Monthly Archives: March 2015


Robert Duncan turns his attention to an art form that’s as English as fish and chips, and as seasidey as your bucket and spade…

Considering the time, the twenties right through to the fifties mainly, McGill was very risqué (and probably quite risky) indeed. His busty young girls, enormous and bad tempered older women, and skinny little red faced blokes spent their lives talking in double entendres, fooling around behind breakwaters, making crass remarks about odd shaped fruits, and taking the piss out of vicars. He frequently got into trouble, from the publishers, from the public at large, and mainly from the local authority of the seaside town where his cards were displayed. Apparently these upright clean living citizens, these doyens of society, actually had editorial control on the new season’s McGill masterpieces, and would, as they probably put it, pass a resolution.

Ronnie Barker (who knew my father so there) was an enormous fan of the classic seaside dirty postcard, and owned an enviable collection of these fabulous examples of the cartoonists’ art. And he should know humour – he delivered the very best of it throughout his lovely lifetime. I’m sure he was far funnier than the average councillor.

Without taking reference from any McGill collection, in books or on the internet, I will tell you my personal favourite. Vicar walking along the other side of the road. Two busty girls discussing him. One says to the other ” she wanted to marry him but his stipend is too small.” Tee hee.

Later in this piece I will have referred to my own book on the subject, which I will lace seamlessly into this curiously exciting article, to the extent that you will never tell whether I’ve been away from my iPad keyboard or not. There you are. You didn’t notice did you?

Regular readers of my deathless prose will know that I have a great affinity with the Isle of Wight. So it will come as no surprise that Mr McGill features on that fabled land somewhere. And here it is. There was a Donald McGill Museum half way up Union Street in Ryde, on that very island. I was down there with my team and we visited this fantastic exhibition before meeting v old friends Mary and Graham for lunch. Located at the back of an incredibly stylish coffee shop, with murals and frescoes of Tenniel’s wonderful Alice in Wonderland drawings, was a display of literally hundreds of McGill’s oeuvre. The only snag, after you’ve viewed one rude vicar, fat lady in red and white swimsuit, and dazzling blonde falling out of her bikini, is the need to share one giggle after another. Cathy would laugh, bringing me to her, then I would laugh, hoping she would join me etc. it was that sort of a show. Made for sharing… like Maltesers.

And before you get too excited, and start booking your Red Funnel ferry, I have to break the bad news to you. It’s not there anymore. Last time I was there, enjoying a Cappuccino as I wondered at Tenniel’s genius, I asked the friendly owner where his museum had gone. I mean, you don’t just lose museums do you? He said rather vaguely that it had moved to an exhibition somewhere else in Ryde. So poo to that.

For your delight, and because I love you so much, I will share a few masterpieces from the mid-twentieth century non-computery pen of the cheeky (and graphically highly talented) Donald McGill. Here goes:

  • Nurse to man in hospital. ‘Put your knees down Mr Jones.’ ‘They are down nurse!’ (Notice the frequent use of the exclamation mark.)
  • Girl to bookie. ‘I want to back the favourite please. My sweetheart gave me a pound to do it each way!’
  • Woman to girl with baby. ‘It’s so different from yours. Did his father have nice curly hair like this?’ ‘I don’t know. He had his hat on!’
  • ‘Didn’t you marry him?’ ‘No, he had an accident and it was broken off!’
  • Fat man overshadowing small boy. ‘I can’t see my little Willy!’

There you go. Harmless fun, unless you happen to be a town councillor. Beats the hell out of a postcard of a scenic view of Ryde pier, and leaves the recipient with the impression you’re having a great time – maybe with the busty blonde, but more probably with the fat lady in the red and white striped swimsuit.

Happy days…


Robert Duncan reflects on the triumphs, disasters, and just plain irritation of these chances to show off…

QuizFirst of all I will point out that my darling Cathy is far better at quizzes than I am. University Challenge, if you can call that a quiz, used to be something I could quietly excel at because (a) I would answer just after the bloke who buzzed said it, thereby implying that I knew it anyway, and (b) I was fairly chuffed to get the same wrong answer as the competitor. But Cathy, huh… She goes off on one (to bow to modern parlance) and answers everything in sight. It’s the same with Only Connect, Mastermind, and a load of others. I just sit there, going on mercilessly if I happen to get something right. There have even been times when she’s demolished me on my favourite subject, history of art, which I’m meant to know a lot about because I spent half my life in galleries before she was even born.

Cut to our very favourite time of the year, when we board the boat to Santander and spend a couple of nights on what we consider to be a mini cruise. All right, it’s not the Queen Mary, or hopefully the Titanic, but it’s brilliant – and is a great curtain-opener to the big move down to Spain for the summer. Kids secure in their cabins battling it out on Xbox or something, we repair to the bar, and the inevitable quiz. We normally do well enough to look round smugly at our fellow passengers, because we do know who painted The Night Watch or The Persistence of Memory, and Cathy does know the capital of Zimbabwe or somewhere because she’s been there, and we happen to know who sung the Siamese Cat song in Lady and the Tramp.

