Sunday, December 23, 2007
50 Year Flashback: Annuals for Christmas 1957
By 1957 Amalgamated Press' Radio Fun weekly was looking somewhat old fashioned compared to Hulton's Eagle and the modern cartoon styles of Davy Law and Leo Baxendale in The Beano. This wasn't helped by the Radio Fun Annual 1958 featuring a cover painting of Benny Hill doing that annoying pointy thing that only entertainers think is so hilarious.
The book itself however was still a bargain for its 7/6d price (37 and 1/2 pence), with 192 pages crammed with comic strips and text stories. Even though the "house style" of the Amalgamated Press books had changed very little since the 1930s the quality of the contributions were consistently high.
Sadly all the strips in those days were uncredited but included the work of industry regulars such as Roy Wilson and Reg and George Parlett. The format of the humour strips was to pack in as many gags and slapstick situations as possible. However such strips based on celebrities sometimes only had a tenuous connection with their actual media personalities and were generally just about good guys helping out people or getting themselves in and out of comedy situations. Nevertheless, the strips were still good examples of traditional British comics and often displayed an art for sequential comedy which has mostly been lost in modern comics.
A sorry aspect of comics of this era were the racial stereotypes which littered the pages. Radio Fun Annual 1958 was no exception with Issy Bonn introduces his famous Finkelfeffer Family being a stereotypical Jewish family. According to Denis Gifford's Encyclopedia of Comic Characters (1987) "Jakey Finkelfeffer" was a character of Jewish comedian/singer Issy Bonn's act and Radio Fun editor Stanley Gooch had the idea to develop it into a comic strip family. Despite excellent artwork by Bertie Brown, the phonetic pseudo-Jewish dialogue of the strip makes it quite embarrassing. The fact that a British comic was still making fun of the Jews so recently after the Holocaust displays some considerable insensitivity.
Radio Fun's most popular adventure strip appears to have been The Falcon, a character very similar to The Saint in many ways. In the 1958 annual the book reflected the "flying saucer" fad by having The Falcon and reporter Wendy Dale taken to Planet X by the very human-looking occupants of such a craft. Although The Falcon thwarts an attempt by a rebel to steal the plans of the flying disc and invade Earth there's little danger or excitement about the whole affair. (The 17 page strip actually looks like a reprint as some panels have clearly had artwork added to extend them for the book's format.) It was well drawn but certainly not up to the standards seen in rival comic Eagle at that time.
Presumably Radio Fun's intended readership was slightly older than that of Beano or Dandy as the book didn't shy away from showing pretty girls with shapely legs at any opportunity. In The Beverley Sisters strip the trio crash their car into a moat and after a bath hide their modesty with wet towels. Interestingly such flashes of flesh would be discouraged by Fleetway editors in the 1960s, an otherwise more liberated decade!
The TV Fun Annual 1958 was also published by Amalgamated Press but had less pages than its companion title at only 128 pages. The reason being that some of the content featured full colour strips. With Arthur Askey (himself an old Radio Fun character) bursting through a circus hoop on the cover and a painting on the back cover of singer Petula Clark swinging on a jungle vine over a river full of cattle is it any surprise that this era of comics inspires parodies in Viz today?
The book kicked off with a Professor Jimmy Edwards strip using the same Radio Fun formula of sight gags and wordplay every few panels until the strip filled the required page count. Some of the gags must have felt corny even then, but the relentlessness of the patter ensured the story kept lively.
Again, "pretty girls" were on display to hook the older readers, even more here than in the Radio Fun Annual. Shirley Eaton the Modern Miss in Merry Moments was the first up flashing a fine pair of calves (not the sort Pet Clark was swinging over though) and falling into a Teddy Boy's groin area years before she'd be dallying with James Bond and meeting a fate under gold paint.
Further on in the book Sally Barnes Our Little Lady Make Believe ended up winning a beauty contest giving the artist the opportunity to draw plenty of leggy contestants.
On page 86 Diana Decker, The Cutie Queen of the TV Screen, slips on a polished floor in her near-transparent nightdress. None of it anywhere near the level of provocative material one would find in Fifties humour mag Blighty! but glamour was clearly added to the comics to inspire a similar interest. Still, at least the women were often shown to be resourceful, particularly Petula Clark risking life and limb to rescue a native boy.
What's quite noticeable about the book is that white Anglo-Saxons are mostly drawn in a near-realistic style by the artists. This was expected for strips based on celebrities of course. However, it becomes quite disconcerting when practically every ethnic character in the book is drawn as an archaic stereotype. In Ben and His Buddies, (which doesn't appear to be based on any actual tv characters) the kid gang comprises boys who are American, Native American, black, and Chinese. The American boy Ben is defined by dressing as a cowboy and saying things like "Yahoo!" but the others have appalling racist dialogue such as "I'll gib dem a drop ob my Mammy's fish-oil". The relatively handsome Ben is the leader whilst the un-named Buddies have the stereotypical rubber lips or buck teeth.
Another strip is even worse. Mississippi Max and His Axe (again, not based on any tv character) looks like it may be a reprint, but what the editor thought he was doing putting it in a book published in 1957 is anyone's guess. The racial caricature of Max is so extreme he looks barely human with his shiny black nose and lack of ears. Once again, the ethnic character is subservient to the white kids of the strip.
Today's anti-PC brigade may defend it with cries of "That's how things were back then" but in actuality any editor in 1957 with a degree of social awareness should have realized that such material would be unsettling to any immigrant children reading the book. Pandering to outdated ignorant attitudes may work for sales of newspapers but I doubt TV Fun Annual would have sold any less copies if it hadn't included such material.
Thankfully the racist imagery was in the minority and the book mainly featured the variety of subjects that such annuals were famous for: a busy content of humour, adventure, text stories and features that would have kept many children occupied on Christmas Day 1957.
Today marks the one year anniversary since I began this blog. May I take this opportunity to thank every one of you who has visited this site over the past 12 months (over 38,000 hits!). I hope you've enjoyed my ramblings and will continue to visit and comment in 2008. Best regards, Lew