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Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century; 6: Homer Simpson, cartoon character

IF EVER anyone's hero status could be said to be accidental it is Homer Simpson's. When news of the Simpsons phenomenon first reached Britain in the late Eighties we were given to understand that the hero was the spiky haired young upstart Bart, who showed his disrespect through catchphrases like "eat my shorts" and "don't have a cow, man".

Homer's secondary importance to the enterprise was apparent in the fact that nobody bothered inventing colourful catchphrases for him. He had to make do with the single syllable "doh", filched from the James Finlayson character in the Laurel and Hardy films.

But it soon became clear that the 36-year-old, indolent, gluttonous, but uncommonly uxorious father of the Simpson family, rather than his 10-year-old son, was the character that lifted the show not just above any other cartoon series, but above pretty well any TV sit-com you have ever seen.

The better we got to know Homer, the more we realised he was not as advertised. The Sky TV promos that preceded the showing of The Simpsons in Britain sold them relentlessly as The Family From Hell, with an overweight slouch of a couch-potato father, a Dennis the Menace son, and poor, stressed, put-upon mother and daughters. What they didn't tell us was that the Simpsons were essentially good, sweet people - none sweeter than Homer.

There isn't a vindictive bone in Homer's body. Actually, there isn't a bone of any sort since he is a cartoon character, something it is easy to forget. Such love has been lavished on Homer by his creator Matt Groening, whose son and late father are both significantly called Homer, that the character lives and breathes and never fails to light up the screen.

It is some achievement to have a father constantly trying to strangle his 10-year-old son, and still have us - and him - love him dearly. Not since Sergeant Bilko has there been a character on TV so badly behaved and yet so adorable.

The thing about Homer, even when he is being doltish, is that he means well. When Lisa believes she has seen a vampire, Homer comforts her: "Lisa, there's no such thing as a vampire," he says. "It's all make-believe, like elves, gremlins and eskimos."

Inappropriate advice is Homer's speciality. "Son, when you participate in sporting events, it's not whether you win or lose... it's how drunk you get." "Kids, you tried your best and failed miserably. The lesson is, never try." But the children, infinitely smarter than him, love him and seem to appreciate that he's trying to help.

Outside of his family, of course, with the possible exception of bowling, Homer does not put much effort into anything. His self-confessed lack of ambition - awards he wins at his school reunion include Most Weight Gained, Most Hair Lost, and Person Who Travelled Least Distance To Be There - is truly heroic in the most success-driven, aspirational society in the world, and must take a lot of pressure off his kids.

The Simpsons may be the last family in America that really works. Maybe former President George Bush should have watched an episode or two before he made his famous remark in 1992 that what America needed was families "closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons".

Really? Consider Homer's behaviour in the episode where he is chosen to accompany a glamorous co-worker (voiced by Michelle Pfeiffer) to an out-of-town exhibition. Although attracted to Pfeiffer and tempted by her ardent advances, Homer remains steadfastly loyal to his wife back home.

The irresistible thought occurs that what America really needs is politicians who are closer to the Simpsons than the Clintons.