East of the M60‘s look at ten milestones which shaped The Beano
Not a lot of people know that: the creator of East of the M60 was a member of the Dennis the Menace Fan Club. For the best part of the 1980s, he used to look forward to Wednesday mornings. Plainly and simply because Wednesday meant ‘Beano Day’.
I used to read The Beano from 1986 to 1994, and my sister read it till 1996. It has helped to shape my sense of humour. Prior to 1986, I didn’t know what a joke was. I didn’t know why a joke was funny nor meant to be funny. Now I cannot get through most days without trying to see the funny side thanks to life in this septic isle of ours. Instead of the scribblings of David Sutherland and Leo Baxendale, I became more adept with the collected works of Messrs Coogan, Linehan, Perry, Croft, Marshall, Renwick, Lynn, Jay and Kay.
Even so, I still retain some affection for The Beano. The only problem is, there are only so many times I can call in to WHSmith or Morrisons and say it’s for an imaginary Mini Stuart.
This year, The Beano celebrates its 75th year of publication and has held its own in a backdrop of anything iAnything electronic based, video games and the internet. Its dead tree edition has outlived The Dandy and several others, not only by its own publishers D.C. Thomson, but for instance IPC’s stable such as Whizzer and Chips. It is only fair that East of the M60’s latest Not So Perfect Ten ought to focus on The Ten Milestones Which Shaped The Beano:
- Lord Snooty and His Pals versus the Nazis;
- Dennis the Menace’s arrival;
- The employment of Leo Baxendale;
- Summer Specials and Comic Libraries;
- The launch of the Dennis the Menace Fan Club;
- The ‘Who Gnicked Gnasher?’ storyline;
- Transition to full colour printing;
- Bash Street School’s failed ‘refurbishment’;
- The Beanotown.com internet site;
- Celebrity editors and writers.
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1. Lord Snooty versus the Nazis: Like most newspapers during the Second World War, The Beano was subject to rationalisation and lower page counts. As a consequence, The Beano went out on a fortnightly basis. Whereas newspapers reported on bombing raids, Dunkirk, D-Day and the like, The Beano satirised Adolf Hitler and his cohorts, painting them as the bad guys. Instead of the Gasworks Gang, Lord Snooty and His Pals’ nemeses were the Nazis. It paid off, and circulation numbers rose, with a rise continuing all the way up to April 1950.
2. Dennis the Menace’s arrival: March 1951 saw the arrival of The Beano’s most enduring and revered character. The infant Dennis the Menace had a monochrome half page strip. His popularity grew, so by 1969 he took over the back page with a full colour strip, and a new friend: Gnasher, an Abyssinian Wire-Haired Tripehound. In 1974, he elbowed Biffo the Bear off the front page and spawned spin-off strips. Gnasher had his own strip (Gnasher and Gnipper after May 1986), his pet pig Rasher followed suit in 1979. His granny had a short-lived one entitled Go Granny Go.
3. The Employment of Leo Baxendale: Besides Dennis the Menace, The Bash Street Kids is another strip most people identify with from The Beano. The brainchild of this was Preston-born artist Leo Baxendale. His original style bore the hallmark of many a 1960s issue of The Beano with his penchant for outsized cells (sometimes taking half a page). In 1954, The Bash Street Kids began life as Leo’s When The Bell Rings strip. He was also the first artist of Minnie the Minx. Other strips included Little Plum, which spawned a spin-off strip because Leo enjoyed drawing the bears so much. That strip became The Three Bears.
4. Summer Specials and Comic Libraries: In my formative years, a bog standard 18p edition would be lovingly read each week, but it had its limitations. One being – obviously – that a single or double page strip isn’t long enough for longer term reading. Along with The Beano Books, the Summer Specials and Comic Libraries gave The Beano’s artists some freedom to elaborate. For example, Minnie the Minx could be seen tormenting unsuspecting holidaymakers in Benidorm, or (as documented in one Comic Library) be Prime Minister (she was well to the left of Thatcher by the way). They were a good occasional treat as well as an addition revenue stream for DC Thomson.
