Monday 24 March 2008


One of the joys of the British Film Institute (and thank you, Ian for getting me back into the National Film Theatre-going habit) is the NFT's frequent retrospectives that embrace not just film but also television.

Last month I was enjoying two nostalgic hours in the company of Flanders and Swann; a few nights ago I was transported to the sleepy little village of Nutwood, the starting point of a series of incredible exploits and adventures featuring the one and only Rupert Bear.

Ceaselessly cheerful, tirelessly plucky and endlessly resourceful Rupert Bear is eighty-eight years old and yet as youthful as ever.

The NFT's 'Rupert Night' programme included a sketch from The Two Ronnies in which Ronnie Corbett appeared as Rupert Baird (a little fellow in red jersey, checked trousers and scarf who could only speak in rhyme!) and a clip from The Likely Lads with Terry and Bob arguing about whether one of Rupert’s friends was called 'Edward the Elephant' or 'Edward Trunk'.

Also shown were a couple of episodes from Mary Turner's 'seventies TV puppet series (right) and the classic documentary about Rupert’s longest serving artist, Alfred Bestall, made by Terry (Monty Python) Jones a quarter of a century ago.

Rupert first appeared in November 1920 in a comic strip created by Mary Tourtel for the Daily Express newspaper as part of its bid to win readers from their rivals the Daily Mail which featured a popular strip about Teddy Tail.

In 1935, when Mary Tourtel retired, the task of drawing Rupert - and writing his adventures - fell to illustrator and Punch artist, Alfred Bestall, and the following year he produced the evocative art for The New Adventures of Rupert - the very first Rupert Annual…

Out of respect to the Rupert’s creator, Bestall - a modest, self-effacing man - didn’t sign his artwork until after Mary Tourtel’s death in 1948.

Alfred Bestall wrote and illustrated a staggering 273 Rupert stories (mostly for the daily newspaper publication but with others produced specially for the annuals) until his own retirement in 1965.

I only ever saw the newspaper strip when I visited my paternal grandparents, but I was given several Rupert annuals over the years, this being the first...

Heaven only knows where it is now!

What I really loved about Rupert was the format of the albums: the running headings that were a synopsis of each story with little figures in the top corner of each page; the four-frame picture-story, the rhyming couplets that told the story under each picture in not-very-sophisticated doggerel and then the prose telling of the tale that appeared at the bottom of the page just as it did under the panels in the newspaper.

Then there were the activities-pages with puzzles, origami models (which I never successfully made) and, in later numbers, magic painting pages.

And, for me, the highlight of ever annual: Bestall’s wonderful full-colour wrap-around cover plus those enchanting endpapers showing the coutryside around Nutwood and other wonderful landscapes - sometimes seascapes - that combined the real and fanciful into a dreamworld that still haunt the memory…

Then, of course there were the stories - packed with wild escapades, amazing expeditions curious inventions and extraordinary characters that secure these little narratives a place among the most inventive writing for children in the twentieth century.

There were mysteries, too, such as why it was that inside the books Rupert had a white face, hands and boots but on the cover was a brown bear in brown boots!

The one exception (right) was the 1973 annual where someone at the Daily Express impudently altered Alfred Bestall’s artwork for the cover in order to match the interior!

The dozen or so proof copies with a brown-faced Rupert (below) are greatly sought-after and hysterically valuable! In fact, it might just be worth checking your attics!

Another mystery, of course, was the way in which clothed animals and human beings - not to mentions giants, wizards, dragons, unicorns, mermaids, goblins, pixies and living toys - co-habited in a fantastical universe.

Indeed, Terry Jones, during a Q&A session following the screenings, recalled how, in one story Rupert encounters a talking cat and is utterly astonished by the fact as though he were not, himself a talking bear!

But then, in a way, Rupert isn’t really a bear he is a boy - a young child - you and I, the reader - wearing a bear-faced mask!

Equally curious was the fact that the human characters wear a wide range of costuming: medieval doublets and hose, Georgian knee-breeches and buckle shoes, Victorian skirts and bonnets, ‘twenties plus-fours and brogues and forties three-piece suits.

‘Rupert Night’ also featured the music video of Paul McCartney’s 1984 hit, 'Rupert and the Frog Song', so there was even more nostalgia as we all remembered those lyrics about standing together…

The last Rupert annual cover Alfred Bestall ever painted was that one on which Rupert turned white, but other artists carried on the work including Alex Cubie, John Harrold and Stuart Trotter (right) who has recently taken over the care of the bear and who is a worthy inheritor of the Rupert legacy. Thanks to everyone who keeps Rupert on the track of new adventures.

And thanks to the NFT: meeting up with Rupert and his chums - Bill Badger, Algy Pug, Podgy Pig, Willy Mouse, Pong Ping the Pekingese and Edward Trunk (yes, that was his name!) - was an opportunity to be reunited with old and much-loved friends!

