Monday, March 16, 2015

England’s Greatest Comic Strip Artist – Bill Tidy

 1   “Is there any news of the iceberg?” — Bill Tidy

by John Adcock

 CANADA   Stuck between Britain on the one hand, and the USA on the other, Canadian cultural identity has been believed to be in ‘crisis’ since the dawn of Confederation. In 1954 in British Columbia we flew the Union Jack and sang ‘God Save the Queen’ followed by ‘O Canada’ at cenotaphs, in schoolrooms and before hockey games. Every Saturday the kiddies’ matinee opened with a British or Scottish accented MC leading 150 to 200 baby boomers, march-stomping from one foot to another, in a rousing chant of
We are young Canadians and we enjoy our fun!
And yet we know we must try hard! all of us! everyone!
By doing our best to do what’s right! always being keen!
To make our country proud of us,
And honor God and Queen!
Our cheers would raise the roof as the lights dimmed, the screen lit up and the red curtains began to part.

Those features were an assortment of American and British films. Canadian films were only shown occasionally on CBC TV. Recorded Canadian music was rarely heard on the radio. Canadian novels occupied distant corners of the bookstores where they were left to the dust and book-mites. Newsstands were largely schizophrenic mixtures of British and American periodicals and newspapers. Canadian cartoonists rarely tackled strips or comic books; those with national reputations concentrated on editorial and political cartoons. The familiar red Maple Leaf flag dates only to 1965.

 2   Bill Tidy as he drew himself in his 1995 autobiography.
 3   Overseas Daily Mirror, 1952 title.
My grandparents on my father’s side had emigrated to B.C. in 1922 when an American visitor would have thought — from the British and Scottish accents overheard — that he had been magically teleported to the United Kingdom. I never found this crisis in cultural identity a drawback; more an opportunity. I was mad for cartoons, political and editorial, books and strips, and was able to follow trends in Britain, Canada and America from the early 50s on.

 4   Large-sized daily strips in the 1950s Daily Mirror.

 DAILY MIRROR  The weekly-issued Overseas Daily Mirror (7 daily issues bound in a fat package with a yellow cover) was my main source for British comic strips. Over the years I soaked up daily installments of Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, Jane, Buck Ryan, Belinda, The Flutters, Garth, Patsy, The Perishers and Andy Capp. But by the late 70s most small town newsstands discontinued British newspapers and in the big cities they were only available at specialty newsstands.

 5   This Is Your Life: Bill Tidy – Dec 17, 1975. Tidy while seeing a real group of Morris Dancers perform in a popular BBC TV show, hosted by Eamonn Andrews.

 BILL TIDY  In England, Bill Tidy was born in Tranmere, Cheshire, on 9 October 1933. He grew up in Liverpool (Merseyside) and went to school “in between bombing raids” as he worded it in 1981. Cinema and comics were strong early influences, both British and American.
Comic swopping became a way of life. (…) For me the Dandy, Beano and Knockout were now childish compared with the slickness and colour of American comics, for there was a vitality and urgency about them which made ours seem so infantile and they dealt with adult sensations in a way that was, to my mind, more excitingly visual and believable. (… ) Life and Look magazines were also circulating in the seaport Liverpool and made Picture and Everybody’s seem pedestrian. The reason, of course, was that in the forties everything from America was considered the best and Liverpool was attached to the United States by a moving belt of films and pulp.” — Bill Tidy, 1995
As Bill said it in 1981, to work as a cartoonist for a national newspaper like the Daily Mirror, based in England’s capital city “…there was no need to live in London, so I came back home — to Liverpool — and worked from there and got off to quite a good start – hit it immediately you might say, with the Daily Mirror.” This was in the late 50s. 

