Sunday, December 09, 2007

I miss my Willie

I was watching QI the other night and I started to think about all of the wonderfully intelligent comedians and writers that will never appear on the show; not because of contractual obligations or other engagements but because they have shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the Choir Invisible. People like Douglas Adams, Peter Cook, Roald Dahl, Les Dawson, Kenny Everett, Stephen Jay Gould, Joyce Grenfell, Marty Feldman, Pete McCarthy, Ronnie Barker, Spike Milligan, Eric Morecombe, Leonard Rossiter, Terry-Thomas, Kenneth Williams, Graham Chapman, P G Wodehouse, Dudley Moore, Alan Coren, Frank Muir and the wonderful Mr William Rushton.

I do have some unconventional heroes. When I was a younger chap and of an age where I would festoon my bedroom walls with posters of my idols (thus forever staining the paintwork with small patches of blue tacky stuff much to my late father's annoyance), those idols were even then slightly odd choices. Whereas my many peers would have had posters of Queen (the band, not the monarch) or Farrah Fawcett-Majors (as she was then) or ABBA, or that tennis-playing lady scratching her bare arse, my walls featured artwork by Roger Dean and Rodney Matthews and any number of cartoons cut from newspapers and magazines. Favourite among these were gems scissored free from Private Eye and Punch. The cartoonists I idolised were Ralph Steadman, Ed McLachlan, Ronald Searle, Martin Honeysett, Larry (Terence Parkes) and Bill Tidy. But top of the tree and Head Honcho was Willie Rushton. I must have had 30 or 40 of his scratchy, sharply-observed and beautifully detailed cartoons and illustrations plastered on my walls, all there for me to soak up and be inspired by as I tried to develop my own style of illustration. Other people wanted to be George Best or David Essex or Roger Moore. I wanted to be William Rushton.
And, what's more, I still do.

While I hero-worshipped people like those artists I've already mentioned (and a good few more) and would occasionally court some newbie and flirt with them, there was something about Rushton's work that kept me coming back to him. He was a constant source of joy and amusement for me. I bought his books. I listened to him on Radio 4. I tried to copy his art style and failed dismally. He was one of my heroes in the best traditions of the word. And yet, for many people, the name Willie Rushton conjures up nothing more than that silly bearded man who was always on ITV's Celebrity Squares in the 1970s.

Oh dear. Oh dearie dearie me. We must put that right, mustn't we?

William George Rushton was born on the 18th August 1937 in Kensington, London. He attended Shrewsbury Public School in 1950 where he met future Private Eye founders Richard Ingrams, Paul Foot and Christopher Booker. Rushton was already developing his skills as a character actor and starred in many school performances. He also began forming a humorous writing and drawing style and was responsible, with others, for producing The Wallopian, a satirical magazine based on the real school magazine, The Salopian. Unfortunately, funny as he was, Rushton was not terribly academic (he failed his Maths O Level seven times) and was forced to wave goodbye to his chums as they toddled off to Oxford University. While they studied, he did his National Service in the army. Unlike many public school alumni, he refused a commission to be an officer. In his own words: 'The Army is, god bless it, one of the funniest institutions on earth and also a sort of microcosm of the world. It's split almost perfectly into our class system. Through serving in the ranks I discovered the basic wit of my fellow man - whom basically, to tell the truth, I'd never met before'.

He returned to Civvy Street in 1959 and became a solicitors' clerk. However, the lure of satire was still there and he was still in contact with his old friends at Oxford (who had now formed a firm friendship with John Wells) and who were running their own humour magazines called Parsons Pleasure and Mesopotamia. Rushton was asked to contribute cartoons and features and soon became a favourite with the readers. In particular, Rushton had developed a brilliant eye for caricature and his scathing portraits were much in demand. Mesopotamia became wildly popular, selling beyond the hallowed halls of the universities; so much so that Rushton suggested to his colleagues that they continue the magazine once they had all graduated. Around this time, Rushton also had a near death experience after being knocked down by a bus. He therefore decided that life was too short to be wasted in clerking and that he should concentrate on his real passions. He and his friends began looking for a financial backer.

While all this was going on, Rushton continued to submit cartoons and articles to Punch, Tribune and other magazines. Eventually he got a job with the Liberal News where he illustrated a weekly strip called Brimstone Belcher about a ghastly news reporter (a prototype of Lunchtime O'Booze who would later star in Private Eye).

Finally, in 1961, the finances came through and Private Eye issue 1 hit the news stands on the 25th of October. Originally called Finger - because they would 'finger' wrong-doers, cheaters and liars - they changed the name to Private Eye because the detective image worked better. After all, they were investigative journalists and satirists, not prosecutors. Rushton put the first issue together in his bedroom using Letraset rub-down lettering and glue. He also created the character of 'Little Gnitty' the masthead figure who still appears on the magazine to this day, basing the face on that of John Wells.
Private Eye went from strength to strength attracting the cream of Britain's cartoonists and satirists including the late, great Peter Cook. Rushton meanwhile was exploring another aspect of his character - his desire to act. He appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe and in a 1961 production of Spike Milligan’s surreal post-nuclear apocalypse farce The Bed-Sitting Room, directed by Richard Ingrams. But it was his impersonation of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan during a cabaret show that led to greater things. He was spotted by Ned Sherrin, then a young BBC producer, and asked to join the cast of a new TV satire series.

The show was That was the Week That Was (aka 'TW3') and it was one of the most popular TV shows of its day. It regularly drew audiences of 13 million plus and made stars of Rushton and his co-stars David Frost, Kenneth Cope, Roy Kinnear and Lance Percival. It also helped launch the writing careers of such people as John Cleese, Roald Dahl, Graham Chapman, Bill Oddie, Peter Cook, Dennis Potter and many more.

