Almanac Art: The Broons and Oor Wullie turn 80

As a summer’s morning passed into afternoon on August 20, 1969, the news began to filter through the streets of Broughty Ferry, near Dundee, about the death of Dudley Dexter Watkins, the reclusive fellow with a Midlands accent, whom the locals had often half-glimpsed but never known.

The blinds were drawn at “Winsterley” in Reres Road, the family residence of Watkins, an individual whose taste extended to elaborate red-brick fireplaces, hand-crafted inglenooks, antique furniture and a sprawling garden, the splendour of which was dramatically at odds with the greyness of the surrounding abodes.

Yet few people were aware of this veritable Bunkerton Castle in their midst and fewer still had been invited across the threshold, such was the privacy with which Watkins shrouded his affairs.

It even extended to the brief and prosaic notice of his demise in the Dundee Courier. “Watkins – very suddenly on Wednesday 20th August, Dudley Dexter, dearly beloved husband of Doris.”

“Funeral at Barnhill Cemetery on Saturday 23rd. All friends wishing to attend, please meet at 11am. (No letters, please).”

These wishes were certainly respected. There were no obituaries in the national press, no television programmes marking his passing. Even Watkins’ employers, DC Thomson & Co, carried just a couple of paragraphs in the Dundee Courier, and a passport-sized photograph.

Such lack of interest might seem strange now as we celebrate the 80th anniversary of Oor Wullie and The Broons. Watkins, after all, was the man who breathed glorious life into these cartoon strips and also regaled us with Desperate Dan, Lord Snooty, Biffo the Bear and a host of other characters during a career whose breadth, imagination and eye for surrealism stamped him out as one of the greatest cartoon artists of his generation.

Who says? More to the point, who doesn’t? “There is robust humour, confident line and a remarkable amount of action in every frame,” declared George Perry, who wrote a comprehensive book on the history of comic art in the United Kingdom.

“It sounds corny, but his creations are immortal and Watkins really was one of the few British comic geniuses.”

That is an opinion now shared across the generation gap, political spectrum or indeed any normal distinctions of race, gender or class, and Watkins has recently been accorded due exhibitions and honours in recognition of his gifts.

Indeed, his reputation has risen the more that time has passed, whether in the plaudits of the Dictionary of Scottish Art and Architecture – “Beneath his simplification lay a confident draughtsmanship, a capacity for effective compositions and a profound instinct for well-selected detail”.

There were generous accolades from a host of disparate judges such as Johnny Rotten (think Oor Wullie with a steel comb), the Guardian’s Steve Bell and Ronald Searle, the instigator of the original St Trinian’s films, who latched on to one of Watkins’ abiding themes – Children v Adults as full-blown warfare -and subsequently steered the notion to its logical conclusion of mayhem.

Elsewhere, we can detect myriad signs of his influence on modern-day cartoonists, who have picked up on the quirkier, spunkier and radical traits of such eternal figures as Oor Wullie.

What about Bart Simpson, the brainchild of America’s Matt Groening, whose overactive imagination, disobedience, and general distrust of authority carry evocative resonances with Watkins’ own enfant terrible, who was first pictured on his bucket complaining “Ah’m fed up. I never get any fun here” in March 1936.
One Simpsons episode commenced to the familiar refrain of Bart huffily scribbling the lines on a blackboard: “I will not eat things for money.”

A unique concept? Well, why not turn to the pages of one of the collections of the best of The Broons and Oor Wullie from the 1950s and you will unearth the latter mimicking a variation on that very ploy by swallowing a shilling to hoodwink his buddies, Fat Bob and Soapy Soutar.

It’s incredible how much things have changed since the initial, slightly hesitant launch of the “Sunday Post” Fun Section in 1936 (Watkins envisaged the commission would last around 6-8 weeks) through to the wonderfully-depicted visions of Desperate Dan sinking U-boats in the 1940s, Paw and Granpaw Broon reacting incredulously to the arrival of teddy boys in the Fabulous Fifties, and Oor Wullie actually contemplating the dread prospect of romance in the Swinging Sixties.

Then suddenly, at 62, Watkins was gone and the management of the Sunday Post quickly found he was nigh irreplaceable. Yet his legacy still resonates.

The journalist and author, George Rosie, was one of the multitude who marvelled at his work. He said: “The fact is that Dudley Watkins was a major figure whose sheer brilliance has never been properly recognised. He crossed all barriers and transcended all boundaries.

