Behind the scenes
Roger Kettle explains the process of producing the Beau Peep cartoon strips.
How did you come up with each of the characters?
This question is a variation of the more usual "Where do you get your ideas from?" and my answer is the same. I sit down and think. There is no magic formula. Some characters work and develop over the years and others fall by the wayside. When I first came up with Beau Peep, I was simply looking for something geographically different and by some weird thought process, ended up in the desert. Then the Foreign Legion. Then some individuals who shouldn't really be there.
I don't think I've ever come up with a comic strip where all the characters were already in place. The starting point, for me, has always been the setting and the central character with the others joining in as the strip developed. Some worked and stayed on -- others didn't and disappeared.
Once the characters are established, the writing becomes much easier because you know how they'll react to any given situation. That's basically how I write these days -- dream up a situation and let the characters get on with it themselves.
I think all this underlines how difficult it would be to set out all your characters in advance. You have no idea how they will develop until you've been working on the strip for some time. Beau's character/personality changed drastically over the first year or so. He started as basically stupid, went through a "Bilko"-like phase, and has more or less ended up as a straight man to the lunacy of others. It's now a format that I'm comfortable with. I didn't plan it that way -- it just kind of evolved.
I don't really enjoy talking about the process of writing cartoon strips -- I don't understand it myself!
Do you feel that Andrew’s work has matured since you began Beau?
Very much so. In fact Andrew is very embarrassed by his early work on the strip.
I find that strange. I was going to level the criticism that his work recently seems somewhat rushed and not as well defined - the line work seems rather blunt and not as crisp as the early cartoons.
I suppose that could be a valid criticism. In the early days Andrew used a lot of ‘Zip-a-Tone’ [see bottom of the page - Ed] which gave a lot of depth to the panels. I myself think that his work has improved tremendously..
Did Andrew take a course at Art School?
No. I suppose he taught himself to draw by copying old comic book drawings. His early stuff was like/similar to Don Martin’s in MAD but he eventually developed his own distinctive style.
Where do you get your ideas from?
This much-asked question is one that has a really mundane answer. I sit down/lie down and think. The first thing I do is decide which characters will be appearing and then try to come up with a situation for them to react to. For example, let's say I've decided to feature The Nomad in this week's strips. The next step is to develop the theme. What would happen if, say, a bikini-clad woman turned up? Or a duck? As you can see, a lot of weeding has to be done.
Are there any restrictions to what you write?
There are confines in the sense of location also. You cannot have the characters going for a swim in the desert for example. The thing is that what happens to them could happen to anyone, anywhere.
There are certain restrictions but not as many as I thought there might have been when I started. I thought there was a possibility that it might dry up very quickly [desert pun? - Ed] but the more Andrew and myself produced the strip, the more avidly we went for it. If the characters are strong enough, it doesn’t matter anyway.
The classic example is Andy Capp. All he‘s got is the pub and his house, and is one of the best strips currently being published. It is amazing the standard Smythe [Reg Smythe, the original writer and artist of Andy Capp] had kept up -- it is all very fresh even after 20 years of drawing and writing it. (Roger comments here are from 1981, long before he wrote the scripts).
So Peep is similar in a variety of ways, none more than location? Beau’s adventures take place at the Fort or in the pub, and in limiting yourself thus, I imagine you have encountered many of the problems that Smythe did?
It is difficult to be original after a while . You tend to repeat things if you confine the location to one specific setting such as the Fort. We discovered this early on in producing the strip. We decided that there had to be another focal point other than the Fort, because of the geographical restrictions imposed by the Fort itself.
We found, by research, that any spare time a legionnaire had was spent in the pub. An actual Legionnaire told us that he used to have many days of blind drunkenness and it has been a good angle for us to use. Incidentally, in the original forts they used to have a pub and a brothel, but I thought it was best not to include that in the script!
In the foreward to Book 6, 'Beau' describes the research process:
"I thought it was time to explain how my two chroniclers set about their business. To capture the flavour of life in the Legion, months of research are needed.
To make my visits to the pub authentic, the lads (Roger Kettle, writer and Andrew Christine, artist) forced themselves to spend hours at a time in hundreds of bars throughout the country. "It was a terrible sacrifice," said Roger, "but one we felt necessary!"
Andrew agreed: "It was hell. Sometimes after hours of research, we could hardly stand."
To learn about the desert, Roger looked at a postcard of Morocco."
The creators deep in study.
Do you use cut-outs, puppets etc to help you come up with your new plots?
I have a staff of around 5,000. This includes 78 actors who live in a lodge in my grounds. When I write a script, I get them to act it out so that I can see how it sounds. Over the years, I've had to sack quite a few.
Hoffman, for example, was useless at "Dennis" and kept throwing in lines like "Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs Robinson?"