But the time that has gone down in history was the History of the Musicals quiz. Boy did we shine… we beat everyone hands down with such tricky posers as ‘What musical did ‘Try To Remember’ come from?’ (the Fantasticks) and ‘who sung Deborah Kerr’s songs in The King and I? (Marnie Nixon) We carried away the Brittany Ferries pen, bag and playing cards with immense pride…

Where am I going with all this? I hear you ask…

The fact is we are going to Jamie’s school quiz night tonight. At my tender age I rub shoulders with a bunch of very jolly and understanding young parents, and we have formed a team that could be world beating. Well, village beating anyway. Already we have locked horns on the name of our team. Nikki wants Amuse Bouche ( or maybe Abuse Mouche. That’s quite funny) and in the course of discussion we decided that we’re all a bit arty, so The Artists was suggested. I said we’d probably drink a bit so how about The Piss Artists? But my current favourite thought is That Lot Over There – which could be amusing when the quizmaster is referring to us.

And that’s it. I’ll complete this riveting text in a day or so, when we’ve done the school quiz. If I remove this last paragraph you’ll know that we failed miserably. Well you won’t actually, because I’ll abandon the whole stupid idea.

Watch this space…

Hello again. Well, we didn’t fail miserably. We just failed. We were right up there near the top, considering our abject failure with the sports questions, and we wuz robbed on the entertainment round. But it’s not the winning that matters, it’s the taking part (and if you believe that bollocks I’m very disappointed in you.) One shining success was the team name – That Lot Over There. Unknown to us, five extra points were awarded to the most original name and we won that. (Now let me see, who came up with it? Oh yes…) It did mean we were in the lead from the start, but as the social side and accompanying wine and food took over, we slipped away slightly, becoming more interested in the business of fun, and let the snobby lot on the next table with the fine fare and candelabra get on with it. If they were so determined to win they should have brought bloody Bamber Gascoyne along. Tired but happy we made it home, followed by texts and emails saying ‘Did I say that?’ and ‘She didn’t did she?’ Such fun…

I leave you with three quiz questions to test your general knowledge:
1. What year did the Titanic sink?
2. How many people were lost?
3. What were their names?


Robert Duncan retraces childhood memories…

Old photo of Robert DuncanLast week I went with my family to the Isle of Wight for a couple of days. It was lovely, balmy weather, and very nostalgic. After all, this little treasure is the last bastion of the great English holiday, the place where our family would head for, for our three or four week summer holidays, from when I was a tiny little curly haired chap all the way to when I was a surly ‘too cool for all this stuff’ sort of a git. Add all those weeks together, and I’ve spent over a year of my life there. My ward Sam says that every time I start reminiscing about this seaside paradise it sounds like the Famous Five.

Post-war, faded colours that emulate those early postcards, beach huts, rubber shoes, shrimping nets, sun burned ears, ice cream sodas on sunny days, Horlicks on the miserable ones, where we sat staring out to sea, hands round warm cup, hoping the lifeboat would go out so we could watch the drama. Bembridge, for that is where we were, and all our friends year upon year, has a real landmark – the lifeboat pier. No matter what time it was, day or night, when Mummy and Daddy would wake us up, maybe at 3am, with instructions to put on our dressing gowns and assemble with all our little chums on the sea wall, because the maroons had gone up, and the lifeboat was going out. The excitement, the pride in our brave boys, and the cheer that went up when the doors were opened, light spilled out onto the waves, and the wonderful boat tore down the slipway and splashed into the angry sea.

Back home for cocoa and bed. Warm. Lovely. Falling asleep with the thoughts of swimming, shrimping, rowing or sailing our little yacht Himalaya (lug sail, clinker built) the next day. Or just sitting on the sea wall with Jenny Southwell, wishing I could summon up the courage to kiss her.

In later years we would walk up to the holiday camp and break in, using their playground deep into the night before returning to the Southwell’s beachside house for a few hands of Vingt-et-un. (Behave – that’s a card game.)

My brother, who was seven years older than me, and my hero, would dash off relentlessly to sail into the distance, organise swimming races or get a beach cricket team together, probably wondering constantly why his wheezy curly haired git of a little brother wouldn’t join in such excesses. My sister was a different story. She did (and still does) encourage me in anything I did/do. When she wasn’t off with one of numerous local lads, one of which asked my Dad if he could marry this thirteen year old, she would spend time with me, building sand castles, walking, talking, rowing and generally advising what my next move should be with the likes of Jenny Southwell and Wendy Green.

“Take her for a walk along the footpath to the harbour. Buy her a milkshake. Enter some of the regatta events…”

Aaaagh – the very thought. If there was one thing that ruined these idyllic times, and got far more dinner time chat than it deserved, it was the Beach Regatta. Organised by the formidable Joan Battersea (say it through the nose and you’ll get what she was like.) She would bark orders through the constantly attached megaphone, scaring the hell out of everybody, especially wheezy blond curly haired boys.

