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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Bert Felstead

I've been meaning to write something about Bert Felstead for a while as I rank him as one of the major discoveries I've made since I began working my way through some of the old Fleetway nursery papers. Philip Mendoza I was aware of , since I knew his earlier work in the boys' comics; I was also aware that artists like Ron Embleton and Jesus Blasco were contributing to the nursery papers because I had some examples of their work.

When Look and Learn bought the rights to Playhour and Jack and Jill last year, seven crates of bound volumes and annuals arrived at the house so, I got rather a concentrated dose of them in one go. Looking through the issues from the late 1950s there were strips that leapt off the page. Flicking past all the episodes of 'Teddy & Cuddly' that High McNeil had drawn, some later episodes caught my eye. The style was more finished and the artist clearly had an eye for animating characters. I'm not talking about the exaggeration of animation which allows Jerry to stretch Tom the length of a house -- I'm talking movement and body language. The characters looked cuter, too, and I'm a sucker for cute.

Whoever this guy was, he had real talent.

The good news was that it didn't take long to put a name to the artist. Bert Felstead. I'll warn you now, this is not one of those stories where I do some digging and, after some surprise breakthrough, everything falls into place. I know a little about his pre-comics career but, as far as biographical information goes, all I know is that he was Herbert Felstead, he was married, had at least one daughter and he died some years ago. I wish I knew more.

The earliest trace of Bert Felstead I've been able to find is as a director at G-B Animation, the studio set up by the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation in 1944. The idea was to rival the huge success of Walt Disney with some home-grown animated films. Based at Moor Hall, Cookham-on-Thames, Berkshire, G-B secured the services of David Hand who had directed some of Disney's most notable cartoons and films in the 1930s, supervising Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and directing Bambi as well as being production supervisor on Pinocchio, Dumbo and Fantasia.

After cutting their teeth on wartime training films, advertising and instructional shorts and, in 1947, releasing their first featurette about the Magna Carta, G-B turned its attention to two popular series of cartoons, 'Animaland' (1947-49) and 'Musical Paintbox' (1948-49). Of these, 'Animaland' has remained in the public eye (if your public eye is looking in the right direction) thanks to video and a number of cartoon channels around the world (the 'Musical Box' series has never been released as far as I'm aware).

Nine 'Animaland' shorts were completed, three of them featuring the character Ginger Nutt, a mischievous squirrel, and his woodland chums. All nine were directed by Bert Felstead. Bob Egby, who runs a very good site about G-B Animation (he worked there himself) recalls that Felstead was an "interesting man and the real driving force behind Dave Hand. He was the man who got the crews working and working on schedule." It's thanks to Bob that we have a photograph of the crew behind the cartoons, including (perched on the table on the far right) Bert Felstead.

G-B Animation folded in 1949 -- the ad valorem tax that was levied against foreign import films to help with the Sterling-Dollar situation was relaxed in 1948 and a huge animation studio suddenly became a financial burden to Gaumont-British in the face of stockpiles of American cartoons that suddenly started to reappear in British cinemas. What animation lost, comics gained. Suddenly, a vast number of trained artists found themselves in need of work and comics was one place for them to find it.

Bert Felstead, using his abbreviated signature 'Fel', was the illustrator for various titles published by Juvenile Productions Ltd., including Listen With Mother, ed. Jean Sutcliffe (1952), Bedtime Nursery Pictures and Stories (1953), Little Robin Hood Annual with stories and songs by P. & G. Briggs (1954), My First ABC (1955) and Pop-Up Pictures ABC (n.d.).

The first sure sign of Bert Felstead I can find in the nursery comics is in Jack and Jill 146, 8 December 1956, when he produced his first 'Teddy & Cuddly' strip. Hugh McNeill had been the main artist for the first two years of the strip but it showed little of the action and movement of his 'Harold Hare' strip which he was drawing at the same time.

The strip is fairly simple, as you would expect for a comic aimed at a very young audience. But don't mistake simplicity for dumbing down. The editors were well aware that the children had to be attracted by the pictures but it was the parents who would be reading them, so the strips were often quite sophisticated. There's a sophistication to the humour of 'Gulliver Guinea-Pig', for instance. Teddy & Cuddly doesn't quite hit that high mark -- the verbal dexterity of Gulliver wasn't called for -- but they're entertaining (and, more importantly, attention-holding) reading for any parent with a five-year-old.

What Bert Felstead brought to the strip and the characters was a joy, a joie de vivre, that they had somehow lacked when McNeill was drawing them. The characters were two baby bears with the curiosity that fills all youngsters. Living in unspoilt woodlands, the little cubs have plenty of scope for adventures. They want to fill every waking hour with fun and everything they stumble across has the potential to be the most exciting thing they've ever found. Felstead's skill as a storyteller can be seen in the strip below, scanned from original artwork... the whole story is still perfectly readable even without the captions explaining the emotions and motivations of the characters. It's all there in the way it's drawn.

This zest for life was also obvious in another of Felstead's long-running strips, 'Leo the Friendly Lion' which he drew for Playhour from 25 February 1961. Anyone looking for the anarchic humour of that other Leo -- Baxendale -- or Ken Reid will have to look elsewhere but I defy anyone to look at a run of Teddy & Cuddly or Leo and not end up with a smile on their face.

Felstead's last major strip was 'Fliptail the Otter', produced in full-colour for Jack and Jill from 15 April 1967. Felstead wasn't the only artist on the strip and episodes were recycled so often (some three times in the same paper) that I have yet to figure out how long he worked on the strip for. Fliptail was drawn in a far more realistic fashion but with the same flair for body language that made his other strips stand out.

Felstead also did fill-in duty on a number of other strips, including 'Wink & Blink, the Playful Puppies' (Playhour, 1959-60), 'Moony from the Moon' and 'Pinky & Perky' (both Harold Hare's Own Paper, 1960), as well as drawing 'Snuggles, the Story of a Little Bear' (Harold Hare's Own Paper, 1962) and 'Pam's Supermarket' (Playhour, 1965). Many of his strips were reprinted in magazines (for instance, 'Leo' in Bonnie) and annuals in the 1970s and 1980s but original material seems to fade out in the early 1970s (again, because of the reprinting policy and the fact that I don't have complete runs of all these papers I can't be absolutely certain).

Bert Felstead, as 'Fel', then became the artist of 'Little Joe', a strip by Ian Gammidge about a dog that I believe appeared in the Daily Mirror in the early/mid 1970s. A single collection was published by Mirror Group Books in 1975. 'Fel' also illustrated My Favourite Nursery Rhymes (Maidenhead, Purnell, 1977) and Time for Play in the A Purnell Fireside Tale series (1977).

Hopefully the images above will pique your interest in Bert Felstead's work. Since these are all characters now owned by Look and Learn, I'm pleased to say that we have a fair amount of Felstead's work up on the website, including a year's worth of 'Teddy & Cuddly' and more examples of 'Fliptail' and other strips. I'll leave you with the strip below because it's just delightful. Happy Easter, everybody.

(* Illustrations from Jack and Jill, Playhour, Harold Hare's Own Paper and annuals are © Look and Learn Magazine Ltd. Ginger Nutt is © David Hand Productions. With thanks to Bob Egby.)

3 comments:

Peter Gray said...

This is just sooo delightful...a new gem for me to enjoy..

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this fantastic describtion of Bert's work.

Bert had as described a daughter and also a son "John Peter" Felstead.

Thank you

Marcus Felstead
(grand son)

Steve said...

Hi Marcus,

It would be wonderful to get some more family background on Bert if you wouldn't mind dropping me a line (address just below the picture at top left).

Kindest regards,

Steve