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Andy Capp: continued

 
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Miscellany
Murder Ballads
Secret London

“The secret is out!” it begins. “It can’t be kept from Mirror readers any longer. Andy Capp has a son – Buster. He is a real chip off the old block. The apple of Florrie’s eye. The most mischievous, cocky young devil to be found anywhere. But lovable, laughable, irresistible.”
In other words, he was a generic naughty kid more or less indistinguishable from the dozens of others dominating UK comics at the time. Andy made a couple of brief cameos in the new title, with artist Bill Titcombe drawing him in three frames of a June 1960 story, and adding a father-and-son photo to the family’s home two weeks later. Buster’s mum was called Flo, and drawn to look much as Andy’s wife does in the Mirror.
Smythe remained unimpressed throughout, and refused to even mention Buster in Andy’s own strip. That was clearly the right decision, because there’s very little in Andy’s behaviour that would be remotely funny if you imagine a young child added to the house. “It would bring a whole world of responsibility to Andy that he wouldn’t be comfortable with,” Goldsmith says. “A drunk and abusive parent? I don’t think a kid would work at all.” Hiley adds: “It wouldn’t work if Andy had children. I think he’d probably leave home.” (60, 61)
Smythe may have been suspicious of Andy spin-offs, but others were not so fastidious. In 1973, the Presbyterian minister and “worship consultant” Daniel McGeachy published The Gospel According to Andy Capp. No doubt his publishers hoped this would duplicate the success of Robert Short’s best-selling The Gospel According to Peanuts eight years earlier. You might think it would be difficult to draw much of a Gospel message from Andy’s antics, but actually McGeachy finds quite a bit to admire in the pugnacious little devil.
“Andy Capp is authentic man,” he writes. “There is both good and bad in him, as there is in each of us. He has strengths that remind us he is created in the image of God, and he has faults that shout of his predicament as a fallen man. He contains both grandeur and misery.” (62)

Smythe drew many of his old mates from Hartlepool into the strip as Andy’s supporting cast

McGeachy splits his analysis into two chapters, tackling first Andy the Sinner and then Andy the Saint. “Andy enjoys his sins, and doesn’t intend to change,” he writes in the first of these. “This does not mean, of course, that Andy doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong. If that were so, he would be a purely amoral being, like the beasts of the field, and his behaviour excusable on that basis. But, more important, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Stolen melons are sweeter. For sin to amount to anything, it has to be deliberate.”
Hiley made a similar point when I asked him how far Andy could be allowed to reform without losing his soul. “It’s rather like those little cartoon figures indicating people’s conscience that always pop up – there’s a devil on one side and an angel on the other,” he says. “We want Andy Capp to be the devil. We don’t want him to suddenly put wings on and be the angel on the other side. Somebody else can do that job.”
McGeachy turns next to Andy the Saint. “Good or bad, there are few men who can attack life with genuine joy, live it for its own sake, and come off a winner,” he writes. “There is Andy, philosophically and theologically crying both to God and to man, ‘Leave me alone!’ Let me survive in the least noticeable kind of way. I don’t ask to be famous. Don’t try to sell me a Calvinist work ethic. Don’t expect me to be an evangelist or a change-agent or anything else that is my neighbour’s. Just leave me alone!” A little later, he adds: “There is a kind of celebration about Andy, a sacramental view of life that views it as a gift not to be tampered with.”
In other words, Andy seems like a happy man. “Yes,” Hiley replied when I put this to him. “But not in that kind of parody of welcoming Northern happiness. He’s happy, but he doesn’t care if you’re not. There’s a lot of Mr Punch in there, really. You know, Punch beats his wife, he kills the baby, gets arrested, ends up hanging the hangman and beating the Devil. Andy Capp is Mr Punch in a lot of ways.” (63, 64)
The Cudlipp deal left Smythe with a big chunk of Andy’s syndication income, which continued to grow as more and more foreign newspapers picked up the strip. Bill Hagerty, who was then features editor of the Mirror, lunched with him on March 2, 1971, and later published his diary entry from the day: “Lunch with Reg Smythe, who says he knows he is wealthy because he earned £40,000 a year (I was earning £5,600), and is £20,000 in debt. He said when he was getting £40 a week, he never owed a penny.” (65)
Mirror cartoonist Ian Gammidge had his share of jolly London lunches with Smythe at around this time too, telling Hagerty that their typical meal would be “ten gins and sardines on toast”. By 1976, though, Smythe had seen enough of the capital, and decided to move back up North. He and Vera bought a luxury five-bedroomed bungalow called White Gates in the West Hartlepool’s Caledonian Road, a couple of miles from the Headland.
“Reg and Vera lived in a very nice bungalow, quite lavish, but still very Andy,” Mirror cartoon editor Ken Layson tells Hagerty. “There was a snooker table in the hall. He was very rich, of course, through syndication fees, which were always paid a year in advance.”
“I have seen unemployment, hard times and I left Hartlepool with very little money to my name,” Smythe says in Smyth Herdman’s memoir. “But my heart has always been in Hartlepool, my home.”
Smythe had always visited the town fairly regularly, and had drawn many of his old mates there into the strip as Andy’s supporting cast. Jack the landlord, for example, was based on Jack McLean, who ran a Hartlepool pub called The Seaton where Smythe sometimes drank. “Jack and Reg were great pals,” his wife Madge once told the Mirror. “Jack would always stand behind the bar with his arms folded on the counter – just like Andy’s landlord.”
Madge herself became Jack’s barmaid in the strip, and Doris Robinson, who pulled pints in the real Seaton, was shown working as Jack’s cleaner. The copper who often confronted Andy on his way home from the pub was based on a local bobby Smythe knew called Alan Goodman, and Percy the rentman took his surname from Anthony Ritson, who’d become Smythe’s step-father when Florrie remarried in 1948. (66)
Smythe found the town’s stoical outlook on life was just as he’d remembered it, and its people remained a constant source of inspiration. “The mindset’s exactly the same,’ he told one reporter. “I can still go down to the Boilermakers’ Club and get two or three ideas just listening to the conversation.” To Lilley again, he adds: “I go to pubs and the dogs and the sort of places Andy might be”.
Hartlepool’s shipyards had been silent for 15 years by the time Smythe moved back there, and the town’s dole queues were growing fast. “Industry has gone,” he said in 1990. “It’s almost a residential town. They’ve even closed the mines.”
Smythe had always declared himself a Socialist, but refused to make Andy a mouthpiece for his own political views. He’d vetoed proposals for Andy to declare himself a Labour supporter in the 1960s, and remained true to this stance ever since. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson is mentioned in one 1969 strip, but only because Andy’s roped him into some fantastical excuse for being so late back from the pub. When Flo and Andy argue about Margaret Thatcher in a couple of 1980s strips, it’s her gender rather than her politics that makes them disagree. (67, 68)
Andy’s sexism would make him suspicious of any female PM, but Smythe thought he and the Iron Lady actually had a good deal in common. “Andy always goes straight for what he wants, and is never swayed by sentiment,” he says. “Let’s face it, with a change of sex, he might well stand in for Mrs Thatcher!”
The closest Smythe gets to electioneering anywhere in the strip’s run is a 1986 joke showing Andy arriving home from one of Hartlepool United’s away games. “I asked a local where the ground was, and he told me to follow the crowd,” Andy says as he takes his coat off. “And I ended up at the flippin’ dole office”. (69)
Margaret’s Thatcher’s policies in the 1980s had seen Hartlepool’s unemployment climb to 30%, making it the highest in the country, so Smythe had every reason to be angry when he drew that cartoon. But transforming the strip into a soapbox, he believed, was not the answer. “I try never to draw things about which I am serious,” he tells Lilley. “As far as I am concerned, passion and humour are bad mixers. Maybe it’s just me, but I believe things are only funny if they’re said in fun. I never try to teach lessons in my cartoons.” (70)
The Mirror set Smythe up with a secretary in London to handle his correspondence, sent more drawing boards up to Hartlepool whenever necessary, and he remained as productive as ever. Once in a while, he’d come down to London to deliver a fresh batch of strips in person, but otherwise his days down South were done.
Layson would travel up to Hartlepool from time to time to buy his star cartoonist a few drinks and a roast lunch. “Smythe and Vera were just like the strip characters,” he tells Hagerty. “They had no children either. On one trip, we were sitting in the kitchen while she bustled around and Smythe said, ‘There’s something wrong, pet.’ ‘What’s that, pet?’ Vera asked, and Smythe nodded at his coffee cup. The handle was facing the wrong way so he couldn’t pick it up without turning the cup. Without a word she turned it round for him.” (71)
I’ve always thought that incident sounds like a little skit Reg and Vera had worked out between them to have some fun with gullible Southern visitors, but Goldsmith insists I’m wrong. He’d heard the story directly from Ken Layson himself, who maintained that was simply the kind of old-fashioned couple they were.
“Kenny told me that, for all his millions, Reg liked just going down the working men’s club, going to watch Hartlepool and drawing his cartoons,’ Goldsmith says. “He worked really long days. That’s all he wanted to do. He didn’t travel anywhere. He used to buy himself a nice car – a Bentley or something – but that was his only concession to his wife. He was happy just drawing.”



