How a Stereotype Become Human
ON THE FACE OF IT, the Andy Capp comic strip ought to have failed the moment it arrived on these shores in 1963, continuing its six-year run in England. The strip’s eponymous protagonist is a good-for-nothing lout, a layabout with a passion for a pint, and for the attractive unescorted woman at the end of the bar. He’s a working-class man with no work and no desire to work. His entire unemployed life transpires between the neighborhood pub and the couch in the living room at home where he sleeps off his indulgence. He would be unfaithful to his long-suffering wife Florrie (Flo) if he weren’t so lazy. In his occasional active moments, he sometimes beats his wife, whose strength of character makes her the real star of the strip. In short, there is nothing likable about Andy Capp—and certainly nothing admirable.
To Americans, judging by the values they say they live by, Andy Capp represents everything they are taught from infancy to eschew energetically wherever possible. He’s an anti-role model. Yet despite his wholly unsavory behavior, he was immediately hugely popular in this country—a roaring success. Perhaps because readers saw him as “getting away with it”—with everything we’re all taught we shouldn’t do.
Andy Capp is the creation of Reginald Smyth, who added a final -e to his last name by way of adopting a pen name. Smythe drew Andy Capp from his first published appearance in 1957, until he, Smythe, died in 1998, leaving a year’s worth of unpublished strips for his successor; he was that far ahead of his publication schedule. After the stockpile was exhausted, Andy Capp was continued by writer Roger Kettle and cartoonist Roger Mahoney. In about 2011, Kettle quit and was replaced by Lawrence Goldsmith and Sean Garnett, while Mahoney continues to draw the strip.
Smythe grew up in Northern England under conditions that made Andy Capp seem like a kindred soul if not an alter ego. “He was my best friend yet,” Smythe once said. Growing into manhood, Smythe was often jobless for long stretches, making him sympathetic to Andy’s situation (which, in Andy’s case, is self-inflicted by preference).
Born July 10, 1917, Smythe grew up in Hartlepool, County Durham. Although in a coal mining district, the town was a port, and Smythe’s father was a shipyard worker, who was often unemployed because demand for ships slacked off after the Great War, 1914-18. In consequence, the family was very poor. Smythe described himself as “a canvas shoes kid”: the only poorer class of youngster was barefoot. Richer kids had leather shoes or boots.
In 1931, Smythe quit school at the earliest permissible age, 14. “I was somewhere near the bottom of the class. I was the kind of bloke, if someone said, ‘What is 2 and 2,’ I’d say 22. Up till then, I never drew. I didn’t draw then, either. I was on the dole.”
He took a job as errand boy for a butcher. At the age of 16, he was forced to quit the job: his employer wanted to avoid paying a special tax he would be liable for in employing anyone 16 or older. For the next three years, Smythe was “on the dole” (welfare): he couldn’t find work.
Fed up at last, he joined the Northumberland Fusiliers in 1936 and was posted to Egypt. Then World War II broke out, and instead of being on active duty for the contracted seven years, Smythe served until 1946, 10 years. He was a machine gunner and had achieved the rank of sergeant by the time he left the service.
At least two online biographies claim that he developed a talent for cartooning during his service, selling cartoons to Cairo magazines. But Smythe himself doesn’t mention this apprenticeship in the autobiographical text in The World of Andy Capp (1990, Titan Books) so this factoid is doubtless a figment of the biographers’ imaginations, inspired, no doubt, by the tradition of many cartoonists’ lives while in military service.
Demobilized in 1946, Smythe returned to Hartlepool, but, unable to find work, he soon left for London. There, after an extended period of unemployment, he found a job at the General Post Office in 1950. He also married Vera Whittaker.
The GPO work was boring, and he looked for distractions in various extracurricular enterprises that the GPO offered. There were sports groups and drama groups, and he “attached himself to the outer edges of one of the drama groups,” writes Les Lilley in The World of Andy Capp.
The group needed a poster to advertise one of its productions, and Smythe volunteered to make one.
“When I’d finished the poster, one of the group said, ‘Hey, that’s not bad! Why don’t you take up commercial art for a living?’ After thinking about it,” said Smythe, quoted in The World, “I thought it a very good suggestion.”
He made some drawings and took them to commercial agencies. At one of them, they were reviewed by Charles Gilbert, who suggested Smythe try cartooning, directing him to do 30 cartoons and bring them in the next week. Smythe managed the assignment, and Gilbert sold two of the cartoons, with results that are scarcely surprising.
