As the star of his own successful strip cartoon Bogart had it all. But was his downfall his own doing, or his cartoonist’s?
When in 1980 a young advertising copywriter called Peter Plant approached me about playing the cat in a cartoon strip he was creating about two girls and a cat who share a flat together I said ixnay. Six a.m. starts, an hour for lunch, no naps, and the cartoonist himself probably some no-hope doodler who’d done a few panel cartoons for his local rag meant it was deffo a no. Anyway, it was only a supporting role and I always made it a rule never to be a deputy always a sheriff if you get my drift. Also, I never work with humans.
But then Pete told me there was going to be another cat in it, a sexy little Burmese called Mandy who lives across the street, and showed me a picture of her. Vavoom, I signed on the dotted line if you know what I mean.
The strip was called “Knickers” and I can’t say working on it was easy. Peter and I had our disagreements and once or twice I was ready to walk away but he always talked me out of it by saying something like “in tomorrow’s episode you’ll be working with Mandy” and I was back on board.
As soon as we had enough episodes in the bag Pete started hawking the strip around to newspapers. One editor wanted to change the title to “Roz”, who was the sexy one of the two girls. I was holding out for “Bogart” but Pete caved in faster than a teepee in a windstorm and the next week “Roz” started running daily in the Scottish Daily Record. Pete is a great guy but hasn’t got a lot of backbone.
“Roz” ran for six years in the Daily Record and, despite being totally misnamed, became very popular. I became a minor celebrity and Mandy and I struck up an on-again, off-again relationship, but only when Mrs Boswick, her owner, wasn’t around with her broom.
Things were great at the Daily Record but Pete wanted to get the strip into a bigger paper and when he heard a new national daily called Today was about to be launched he decided to go for it devising a plan to get “Roz” in front of the editor himself, in person.
The next morning, wearing dungarees and a baseball cap and carrying a pile of “Roz” strips in a tool box, Pete walked through the front door of the new Today office in London where he identified himself to the security guard as an engineer from the telephone company with instructions to install a telephone in the editor’s office. The guard told him to sign in and go to the second floor. Pete headed for the lift, lazy bugger.
Pete, the telephone engineer, emerged from the lift into a vast, bright room full of people working at desks probably trying to get the first issue of the paper ready. He asked someone for the editor’s office and was directed to a glass-partitioned room with a temporary sign on a partly open door saying ‘MacArthur’ on it. (Brian MacArthur was a well-known and respected Fleet Street journalist who had been appointed the new editor of Today.) The office was unmanned so Pete went in, opened his toolbox and tried to look busy while he waited, hopefully, for Brian MacArthur to arrive.
Twenty minutes went by and just as Pete was starting to entertain thoughts that Brian MacArthur was not going to show up a man with rolled-up sleeves, red braces and a loosened tie and looking a lot like a newspaper editor, strode through the door and sat down at the desk. Pete pretended to be running a wire along the skirting board.
After a minute or two Pete decided to break the silence with some small talk.
“Nice day if it doesn’t rain”, he said, but got no response. Then Pete tried “I sure hope West Ham United doesn’t get relegated this year”. (Pete had done his homework and found out Brian MacArthwas an avid football fan.) “They got relegated last year” was the uninterested reply.
Pete decided to go into action. He leaped to his feet and started his spiel.
“Mr MacArthur!” said Pete. “This is not a telephonics engineer you see before you but the creator of the most original cartoon strip ever put before an editor! A cartoon strip abounding with vitality and humour! A cartoon strip that will turn thousands of ordinary people into loyal readers of your newspaper sending its circulation soaring and leaving other newspapers in its wake!”
With that Pete marched over to his toolbox, took out the strips and plonked them onto the editor’s desk. The man looks at the pile of strips then at Pete and said “I’m not Brian MacArthur but I’ll pass these over to him when I see him if you want.”
Pete said thank you and went home dejected. Unbeknownst to him, Pete had just met Eddie Shah, Today’s proprietor.
The next morning Pete’s phone rang. It was Brian MacArthur. The real one. After making a lighthearted comment about telephone engineers he went on to say he and Eddie Shah liked the strip Pete brought in but would only sign it on the condition (wait for it) that the cat, that’s me, becomes the central character and the title becomes “Bogart”.
