As someone who, among their proudest achievements, can count having one of their less funny submissions printed in Viz comic’s ‘Letterbocks’, it feels like a particular privilege to have the opportunity to intrude into the pub quiz preparation time of Simon Thorp, who – along with Graham Dury – is one of the title’s two remaining long-term contributors.

For the unhappily uninitiated, Viz, especially since a rash of imitators cleared up at the turn of the century, is that most unique of publications – one that defines its own genre. The main grist to its mill is the type of comic strips that proliferated in children’s weeklies in the 1970s, in which improbable characters, whose forenames often rhymed fortuitously with their defining qualities, would engage in repetitive, allegedly comedic capers, ending – as though they had been written by the hard-line behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner – in the reward of a ‘feast’ or the punishment of a caning.

Ground down by the master bakers of Viz, such apparent chaff would emerge from its Tyneside ovens with all the wheat-like goodness of a Fru T. Bunn, an 8 Ace or a Mrs. Brady, Old Lady; improbable characters whose surnames only rarely rhyme with their defining qualities, who engage in repetitive, actually comedic capers, rarely ending in corporal punishment or a feast. Except for The Fat Slags which could potentially climax in either. Or both.

Less uniquely, but with an exorcist’s ear for the devil in the detail, it also parodies the breathless inanities of the ‘real-life’ story weeklies, along with the lazy over-statement of tabloid journalese.

Culturally rooted in the rich top soils of British humour, from Les Dawson to Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob, Too, it’s so unique and beloved an institution that its omission from Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony seems simply slipshod on his part.

I say none of this to Thorp, as I’m too busy trying to get the ‘record’ device on my phone to work. If I had done, I’m sure that he would have met my effusions with the same combination of good humour and self-effacement with which he endured my other lines of question, a saintly patience made possible perhaps by his reflection that “we don’t get interviewed very much”.

Very much the antithesis of a diva, Thorp still takes issue with Randy Crawford who bemoaned the fact that she was always asked the same questions during a local radio interview. “She was horrible,” he observes mildly of the Rainy Night In Georgia hit-maker.

The pretext for our conversation is his forthcoming appearance at this year’s Lakes International Comics Art Festival, his first without co-conspirator, Dury. There’s a case to be made that the two are the Andersson and Ulvaeus of niche British humour publications. Indeed, up until the time of Covid, in their own equivalent of Viggso, the island to which ABBA would retreat to compose their melancholy melodies, the two would convene in Dury’s shed in Whitley Bay to put together the latest issue of Viz. 

I wondered if there had ever been a danger of a sundering of the kind that had torn apart the fraternal comedy partnership of Mike and Bernie Winters? The answer, of course, is “no”. Working in the shed, they devised a pad-based system in which, in a civilised echo of the conch in Lord Of The Flies, the collaborator with the stationery, if they thought their co-writer’s suggestion wasn’t funny, they “wouldn’t write it down”. However, if the maker of the spurned suggestion went on to draw the strip, they’d simply “put it back in again”.

Given the richness of the pickings offered by Thorp and Dury, along with the other revolving cast such as Davey Jones and Barney Farmer over the years, it seemed to me a shame that they were less well-known than some of the other double acts Thorp volunteered that he admired, like Tom & Jerry, or Laurel & Hardy.

I asked whether they had ever considered credits, in the vein of their American counterparts? In fact, Thorp explained, they had once initialled their work (something a quick glance at the latest issue confirmed that some artists continue to do), but, where there were many collaborators, this proved unwieldy. And, in any case, he added, “no-one would be interested”.

With that characteristic piece of modesty, I let Thorp continue with his pre-quiz rituals. His team, The Liquorice Allsorts, were on something of a roll, and he was in two minds about trouncing his rivals again, all the more so because his vet was a member of one of the rival ensembles, and it does not do to make an enemy of your vet.

Considerate, unassuming and funny to the point of physical pain, like the slightly disquieting homunculus who used to advertise the confectionery from which he and his quiz confederates take their name, it’s just possible that Thorp and Viz itself may be, like Bertie Bassett, ‘Britain’s greatest asset’.

By Desmond Bullen

 

The Lakes International Comic Art Festival takes place from October 14-16, 2022. For more information, click here. 

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