Giles, the Cartoon Museum and a Cracking Night Out in 1967, Gromit…

The last few weeks have been a bit much: first there was lambing, then, hot on its heels, my first Time Team of the 20th series. While I was away filming, Maisie had the running of the farm to cope with and that meant feeding sheep and making up powdered milk for our nine cade or orphan lambs. Frankly, we both needed a good break and, if anything, Maisie more than me.

We’d decided on going to the Cartoon Museum in London when we read about an exhibition of work by one of the greatest cartoonists of all time, H.M. Bateman. He was the man who pioneered short or no-caption drawings which were such a welcome contrast to the rather heavily laboured pieces favoured by the Edwardians and Victorians. He also did fabulous caricatures, but was best known for his series about ‘The Man Who…’, which included toe-curling embarrassing moments, such as a guardsman who dropped his rifle on parade and a junior officer who ate the colonel’s starter at a regimental dinner. He did superb irate older men with popping monocles and incandescent eye-brows. We both laughed outright many times in the exhibition – and nobody went Shhhhh…  It’s a great place: very cheap to get in, an excellent shop and the show itself was superb: very well-lit and arranged and with full, detailed captions. I can report that the Cartoon Museum hasn’t caught the almost universal disease of British museums who seem to think their visitors are either ill-informed half-wits, or pre-school children.

I’ve always loved cartoons, ever since I was a kid and my parents subscribed to The Eagle for me – and I still think of Dan Dare when an RAF jet screams over our house on a NATO exercise. From early in my childhood – and certainly in the 1950s – I grew to love Giles cartoons and every Christmas one would appear under the tree, with my name in it. Today I still have a complete run of almost every Giles album, including the first one, which covers the latter years of the Second World War. Those early collections are very heavily thumbed and two or three are even missing their brightly coloured covers. So it’s not a collector’s collection, but then I’m a cartoon lover, not a nerd.

Now if you’ve read my potted CV in this blog you’ll have realised that my time at Cambridge was great fun. One of the things I did was to organise the music for the Trinity College May Ball. These are very elaborate affairs that go on all night and feature a number of different venues and several bands. The one I did was, I think, the biggest up until then.  Our headline act was the then hugely popular French singer Francoise Hardy, but I had to arrange for a British band to cross the Channel as part of a Musicians Union exchange. Our support bands included, among others, the Alan Price Set. I got him very cheap, having heard a demo disk of his big hit (a Randy Newman song) ‘Simon Smith and his amazing dancing bear’, which I instantly realised would be a smash. So I booked them at their pre-hit rate, which was about 10% of what I’d have paid a month later. Whoopee! But Mr Price was not very pleased. Having said that, he was a true professional, and gave us two terrific sets. But of all our bands, I think the soul-singer Herbie Goins was my personal favourite – either him, or the great tenor saxophonist, Tubby Hayes, in the Jazz Club (the college medieval kitchens).

Programme

The centre pages of the May Ball Programme, showing the menu and where some of the bands were appearing.

Early on I realised that with such a star-packed line-up we’d have to charge a large entrance fee, so we needed added inducements but they all had to be classy. We had a superb and wonderfully arrogant poster, which I designed (for want of a better word) to be eye-catching and rather deliberately haughty. The background looked like shiny gold-leaf. Across it, in black New Times Roman capitals letters was the word:

INDUBITABLY

And then below it, in much smaller letters:

The Best.

The place and time of the Ball (June 12th, 1967) appeared in a small print strap-line along the bottom of the poster. I’m pleased to say that students soon began to pinch these posters for their own walls. But you need more than just good publicity to pull a university crowd. The food was going to be first-rate, as the College kitchens have always been superb, but I still thought we needed just a little bit more – something a bit special. Then it came to me.

The newspapers had been full of the fact that Prince Charles would be a student at Trinity the following year. I knew that certain cartoonists would be planning to draw cartoons of the young Prince’s antics for the three years he was with us. And they’d need background material: views of the college to work from. So I bought all the post cards of the college I could find in the Trinity Street Post Office. As I recall, there were about a dozen and they cost me about 50p in today’s money. I sent them off to Mr Carl Giles, c/o the Daily Express, Fleet Street, London. It was so much simpler then. The College Master in those days was the ex-Tory Cabinet Minister R.A. Butler and I suggested (very cheekily) that Giles might draw us a cartoon of his famous Grandma, dancing with the Master outside the college Great Gate. And he did!! And for a dozen cheap post cards!!!

Telegram

The telegram Giles sent me announcing that the cartoon had been finished.

I’ve kept a copy of the Ball Programme, the cover of which was graced by his wonderful drawing, and of course the original artwork. I’ve also kept our voluminous correspondence – three telegrams from the great man himself. And what a great man he was: I’ve long been a supporter of the R.N.L.I. (the Lifeboat charity); Giles was a keen sailor and used to draw them wonderful Christmas Cards, which they still have in their collections and re-issue one every year. I used to love sending Christmas cards, but sadly, with postal charges now so obscenely high, I won’t be sending any this year, if only as a protest.

Over the following three years I’d spend idle moments trying to find copies of the Daily Express and its Giles cartoons – even then it was a bit right-wing and not something a pinko ex-student would ever subscribe to. And when I’d managed to track one down, I’d look to see if Giles had used one of my post cards. Then – in ’69 was it? – Prince Charles started to make the headlines with his college revues and his cello playing – and my post cards came to the fore. One view of the college even had three cards juxtaposed. The trouble was, they were the wrong ones: so for one splendid day a national newspaper showed the east range of Great Court alongside the west – and both were on the north side. I rather enjoyed that. But as ever, Giles’s version was a great deal better than the real thing – and that, surely, is a sign of true genius.

Giles cartoon

The Giles cartoon, showing Grandma Giles dancing with the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, the late R.A. Butler, in front of the College’s Great Gate.

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