Joke No. 324: Two drunks fishing from a parapet: one says, ‘Quick, pull your line in, there’s a train coming.’
Joke No. 74: I was once engaged to a girl with a wooden leg, but I broke it off. Boom boom.
Nick Butterworth’s dad had masses of these Ted Ray/Al Read jokes and sketches, which he listed by number in a special book. When Nick went into Graphics he made a cover for it: Joking by Numbers , by George Butterworth. He’d dearly love to know where it’s gone.
Humour’s valuable not only for a belly laugh but for easing situations and bonding people. I like humour that works on two levels, a straight joke for children but with a turn of phrase to make an adult smile – a bit A A Milne-ish. Sometimes a little gem comes to you that can fan the flames for a book.’ Does he keep them in a son-of-George collection? ‘I’ve a list of ideas as long as, well, as long as a very long thing, like the stuff that made us laugh about our own children’ (Ben’s now 16, Amanda 13) ‘but I can’t get round to them because of this wretched park keeper! I enjoy Percy, but I do have a life outside Percy’s park …’
Before the war his father had appeared in amateur revues, and the whole family was constantly vying to score off each other. George Butterworth was a POW for three years, and Nick was a bulge kid, born five years after one brother and six before the other. When his father came home at last, his brother asked heart-rendingly, not in the voice of his native London but in the sing-song northern accent of his parents, ‘Is this me dad?’ It became a family catchphrase, leading Nick, toasting his parents’ 40th anniversary, to suggest he’d actually said, ‘Is this me dad?’
Early in 1949, when Nick was two, his parents bought a sweet shop in Romford. Did customers ever wonder at the total absence of those extra little bars of chocolate in their Cadbury’s Roses …? These were the days of 50 to a class and Nick, a passive child who didn’t cause trouble, was pretty much ignored – he remembers getting Leslie Medcalf, star pupil and object of his undying love, to teach him take-away sums. He failed even the re-sits of the 11-plus, but passed a 13-plus to follow his brother to the Royal Liberty School, where an alarmingly successful year led, he believes, to over-promotion and panicky skiving off. His parents, busy now with three businesses, seemed not to notice.
But he still had his drawing. From the beginning he would fill books with copies of his brother’s copies of comic-book characters. Mike, whose skimpily dressed women and muscle-bound weight lifters were pretty good, went on to collect armfuls of degrees and become the Rev Dr Butterworth, lecturer in OT theology; Nick stayed faithful to cartoons and posters for fictitious films, teaming up with another lad, Leon Baxter, to spend a patently ludicrous number of ‘free periods’ in the art room. Curiously, the master let them do what they liked at the back of his classes, but it was only at the end, when Nick, with a miserable trio of O-levels, asked bleakly ‘Do you think I’m good enough for art school?’, that he uttered the first encouraging words Nick had ever received. ‘Good Lord, yes!’
He was ill-equipped: his portfolio held predominantly cartoon work, with a cover declaring in comic-style lettering (he has always had an affinity with calligraphy and typographic design) that it belonged to Melvin da Vinci. He got an offer conditional on re-taking English Language, but then his mother heard of an interesting five-year apprenticeship in the design department of a printing school – and a salary of £4 1s 6d.
‘I don’t regret the way my life’s gone, but I wish I’d worked harder. I would have liked to have been to art school, though they did send me one day a week to the printing department at Watford College.’ When he was 19, a Watford lecturer told him of a London design consultancy who needed a junior, and it felt a good move. He joined a small established practice where his bottom ranking meant fourth from top. ‘I was suddenly working to a much higher standard, flying round the country presenting designs to prestigious clients like British Ropes or Post Office Telecommunications.’
He’d been working for a year on a new corporate identity for Cunard, under the overall direction of Crosby Fletcher Forbes – later Pentagram – when Cunard suffered a great cut-back. Nick continued as a freelance for Pentagram from his parents’ home (the QE2 directional signs at that time were his). By 1968, freelance success encouraged him to set up an independent studio; a year later ‘BBC’ was in action from a Romford office – Butterworth plus Leon Baxter and another school art-class friend, Bernard Cope. ‘A lot of catalogue and packaging work came from our art teacher’s wife, who was advertising manager for Lovable bras. I still remember about pantee girdles, “The higher the number the longer the leg”!’
Here we must shunt back to a crucial pivot in Butterworth’s life. Through his elder brother he’d been drawn to a lively youth group attached to a local Baptist church, prompted by an ex-missionary called Sheaffer concerned ‘with opening up orthodox Christianity to a much more contemporary situation than it was used to addressing.’
Nick became a Sheaffer fan, and a group of youngsters used to assemble in his flat on Sunday nights. ‘Somehow I ended up leading the group – that’s always my trouble. I’m quite a good front man; I’m not terribly extrovert in unfamiliar company, but give me an audience and I’ll perform!’ Here he bumped into Bernard Cope again, and also met a youngster whose name, Inkpen, was familiar from the shop’s newspaper bills. Here, too, he met Annette – teamed up then with young Inkpen, and at that stage far too young for Nick! And here was the spiritual ground which nourished much of the Butterworth-Inkpen production.
Back to 1970, when Mick Inkpen joins the studio in his pre-Cambridge year off – and stays. Seven years younger than the rest, they enjoyed calling him ‘the lad’ because he was far more qualified than any of them yet worked for £10 a week (which they weren’t always flush enough to pay). Those were days of riotous fun, of crazy ‘mealy-mealy’ races ( mille miglia, it later dawned on Nick) when they ferociously propelled their chairs on castors along the tiled floor. Everyone moved into a house Leon and Nick bought, which eventually contained 11 people, including three couples and children. It was gloriously young and wild, and couldn’t go on, but from it grew four flourishing concerns.