Reg’s top tips 7: Less is always very much more

The US papers’ Sunday format demanded an extended cartoon on that day, so Smythe would reluctantly add extra panels to his existing Sunday strips. He assured British readers that these extra panels were “only padding”, and told Lilley that he thought their chief effect was to ruin the pacing of what had previously been a perfectly good gag.
    Ravette’s published a few collections of these US Sundays for the British market, and these confirm Smythe’s view. Set an original British strip alongside the US Sunday it became, and it’s immediately clear that the extra panels add nothing but flab.
    This must have been particularly galling for Smythe, who was always keen to boil down every element of the strip to its crispest possible form. “Too much writing can overdo it and kill the joke,” he tells Lilley when discussing Andy and Flo’s speechballons. “I pare them down to an irreducible minimum.” (112)
    He brought exactly the same approach to drawing Andy’s world, using just four ruled lines to create a bar for him to prop up, and a mere three to indicate we’re now in Flo’s hallway. Coupled with Smythe’s absolute mastery of facial expressions and body language, that’s all he needed to make a completely convincing world.
    “I consider Andy Capp to be among the world’s best-designed cartoon characters,” Mahoney says. “Reg was a brilliant designer, and could reduce an object to pure simplicity.
    “The strip appealed to me most when he started eliminating everything but the bare essentials. The artwork was clean and simple, and I try to keep this style in my own drawing.”
    The cartoonist Al Capp underlined this point when writing about Smythe in 1973. “Dickens created his world with a torrent of words – Smythe his, with a few brief lines,” he says. “Without, indeed, seeming to bother to draw it at all, he has made us know the meagreness, the drabness and yet the unquenchable respectability of the Capp home and neighbourhood as intimately as we know Dombey Manor or The Old Curiosity Shop.”
    Hiley contrasts Smythe’s approach with the highly-detailed drawings of British cartoonists like Giles. “That style of drawing, where everything is filled in, is quite different from what Reg Smythe is doing with Andy Capp,” he says. “His style is settled upon quite early, and continues virtually unchanged throughout the run of the strip. And it is this simple, uncluttered style with a universal joke in it.”