One of Britain's best-loved cartoon characters celebrates his 60th birthday this week. Our reporter charts the life and times of Dennis the Menace, the naughtiest boy in the world
ONE evening in early 1951, when ration cards remained a prized possession and television had only just begun to flicker in the corners of the most affluent homes, two men entered the bar of the St Michael's Inn, just outside St Andrews, in search of pints of alcoholic lubrication and a dram of artistic inspiration.
Ordering drinks and breaking the seal of a fresh pack of cigarettes was Ian Chisholm, the chief sub editor of The Beano and Davey Law, one of DC Thomson's most popular artists. The task in hand was to create a new comic character for Britain's best-selling children's comic, a naughty schoolboy inspired by Law's cartoon strip, The Wee Fella, which was about a cheeky baby then running in The People's Journal. The editor of the Beano, George Moonie, had set the pair the task of creating a character to go with the name "Dennis The Menace", which he had plucked from an old music hall song whose chorus went: "I'm Dennis The Menace from Venice, the gay gondolier with gold rings in my ear…"
The pair had spent many unsuccessful days in the "Fun Factory" – the name given to the second floor of DC Thomson's offices in Albert Square, Dundee, where the comics department was based – and had now taken the ferry over the Tay to where they regularly played golf. As Law sketched, Chisholm was suddenly seized with inspiration and quickly doodled an image on the back of his cigarette packet of a knobbly-kneed boy with dark spiky hair. A cartoon classic was born.
Sixty years ago this coming Thursday Dennis the Menace made his first appearance in the pages of The Beano. He was then smartly dressed in a shirt and tie, but so cheeky in his insistence on walking on the grass, despite the park notice to the contrary that he ended the nine-panel strip on a leash. The strip was introduced to young readers: "Look! Here's a new pal you'll enjoy – He's the world's wildest boy!" The distinctive red-and-black striped jumper was introduced two months later, when Dennis strapped a cluster of rockets to his friend and so blew him clean out of his jumper, which he then commandeered. As small boys do.
Dennis was an instant hit with Beano readers. By 1953 he had graduated to a two-page coloured strip, in red and black, and by 1962 he was on the back cover in full colour, the second most popular slot. Gnasher, his faithful hound, arrived on the pages in August 1968, and again his design was a touch of genius.
Watching the artist struggle to come up with a suitable look, the then editor Ian "Smokie" Gray, so named as he hailed from Arbroath, told the artist to take Dennis's hair, stick a face at one end, a tail at the other and place a leg at each corner, and lo and behold, the ten-year-old was the proud owner of an Abyssinian wire-haired tripe hound.
For older readers, the memory of Dennis the Menace and how he terrorised Walter the Softie, the bow-tied goodie-two-shoes, is invariably wrapped up with the "slipperings" delivered at the end of the strip by his moustached father. So frequently was Dennis beaten, that the scriptwriters would leave the final panel blank and allow the artists to indulge themselves with seasonal variations, so he was leathered with a cricket bat in summer, a broomstick at Hallowe'en. When it was his granny delivering the punishment, "The Demon Whacker", made from elephant hide, was used.
The slipper was last wielded in 1980, one of a number of changes to the comic strip over the decades. Maurice Heggie, a former editor of The Dandy and a historian of The Beano says: "When I worked on The Beano in the 1970s every second adventure ended with corporal punishment, but that was what it was like in the schools. One of the great things about Dennis and how we operate is that the scripts are written in-house and week to week so whatever is affecting kids in the UK always influences the scriptwriters and, as corporal punishment was phased out in the school, so it was phased out in the comic.
"But the moralistic story stayed the same: if Dennis was very naughty there was a punishment … The best for Dennis was to have to do something he considered soppy, to put a flowery apron on him and make him do the dishes. It was not doing the dishes he would hate, it was his pals seeing him do the dishes."
WHILE many readers would disagree – particularly those boys who grew up empathising with Walter the Softie – Maurice Heggie believes that Dennis was never a bully, behaviour which has been treated more seriously over the past few decades and is no longer viewed as just a schoolyard prank. "I never saw him as a bully because the characters of the softies were so dreadful, they had no redeeming features either.
But if Dennis was bullying them, then there was a punishment. There was never a script out of DC Thomson where a bully succeeded – there was always a punishment – however horrible Dennis was with his water pistol, be sure that round the corner there was an elephant with a trunkful of water for him. He's changed over the years, but he's not changed … He is essentially out for mischief all the time."
