The Guardian Diary:
Remember Andy Capp? The Daily Mirror’s ‘loveable’ cartoon character has been immortalised in bronze and now graces Hartlepool seafront. Hartlepool is the home town of Capp’s creator, Reg Smythe, and his widow, Jean, appears to have won the battle against the PC brigade, who seemed to think a fag-smoking, hard-boozing sexist was not a suitable mascot for the town.
Meanwhile, the Lowry art gallery in Salford is hosting a major new art exhibition that features vintage Capp cartoons. The curator, Bill Longshaw, says: ‘Andy Capp is the original northern anti-hero who spends most of his time smoking, drinking and sleeping - combined with trips to the bookies or pigeon lofts. Rightly or wrongly his character has, over the last 50 years, helped create a popular image of chauvinistic, work-shy northerners - and exploring such cultural myths that have stemmed from the north is what the exhibition is all about.’
Back in Hartlepool, no local business wanted to put its name to the £20,000 project, so the local development agency pitched in with the Mirror. Next stop Trafalgar Square and the fourth plinth?
I met Reg Smythe only once. He told me the inspiration for the strip was a guy he saw at a Hartlepool football match, which he’d attended with his father. It started to rain and the man standing next to him took off his cap and put it inside his coat.
Young Reg said: ‘Mister, it’s started to rain.’
The man said he knew that.
‘But... it’s started to rain - and you’ve taken your cap off,’ said a puzzled Reg.
The man looked at the youngster as if he was stupid.
‘You don’t think, do you, that I’m going to sit in the house all night wearing a wet cap!’
My (now fairly vague) recollection is that Mrs Maxwell failed to see the humour in the strip.
When Cap’n Bob queried it, he was told how much it made from world-wide syndication - after which there was no argument about continuing it.
Cudlipp told me that he was in the Mirror editor’s office, can’t remember which one, when Reg Smythe came in to present his Andy Capp cartoons for the first time. [Jack Nener; the cartoons first appeared in the northern editions in August 1957, and ran in all editions from 1958 –Ed.]
Cudlipp laughed (a rarity unless he was firing somebody on Christmas Eve), and told Smythe to bring them back after lunch. If he still thought them funny, he’d be hired.
He did. And he was.
I remember Len Woodliff telling me when he was editorial manager that Reg Smythe was by far the biggest earner in the Mirror group.
Don’t know how it happened but I picked up the job at the Daily Mirror in the mid sixties as chronicler of Reg Smythe’s career and stunts.
We travelled together a lot.
One time we went to Devon to look up H E Bateman (dropped rifle etc). We found him in desolate poverty in a cheap cottage through which a stream ran after heavy rain. Memory now a bit shaky but I believe they exchanged cartoons.
We went everywhere by train. Reg would buy armfuls of those old joke books they used to sell and note down ideas for Andy.
I’m guessing this date is 1966... Al Capp was in a suite at The Savoy. Li’l Abner was his cartoon character. He was probably the richest cartoonist on earth.
I arranged for Reg (Andy Capp) to meet Al Capp. Al was delighted for the opportunity. This was because Andy Capp was now being syndicated in America to more than 150 newspapers. Later it was more than 200.
There was coffee and whisky and beer (Reg) and they drew Andy meeting Li’l Abner for a big Mirror spread that I would write.
All done, Al Capp asked Reg what he was going to do with all the money he was earning. Reg was puzzled. Al said his syndication in the US would bring him in a fortune. Reg was listening, smoking a fag and coughing.
Then Al said he had his own syndication company and would be quite willing to represent Reg worldwide.
He said he thought he could guarantee Reg $100,000 in the first year. Reg said he was earning £8,000 a year (about $20,000 in those days).
Al was astonished. Told Reg he should get in touch again and quickly.
We walked back to the office. Reg was talking money like an investment banker. And grumbling.
I did the piece. Mike Christiansen (Asst Ed) liked it and it was marked up for a spread. The cartoon was great.
Christiansen asked me what I thought of Al Capp. I said he was an easy guy to get on with and what fun it had been listening to him trying to get Reg to join his syndication firm and let him handle Andy Capp in America.
Jesus Christ! Christiansen almost exploded.
‘What do you mean? What do you mean? This is f***ing dynamite. Tell me again.’
So I did. And he stormed off.
Perhaps 30 minutes later he was back and called me into his office with the door shut.
I had to write a memo to him recalling every single word said between Reg and Al. Christiansen told me the memo was actually for Cudlipp.
I was concerned I had stupidly got myself involved in something very serious.
Around 6pm I got a call from Reg. I had been trying to ring him to let him know what was going on. No reply. Now he tells me he has spent all afternoon with Cudlipp and a lawyer.
His basic salary had been raised to £25,000 a year (a huge amount) and he was to get a decent cut of the Andy Capp annuals published in the UK. US syndication hadn’t been discussed.
We went across to The Stab and had several drinks.
In a day or two he called me into his Mirror studio and gave me a gold Cross ballpoint pen.
