Reg Smythe was born Reginald Smyth in Hartlepool, in the north of England, on 10 July 1917. He was the son of Richard Smyth, a boat-builder in the Teesside shipyards, and his wife Florence. The family was poor, and Smythe later described himself as a "canvas shoes kid", just one step up from going barefoot. "My father hadn't worked since the First World War", he later recalled. He attended Galleys Field School in Old Hartlepool, but left aged fourteen to work as an errand boy for a butcher.
In 1936, with the shipyards idle, and after a long period on the dole, Smythe "decided to get out of it" and joined the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. He was sent to Egypt, and the day he left was the last time he saw his father, who had left his mother. "He took me down to the Snooker Rooms, loser pays", Smythe recalled: "The last words I can remember him saying were 'Take care o' yerself, lad, we haven't seen much of each other, pink in the middle pocket'. I paid. I never saw him again." Smythe remained with his regiment during the Second World War, acting as a machine-gunner in North Africa, and in 1945 achieving the rank of sergeant. He also submitted cartoons to Cairo magazines.
After demobilisation in 1946 Smythe left Hartlepool, and in 1950 got a job as a telephone clerk for the GPO in London. A poster he designed for an amateur production of Toni Block's "Flowers for the Living" brought suggestions that he should sell some of his drawings. Smythe sent thirty of his cartoons to an agent who quickly sold two of them to Everybody's for three guineas each. "My gross earnings for the two cartoons came to more than I was making in a week at the GPO", Smythe later recalled: "From that day onwards I not only worked at the Post Office, but I also drew sixty cartoons a week." He adopted "Smythe" as his professional name, and maintained a high output of cartoons by using an alarm clock to limit the time he spent on each one to half an hour.
Smythe's mentor was the cartoonist Leslie Harding ("Styx") who used the same agent and gave him advice. Smythe began contributing occasional cartoons to specialist journals such as the Fishtrader's Gazette and Draper's Record, and also sketched council meetings for local papers. "I was never a very good artist and couldn't get the councillors' faces right," he remembered: "So I did them from the back." From 1950 onwards Smythe worked as a freelance, contributing to Speedway World ("Smythe's Speedway World"), Monthly Speedway World ("Skid Sprocket"), Evening Standard, and the Mirror Group's Reveille amongst others. "I badly wanted to get into Punch because I couldn't stand being rejected by its editors", he later admitted: "I sent them more than 6,000 cartoons before I had my one and only acceptance."
Smythe was a frequent contributor to the Daily Mirror’s “Laughter Column”, and in 1954 the art editor, Philip Zec, chose him over Derek Fullarton to contribute a daily cartoon under the title “Laughter At Work.” Three years later, on 2 July 1957, Smythe was asked to create “a special humorous character for the Manchester edition, who will appear each day on the ‘Laughter’ page.” The letter with this request reached Smythe on a holiday visit to his mother in Hartlepool, and he cut short his holiday, creating the flat-capped, pigeon-fancying, beer-swilling, work-shy northerner on his way back to London. “Andy Capp was born on the A1”, Smythe later explained: “The trip was seven hours, and the name took three.” Hugh Cudlipp was shown the cartoons in the editor’s office at the Daily Mirror, and laughed. He told Smythe to bring them back after lunch, and if he still thought them funny they’d go in. Luckily he still liked them.
On 4 July 1957 Smythe's salary was raised to £2,500, and the first single-panel “Andy Capp” appeared in the northern edition of the Daily Mirror a month later, on Monday 5 August 1957. According to Revel Barker, who worked for the Mirror Group, Smythe "told me the inspiration for the strip was a guy he saw at a Hartlepool 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 a 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 himself was supposedly based on a real person, and although Smythe never revealed who that was, it was widely believed to have been his father. Smythe's reluctance to identify his inspiration may have been due to the fact that Andy Capp was openly portrayed as a drunken wife-beater. "He was too savage, a proper bully," Smythe later admitted of the first Andy Capp cartoons: "In one of the early ones [20 August 1957], Flo is sitting on the floor with a black eye having had a beating from Andy and he says: 'Look at it this way, Honey, I'm a man of few pleasures, and one of them 'appens to be knockin' yer about.' That was a dreadful cartoon and it was terribly naive of me to have done it." However, there were no objections to such cartoons at the time, and in 1958 this was chosen as the opening cartoon in the first Andy Capp album.
