2010.
4) Smythe’s trophies include five consecutive Panel Strip of the Year awards from The Cartoonist Club of Great Britain (1961-1965) and the US National Cartoonist Society’s 1974 Reuben for Best Newspaper Strip (Humour).
5) Universal Uclick (http://universaluclick.com/comics/strip/garfield).
6) Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPcap/2000-02/14/051r-021400-idx.html).
7) Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blondie_(comic_strip)#75th_anniversary).
8) King Features (http://kingfeatures.com/comics/comics-a-z/?id=Hagar_The_Horrible).
9) Gary Groth essay, The Complete Peanuts (Fantagraphics Books, 2004-2016).
10) For a guide to Andy Capp’s many collections, see the Tony’s Trading site here: www.tonystrading.co.uk/galleries/comicstrips/andycapp-uk.htm
11) Personal interviews, April and May 2012.
12) The World of Andy Capp, by Reg Smythe & Les Lilley (Titan Books, 1990). This is by far the leading biographical source on Reg Smythe, but is currently out of print. I’ve used it a lot here, and serious Andy Capp fans will find it’s well worth the effort of tracking down a second-hand copy.
13) I remember reading Andy Capp collections as a child in the 1960s, and I found the wife-beating gags no more shocking that Garnett did then. The drinking gags struck me as wild exaggerations when I read them at that age, but simple reportage when I began my own drinking career a few years later.
14) The Andy Capp Book, by Reg Smythe (Daily Mirror Newspapers, 1958).
15) All the dates in this list are taken from the British Cartoon Archive’s website (above), which has a searchable database containing Smythe’s original art from the strip’s first few years.
16) The three jokes mentioned here appeared on December 10, 1957, July 2, 1960 and May 9, 1961 respectively.
17) The “I love yer” joke appeared on October 2, 1963.
18) The “Mind yer own business” joke appeared on October 25, 1957.
19) The Cream Of Andy Capp, by Reg Smythe (Daily Mirror Newspapers, 1965).
20) Andy Capp Picks His Favourites, by Reg Smythe (Daily Mirror Newspapers, 1963).
21) Where I’ve identified a strip only by its year of publication, that means I can’t be more precise. As a rule of thumb, I’ve subtracted one year from the publication date of the collection containing it, assuming that a 1969 collection contains strips first carried by the Mirror in 1968 and so on.
22) Andy Capp No. 30, by Reg Smythe (Daily Mirror Books, 1973).
23) The whippet cartoon appeared on September 9, 1960.
24) Andy Capp No. 39, by Reg Smythe (Mirror Books, 1977).
25) You’re A Star Andy Capp, by Reg Smythe (Mirror Publications, 1988).
26) Sunderland Echo, August 10, 2007.
27) Andy Capp ‘Uncapped’: The Smyth Family Origins Illustrated, by Ian Smyth Herdman (self-published, date unknown). Copies available at Hartlepool library. The author produced this memoir in an attempt to restore the honour of Richard Smyth’s side of the family after the criticism both Florrie and Reg have levelled against him. “The reader may consider my comments to be bias,” he says. “However I have written this book on the basis of facts as proved or recorded.”
28) The Other Capp, by Al Capp (Saturday Evening Post, March/April 1973).
29) Andy Capp No 34, by Reg Smythe (Mirror Group Books, 1975).
30) Smythe would always phrase these introductions as if they were about Andy and Flo’s lives, but fill them with such vivid detail you knew he must be describing his own family’s experience too. “Flo’s dad was on the dole for years, and her mum had a little cleaning job,” he writes in Andy Capp Number 37. “But the money didn’t go far enough, so she used to pawn her wedding ring every Monday and get it out on Friday for the weekend. Like most kids, Flo was roped in to run messages. She didn’t mind the straightforward shopping, but she hated having to ask for things like broken biscuits, stale cake and cracked eggs.”
31) Unidentified newspaper, quoted in Lilley’s book (above).
32) In a 1966 strip, Flo tells Ruby that Andy once took her on a wartime trip to the Lake District in his Bren carrier. See the first of Smythe’s two 1967 collections (Daily Mirror Newspapers).
33) In his introduction to Andy Capp No 32, Smythe notes that Andy’s battered old shaving mug “served him well all through North Africa – Mersa Matruh, Tobruk, Alex...”.
34) In a 1965 strip, Andy remarks, “I was in the Northumberland Fusiliers durin’ the last lot”. See the first of Smythe’s two 1966 collections (Daily Mirror Newspapers).
