Introducing Mr Filthy Rich, son of Mr Tickle and heir to an astonishing £28m fortune

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The Independent Culture

When as an inquisitive six-year-old Adam Hargreaves asked what a tickle looked like, his father drew him a rotund cartoon character with an ill-fitting bowler hat, a mischievous grin and unfeasibly long arms.

When as an inquisitive six-year-old Adam Hargreaves asked what a tickle looked like, his father drew him a rotund cartoon character with an ill-fitting bowler hat, a mischievous grin and unfeasibly long arms.

The quick sketch 34 years ago by Roger Hargreaves, a hard working advertising executive, on his kitchen table in Sussex was so well received that he wondered whether the funny orange man with googly eyes had further potential.

Just how much potential it had finally became clear yesterday when it was announced to the Stock Exchange that Mr Tickle, and the 45 other Mr Men and 33 Little Miss colleagues that followed him, have been sold for £28 million to form a formidable alliance with Noddy, Big Ears and the Famous Five in the increasingly centralised battle to turn nostalgic characters from children's fiction into global brands.

The deal passes control of the Kent-based Mr Men empire from the children of Mr Hargreaves, who died in 1988, to Chorion, the media company run by the Labour peer Waheed Alli. Chorion last year increased its profits by more than 200 per cent after it reinvented Noddy as an international television star. Now it has similar plans for the clan of oddly-shaped British cartoon characters.

The sale made instant millionaires of Adam Hargreaves, who took control of the family company after his father's death, his brother Giles and twin sisters Sophie and Amelia. Each is estimated to have made about £4m from the £23.5m deal to buy all non-television rights to the Mr Men owned by The Hargreaves Organisation.

Adam, 40, a former agriculture worker who added to his father's legacy last year by drawing six new characters for the Mr Men stable, said: "This is a big moment for us as a family. We have owned, developed and nurtured my father's characters for 32 years. From my point of view, I have been drawing Mr Men, or as my friends say 'drawing circles', for the last 15 years. I enjoy my job, but I have ambitions and personal projects."

Although Mr Hargreaves will continue to work on the Mr Men and Little Misses as a creative consultant, the sale represents the conversion of a 1970s home-grown publishing phenomenon, run until yesterday from a barn near Tunbridge Wells, into the latest weapon in the battle for supremacy in the children's media sector.

Following the publication of the first Mr Tickle book in 1971 and the television cartoon narrated by Arthur Lowe, the former Dad's Army star, in 1975, The Hargreaves Organisation had been generating annual sales of about £2.8m.

More than 100 million Mr Men books have been sold worldwide, making Roger Hargreaves one of Britain's biggest selling authors alongside Enid Blyton. As well as its new stablemate Noddy, which last year helped Chorion generate sales of £20m in Britain alone, the Mr Men and Little Misses will now find themselves competing with vastly more lucrative names. Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder last year jointly generated turnover of £168m, and Winnie the Pooh is worth £580m a year in sales to Disney.

Lord Alli, whose company also owns the rights to Agatha Christie characters including Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, said he wanted to conduct a "complete reinvigoration and internationalisation" of the Mr Men. Fans can expect the bold and jolly creations of Roger Hargreaves to undergo a marketing make-over.

Lord Alli told The Independent: "We modernised Noddy and that is what we want to do with the Mr Men. If you look at what Noddy looks like today, most would probably say that is the Noddy of their childhood. You have got to modernise but also remain faithful to original creation. The Mr Men are a fantastic fit for us. We will roll them out from Britain, to France and then the rest of the world. Today, you could call me Mr Happy." He said he expected to have a new Mr Men television series ready by 2007.

The phenomenon of turning British children's characters into cash cows is concentrated in the hands of a small number of influential companies. Entertainment Rights, which owns Basil Brush, Postman Pat and distributes Barbie in the UK, last year attempted a £43.5m takeover of Chorion. HIT Entertainment, which owns Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine, has 14 characters including Sooty, Angelina Ballerina and Pingu.

Experts dismissed suggestions that Chorion had paid an inflated price for Mr Men, which included a £4.5m payment to the private consortium holding the television rights to the characters. Patrick Yau, media analyst for Bridgewell Securities, said: "There are very few children's characters left with genuine international appeal which are not owned by a large concern. It is a fantastic business model. You take a character with appeal and longevity like Noddy, you make a television series and then you sit back and wait for cash to pour in from sales of videos, soft toys and other merchandise."

The offspring of Mr Hargreaves senior said the decision to surrender their father's creation had not been easy. The advertising executive, who was creative director of two London agencies working on brands such as Pimms and Timex, gave up his job in 1976 to concentrate on his creations. By the time of his death from a stroke at the age of 53, his characters included Mr Dizzy, Mr Chatterbox, Mr Uppity, Little Miss Bossy, Little Miss Contrary and Little Miss Fickle.

Giles Hargreaves, 38, said last night: "My father was great fun and worked extremely hard on the books, so it is sad to see them go. But we decided as a family that we couldn't move the company on in the way it deserved. A sale to a bigger company was the way forward."

He added: "The books were ahead of their time. They were for children and parents who wanted a quick little book. A book that a stressed dad could come home and read to his child. They were unique and I think they still are."

THE VALUE OF CHARACTER

By Cahal Milmo and Joseph Watts

Noddy

First published in 1949 by Enid Blyton, the stories of the wooden doll and his adventures in Toyland were an instant hit, selling 200 million copies worldwide. When Chorion bought the rights to Noddy, the new cartoon turnedit into lucrative brand.

Rupert the Bear

The check-trousered bear started life as a cartoon strip in the Daily Express in 1920, making him older than Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse. The Rupert annual, published by Pedigree Books, is the third highest-selling book of its type in Britain and 50 million Rupert books have been sold worldwide, generating annual revenue estimated at £12m. A syndicated television series is shown in 28 countries and Sir Paul McCartney is rumoured to be planning a feature film.

Thomas the Tank Engine

The Rev Wilbert Awdry dreamt up his stories about locomotives when his son was ill with measles. The first of more than 60 books was published in 1945, leading to sales of 80 million worldwide. The television series accounted for 15 per cent of the £15m profit made last year by HIT Entertainment.

Winnie the Pooh

The Bear of Very Little Brain, invented by AA Milne in 1926, is the centre of a global marketing phenomenon masterminded by Disney and worth $1bn (£588m) a year. Pooh's image, sold on products around the world, is one of Disney's most profitable characters. Disney won a decade-long legal battle last year over the global marketing rights to the bear. It stood to lose £600m if the case did not go its way.

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