'Beano' and 'Dandy' scriptwriter
Saturday 27 October 2007
Ian Robertson Gray, comic scriptwriter: born Arbroath, Angus 31 March 1938; married (four children); died Forfar, Fife 6 September 2007.
Ian Gray will be remembered as a friend to cats, the creator of a vile dog and the bringer of anarchy to the otherwise sensible lives of millions of children. Few under 60 can claim to have escaped his influence. During a long career writing for the Dundee publisher DC Thomson, Gray provided naughty role models to children everywhere by masterminding the antics of Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, the Bash Street Kids, and other disreputable characters who thronged the pages of The Beano and The Dandy. His inventively mischievous spirit lives on today in both comics, despite the softy influence of modern political correctness.
That influence didn't exist in the 1940s and 1950s, when Gray was a schoolboy in Arbroath, Scotland. Children's comic characters puffed cigarettes, received blood-curdling thrashings from parents, mocked people of funny races and wielded axes and blow-torches with shocking disregard for the correct safety procedures.
In 1951, when Gray was 13, a leering child with ink-blot hair, a red-and-black striped sweater, and a very bad attitude, was born, fully formed, in The Beano. Dennis the Menace was a formative influence on Gray. Most middle-class parents – those most resembling the disapproving adults in the strips – endeavoured to keep their children away from this stuff, but Gray didn't stand a chance. His father, Walter, was a reporter on DC Thomson's newspapers, and brought free comics home from work.
So it was a natural move for Gray to join the firm at the age of 17, after failing exams in maths, physics and chemistry and summarily ditching an ambition to become a vet. Noting his finely nurtured irreverence, the DC Thomson managing director R.D. Low assigned him to comics, where the editor George Moonie put him straight to work writing Beano scripts, and where Gray embraced the unlovable Dennis as though he were his own child.
There followed 37 years labouring in the Fun Factory, uncredited and for relatively little financial reward, considering The Beano's enormous success. But it was an exuberantly happy life. Gray worked in a creative hotbed with three other new talents, the cartoonists Davey Law, Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid. They nicknamed him Smokie, after the famous kippers of his home town.
In an atmosphere rife with practical jokes and pranks, and almost as anarchic as that depicted in the strips, they provoked each other to ever more surreal and outrageous leaps of imagination. Their aberrance was tolerated by the notoriously strait-laced Thomson management, which was astute enough to recognise that in the bizarre alchemy of comics, chaos generated cash.
They plotted the demise of civilisation through the antics of agents like Little Plum ("your redskin chum"), Roger the Dodger, and the Three Bears, poking fun relentlessly at policemen, teachers and other humourless figures of adult authority, while reserving their most scathing humour of all for that most despicable of wretches – the well-behaved "wet" child.
Entertaining though other characters were, Dennis was the real star. He was the archetypal naughty boy, encouraged to ever wilder recalcitrance by Gray. Eventually he took over The Beano's front page, becoming an icon of everything the sensible generation dreaded, and irresistible to kids.
In 1968 Gray wrote him a loyal companion, Gnasher, an Abyssinian Wire-Haired Tripe Hound, depicted by Law as a currish doppelgänger of Dennis himself, with disconcertingly human teeth, round pink ears and legs that looked like the scraggly forearms of a pickpocket. Gnasher's teeth were so tough he could bite through solid granite "and even make a dent in a British Rail sandwich". Gnasher terrorised Foo Foo, the pet poodle of Walter the Softy, when he wasn't siring litters of pups with names like Gnipper and Gnora.
Gray also edited a comic called Plug, which exploited the charms of the "plug-ugly" Bash Street Kid, and launched a series of pocket booklets, The Beano comic libraries. He joined The Dandy in 1989 to script Desperate Dan, the cowboy character he'd always loved. He took early retirement in 1992.
He was just as ebullient outside work and was known as a "character" around Forfar, Fife, where he lived. He loved animals and trialled sheepdogs. He and his wife Ann ran the Cats' Cradle cattery near Forfar. He was feeding his racing pigeons when he suffered the heart attack that killed him. Other enthusiasms were Robert Burns and music-making.
He sang and played guitar in folk and bothy bands, and was famous for his self-penned blue songs. "There was a classic one called 'The Ballad of Flechie Eck'," says the DC Thomson managing editor David Donaldson. "I worked with Ian and there were times when you had to pull the reins on him, otherwise The Beano would have been X-certificate."
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