LEO BAXENDALE: Memories of the legendary cartoonist
- Credit: Archant
Leo Baxendale, (1930-2017), the creative genius behind the Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx and Little Plum, lived in the Stroud Valleys for over 40 years. Katie Jarvis interviewed him for Cotswold Life in 2007 as the Beano prepared to celebrate its 70th birthday.
THE upstairs room at Mills Café in Stroud is full to chaotic bursting-point.
Fatty’s here, cheeks bulging (don’t worry, he likes his name) with the three bacon butties he’s put on my tab (GRRR). Sidney – busy pelting studious Cuthbert Cringeworthy with bread rolls (biff!) - seems to have brought a menagerie with him. (Gulp! Are spiders allowed in Mills?). Danny, with his pirate-ish looks, is obviously the ring-leader, though bossy Toots is trying her hardest to sort out this disreputable crowd. She might just be succeeding but BAM! ‘Erbert, squinting short-sightedly, has walked full-pelt into our table and sent the coffees flying.
It wouldn’t be so bad… except eeek! I’ve suddenly noticed the whole café is teetering on the edge of a 10,000-foot drop, (there’s a helpful sign telling me so), while gourmet vultures circle overhead, clutching knives and forks and licking their chops…
But here’s an oddity. Anyone passing who happened to look in at the café door would just see two of us – Leo and me - sitting quietly, talking.
Oh, don’t worry: The others are indeed here. They’re chasing each other round the imagination of Leo Baxendale, the legendary cartoonist.
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Leo Baxendale gently pushes a coffee he never drinks around the table in front of us. He moves his arms around a lot when talking, he says. His wife Peggy dryly tells him that’s probably why he knocks so many wine glasses over.
Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t draw any more (a repetitive strain injury makes it just too painful). Maybe, without a pencil to anchor them to a surface, his arms are free-floating, unsure quite what to do instead.
“Oh no,” he says, pragmatically, “I don’t miss drawing at all. Even though I found it more exhilarating than anything else. Steve Bell (the political cartoonist) once said to me, ‘You can’t stop drawing! You’re an artist!’
“I said, ‘Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I have to’. And Steve said, ‘Fair enough’.”
He chuckles. Like all clever cartoonists – like all great artists – Leo Baxendale makes you think; he takes a familiar universe and shows it from a teasingly different perspective.
He did that over and over again with the characters that popped out of his imagination - characters that shaped a generation. And it was my generation: We grew up on a wholesome diet of Little Plum, Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids. We revelled in the fact that, in our world, the grown-ups didn’t even merit proper names: they were Teacher and Min’s dad. Their only role was to try to contain the sharp-witted, determined children tormenting them. And what’s more (tee hee!), they never succeeded.
“Ah,” Leo says fondly, “Minnie - a girl of boundless ambition. She was convinced that certain characters were trying to hold her back – and she was probably quite right. She didn’t have any magic powers or superhuman strengths but she was an Amazonian warrior – the power was in her mind.”
Leo’s cartoons filled the pages we fought over to be the first to read – the ‘selling pages’ in industry jargon. All we knew was that his anarchic sense of humour made us laugh out loud; his perfect drawings – where every face had its own unique expression – inspired us to pick up our own pencils.
“When I was creating my characters for The Beano, I made them part of an uncertain world,” he says, “and there were two strands to this world. One was the medieval concept of disasters happening out of a blue sky for no reason whatever. And the second one was the more modern idea of cause-and-effect. Very often, the ambitions that made my characters set events in train led to disaster; but the thing was, they were absolutely unaware of this so they made the same errors again and again.
“Take The Bash Street Kids. They were always having ideas for making pots of money – that was their great ambition – but it never quite worked. One time, they decided to train pigeons as a messenger service. There were lots of jokes in there, such as Smiffy done up as a hawk jumping up and down to scare them. But the whole thing went wrong because the pigeons were useless. At the end, though, The Bash Street Kids were quite cheerful because they killed the pigeons and made a great big pie.”
He laughs. “There was no sentimentality.”
Even now, Leo Baxendale remembers standing in a sunny school playground in 1938, aged seven, when an older pupil thrust into his hands the first ever copy of The Beano Comic (as it was called then). Published by DC Thomson in Dundee alongside The Dandy, it was markedly different from its predecessors, such as Chips and Film Fun, the favourites of the day. Bright, colourful and a handy size for small hands, The Beano used a radical new device – the speech balloon.
