In his late teens as he was nearing the end of his National Service days in the RAF, Leo Baxendale was sure he wanted to be an artist. He had spent a great deal of time accumulating a portfolio of drawings and these got him a job at Preston's The Lancashire Evening Post. He drew adverts and cartoons, but knew this was only the first step. He had always known that when he was 21 or 22 he would be ripe for moving into a national market. In 1952 at the age of 22 he felt the time right but which direction should he go?
He had sent some samples of comic drawings to Faber & Faber who recognised his talent but who did not publish comics. The told him that he would find no problem in finding work with children's comics. However, Leo's memories of comics were dreary affairs of public school characters. Of boring rehashed magic based tales. So when he picked up a copy of his brother's Beano in 1952, he was not expecting much inspiration. He was wrong. On the inside cover was a strip he had never seen before, although it had been running in The Beano for 18 months: Dennis the Menace was drawn by David Law, and was in a totally new vigorous flowing style; the pictures "pulsed with life".
Leo was inspired to create a similar vital strip, he wrote immediately to the Beano publishers, DC Thomson. However the management of DC Thomson were conservative and were still wanting artists who drew like the old Lord Snooty and Pansy Potter (the Strong Man's Daughter). Leo was given the job of drawing a couple of strips; Oscar Krank about a Heath Robinson type inventor, and Chopstick Charlie Choo (the Chinese Detective). Leo applied himself to these, but his heart was not in them. It was imperative that Leo came up with a character like Dennis which he could put his whole creativity behind.
He had seen a Giles cartoon with a horde of children pummelling and thumping as they escaped from school. Leo was taken by the excitement of the scene and quickly pencilled a large scene of rampaging children pouring out of school. He sent it off to the Beano with a covering synopsis. However the idea did not impress R.D. Low the managing Director of DC Thomson; they were not ready for it. In the coming months Leo sent in idea after idea but all came to nothing.
So seven months after starting with the Beano he was desperately trying to think up a character in the family home in Preston, when his brother appeared with his comics. This time it was a Mickey Mouse Weekly and as he read Leo saw a picture of Hiawatha on the back. `That's it!' he thought, `a red Indian Dennis the Menace.'
The Beano accepted the idea of Little Plum. After initial attempts at copying the frown and mouth of Dennis, Leo saw that it was not working. Little Plum was putty-like and he was to have ever-shifting facial expressions to show the different sides of the character. Plum could be cowardly, naive, credulous, a gormless conniver and a disaster-prone bumbler. This was to prove the fundamental difference between Dennis and Plum. Dennis with his frown created the events in his strip. Plum with his innocence was pummelled by the fates and had little control.
MINNIE THE MINX
Little Plum was doing well when in August 1953 George Moonie, the Beano editor, wrote to Leo wanting a new character; The Minx! Leo sent off the first strip without delay; by return of post in fact! They liked it, but it was drawn `too posh', they wanted Minnie and her Dad to be more working class. Leo had drawn the house as a bungalow and Dad with a collar and tie. Leo wanted there to be appeal across all classes and felt he could do this by making the Bungalow a two-storey house, although with a small suburban front garden. The figure of Dad was more tricky. Leo resolved this by changing what Dad wore in different stories. A suit in one, rolled up shirt-sleeves in another, and an open neck shirt in another, and so on.
It seemed to work because he got no more complaints. However, after Leo moved from Preston to live in Dundee, he always drew Minnie's Dad with collar and tie (and pullover).
The initial thoughts on Minnie by George Moonie was to have a Dennis-like girl. However Dennis's creator David Law had done this in The Topper with Beryl The Peril. Leo did not want to go down the same road. He empowered Minnie with limitless ambition desiring every high post on earth, with the strength and ferocity of a Amazon to help her.
Originally Minnie looked about 6 or 7 with a big open mouth like a blacked in O (she did a great deal of shouting). However, Leo soon found that her intended persona would not work, until he raised her apparent age to 12 or 13. In doing this he also got rid of the permanently shouting mouth.
THE BASH STREET KIDS
It was out of the blue when George Moonie asked for a meeting in Preston to discuss an idea for a new strip. One of the sections in Leo Baxendale's book, ON COMEDY, which details his work on the Beano, is entitled THE BASH STREET KIDS - BORN IN PRESTON and chronicles the birth of the Bash Street Kids.
IT STARTED FROM THERE...
The rest, as they say is history. The series started as When the Bell Rings but through general consensus everyone referred to it as The Bash Street Kids, however it would take two and a half years before the title would change in the comic! The first `set' contained about fifty characters, half boys and half girls on a frozen mill pond. There were two lead characters, Toots and Death's Head Danny, or just plain Danny to his friends. After about the forth set, Leo reduced the vast number of kids down to a smaller core group. Fatty was made to be as unlike Billy Bunter as possible. In fact Fatty was not a butt of jokes or greedy as this type of character would have been alien to Leo's character. Plug was based on a child version of Eccles from The Goons which was on the radio but there was no pictorial representation. Leo saw Eccles, and thus Plug as a bit like Disney's Goofy. Plug's first appearance in February 1954, had been mis-inked by a staff lettering artist so his jumper declared him as `Pug'! This was put right from the next story.
Smiffy and Wilfred appeared first in April, and in June Toots's brother Sidney is named which completed the core group for quite a while. On impulse in November 1995 he created Herbert to join the group. A transitory character of some note was a Rock and Roll Teddy boy aptly called Teddy. He was created in September 1955 and lasted for less than two years when he was becoming an extra rather than a lead player. When Teddy's comic possibilities dried up Leo retired him, he thought too much of his to let him linger on as one of the crowd.