“Whether you were right-wing or left-wing, an atheist or a devout church-goer, he had the great gift of being able to make you laugh. And he was incredibly prolific with it.”

Just how prolific is almost breathtaking. There were illustrated versions of Treasure Island, Oliver Twist, Robinson Crusoe, King Solomon’s Mines and Kidnapped. And numerous postcards, calendars, annuals, summer specials, Biblical depictions and nativity scenes.

An intensely serious young man when he first arrived in Dundee at the age of 18 in 1925, he’s remembered as an enigma wrapped inside a riddle whose solution remains unsolved.

Why did he leave Nottingham when the local educational authority had decided, while Watkins was still at school, that he was “an artistic genius for his age?” Apparently, nobody has a clue.

Why did he push a pencil and an inking-pen for almost 10 years as an anonymous draughtsman, supplementing his modest wage by teaching life-drawing at Dundee Art College, when there were better offers elsewhere?

Again, it’s a mystery which might tax the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot.

Curiously, too, his cartoon protagonists never exude piety or sanctimony – on the contrary, school swots, mincing choir members and prissy ministers are regularly pilloried and lampooned.

Yet their artist was brought up in a strict Baptist household, and Watkins was never happier than during his infrequent opportunities to escape on expeditions to the Holy Land, where he and Doris (whom he met as a member of the Church of Christ in Dundee) could discuss the Gospels and preach to disadvantaged children.

And what did he do in the fight against Hitler? “Well, to be honest, I’m not really sure,” responded James Barnes, the son of the late Albert Barnes, editor of the Dandy from 1937 to 1982.

“I do know he produced a huge amount of cartoon strips which were designed to raise morale and bolster the Home Front. Digging for victory and so on.

“But beyond that, he was a very shy, retiring chap. You rarely caught sight of him, and even when he ended up buying a house in the street next to where I lived, he left virtually no impression on me.

“The Midlands accent, the smart suits… no, I would suppose that his head was buzzing with a hundred different things, but, as far as I can recall, the only time he genuinely came to life was when he sat down at his big leather desk in his study and started on his next assignment.”

In truth, Watkins spent the Second World War in a Fife-based Home Guard company, clock-watching on duty and proving much more valuable when away from the Dad’s Army tableaux of rules and regulations, involving gas-mask training and watching out for strangers or black-marketeers.

Typically, though, one would never have guessed his mundane role from the vivid strips of Spitfires, bomb shelters, and patriotic pieces of Nazi-bashing which stamped his work from that period.

But it was the humour and anarchistic streak which stuck out. Watkins was the man who produced such a memorable seam of images over 40 years and whose lustre shines as brightly as it did at the apotheosis of his powers.

The tour de force was Oor Wullie, the larrikin, devil-may-care customer, perpetually tormented by his conscience, before stealing another cake or breaking another window, and prone to dreams about nocturnal visitations on Hogmanay by talking giant feet and angry rabbits.

And, of course, the Broons, a side-splittingly funny group of tenement-dwellers, full of family tensions and unrequited passions, and sufficiently universal that Glaswegians, Dundonians, Fifers and Teuchters claimed them as their own, but also infused with enough flesh-and-blood parochialism to make Glebe Street their special community.

The contradictions in Watkins’ life are boundless. He was proud of his cartoons for the Young Warrior, a religious publication financed by the Worldwide Evangelisation Crusade, which warned against children falling foul of adults.

Yet most of the comic output flourished from the very antithesis of that message.

He tended to dash off his best black-and-white cartoons at breakneck speed, yet lingered over his watercolour paintings, which were persistently mediocre. Rather like Arthur Conan Doyle, who lamented how Sherlock Holmes’ fame superseded his (now-ignored) historic novels, posterity arrived by an unorthodox path.

The Watkinses had one son, Roger, who went to Fettes College and became a doctor. But Dudley’s fame will exist forever, thanks to a spiky wee lad who’s still sitting on a bucket and raising a glass of pop to his 80th anniversary.

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  1. Kate Birrell says

    Thanks for the introduction to Dudley Dexter Watkins and great read on his background. A quick search showed me some images and they a little ‘Norman Rockwellesque’

    Now I want to know more.

  2. Neil Drysdale says

    Thanks Kate, he was a mass of contradictions. A bit like Conan Doyle, he wanted to be remembered for something else, but history divined otherwise. For Sherlock, read Oor Wullie. Watkins thought he was a great painter, but almost nobody else agreed. Yet his cartoon strips were fantastic and he was the Matt Groening of his generation.

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