I had an image in my mind of Andy Capp – the flatcap pulled low, fag and beer in hand cartoon image, that is – but didn’t know too much about him. Though I was always aware of the existence of Reg Smythe’s internationally famous comic strip, now celebrating its 60th year, I don’t ever recall actually reading it.
The musical based on that comic strip hasn’t received a professional production for more than 30 years: it’s claim to be a “rediscovery” is no over-statement. For me, seeing the show at the Finborough Theatre this week heralded several personal discoveries:
- It is (somehow) possible to fit big dance numbers for a 13-strong cast onto a postage stamp-sized stage in a 50-seat venue
- Alan Price (composer, co-lyricist – and, away from the musical stage, keyboardist for The Animals and other groups) wrote some irresistibly catchy songs, not least “I Ought to Be Ashamed of Myself”
- I am mightily glad I was not a woman in Hartlepool in the 1980s (when the musical is set).
The press release makes the story sound good-natured enough:
“Work-shy Andy squanders his rent money on beer and stumbles home late again. His long-suffering missus Flo vows to leave him… A few doors down, innocent young lovers Elvis and Raquel plan their wedding, but will their lives turn out just like Andy and Flo?”
You can only hope not: why Flo (played with conviction by Lynn Robertson Hay) would not just put up with Andy (Roger Alborough – don’t smell his socks, whatever you do), but go back for more, is deeply troubling to me.
When commissioned by the Finborough, the young director Jake Daniel (one to watch) suggested dusting off Andy Capp The Musical, not least because he hails from near Hartlepool himself and, he tells me, he recognised the world he grew up in, a coastal area in the North-East where so many men had been left disempowered after years of severe decline in shipbuilding and other local industries.
But for all the catchy songs, comedy and committed ensemble work, Andy Capp can be challenging for modern sensibilities. The humour arises out of – let’s not pussyfoot here – alcoholism, domestic abuse, adultery, long-term unemployment and gross misogyny.
It’s definitely worth a watch (if you can get a ticket – the limited run sold out quickly, even with extra dates), but I advise doing so fully appreciating the context. In terms of social attitudes, Andy Capp is very much of its time – and a welcome reminder of, regardless of how many problems we still face today, how far we have come since then. And with that in mind, here’s a little more information on the history of the comic strip and the musical it inspired, care of the Finborough…
The history of Andy Capp
The cartoon character Andy Capp was born on the A1, somewhere between Hartlepool and London, in 1957. Daily Mirror cartoonist Reg Smythe had been taking a holiday when an urgent telegram arrived from Bill Herbert, the Mirror’s cartoon editor. Herbert had been asked to develop a new character, for publication in the Mirror’s Manchester edition.
The telegram read: “SORRY TO INTERRUPT YOUR HOLIDAY. MR CUDLIPP NEEDS A CARTOON TO APPEAL TO NORTHERN READERS. YOU ARE WANTED STRAIGHT AWAY. COME BACK. THAT’S THE NEWSPAPER BUSINESS! – BILL HERBERT.”
It fell to Smythe to create this new character. As he hurtled down the A1, desperately trying to find inspiration, he decided to base the character in his native Hartlepool.
In London, he made a sketch of a working-class man wearing a cloth cap, an image that would soon become a global icon and would yield Smythe an audience of 250 million people in 52 countries. By the time of Smythe’s death in 1998, the Andy Capp cartoon strip had been syndicated to 1,700 newspapers and translated into 14 languages.
The strip tells the tale of work-shy Andy, who squanders his rent money on beer and stumbles home late. His wife is the long-suffering Flo, who has to put up with Andy’s laziness and his excessive drinking habits. Andy’s hobbies include pigeon racing, snooker and football. In the pub, he flirts with the barmaids, whilst unsuccessfully mooching money for beer. Other characters in the strip include Chalkie (Andy’s mate), Percy (the rent collector) and the local vicar.
In the first 50 Andy Capp cartoons, Smythe establishes almost all of Capp’s trademark characteristics. He is depicted as lazy, sexist, foul-mouthed and as a pigeon racing fanatic. By April 1958, the character was deemed successful enough to be published nationwide and in 1961, the Chicago Sun-Times became the first American paper to run the cartoon.
Andy Capp became a global success. Yet, in spite of this, Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp was reluctant to exploit the character outside of the cartoon strip, an attitude shared by Smythe himself. The appearance of Capp in his very own musical, therefore, was an almost unprecedented step.
In the 1960s and 1970s, musicals based on cartoon strips were in vogue. Charles M Schultz’s Peanuts strip yielded You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, a musical comedy with music and lyrics by Clark Gesner. The Broadway show Annie was based upon the Harold Gray comic strip Little Orphan Annie. The success of these musicals persuaded Mirror executives that a show featuring Andy might be equally profitable. The project was pitched to both Alan Price and Trevor Peacock, with Smythe acting as a consultant, ensuring that the world of the cartoon was faithfully transferred to the stage.
In their work, Price and Peacock aimed to capture the impish tone of Smythe’s cartoon strip. In June 1982, the show opened as Andy Capp the Musical at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, with Tom Courtenay in the role of Andy. It later transferred to the Aldwych Theatre in London’s West End, before, in September 1984, enjoying a month’s run at the Newcastle Playhouse, taking Andy back up the A1 to his spiritual home.