 6   Fosdyke Saga, Book 2, 1973.
 7   Fosdyke Saga, Book 3, 1973.
 8   Bill Tidy, The Fosdyke Saga, Book 4, 1975.

 FOSDYKE SAGA  Years later, on March 2, 1971, the front-page of the Daily Mirror proclaimed THE FOSDYKES ARE HERE! The Fosdykes were a Northern Edwardian family who climbed from the depths of the mining industry at Insanitary Cottages, Griddlesbury, to become “rulers of a mighty empire, risking life and limb to spread the gospel of tripe.”

Britain’s greatest comic strip began in 1900 and the plot was to cover two world wars and end in “the world of today.” The idea was to parody a long-running, popular 1960s BBC TV adaptation of John Galsworthy’s classic Forsyte novels, begun in 1906 and collectively published as The Forsyte Saga since 1922. Tripe, they say, is a meal of edible offal taken from the stomachs of various farm animals, once a staple of the British working classes.

 9   The Fosdyke Saga, Book 2, 1973.
 10   The Fosdyke Saga, Book 5, 1976.
Jos and Becky Fosdyke had four children; Tom, Victoria, Albert and Tim. In Salford they impressed Ben Ditchley, the Lancashire tripe king. Ditchley died and Jos inherited his Lancashire tripe works. His daughter Victoria ran off with the son, Roger Ditchley, who then deserted her and an unborn child, little Sylvia. Tom, Albert and Tim crisscrossed the world searching for new markets for tripe.

Few cartoonists are deserving of the descriptive ‘genius’ but Bill Tidy was one of them. For 14 long years, 6 days a week, the long and winding Fosdyke Saga plots moved along at the pace of three panels a day alternating three plotlines at a time. The lives of the huge cast of characters were played out across the globe in the United States, South America, the Sahara, Moscow and Kabul with frequent stops back in Salford, Manchester.

 11   The Fosdyke Saga, Book 3, 1973.
 12   The Fosdyke Saga, daily strips of Dec 9 and 10, 1974.
“I’d tried out several cartoon strip ideas but without success apart from one, a single picture spot in the Daily Sketch called ‘Sir Griswold’. (…) Although this was better than nothing and meant a regular income, it denied me the chance to play with words and the several speech bubbles of a strip offer. (…) I was jumping with delight when Bernard Hollowood okayed my Chelm of Tryg 2 strip and Bill Hewison sorted out my grammar and syntax blunders.” — Bill Tidy, 1995
 13   Three-fingered, letter, New Scientist, July 3, 1975.

 TIDY CAREER  Bill Tidy became a storyteller, lightning cartoonist, chalk-talker, illustrator, broadcaster, TV personality and after-dinner speaker. For many years his wife Rosa — who is Italian, and the mother of their three kids: 2 sons, 1 daughter — ran a business too: a fabric and bedding shop in Southport. Bill is still active to this day. His list of print contributions is staggering.

 14   The Fosdyke Saga, Book 4, 1975.
Tidy’s first paid cartoon appeared in the mid 50s while he was still serving his three years National Service in the Royal Engineers (in Germany and the Far East), in an English-language newspaper published in Japan, the Mainichi, on July 28, 1954. As he remembered it in 1981: “When I saw it in print I realised my feature lay ahead of me like a yellow brick road.”

Tidy’s first comic strip was Chelm of Tryg 2 in Punch, in the 60s. This serially published strip was about a British space station, it ran 12 months from September 1966. The Cloggies was next, a comic strip about a Northern clog-dancing team, which ran in Private Eye from 1967 to April 1980, then moved to The Listener in 1985-86.

 15   “Sorry Kid, you just don’t have the killer instinct.” Bill Tidy cartoon in Punch, May 5, 1959.
 16   “If the Lithuanians look like getting on top Neville, put t’boot in.”  – early cartoon with Cloggies, in Private Eye, Feb 17, 1967.

 MEN DANCING  In 1966 the sight of Morris dancers on television made Bill Tidy draw several cartoons about them, published in Punch and then in Private Eye. “I’d never seen anything so stupid in my life and thought, that’s got to be daft enough for a single.” A little later, early 1967, Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams suggested to Tidy to do a fortnightly strip about such folk-dancing, titled The Cloggies,
“Without hesitation I said ‘Yes.’ (…) I said that they don’t wear clogs you know, they wear boots, and he said, ‘it doesn’t matter.” — Bill Tidy, 1986 and 199
 17   Folkdance with the Cloggies, 1970s.