You see, this is the kind of stuff that the average person doesn't realise we cartoonists have to put up with.
How many of your ideas for strips are eventually not used? How do you decide whether they are funny or not?
I tend not to laugh at my own work when I look back at it. You'll find with most cartoonists that, when they look over old work, they usually see things that could have been done better. I do get the odd smile from a strip -- but only because I have no recollection of writing it!
I don't think you DECIDE if something is funny. It either is or it isn't.
While some ideas are obviously funnier than others, I like to think I keep up a reasonable standard. Sometimes, I'm going down a certain line and it simply doesn't work so I scrap the idea and start again.
There's a series from Book 1 that I really DON'T like. It's the one about Beau sitting by an oasis with his feet in the water. I remember, when I was writing it, thinking that a third foot appearing in the water would be funny. After that, I had no idea how to tie up the series and it doesn't half show.
Like every cartoonist, I cringe at a lot of my stuff when I re-read it but that particular one comes under the "what was I thinking?" category.
"Some time ago, I had an idea for my Horace strip that I openly posted on the Beau Peep site.
It involved the Medicine Man making up a potion and saying something like "Eye of lizard...liver of snake...knob of butter". I was basically looking for confirmation that I was doing the right thing by NOT using the script.
Needless to say, the unanimous decision was to go ahead but I never did. It just didn't feel comfortable for me to use that gag in...ahem...a family newspaper.
Why did the older strips tend to have 4 panels, but now they are down to 3?
We used four-frame strips, rather than three, quite a lot in those days. Andrew REALLY prefers the 3-frame format over the 4-frame one, but that's artists for you!
I don't know if you see the Daily Star these days but Beau Peep is allocated a minuscule amount of space and, on a practical note, it makes sense to stick with three frames. On the few occasions that I add an extra one, it tends to be wordless -- for example, a silent reaction from Beau (to something Dennis has said) before delivering the punch-line. This job isn't easy, you know. Well, it is but I'm hardly likely to admit it.
What was Beau Peep's childhood like? Or Dennis' for that matter.
They're cartoon characters. They had any kind of childhood you'd like.
Has your style changed over the years?
Andrew and I did a lot more visual stuff in the early days. As time went by, both the artwork and the writing evolved. (I'm not saying they evolved for the better but the difference is noticeable).
I'm acutely aware of the fact that most of my stuff these days is about "talking heads" and I do try to bring in some action situations from time to time. As I said earlier, this is why I hate analysing what I do -- I become more and more annoyed and frustrated with the whole process.
Why do all the characters in Beau Peep only have three fingers on each hand?
“If anyone asks me that question again, I'll give him a bunch of fours." © Andrew Christine, 1989
My guess is that it's more to do with simplicity. Cartooning is a sort of artistic shorthand (no pun intended) and it's easier -- and just as effective -- to use three fingers as a representation of the full set.
A letter from an eagle-eyed Daily Star reader in 1982
On the back of Book 2 it says Beau Peep takes over from where Laurel and Hardy left off. They joined the Foreign Legion in their 1931 film “Beau Chumps”. Did this influence you at all when you watched them?
Ah, yes....1931 in the cinema.... I had come to love the Talkies.... I can honestly say that, when I first came up with Beau Peep, I had no knowledge of the Laurel and Hardy film. I was never a huge fan, certainly not to the extent of knowing all their movies. After the strip appeared, it was then mentioned to me on several occasions, but I've still never seen "Beau Chumps".
I did, of course see "Beau Geste", which was my basic inspiration -- a simple spoof on an established heroic character.
On a similar theme, I remember getting a letter from a reader in the early days, asking if Beau and Dennis were based on Morecambe and Wise!
Stan & Ollie in 'Beau Chumps', Gary & Ray in 'Beau Geste', and Eric & Ernie in 'A Play What Ernie Wrote'.
What’s typical day like for a Beau Peep writer? Do you work from 9 till 5 or are you more flexible?
It varies quite a lot. I used to share a studio with Andrew and we would work an eight-hour day or even longer, but we gave the studio up for various reasons and I now work to a much more flexible time-table. I might decide to get up early or work in the evening instead. There is no set pattern - the work has to be done and you have deadlines to meet.
I'm usually at my desk by 9 a.m., having showered, breakfasted and ploughed through the Daily Star's in-depth political coverage. (Apparently some female M.P.s have enormous bazongas). The first thing I do is decide which characters will appear in this week's strips. Realising that The Vultures haven't featured for a while, I opt for them.
Okay, fifteen minutes have passed and I have come up with nothing. It's time to get into my "thinking position".
I move to the couch in my office and lie down, my sketch pad resting on my chest and pen in hand. I close my eyes and think. It's usually about 35 minutes later when I wake up. So now an hour has passed and not a single word has been written.
Roger Kettle, er, hard at work in his office at 11.25 AM.
