Duke Ellington (left) and Wally Fawkes (right)
Published: 10 January, 2013
by DAN CARRIER
HE was a small furry creature of an undetermined species – and was also a secret agent deep behind enemy lines, spreading left-wing thought to the readers of the Daily Mail.
The animal in question was called Flook, who inhabited a cartoon strip in the daily paper, and was the product of the acerbic wit of artist Trog, aka Wally Fawkes.
Flook ran from 1949 to 1984 in the Mail, and Wally recalls how with his co-writers – Compton MacKenzie, Humphrey Lyttelton and George Melly – he would find ample opportunity for the type of satire that may not easily sit with the entrenched views of the right-wing press.
At first, the brief was simple: a cartoon for all the family.
“It started off as a children’s adventure, something parents could read to their kids,” says the artist, who lives in Parliament Hill Fields.
Flook’s co-star was a little boy called Rufus, who had dreamt of Flook and when he awoke, found the creature sitting on the end of his bed.
But after a while, Flook began to stretch its paws and become less of a soft children’s adventure, and developed a satirical edge. Wally recalls the strip in 1953 when Britain celebrated the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and the conquest of Everest.
“We had Flook and Rufus go up Everest to hunt for the Abominable Snowman,” he recalls.
“They found snowmen on their adventures. The ones who lived above the snow line were very fat and happy, and then ones below, very thin. So Flook tells the thin ones to antagonise the fat ones and so they’ll throw snow balls at them – which they can then use to pat on themselves and make it all a bit fairer. It was very Marxist for the Mail.”
To add to the cheekiness, they used Pitman Shorthand for the Snowman’s speech – meaning across the nation, businessmen, the Mail’s readership, would have to ask their secretaries to read the strip out them. “The gag was to get the office girls involved,” he says.
Trog’s life as an artist started when he was ruled out of armed service during the Second World War because of pleurisy and instead painted camouflage on dock warehouse roofs. In 1945, he joined the Daily Mail and was employed to create column-breaker cartoons.
“They’d hand me the weekly New York Diary, I’d read it and then produce square-inch pieces of work,” he recalls.
While the paper did not immediately sit with his political views, he enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the newsroom.
“There was a sense of being part of an exciting team,” he recalls.
The column-breaking gig lasted until 1949 and then he was asked to consider creating a cartoon strip. Flook was born.
“The name took me months to find,” he remembers. “Everyone in the newsroom would go around making noises, saying what about this or that... One day Humph turned to me and simply said ‘What about Flook?’”
He collaborated with writers for the script, including Mackenzie, whose involvement the Mail hoped would boost sales north of the border.
“He was a wonderful man,” says Wally. “I used to stay with him at his home in Wantage to work.”
But there was a drawback.
“He would insist on drinking so much,” says the artist. “I was not used to that amount of whisky and it wasn’t very conducive to drawing – but he was a lovely chap.”
In the 1950s, Wally was also playing clarinet in Humphrey Lyttelton’s trad jazz band. Humph was already helping with illustrations – Wally had passed his column breaker job on to him – when MacKenzie’s tenure with Flook came to an end, Humph stepped in.
“I was standing next to Humph on stage at the 100 Club and it occurred to me to ask him if he would like to do it,” he says. “It was so much fun working with Humph; we’d actually spend most of our time in the office talking about arrangements for the band.”
An exhibition, which opened this week at the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury, includes Flook cartoons and many of his striking caricatures. He worked for the Observer and other Sundays, giving them a weekly political sketch.
He enjoyed the daily hunt for topics, scouring papers to find the zeitgeist that would make his picture in the Sundays come alive – and loved recreating the faces of those in the news in his own style.
“The only person I ever had trouble with was Neil Kinnock,” he recalls.
“His seemed to be made up like an identikit. He had all these bits that didn’t seem to quite fit. He was really hard work – his face seemed to be put together out of other peoples. In a way, I was rather pleased he didn’t become the Prime Minister and would have to struggle to draw him constantly, though I suppose I would have got used to it.”
Wally quit drawing in 2005 after his eyesight deteriorated and concentrated on his other great talent – playing the clarinet. But old habits die hard and he still comes up with ideas for new cartoons. He’d love to draw the current incumbents of Downing Street.
“They are just like Bertie Wooster and his chums at the Drones Club,” he says. “But they’ve not got a Jeeves to look after them.”
• Trog, Flook and Humph Too! runs at the Cartoon Museum, 35, Little Russell Street, WC1, until April 28, Monday-Saturday 10.30am-5.30pm including bank holidays, Sunday noon-5.30pm, 020 7580 8155, www.cartoonmuseum.org