Eek! It's the Perishers!

Eek! It's The Perishers!

There is a comic strip - a daily newspaper strip of some considerable longevity - about a group of children. The central characters are a little boy and his dog (a dog who believes himself to have had a previous life as a human being). One of their friends is an obnoxious and overbearing little girl; another is the unwilling object of her affections, another is her little brother. Other children have walk-on parts, as do other animals, but these are the core cast. Sounds familiar? Yes, it's Pe... Well, actually, it's The Perishers, written by Maurice Dodd, drawn by Dennis Collins, and they have appeared in Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper since the 1960s at least. Perhaps because this is a British strip, searching the internet turns up very little information about it. Its debt to Peanuts seems indisputable, and certainly when Charles Schultz died, Maurice Dodd acknowledged in his tribute that he had had to modify his original strip to avoid too close a likeness to Peanuts. But however derivative the initial inspiration may have been, the tone of voice of the British strip is quite distinct from that of its American equivalent. The title itself makes this clear: the term "perisher", according to Chambers, is a slang expression for "a reprehensible or annoying person", a rather old-fashioned word even when the strip was young, but often used in a tone of irritated affection (or affectionate irritation). A feature which marks the British strip off from the American version is its refusal to view the children with any sentimentality whatsoever.

Back in the Jug Agane

This strip catches the core personnel of the strip at the end of the school day, and gives a characteristic sample of its humour. The running gag is that Baby Grumpling, accustomed to waiting for the older children outside the school railings, interprets their time "behind bars" as incarceration, and greets their release with exaggerated joy. In this particular example, the humour of this misunderstanding is pointed out by piling on slang expressions for imprisonment and escape: Wellington, the intellectual, leads the way "We are not crashin' out or makin' a break", while Maisie makes sure of the last word, for the benefit of any reader still unsure what the joke is: "We have not been doin' porridge." There is little for Marlon to do here but assent, but another of the series' running gags places him at centre stage:

You are what you eat

Wellington plays the straight man, allowing the other three to express their personalities and backgrounds through the sandwiches they have brought to school in their packed lunch. Maisie is in many ways an old-fashioned girl, and her unappetising combination of "drippin' and banana" indulges two treats of a generation earlier (dripping, the fat saved from roast meat and spread on bread, and bananas, a variety of fruit notoriously unavailable in war-time Britain: but this strip bears a 1971 copyright!). The punningly named Fiscal Yere, one of the cast's regular "guest stars", and usually drawn "smoking" a chocolate cigar as a sign of his family's extreme wealth, here transforms that symbol of affluence into sandwiches. And Marlon, whose obtuseness more often makes him the butt of the punchlines, here gets the last word, as he yet again produces his inch-thick tomato-ketchup sandwiches, which he persists in regarding as a foodstuff rather than an offensive weapon, despite the impossibility of biting into them without splattering all in the vicinity with gore.

Mind the oranges, Marlon!

Dim though Marlon is, Maisie finds him irresistible, and pursues him relentlessly; sometimes her passion is the whole point of the strip, sometimes it merely serves to keep the characters in motion as they deliver their stand-up routines. Here the characters race down the steps from the metal bridge, past the front door with the milk bottles and down to the arch at the end of the street, through a continuous townscape in which the three panel frames divide not space but time, setting the rhythm which allows the joke maximum effect: "Just what kind of idiot are you going to grow up to be?" is treated by Marlon not as rhetoric, but as a serious career choice. It is a sign of the innate conservatism of the strip that Maisie, unstoppable in her determination to be May Queen, dreams of the future only in terms of romance, her only toy a doll's pram. Marlon has professional ambitions:

"I'm goin' back to my original plan of bein' a brain surgeon. Or maybe a bloke wot goes down sewers in big rubber boots."
"Oh, not that again. Marlon, I don't wish to discourage you, goodness knows, but have you thought this thing through. Do you realise the trainin', the practice, the amount of strugglin' that lies ahead?"
"Crumbs, Maisie, give me a bit of credit, do. I bet I could learn to get them boots on in a matter of weeks."
By 1978, The Perishers had registered the existence of feminism, but only in the terrifying person of Beryl Bogey "the black-belt-all-in-free-style liberated women's netball champion" recruited by Maisie to bring into line anyone considering voting for her rival as May Queen.

