A GLASS OF VIZ
Does creativity sit well with pubs and beer? Alastair Gilmour finds out. Almost
Some call it a comic and others a magazine, but there’s no doubt that Viz has been entertaining us for a great portion of our adult lives. First published in 1979 by Chris Donald, it grew to become the biggest-selling magazine in the country. Or comic.
Only two of the long-term artists remain full-time, writing and drawing the characters we identify with – Simon Thorp and Graham Dury – but Davey Jones and Alex Collier continue to contribute on a freelance basis while involved with other projects.
Pubs and beer have always been a feature in the lives of creative people and here we find out their significance by delving a little into their lives.
A Viz cartoon of the perfect pub by Simon Thorp
CHARACTERS: MRS BRADY OLD LADY; FARMER PALMER, FINBAR SANDERS, BILLY THE FISH.
PUB: THE RAT INN, ANICK, HEXHAM
Simon Thorp, originally from Pontefract, studied fine art at university in Aberystwyth and while he was painting he drew cartoons for the university magazine.
“I saw an advert in the back of Private Eye asking for cartoonists and sent some work. When I finished uni I went on an Enterprise Allowance scheme and freelanced for Viz and Oink, which Davey Jones did as well. Chris (Donald) told me there was a party coming up in Newcastle which I went to – they were on a deadline at the time and offered me a job. That was 30 years ago – 34 from first getting stuff in.
“At first we worked in Chris’ bedroom at his mum and dad’s in Jesmond. The weird thing is we never had lunch. We would sit there until late afternoon then go out to a small supermarket off Osborne Road and buy nuts and go to the pub.
“We used to go a lot to the Free Trade and the Trent House in Newcastle. It seemed to be a thing then that you’d go to the pub after work. Nowadays I just have a nap after a few pints or take the dog out for a walk. Dogs put a big hole into your day. For work now I go to Graham Dury’s shed in Whitley Bay to write stuff and drink tea.
“We’re what’s left of Viz; we write all the articles and the cartoons and do stuff for other people too. We own 44% of Viz; Chris owns 6% and the publishers have 50% but don’t do anything. Everything else is done by freelancers.
“We were owned at one time by Virgin and went to the opening of the Newcastle shop with Richard Branson. We always thought he had a really long head. We had an office in Milburn House in Newcastle then one in Tynemouth. Virgin sold us to John Brown Publishing who flogged us to James Brown Publishing and never really told us. Nobody said, ‘By the way...’ Then we were bought by Dennis Publishing.
“When Felix Dennis died, we found out he owned one of the world’s largest broadleaf woodlands through a charity, so you could say we were owned by a forest. We suspect he was cutting down loads of trees to make paper for the magazine. Now the owners are a venture capital company who don’t meddle a lot.
“Every day Graham and I start with the opening topics of conversation: ‘What’s going on with Brexit?’ and ‘What’s going on with Trump?’. Then Graham will sit back like a country squire.
“In the old days when we were doing Mrs Brady we would sit Graham down and tell him to talk like an old lady. He was good at that. We spent lots of hours just sitting around talking about work. The Beano can repeat their plots as readers grow up and new ones come in, but we can’t – people would notice. But we tend not to pay any attention to anybody who complains.
“We’ve got a new Profanisaurus out. It’s a massive work which has more words in it than the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s all about making each other laugh, all working together. We have quite a good laugh, not like other writing teams who apparently hate each other.
“Every year we go to an authors’ evening at Waterstones in Piccadilly – they can’t really turn us away – and there’s all these famous authors there like Michael Palin and Stephen Fry and that bloke who was Lady Di’s brother.
“In one issue of Viz we had a Lady Di game on the centre spread which hit the shops on the Thursday then she died at the weekend. John Brown Publishing had them all withdrawn from the shelves and I think they pulled out the pages and put them back on the shelves again. It would have been cheaper to reprint it.
“Oh, this Plum Porter is like Christmas pudding. (Simon has just taken a sip of his Titanic Plum Porter).
