Obituary: Les Lilley

Denis Gifford
Wednesday 04 November 1998 00:02

A NAME virtually unknown outside the cartooning profession, Les Lilley was admired and respected within the art, not only for his work as a scriptwriter of literally thousands of strip cartoons and gags, but as a man who spent many years of his life endeavouring to promote that Cinderella of the comic arts in the public consciousness. Not only did he initiate the Cartoonists' Club of Great Britain and chair it efficiently for many years, he became President of the Federation of European Cartoonists' Organisations, a thriving multi-cultural body representing humorous artists of many nationalities.

Leslie Lilley was born in Dartford, Kent, in 1924, the son of an ambulance driver and a nurse from Devon. Educated at the local grammar school, he showed an early interest in art, but one which would not develop beyond simple cartooning. After war service in the Navy where his sketches amused his shipmates, he found work in the Dartford Post Office sorting lost property before joining the Keith Prowse Ticket Agency in London.

The post-war popular press thrived on "pocket cartoons", column-breakers originally devised by Osbert Lancaster for the much shrunken newspapers of the period. As the eight-page papers of the newsprint shortage years gradually expanded, more of these one- by-two-inch funny fillers were needed, and a host of ex-service cartoonists filled the gap. Names like Smythe, Clew, Symington (and even Gifford!) began to pop up as weekly papers like Reveille and Weekend ran 40 or more cartoons per issue. One of these one-word signatures was Lilley.

As the daily newspapers slowly increased their strip-cartoon content to follow the international success of the American syndicates so Lilley, admittedly no great shakes as a cartoonist himself, took to scriptwriting instead. Joining up with Ian Scott, an ex-cartoonist now running an agency specialising in jokes and strips, Lilley encountered the stylish if simplistic stripper Chic Jacob. Together they ran "Choochi and Twink" for the Daily Express for some while. It was the first of many collaborations.

In the newspaper strip field Lilley expanded from daily gags to continuity, ranging from semi-humorous serials such as the famous strip girl "Jane" for the Daily Mirror to the more dramatic "Tiffany Jones" for the Daily Mail, and then the sexy sci-fi strip "Scarth" for The Sun. Children's comics were never beneath his attention, and he not only scripted many one- and two-page series for IPC weeklies including "The Tin Teacher", a comic robot, "Fiends and Neighbours", a monster parody of the television series, and " Son of Sherlock", a schoolboy detective, but actually scripted several complete 128-page Christmas annuals for the weekly comics Wham and Smash.

Lilley's teaming with Jacob produced a surprising offshoot. They broke into BBC Television as scriptwriters for an extraordinary children's series called Vision On. This began on 28 April 1964 and was specifically designed to appeal to deaf children. Created by Patricia Keysell, the programme was 100 per cent visual, needing no spoken-word commentary. Lilley and Jacob contrived regular sequences within the show as living comic strips. Tony Hart, the brilliant television cartoonist, provided much of the animation, and the Lilley-Jacob slots included "Humphrey Umbrage" the tortoise. Suzanne, the little girl seen in this series, was played by Lilley's daughter. There is a rumour that Vision On will be repeated on one of the BBC's new digital channels.

Later Lilley and Jacob went more adult in their television writing by scripting the gags and stunts for The Golden Shot during the reign of the black comedian Charlie Williams.

On the more serious side, Lilley helped Ian Scott organise the first successful society for professional cartoonists, the Cartoonists' Club of Great Britain. Lilley replaced Scott as chairman - a role he played for many years, instituting annual award ceremonies, a monthly news letter called The Jester and an annual cut-price holiday at a Butlin's camp.

Later he was instrumental in the creation of the Society for Strip Illustration, formed by a small group of professional strip cartoonists including the brilliant "Garth" artist Frank Bellamy, who died before he could take the post of chairman. Later, Lilley, during an absence from his own club, was elected chairman of the SSI but, like many of his cartoonist colleagues, left when the society changed both direction and title.

Although his recent work has been mainly as permanent jury member for the World Cartoon Festival and as organiser of the recent nine-week Cartoon Festival at Margate, outside the profession itself many newspaper readers will recall his popular strips "Robbin' Hood" in the Mail on Sunday and "Christopher Columbus", also published as a book to commemorate in comedy the anniversary of the famous Spanish explorer. Among his many books are Laugh with the Motorist and The Idiot's Guide to Feminism.

As Lilley wrote of himself in the 1993 edition of the Cartoonists' Club Handbook, "Hopes to write the definitive novel, occasionally draws a cartoon, and regularly draws his old age pension".

Leslie Alfred Joseph Lilley, cartoonist: born Dartford, Kent 29 November 1924; married 1962 Audrey Adams (one son, one daughter); died London 18 October 1998.

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