The Mr Men and Little Miss books are the best selling children's titles in the UK after Harry Potter and have sold a staggering 100m copies in no fewer than 30 countries. We catch up with Sussex-based writer and illustrator Adam Hargreaves...

The Mr Men and Little Miss books are the best selling children’s titles in the UK after Harry Potter and have sold a staggering 100m copies in no fewer than 30 countries.

Angela Wintle meets Sussex-based writer and illustrator Adam Hargreaves to find out why, after nearly 40 years, his father’s characters remain as popular as ever – and how he is carrying on the family tradition.

Can the Mr Men really be pushing 40?

If, like me, you were a child of the Seventies, then this may come as sobering news. But let’s not dwell on the passing years. It’s enough to make Mr Happy weep. Let’s bask in nostalgia instead. Remember Mr Silly, who, in a bid to win the Nonsense cup, decided to paint all the red leaves in Nonsenseland green? Or Mr Messy, who had to change his name when Mr Neat and Tidy gave him a wash and brush up? Or Mr Mean, who turned over a whole new leaf when he presented his friends with not one, but two lumps of coal at Christmas?

When I was about five or six, I couldn’t get enough of the Mr Men and collected every single book which I cherish to this day, neatly filed beside Winnie the Pooh and Paddington. They were the invention of Roger Hargreaves, a shrewd Sussex-based advertising copywriter who saw in the books a way of quitting the rat race and enjoying the prosperity he craved.

His dream paid off. And how. His first book, Mr Tickle, became an instant success and five more quickly followed. Within three years, Roger had sold a million copies and ultimately became so wealthy he moved to Guernsey as a tax exile.But in 1988 the dream came to an abrupt end when he suffered a stroke while walking down to breakfast. He was taken to hospital but died later that day, aged just 53.That could have been the end of the Mr Men, but Roger’s eldest son, Adam, valiantly stepped into the breach. On the face of it, he wasn’t the most obvious candidate. He was 25, working as a dairyman and stockman, and throughout his teens had studiously ignored his father’s day job, finding the whole thing acutely embarrassing. But far from balking at the prospect of taking on the Mr Men, he embraced the role. “Who wouldn’t love drawing Mr Men?” he says, grinning from ear to ear.

We are chatting in Adam’s studio, tucked behind his imposing house set in equally spacious grounds on the outskirts of Heathfield. It’s funny to think that the madcap adventures of Mr Bump and Co have paid for all this. But in case I was in any doubt, Adam’s studio is liberally sprinkled with Mr Men merchandise, including a large soft toy of the irrepressible Mr Funny bedecked in his trademark top hat. “I try to confine it to the office,” says Adam, with a shamefaced grin.Despite his substantial real estate, Adam, now 46, seems untainted by wealth or success. In fact, he’s as unshowy as they come – affable, modest and self-effacing. But he’s nobody’s fool all the same. He is, after all, his father’s son and when he stepped into his shoes he discovered they had more in common than he realised. “I learned a lot of things about myself, like the fact that I was more ambitious and had a greater interest in the business world than I’d ever realised,”he says. “I was incredibly green and went from milking cows to running the Mr Men, but, in retrospect, it was very good for me. I’d been floundering and it gave me direction and purpose.”It seems fitting that Adam should have inherited the Mr Men crown because he had a hand in their inception. It all started when, aged eight, he asked his dad what a tickle looked like. His father thought for a moment, then started doodling. In no time at all a rotund orange figure sporting exceptionally long arms and a small bowler hat had sprung from his pen. Mr Tickle was born. The character became the star of his very own book when Roger bumped into an old friend called Jack Thurman who ran a publishing company. They ended up having lunch together and by the time dessert arrived he had landed a publishing contract.Mr Tickle was followed by Messrs Bump, Happy, Sneeze, Nosey and Greedy. Within nine years the Mr Men had mushroomed to 39 books, swiftly followed in the Eighties by the Little Miss. Today, there are 83 Mr Men and Little Miss characters and a staggering 100 million copies have been sold in no fewer than 30 countries. Adam believes the secret of their appeal lies in the Mr Men’s universal personality traits. “The books haven’t dated at all because they’re about human characteristics we all have,” he says.