Not many nights later I handed it to someone in The Cock Tavern to write down a phone number and that was the last I ever saw of it.
In 1976, Reg Smythe, then aged 57, and his wife Vera moved from upper crust Harrow to distinctly unfashionable Hartlepool - a seemingly improbable step for a man who must have made millions - but he had felt the call of the town of his birth. I read a pathetically short piece about it in the Hartlepool Mail (shame on them, it was a bloody good local story) and suggested I did a feature on it - which appeared as a centre page spread in the Daily Mirror on April 2.
Their new home was a luxurious five-bedroom bungalow called White Gates incongruously surrounded by a pleasant but totally unpretentious private suburban estate. Perhaps appropriate, for I found this small, bespectacled and quietly spoken man, who had been a post office worker before Andy Capp brought him fame and fortune, to be utterly unpretentious, too.
Hull-born Vera, however, was quite the opposite; buxom and rather brassy, she wore her husband’s wealth on her fingers - I’ve never seen as many ostentatious rings on one person. But she was friendly and I would guess fun to be with and their marriage lasted 40 years.
Reg told me that he decided his cartoon character would be called Capp to reflect the flat caps of the working class of the north, but he couldn’t decide on the first name.
He said: ‘I was going to call him Johnny Capp or Freddy Capp but then I hit on the terrible pun Andy Capp because he was obviously going to be a social handicap. I never dreamt for one moment he was going to become such an international celebrity.’
That he was most certainly was, appearing in 1,700 newspapers in 17 different languages in 48 countries and enjoyed by an estimated 250 million people from the Yemen to Yokohama and all points north, south, east and west from Hartlepool.
Reg apparently liked the piece I had written and we enjoyed a good relationship after that.
The Mirror in those good old days loved stories containing the splendid Geordie ingredients of whippets, stotty cakes, black pudding, bookies and Newcastle Brown Ale, and I quite often phoned Reg for a ‘what would Andy have to say about this?’ comment. He never let me down; sometimes his reply was instant, on others he would ask me to call back in ten minutes. Always Andy had something pithy and apposite to say. (These stories frequently got a far better show in southern editions, the London back bench evidently regarding us in the north east as outlandishly quaint.)
Reg died of cancer, aged 81, in June, 1998, and on a Sunday morning of leaden skies I returned to the bungalow where this time, in contrast to the extrovert Vera who had died the previous year, the door was opened by his second wife Jean, a small, slightly-built and reticent lady who had been his secretary or something and who had married him just three weeks earlier. Presumably she came in for his fortune but she seemed genuinely upset and didn’t strike me at all as the mercenary type; quite the reverse, in fact.
She showed me Reg’s ‘den’, as he called it, a small room where he created his cartoons - sometimes seven a day - and it was much as he had left it with his upright chair in front of an easel and drawing paper and pencils strewn about on a small table beside it. It gave me a strange tingle; that of being in an inner-sanctum of such journalistic and artistic accomplishment and history.
After I had filed my piece from home I opened a can of the famous Broon - it seemed appropriate - and raised it in salute to Reg. He was a very nice guy.
It is well known that Flo was based on his own mother - also Florence - who had the same indomitable spirit as Andy’s long-suffering spouse. Although Reg, I believe, denied this, the real-life Flo, who lived all her days in a terraced flat in a working class area, once told me she believed Andy was modelled on her late husband, Reg senior.
She said: ‘Unlike Andy, my husband was never an aggressive man but, my goodness, he didn’t like work though he loved a pint of beer and a bet on the horses.’
And, so I was to discover, all his characters contained images of people he knew. His funeral was a private affair, though the Mirror was represented by ex-editor David Banks, managing Editor Pat Pilton and cartoons editor Ken Layson.
I broke away from them when, before the cortege arrived, I saw a small group of mourners had gathered. One was Madge Rigg, immortalised in the strips as Madge the barmaid, whose late husband Jack was known throughout the world as the stoical landlord of our lad’s local. She told me - and here I am looking at my Mirror report on June 18, 1998 - ‘Jack and Reg were great pals and I like to think of them in Heaven playing dominoes together and cracking jokes as they used to. Jack would always stand behind the bar with his arms folded - just like Andy’s landlord. But Reg was the absolute opposite to Andy. He didn’t swig pints and get into trouble. He sipped gin and tonics and enjoyed a quiet chat and chuckle.’
Ex-barmaid Doris Robinson, 66, was there as well. She once appeared in a strip as a pub Mrs Mop in which Andy said she should be charged with burglary - for breaking into a smile. She said ruefully: ‘Trust Reg to depict me as a scrubber - and I don’t think I was that miserable.’
Retired police sergeant Alan Goodman knew that Reg had him in mind as the firm but kindly bobby who oft times escorted a drunken Andy home or to the nick. They - and their alter egos - had come to pay their last respects. And I now intend to do the same, by opening a second bottle of the old nectar and raising my glass to a most likeable legend.