“My gross earnings for the two cartoons came to more than I was making in a week for the GPO,” Smythe remembered. “That was all the incentive I needed.”
He continued working days at the GPO but began a rigid regime of producing a stupendous quantity of cartoons, sixty a week, by drawing in the evenings. Says Lilley: “In order to achieve this prodigious output, Reg devised a rigorous system that would enable him to hold down his old job and also do his new job. He would race home from the Post Office on his bicycle, arrive at about five thirty and immediately start drawing. He wouldn’t take time for an evening meal but would chew on a sandwich while devising the ideas and drawing his cartoons.”
His production was governed mostly by the clock, Lilly goes on: “He scrounged an old tin alarm clock and set it to ring every half hour. He allowed himself only that half hour in which to think of and to draw a cartoon. He slashed the ideas on paper as fast as he could just to maintain the output he set as his target. If he managed to complete a cartoon in a quarter of an hour, he didn’t take time out and sit back for a breather but allocated the extra quarter of an hour to the next cartoon so he could take just that little extra time and trouble over it. ... Not one minute of his precious time was ever wasted.”
He maintained this routine for several years, Lilley reports. With Gilbert marketing the cartoons to a variety of magazines, Smythe became a modestly successful freelance cartoonist.
Smythe aspired to get into the world famous Punch. “I badly wanted to get into Punch because I couldn’t stand being rejected by its editors. I sent them more than 6,000 cartoons before I had my one and only acceptance.”
One of his outlets was the Laugh Column, a daily section of single-panel cartoons in the Daily Mirror. Smythe was published there so often that the newspaper gave him a regular spot at the top of the Column every day.
And then came the Big Break.
SMYTHE WAS IN HARTLEPOOL visiting his mother, when he got a telegram from the Mirror’s new cartoon editor, Bill Herbert, who told him that the paper’s editor, Hugh Cudlip, was making a push to expand circulation in the North of England and wanted a new cartoon to appeal to “Northern” readers, and Smythe, being from Hartlepool—in the North—was a likely candidate to produce the cartoon. He was commanded to return to the London office of the Mirror with a new cartoon.
Smythe jumped in his car and started south for London. Unable to think of a “good” idea, he decided he could fob off on his editors a “stopgap” idea while he continued to concoct his “real” idea. Speeding down the A-One, England’s main north-south super highway, he remembered his father and the people around the back-to-back houses where he was brought up, “and the well-pinned, turbaned ladies who were the real backbone of the area.”
Little did he realize, Lilley notes, that he was conjuring up what would be his “real” idea.
“The trip was seven hours,” Smythe remembered. “The name took three."
When he got back to London, he sketched all night.
“At some time during the night,” Smythe said, quoted by Lilley, “I did a drawing of my temporary character, and I tried to find a name for him over breakfast. I was due to present something to Bill Herbert that morning!
“Well, I’d sketched this little man as a working-class type wearing a cloth cap, so I thought the name Cap would be as good a name for him as any. Cap? Capp? Fred Capp perhaps? Then, as an afterthought, I drew his face with the cap pulled well down over his eyes, obscuring the top half of his face. How about Bill Capp? But neither Fred nor Bill seemed to have the right ring to it.
“Then I thought about his character,” Smythe continued. “What would he be like? Perhaps he would be dead lumber. The type who is a right little handicap to his wife. Handicap! The word handicap gave rise to a really horrible pun. Handicap? Andy Capp! And I had it.
“By God, I thought—that’s awful! But I didn’t have a better idea for a name so that was what I called him when I took my sketches into Bill Herbert’s office. I was dead ashamed of those cartoons and that stupid name. They embarrassed me. I put my small pile of stuff on Mr. Herbert’s desk and slunk away quietly.
“But Bill liked the ideas and showed them to Hugh Cudlip. Mr. Cudlip also liked the idea and almost immediately started it off in the northern editions of the Mirror.”
Andy Capp debuted August 5, 1957.
Smythe decided to name Andy’s wife Florrie, writes Lilley—“after his mother. He says that Flo is his favorite character and, if there was any justice in this world, the cartoon should be named after her and not Andy. But everyone seemed to like Andy Capp as a name for the strip, so Andy Capp it was destined to be.”
Andy Capp is based upon Smythe’s father. Somewhat.