“Our two boys Peter and John have worked here at The Rat at one time. Our daughter Alice, who works at the Theatre Royal, hasn’t. She can’t stand the thought of getting her thumb in gravy.”
Is there any time a Viz cartoonist and writer switches off? Simon looks at his Plum Porter, gestures around the pub and says: “This is it.”
Viz cartoonist and writer Simon Thorp at The Rat Inn, Anick, Northumberland
CHARACTERS: THE REAL ALE TWATS, GILBERT RATCHET, MAJOR MISUNDERSTANDING
PUB: THE FREE TRADE INN, BYKER, NEWCASTLE
Davey Jones is originally from Hereford and freelanced for Viz for a few years before joining the staff in 1990 and settling in Newcastle in 1996.
“The Free Trade was the first pub I was ever in in Newcastle. I’m glad to see it hasn’t changed at all.
“I told Chris Donald I was thinking of moving to a town again – I was living on Anglesey at the time – and he said if you do, I’ll give you a job. When I came up he brought me to the Free Trade. It’s a great traditional place to sit and look at the bridges. So you could say he bought me off in a decent pub.
“But I had to adapt to the Geordie accent. My first taxi driver was broad Geordie and I thought ‘I’m never going to get by here’, but you get used to it.
“I also found a great mix of people in the Tap & Spile on Shields Road. I would go to the pub just to get used to the accents. They knocked it down to build a Morrisons. For a while after that you’d get these old fellas standing outside, saying, ‘My stool used to be there’.
“I’ve worked from home since 2012. There were a lot of changes going on; we had moved from offices in Newcastle to Tynemouth. Eventually it was decided that there wasn’t any need for an office because we could work from home and also get freelancers in. I also do a lot of one-offs – celebs and politicians mainly.
“I’m naturally lazy and want a bit of time to sit about. Holidays are quite difficult to arrange around deadlines. I took a book on the last holiday I had – and realised it was the first one I’d read for a year. I’d been too busy working and thinking and couldn’t relax at all. I thought, sod that.
“The Real Ale Twats (RATs) comes from sitting on your own in a pub and observing what’s around you, seeing what games people are playing with each other. The RATs are stereotypes – it’s a cartoon after all and not meant to be serious. You always get the one in a group mouthing off and being opinionated – and the RATs are my chance to be opinionated.
“I’m quite keen on taking my dog to the pub but I don’t tend to write things down when I’m there, you just save it in your head.
“When we all worked in the office we’d do a lot of sitting around then go off on our own to do some work. If nobody felt like thinking about anything you just got on your drawing board or did some admin stuff. People used to come to the office and were always disappointed at how normal we all were.
“Funnily enough, we didn’t drink at all during the day. There’s a danger that what you think is funny when you’re having a drink is not so funny after all. I’ve got wise to it now; been caught out too many times. I have a one-pint rule when I’m working. I like the Chillingham Arms which is fairly close to where I live, and the Northumbrian Hussar which I actually haven’t been to for a while. Then there’s the Cumberland Arms in Byker which I go to occasionally.
“I get up the coast with my mates on a Thursday night – North Shields, Tynemouth, Whitley Bay – my favourite there is The Rockcliffe Arms and I always have a pint in the Bell & Bucket in North Shields on music nights. Some of the best pubs I’ve been to are in London, they’re very distinctive, all etched glass and that. It’s a real shame that a lot of them are closing.
“Characters take on a life of their own and you mix all different types in. Sid The Sexist was a friend of Simon Donald’s, based on one guy who thought he was super sexy. If you hear someone on the bus or in the street, you’ll think that’s a good thing for this or that character to say. Buses are great places for getting ideas.
Freelancer Barney Farmer (who sounds like a Viz character himself) writes a fairly black cartoon called The Drunken Bakers about a pair of alcoholics running a bakery. Barney goes around on buses in Lancaster listening to odd conversations, observing people without being observed.