The dreaded days would arrive. Everybody from the village of beach huts would gather excitedly around the notice board, trying to spot what heats they were in, who they were against. Jenny against her nemesis, Linda. Mary my sister tipped for success in the swimming races. The brother entering into everything. Me rather grudgingly put in the 50 yard dash on the beach. But it all ended eventually. Prizes given. Cups and medals shown off. Small curly haired boys ignored.

And before you knew it the late August sun was dimming, the café shutters were put up, and the deckchairs were folded and stashed in the hut, along with buckets and spades, shrimping nets, strange ropes needed for sailing, and the inevitable pair of oars.

Tired but happy, we helped Dad load the Rover75 for the journey home, the boot full to the brim, us tucked in the back surrounded by picnic baskets, travelling rugs, favourite saucepans.

Bembridge was over for another year. Nothing to look forward to apart from the car ferry, and a couple of days at home before I was deposited back at some dreadful school, where I wouldn’t see this wonderful cast of the legendary seaside holiday of the fifties for at least six weeks.

Wait a minute. There’s still the photographs to look forward to. Eight black and white images, taken on my box Brownie, if I can bear to wait a week while Kodak processes them.

Hmm – I wonder if that one of Jenny Southwell will come out…


Robert Duncan reflects on days of glory…

CluedoFresh from my local triumph with Leonardo The Musical (Book and lyrics – Robert Duncan. Composers – Gordon Waller and Robin Box. Director Peter Wheeler) and the unmitigated disaster of my attempt to translate this to professional success on the London stage, you would have thought I would never get involved in another theatrical production. Ever. In my life. I lost the value of a small house.

But I did. Almost immediately I launched into writing a stage play of Cluedo – bringing to life characters who had never been seen anywhere before. Not on radio, TV, the silver screen or in theatre. I have tried many times to find another group of characters we all know, that haven’t come to our attention via one of these branches of the media. Think of same, and I could write a wise and witty script, we’ll make loads of money and split the difference.

So write it I did. A comedy thriller with six alternative endings, that got the local theatre company very excited – to the extent that they took the resulting production on tour, to Henley and Broadway! All right, Ealing Broadway – but it was still pretty good. The show booked up well, was the subject of a really good piece on early evening television, and performed to packed and very enthusiastic houses.

On one of those evenings, a theatrical producer called Ian Liston came to see the show. His company, Hiss & Boo, were succeeding enormously, touring several shows around the country and getting him an enviable reputation in all the right heady circles. Ian rang me, we had lunch, I recognised him from Crossroads, and didn’t recognise him from the original Star Wars (a gig he still makes a few bob out of with personal appearances to adoring fans – including my ward Sam, who has a photograph of himself with the great man, in a Storm Trooper helmet) and the deal was done.

Lovely Waddington’s were thrilled to give their blessing, and the show went into rehearsal as a Theatre Royal Windsor production in advance of a national tour. To name but a few of the cast, Trevor Bannister was the silly inspector and Christopher Biggins was Reverend Green.

I was very busy at the time, trying to pay off the enormous debt I had accrued over the Leonardo fiasco, so the only time I met the cast was at a rehearsal room in Windsor.

First night. The Theatre Royal was booked to capacity and many of the most wonderful people in my life had agreed to be there. Lotte Duncan of TV chef fame rose to the occasion and turned up to collect us in a limo, brandishing a magnum of Champagne for the journey. The theatre was emblazoned with posters mentioning my name, and as we settled into our seats I saw the beautiful theatre for the first time. Several mental snapshots come to mind – my parents, God bless them both, were a few rows in front of us. My sister and her lovely husband were getting ready. And, as the lights began to dim, I saw a young girl just in front of me lean forward with a smile and rub her hands. She just about summed up the whole evening – the curtain lifted to an incredible two storey Gothic set and the actors came on spouting my words.

Follow that.

The next day we flew off to Barbados and Mrs D no.1 constantly suggested I should ring up to find out how the production was going. I refused. I didn’t want to ruin my holiday.

When we got back I found a letter from the Theatre Royal Windsor in my pile of post, informing me that Cluedo had beaten their all-time box office record. As I delved further down the pile I found a second letter – the play had beaten its own record in its second week.

Last time I was at the theatre I saw a big panel of photos and memorabilia about the show.

Thanks to Ian, that’s probably my biggest footprint in the sand.

We’d love to tour the show again – but horrible Hasbro won’t let us. Maybe replacing Waddington’s with someone who says ‘at this time’ three times in one sentence is what this soulless, and no doubt incredibly profitable, company needs.

But they will never, in their lives, get anywhere near how I felt when, a few seats away from my beloved parents, I saw a young girl rubbing her hands in happy expectation of seeing my creation…