All up front but now just a little behind: Saucy seaside postcards are fast falling out of favour. But the original artwork is not, says John Windsor

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
WOMAN golfer in revealing dress: 'Would you like to play a round with me, Mr Brown?' Mr Brown: 'You bet I would, luv - but I'll have to get rid of the wife first]' - Approved, Blackpool Postcard Censorship Board, 1960.

Elderly, bespectacled husband holding loofah in bath: 'I've lost the soap, Ethel, lass.' Wife, opening door: 'Well, wiggle your loofah about until you find it - I'm busy.' Disapproved, Blackpool Postcard Censorship Board, 1964.

'We always looked forward to the meetings of the Blackpool Postcard Censorship Board' - Canon Neil Pritchard, former member, Blackpool Postcard Censorship Board, 1994.

In the Thirties, when father took the family for the annual week's holiday at the seaside, comic postcards made him feel at home. He recognised their world of furtive pre-marital sex, nagging wives and drunken husbands as his own.

Today, the vulgar humour of the working-men's club is a collectable period piece. The leading publisher of saucy postcards, Bamforth's of Holmfirth, Yorkshire, is auctioning its archive of original artwork - some 3,200 images - at Christie's South Kensington on Thursday 17 February (2pm).

Most of the artwork is from the postcard boom of the Fifties and early Sixties, heyday of the most famous living artist-designer, Arnold Taylor. There are finished gouaches (estimated pounds 150- pounds 250 per lot of 10) and pencil sketches ( pounds 100- pounds 200 per lot of 40) that are hand-stamped 'approved' or 'disapproved' - revealing the prurience, and sometimes naivety, of seaside censorship committees.

Shop sales of comic postcards rose year on year until 1963. Thereafter, people bought fewer sexy cards and, according to Philip Larkin, got on with the real thing. Sales of Bamforth's cards fell from the 1963 peak of 16 million to 3.5 million today (a total suggesting that bum-and-boob jokes still have some bounce in them).

Postcard humour, invented by men born in Victorian and Edwardian times, never outgrew the Thirties. Gags did get cockier in the permissive Sixties - when sales were plummeting fastest - but they still relied on the nudge-nudge, wink-wink innuendo that went out with Max Miller and music hall. And increasingly, jokes about office lechers and courting couples, previously guaranteed a belly laugh, met with embarrassed silence.

Back in 1968, when sexual harassment aroused little indignation beyond its victims, Arnold Taylor, now aged 83, originated this much-plagiarised sexist gag: Newspaper reporter: 'Were you actually molested, madam?' Plain woman in spectacles: 'No - I was just about to be when this big, stupid, interfering policeman came and scared him away]'

While ageing artist-designers struggled to keep up with the times, ageing seaside-postcard censorship committees, usually comprising a solicitor, a clergyman and one other local worthy, struggled to put the clock back. Such committees could be relied upon to keep pornography out and sexism in. The cards they approved portrayed a man's world.

James Lilley, sales manager of Dennis Print and Publishing, which took over Bamforth's (where he was managing director) in 1987, said: 'The censors always got it wrong. They would disapprove the most innocent designs. Apart from making three people feel extremely important, I could never see the point in them.'

He amuses after-dinner audiences with designs scrutinised by the Isle of Man Censorship Board in its swansong year, 1985:

Young man in bar watching two old men chatting up a young woman wearing a tight dress: 'I thought those two had retired.' Young man's companion: 'They have - but they still like to do a bit now and again.' Approved.

Magistrate: 'You say you refused intercourse with the accused on religious grounds?' Woman witness: 'Yes, your honour - outside the vestry and at the back of the church hall.' Disapproved.

Reclining female nudist, as cow licks her bottom: 'Stop it, Fred - your nose isn't half cold.' Approved.

Canon Neil Pritchard, now 78, said the six-strong Blackpool Postcard Censorship Board, upon which he served from 1959 to 1965, had been necessary because local newsagents, fed up with being convicted for obscenity, had 'done a deal with the police' - no prosecutions in exchange for adherence to the decisions of an approved censorship board.

'We were not at all a solemn lot,' he said. 'We had lots of fun. We even laughed at the designs we disapproved - and the two ladies on the committee (a housewife and a councillor) laughed louder than the men.'

I read him the caption of a pencil sketch - the Dog Show (top right) - with a 1959 'Approved' stamp bearing his name, and the just-visible pencilled instruction to 'moderate' the prominent breasts. The caption is sexist by today's standards, but it drew a laugh from Canon Pritchard.

'Did I approve that?' he asked.

'You did.'

'Very good] Glad I haven't lost my sense of humour.'

I mentioned to him that on the Isle of Man, between the Thirties and Fifties, most postcard jokes were not about sex but about obesity, according to Dr Nigel Wright, the island's assistant keeper of social history. In 1934, for example, the Manx censors rejected almost as many 'fat lady' jokes as all others put together. Early intimations of 'political correctness'? Had such sensitivity flourished in Blackpool? 'No, even the ladies would not have objected to a design because it was sexist. We banned designs only if we thought they verged on pornography.'