“Bogart” spent 10 years at Today becoming a mainstay of the paper and making me a celebrity which never went to my head. Okay I was a bit naughty at times but never rude or offensive. And I was always in on time, thanks to Pete. Two other strips that got their start a Today were “Dilbert” a clever offbeat take on life in office cubicles and “Footrot Flats” about a New Zealand sheep dog and his farmer which was actually funny.
Besides me, other rising stars who joined the paper were columnist and TV presenter Anne Robinson, agony aunt Claire Rayner, political columnist Alistair Campbell, gossip columnist Amanda Platell, editorial cartoonist Dave Gaskill and astrologer Jonathan Cainer. Later I was also signed by The Sunday Times for its new colour comics section "The Funday Times".
Alas one afternoon we got bad news. Although the paper was selling half a million copies a day it wasn’t making a profit and so, on 17th November 1995, it closed. It’s main rival, the Daily Mail, keen to land the ex-Today readers, picked up Bogart but dropped it like a hot potato three months later I suspect because the editors thought strip was too risque (I was known have the occasional romantic encounter, and not always with Mandy.) To my surprise however I was reinstated after they received letters inquiring about my disappearance. That’s when Pete and I began an uneasy struggle to keep my adventures fresh and frisky but not too risque. That almost rhymes.
The rest of the Daily Mail’s cartoon page was anything but risque. Or even funny. The world-famous “Peanuts”, had become tired and repetitive probably because of the failing health of its creator, Charles Schultz. “Fred Basset”, a strip about a “cute and lovable” hound dog had been dead boring ever since its creator, Alex Graham, died in 1991 and another artist took over. Another strip with the ironic title, “I Don’t Believe It”, about a family with a cantankerous older father was so bad it actually made me angry. Fact is, it was hard to find an original, funny cartoon strip in any newspaper. And it wasn’t just me! Here's what one columnist thinks about the comic strip situation.
“Bogart” ran five years at the Daily Mail without another incident until one day Pete got a phone call from the cartoon editor of the Mail’s main rival, the Daily Express, inviting him to lunch. They met and after some small-talk over a glass of Beaujolais, the editor cut to the chase. “How would you feel about moving “Bogart” over to the Express?” he said. “We would definitely make it worth your while” which I”m pretty sure was a reference to money.
Even I knew the Daily Express’s circulation had been falling for some time and, aside from the money, the thought of me, a cat, singlehandedly saving a national newspaper from reader-less oblivion appealed to my modest ego. Besides, it might be a move to a paper where I could be my bodacious, risque self again!
Pete accepted the proposition and went home to write a letter of resignation to the Daily Mail.
Two days later Pete’s phone rang. It was the editor of the Daily Mail. He was brief and to the point. “How much do you want to keep “Bogart” at the Mail?”
I knew I was a pain in the Mail’s butt. But it was a pain they didn’t want to lose to their biggest rival, especially after Jonathan Cainer, their eminent astrologer who, like me, had signed with the Mail after Today closed, had just been poached by the same paper, the Daily Express!
So, persuaded with an offer of a lucrative new contract and assurance of more creative freedom, Pete agreed to keep me at the Daily Mail. But, I’m ashamed to admit, the decision didn’t make us any friends at the Daily Express.
A few months passed, the Daily Express matter died down and me and Pete got back to work. Then one morning Pete got another call from the Mail’s editor who was again brief and to the point. “We’ve decided to replace “Bogart” with a strip called ‘Garfield’ and it starts Monday.”
Even though Pete and I knew it had no class “Garfield” was still the biggest selling cartoon strip in the world supported by tons of merchandise and a couple of movies and when it became available the Daily Mail jumped on it. We also knew no amount of angry readers’ letters would change the editor’s mind this time.
The Daily Mail paid Pete’s contract in full after Pete signed an agreement that he would not offer “Bogart” to another newspaper which meant on the 3rd of November 2001, after 21 years of harassing newspaper editors, I, Bogart, idolised by millions (okay, thousands) (well, okay, quite a few), who only ever wanted a soft bean bag, a silent cat flap, a warm car bonnet, a few daily slices of smoked salmon and the companionship of a little Burmese called Mandy, retired from the catwalk forever.