“I had to base Andy and Florrie on folk I knew well. Florrie, I based on my mother. The house where she and Andy live is number 37, the same number as the one we had when I was back home, while Andy looks like my Dad, he isn’t really based on my father’s way of carrying on. Dad was inclined to be lazy, but he didn’t have the poise and authority I gave my character. Andy is a sort of ‘beefed up’ version of Dad. Recognizable but exaggerated.”
And Smythe’s father was known to wear a cloth cap. “Even when he played football!” his son claimed. “But on Sundays he would show respect and put on a bowler hat to be posh.”
Revel Barker, who worked for the Mirror Group, reported a different origin for Andy: Smythe, he said, “told me the inspiration for the strip was a guy he saw at a Harlepool 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 the 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.’”
Andy Capp began as a single-panel cartoon, taking the place of Smythe’s daily cartoon at the top of the Laugh Column in the northern editions of the newspaper.
Inexplicably, the feature was a success from the start. And Cudlip, who had taken a proprietary interest in the cartoon, soon launched it in the southern editions, too, starting the next spring, April 14.
“Good God,” exclaimed Smythe, “Andy went off like a bomb! He forever disproved the theory I had long held that humor in the South is different to humor in the North. Andy was appreciated everywhere. The gags I wove around the character seemingly knew no boundaries.”
The feature’s success in the North was more inexplicable than its success in the South.
“Early on,” says Don Markstein at his Toonopedia, “the strip was accused of perpetuating stereotypes about Britain’s Northerners, who are seen in other parts of England as chronically unemployed, dividing their time between the living room couch and the neighborhood pub. ... But Smythe, himself a native of that region, had nothing but affection for his good-for-nothing protagonist, a fact which showed in his work. Since the very beginning, Andy has been immensely popular among the people he supposedly skewers.”
And his popularity eventually spread to American shores. In 1963, Andy Capp was running in the now defunct Majorca Daily News, where a vacationing American newspaperman saw it and liked it. The newspaperman was Bob Hall, head of Publishers Syndicate. He went to London on his way home and got syndication rights for the American market. Starting September 16, 1963, Andy Capp was distributed in the U.S. by Hall’s syndicate.
Andy Capp was modified for American consumption: it became a four-panel comic strip instead of a single-panel cartoon. In England, however, the four equal-sized panels were stacked, two panels on each of two tiers, so the strip occupied the same square space as a single-panel cartoon.
In the U.S., Andy Capp appeared in only forty-five papers the first year; in the second, the strip took off, appearing in over 400 newspapers. By the 1990s, it was in nearly a thousand U.S. papers a day. When Smythe died of lung cancer June 13, 1998, Andy Capp was in 1,700 newspapers in fifty-two countries, translated into fourteen languages—proving that a drunken layabout is unaccountably popular everywhere.
ASKED ONCE about what he thinks the appeal of his strip is, Smythe quoted a college professor, who said the strip was “beautifully observed.”
“I think that’s possibly the answer,” Smythe said. “I don’t try to make it into a gag cartoon. I try for a piece of observation of life as it is lived. I go for a smile, a remembrance rather than a big laugh. As often as not, and I do it purposely, I place the joke in the third panel of the four-panel strip, then make a throwaway comment in the fourth. I try to soften the humor as much as I can.
“The type of humor I purvey has nothing to do with region [despite the strip’s Northern origins]. It has to do with a man and his wife. It’s their association.”
Smythe himself was undoubtedly the fundamental inspiration for Andy Capp. Smythe’s views on marriage were described in 1963 as dating “back to the Neolithic age.” Smythe himself claimed in 1965 that at home he did nothing “on principle.”
After Smythe’s death, the Daily Mirror’s cartoon editor, Ken Layson, recalled an occasion when he stayed with Smythe and his wife, Vera: “After she had poured Reg his tea, Vera walked back to the kitchen. He looked at his cup and shouted to her that something was not right. Vera walked back and without another word, turned the cup so the handle was pointing in the right direction.” At Smythe, I assume.
To Reg Smythe, writes Lilley, “the man-woman relationship is the core of the strip and the only aspect in which he is interested. Reg dismisses Andy’s boozing and his dislike of work as a mere gimmick. ‘It’s a bit like miracles being the gimmick of Christianity,’ Smythe explained.
“The miracles,” he elaborated, “were there to get attention. Nobody would’ve taken notice of Jesus Christ had he been an ordinary fellow and not performed his miracles. He cured a blind man—just like that! That’s the sort of thing that attracts attention and gets people interested. And it’s the same with Andy Capp. He attracts your attention with his boozing and all that.
