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Andy Capp: continued

 
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Miscellany
Murder Ballads
Secret London

Kettle continued writing Andy alongside Beau Peep and A Man Called Horace for much longer than he’d originally expected. “It was supposed to be a temporary thing, but Ken never organised anybody else, so Roger ended up doing it for ten years,” Goldsmith told me. “He virtually had a nervous breakdown, so he had to stop doing it.”
Mahoney was happy to continue drawing Andy, but Kettle’s resignation towards the end of 2010 meant the Mirror needed to find a new writer for the strip. Fortunately, there was a promising candidate right there in the office.
Goldsmith was then handling production and admin work on the paper’s strips page, but he also had 30 years as a working cartoonist under his belt. “I did a kids’ strip for a long time called Canaryman,” he says. “I’ve even drawn Desperate Dan for DC Thompson, for the annuals and things. I was doing a lot of kids’ stuff for Marvel UK – The Care Bears, The Popples, Masters of the Universe – all TV tie-ins. I was an artist, but then I came into writing as well.”
Knowing it’s always useful to have a partner to bounce ideas off when writing jokes, Goldsmith invited Sean Garnett, one of the Mirror’s subs, to join him as Andy’s co-writer. “Sean’s a very funny guy, who gets all the funny stories and funny headlines to write,” Goldsmith says. “He’s been a friend of mine for years and years, so I thought he’d be a perfect fit to help me with Andy.”
“I’d done a couple of strips with Lawrence before, but not on a daily paper like this,” Garnett says. “We did a strip called The Ref for a children’s magazine, and we also used to do Canaryman together in Children’s Mirror. That’s my only experience of writing cartoons, so this is a completely new thing for me to do on a daily basis.”
Kettle had left enough scripts in the bank to get the strip through till the end of January 2011, which gave the new writers two months to prepare. They set about reading a mass of old Reg Smythe Andys to reacquaint themselves with the character’s roots, and I asked what had particularly struck them from that process.

One US reader said Andy’s change of heart made him give up his own heavy drinking too