35) In a 1971 strip, Andy snaps to attention and declares, “I was a sergeant in the fusiliers!” See Andy Capp No 28 (Daily Mirror Books, 1972).
36) In a 1977 strip, Smythe draws Andy on his way to a regimental reunion with four medals on his chest. See Andy Capp No 40 (Mirror Books 1978).
37) The “ex-soldier” reference comes in The World of Andy Capp’s 1991 collection (Mirror Publications).
38) Reg’s rendition of pre-war St Mary’s was not a strictly literal one, but Hartlepool historian Stan Laundon agrees this is the church he had in mind. Smythe adds a clock the real church never had to let him remind us how late it always is when Andy leaves the pub.
39) Smythe tells this story differently in his 1973 Saturday Evening Post interview. In that version, he approaches a Fleet Street editor directly, who fobs him off by saying all submissions must come through an agent. Smythe then drops that editor’s name with Gilbert, claiming what amounts to a personal recommendation, and wins his appointment that way. In this account, Gilbert tells him to produce not 30 pocket cartoons in a week, but 40.
40) Reg’s Post Office wage of £5 a week would be worth about £150 in today’s prices. The six guineas he received for the two Everybody’s cartoons translates to about £190.
41) This is not easy. Years ago, I worked for a trade newspaper called Money Marketing, where one of my jobs was to brief the Alex cartoonists about industry issues for a sponsored strip they did in our paper. The trick was to produce a finished strip that was accurate enough for none of us to look stupid, but not so pedantic that it destroyed the joke.
42) You can see two of Zec’s best wartime cartoons from the Daily Mirror here: www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jzec.htm “Don’t lose it again”, published in May 1945, may be the single most powerful cartoon of the whole war.
43) Publish And Be Damned, by Hugh Cudlipp (Andrew Dakers, 1953).
44) This version of the Barker story is taken from the BCA’s website (above). How much the Hartlepool fan contributed to Andy’s original creation, we’ll never know, but he certainly inspired one 1966 strip. Andy’s walking along the street in the rain, with various passers-by mocking him for the fact that he’s using an umbrella. “They can laugh as much as they like,” he thinks. “But if they think I’m goin’ t’ sleep in a wet cap, they’re mistaken!” See the second of Smythe’s two 1967 collections (Mirror Newspapers).
45) Sally Savage, Bill Herbert’s daughter, donated a photocopy of Smythe’s original art for this cartoon to the BCA, which is how I’ve been able to compare it to the printed version.
46) This remained true throughout Smythe’s whole career with the Mirror. Near the end of his life, he said: “They’ve never censored anything I’ve drawn. I have never yet had a single cartoon turned down by the paper”.
47) The UK Shameless was far better in its first two seasons, which Paul Abbott wrote himself. He based the Gallaghers on his own family background just as surely as Smythe based Andy on his, and it’s noticeable how much more three-dimensional his own scripts allow the Gallaghers to be.
48) In this way, Andy’s personality could be said to match the Mirror’s own. In its heyday, the paper was populist in the best sense, but principled and serious too. If Andy is the Mirror at its peak, then Frank Gallagher is the Sun.
49) Hartlepool Mail, Sept 3, 2009. See some of the club’s Andy Capp images here: http://paper-fang.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/youre-some-hero-andy-capp.html Andy’s also been given an unlikely sex-change to become mascot of a women’s rugby team in New York State: http://members.tripod.com/lady_rebel_rugby/
50) Daily Mirror, June 28, 1958.
51) Smythe acknowledged his strip’s kinship with Coronation Street in one 1966 gag. Andy walks all the way from the telly to the kitchen just to give Flo a peck on the cheek. “It ‘appens every time ‘e sees Ena Sharples,” she explains, smiling. See the second of Smythe’s two 1967 collections (Mirror Newspapers).
52) Read All About It: 100 Sensational Years of The Daily Mirror, by Bill Hagerty (First Stone, 2003).
53) Corriepedia (http://coronationstreet.wikia.com/wiki/Coronation_Street_Wiki)
54) When I made this point in my conversation with Hiley, he quickly reminded me that Martha Longhurst had been present in that Coronation Street scene too. I hope she’ll accept my apologies.
55) An offer to syndicate Smythe’s work in the US would not technically constitute a “job” in its strictest sense, so perhaps that’s the hair Capp is splitting here. Equally, it’s possible that Edwards construed a casual remark of Capp’s as a concrete offer, and that everything else flowed from that misunderstanding.