“They also cross language and cultural barriers because there’s always a word for funny or accident prone. And then there’s the collectability factor, which is something children are always going to enjoy.” Children’s books in the early Seventies tended to be very classic – exemplified by Beatrix Potter and Winnie the Pooh – and the Mr Men’s graphic style and use of solid colour made them stand out. Other hallmarks included the books’ pocket size and brevity – no story lasted more than five minutes because Hargreaves liked the idea of having something short to read to his own children. He once said they were ‘bedtime stories for weary daddies’.Roger drew with Magic Marker pens and his trademark bold lines masked the fact that his colour spread across the page in the days before bleedproof paper. He often drew the smile in last because he loved to come down in the morning and fill it in. He said it was the smile that brought his characters alive. “My father worked very quickly and once he had an idea, he could write a book in a day,” says Adam. “He wasn’t one to go back and fiddle with things. He was as much an ideas man as an artist.”It was somewhat different for Adam when he started writing and drawing new Mr Men books. Trying to get inside his father’s head and work out his ideas for himself took years of trial and error, in spite of his art training (he completed a foundation course at Brighton Art College before switching to farming).“I had a lot of trouble to begin with because I have a much looser style than Dad and really had to train my hand and brain to replicate his clean lines.“Ironically, Mr Happy, who looks the simplest, was actually the hardest to perfect because he’s one long, uninterrupted curve and you have to get the proportions just right. Nowadays, I draw all the characters freehand, but in the early days I used to loosely sketch them to get a feel for their shape and then trace over the rough drawing to create a smooth outline.”In 2004, Adam and his family made the decision to sell the intellectual property rights of the Mr Men to the entertainment group Chorion, which also owned the copyright to the works of Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie, for a cool �24 million.“The sale of the likes of Thomas the Tank Engine to multi-national corporations had made us aware that there was a big market for property rights and many of our rivals were now getting a huge amount of investment that we had no hope of matching,” he says.“Our business was happily ticking along, but there were limits to what we could achieve from our small office in Sussex. We knew that a much larger company with marketing skills, investment opportunities and contacts, could open up the worldwide market much more effectively.”He had few qualms about the sale. Though it was a difficult wrench for his mother, he knew that his father would have approved. “My dad was very ambitious. It wasn’t just about writing books for us as kids. He wanted to create an idea that would give him the lifestyle he wanted, inspired by the commercial success of Sixties strip cartoons such as Peanuts.”Roger Hargreaves’ commercial nous was also evident in the way that he and his agent seized on the potential of licensing in the mid-Seventies, following in the footsteps of Disney. They licensed everything and anything. And the beauty of the Mr Men was that they could be associated with an enormous range of products – from Mr Messy baby bibs to Mr Grumpy slippers for Father’s Day. The characters also became a must-have fashion accessory worn by Katie Price and Paris Hilton, and Paula Yates famously wore a Little Miss Trouble T-shirt after her split with Bob Geldof. Roger was also quick to spot the commercial power of television and in 1976 the Mr Men were given a TV series, narrated by Arthur Lowe. “Arthur came in to do a voice test and the producers laughed so much they knew he’d be perfect,” says Adam. “His deadpan voice accentuated the humour. He didn’t need to put on accents – all that was needed was that classic English delivery.” Adam may have relinquished day-to-day control, but he’s still writing and illustrating books and creating characters. His most unusual was for Stella McCartney, who asked him to devise a book called Little Miss Stella to double as an invitation to her 2006 fashion show in Paris.“She was a huge Mr Men fan and when we met to discuss the idea she rang her dad who, I discovered, had read the books to her as a child. It was bizarre to find that she was quite excited about meeting me because I’d been a Beatles fan all my life.”So from Katie Price to Paul McCartney ... it seems everyone is a fan of the Mr Men. Roger once said it pleased him to think that when his characters were 100 years old his readers would always be five. It may not have been such a mad boast after all.

Little Miss Shy and the Fairy Godmother and Mr Nosey and the Beanstalk by Adam Hargreaves are published by Egmont at �2.99

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