Fred Basset 2008

By Michael Martin with Arran Graham (Orion Books)
ISBN: 978-0-7528-9385-3

What’s your favourite biscuit? Do you only eat one sort or do you find that different occasions, different beverages or times of day dictate a little variety: some situation-appropriate flavours?

Graphic narrative is like that. The terrifying realties of We3 (ISBN: 1-84576-159-6), the social significance of Pride of Baghdad (ISBN: 1-84576-242-8) or Maus (978-0-14101-408-1), the flamboyant adventure of Bucky O’Hare (ASIN: B000E4SUCM), gently acerbic political radicalism of Donald Rooum’s Wildcat (ISBN: 0-900384-30-1) or pure fantasy of Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 (ISBN: 1-84576-660-1) all have their place but sometimes all you want or need is a quiet reassuring smile.

Fred Basset began in the Daily Mail on July 8th 1963, the brainchild of professional cartoonist Alexander S. Graham, and soon found a solid fan-base among the generally middle-class readership, many of whom must have identified with the minor daily tribulations of an unnamed young married couple and their avuncular if amusingly haughty pet dog, whose gallery-playing internal monologues – or chats with we observers behind the forth wall – amounted to a daily confirmation of what most pet-owners believed their hairy charges were capable of. Eventually the strip became a regular weekend delight too in the Mail on Sunday. How odd that such a quintessentially English Strip is based on the life-style of the Scottish middle class – or perhaps not…

Alex Graham was born in Scotland in 19 and educated at Dumfries Academy. His first professional sales occurred during World War II, and he thereafter created the strip Wee Hughie for the Dundee Weekly News in 1945, continuing it until 1970. In 1946 he also originated Our Bill and Briggs the Butler, before hitting the global big time with his four-footed raconteur, whom he based in large part upon his own faithful furry companion Frieda. Graham died in December 1991, having drawn over 9,000 strips, black and white and colour, and the strip was continued by his daughter Arran and cartoonist Michael Martin.

The strip has a huge worldwide following, especially in comics-friendly America, Australia and the Scandinavian countries. Known by such varied names as Wurzel in Germany, Lillo il Cane Saggio (Lillo the wise dog) in Italy, Lorang in Norway, Laban in Sweden in Sweden and bafflingly Retu, Pitko and Koiraskoira in Finland, the not-so humble hound even had his own animated TV show in 1976, produced by Bill Melendez Productions (famed for both the Peanuts/Charlie Brown and the Perishers cartoon shows) perfectly voiced by Lionel Jeffries.

Although Fred and his doggie comrades Jock, (a small black Scottish Terrier), Yorky (a Yorkshire Terrier) and, in latter years, Fifi (a saucy Poodle) are obviously immortal, the humans have gradually advanced into middle-ish age. By this year’s collection (the first Fred Basset Book was released in 1963, and ran to #45 in 1993 before becoming annuals such as the one nominally under discussion here, supplemented by a children’s book, a 25-year retrospective and a Bumper Book) they seem quite world-weary, but the situations remain comfortingly constant although a signature of Martin’s tenure is an increasing insertion of the annoyances of contemporary life such as sat navs, catch-phrases and celebrity culture.

So what’s the appeal?

The regular re-application of surreal whimsy to a stable environment has its own subtle satisfaction; and often the panel gags don’t even have a recognisable punch-line – what’s happening on a daily basis is often the cartoon equivalent of old cronies having a bit of a chinwag over the garden wall, a sharing of mutual experience with a dash of hyperbole and a smidgen of one-upmanship… You seldom burst out in a loud guffaw (although that’s not unknown) but you frequently think “Yes! Just like when…”

To those passionate intellectuals among us that might belittle the gag-features that run for decades delighting untold millions of readers I have one last suggestion. If this isn’t your cup of tea – don’t buy it.

There’s plenty who will, including those members of your own family who wouldn’t be caught dead reading your suggestions (and think you’re a trifle odd, besides)…

So, Fred Basset: Comic Strip Positive Reinforcement refreshingly unchanging and amusing. Who’s for a Custard Cream?
© Associated Newspapers plc 2008.