As I have mentioned before in ‘When We Were Little’ posts (here and here) we lived for a time in England when I was little. Rupert the bear was another of the English characters that is indelibly linked to my memories of our time there. I still have a copy of a Daily Express Rupert Annual, which I think was given to me one Christmas.
Having now done some research into the Rupert story, I am blown away by the endurance of this ever-so-English little bear.
Rupert Bear first appeared in 1920 in the Daily Express comic strips by Mary Courtel. In an incredible feat of longevity for the world of the print media, the Rupert Bear strips continue to this day. The artist has changed several times, and one of the most significant storytellers and artists responsible for Rupert was Alfred Bestall, who held the reins from 1935 to 1974. Each year, a Rupert Annual is published, and my copy is the 1981 hardcover edition.
One of the most distinctive aspects of the Rupert stories is the story-telling format. This is not a regular cartoon comprising pictures and speech bubbles. A complete Rupert story is told over several pages of an Annual. Each page consists of a simple heading and four or five illustrations, and the illustrations are captioned by four pairs of verse. At the bottom of each page, a paragraph of prose repeats the story again, which means that the story can actually be read on four levels.
As a reader, it’s a slightly unnerving format, and the verse is often slightly ‘off’. But it is interesting – and means that children of different ages can enjoy the story. These days the first thing I think of is what a nightmare this must be to copywrite and edit – how restrictive must those word limits for each written element be…
Rupert himself is said to epitomise traditional British public school values. He lives in an idyllic English village and, with his friend Bill the Badger, has a series of unexpected magical adventures. With their gorgeously distinctive outfits and occasionally their leather rucksacks, Rupert and Bill always get home safely to Mrs Bear, who never seems the slightest bit perturbed by their adventures.
Clearly, the character of a newspaper comic who has been around for nearly ninety years is iconic. Paul McCartney’s inspiration for the song ‘We All Stand Together’ (the ‘Frog Song’) was apparently his realisation that something he loved so much as a child was also a favourite with his own children. The clip includes animation of Rupert Bear. Deservedly Rupert has a fervent fan group, the Followers of Rupert Bear, and there is also a Rupert and the Frog Song website…