In fact, that first ever Beano issue, with Big Eggo the ostrich on the cover, was so disconcerting that Leo merely glanced before politely handing it straight back. But despite his unimpressed air, he already knew by then he wanted to draw for comics.
For a lad growing up in Lancashire during the years of the war, wanting to be an artist was an uncommon ambition. Leo’s father struggled to support the family with a variety of mundane manual jobs, from chauffeuring to supervising the boilers at the local power station. But as the tea table was cleared away so that young Leo had room to draw, it became obvious to everyone this boy had true talent.
“The Depression had destroyed my parents’ own livelihood,” Leo recalls, “but my mother and father began to talk about how ‘Our Leo will be a great artist’.
“I changed it in my mind to ‘Our Leo will become a professional artist’, and I had to set about the logistics. It was quite hard when there was no one there to tell you how.
“Because I was taught by Jesuits, I found out all kinds of stuff about philosophy, but not everyday things that mattered to me - the Ben Day tints that you find back to the 19th century in comics, for instance: I asked lots of people who did those. At one point I tried to draw them myself and I realised I couldn’t. It was only when I became a staff cartoonist on the Lancashire Evening Post, where they used them, that I found out how they worked and who invented them.”
Alongside his drawing, he had another passion – comedy. An avid listener of Max Wall (who his father just as avidly tried to turn off every time he came on the wireless), he absorbed like a sponge the deadpan absurdist humour, with its perfect timing.
The influence it had on him became apparent during his first real job – as an artist on the Evening Post, doing drawings to illustrate articles and adverts.
“The one thing that mattered to the manager selling the adverts was to make money, but he was quite amenable to any suggestions I made. So it came about that when a local travel firm placed an advert in the paper detailing the tours they offered, I said I’d draw something cartoon-fashion to go with it: I did this coach full of tourists, teetering over a 10,000-ft drop. Of course, later I used the 10,000 foot drop all the time!”
When he showed The Beano’s founding editor that same cartoon a short time later, George Moonie instantly took to the ‘robust humour’, and Leo was taken on as a freelance, aged just 22 – drawing other people’s characters.
That, of course, wasn’t satisfactory. But when Leo tried to show The Beano management his own drawings of The Bash Street Kids – inspired by a Giles cartoon of a hoard of unruly children – no one was interested. They still had their sights firmly set on the established artists whose pens were busily sketching old perennials such as Lord Snooty and Pansy Potter.
It took a bundle of mischief to make them wake up to the fact that times were changing. No one knew quite what had hit them when, in 1951, David Law’s revolutionary creation bounded onto The Beano pages, decked in a stripy red-and-black jumper knitted by his granny. Dennis the Menace had arrived.
The character had a profound influence on Leo. He felt, he says, the same jolt of excitement that he’d experienced on first hearing Max Wall. Full of renewed enthusiasm, Leo sat down and pondered how he could create something with the same impact. It didn’t take him long to sketch the answer – a cross between a mischievous Dennis and (something all kids can identify with) an American Indian. In April 1953, Leo Baxendale created Little Plum, ‘Your Redskin chum’.
“When I created Little Plum, I started him off as an amalgam of Dennis and Hiawatha, drawn in David Law’s style,” Leo recalls, “but after a while I realised this wasn’t working. Fundamentally, it was because David’s drawing was very stylistic, particularly the static mouth, which didn’t work for what I had in mind. Plum had so many different thoughts going through his noddle that he needed constantly-changing expressions: a puny being in a world of vultures with knives and forks. Once I’d altered the mouth, we were away. It is very often a crux in a strip that you change something and it unleashes the comedy.”
Plum, with his faithful horse Treaclefoot, was a member of the Smellyfoot tribe, alongside his friends Chiefy and Hole-in-um-Head. They spent much of their time trying to outwit their rivals, the Puttyfoot tribe, while dodging the bears that shared the landscape.
“Plum and Chiefy disparaged the bears - thought they were idiots. They were always guarding themselves against the Puttyfoot tribe. Yet, in reality, the bears won. There’s a single frame where the bears - a bit like the Vietcong - reached a point where they’d managed to steal so much weaponry from Plum’s own lot, they found they could wage conventional warfare!”
