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Andy Capp: continued

 
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Miscellany
Murder Ballads
Secret London

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.”

“There’s no feeling that it’s pastiche, or that it’s somebody from outside that world looking in.’

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.



Reg’s top tips 5: Your setting is a character too

Every 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.”


Hartlepool Backgrounds
“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).