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Andy Capp: continued

 
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Miscellany
Murder Ballads
Secret London

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.

‘I remembered Dad and all the folk around the back-to-back houses where I was brought up.’

“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)



Reg’s top tips 4: The power of a good back shot

Smythe 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.


Rear Views
“D’yer really love me?” (October 8, 1964)

“Hey! Gaffer!” (January 9, 1965)

“There ‘e goes again.” (August 23, 1965)