56) The average exchange rate between Britain and America in 1965 valued each pound at about $2.79, implying Reg’s “$30,000 a year raise” was worth about £11,000. Adding that to the original salary of £7,500 which Edwards mentions give us £18,500, which is not far off the “about £20,000” he gives as Reg’s improved salary. Whether anyone’s including ancillary income like Reg’s new cut of the Christmas annuals in any of this, I don’t know.
57) The BCA website (above) gives Reg’s improved salary as “£25,000 a year, plus a percentage of the income from the Andy Capp annuals published in Britain”. It’s impossible to fully reconcile these figures, but they are broadly in line with one another.
58) Capp notes that Smythe had not been slow to criticise Charles Schulz either. Early in the article, Smythe confesses he’s bored by the Peanuts characters “talking like no kids ever talked” and pained by watching “that nasty little girl deliberately inflict pain and humiliation on that suffering little boy”. This last point seems a little rich coming from someone who’d drawn so much violence in his own strip.
59) It hadn’t occurred to me till I typed this Lilley quote in place, but he could equally well be discussing the work of the American cartoonist Jamie Hernadez. His Love & Rockets stories are drawn with a very crisp, economical line too, and he’s every bit Smythe’s equal when it comes to spotting his blacks.
60) Even Buster’s own comic had dropped any notion of Andy’s paternity by 1965, though the title itself didn’t expire till 2000. By then, Buster had actually appeared in Andy’s Mirror strip, thanks to a May 1995 gag picturing his portrait above the sleeping Andy’s head. This was done to acknowledge the comic’s 35th birthday.
61) Hiley developed this point a little further in our conversation, suggesting that Andy might be a portrait of Richard Smyth’s life before Reg came along. “We’re going to start talking about Darth Vader in a minute,” he laughed. “The metal helmet with a cloth cap on top: ‘Reg, I am your father’.”
62) The Gospel According to Andy Capp, by Daniel McGeachy (John Knox 1973).
63) Al Capp preferred to draw a parallel between Mr Punch and Andy’s creator, saying Reg’s face was a softened version of the Punch drawing on that magazine’s masthead. Punch was resolutely middle-class, but easily the most prestigious UK magazine to sell your cartoons to in Smythe’s youth. He bombarded them with 6,000 cartoons before finally getting one printed there, and spent the rest of life kicking himself for wanting its approval so badly.
64) It’s telling that Capp says Smythe’s face can also be found “on the star comedians of English music halls”. Andy fits that comic tradition perfectly, as do the Northern club comics who picked up music hall’s baton in the 1970s.
65) Smyth Herdman confirms that Reg’s wage during his Laughter At Work days in the mid-fifties was £35 a week. That’d be worth about £800 a week today.
66) Percy was sweet on Flo in the strip, but could never persuade her to leave Andy. By giving him the same surname as the man who’d married Flo’s real-life inspiration, I like to think Smythe was offering Percy a kind of consolation prize.
67) The Mirror was a strong supporter of both the Labour Party and Britain’s trade unions, but the same cannot be said of the cartoonists’ body Smythe helped to set up in 1960. Early efforts to form The Cartoonists’ Club of Great Britain were stymied by members’ reluctance to serve on its management committee because they feared their editors would see the club as a trade union in the making, and that its officers would be left open to reprisals as a result. The club solved this impasse by adopting a constitution barring it from ever becoming a union or a guild, which amounts to castrating yourself before the slave master has a chance to do so. Organising a bunch of 200 freelancers was always going be like herding cats, but it’s hard to imagine either Andy or the Mirror’s NUJ chapel talking such a meekly compliant stance.
68) The Harold Wilson strip appears in Andy Capp No. 25 (Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1970). The two Margaret Thatcher strips appear in The World of Andy Capp’s 1983 and 1986 volumes respectively (Mirror Books/Mirror Publications).
69) Bumper Issue: The World of Andy Capp, by Reg Smythe (Mirror Publications1987)
70) Jerry Seinfeld would have recognised these maxims. He summed up his own sitcom’s guiding principle as: “No hugs and no learning”.
71) Smythe used exactly this gag in a 1981 strip showing Jack setting a pint mug in front of Andy with the handle facing the wrong way. Andy protests that he’s left-handed – just as Smythe himself was - and Jack sets the matter right. Without an exact date for the Hartlepool trip Layson mentions, however, it’s impossible to say whether the strip or the real incident came first. See Andy Capp no. 46 (Mirror Books, 1982).
72) The Guide to Musical Theatre (www.guidetomusicaltheatre.com).
73) The Comics Journal number 79 (January 1983).
74) Daily Mail, September 30, 1982.
