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A century of Rupert Bear

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IT IS 100 years today since the first Rupert episode was published in the Daily Express. Here it is:

When I was a child my father worked on the Express and brought home the annuals and the slimmer Adventure series published four times a year which contained two stories. I don’t know if staff got a discount but it seems likely.

Rupert was conceived as a circulation booster in the battle between the Daily Express and its rivals the Daily Mail, which carried Teddy Tail, and the Daily Mirror, which had Pip, Squeak and Wilfred.

For some reason the news editor of the Express, Herbert Tourtel, was given the task of producing a comic strip. (These days it would be the features department, which handles the material which is not news or sport.) Tourtel immediately thought of his wife Mary, who had studied art and was, at the age of 46, an established illustrator and author of children’s books.

Rupert’s debut was in a single panel with verses written by Herbert Tourtel. There were 36 episodes. He soon graduated to two panels a day. Among the characters in Tourtel’s repertoire were Bill Badger, Edward Trunk, Algy Pug, Podgy Pig and the Rabbit Twins Rex and Reggie.

Mary Tourtel stopped drawing Rupert in 1935 when her eyesight started failing, and she was replaced by Alfred Bestall. He was then aged 43 and had illustrated Enid Blyton books and worked for Punch and Tatler. He was given six weeks to prove that he was the ideal candidate and thirty years later he was still doing the job. He added many new characters including Uncle Bruno, Pong-Ping the Pekinese, the Chinese conjuror and his daughter Tiger Lily, Bingo the Brainy Pup, Podgy’s cousin Rosalie and the Merboy.

The following year the first Rupert Annual was published, pulling together all the stories which had been published in the paper over the year. Bestall established the typical format of four picture panels per page with a headline at the top and both verses and narrative beneath each picture (I never read the verses). Later annuals included new material and other features such as magic painting (when you simply painted the pages with plain water to produce the colours), puzzles and impossible origami instructions.

Bestall retired in 1965 though he continued producing annual covers and beautiful endpapers until 1973. He has been succeeded by several more artists and writers, though as far as I am concerned none matches Bestall for imagination or artistry. I mainly stuck to his stories when reading to my children.

There have been various animated TV versions, all ghastly. The one adaptation I rather like is Rupert and the Frog Song, a short cartoon film written by Paul McCartney and released in 1984. The song We All Stand Together from the soundtrack reached No 3 in the pop charts. You can see it here. 

The film was showing its age so it has been restored for Rupert’s centenary. It is being released on YouTube at 7pm tonight at this link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTnYi_05rrs

I believe the Adventure Series books may be rarer than the annuals because they had paper covers and so probably did not last as well. Copyright restrictions prevent reproducing a story so here is a summary of a typical one, from my copy of the February 1954 Adventure Series, price one shilling (5p). This is called Rupert and the Space Ship.

(Choosing a story gave me an hour or so of pleasure. The tales fairly race along and are well written with a wide vocabulary, and the pictures are little works of art. Of course today’s progressives would loathe the whole idea of a married nuclear family.)  

Rupert is invited by the Professor to accompany him on the first flight of a space ship he has built. (This was in the days when men were not automatically assumed to be paedophiles.) The plan is to rendezvous with a space ship from another world. Rupert’s parents are dubious about the safety aspect but the Professor reassures them that there is no risk, and that they will be able to keep in touch via a television link. ‘Besides, we should be back the same day,’ he says. Mr and Mrs Bear give permission and Rupert duly boards the craft.

The space ship is launched. After a while the Professor thinks it is time for some refreshment, so he pours two beakers of milk. Then he turns on the television and a faint picture of Rupert’s parents appears.

‘Oh, Mummy, everything’s grand,’ cries Rupert.

At length the other space ship comes into sight, and a long tube extends from it to the Professor’s craft.

A small figure descends and knocks at the porthole. ‘Come in, come in!’ cries the Professor. ‘What a marvellous moment in history this is!’ A small man with a golden light on his head enters and greets the Professor and Rupert warmly. Despite the language barrier they are given to understand that his name is Meeka.

Meeka invites his new friends to visit his space ship but as the Professor is too big to get through the connecting tube, Rupert goes on his own. He presents Meeka’s crew with a box of cakes and they tuck in.

Meeka shows Rupert around his craft, but while he is doing so there is an unfortunate incident. Having finished the cakes the crew start on the cardboard box, and it does not agree with them. Their golden lights turn green and they look very ill.

Luckily Rupert is able to signal to the Professor, who sends over some medicine and a spoon, and the little men soon recover.

After a fond farewell Rupert returns to his own craft with a present of a pot plant from Meeka, and the Professor sets the controls to return to Nutwood.

When they land Mr and Mrs Bear are waiting to greet their son. ‘It was just wonderful!’ cries Rupert.

Soon he is tucked up in bed with his curtains drawn back so that he can look out and remember his adventure in the sky.

I am going to finish with a picture from another story called Rupert and the Colour Mixers, from the Adventure Series published in August 1954. In this Rupert visits the press where his annuals are printed, and goes to the Daily Express building to see where his daily strip is published.

Thanks for the memories, Rupert. I wonder if you will still be around in another 100 years.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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