There was agreement, he said, on 'what we should watch out for', as can be seen from the sofa gags shown here, both scrutinised by the Blackpool censors - one approved in 1964 (below), the other disapproved in 1966 (above). In the battle of the sexes, it seems, holds were all right but not submission.

In those days, censors' decisions were governed by a set of moral conventions that today's generation might find hard to discern. Why, for example, would the gag about Evelyn's hangover (top left) have been disapproved by Blackpool in 1957? As a boob joke it is less lascivious than hundreds that were approved. The reason is a point noted by George Orwell, who popularised the postcard artist Donald McGill - that drunken women and youths were never represented. The moral convention was that only fat old wives were allowed to get drunk, and then only on stout.

The Blackpool censors were disbanded in 1968, Canon Pritchard recalled, a little sadly, after a newsagent's shop window in Aberystwyth had displayed a poster advertising 'postcards banned by Blackpool Postcard Censorship Board'. 'That finished it,' he said.

Arnold Taylor's humour has withstood changing attitudes over the years. His favourite, he told me from his home in Holmfirth, is still his own gag: Policewoman: 'Anything you say will be taken down.' Motorist: 'Knickers]' It is one of 5,000 he thought up, at the rate of two or three a week. 'Sometimes I'd sit for a whole day in the office and not get a single idea. Sometimes I'd get a flow. I found anything topical could be turned into a joke.'

Occasionally, his nerve failed. At Christie's I found a Taylor pencil sketch with no censor's stamp: Woman customer to poulterer: 'Hen pheasants are all right - but I prefer a nice . . .' I could just discern the rubbed-out words, 'fat cock'.

During Taylor's 62 years with the firm, he never asked to keep his originals and expects to receive none of the proceeds of the auction. 'It does seem a pity,' he said. 'You put all this work in, and then somebody else capitalises on it.'

Since auction prices of artwork soared four years ago, freelance illustrators have succeeded in establishing ownership of artwork held in the archives of commissioning companies. But the claims of company-employed artists such as Mr Taylor carry less weight in terms both of trade practice and the law.

Gags marked with four crosses in Bamforth's stock book, including Taylor's favourite 'Knickers]', have sold five or six million copies over a decade or two. Others have had to wait as long for censorship committees to approve them. I found two different Taylor drawings of a courting couple with identical captions, the first rejected by Blackpool in 1953, the second accepted in 1961. She: 'I'm as virtuous as the day is long, Mr Jones]' Mr Jones: 'Stick around, then, love - it'll soon be dark]' Mr Jones's old-fashioned trilby and bow-tie are the same in both drawings. But during the eight-year interval, the woman's hairstyle has changed and her bust has expanded by about 10 inches.

Dr Nigel Wright also noted 'dormant' designs in the Isle of Man's archive. (It contains all the 45,000 designs submitted; end-to-end, they would stretch three-and-a-half miles.) A snowman and carrot joke had to wait from 1971 to 1985 for approval. During the war, the Manx censors rejected practically everything, especially designs relating to sex (it was rumoured that they even turned down 'kiddywink' bedtime-prayers designs because a bed was shown). I learnt from a former official on the island that government employees used to butter up local worthies by offering them peeps at banned designs.

Not until the Sixties were more jokes about sex than about obesity submitted to the Manx censors. In the Seventies, designs became more explicit. By the Eighties, almost all were accepted, even the very rude: He: 'Why are your toes wiggling up and down?' She: 'I forgot to take my tights off]'

The longest-standing genre, Dr Wright found, was the nudist colony. At Christie's, besides naturists, boobs and obesity, I noted other old faithfuls - the big family (an anachronism after the war), the honeymoon (Bride: 'I wish it had been a little longer'), and the courting couple.

Not every sofa joke is male-chauvinist. I found this one, lampooning timid males: He: 'Gee, baby, I could sit here all night and do NOTHING but look at you]' She: 'Yes - THAT'S WHAT I'M BEGINNING TO THINK]'

By today's standards, the courting-couple cards have the most offensive gags. At Christie's, one of the first pencil sketches I came across was Arnold Taylor's Sixties reworking of one such joke quoted by George Orwell in his The Art of Donald McGill (1941). He: 'I like seeing experienced girls home.' She: 'But I'm not experienced.' He: 'You're not home yet.'

Orwell's verdict: 'Genuinely witty in the Max Millerish style.' Nowadays it would be considered by many to have offensive overtones of date rape.

Orwell's conclusion was that marriage and family loyalty, not promiscuity, formed the true background of seaside postcards. Having riffled through hundreds of cards, I think he got it wrong. Instead of upholding marriage, even by inference, they condone hanky- panky as the working-class male's inalienable right. They always blame the wife for marital strife (the nagging, the brandished rolling- pin) and steer clear of jokes about issues that males would rather not face up to - the hidden pay packet, beaten wives. Double entendre usually means double standards.

Talking of which, James Lilley, Bamforth's former managing director, told me the funniest joke of all, a true one as it happens. Of the designs the firm submitted to the censors (50,000 in 90 years), about 40 per cent were rejected, but Bamforth's published them just the same - and was never prosecuted.

Naughty But Nice? by Nigel Wright (Folk Life, Vol 30, 1991-92).

Comments