“Right back at the beginning, one of Andy’s gimmicks was also the fact that he was a wife-basher. But I’ve stopped that. I found it wasn’t necessary. Real success came when I softened up his character, just a little. When the strip became a real married-life situation.”
One of Smythe’s favorite gimmicks happens frequently in the strip: after some sort of disturbance, the last panel pictures Andy and Flo in silhouette, walking away together—arm in arm. They love each other despite whatever has just happened.
More than many comic strips in the 1960s, Andy Capp was, and remains, essentially a character-driven comic strip. Like Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury and Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse and, later, Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine. The comedy arises from the personality of the characters. But in Andy Capp, Smythe turned a stereotype into character. And the character was Smythe.
“I realized long ago,” Smythe said, “that if I gave the character my likes and dislikes, I wouldn’t have to make a conscious effort to remember anything I had ever written or drawn. I wouldn’t have to keep a reference file. Andy’s ways of looking at things are therefore, by and large, my ways of looking at things. There are exceptions to this rule, the most important of which is the fact that he drinks beer while I prefer gin and tonic. But I can afford it, and he can’t, can he?
“I didn’t drink until I’d started doing Andy,” Smythe said. “The family was rather ashamed of me. Everyone else would be having a few pints, and I’d sit there with my tomato juice. You might say I was the white sheep of the family.
“I know nothing about drawing,” he went on. “If someone asks me to do a caricature, I can’t. I don’t know how to begin. I only know about Andy Capp. I do all my own writing, drawing, and lettering. It’s more personal that way. I want to do it myself. I want to keep it so I can do it whenever I want and not have to wait for it to come back from someone else.”
Everything Smythe drew was accepted by his editors. “They’ve never censored anything I’ve drawn,” he said. “I have never yet had a single cartoon turned down by the paper.”
Smythe deliberately didn’t give the Capps children. In childless marriages, he believes, the man becomes the child, and the woman, the mother.
“Once I cottoned on to this facet of the strip,” he said, “about Andy being the child and Florrie being the mother — I started to draw her in a more buxom and motherly way. I also made Andy a little smaller. I did this deliberately and after a lot of thought. It works more easily for me when the pair look like mother and child. I think I’m right. Andy would be a totally unlikeable brute if he and Florrie had children to look after.”
Because Andy is often referred to as the ultimate male chauvinist pig, people often think Smythe is also a champion MCP, which sometimes irks the cartoonist.
“If you take the time to make a study of my characters,” he says, “the character that is nicest and best is Florrie. Why, therefore, am I never accused of being a feminist? She is my creation as well, isn’t she?”
Andy and Flo are always on the cusp of poverty. Flo works as a charwoman (cleaning woman), but Andy is unemployed, and their amusements— drinking, playing cards and snooker, and, for Andy, gambling — take more money than they can be presumed to have. Andy borrows from Flo, but they’re still always in arrears on their rent. Readers sometimes write in to ask how Andy and Flo manage it.
Said Smythe: “I concocted a letter of reply in which I say that Andy probably raffles his dole money to make the extra cash! It was just the sort of thing the little rascal would do.”
And readers realize that’s exactly right.
Smythe kept conscious of the northern sensibility by visiting his mother in Hartlepool regularly for many years; then in 1976 he just moved back to his old home town to live. He found that very little had changed since his youth.
“The mindset’s exactly the same,” he said. “I can still go down to the Boilermarker’s Club and get two or three ideas just listening to the conversation.”
In 1982, a musical version of Andy Capp opened in Manchester and then went on to play in London’s West End for six or seven months. And a television show began in early 1988 but was soon abandoned. Neither production achieved anything like the success of the comic strip. Why?
Lilley offered an explanation: “The strip is all character. One character. Andy Capp is the be-all and end-all of the strip ... like a diamond on a plain piece of velvet. Place that same diamond against a piece of jazzy, multi-colored material, and you can lose sight of it. This is what happened to Andy when he was transferred to stage and to screen [and acquired a supporting cast and a realistic locale]. The formula was diluted: the cap was pushed back, the face was disclosed, the environment was enlarged, a large cast of characters was engaged, and somewhere the magic was lost.”
In the comic strip, the magic goes on. Smythe had so thoroughly and profoundly evolved the character of Andy Capp that he lives on without his creator. Like a miracle.