Meanwhile, Private Eye continued to cut a swathe through British politics and when Macmillan retired in 1963 following a health scare, Sir Alec Douglas-Home was pushed to the fore using some very dodgy political machinations. Disgusted by this, the Private Eye team put up their own candidate - William Rushton - as a parliamentary opponent for Douglas-Home in the Perthshire and Kinross by-election (his campaign slogan was Death to the Tories!). Rushton polled only 45 votes, having at the last minute advised his supporters to vote Liberal, the Conservative’s only real competition in that seat. Douglas-Home won anyway.

When TW3 was cancelled, Rushton and several of the cast and contributors toured America. After that, he returned to acting appearing in a number of plays and TV series. He also ventured into feature films with appearances in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) and Monte Carlo or Bust (1969). During the late 1960s Rushton spent much of his time in Australia, where he met his wife Dorgan, whom he married in 1968. It was on one of his return visits to the UK that he brought back the late Tony Hancock’s ashes to the UK in an Air France bag - 'My session with the Customs was a Hancock Half Hour in itself', he once said.

In the 1970s he became a popular and well-known face on British TV. He was Plautus in Frankie Howerd's ancient Rome farce Up Pompeii! (1970), and Major Trumpington in the prisoner of war drama Colditz (1974). He also played Dr Watson to John Cleese’s Sherlock Holmes in N F Simpson’s surreal comedy Elementary, My Dear Watson. His role as storyteller on long-running BBC children's show Jackanory was acclaimed, especially his treatment of the Winnie the Pooh stories. He also provided the voices and narration for the bizarre animated plasticine monster show The Trap Door. He was a popular choice for narrating audio books, especially those for children. In particular he recorded 18 of the books by Rev. W Awdry for The Railway Stories series (later to become better known as Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends); he also recorded adaptations of Goscinny and Uderzo's Asterix the Gaul books and Alice in Wonderland. In 1975 and 1976 he appeared in well-received pantomimes of Gulliver’s Travels, in 1981 in Eric Idle’s play Pass the Butler, and in 1988 in Peter Titheridge’s Tales from a Long Room. He also wrote two musicals, Liz of Lambeth in 1976, and, with Suzi Quatro, Tallulah Who in 1991.

He wrote and illustrated hundreds of books and also became a well-known game show punter appearing regularly on BBC's Blankety Blank, ITV's Celebrity Squares and Channel 4's Countdown. But it was on BBC Radio 4's I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue that his impromptu wit and daftness found delightful expression. He was one of four main panellists who regualrly appeared on the show for more than 20 years. In 1990 he teamed up with his co-panellist Barry Cryer in their own show Two old Farts in the Night, performing to full audiences at the Edinburgh festival, the Albert Hall, and the Festival Hall and touring the country irregularly.

But throughout it all, Rushton remained a cartoonist at heart. In 1980, The Victoria and Albert Museum, recognising his accomplishments, commissioned 24 large colour illustrations that were collected as Willie Rushton’s Great Moments of History. (Willie had previous experience with the V&A a few years earlier, when he had pulled a prank on the institution by labelling an electric plug socket in one of the galleries: Plug hole designed by Hans Plug (b.1908) which remained for a full year – to the great annoyance, apparently, of a cleaner who had to use a hefty extension lead for 12 months so as not to damage the exhibit.) This large scale excursion into the use of colour was good practice for the wonderful covers he would execute monthly when Auberon Waugh took over the Literary Review in the late 80s. The literati had to take further drubbings from Rushton as he drew the fortnightly caricatures for Private Eye’s literary review page until his untimely death.

Willie Rushton died of complications after a heart operation on the 11th of December 1996. He is honoured by a blue plaque at Mornington Crescent tube station, a reference to the bizarre and logic-defying game Mornington Crescent that is played on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue.

He leaves behind a huge legacy of TV, film and radio appearances, and books, either written and illustrated by him or illustrated for others. My favourites include his guide to being a man - Superpig (his alternative to Shirley Conran's Superwoman), Pigsticking: A Joy for Life (a guide to sports - my signed copy is a most treasured item) and his glorious illustrated novel W G Graces's Last Case, or The War Of The Worlds Part II, in which the hirsute cricketer mixes with historical characters like Oscar Wilde and Picasso and fictional characters like Mr Hyde, Raffles and Dr Watson in a world-spanning plot to prevent the Vilebastards (pronounced Villibarts) from aiding a second invasion by H G Wells’s martians. In many ways it pre-empted later works like Alan Moore's staggeringly good League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (see previous posts). Willie would have loved Alan Moore's writing.

I guess one of the reasons that I have such reverence for the late Mr Rushton is a certain degree of resonance. There are a number of parallels between his life and mine. We were both born in August (a week apart). Neither of us were particularly academic (I also failed maths - though only twice) and I also failed to get into university unlike my friends. Like him, I draw, write, paint and delight in writing music and lyrics. And, if we're being silly here, I could point out that I also have a beard and have struggled with my weight all my life. I just hope that I can live a little longer than he did. Fifty nine is too young an age for anyone to die.

Willie Rushton would have loved programmes like QI. I know that he would have delighted in verbal thrust and parry with the likes of Stephen Fry, Jo Brand, Bill Bailey and Alan Davies.

He is a great loss and the world is a slightly sadder place without him.

I am indebted to Ukjarry and his/her website for some of the content of this blog post. All illustrations are copyright (c) the estate of William Rushton and the Chris Beetles Gallery in London.

3 comments:

Me said...

Superb research - interesting and well written - thanks :)

Stevyn Colgan said...

I wish I could claim all of the credit - see the thanks at the foot of the post. But thanks for your comment!

joelmead said...

I miss Willie Rushton too. He was a genius just for starting Private Eye but he was also a very talented cartoonist and an intellectual giant…