OBITUARY : Barry Appleby

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George and Gaye Gambol, England's comic-strip answer to America's Dagwood and Blondie Bumstead, made their four-picture debut on the back page of the Daily Express on 16 March 1950. Almost exactly 46 years on, on 11 March 1996, their cartoonist, Barry Appleby, died. It was an incredible run, which for some years included a special nine- picture Sunday strip in full colour. Indeed it was a record run for any British newspaper strip - and, of course, there are still more in the bag.

Unhappily for George and Gaye Gambol, they will not be around to see them published, for George and Gaye were, in truth, Barry and Dobs Appleby, the happily married partnership around whose lives the everyday incidents that so characterised the Gambols were centred.

Barry Appleby was born in Birmingham, but a family move while he was young meant that he went to school in Coventry. Always in love with drawing, he entered a competition for childen run by the Royal Society of Arts, and became the first boy ever to win honours. For business reasons the family then moved to London, where Barry pursued his arts studies under a famous if forgotten eccentric, Albert Perry.

Whilst playing football for his school in an away match at Kingston upon Thames, he saw a tall, scraggy schoolgirl on the touchline, roaring with laughter as he missed an easy goal. A day or so later he swerved his bicycle to miss a pedestrian, fell off and landed at the feet of the same schoogirl. She hooted with laughter again, and a lifelong friendship was born. He was 14, she was 13, and 12 years later they married. This was Dobs, born Doris, who would one day share the strip's signature.

But first they became business partners. They set up a small office together as journalists, Barry following his father's footsteps. After an early sale to a boys' magazine with an article on how to tune a motor-cycle engine, his luck ran out. Dobs, however, blossomed and was soon knocking out thousand-word articles at 10 guineas a time, eight more than Barry's average. He abandoned writing in favour of his first love, art, and took a postal course from the famous Percy V. Bradshaw Press Art School.

This so encouraged him that he joined several real art colleges, studying life drawing at Heatherleys, anatomy at the Royal Academy, commercial art at St Martin's - and design at the Victoria and Albert Museum. With his savings running out, he tried his hand at cartooning, much recommended by Percy Bradshaw who was himself no mean hand at humorous art.

The first Barry Appleby cartoon signed with his new pen-name "App", appeared in no less a periodical than Punch. As with so many new cartoonists, his following submissions all failed. He tried newspapers and in 1938 was taken on by the London evening paper the Star. This kept him busy with a joke cartoon a day until the Second World War broke out. An ambitious but under-funded newspaper designed for direct sale to servicemen was launched. Entitled Reveille, this would in later peaceful years turn into a light-hearted weekly, full of jokes and pin-ups.

The wartime Reveille was rather more serious, being essentially for servicemen to air their gripes. However it had lighter features and these included Appleby's first strip cartoon, the weekly adventures of an idiotic officer called "Captain Wah".

Hearing that the cartoonist Basil Reynolds had been called up, Appleby rushed round to the Mickey Mouse Weekly and took over Reynolds's regular contributions, "Skit, Skat and the Captain" and a cowboy- hatted character called "Pinkie Green". Unfortunately the paper shortage reduced the comic to fortnightly, thus losing the "Weekly" from its title, and half of Appleby's income.

During the war years Appleby became a full-time fireman, while Mrs Appleby became an ambulance driver. Thus even two strips on half-time service became harder to complete to their deadline. This was the first time Dobs took up her husband's mapping-pen, dipped into his Indian ink and began helping out with the backgrounds. Her contributions, art work and inspiration would increase as their workload grew.

The origins of the Gambols can be seen in the early joke cartoons Barry Appleby contributed to the Daily Express from the day after VJ Day. Conceived as no more than a column-breaker to lighten the sports page, this daily joke became habit-forming for readers, especially as a regular punter began to appear, a chubby little everyman with a beaky nose and heavy eyebrows, now and then in the company of a slender curly-topped blonde.

One day, hearing that newsprint rationing was about to ease, and allow three "big paper" days a week, Barry and Dobs started thinking seriously about a new, regular strip cartoon. The suburban punter and his wife would make ideal characters, but what to call them? Dobs came up with the perfect name for a couple who gambled for the fun of it. The Gambols made their back-page debut in March 1950, three times a week as a strip, three times as a single panel.

On 4 June 1951 paper rationing finally ended and the strip became a fully fledged daily. Then in 1956 the sheer popularity of the Gambols took them into the Sunday Express as well, their single strip boosted up to three rows to satisfy demands from overseas Sunday papers with comic supplements. Finally colour was added and the Gambols Annual, first published in landscape format in 1952, added colour pages by 1991 when the 40th edition was published. Dobs had died in 1985.

The strip itself, if seen only occasionally, seems somewhat reactionary today, dealing as it does with everyday domestic situations of an ageless, childless couple; the two kids who appear once or twice a year, Miggy and Flivver, are a nephew and niece - a comic-strip pregnancy was considered editorially unsuitable. But that is evidently the strip's secret, for it is widely published in several languages around the world, and continues to prove that good art work is not necessary in a comic strip. It's the appeal of the ideas that counts.

In the Seventies Barry Appleby, a pleasant-looking, modest man, made a rare public appearance as a surprise guest on Quick on the Draw, the television game show for cartoonists. He made quite sure that his beloved Dobs shared the spotlight, laughing heartily from the audience just as she had laughed at him in their faraway schooldays.

Denis Gifford

Barry Appleby, cartoonist: born Birmingham 30 August 1909; married 1935; died 11 March 1996.