Sometimes Maisie is shown looking after her younger brother, Baby Grumpling:

Baby Grumpling knows there ain't no sanity clause...
whose conviction that all children spend their days in prison (like his identification of the old man in the red coat - who knows whether children have been naughty or nice, and rewards them accordingly - as "old Joe Stalin") must betray a guilty conscience. His favourite (or perhaps simply most visual) vice is digging holes in the garden, but he is endlessly creative in finding others. In one strip he kneels by his bedside, all curly hair and striped pyjamas, and prays, as he always speaks, in lower-case lettering:
"dear god i haven't told any fibs and i haven't pinched any of maisie's sweets
and i haven't put frozen peas in dad's gumboots
and i haven't shaved the cat
i know i asked you to make me a good boy, but this is ridiculous"

But the heart of the group is the odd couple formed by Wellington, usually seen wearing rubber Wellington boots in a visual repetition of the verbal joke which links his name to that of Boot, his Old English Sheepdog. The boy and his dog are the undeniable equivalent of Peanuts' Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Like Charlie Brown, Wellington is in some ways the odd-man-out in his group. For a start, he is an intellectual, with a taste for long words and philosophical meditations. His home life is also unusual; he and Boot live alone together in a disused railway station. Having no adults to support him, Wellington is obliged to make his own living, which he does by various dubious means, including the manufacture and sale of "buggies", mock racing cars which the ever-gullible Marlon can usually be persuaded to buy. Although Wellington periodically tries to show Boot how to use a broom, the dog is too intelligent to be caught in this way, and domestic duties in house and garden invariably fall to Wellington:

Wellington prunes his garden
Visually, Wellington's gardening methods may seem unconventional, but verbally, they are normal enough: he is pruning his garden. Here again is the delight in the ambiguities of language which characterises The Perishers, and may go some way to explain the strip's failure to conquer the world. The images, too, give clues about the characters and setting which might be opaque to someone from another time or place: the building, around one corner of which Boot can be seen peering nervously, displays architectural details which mark it unmistakably as a (disused) railway station; Maisie, in her black tights, gym slip and straw hat, not to mention her beauty spot, looks like a refugee from St Trinians, a schoolgirl a decade older than herself, and from a decade further into the past.

Once a year, the group take a summer holiday. This is usually preceded by a discussion of the options, including some baroque variation on the theme of an invented event, the rhubarb thrashing championships. The earliest of these are simple enough: Wellington is disinclined to attend because "last year the rhubarb fought back!", but become more elaborate:

- Goin' to the rhubarb-thrashin' championships this year?
- No.
- Still peeved about the bloke with two heads?
- It's not that so much...
...But who stands a chance with all those ten-foot dwarfs?
But each year, the holiday is represented by the same images: the children pitch their tent in a field and play on the beach. Sometimes the crowd of holidaymakers provides the excuse for a joke, but more often the Perishers have the place to themselves. Baby Grumpling indulges in his favourite occupation of digging holes (occasionally burying Marlon completely) while the older children splash in the sea, and Boot shows an adult's reluctance to enter the cold water:
Wellington and Boot at the seaside
Wellington is a mixture of hyperactive six year old and respectful guardian of tradition, as he rushes down to the sea in his old-fashioned ("it belonged to my great-grandfather") swimming costume, and the deerstalker hat which he so rarely removes. Boot's highly literate thoughts reveal that his initial surrender to this carefree mood: "Devil may care, come what may, following with a merry laugh even into the jaws of... the ocean?" is followed by a comic anti-climax. For once, the pair seem not so much to echo Peanuts as to prefigure Calvin and Hobbes.

Boot's vocabulary may be unexpected in a dog, but it is entirely consistent with the romantic image of the eighteenth century rake, an English Milord placed under an enchantment by a slighted gypsy. For Boot, like Snoopy, had a previous life in which he was not a dog, and from time to time reminisces about his former life. "Can you really recall your mother from the days when you were an English Milor'?" asks his friend B.H. (Calcutta) failed. "There's something there if I grope for it," replies Boot:

"I see pictures...Candlelight... A figure at the gaming table... A tinkling laugh, flashing eyes (Oh, those eyes)... The quiver of lace, the flutter of a frilled fan...
Or was that Uncle Boris?"
The humour here operates on three levels: at its simplest, the gag works as a one-liner; it feeds into the long-term characterisation of Boot; and the counterpoint of words and images also plays its part. This glimpse of a more elegant past gains added piquancy by images which give the dialogue, and some very human body-language, to a dog, addressing another dog against a backdrop of a heap of scrap cars.