Smythe's mother Florence believed that her husband Reg was the model for Andy Capp, although she said he was "never an aggressive man." She herself provided the name for Andy Capp's wife, Florrie, and Smythe admitted that Florrie was his favourite character in the strip. "She should have been included in the title," he admitted, "but I wanted a single name and the pun on 'handicap' was irresistible."
Another inspiration for Andy Capp was undoubtedly Smythe himself, whose views on marriage were described in 1963 by one interviewer as dating "back to the Neolithic age." Smythe himself claimed in 1965 that at home he did nothing "on principle." After his death the Daily Mirror's cartoon editor, Ken Layson, recalled an occasion when he stayed with Smythe and his wife: "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." Smythe found it easiest to give Andy Capp his own likes and dislikes, and his real friends were also incorporated in the strip, including Jack McLean and Madge Rigg (the models for the barman and barmaid), Alan Goodman (the police sergeant who became Andy's local policeman), and Doris Robinson (the barmaid who appeared as a cleaner).
Although originally conceived for northern readers, "Andy Capp" spread to the other editions of the Daily Mirror on 14 April 1958. Smythe had originally been asked to create a daily gag cartoon, but "Andy Capp" was transformed into a strip, and from 6 May 1960 it also featured in the Sunday Pictorial - later renamed the Sunday Mirror. On 28 May 1960 the strip spawned a junior version - "Buster, son of Andy Capp" - complete with flat cap, and this later developed into the children's comic Buster, although not drawn by Smythe. Over the next forty years Smythe made a comfortable living from Andy Capp, whom he described in 1963 as "my best friend yet." From 1961 to 1965 the strip was voted CCGB Best Strip Cartoon of the Year, and with success came a certain mellowing, as Andy stopped beating Flo. In 1966 Smythe became one of the founder members of the British Cartoonists' Association.
By 1964 "Andy Capp" was being syndicated overseas, and was proving very popular in the United States, where it was first run by the Chicago Sun-Times. By this time Smythe was being paid around £8,000 a year, but a chance meeting with the American cartoonist Al Capp in London showed him just what he could be earning. Smythe spent that afternoon in a meeting at the Daily Mirror, with Hugh Cudlipp and a lawyer, after which his salary was increased to £25,000 a year, plus a percentage of the income from the Andy Capp annuals published in Britain.
In 1976 Smythe returned to live in Hartlepool, which he felt had changed very little since his youth, despite the decline of local industry. "The mindset's exactly the same", he later claimed: "I can still go down to the Boilermarkers' Club and get two or three ideas just listening to the conversation." Andy Capp was now being used to advertise beer, Post Office bonds, etc., and in 1982 became the star of the musical Andy Capp, featuring Tom Courtenay and with music by Alan Price. The drama critic of the Financial Times did not find it "particularly rewarding to watch Tom Courtenay shambling about as a drunken half-wit," but the show successfully transferred from Manchester to London, and later proved enormously popular in Finland.
In 1983, in a move that pleased his syndicators, both Smythe and Andy Capp gave up smoking. In 1988 an ITV series based on the character, adapted by Keith Waterhouse and starring James Bolam in the title role, was also screened in Britain, but a second series was cancelled because of poor ratings. In 1993 Andy Capp received praise from one of his fictional followers, Homer Simpson, when an episode of The Simpsons cartoon series showed Homer reading the paper and declaring happily "Oh, Andy Capp. You wife-beating drunk. Heh heh heh." In 1997 a female spin-off named "Mandy Capp" appeared in the Daily Mirror - a new character described by the paper's editor, Piers Morgan, as "a mischievous ladette daughter of miserable old Andy." However, it was not drawn by Smythe, and proved a step too far.
