DENNIS CASTLE was a man of many parts - novelist, biographer, actor, compere, disc-jockey, comedian, producer, cricketer, lecturer - but his one part which will surprise and delight every young comic-reader in the British Empire during the late Thirties was that he was the editor, and virtual creator, of Radio Fun, one of the most popular comics in history.
Castle was born in Wandsworth, south-west London, in 1914 of, as he put it, 'a family of extroverts'. His father was Sydney Castle, an architect and amateur playwright for the local church; his mother sang soprano self-accompanied on the piano; one uncle was the permanent rehearsal pianist for all productions of Peter Pan (a bequest from Barrie); another uncle was a Kneller-Hall-trained drummer working for Brooke Bond Tea. His grandfather Tom was a sergeant-clarinettist in the Scots Guards; his maternal grandfather was Bruce 'Sensation' Smith, scenic artist of Drury Lane melodramas, about whom Dennis wrote a book.
The 12-year-old Dennis was educated as a Warwick School boarder, but refused to appear in the school plays: 'They always cast me as a girl]' he complained. Finishing his education at the Regent Street Polytechnic, he joined a solicitor's office in Cannon Street in 1932. Here he satisfied his yearning to perform by his overblown performances in the county courts, recovering debts.
Justin Long, who would later become the Parliamentary Correspondent for the Financial Times, was a chum at Castle's local cricket club. Chancing upon the budding author's notebook, he recommended him for a sub-editor's position at the world's largest publishers, the Amalgamated Press. In 1935 Castle left Cannon Street for Farringdon Street, and at the famous Fleetway House signed on as staff writer for a pair of women's weeklies, Oracle and Miracle. 'These were known as tuppenny mill-girl papers,' Castle recalled, 'and I was chucked in at the deep end answering love problems on behalf of Ruby M. Ayres.' He was also Madame Zola, the gypsy horoscopist of Confessions.
Cricket played an important part in Castle's career at the AP. Whilst playing for the company's side, Stanley Gooch heard him cracking some gags after a match at Addiscombe. Gooch was the foremost Group Editor at the AP, with several comics under his aegis. Realising Castle's comedic talent was wasted among the mill-girls, Gooch had him transferred to the comic section to take over a brand-new weekly that was being planned.
In 1938 the AP was under fire from north of the border, where the old Scots firm of DC Thomson was firing comic broadsides in the shape of Dandy and Beano, two weeklies which had changed the look of British comics completely. The AP, stuck with their traditional tabloid format, decided to launch a new title that would carbon-copy the Scottish comics. This was to be the Knock-Out, but when Castle was given the dummy of the comic, he saw that the mixture of characters, which as well as new comic heroes such as 'Our Ernie, Mrs Entwhistle's Little Lad', included real-life personalities, such as 'Flanagan and Allen - Oi]' was uneasy to say the Least. He came up with the radical suggestion that the comic be split into two new titles, Knockout to contain the fiction, and Radio Fun (a title which he modelled on the long-running Film Fun) for the fact. To seal the suggestion, Castle was able to claim personal acquaintanceship with leading wireless stars through his cricketing connections with the Concert Artists Association.
Number One of Radio Fun was launched on 13 October 1938, just eight weeks after Castle's arrival at the comics department. A full-page advertisement in Radio Times helped make millions aware of the new comic: that was the one magazine which almost every family in the kingdom took. Number One also contained a remarkable free gift, 'The Unique Safe-T Dart Board with Special (sucker-tipped) Dart]' Its 28 pages, price tuppence, included strips starring every youngster's favourite fun-folk from loudspeaker land: Sandy 'Can you hear me mother?' Powell, drawn by George Parlett, Arthur 'Big-Hearted' Askey drawn by Reg Parlett (George's brother), and Ethel Revnell and Gracie West, 'The Long and Short of It', as well as Flanagan and Allen and, of all people, Clark Gable.
Once 'George the Jolly Gee-Gee' could be shifted from the coloured cover (a left-over from the still-planned Knockout) and was replaced by Big-Hearted Arthur and Richard 'Stinker' Murdoch, the comic settled down to become one of AP's best sellers, second only to the old-timer Film Fun. Through his contacts Castle gradually added to his cast-list: Duggie Wakefield, William 'Hopalong Cassidy' Boyd, Harry Gordon, 'The Laird of Inversnecky' (added to attract Scottish youngsters away from their Beanos), Dickie 'Large Lumps' Hassett, and even, once the war had begun, 'Lord Haw-Haw'.
The war years reduced Radio Fun from 28 pages to 16, it lost its full colour for an austerity red, and upped its price to tuppence-ha'penny. Castle was given a rise in salary to pounds 8 a week, and promptly volunteered for the Army. He bought the last issue he had edited, No 92, in Halifax as a private soldier 'age three weeks'. The Army misread his papers and, thinking he was the editor of Radio Times, posted him to public relations, Delhi. Learning the awful truth, they made him a Captain and sent him to Simla as Entertainment Officer.
For 14 hot months Castle toured his own revue throughout India, was promoted to Major and wound up as productions officer for ENSA under Jack Hawkins, organising touring shows starring Elsie and Doris Waters ('Gert and Daisy'), Vera Lynn , Noel Coward and John Gielgud.
After Castle was demobbed in April 1946, Stanley Gooch was unable to give him his old editorial job back. Instead he was presented with a year's salary and told to make a new life for himself. Castle was delighted, having thoroughly soaked up the performing arts during his army years. He appeared on early television with Jack Hulbert in pantomimes he had written himself. He broadcast as a character in the pilot for The Goon Show. He was in Richard Dimbleby's documentary series London Town. He acted in the famously banned television play Scum.
He wrote two novels and the biography of his grandfather, Sensation Smith of Drury Lane, as well as primers on public speaking and party-giving. Unfortunately, despite pressure from comic fans, he would never write his own life story.
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