If you go down to the wood today – Nutwood that is – you’re in for a big surprise, because Rupert Bear is 91 today. I must admit he was never really a favourite of mine. Winnie the Pooh, yes; Teddy Robinson, yes; Paddington Bear, yes. But Rupert? No, not really. My brother and I had the odd Rupert annual at Christmas, but I didn’t hang on to them the way I did other books, or hoard pocket money to buy them myself, or beg other people to buy them for me. And, most tellingly of all perhaps, he has no voice inside my head, which may sound silly, but the characters in the books I read and loved as a child all have a voice of their own. Even now, whether they are hero or villain, I would know them if I heard them.
Anyway, whether or not I like the little white bear and his chums is immaterial, because he is still popular with thousands of children (and adults) and that’s quite an achievement. Rupert made his first appearance in a strip cartoon in the Daily Express on this day in 1920. Artist Mary Tourtel created the pictures and her husband Herbert provided the words which, unusually for a cartoon, appeared beneath the pictures, rather than in conventional ‘bubbles’. Not only that, but they appeared in verse and prose, so you could simply look at the pictures, or read the rhyming couplets (I suppose it qualifies as poetry) or read the main story line.
Former Punch illustrator Alfred Bestall took over in 1935, the year the first annual went on sale, and other artists followed him, making few concessions to changing times or fashions – Rupert still wears his trademark yellow checked trousers, matching scarf and red jumper. He goes off and has adventures, and returns to his cosy home and his loving mum and dad, just as he did all those years ago when I was a child. He lives in a fairytale world where elves, wizards and dragons exist alongside pirates and smugglers, but for me it always lacked the allure of Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, or the magical created worlds of Narnia or the Shire.
As far as I can see Rupert and his ‘chums’, who include Bill Badger, Edward Trunk, Pong-Ping the Pekingnese and Algy Pug are essentially small boys with animal heads. Mostly they seem to have human hands and feet, and they lead human lives, in human houses. I’m not sure why this bothers me, but it does. Somehow Ratty, Mole, Pooh, Paddington and a host of other literary creatures are credible as animals in a way that Rupert is not. And, I might add that the Rupert illustrations lack the charm of EH Shepard or Peggy Fortnum, but that’s a personal opinion and I’m sure others will disagree.
He still appears in the Daily Express, an annual is published each year, and there are spin-off TV shows and DVDs, as well as toys and games, while Canterbury, home of Rupert creator Mary Tourtel, has a series of plaques marking key locations, as well as a Rupert Bear Museum. The Followers of Rupert Bear have a fascinating website which is well worth a look, whether or not you are a fan – you’ll find it at http://www.ee.ed.ac.uk/~afm/followers/