“Just how good his jokes were really,” Goldsmith replied. “And how good an artist he was. It was a revelation to us just how brilliant Reg Smythe was. We liked Roger Kettle’s style, but he was more about the well-crafted joke – whereas Reg Smythe was more of the slapstick: Andy falling into the canal, having fights, getting thrown out of places. We wanted to take it back to the Reg Smythe slapstick type of thing, so we stuck more with those.”
The two friends settled into a routine of meeting in a West London café once every two weeks, each with a batch of about 20 ideas roughed out on sheets of A4. Working about a month ahead of publication date, they whittle down those 40 roughs into 14 good solid ideas – enough to fill Andy’s strip for a full fortnight and keep them up to schedule.
“We come here with our roughs, and we decide which ones we like,” Goldsmith told me at the café’s table. “We work on some as well to get them up to scratch. Then I go away and draw them up in a rough form, panel by panel, how the action should be. I send them off to Roger, and then he draws them up. He always adds more, using his vast experience. He’s a really, really talented guy.”
”Roger can actually rescue scripts that aren’t quite there,” Garnett adds. “His drawing just breathes complete life into them.”
When the finished drawings come back from Mahoney, Goldsmith looks them over, then passes them to Garnett so he can use his subbing skills to put a final polish on the words. “I think we all bring something to it that makes it a good whole,” Goldsmith says.
The new team’s most controversial run of strips so far came in February and March of 2012, when the Mirror signed a lucrative deal with the UK Government’s Department of Health to run 28 sponsored strips in Andy’s regular slot. Each of these would be branded with the Government’s Change4Life logo, and show Andy struggling to adopt the kind of healthy lifestyle that campaign recommended.
“We really had great reservations about it, because obviously then the strip becomes a commercial enterprise rather than just a strip,” Goldsmith says. “But it actually worked out quite well. We got a lot of good humour out of it.”
“We were worried about how it was going to be perceived, and people getting the wrong idea that this was the way the strip was going to go,” Garnett adds. “But we basically decided, if it’s funny, it shouldn’t matter too much. Because we didn’t change Andy’s character by any means.”
The strips they produced showed moments like Andy taking more exercise (because Flo’s lost the TV remote), worrying about his five-a-day (because he’s praying hops might be a vegetable), beginning to lose weight (causing his trousers to fall down), and saving loads of money (to spend in the bookie’s). He has a couple of spectacular lapses along the way, both of which show him as drunk as he’s ever been, and ends the campaign by confirming everything’s back to normal. (100)
“We had him struggling to give up,” Garnett says. “That was the whole point. It wasn’t him preaching to the world, ‘You’ve got to stop drinking now’. He did fall off the wagon quite spectacularly – it was a struggle. We got through it with the gags, rather than preaching to anybody, because that’s what we didn’t want to do. And to be fair to the Change4Life people, they didn’t want that either.”
The British strips carried a clear Change4Life logo every day, so at least UK readers were clear what was going on. But the same strips were carried in America with no logo, which left readers there rather puzzled about Andy’s new habits. (101)
“I’m curious about the change here,” Sean Kleefeld writes in his Kleefeld on Comics blog. “Is this something the creators are trying to slide in on their own? Something mandated by their syndicate acting on comments from a health agency? Just an attempt to change things up because newspapers are flailing and willing to try anything?” (102)
He wasn’t the only one feeling confused. “You couldn’t put a sign in there saying, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll be back to being a piss-head in a few weeks’, so a lot of Americans thought that was the way the cartoon was going,” Garnett says. “A lot of them did think, ‘This is it – Andy’s changed for good’.”
There were positive reactions from America too, notably from one reader who announced Andy’s change of heart had inspired him to give up his own heavy drinking after 40 years. Another wrote in to say he thought the new strips made a welcome change, as Andy’s old ways had already been milked for every joke they could possible yield. Men’s Health magazine bought all the campaign strips and reprinted them alongside its usual photographs of toned and buffed male models.
“It’s interesting, because the reaction was pretty evenly-balanced,” Garnett says. “I was fully expecting a torrent of criticism.”
Some of the campaign’s gags worked better than others, of course, but there were genuine jokes there, and the strip came through with its dignity more or less intact. Even if Goldsmith and Garnett had decided to dig their heels in over the campaign, I doubt they’d have been able to stop it. Smythe’s unique authority as Andy’s creator had been what gave his veto its power, and without that his successors carry little weight in setting commercial policy. Like it or not, we probably will see more campaigns in Andy’s future, and Goldsmith and Garnett handled this one about as well as anyone could realistically hope.
“I’m not generally in favour of applying campaigns to strips,” Mahoney says. “But if the jokes are funny – which is the difficult part – then it can give the strip an up-to-date feel. I think the DoH campaign was successful because Lawrence and Sean produced some very funny gags. The job of writing in today’s style, but blending it to the Andy Capp formula, is no easy task, and they’ve written some crackers.”
Smythe used to boast that the Mirror had never rejected one of his strips, and so far the paper’s accepted everything the current team has put through too. “The only editorial pressure we get is sometimes to tie in with a commercial activity,” Goldsmith says. “They launched some Andy Capp beer kits in Morrisons, and they wanted us to write a couple of strips with Andy making home brew – not referencing Morrisons or anything, but just to keep them happy. Those are the only pressures we get. As far as editorial content goes, we’re pretty much left alone.” (103)
That autonomy comes partly thanks to the fact that, after a spell in the doldrums, the Mirror’s strips page has returned to profit, reminding the paper’s bosses once again just how important this part of its heritage is. The strips have become a vital part of the Mirror’s website too, where they can be relied on to pull readers back day after day for their regular fix.
“Andy Capp syndicates hugely, and we’ve done a deal with the Simon’s Cat people that makes the syndicate money,” Goldsmith explains. “Then we have two reprinted strips, The Perishers and Garth, which cost us nothing, but they syndicate as well. It makes money, and that allows us to pay for the two original strips, Horace and Andy. So, at the moment, the page is quite highly-valued.”
On the merchandising side this year, Andy has already produced the home brew kits, some Olympic T-shirts, greetings cards, an iPhone app and proposals for some animated shorts on TV. No wonder the Mirror’s executives have started paying attention to his future again. “The managing editor there has a huge interest in the strips page,” Garnett says. “He comes up and says, ‘That was a really funny one today,’ or, ‘Didn’t think much of today’s’.”
“And our colleagues are ruthless,” Goldsmith adds. “They tell us in no uncertain terms. There’s a guy from Barnsley we work with and he said, ‘You two can’t write Andy Capp – you’re both Londoners!’”
Tough as these workmates can be, they’re nothing to the die-hard Reg Smythe fans who fill the comment sections on Andy’s various web platforms. For them, any tiny deviation from Smythe’s own template is sacrilege, and they often forget that even Andy’s creator was constantly evolving the strip to keep it alive.
“There’s a small army of people who want to resurrect Reg Smythe and get him drawing again,” says Garnett. “You can’t do anything about that. We’re not Reg Smythe, and we never will be, but we’ll do the best we can for the strip. When I was presented with the opportunity to write Andy, I jumped at the chance. To me, it’s still a great privilege.”
“Andy Capp is still Andy Capp, but it’s been three different strips,” Goldsmith adds. “It’s been Reg Smythe’s Andy Capp, Kettle and Mahoney’s Andy Capp, and now it’s our Andy Capp. They’re all subtly different. We obviously keep the same characters, the same location and the same style of humour, but we’re never going to replicate what Reg Smythe did. It was his creation, he was a genius, and nobody can fill those shoes.”

