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Andy Capp: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

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.

'My gross earnings for the two cartoons came to more than I was making in a week at the GPO!'

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.

Reg's top tips 3: Gently breaking the fourth wall

Right 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)