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Billy Tidy, fizz, fun and keg buster

Added: Wednesday, July 29th 2020

Bi

Bill Tidy is more than a beer hero. He’s the comic genius who has tickled the nation’s ribs for decades with such hilarious strips as the Cloggies, the Fosdyke Saga and, most importantly where beer is concerned, Kegbuster in CAMRA’s newspaper What’s Brewing.

Month after month, Kegbuster and his faithful whippet have fought the good fight for cask ale against the machinations of big brewers, pin-striped executives and steely-eyed marketing men, all the time finding time for a pint or three of his beloved Crudgington’s 6X.

Now, at the venerable age of 86, Bill is packing away his easel and pens and deservedly putting his feet up. He was born in Tranmere on Merseyside and I asked him why so many funny men had come from the area. I listed Ken Dodd and, from earlier times, Ted Ray, Arthur Askey and Tommy Handley.

Bill chuckled and said he put it down to the wind coming out of the Mersey Tunnel: “it creates control freaks and comedians”. More seriously, he thinks humour is a comfort blanket that protected people from hardship and deprivation in the 1930s and the post-war years.

He had no formal training as an artist but he worked for an advertising agency in Liverpool where he did illustrations for clients. His first cartoon was bought by a Japanese newspaper and he then started to draw strips for the Daily Mirror and Daily Sketch. Working for daily newspapers took him to London where he also sold cartoons to the satirical magazine Punch. He linked up with fellow artists to form the Cartoonist Club of Great Britain and he became the club’s chairman.

His career took off and some of his strips had astonishing longevity. The Fosdyke Saga ran in the Daily Mirror from 1971 to 1985 and stopped only when the paper’s owner, that well-known humorist Robert Maxwell, said he didn’t find it funny. Millions did and loved its wry working-class re-working of the John Galsworthy novels and TV series the Forsyte Saga that followed the sexual misadventures of upper-class families living in Dorset and London. The Fosdyke family in sharp contrast ran a tripe factory in the North-west. The background was soot and chimneys and was described as “a classic tale of struggle, power, personalities...and tripe”. Bill’s fascination with dark satanic mills is perhaps inspired by F S Lowry in Manchester, but Lowry, unlike Bill, was not exactly a bundle of laughs.

The Cloggies appeared in Private Eye from 1967 to 1981. It was an affectionate send-up of the radio soap The Archers, billed as “an everyday story of country folk” whereas the Cloggies were “an everyday story of clog-dancing folk”. The strip followed the misadventures of a team of clog dancers who took on rival teams and developed such tactical foot manoeuvres as the Triple Arkwright. The dancers had a legendary capacity for beer and would repair to the nearest pub for a gallon or two after every epic contest.

Bill enjoyed beer, too, but he admits he “drank any old rubbish, like Double Diamond” until he came into contact with CAMRA in the 1970s. Memories are hazy but Michael Hardman, one of the Campaign’s founders and first editor of What’s Brewing, thinks a member in Nottingham spoke to Bill, contacted Michael and said Bill might be willing to contribute to the paper.

Kegbuster

“I phoned Bill and he said he’d been waiting for a call and would love to draw a strip,” Michael recalls. “Then he said my name had given him an idea for some characters.”

The Grotny Hardmen were born, grim-faced keg salesmen who were determined to foist their fizzy brews on drinkers and publicans and were repulsed by Kegbuster. The Hardmen were followed by Twitbread, another giant keg brewery that attempted to phase out cask ale with inferior gassy products.

For 42 years, Kegbuster has proclaimed the joys of “Crudgies”, the cask ale from Crudgington’s brewery. I told Bill I assumed Crudgington was based on the revered Manchester beer Boddingtons or “Boddies” for short. He put me right.

“I was reading a report of a football match in the North-west and spotted a player called Crudgington at Crewe Alexandra and I thought you could trust a man with a name like that,” he said.

Bill had a phenomenal work load at the time. “I was doing six strips and had to be careful I didn’t send the wrong one to a newspaper or magazine.”  The Fosdyke Saga, the Cloggies and Kegbuster have all appeared in book form and Fosdyke also became a radio serial.

And Bill became more than a cartoonist. He appeared regularly on radio and TV and was in great demand as a raconteur. In the 1990s I appeared with him at a literary lunch in Huddersfield, along with Richard Whiteley from Countdown and a thriller writer called Geoffrey Archer (not Jeffrey Archer). Archer had published a new book in which a nuclear submarine had run into trouble at sea and Bill whispered to me: “That gives me an idea”.

He did illustrated talks and he had an easel with sheets of paper and a plentiful supply of coloured pens. He told the audience he’d once been invited on board the submarine HMS Dreadnaught, which had developed a fault and the crew had to abandon ship.

At lightning speed, he drew the sailors standing in line, with the captain bringing up the rear and a shivering and terrified Bill in front of him. The first seaman to climb the ladder was being squeezed into a diving suit, complete with enormous helmet, while other sailors were busily pumping the suit full of air. A speech bubble from one sailor said: “If that man farts, we’re all doomed.”

Bill was never without his pens but they could cause him trouble. For 30 years he played for the Lord’s Taverners cricket team – named after a pub at Lord’s ground. The team was made up of people in the entertainment world who raised large amounts for charity.

During one game, Bill was fielding at square leg, dressed impeccably in white but with his trusty pens in his shirt pocket. The batsman hooked the ball straight at Bill, hit him on the chest and knocked him to the ground. The other players rushed to help him and one cried: “Quick, call an ambulance – he’s bleeding!” and pointed to a large red stain on Bill’s chest.

“It’s all right – it’s not blood, it’s my red pen,” a supine Bill gasped.

He’s generous with his time. At one CAMRA fund-raising event, he leapt around the room unveiling, sequence by sequence, an enormous strip illustrating the history of beer from Ancient Egypt to the present day. It must have taken him weeks to prepare and draw and all free of charge and for the cause.

His association with the Campaign did improve his choice of beer. “I discovered Theakston’s Old Peculier – that became my favourite,” he says. “And I also like Bass.”

I went to see him when he was living in the village of Kegworth in Leicestershire – and only the creator of Kegbuster could have chosen to live in a place with that name. We went to his local and the landlord brought pints of Bass from the cellar, straight from the cask. Beer heaven!

Bill says he’s never been stumped for a theme for each episode of Kegbuster. He reads What’s Brewing avidly from cover to cover and picks up on the big stories of the day and the debates raging inside the Campaign. The debates are usually friendly. In 1992 CAMRA published Called to the Bar, a collection of essays marking the Campaign’s 21st anniversary. Kegbuster and his faithful hound adorned the cover and inside his cartoon showed Kegbuster telling a group of fellow drinkers that most protest movements inevitably broke into warring factions. To prove the point, he showed posters with the slogans “Vote Militant Workers Against Hardline Lefties” and “Vote Hardline Lefties Against Militant Workers”. Shades of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, with the Judea People’s Front confronting the People’s Front of Judea! Fortunately such nonsense has never been visited on CAMRA.

Kegbuster continued on his merry way until April 2020 when Bill decided to call it a day. Rosa, his wife of close to 60 years, died in December 2019 and Bill has had a mild stroke and been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. If anyone deserves to take it easy, it’s him.

In 2000 he was awarded an MBE “for service to journalism”. It wasn’t the best citation. It should read “for keeping the nation – and beer lovers – laughing”.

Keep supping Crudgie’s 6X, Bill, and watch out for Grotny Hardmen.

First published in BEER magazine, autumn 2020.