“Simon Thorp is especially talented, he’s the only one of us who is a proper artist. I’m glad to have been part of it all.
“Go on then. Same again.”
Viz cartoonist and writer Davey Jones at the Free Trade Inn, Newcastle
CHARACTERS: SASHA SLAPPA, BROWN BOTTLE, REAL ALE TWATS (WITH DAVEY JONES), 8 ACE, ROGER MELLIE (WITH GRAHAM DURY), THE FAT SLAGS (WITH THE OTHERS)
PUB: THE THREE HORSESHOES, LEAMSIDE, DURHAM
“I like it here in the Three Horseshoes, I like really, really nice pubs and this has Private Eye cartoons in the toilets. I like the fact you can sit and drink the beer that’s made next door (at the Working Hand Brewery). Coming here was when I really started taking an interest in real ale. Matthew (Frankland, brewer) is really enthusiastic about it. When my wife Jurate and I eloped to Gretna Green to get married we took some of his beer with us to have a little bit of our pub in Scotland.
“I should always say ‘long suffering’ wife – she’s very patient. Being from Lithuania, it’s vodka all the way with her – come the first frost and we’re out picking sloes for gin. We come here a lot, sometimes we’ll walk with the dogs or bike it (Alex’s two whippets lie patiently under the table).
“I’m not full-time on Viz any more; I write mostly for kids’ television – Mr Bean, Danger Mouse and Dennis and Gnasher.
“I could spend all my time in pubs. I once lived across the street from the Carling Academy in Newcastle. We’d go to the Tut N Shive, Tilleys and The Bodega, though never at weekends when everybody from out of town would flock in. I never used to go out then, there were so many people out
in Newcastle and it was a bit crazy. It was great fun as a young lad but I couldn’t do it now.
“I went to Viz straight from school at 18. Working with the likes of Davey Jones and Simon Donald was great, a really creative atmosphere. And Thorpy is a top fella, one of the funniest blokes I’ve ever met, and a superb artist to boot. What a bastard. We’re all pretty spread out now and don’t all actually work together any more.
“You never switch off. Idle thoughts are the best ones. Me and Davey do the Real Ale Twats between us. We’ll say things like, ‘What if the RATs went to a library’ then go away and work something up.
“Sasha Slappa is based on girls I knew from school. I’d listen to their conversations on the school bus –‘where yeeze gannin like?’
“The Brown Bottle has taken over. I’ll email Roger Mellie in pencil to Graham who’ll draw him up in his own style. I left Viz at the same time Simon Donald left and tried various things.
“Drawing cartoon strips is like animation, so the next stop was to make them move so I went to university to do animation and did a Viz one on a small budget. I met Tim Searle there who works for Baby Cow, Steve Coogan’s production company, and found we worked well together.
“Then I got a call: ‘Do you want to write Mr Bean?’ I wasn’t going to say no to that. Jurate’s parents just don’t understand Viz, it’s beyond them, being Lithuanian. But show them Mr Bean and they get it.
“People don’t realise he was originally for adults but since it went into cartoon form it’s become more child-like. It’s great doing it. I’m a massive fan of the Beano and I’ve written a new series of Dennis and Gnasher which is brilliant – and it’s been nominated for an Emmy.
“It’s amazing, I never thought I’d be a kid’s writer. There’s also a new series of Danger Mouse I’ve written. I think it’s the nearest thing in this country to The Simpsons.
“I’ve been doing Viz for half my life but really appreciate doing other stuff. I did the label for Viz Top Tipple which had Sid The Sexist on the Newcastle Brown Ale label. It was for the first Sunday For Sammy charity event because the late Sammy Johnson (who played Stick in Spender) was the voice of Sid when we did the animations.
“Me and Davey will do little private jokes between us in the comic – nobody else in the world is in on them, just me and him. For example. the RATs go into a pub and ask for Collier’s Shivering Whippet.
“Yes please, another pint of Lucky Crown.”
Viz cartoonist and writer Alex Collier at the The Three Horseshoes, Leamside, Durham