5. The Launch of the Dennis the Menace Fan Club: If the phrases ‘Dennis Is Never Good’ or ‘Dennis Owns Naughty Gnasher’ ring any bells, there’s every chance you may have sent 45p to Dundee and joined the Dennis The Menace Fan Club. On joining, you received a membership card, wallet, motto, and two badges. One being a metal button badge with Dennis himself and another – the piece de resistance – the fake-fur Gnasher badge with rolling eyes! Formed in 1976, membership reached the million mark in 1988 when Simon Palmer became its millionth member. Celebrity members of the fan club included then Radio One DJ Mike Read and Mark Hamill (a.k.a. Luke Skywalker). Today, it is part of a much expanded fan club known as the ‘Beano VIP’. Membership also covers regular readers of its spin-off Beano Max title.
6. ‘Who Gnicked Gnasher?’: From the 1970s onwards, DC Thomson started to attract the mass (supposedly grown-up) media with the odd publicity stunt. March 1986 saw Beano editor Euan Kerr pull off a real humdinger. It was one which I had fond memories off the first time around, and one I rediscovered in a Dennis the Menace annual.
For almost 18 years, Dennis the Menace and Gnasher were almost inseparable, but a publicity stunt led to the loss of his favourite Abyssinian Wire-Haired Tripehound. And he was without Gnasher for nine weeks (should that be ‘gnine gweeks’?). The Gnashers’ Tale strip was replaced by the Foo Foo’s Fairy Story strip (of all fictitious canines, Walter the Softy’s dog)! Newspapers, television, and national radio stations wondered where he was, but he resurfaced in issue 2,286 (10 May 1986) with five puppies. Whatever happened to Gnancy, Little Gnorah, Gnaomi and Gnanette we never knew, but Gnipper would soon appear in the Gnasher and Gnipper strip.
7. Transition to Full Colour Printing: In 1993, a great many national newspapers and magazines were printed in full colour. The 16 October edition became The Beano’s first full colour one and has remained so ever since. Today’s editions of The Beano are printed on glossier paper.
8. Bash Street School’s Refurbishment: For several years, Class 2B were taught in what would be considered ‘substandard premises’ in the real world. So much so that Hector the Inspector condemned their original premises and sent them to the Bash Street Academy (predating Labour and ConDem education policy by three years). Worse, Spotty was given a clear complexion and Danny would wear a top hat instead of his red cap. They were, over two editions, taught in a school similarly shaped to Kew Gardens Conservatory and Paxton’s Crystal Palace. There was robots and computers instead of teachers and textbooks.
Following a 407 signature petition by Sarah Gudgeon (then 11 years old, of Stanwix Primary School, Cumbria), the old style Bash Street School returned to the strip. Danny got his red cap back, and Spotty was spotty again.
9. The Beanotown.com internet site: In 2000, the original Beano website lacked the user interaction it needed. With faster internet connections more affordable, the Beanotown.com website was launched, offering games and improved interaction with its characters. Today, it appeals to two audiences: present-day readers and older people with fond memories of the comic. You can now join the Beano VIP club, download ‘retro wallpaper’ featuring old strips and buy t-shirts as well as play games. It is a world away from the era of waiting to see your letter printed in the Dennis The Menace Fan Club page.
10: Celebrity editors and writers: We return to Preston for a more recent milestone. Another favourite son from the Lancashire city, Nick Park, broke new ground by being The Beano’s first guest editor. He edited the 02 August 2008 edition, which commemorated the comic’s 70th birthday. Apart from being the creator of Wallace and Gromit, he too happens to be a Beano fan (and like myself, he used to look forward to Wednesday mornings).
This week’s edition, commemorating its 75th birthday, will be a most star-studded one. There will be illustrations by Harry Hill, Ant and Dec will be seen demolishing Bash Street School. Jessie J, One Direction and Simon Cowell will be making cameo appearances. A new strip entitled Zoom Rockman will be launched. As a modern day identifier as to how The Beano has changed in the last 75 years, its latest competition prize is a Dream Bedroom worth £1,000. A far cry from the Aerobie ring competition entry I sent off for and fawned over in May 1986.
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Along with Monty Python, Alan Partridge, Father Ted and Victor Meldrew, The Beano and its main characters are a comedic and cultural institution. Long may that continue.
S.V., 26 July 2013.