John Ryan: Cartoonist and animator who created Captain Pugwash

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The Independent Online

Best known as the creator of the classic Captain Pugwash series of animated cartoons for BBC children's television, John Ryan also drew topical cartoons for the Catholic Herald for more than 40 years and was the author and illustrator of more than 50 books.

John Gerald Christopher Ryan was born in Rintoul Place, Edinburgh on 4 March 1921. He was the youngest of four sons of the diplomat Sir Andrew Ryan KBE CMG, who served as consul-general to Morocco and was later British minister at Jedda and in Albania. His uncle was the Archbishop of Trinidad and Tobago and his mother was a relative of Byron's friend Dr Julius van Millingen.

Ryan spent his early years in Turkey and Morocco before returning to Britain, where he was educated at Ampleforth College, a Roman Catholic boarding school in Yorkshire. His art master was the former Fleet Street cartoonist Father Sylvester Fryer (his first cartoon was published in the school magazine) and a fellow pupil was the future Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume. During the Second World War he served in the Lincolnshire Regiment in Burma and India, achieving the rank of captain.

After being demobbed he studied art at the Regent Street Polytechnic, London (1946–48), where a fellow student was Ryan's future wife, Priscilla Blomfield, granddaughter of the celebrated architect Sir Reginald Blomfield RA, who is perhaps best known for his design of the Menin Gate war memorial in Ypres, Flanders.

He then worked as assistant art master (and later art master) at Harrow School (1948–55). During this period Ryan began contributing strips to children's comics such as the Eagle, Girl (where one of his strips was "Lettice Leaf, the Greenest Girl in the School") and Swift ("Sir Boldasbrass").

His best-known creation, Captain Horatio Pugwash – skipper of the Black Pig and "the bravest, most handsome pirate of the Seven Seas" – first appeared in the launch issue of the Eagle on 14 April 1950. Set in the 18th century, the strip's full title was "Captain Pugwash, the Story of a Bad Buccaneer and of the Many Sticky Ends which Nearly Befell Him". The portly, cowardly and conceited Pugwash, with his moustache and goatee beard and skull-and-crossbones hat, would frequently utter cries such as "Dolloping doubloons!", "Kipper me capstans!" and "Coddling catfish!" The red-and-black striped shirt which he wore under his blue frockcoat was inspired by Ampleforth College's football team's colours. His arch-enemy and main rival in the quest for treasure was Cut-Throat Jake, captain of the Flying Dustman.

The strip was dropped from the Eagle after only a few months (being replaced by Ryan's private-eye cartoon "Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent" from 4 August 1950), but later transferred to the Radio Times where it ran for eight years (1960-68). In 1957, the Bodley Head published Captain Pugwash: a Pirate Story, the first of many books written and illustrated by the artist, and in the same year he and his wife set up a studio to animate the series using their own original system of D cardboard cut-outs operated by levers and filmed in real time on 16mm film. 58 five-minute episodes appeared in black and white on BBC TV from 22 October 1957 until 26 June 1966, with all the voices by Peter Hawkins (who also supplied the voices for Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, Bleep and Booster and the Daleks and Cybermen from Dr Who). The memorable theme tune, "The Trumpet Hornpipe", was played by the accordionist Tom Edmundson. A colour series of 30 five-minute episodes followed in 1974-75 and a new TV version, using computer animation, was created by John Cary Studios in 1998.

Speaking of his most famous character, Ryan once said: "Pugwash has two qualities which I believe are present in all of us to some degree: cowardice and greed. It is the conflict between these opposing emotions which make the stories work. It may be that the Captain is popular because we all have something in common with him. What would you do if you saw a delicious toffee on the nose of a crocodile?"

Another popular animated series produced for the BBC by Ryan's studios – using the same D technique – was Mary, Mungo & Midge (1969), about a girl, her dog and a mouse. It was narrated by the newsreader Richard Baker and featured the voice of Ryan's 11-year-old daughter, Isabel, as Mary. Later came The Adventures of Sir Prancelot (1971-2) set during the Crusades, again voiced by Peter Hawkins. The Ark Stories (1981), featuring Ryan himself drawing characters based on the story of Noah's Ark, was produced with Anne Wood (later to create Teletubbies), with Percy Edwards supplying animal noises.

In 1964, Ryan began to illustrate (briefly) a column in the Catholic Herald by the humorist Paul Jennings and subsequently worked for 43 years as weekly topical cartoonist on the paper, producing more than 2000 drawings, many of them featuring the amiable but corrupt Cardinal Grotti.

Influenced by the cartoonist H M Bateman, Ryan worked in pen and Indian ink with watercolour, wash or gouache. When he moved to Sussex in 1987 he also painted scenery regularly for the Rye Players Christmas pantomime. His work was exhibited at the Royal Festival Hall, Rye Art Gallery, the Trafford Gallery and the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, and elsewhere, while many travelling exhibitions of his drawings were shown in schools, libraries and museums all over the UK. Examples of his cartoons and illustrations are held in the collections of the British Cartoon Archive (University of Kent), the British Film Institute and elsewhere.

Tall (six feet two inches), softly spoken and clean shaven, with ruddy cheeks, he had blue eyes and formerly dark brown hair. A devoted family man, his gentle, childlike humour made him delightful company for children of all ages. He was a keen student of Roman history, enjoyed long walks with his dogs and, a practising Catholic, also once joked that his cartoons for the Catholic Herald "kept him in gin". He died at the Cottage Hospital in Rye, Sussex on 22 July

Mark Bryant

John Gerald Christopher Ryan, cartoonist, animator, illustrator and author: born Edinburgh 4 March 1921; married 1950 Priscilla Blomfield (one son, two daughters); died Rye, Sussex 22 July 2009.