Over the years Dennis the Menace has changed, but usually to attract publicity around an anniversary, such as his 40th birthday when he exchanged his striped jumper for a tracksuit, shades and a personal stereo. The look lasted a single issue, before he was back in his shorts. He did, however, find himself landed with a little sister in 1998 when The Beano took the novel decision to feature a pregnancy in a children's comic for the first time. For weeks prior to the big day, Dennis's mother was behaving strangely much to her son's dismay. All was revealed when the cover had Dennis's dad exclaim: "It's a girl" and so Bea was to become the latest resident of Beanotown.
Yet those who think Dennis has lost his edge be warned. "We'll be happy to send him round to the office of anyone who thinks Dennis is no longer a menace," says Michael Stirling, who took over the editor's seat of The Beano a few weeks ago and who scripted the BBC animated series of Dennis The Menace. "He is still as troublesome as he ever was and that's what children love about him."
The naughty schoolboy has been a constant through children's literature, with characters such as Just William and Billy Bunter, and it is a tradition that Dennis carries on today. The editor believes many readers would like to be just like Dennis. "The Beano readers are generally quite a nice bunch, pretty intelligent and they might not be like Dennis in real life, but they like to imagine they are him.
"Parents see him as a menace, but kids just want to be him and the cool thing about Dennis is that anybody can be him. It's like the fact that football is the best game because you just use jumpers as a goalposts.
"Dennis is like that, he doesn't have any superpower, he does not turn into an alien, he does not look distinctive in a way that children can't imitate. It's amazing how many pictures we get sent in of kids who have dressed up as Dennis."
For John McShane, a former teacher who has had to deal with his share of wannabe Dennis the Menaces, the character is wonderfully designed.
McShane, a comic historian and founder of AKA Books & Comics in Glasgow, says: "He was such an original looking character. In the early days it was not in full colour but had a red overlay, but Davy Law, the artist, made a virtue out of this necessity by having the red-and-black striped T-shirt. The mantra in design classes is: 'Black and Red will always be read.' And that spiky hair! Unforgettable. Then that cheeky expression. Cartoonists talk about drawings just 'coming right'; that expression is perfect. Dennis is not actually evil … Dennis just wants fun and is prepared to accept the consequences."
John McShane also points out how clever the writing in the comic could be, with one episode partly in rhyme:
Dennis: "No money.
Dad: "Dear Lad,
A clear moral code runs through the comics which McShane argues should not be underestimated. "Dennis's Dad was no wimp. He dealt as best he could with his wild child … Dennis never got away with his pranks. Kids these days don't like being told what to do. Our society is not better for getting rid of these stories. As for whether Walter was gay, I don't know. He certainly needed to stand up for himself. Our sympathies were never with him because he didn't stand up to Dennis. Bullies have to be stood up to; another good lesson for any society."
There is one reader who has enjoyed Dennis The Menace's company for the past 60 years. At the age of 89, Jimmy Andison has the distinction of being the oldest member of The Beano's fanclub and still collects a copy each week at his local newsagent in Edinburgh to catch up on Dennis's latest jape. Only after Mr Andison has thoroughly perused his copy does his wife pass The Beano on to their ten-year-old grandson, David. The loyalty which the retired motor engineer has displayed down through the decades was once rewarded with a visit to The Beano's office.
"I was given a cup of tea and a biscuit and when I looked back the biscuit was gone," he laughs. Perhaps Gnasher was peckish. "Dennis the Menace is just a great character, he gets into trouble, but he knows how to get out of it, not like the kids today. I think he has changed over the decades, but so have kids. When I was a lad you ran out the door and your parents didn't give a thought to where you were, so long as you turned up for your tea. Dennis still has that lost spirit of adventure."
But what if Dennis had outgrown his shorts, if he had moved from little boy to grown man, what would he have done? It's a question David Sutherland, who drew the character for 28 years, from 1970 until his retirement in 1998, has often pondered. The father of two daughters, Sutherland often joked that Dennis was the son he never had, and now, aged 77 and still drawing Dennis for Christmas annuals and summer specials, he thinks he knows the answer: "He'd have joined the SAS – where else can you get up to such mischief and get away with it?"