William Edward Tidy was born in Tranmere, near Birkenhead on Merseyside, on 9 October 1933. His father, also called Bill, was a charming but feckless man, a merchant navy quartermaster who was away from home for long periods and was not involved in bringing up his son. His mother Catherine worked as a barmaid to support herself and her son, and often got retired women who lived locally to look after him while she worked. One of these women, Nellie, may have helped to point Tidy towards his ultimate career: she was an avid fan of the Beano and Dandy. At one stage he moved to live with his Uncle Bert and Aunt Polly in Liverpool. Bert was a great storyteller, adding another string to Tidy’s artistic bow. He returned to live with Catherine, by then a pub manager, and attended Anfield Junior School where Miss Edwards encouraged him to develop his innate drawing talent. American comics and war films were another influence on him. He never had any formal art training.
After leaving school Tidy worked initially in a shipping office, then served in the Royal Engineers from 1952-55. He sold his first cartoon to a Japanese newspaper in 1955. In 1956 he started work as a layout artist at Pagan Smith, an advertising agency, where he drew tiny advertisements which appeared in the Radio Times. His freelance cartooning paid better than the work at Pagan Smith, so he became a full-time cartoonist in 1957. In 1959 Tidy met his future wife, an Italian named Rosa, and married her the following year after a courtship complicated by their different religions and the geographical distance between Britain and Italy.
A number of ideas came together to produce The Cloggies, which appeared in Private Eye magazine from 1967 to 1981 and in The Listener magazine from 1985 to 1986. Clog dancing is a northern English tradition, a step dance by participants wearing wooden-soled clogs with leather uppers. Clog dancing sounds like a heavier version of tap dancing. At the time when the strip first appeared, most people thought of male folk dancers as effete; the popular image in most people’s minds was of Morris dancers wearing bells on their trousers and waving handkerchiefs. Tidy subverted this idea by making his team of dancers more like a rugby side; he said “They would be members of a ferociously vicious dance league in which their aesthetic mix of ballet and grievous bodily harm would make them supreme.” He invented imaginary moves like the Single Leg Arkwright, and the esoteric Wagstaffe-Crumblehome scoring system, to make the dances seem more realistic to fans of the strip. Students set up their own teams and enjoyed following Tidy’s rules.
Another way in which Tidy developed the strip was to make his main characters believable. The dance team normally consisted of six men, of whom the most important were Stan (First Boot, leader of the team) and Neville (Third Boot, and something of a dodgy character). Neville was distinguished from the other, cloth-cap-wearing, members of the team by his black trilby. The other four in the team were Ted, Wally, Arnold and Albert. As Tidy himself put it, there was occasionally a seventh member, Wilf, “when I mistakenly drew an extra pair of legs.” They drank in the Clog and Bells pub where their pints were pulled by the buxom barmaid Doris. Tidy derived part of his inspiration from watching the Garstang Morris Men perform near where he lived; later, Rosa arranged for them to dance in the road outside Tidy’s house to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. He said that when the team were invited in after the dance, they drank the house dry.
Tidy chose the name of Blagdon as a suitably northern-sounding name for the Cloggies’ home town, thinking that he had invented the name. He was surprised to receive letters from residents of the several real Blagdons in England “. . . claiming or denying paternity of the team.” He made the controversial decision to introduce another character, the Blagdon Amateur Rapist, Reg Thrumper: he was depicted wearing only a tie, shoes and socks, but in line with his amateur status he always failed to live up to his title. It seems from his book that Tidy derived great satisfaction from teasing people with stereotypes like Doris and Reg.
Tidy developed a number of other strip cartoons, including The Fosdyke Saga, another strip with a northern flavour about a firm of tripe manufacturers. It appeared in the Daily Mirror from 1971-85 as a partial parody of John Galsworthy’s 1920s novel series The Forsyte Saga that had been broadcast as a BBC television series a few years beforehand. The Fosdykes made their money by finding new uses for tripe, and became involved in every major national event from Mafeking and Flanders (including dogfights with the Red Baron) through peace rallies and zeppelins to the Titanic, and an attempt on Everest by the Accrington Stanley Expedition. Grimbledon Down, a sort of “everyday story of scientific folk”, appeared in the New Scientist from 1970-94. It poked fun at government-run scientific research establishments, such as Porton Down.
I am lucky enough to own my own Tidy cartoon, which my wife Jenny commissioned and gave to me for my sixtieth birthday present in 2006. It is a colour version of a black-and-white cartoon which Tidy originally produced some years ago, the original of which I believe may be in the Cartoon Museum’s collection.
The Daily Funnies: An Exhibition of Strip Cartoons is currently showing three different original strips of The Cloggies. The exhibition will run until December, 2017.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FURTHER READING
Tidy, Bill. 1995. Is There Any News of the Iceberg? An illustrated Autobiography. London: Smith Gryphon.
Adcock, John. 2015. “England’s Greatest Comic Strip Artist-Bill Tidy.” Yesterday’s Papers.
Bates, Tom. 2007. “Bill Tidy- Britain’s Best Cartoonist.” Derbyshire Folk. Accessed 29/10/2017.
“Bill Tidy: Biography.” British Cartoon Archive. University of Kent. Accessed 1/11/2017.
Bill Tidy Official Website. (Still under construction on 3/11/2017).
“Bill Tidy.” Wikipedia. Accessed 30/10/2017.
“The Cloggies.” Wikipedia. Accessed 30/10/2017.
Bill Tidy’s live drawing presentation at FA Conference (2012).