To one small group of characters, Boot is even more than human. Each year on his holidays, while the children swim, he strolls along the beach, peering into rock pools:

Waiting for the Eyeballs in the Sky
Unknown to Boot, the crabs in one particular pool have constructed an entire religion around his annual appearance. It is not an attractive creed; its adherents are always ready to panic, to divide into warring factions, and to make bad puns (the example quoted, "In times like these we should think ourselves lucky to have a woof over our heads", is one of the better ones).

In fact, the crabs are among the least sympathetic creatures in the strip, though not quite as repellent as Kilroy the tortoise (who speaks in Gothic script and bears an uncanny resemblance to Adolf Hitler) or the beetle and grub who often accompany him. These latter appear to be intended to represent the forces of socialism, being cowardly, workshy and given to singing The Red Flag while attempting to liberate any particularly desirable (i.e. edible) piece of property. The Perishers is not at heart a political cartoon, and, like so many who describe themselves as apolitical, it is conservative in its attitudes. But there is nothing to be gained from a serious political analysis of a strip which makes a rare allusion to the General Secretary of the Trades' Union Congress in terms of a small child wheedling a treat out of his mother:

- hey mum, would you buy me a baby alligator?
- Certainly not, Baby Grumpling.
- well, how about one of those chopper bikes?
- Don't be silly, Baby Grumpling.
- would you consider a box of black magic?
- No, Baby Grumpling.
- could i have an ice lolly?
- Well, all right... I'll tell Maisie to get you one when she goes up the High Street.
- when it comes to negociatin', that vic feather's got nothin' on me.
Vic Feather, like Black Magic chocolates, is simply a brand name; it invites the same laughter of recognition, and dates the strip as surely, as Baby Grumpling's Christmas present:
The first appearance of Baby Grumpling's space hopper
In 1973, or thereabouts, the toy that all children wanted for Christmas was a space hopper, a large orange bouncy ball, with "ears" that you could cling to as you rode around on your space hopper; and Baby Grumpling had one which defied gravity and rode roughshod over any opposition; it careered through a sequence of visual gags, culminating in what looked like the entire cast of the strip bouncing along out of control until they encountered Wellington in his new roller skates - an encounter which is probably best left to the imagination.

It would be possible to continue indefinitely in this vein, pointing out the beauties of over a decade of daily strips, glossing over the inevitable repetitions and signs of age, praising the wordplay here, the intricately mapped street layout there and the sheer creative silliness of that joke. The Perishers may never have made it big in the United States, despite the efforts of their fan, Rod McKuen - but they were published in Dutch. They also appeared on BBC television, in an animated series whose best feature was probably the voice given to Boot by the perfectly-cast Leonard Rossiter. There was even a Perishers jigsaw:

The Perishers in 80 pieces

Update 2008

When I wrote this overview of The Perishers, back in the year 2000, I ended by bemoaning the fact that the strip had fallen into obscurity. The books were largely out of print, obtainable only by a diligent search of charity shops and jumble sales. A list of the books at Tony's Trading website - still a valuable resource for those prepared to undertake the search - was just about their only other appearance on the internet.

By Christmas 2003 this was changing. The books - and videos of the tv show - were appearing in greater numbers from Amazon's second-hand sellers; and the web was starting to take notice. In addition to the Toonhound site (which gives an informative introduction to the strip) Richard Starkings, President & First Tiger of Comicraft thought it was Just Wrong that the Perishers don't have their own site on the Web and decided that if no-one else was going to do it, he would. This never went (or at least, has not to date developed) beyond a first step, but may have played a part in convincing Maurice Dodd himself that there was a need for the Authentic Perishers Website - still not the complete archive we were hoping for, but a selection of strips, character sketches and information about the strip and its creators.

Maurice Dodd has sadly since died, but the web site is maintained by his son Mike. But one of the great pleasures that the Shadow Gallery has brought me was a phone call from Maurice Dodd; he was extremely kind about the text on this page above, even if he did not agree with all my comments!

6th March 2008

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