He was a rogue and a philanderer who did his diabolical best to disrupt the daily lives of everyone in the neighbourhood including the two ditzy but adorable girls he shared a house with in a cartoon strip I created in 1980 called Roz which ran for six years in the Scottish Daily Record. His name was Bogart and in physiological terms he was a cat.
I enjoyed doing Roz for the Daily Record but was keen to get the strip into a newspaper where it could have a bigger audience, possibly get syndicated, and bring me fame and fortune. So when I heard a new national daily tabloid called Today was about to be launched in the UK I decided to go for it. And to make sure Roz got in front of the editor himself I came up with a clever plan!
First I found out where Today’s offices were and who the editor was. Then, wearing dungarees and a baseball cap and carrying a tool box with my cartoons in it as well as a few tools, I marched through the front door of the newspaper and up to the reception desk where I was met by a security guard.
“Yes mate”, said the guard looking up from his newspaper.
“Telephone installation. Mr MacArthur’s office”, I replied nonchalantly (for it was Brian MacArthur, the respected Fleet Street journalist, who was Today’s newly appointed editor).
“Sign here”, he said pointing to a visitors’ book. “Second floor.”
I walked into the lift (it should have been up the stairs, I know, but this was no time to be thinking about fitness) and emerged into a vast, bright room full of people working at desks and dashing around probably getting the first issue of the paper ready. I asked someone where I could find the editor and was directed to a small, glass-partitioned office at he far end. No one was there so I opened my tool box and tried to look busy while waiting for the arrival of Brian MacArthur.
After 20 minutes and just as I was starting to think he might not show up, a man wearing red braces, rolled up sleeves, a loosened tie and looking a lot like a newspaper editor strode through the door and sat down at the desk.
I focused my attention on a wire running along the skirting board.
“Nice day if she doesn’t rain”, I remarked casually, fiddling with the wire. “Yeah, I s’pose”, he replied disinterestedly, peering into his computer screen.
It may have been trivial small talk but that brief exchange gave me the opportunity I was looking for. Leaping to my feet I went into my presentation.
“Mr MacArthur, this is not a telephone engineer you see before you but the creator of the most original and exciting cartoon strip if the decade! A cartoon strip abounding with youthful vitality and humour! A cartoon strip that will attract thousands maybe millions of readers to your newspaper sending its circulation soaring and leaving other newspapers in its wake!”
With that, I went over to my toolbox took out my Roz cartoons and plopped them down on his desk.
For a few seconds time stood still. Then, slowly and deliberately and one by one, he picked up the cartoons and read them, finally, with tears of laughter streaming down his face, declaring it was the best cartoon strip he has ever seen and would like to sign it there and then for Today.
Except that’s not what he did. He just looked blankly at me and said “I’m not Brian MacArthur but if you want I’ll pass these over to him in the morning”.
The next day my phone rang and when I answered heard a man’s voice. “Is this Peter the telephone engineer?” Slightly embarrassed I replied it was. “This is Brian MacArthur at Today”, he continued. “I like your Roz strip but before we talk about running it can I ask if you would make a small adjustment?”
“Sure. No problem”, I replied. “What is it?”
“Make the cat the main character and call the strip Bogart”.
Bogart spent nearly ten years at Today and became a mainstay of the paper. Unshackled by fear of losing readers (It didn’t have any to begin with!) Today could publish cartoon strips, for example, that were fresh and innovative in their humour instead of bland and innocuous. Two other strips that got their start at Today were Dilbert and Footrot Flats. The latter being probably the funniest cartoon creation to ever come out of New Zealand.
Other notable contributors to Today were columnist and TV presenter Anne Robinson, agony aunt Claire Rayner, political columnist Alastair Campbell, journalist Amanda Platell and astrologer Jonathan Cainer. Bogart was later signed by the Sunday Times for its new comics section The Funday Times.
Although during the early 1990s Today was selling half a million copied a day it was not making a profit and on 17th November 1995 it closed. It’s rival, the Daily Mail, keen to attract the ex-Today readers picked up Bogart but dropped him three months later because, I suspected, they thought the humour was too racy. To my surprise, many readers wrote in complaining about Bogart’s disappearance whereupon the paper, somewhat reluctantly, reinstated him. Although I believed humour could never be too anything if it was funny, I needed the job and thereby began an uneasy struggle to keep the strip fresh and lively without being racy.
The rest of the Daily Mail’s cartoon page was anything but racy. Once great strips Peanuts and Fred Basset had become tired, repetitive and mundane with the demise of their original creators. A home grown strip about a family with a cantankerous older father obscurely titled I Don’t Believe It was excruciatingly unfunny and another, Up and Running, about two flat sharing, single girls was only funny on the days the artist (not the writer), the renowned Gray Joliffe, wrote the gag. In fact, it was hard to find a really good cartoon strip in any of the national dailies! Read what this guy in The Week magazine thinks.
Bogart spent five years at the Daily Mail without incident. Then one day I got a phone call from the cartoon editor of the paper’s main rival, the Daily Express, who invited me to have lunch with him. After some small talk over a few glasses of Beaujolais he cut to the chase. “How would you feel about moving Bogart over to the Express? We would (ahem) certainly make it worth your while.”
Aside from the money it was no secret that the circulation of the Daily Express had been falling for some time and the thought of the world’s greatest newspaper (as the Daily Express called itself) being saved from a slow descent into readerless oblivion by Bogart the cat appealed to me. And he would be going to a paper where I was assured he could be his bodacious, irreverent, racy self. I accepted the Express’s proposition and went home to write my letter of resignation to the Daily Mail.
Two days later my phone rang. It was the editor of the Daily Mail. His question was straightforward and simple. “How much do you want to keep Bogart at the Mail?”
Although Bogart was a thorn in their side he was a thorn with a following and the Daily Mail did not want to lose him to their biggest rival. Especially after Jonathan Cainer, their eminent astrologer who had joined the Mail a few years before, had just been poached by the same paper!
Persuaded by the editor’s reassurances and the offer of a lucrative new contract I agreed to keep Bogart at the Daily Mail. But I’m ashamed to admit the decision didn’t make me any friends at the Daily Express.
A few months passed, the Daily Express incident died away, then one morning as I sat drawing at my desk I got another call from the Daily Mail editor. He was brief. “We’ve decided to replace Bogart with a strip called Garfield”, he said, “It starts on Monday.”
They were right of course, Why pay a whole lot of money for a troublesome, disloyal little buttpain when for peanuts you could have the biggest cartoon strip in the world? I knew any letters from readers would not change the editor’s mind this time.
My contract was paid in full on the condition that I did not sell the strip to another national newspaper and on the 3rd November 2001, after 21 years of harassing neighbours and newspaper editors, Bogart, rogue, philanderer, lover of bebop, football, smoked salmon, a warm car bonnet and a silent cat flap, ran his last.