In 1975 Nick married Annette, who’d become a teacher and his best friend. ‘We’ve got respect for each other going back to those early days.’ Today they’re partners in ‘the firm’ (i.e. Nick) and she does the accounts. They bought another house in Romford, which became a ‘hive of creative activity’ with Mick and Bernard renting upstairs rooms. Mick’s was just across from Nick’s, and those castors began rolling back and forth again with bright ideas.
Doodling one day, Nick developed four nursery rhyme illustrations intended as greetings cards, including a wool merchant Black Sheep in Romford market, with the fish stall of Annette’s dad in the background. ‘Why don’t you do a book?’ said all the galleries, so, overcoming his horror at the thought of doing 22 more, and encouraged by a near-miss at Hutchinson, he battled round ten publishers until Macdonald took it. Appearing in 1981, it led to the offer of a strip in the Sunday Express, alternating every six weeks with Rupert: he and Mick came up with a group of mice living on a deserted railway station – Upney Junction. It was to deal with this workload that the long partnership developed where Nick drew and Mick coloured. Together, for instance, they could in a day produce, one, even two, Gordon Fraser cards at £120, a useful back-up income and a proving ground for technique.
When the strip ended, Nick’s request to Anne Wood to spare an hour to talk about television brought them a nerve-wracking 18 months with TV AM’s Rub-A-Dub-Tub and Steven the Punk, Nick presenting and ‘Mick proving what a prolific, good writer he was!’ The Nativity Play was Butterworth’s first text (Hodder had asked for a Bible but ‘it wouldn’t have been a very mainstream Bible’ and he didn’t fancy drawing robes), coloured as usual by Inkpen but now with equal credit.
‘Until then I’d had star billing as a sort of senior partner in the production line’ (they’d once managed 450 illustrations in six months for a Nelson reading scheme), ‘as more of a front man than Mick, using my contacts, my personality. I hacked through the jungle, and he did the landscape gardening. But I learned a lot from his colouring, when he was exploring watercolours and I’d been using pen and inks with occasional pencil. My work has always been line-oriented and it used to be more laboured – a lot of texture, pattern work, airbrush work – until I realised that reproducing reality isn’t necessarily the best way of getting what you want across. Mick’s spontaneity and feeling for washes, his appreciation for abstract art, filled gaps for me; my strength in composition and draughtsmanship was perhaps something he could learn from. Over the years we shipped quite a lot across the bridge between us.’
The formidable number of their lovingly frolicsome books (partly because board books arrive in fours, like the nice little earners from Sainsbury’s) ended with Jasper’s Beanstalk in 1992, when their individual careers were gaining unstoppable momentum. They’re still good mates, living in the same neck of the woods and skiing together.
It might seem that Percy rules the Butterworth roost right now. One Snowy Night, rejected by Hodder but, after a little editorial tinkering, a bestseller for Collins, is due to take the Briggs slot on Christmas television in a classy animation he will supervise himself, and there is Percy merchandise in the offing. ‘Percy’s my best ticket to seeing this place paid for one day’, this place being a lovely old porticoed house in Constable country, light streaming through a row of full-length windows, with a bird-filled garden and acres of wild land behind.
But Percy may not have it all his own way. When Collins suggested Nick could fill the dearth of quality board books, he’d been nervous about abandoning Percy’s sales – until Croc, Whitey, George and their pals, with 11 foreign editions, sold over 660,000 in one year. Then their lift-the-flap adventures in All Together Now! seemed a very desirable next step. The flaps in this chuckly game of hide-and-seek themselves form part of the pictures, because, no matter how simple the design, he insists babies still get their money’s worth of detail – there’s even a second-reading secret to discover. Hippo he sees as a chubby baby, Wilson’s there because he likes giraffes, Croc was a draught excluder, while George, Millie (who was Nellie really) and Whitey the polar bear (who had to fight for his name against American sensitivities, a PC daftness Nick felt ‘undervalues the serious issues you do believe in’) belong to Amanda.
In any case he refuses to commit his future: ‘There’s no next time – this is my go, and I must make the most of it. I’d love to do experimental TV with children on location, spraying ideas, getting feedback from having the kids relaxed, not awestruck in a studio. I like performing, I like audiences as well as the solitude of the world I’ve created.’
It seems he’s inherited more than warmth and humour from his Dad.
Photographs by Richard Mewton.
Some of Nick Butterworth’s books:
All Together Now!, Collins, 0 00 198134 X, £8.99
Percy’s Park series:
One Snowy Night, 0 00 664318 3 pbk; 0 00 101046 8 pbk & tape
After the Storm, 0 00 664252 7 pbk; 0 00 100449 4 pbk & tape
The Rescue Party, 0 00 664376 0 pbk; 0 00 100600 2 pbk & tape
The Secret Path, 0 00 664505 4 pbk; 0 00 100602 9 pbk & tape
Collins Lions, pbk £4.99 each; pbk & tape packs £5.99 each
With Mick Inkpen:
The Nativity Play, Hodder, 0 340 38300 3, £7.99; 0 340 39894 9, £3.99 pbk
Jasper’s Beanstalk, Hodder, 0 340 55660 9, £8.99; 0 340 58634 6, £3.99 pbk