 STRIP SERIES  Tidy’s The Fosdyke Saga made its debut in the Daily Mirror on March 2, 1971, and ended February 28, 1985. New Scientist featured his comic strip Grimbledon Down in 1970-94. Keg Buster was a strip appearing in the trade magazine What’s Brewing, circa 1974, still ongoing. Dr. Whittle appeared in General Practitioner from 1970 to 2001. A 1984 Bill Tidy book for children, titled Robbie and the Blobbies (published by Heinemann), was about an invasion from outer space, and was told in extended comic strip format.
“I feel very lucky to have worked through the golden age of cartoons which was the 20 years between the 70s and the 90s. [and on the cartoonist’s ‘industry’:] It is very sad to see their decline. It is dying because there are fewer publications now. They are all in the nationals, but often you see a 10 gallon idea given a two gallon space. I used to get loads of letters from mums and dads who wanted to know how their children could be cartoonists — now I get none.” — Bill Tidy, Express & Star, October 24, 2014

 18   Grimbledon Down, strip in New Scientist, Apr 20, 1991.

 STILL GOING  In 2015 Bill Tidy, who’s a founder member of the Cartoonists’ Club of Great Britain, is still contributing cartoons to the bimonthly periodical British Archaeology, and is still writing and illustrating books.

 19   The Cloggies, in Private Eye, Oct 6, 1972.
 20   The Cloggies, in Private Eye, Feb 14, 1977.
An interesting, well-illustrated catalog by Frank Milner & Bill Tidy, made for the traveling Tidy exhibition shown at eleven different venues all over the UK in 1986-88, ended with a poignant hint to British publishers,
“It was a very sad day when, with forty years of the Fosdyke story told, the Mirror’s new management decided to axe the strip [in 1985]. Fosdykes at Dunkirk, The Salford Blitz, the place of tripe production in the Marshall Plan, the possibility of free school tripe under the terms of the 1944 Education Act. All these stirring events are ready chronicled and simply need the light of day — a nation waits.”

 ICEBERG  Bill Tidy considers this Titanic cartoon — captioned “Is there any news of the iceberg?” — one of his best. The caption even became the head title of his 1995 autobiography. Because of the much smaller book size of this ‘Illustrated Autobiography’ he redrew some of his favorite oldies to fit the format:

 21   “Stanley … wild bull of the pampas” – The Cloggies, in Private Eye, c.1978.
 22   Redo for the small page, 1995.

Early 2009, The Independent newspaper in London filed him under the title Forgotten Authors No. 21, a short admiring piece which lamented “public amnesia” about a still active cartoonist. It ended with another plea — “About time, then, that a publisher packaged these lovely works into a single collection that sits tidily on a shelf.” Amen to that.

 23   The Fosdyke Saga, Book 3, 1974.
“Drawing cartoons is the oldest and least of the arts, respectable in the National Gallery (…), but cheerfully dismissed when connected to humour. (…) I like it and I can do it well. It’s grossly unfair that this is treated as the lightest art of all. I can’t think of anything that is treated as such a throwaway.” — Bill Tidy, 1995

★ The 1995 quotes are from Bill Tidy’s personal memoirs: Is There Any News of the Iceberg?; An Illustrated Autobiography, 1995, London: Smith Gryphon Publishers, 247pp., hardback with dust jacket.

★ The 1986 quotes are from Bill Tidy; Drawings 1957-1986, Liverpool: Walker Art Gallery, by Frank Milner & Bill Tidy, 96pp., paperback.

★ The 1981 quotes are from Peter Harle’s interview in The Art of Radio Times; The first sixty years, London: BBC Publications & European Illustration, p.244.

Thanks to Huib van Opstal

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