Mel Calman: droll master of absurdity

Richard Williams
Monday 10 February 2014 16:32

WHEN Mel Calman died of a heart attack on Thursday night in a Leicester Square cinema, he was watching Al Pacino in Carlito's Way. Not many laughs there, although Pacino has recently shown, in other and less bloody movies, a gift for suggesting the defining characteristic of the little people who populated Calman's cartoons: a sort of gentle exasperation in the face of superior forces.

Calman's characters were, of course, himself, or at least the first version of him that you got. He too was small, rounded, infected with a mild but incurable pessimism, and apparently defenceless. His people usually looked in need of a cuddle, but not as if they fancied their chances of getting one. Their creator had more of an edge.

Born to Russian-Jewish parents in Stamford Hill, north London, 62 years ago, he was educated at the Perse School in Cambridge and studied illustration at Borough Poly. National Service helped to develop his fatalism and sense of the absurd before he embarked on a career as a freelance cartoonist. Rebuffed by Punch, he went on to draw for the Daily Express, the Observer, the Sunday Telegraph, the Sunday Times, the Evening Standard, and, daily for the past 15 years, the Times.

Calman was not a gifted caricaturist or even a distinguished draughtsman. His drawings were good enough to make his point, and attempted nothing more. The charge was invariably in the caption.

Most evenings throughout the Eighties, Calman would materialise at the shoulder of the Times's night editor, preparing his thoughts for a drawing. In recent years, heart and back troubles gave him recourse to the fax machine, which faithfully transmitted his pencil drawings, their simplicity reminiscent of Thurber.

His real achievement, however, was the founding of the Cartoon Gallery, now in Museum Street. There he sold his own work and that of his fellow cartoonists, in original form and reproduced on postcards and coffee mugs. He was also co-founder and chairman of the Cartoon Arts Trust, aimed at funding a cartoon museum.

He lived in Soho, where he breakfasted at the Patisserie Valerie; like practically all good cartoonists, he loved jazz. Twice married, twice divorced, the father of two daughters, he was particularly perceptive on the everyday frictions between men and women: one of his best anthologies was called How About a Little Quarrel Before Bed? The companion of his last 10 years, the novelist Deborah Moggach, said on Friday: 'He was the funniest person I have ever met. We had a long conversation for 10 years. It would have gone on for ever.'

(Photograph omitted)

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