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Andy Capp: continued

 
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“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.”

‘It’s very brutal, but was something Reg Smythe recognised from the society in which he grew up’

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)