Minnie appeared in September of that year, and The Bash Street Kids were finally adopted in October.
So instantly successful were Leo’s characters that George Moonie persuaded him to move up to Dundee. Here, the whole Beano office would engage in an idiosyncratic tradition: a late afternoon game of Keepie-Up. They’d push the furniture to one side and bring out the Keepie-Up ball – a scrunched up section of the Dundee Courier, stitched inside a piece of Scottish tweed. The aim was to keep the ball in the air for as long as possible, using any part of the body other than hands. It wasn’t just a ball that was tossed round the room – the ideas were flying too.
“The very early Bash Streets were situation-based. Somebody - it could have been George - would have a spark and we’d pass it round each other. The chief sub would scribble and hand it to me and I’d take it home and draw it.
“Later on, it became more formal, and the subs would provide me with the scripts of ‘flashes’; I found it didn’t matter to me whether I’d got the idea or somebody else had.”
Within five years of Leo joining the team, sales figures soared from less than half a million to an annual two million.
The trouble was, along with the added success came added pressure. As Leo’s popularity grew, so did the workload. As a freelance artist, every frame earned him money. At one stage, he was drawing, every week of the year, a full page of Minnie, Bash Street, Little Plum and the Three Bears, as well as working for The Beezer and on annuals.
“Before I started drawing for the comics industry, I’d never heard the phrase ‘selling pages’ – the ones readers buy the comic to see. But suddenly, here you were carrying the magazine.
The drawing was enjoyable. The stressing thing was the sleeplessness – in the end I couldn’t sleep: I’d be working through the night, and that affected the drawing. It’s very distressing to see a drawing from 1957 and think: It’s lovely; did I do that? And then look at another and think, Ouch! It was good enough to print, of course, but I can tell the difference and that matters to me.”
The pages would take hours to complete. Leo would begin by lightly sketching out the composition, fixing the ideas in his mind, before more robustly pencilling in the lines and focusing on the characters’ faces. After going over it a third time and adding in all the detail, he’d finally ink it in – inevitably obliterating much of the history that went into building up the frames.
It was a painstaking process, and the amount of work Leo was asked to do seemed to take no account of the hours it took to complete.
“It was insane. You’d think publishers who work with artists would realise they were asking too much, but perhaps they shut their eyes to it. I remember reading about Raymond Briggs being enraged when he was given so little time to finish a book. ‘Do they not realise how long they take?’ he asked.”
For Leo, the insane amount of pressure, coupled, by now, with a family life – he and Peggy had five children – began to prove too much. Besides, by the 1970s, the comic industry seemed in terminal decline. Instead, he branched out, writing his own highly successful books, including a series of Willie the Kid, and, later still, I LOVE You Baby Basil for the Guardian.
In 1980, he started a seven-year legal action against Thomson for the copyright of his work. They settled out of court. Although he’s prevented from speaking about the deal by a confidentiality clause, the result has allowed him to sit back and take real pleasure from life in the Five Valleys with Peggy, and to enjoy visits from their now-adult children, one of whom is the successful Stroud-based writer and cartoonist, Martin Baxendale.
Not that Leo is idling – never that. Though (unbelievably) in his late 70s, he spends his time writing and curating exhibitions, such as Stroppy Women – featuring all his female creations - which ran in Stroud earlier this year.
On opening the exhibition, the poet U A Fanthorpe said, “Cartoons are very important things. They’re serious, not just funny. And this is especially true of Leo Baxendale’s cartoons. They are secret weapons. They reach the parts of us that other forms of discourse fail to reach. Laughter liberates us, laughter puts things in perspective.”
Never were truer words spoken.
“You didn’t drink your coffee,” I say.
“Decoration,” Leo Baxendale replies. Detail in the back of the scene…
After we’ve left and got half way along the Shambles, he remembers he’s forgotten his umbrella and I offer to go back to get it. Lucky I did. I had to wrench it off Minnie the Minx, who’d decided it was perfect for hooking back a water pistol Dad had confiscated after she’d drenched the neighbour’s posh hat.
“Thanks,” says Leo, as I hand the umbrella over. And he walks quietly back down Stroud’s High Street, alone, accompanied by an infinite crowd of mischievous pals.
For more details about Leo and his work, log onto www.reaper.co.uk
You can visit The Beano’s website at www.beanotown.com