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Andy Capp: continued

 
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Miscellany
Murder Ballads
Secret London

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.

A 1965 lunch at the Savoy with Al Capp made Smythe the best-paid cartoonist in the whole UK

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.



Reg’s top tips 6: Find your rules and don’t waver

Imagine 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)