For a full list of this article’s sources, some devilishly entertaining footnotes and PlanetSlade’s special Andy Capp/Peter Cook quiz, click here.

Does Andy live in the past or in the present?

Since Smythe’s death in 1998, the strip has built jokes around karaoke machines, mobile phones, e-mail addresses and even computer games consoles. But the current team all agree that such elements must be used sparingly.
    “It is quite a timeless cartoon, but you don’t want to be too remote,” Garnett says. “I think you have to have reference to today’s world without having Andy himself taking part in it.”
    Goldsmith adds: “Andy’s world is kind of a precious thing, really. It’s easy to break it if you start messing around with it too much.”
    It’s a tricky balance to strike. Mahoney will often draw houses in Andy’s street with a TV aerial on their roof, for example, but never a satellite dish. “Andy’s world is so complete it doesn’t need any drastic changes,” he says.
    The team who made Andy’s 1988 TV sitcom took a similar line. “There is nothing overtly modern,” Waterhouse tells Lilly. “If we showed a car, it would be a Morris Minor.”
    Smythe faced a similar dilemma himself, as Hartlepool was already changing very fast even when he began Andy’s strip in 1957. “They were already knocking down the terraces and so on then,” Waterhouse points out. “But the best characters don’t belong in a period. They just ‘are’.” (128)
    Smythe mentions computers in the strip as early as 1968, showing one that’s the size of a small car four years later. There’s one 1985 strip which mentions a home computer, a video recorder and a microwave in the same panel.
    For the most part though, as Hiley points out, Andy’s Hartlepool has remained in the era Smythe remembered there from his own youth.
    “It would be difficult to think of any other popular cultural medium that stays as unchanging as, say, Andy Capp in the Mirror, or Fred Bassett’s suburban world in the Mail,” he says. “I think strip cartoonists create worlds that people get attached to, and they don’t want them to change.
    “I don’t want to see Andy driving a car out to some multiplex in the suburbs of Hartlepool or going to some huge Weatherspoons pub. He deserves to drink in a proper back-street pub.”
    Doing my research for this piece, I’d noticed that neither Smythe nor his successors have ever shown a black face in the strip. I could believe the town really had been that monocultural in Smythe’s day, but asked the current team if they were ever tempted to bring in a black character today.
    “You’ve got to be a bit wary of bringing in ethnic characters just for the sake of it,” Garnett says. “I’m in the North quite a bit, and I think the demographic is still the same. It hasn’t changed that much.”
    The most recent source available for Hartlepool’s demographics – the 2001 census – lists its population as 98.8% white. “We’ve got the cast of characters and we need to stick with that really,’ says Goldsmith.