FROM HERE TO OBSCURITY




Once the star of his own successful cartoon strip Bogart had it all, then lost everything. Was his downfall his own doing, or his cartoonist's? Read the full story as told by the cat himself.


Back in 1980 when an aspiring young cartoonist called Peter Plant approached me about playing the part of the cat in a new strip he was working on about two ditzy working girls who share a flat together I thought about it but said ix-nay. I’ll do movies or a TV series or maybe an advert or an interview but no cartoon strips. Everything you say or think is written in speech bubbles so there’s no chance for any improvisation or ad-libbing. And who is this guy Plant, I asked myself. Probably some no-hope doodler who’s done a few cartoons for his local rag. Besides, my role in the strip was just a supporting one and I had made it a rule never to be a deputy, always a sheriff, if you catch my drift. So it had to be a no.

But then Plant told me there was going to be another cat in the strip. A sexy little blue Persian called Mandy who lives across the street with a lady called Mrs Boswick. He showed me a photo (of Mandy, not Mrs Boswick) and I immediately signed on the old “dotted” if you catch my drift again.

The strip was called “Knickers” and I can’t say working on it was easy. Pete and I had our disagreements and once or twice I was ready to walk but he always talked me out of it by saying something like “tomorrow you and Mandy will be doing your big love scene” and I’d be back on board faster than you can punch a pillow.

As soon as we had enough episodes in the bag Pete started hawking the strip around to newspapers. The editor of one liked the strip but thought it should feature just one of the two main characters, a tall shapely blonde called Roz, and be named after her. I knew Pete loved the name “Knickers” and didn’t want his baby to become a “boobs and bums” cartoon but he gave in faster than a sand castle in a tidal wave and before we knew it “Roz” was running in the Scottish Daily Record for fifty quid a week.

But Pete was keen to get “Roz” into a bigger newspaper and when he heard a new national daily called Today was about to be launched in the UK he devised a clever plan to get it in front of the editor, in person.


The next morning, wearing dungarees and a baseball cap and carrying a pile of “Roz” strips in a tool box, Pete marched through the front door of the Today office in London identifying himself to the security guard as a telephone engineer 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, walked in and waited for the doors to close. So far, so good.

A minute later Pete emerged into a vast, bright room full of people working at desks and computers probably getting the first issue of Today ready. He asked somebody for the editor’s office and was directed to a glass-partitioned room with a handwritten sign saying “MacArthur” on the partly-open door. (Brian MacArthur was the well-known and respected Fleet Street journalist who was now editor of Today.) The office was unmanned so Pete went in, opened his toolbox and tried to look busy while he waited for MacArthur to arrive.

Twenty minutes passed and just as Pete was starting to entertain the thought that Brian MacArthur might not show up, a man wearing red braces, rolled-up sleeves and loosened tie and looking a lot like a newspaper editor strode through the door and sat down at the desk. Pete made like he was running a wire along the skirting board. After a minute or two he decided to break the silence.

 “Looks like our cricket team are doing all right”, said Pete. (Cleverly, Pete had done his homework and found out Brian MacArthur was an avid cricket fan.) “Yeah, s’pose so” came the disinterested reply. Pete paused to think. Maybe it was rugby. Then he decided to hell with the small talk, leapt to his feet and went into action.

"Mr MacArthur!” said Pete. “This is not a telephone 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 pile of strips and plopped them in front of the man in the bright red braces who, for a few seconds, just stared at them.Then he looked up at Pete and said." I'm not Brian MacArthur but if you want I'll pass these over to him when I see him."

Dejected, Pete said thank you and went home. Unbeknownst to him, however, he had just met Eddie Shah, Today’s proprietor.

The next morning Pete’s phone rang. It was, in fact, the real Brian MacArthur. After making a quip about the severe penalties for impersonating a telephone engineer MacArthur got serious and told Pete he and Eddie Shah love the strip and if he could see his way to making two minor adjustments they’d put it in the paper. “What’re the adjustments?” Pete asked apprehensively. MacArthur replied " Make the cat the main character and name the strip ‘Bogart’.”

That’s when I punched the air and went “YYYYESSSSSSSSSSS!”


"Bogart" spent 10 years at Today and became a mainstay of the paper. It also made me a celebrity which I'm glad to say 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 at Today   were "Dilbert" an offbeat take on life in an office of cubicles and "Footrot Flats" about a New Zealand farmer and his sheep dog which I have to admit was 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 November 17, 1995, it closed. It’s main rival, he Daily Mail, keen to attract the ex-Today readers, picked up “Bogart” but suddenly, giving no reason, dropped it three months later. Pete and I believe the editors thought the strip was a tad too risqué for the conservative Daily Mail and decided to get rid of it. However, after receiving hundreds of letters (I would say that, wouldn’t I?) from readers complaining about my disappearance they reinstated me. After that, Pete and I began an uneasy struggle to keep my adventures flirtatious, fresh and frisky, but not too risky, er, risqué.

The rest of the Daily Mail’s cartoon page was anything but risqué. 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, had died in 1991 and another artist had taken over. Another strip ironically titled “I Don’t Believe It” was so lame it made you annoyed for bothering to read it. Pete was constantly saying it was hard to find an original, witty cartoon strip in any newspaper. If you don’t believe it just read this.

“Bogart” ran for 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, risqué 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 Daily Mail's butt. But I also knew it was a pain they didn't want relieved by losing me, "Britain’s best-loved cat" as they put it in a headline on the front page the day I started, to their biggest rival. Especially after their eminent astrologer, Jonathan Cainer, also an import from Today, had himself just been poached by the same paper!

So, persuaded with an offer of a lucrative new contract and assured 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 Pete and I 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 the biggest selling cartoon strip in the world riding on a tsunami of merchandise and two feature films and when it became available (methinks, for some strange reason, it was dropped by the Daily Express) the Daily Mail pounced on it. We also knew no amount of angry readers’ letters would change the editor’s mind this time.

After Pete signed an agreement not to offer “Bogart” to another newspaper the Daily Mail paid his contract in full and on November 3, 2001, after 21 years of harassing newspaper editors, I, Bogart T. Wilkins, idolised by millions (okay, thousands) (well, okay, quite a few), who only ever wanted a soft bean bag to lie in, a silent cat flap to slip through at midnight, a warm car bonnet to lie in the sun on, a few daily slices of smoked salmon and the odd tummy-tickle, retired from the catwalk forever.

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