AFTER THE BEANO
While at the Beano Leo had created The Banana Bunch for The Beezer, and after the Beano Leo created a multitude of characters for WHAM and SMASH. He moved on to other comics to create even more characters, but eventually he became frustrated with the children's comics industry. He approached a book company with the idea of creating a whole book. They seemed much more civilised than the hurly burly of the comics, and WILLY THE KID was born. This lasted for three volumes. There is also a slightly more adult book, called Thrrpp! He was due to be a major contributor to a new comic from the VIZ people, but an offer from the Guardian came along and We Love You, Baby Basil, a weekly strip was the result. These strips have been collected by REAPER BOOKS in a lovely hard backed book and available for a very reasonable price.
Leo's Home Page can be found at : http://www.reaper.co.uk
THE BASH STREET KIDS - BORN IN PRESTON
by Leo Baxendale
Little Plum had made his first appearance in The Beano two weeks before; Minnie was due to appear in December. Over a pot of tea, George asked me: would I create a third feature? A 2/3rd. page set, featuring a bashing and thumping crowd of children pouring out of school.
I told George in a daze of excitement that this was exactly what I had longed to do: what had made him think of it?
George looked surprised and shuffled through his papers. He unearthed the pencil sketch that I had sent to R.D. Low in January of the year: "This gave us the idea. You sent it to us - don't you remember?"
After a momentary feeling of foolishness (for in nine months that had passed since I sent the sketch to R.D., with the intervening creation of PLUM and MINNIE, it had indeed gone from my mind, become part of the detritus of the past) I began to expound to George on what I would do with this new feature.
Interrupting my flow, George asked: `Is there a toilet in here?'
(And I will interrupt the flow of the narrative for a moment. The Kardomah Café was a pleasant place for us to be sitting discussing the birth of Bash Street - or When The Bell Goes, as George had re-titled it. Forgive me for slipping for this moment from history into antiquarianism, but then antiquarian detail is part of the plankton of history. The Kardomah (demolished in recent years) occupied the left half of what had been the old Fishergate Post Office, opened in May 1870, then closed when Preston Central Post Office opened in 1902. The magnificent long counter in the Kardomah was the one that had been used in the Fishergate Post Office.)
To George's question I replied `Yes, over there', and pointed to the far end of the café. George looked anxiously at the room crowded with ladies. He obviously regarded the tract of tables between our table and the toilet as an unnerving obstacle course, and asked `Is there another toilet nearby?'
I told him there was one in the park.
The route to the railway station by way of Avenham Park public lavatory was circuitous and long - about three quarters of a mile.
We set off, I continuing to discourse on what I would do with the new feature. We turned from Fishergate into Winkley Street. I had already told George that my 23rd birthday was in a week's time. As we stepped from Winkley Street into Winkley Square, I told George expansively that I had in mind to make a world-beater of the new feature by my 24th birthday.
George remarked dryly `Let's see if you can do it by your 23rd. birthday.' As we walked, I talked (digressing now and then from my euphoric bubblings about the School Bell, to point out to George some significant landmark e.g., as we passed through Winkley Square, Preston Catholic College: the Jesuit College where I had spent my grammar school years).
I was walking a few inches above the ground: the new feature, being a 2/3rd. page, would pay £6 (the same as Charlie Choo - I had thus now made up the loss of income that had stemmed from my decision to discard Charlie six months earlier. Plum and Minnie were both six pic strips, that paid £2 each; the addition of the new feature gave me an assured minimum weekly income of £10, a sufficient economic base (for comparison, my father's weekly wage at this time was £13, gained by relentless working of double overtime. My cousin Cissie, some years older than me, at this time was averaging earnings of £5 or £6 per week, as a driller working on gear boxes for buses and lorries at Leyland Motors: about £1 per shift).
Moreover, I knew, with this new feature, that I was 'in'. This had already been signalled with George's letter to me in early September, returning to me my first Minnie strip for inking - the letter had stated `Dear Bax' (that's how I signed my drawings). All previous letters had begun `Dear Mr. Baxendale.' And now, over a pot of tea in the Kardomah café, George had sounded me out about moving to Dundee, to be nearer the firm.
Walking from Winkley square into Avenham Park, I was so absorbed in my expositions of what great things I would do with the new feature, that George's call of nature had gone entirely from my mind.
I had taken off like a dirigible and was by now passing through the stratosphere, having left earthly considerations behind, so that I walked straight past the public conveniences just inside the entrance to the park, failing to point them out to George (and he would not have noticed them for himself, set about as they were with large evergreen shrubs.)
As we walked side by side, and I talked, George grew more silent. We passed out of Avenham Park, under the railway viaduct into the more formal flower-bedded reaches of Miller Park, along the embankment of the flowing River Ribble; thence up the steep, long climb of Fishergate Hill, and finally down the concourse into the railway station. As we walked along the platform and came abreast of the station toilets, George stopped suddenly, shoved his brief case abruptly into my surprised hands, gave me a wry look, and headed inside at speed.
As George's query in the Kardomah café came suddenly back to my dismayed recollection, I must say that I felt considerable remorse.
Seeing George off onto his train, I noticed with interest that a first class compartment was one of the perks of being Editor of The Beano.
[Copies of ON COMEDY are available for £5 + £1.40 P&P from REAPER BOOKS, 11 Brockley Acres, Eastcombe, Stroud, Glos. GL6 7DU]