Obituary: Reg Smythe

Click to follow
"ANDY CAPP was born on the A1 road at 60mph," wrote "Smythe", a fairly well-known cartoonist introducing his first paperback collection of "The World's Funniest Cartoon Character", as the cover claimed. "There was I," Smythe continued, "lying in bed on the first morning of a holiday up north, when comes this telegram telling me to return to London sharpish, and to bring a new cartoon character with me."

It had been the Editor of the Daily Mirror calling. The popular tabloid was about to launch its first separate Northern edition, and they wanted a regular daily cartoon for the joke page. Note, a cartoon, not a strip cartoon. Strips were relegated to a full-page collection of their own, and to delete a strip in favour of a Northern-only strip would have been too much to contemplate. It was not long, however, before that progression was made, so popular had the truculent little layabout become.

On 14 April 1958, less than a year after his debut on 5 August 1957, Andy Capp was kicked out of the Boilermaker's Arms and landed in the national edition of the Mirror. His extraordinary rise in popularity soon won him his own comic strip, and from 6 May 1960 he was working a full seven-day week: he appeared in the Sunday Pictorial too, as the Mirror's Sunday edition was then called.

Smythe was the pen-name of Reginald Smith, whose gags were better than his drawings. His style was pretty crude in those earlier years, but once he fell into the formula of strip cartooning, his characters grew more dumpy, even cuddly, to suit the low panelling, and his backgrounds simpler, neater and repetitive as suited the contemporary reader.

Smith was born in 1917 in Hartlepool, Yorkshire, where his father was a builder of boats. As with most working-class lads, young Reg left school at 14. He got a job as a butcher's errand boy, shortly thereafter enlisting in the Army as a regular soldier. Handily placed for the Second World War, he became a machine-gunner, and after demobilisation joined the Post Office. It was here that he began to freelance the odd cartoon joke to the many magazines of the time, finding regular spots in Reveille, the former Services newspaper now published by the Mirror Group, and thence the Mirror itself.

The first Andy Capp cartoons were little more than an extension of these daily gags, given a semblance of continuity of characters by always featuring Andy, his missus Florrie, and an increasing circle of regulars - his drinking mate Chalkie, the rent man Mr Ritson, Jack the publican, and so on. One character who never appeared in the strip, and indeed was never referred to, was Buster. The boy was subtitled "The Son of Andy Capp" and to prove it wore a big floppy cloth cap, just like his dad. Buster was created by the editorial staff of the Mirror Group after they had taken over the comic publisher the Amalgamated Press, and he continued to appear in his own comic, called of course Buster, almost 40 years after his birth (28 May 1960) - but without his once famous subtitle.

Capp's popularity grew rapidly, something quite extraordinary considering his character, although in historic context the world's first comic stip hero, Ally Sloper (born 1867) shared the same characteristics and the same grog-blossom of a nose. Sloper sloped up the alley when the rent man was nigh, loved his hard drink, had an eye for the young girls despite a blowsy old wife, and never did a day's work in his life. Just like Andy Capp. But Sloper never half-slaughtered his missus as Capp did; see the first cartoon reprinted in the first Andy Capp Book published rather rapidly in 1958. Florrie sits battered on the floor, Andy leans nonchalantly against the wall. "Look at it this way, honey," he says, "I'm a man of few pleasures and one of them 'appens to be knockin' yer about!"

Were there no feminists in the Fifties, or was it the Capp cartoons that begat them? Some research needed here, and global research too, for how was it that a Northern slob touched a chord not only with the Mirror's Southern readers and their Scottish counterparts, but soon touched the world? Russia reprinted Capp in Izvestia, the Swedes put him in their monthly comic book Tuffa Viktor (their version of his name), and the Americans not only syndicated his daily strip all over the country, they demanded Smythe draw them an exclusive page for their colour supplements. Capp was soon appearing in 34 countries, in 13 different languages. If that didn't surprise the insular Capp, it certainly surprised Smythe, who became Britain's wealthiest strip cartoonist.

The Mirror's regular reprint books helped. They appeared in many varying formats. The second was shaped like a bottle, the "cork" protrusion at the top actually containing a "flicker film" of Andy in action. First they were annual, then they came out twice a year, and later a reprint series of the reprints began a run. In 1983 came Capp Book no 50, a "Gold" special, and in that issue readers were offered originals of the strips, ready framed for hanging, at pounds 65 each.

Andy Capp hit television in 1988, and the Mirror celebrated with a special paperback called You're a Star, Andy Capp! Unusually this edition included full colour pages adapted from the American strips Smythe had been syndicating. James Bolam, fresh from The Likely Lads and more seriously from When the Boat Comes In, played Andy, with Paula Tilbrook as Florrie the hard-done- by Mrs Capp, and Keith Smith as his chum Chalkie. Keith Waterhouse wrote the series, but its success may be judged by its lack of repeats, even by the cheap-and-cheerful cable channels. Although Waterhouse tried particularly to preserve the cartoon quality of the strip, it didn't work, perhaps because Bolam lacked the earthy comedic style required.

If only the Mirror had invested in an adult-audience animated series, perhaps produced by that great convention-cracker Bob Godfrey, we might have been the first country to conquer television cartoons for grown-ups. They made a stab at computers, via a subsidiary, Mirrorsoft, in 1988, but didn't quite hit home.

What of Andy Capp's future? He left, reportedly, a year's supply of cartoons. After that, will a new artist take over, or will the Mirror resort to reprints? There's a big enough backlog, heaven knows. But perhaps the shape of things to come lies in the female teenager Mandy Capp, recently introduced to soothe the savage feminists. Or will she disappear too, like Buster's subtitle?

Denis Gifford

Reginald Smith (Reg Smythe), cartoonist: born Hartlepool, Yorkshire 1917; married; died Hartlepool 13 June 1998.