"Goodness," said Rupert, "it's been such fun,
Eighty-eight years and I've just begun!"

To learn more about Rupert's world, his creators and the annuals, visit The Followers of Rupert

And if you're in the market for some old Rupert Annuals, visit The Official Classic Rupert Bear Mail Order Shop


Boll Weavil said...

I'm not much of a Rupert fan really but you did jog my memory with the pictures.I remember coming home from school at dinnertime to watch the tv series. I have to admit I really like the Frog Song to....

Anonymous said...

Oh, the frog song... I sang that song till my family said "Stop!, can you learn another please?"..

Brian Sibley said...

GILL comments...

Thank you for brightening up this horrid grey morning with the Frog song!

Although my mother was a life-long Daily Express reader [her excuse later in life was that she could do the crossword!], I never really took to Rupert. I'm not sure why, but I think it was to do with the relentless rhymes which did and do irritate the life out of me!

Giles cartoons though! These made me laugh way before I could really understand the acid observation they represented.

Brian Sibley said...

GILL - Forgive my being nerdy about this, but the rhymes never appeared as part of the Rupert strip in the 'Daily Express', they were only ever added when the stories were published in the annuals. But yes, the doggerel was pretty dreadful and, apparently, not much liked by Alfred Bestall who did not write them!

As for Giles... Yes! Brilliant draughtsman and superb observer of human nature. My dad was a huge fan of his work and ever year I'd buy him the new Giles annual for Christmas. I often look back over them - a great slice of 20th century British social history...

Diva of Deception said...

I loved my Rupert annuals, had one every year, but only remember ever reading the rhymes and rarely the actual story!

I guess all my annuals perished in the 'Great Flood of the Rented Garage' in 1992 along with all my costumed dolls and other childhood souvenirs....

Brian Sibley said...

GILL comments...

You are allowed to be a nerd! Don't know why I remember the rhymes if they weren't in the newspaper.......perhaps I was given an annual. Maybe I just couldn't get past the awful trousers!!!

Brian Sibley said...

GILL - I don't have the checked trousers, but I must remember NOT to wear my Rupert scarf when I next come to visit!! ;-)

Brian Sibley said...

SUE (Kalymnos) asks...

Please can you tell me the name of the strange little "twig" creature with the blue "trunk", shown with Rupert on your Blog? I remember reading the annuals but his/her name completely escapes me.

Brian Sibley said...

SUE - I'm not entirely sure about the gender, but the character was a temperamental tree troll whom Rupert named Raggety.

This character - though only a minor one in the 'Rupert canon' seems to have an lingered long in the memories - and nightmares - of those who grew up with Rupert.

You can read more about him and various other sprites, elves and pixies in this article from The Followers of Rupert's Nutwood Newsletter.

Alan Murray said...

The Followers of Rupert get more emails about Ragetty than about any other Nutwood character - so Afred Bestall clearly spooked a lot of you with the grumpy little so-and-so!
Nice to see Rupert being discussed with such affection and interest and flattered to have my article on elves and Rupert cited (anyone spot the Pauline Baynes connection in it?).
For me, Rupert is part of an imaginative continuum that led me through Narnia and Middle Earth to Wessex and Hardy and beyond. He began a gradual stretching of my reading tastes that's not finished yet ... and I still love my Rupert Annuals. Who else would take you through a door in the London Underground, during the queen's coronation, and thence via an animals' underground network of escalators and conveyor belts, back home safely to Nutwood? The same wee bear that would also take you to Blue Moonshine land, on a flying quilt (in your dressing gown) to replace Daddy Bear's broken Christmas present.
It's not all dodgy doggerel - the stories and the artwork are of incredibly high quality - and it's still going on. Rupert has a new artist/writer in Stuart Trotter, and I think we're about to see a new purple period in Nutwood.
PS : I do have a pair of Rupert trousers .. and very fine (and expensive ... from Bertie Wooster in London's Oxford Street!) they are.

Winnydayit said...

What Alan didn't mention is that he wrote the rhymes for the 2006 Annual.
I sat beside him on many evenings as he worked away lost in the world of Rupert. Sometimes I wonder if I might wake up next to a bear with red jumper, checked trousers and a scarf!
We have some pieces of original Bestall artwork but not the slippers or tins of Rupert spaghetti that some people collect.
I am not as big a Rupert fan as Alan but I love the artwork of Bestall and am looking forward to seein this year's Annual drawn by Stuart Trotter. Stuart is a lovely man and like Pauline not aware of his talent.He is very nervous about how Rupert fans will take to his style.
I've seen a sneak preview from the annual and was very impressed.

Brian Sibley said...

ALAN & WINNYDAYIT - Thank you both for leaving comments - even if its almost five months later! That's what I love about blogs - always something to be discovered... A bit like a Rupert adventure really!