75) OIivier Awards website (www.olivierawards.com)
76) Andy’s current writers make exactly the same point about him. “Andy is not stupid,” Goldsmith told me. “We don’t have him being stupid, we have other people being stupid and him putting them down.” Garnett adds: “He’s not an intellectual person by any means, but he’s got a sharp mind. ‘Streetwise’, I suppose, is the word you’d use.”
77) As we now know, one thing keeping Maxwell busy at the Mirror in 1984 was working out how to steal its employee pension fund – a theft that was not discovered until seven years later. I still treasure the Mirror front page reporting Maxwell’s death, which carries a smiling photo of him and a massive headline reading: “THE MAN WHO SAVED THE MIRROR”. A month later, the same paper’s front page was: “MILLIONS MISSING FROM MIRROR”.
78) “[Andy] is a small man full of huge attitudes,” Lilley himself writes. “He makes sweeping statements about small matters. His almost deadly aggression is aimed at tiny targets.” What actor wouldn’t love playing a part like that?
79) Andy Capp: The Complete Series (Network DVD, June 2012). More details on the Network site here: http://www.networkdvd.net/product_info.php?cPath=92_93&products_id=1576
80) Today, February 27, 1988.
81)The Mail on Sunday, February 28, 1988.
82) Andy’s other major excursion into electronic media at this time was his computer game for the Commodore 64. “Andy has to acquire money from various sources while consuming as much alcohol as possible, and avoid getting arrested,” the game’s Wikipedia page explains. “Running out of kisses or alcohol means the game instantly ends.”
83) Both these strips can be found in The World of Andy Capp Bumper Issue (Mirror Publications 1986).
84) There’s also one 1987 strip which shows a miserable Andy sat on the sofa with a smoking cigarette in his hand. This is either a very subtle acknowledgement that a man like Andy would be prone to backsliding when stressed, or a momentary lapse of concentration by Smythe as he drew that particular panel. See The World of Andy Capp (Mirror Publications 1988)
85) The Comics Journal 165 (January 1994).
86) New York Times, June 1, 1990.
87) Hiley made this point when we discussed Avon’s equally bizarre 1969 decision to sell talcum powder in an Andy-shaped bottle. “Because he’s so universally-known, he tends to get conscripted into all sorts of campaigns that are based on reaching large numbers of people,” Hiley says. “It’s not necessarily thought whether he’s appropriate for those campaigns.”
88) I’ve never been able to trace Reg’s final two Andy Capp collections, which cover his strips from 1993 and 1994. I’ve read all the others, though, and even the 1991 and 1992 volumes show no drop in quality that I can detect.
89) Homer Simpson’s laziness and fondness for beer give him quite a bit in common with Andy. Hartlepool’s had a nuclear power station since 1985, which is now the town’s biggest single employer, and I like to think Mr Burns owns that one as well as the Springfield plant where Homer works.
90) Hartlepool Mail, April 20,2004.
91) Hartlepool Mail, May 4, 2005.
92) Hartlepool Mail, July 10, 2005.
93) Hartlepool Mail, December 29, 2005.
94) Hartlepool Mail, August 8, 2006.
95) Hartlepool Mail, September 27, 2006. By now even the paper itself was starting to wonder if the supposed opposition to the statue really existed. Its latest story was confident enough to say only that opposition had been “previously reported”. If the writer had any concrete evidence of opposition – and a single quote would have done - those weasel words would not have been needed.
96) Hartlepool Mail, April 20, 2007.
97) Hartlepool Mail, June 29, 2007.
98) Reg’s statue produced an unlikely tribute from Marty Kelly, an unemployed labourer in Hartlepool’s Blakelock Road. “I thought it cost a lot of money,” he told the Hartlepool Mail on September 18, 2007. “I thought to myself, ‘I could do one for about £10 to £15’. The two bags of sand cost £3, and I borrowed the bucket, trowel and gloves so it was even cheaper.” When he’d finished, Kelly had two five-foot figures of Andy and Flo, flanking his front door in a pose that suggested Flo was waiting for Andy to finish his pint.
99) Six months after the unveiling, Hartlepool Council decided to auction one of the two five-inch brass figures of Andy Robbins had given them as part of the statue project, and donate the money raised to Children in Need. It fetched £1,200 from local businessman, John O’Connor, who planned to exhibit it behind the counter at his new tearoom on the Headland. “I always wanted Andy to stay at home rather than be shipped off to America,” he told the Hartlepool Mail. Bids had been received from “as far afield as Shropshire,” the paper added. (See Hartlepool Mail, Nov 20, 2007, and Nov 27, 2007.)