Smythe was left-handed and worked with an Osmiroid left-handed pen using a broad nib for lettering and Daler Trimline board. Even towards the end of his life he would sit in a room he called "the den", often sketching away from 9am until 2am next day. Everything he drew was accepted by the editorial staff. As he acknowledged towards the end of his life, "they've never censored anything I've drawn": "I have never yet had a single cartoon turned down by the paper." In politics he claimed to be a Socialist.
Smythe died in Hartlepool of cancer on 13 June 1998. At the time of his death the strip was being syndicated to 1,700 newspapers in 52 countries, had been translated into fourteen languages and was read by 250 million people. Smythe continued to draw until just a few days before his death, and left over a year's supply of unpublished Andy Capp strips. His last contract with the Daily Mirror had included an agreement to train another artist to draw Andy Capp, but Smythe could never bring himself to do this, and this stockpile was his alternative. When the stockpile finally ran out, the series was continued in the Mirror by the cartoonist Roger Mahoney and writer Roger Kettle.
The international appeal of Andy Capp has proved remarkably durable. In 2010 the strip was accidentally omitted from an issue of the local paper in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and the editor found himself inundated with "profanity-laced" phone calls. "One or two of them said 'Andy Capp' is the only reason they buy the paper", he confessed: "Who knew that a comic strip could mean so much to so many? Particularly this comic strip, set in a foreign milieu and celebrating the life of a character who's not very likeable and not at all admirable?" As Smythe himself admitted of Andy Capp, "He may be a horrible little man - but he's been very good to me."
- Ian J. Scott (ed) British Cartoonists Year Book 1964 (London, 1963), p.38.
- John Edwards "Capp Meets Capp", Daily Mirror, 2 July 1964, p.5.
- Reg Smythe "My father was an Andy, cap and all...", The Cream of Andy Capp (Daily Mirror, London, 1965)
- Michael Bateman Funny Way to Earn a Living: A Book of Cartoons and Cartoonists (Leslie Frewin, London, 1966), pp.49-52.
- Rosalind Carne "Andy Capp/Manchester", Financial Times, 1 July 1982, p.15.
- Reg Smythe [with Les Lilley] The World of Andy Capp (1990)
- Tony Horwitz "Britain 1992: The view from Wall Street", The Independent, 23 February 1992, p.3.
- Joseph Connolly "Many happy strips, mate", The Times, 7 July 1992.
- Gill Swain "Cappy Birthday", The Mirror, 5 August 1997, pp.18-19.
- The Times, 15 June 1998, "Obituary: Reg Smythe."
- Tim Jones "Incorrigible Capp survives creator", The Times, 15 June 1998.
- Michael Mcnay "The North Star", The Guardian, 15 June 1998, p.15.
- Denis Gifford "Obituary: Reg Smythe", The Independent, 15 June 1998, p.6.
- The Mirror, 18 June 1998, p.14, "Thanks For The Fun, Reg."
- Northern Echo, 18 June 1998, p.13, "Reg Leaves Them With Laughter."
- Tony Jones "Posh lad from Hartlepool", The Journal (Newcastle), 20 June 1998, p.34.
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), pp.210-11.
- "All Capps" at gentlemenranters.blogspot.com/search/label/By%20Revel%20Barker viewed 16 March 2009.
- Paul Baker “Comics don't quickly run their course”, Lebanon Daily News (Pennsylvania), 7 March 2010.
64 boxes originals (AC0001 - 4540) (AC0001 - 1454 catalogued) 2 boxes memorabilia 1 photographed image (AC0614) 105 framed originals (6 catalogued, 99 uncatalogued) (no.s 1 - 39a, 55 - 77, 213 - 220) Prism: AC0001 - 1454
50s; 60s; 70s [8/1957 - 12/1972]
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