Concentrate. Concentrate. What can The Vultures be up to? COFFEE ! Not The Vultures -- me. A quick break and a plough through the Daily Star's news section. (Apparently some female newsreaders have enormous bazongas). That's when panic sets in.
If I don't write at least three strips today, hopefully more, Horace and Andy Capp will get pushed back [Roger wrote this in 2008]. Then it happens. The moment of blinding inspiration.....just write the biggest heap of nonsense that comes into your head. And that's it. It's easy!
How long, on average, does it take you to think up each strip?
I write a 6-day series of Beau at one time. This may take a morning, a day or even two days I've written six Beau Peep strips (a week's material) in two hours. I've also written six Beau Peep strips in six days.
I write the scripts and draw out the figures, with expressions and word balloons, by pen on a drawing pad, and fax these scripts to Andrew (who is based in Fife, Scotland).
Using these rough sketches, Andrew will take 2-3 days doing the illustrating and the lettering. He then emails the finished work to The Star.
This is for six 4-panel strips, as we do them on a weekly basis, starting on a Monday and hand them over to the Daily Star on a Saturday. We work very closely on Beau Peep and depend greatly on each other.
Andrew Christine in his studio.
Roger Kettle not on his couch.
Four and a half days at eight hours a day is about 36 hours, which is 6 hours per strip, about one word every ten minutes. Are you a slow writer or do you spend most of that time imagining things that don't work?
It’s how creative you are at the time. There are times when I just can't think of anything, there are times when I can't concentrate to START thinking of anything, there are times when I feel crap, there are times when a bereavement has knocked me sideways and there are times when I just don't feel like working. And there are times when the ideas flow and it's the best job in the world. In short, I'm just like everybody else in every walk in life.
Do you regret that by doing a newspaper strip such as Beau Peep, you cannot get the depth of characterisation or plot and you can in a comic?
Quite often it’s a question of never having enough space no matter how many panels or pages. When I was writing Beryl the Peril, which had 17-20 frames on one page, it is a different sell. You could say things in 17 frames that you obviously cannot do in four, but it’s only the style. The only time it bothers me is occasionally I like to leave a frame with nothing happening in it, to strengthen the punch-line, and sometimes there is not enough room to do so. We have tried 5 frames but it is a bit awkward and the finished strip tends to look unattractive.
What about the half-page Beau Peep strips?
These were Christmas specials. We were asked if we would like to try and produce such a strip and it appealed to us. I enjoyed doing that strip, but again, there were some restrictions -- we had to try to get every character in at one stage and this did not work very well. I would like to do the strip in a Sunday newspaper on the lines of Peanuts in the Observer.
Are you a perfectionist?
The cartoonists who visit this site will empathise with this. At any given time, I have about four weeks of Beau Peep scripts in stock, ready to send out to Andrew. It's a tiny bit of breathing space but it keeps me sane.
Today, as I was working on some more strips, my mind drifted back to the stuff I'd written a month ago and, in particular, a punch-line I'd used in one of them. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that one of the words should have been accentuated. This bugged me so much that, realising it would be among the scripts I was about to send to Andrew, I dug out the strip concerned and changed "is" to "IS". I hope you appreciate the work us guys put in. It's not all champagne, helicopters and naked super-models.
I also spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to get the "rhythm" of the dialogue right. Often a joke works better if a key word has, say, three syllables rather than two and I'll trawl around my brain till I find what I think works best. By the way, does anyone else have to check the dictionary every time they use the word "rhythm"?
Do you ever ask your family, "Does this work?"
My daughter is pretty tuned in to my work and, before she moved out, I would turn to her if I had doubts about an idea.
I tend not to show the strips to my wife -- she has a habit of wanting to re-word the whole thing and throw in a pirate or something.
'Zip-A-Tone' has been applied here to show texture for the sky
'Zip-A-Tone' was a brand of pre-printed adhesive sheets used in the 'screentone' technique -- widely used by artists and illustrators for adding textures and shades to their drawings. The sheet was applied to the artwork, adhesive down, cut to size and shape, and rubbed with a stylus on the backing side. The backing was then peeled off, leaving the ink pattern adhered to the paper where the pressure was applied.
A screentone saves an artist's time by allowing quick application of textures to line art where a hand-shaded area would not be reproduced in a consistent or acceptable manner. It's especially used on cartoons and advertising artwork, and the size and spacing of the black dots, lines, or hatches determine how light or dark an area will appear in the published work.
Nowadays, use of the adhesive sheets has been largely superseded by computer graphics software and desktop publishing. Manufacture of 'Zip-A-Tone' itself ceased in 1992.
I'm not a hundred per cent sure of the protocol involved but I think you get to choose your own title. I think I'll go for Sir Roger of Beaufort (Beau...fort...geddit?)