My Dancing Bear: The Story Of Reg Smythe

By Hélène de KlerkMy Dancing Bear
Publisher: Elysee Associates
ISBN: 9780993453007

It’s hard to imagine now, but in the early 1960s Andy Capp was a very big deal indeed. There had never been anything quite like Andy in a comic strip before, with his work-shy ways, boozing and, certainly in the earlier strips, wife-beating, although Andy’s wife Florrie always gave as good as she got.   Not only did it use northern vernacular but you couldn’t even see the lead character’s face clearly due to the pulled down cap. Regardless, people recognised something of themselves and their loved ones in the rogue. Its creator, Reg Smythe, and the Mirror,  Andy Capp’s home, found themselves with a hit on their hands.

My Dancing Bear is the story of Reg Smythe and how he came to create Andy Capp, and it’s a fascinating tale due to the strip’s foundations being very personal indeed.

Reg’s early life was a hard and bitter existence, largely due to his mother, Florrie,  abandoning her family in pursuit of a care free lifestyle. She ended up living with a ne’erdowell partner, Charlie, and their behaviour, relationship and everday routines planted the seed that would later grow in to the strip.

But in stark contrast to this, Reg was a grafter, setting himself strict cartooning targets way back when he worked a full-time job in order get himself noticed as a cartoonist, and then upping that output to remain at the forefront of his field. It was this astonishing work ethic, and it got him the opportunity, alongside his own northern roots,  to create a new strip for the Mirror’s northern editions. It wasn’t long until it was being run nationally.

Reg enjoyed living in London during the sixties, and because of this was in the right place at the right time to be a founding member of the Cartoonists’ Club Of Great Britain. He would originally work out of a studio at the Mirror offices with other cartoonists, but such was his importance to the paper he was allowed to take extended holidays abroad, but he’d always be working and stockpiling strips. Later, when he left London to return to Hartlepool to live, he’d maintain his strict routine and output, initially returning to London to deliver the artwork personally but later using couriers.

Told throughout by Reg’s niece, including many direct quotes by the man himself, this is a loving tribute to an amazing man, and the memoir is particularly captivating for its intimate and touching glimpses into a private world.

Technology’s advances and the decline of the newspaper mean we’re not ever likely to see another Andy Capp have quite such an effect on so many people again, so it’s worth taking the time to get to know a little about the man that achieved it.

And if you liked that: The collection Andy Capp At 50 is still available

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