100) The Change4Life strips ran in the Mirror over a six week period, starting on February 6, 2012.
101) The last time Andy had packed up the booze for any length of time was a run of six gags in 1959, when Smythe showed him on the wagon. This was one of two experiments he made that year in giving the strip a continuing story-line. The other showed Andy in hospital for 12 consecutive days. See The Best of Andy Capp (Daily Mirror Books, 1960).
102) Kleefield on Comics, March 8, 2012 (http://kleefeldoncomics.blogspot.co.uk)
103) The home brew strips appeared in the Mirror on March 16 and March 17, 2012.
104) To see a couple of numbers from Great Barr’s 2009 production of Andy Capp: The Musical – complete with accents – click the YouTube links here and here.
105) This particular cartoon appeared on the Mirror’s women’s page on July 17, 1958. It’s a single panel, headed “Florrie, who appears by kind permission of Andy Capp.” The gag is that Flo’s standing on a weighing machine, but holding her coat out at arm’s length in the hope that its own weight won’t register on the dial. This is the only Florrie cartoon I’ve seen, but there nay have been others.
106) “A lot of people think it takes place in London,” Garnett says. “When Andy’s in the canal, they often refer to him being thrown in the Thames and things like that. But short of putting ‘Hartlepool’ in every strip, that’s just one of the things you have to accept, I think.”
107) It seems odd to think of anyone confining themselves to such a small world today, but Noel Gallagher revealed in a recent BBC interview that his own working-class suburb of Manchester hadn’t been so very different in the 1980s. “I was the only person in that whole area that was interested in anything other than City,” he tells Mark Lawson. “I was going into town to see bands and stuff like that, and they thought I was a weirdo.” (BBC Four, March 30, 2012).
108) There are a couple of Reg Smythe strips which show Andy visiting London as a travelling Hartlepool United supporter. He’s only ever seen in a pub interior there, though, and the pub he chooses is no different from those at home.
109) Once every couple of years in the strip, Smythe might show Flo dragging Andy out for a walk in the park. Aside from those gags, trees in the strip really are as rare as Hiley suggests.
110) Joseph Priestley’s 1831 book Navigable Rivers & Canals lists a 300-yard canal in Hartlepool, built in 1764 to connect Hartlepool Harbour to the sea. It was absorbed into the docks development long before Andy’s time.
111) The strangest object in this BCA collection is a sealed tin can produced by a military veterans’ club called South Vancouver Unit 26. Headed “The Andy Capp Club” and carrying a picture of Andy himself, the can’s label gives its contents as: “the wonderful aroma of hops, barley and cigar smoke from the clubrooms of Unit 26”.
112) One of Reg’s great fears in later life was that this knack for brevity had started to desert him. “He said to Ken Layson, the cartoon editor, that he seemed to be becoming more and more wordy,” Goldsmith told me.
113) More Andy Capp, by Reg Smythe (Daily Mirror Books, 1962)
114) Happy Days With Andy Capp, by Reg Smythe (Daily Mirror Books, 1963)
115) Andy Capp Number 42, by Reg Smythe (Daily Mirror Books, 1979)
116) Laugh With Andy Capp, by Reg Smythe (Daily Mirror Books, 1961)
117) World of Andy Capp Bumper Issue, by Reg Smythe (Daily Mirror Books, 1988)
118) Andy Capp Number 25, by Reg Smythe (Daily Mirror Books, 1970)
119) In a 1975 strip, Andy reminds Flo that he’s “a sign writer by trade”. I think this was Reg’s way of giving Andy a hint of his own artistic ambitions, but doing so in the context of Andy’s world. See Andy Capp Number 36 (Mirror Group Newspapers, 1976).
120) Andy Capp Number 37, by Reg Smythe (Daily Mirror Books, 1976)
121) Andy Capp Number 38, by Reg Smythe (Mirror Group Newspapers, 1977)
122) Daily Mirror, August 5, 1957.
123) Andy Capp No 33, by Reg Smythe (IPC Newspapers, 1974)
124) Andy Capp No. 23, by Reg Smythe (IPC Newspapers, 1969)
125) Andy Capp No 35, by Reg Smythe (Mirror Group Newspapers, 1975)
126) Andy Capp No 37, by Reg Smythe (Mirror Group Newspapers,1976)
127)Andy Capp No 43, by Reg Smythe (Mirror Books, 1979)
128) The Mirror was changing fast too. Just three years after Andy’s debut it appointed its first City editor to cover affairs in London’s financial district.