Our story starts with a book...
Published by Gaywood Press, undated but c. 1951, Murder's A Bad Habit by D. Edward Roberts was a gangster novel set in London's underworld featuring private eye named Slim Sullivan. It was written in the style of then-popular Peter Cheyney, who died in 1951; indeed, the name of the lead character was a rip-off of Cheyney's Slim Callaghan.
Gaywood Press was a distribution company which had a huge success with distributing the Hank Janson novels and, off the back of these, in 1950 they started publishing their own crime novels with the bylines Timothy Trenton and Dirk Foster. To run a publishing line, you need an editor and it would appear that editor was David Roberts.
We know this because Gaywood had also began translating a number of books in 1951. The 'Coyote' series by Jose Mallorqui, the byline used by Spanish author José Mallorquí Figuerola (1913-1972), was hugely popular in his native Spain. 'El Coyote' had first appeared in the Spanish series 'Novelas del Oeste' in 1943 under the byline Carter Mulford. After the first book, El Coyote, the character was given his own series by his Barcelona-based publisher, Ediciones Cliper. By the time Gaywood began translating stories, there were already some 130 novels featuring El Coyote in Spain.
The series was, according to adverts, translated by Peter Audsley and edited by David Roberts. I have no idea who Peter Audsley was; his sole record at the British Library is as translator of the Coyote books and I haven't come across the name since. However, this credit does give us the Christian name of D. Edward Roberts -- David.
David Roberts may have written other crime novels for Gaywood -- other than a couple of books by Geoffrey Pardoe, I have very few of the authors who used their house names identified.
Roberts was, in fact, already selling stories to comics before his first novel appeared. Two stories, 'Hawk-Eye and the Wolf Cub' and 'Tommy Finds His Feet', had appeared in the 17 November 1950 and 25 May 1951 issues of the Eagle under the byline D. E. Roberts. A series of stories then appeared in Sun in 1952 entitled 'My Pal Wagger', illustrated by Stephen Chapman who, I'm sure not coincidentally, had drawn illustrations for Gaywood Press. Roberts' stories also appeared in annuals published by Boardman, including the Ajax Adventure Annual and various Okay Adventure Annuals in 1952-55.
Roberts was briefly the editor of the Sexton Blake Library, filling the gap between the departure of Len Pratt in 1954 and the arrival of W. Howard Baker in 1955. He presumably remained on friendly terms with Baker as he was occasionally employed as a manuscript reader for the Sexton Blake Library.
At the same time he was writing for Jack and Jill, launched in February 1954 as an up-to-date comic aimed at the nursery age group. The Amalgamated Press had long been the publisher of titles like The Rainbow and Tiny Tots but these were now seen as old fashioned by many. Jack and Jill was a beautifully printed photogravure weekly with full colour covers and centre pages and was a great success from the moment it debuted. For almost two years, Roberts was the writer of two of the most popular strips, 'Freddie Frog' and 'Fun in Toyland'.
In 1955, Roberts was appointed assistant editor on Playhour under George Allen. The title had been launched in October 1954 by Mike Butterworth as a slightly more adventurous version of Jack and Jill. It was never to be quite as successful as its elder sibling although it shared the photogravure printing and contained some fine work by the likes of Sep E. Scott (who painted the cover strip starring Texas Jack and his dog, Prince), Hugh McNeill, Will Nickless, Philip Mendoza, Bill Lacey and others.
Butterworth returned to his spiritual home -- the Sun and Comet group -- but, before long, was dreaming up another new title that was to prove hugely successful, Valentine.
Now installed as assistant editor, David Roberts soon added chief scriptwriter to his CV. Although the scripting chores for each strip was often shared by a number of different authors, Roberts was the primary scriptwriter for new stories as they began appearing: 'Billy Brock's Schooldays' in 1955, 'Jolly Days with Dicky and Dolly', 'The Merry Tales of Mimi and Marmy', 'Sonny and Sally of Happy Valley', 'The Wonderful Tales of Willow Wood' and 'Little Red Squirrel', all in 1956.
The nursery comics were unlike other contemporary juvenile comics in that the illustrations were balloon-free. All the dialogue and exposition was given in captions below the pictures, often in the form of two- or four-line rhymes. Because of this, payments for scripts was broken down into two: one payment for a storyline and one payment for the captions.
Thus, whilst Roberts wrote many of the storylines for 'Mimi and Marmy', for instance, the captions were usually written by Betty Clowes. Elsewhere, on 'Willow Wood' for example, some storylines were provided by office boy Brian Woodford and artist Peter Woolcock with Roberts producing the captions.
In 1956, Playhour began a series of colourful centre-spread adaptations of classic fairy tales and folk tales, including 'The Story of Sleeping Beauty' and 'The Story of Cinderella'. The majority of these were scripted by Roberts.
Roberts continued to script original stories alongside these adaptations, including 'The Story of Father Christmas' (1957), which introduced the character Norman Gnome, and 'The Travels of Gulliver Guinea-Pig' (1958-65). Gulliver was to become Roberts' most popular character, starring on Playhour's back cover for some years. The guinea-pig hero of the stories lived up to his name by travelling all over the world... and, after two years (with occasional breaks), began travelling to fantasy lands where he would meet the Rainbow Folk, the Forest Folk and enter Nursery Rhyme Land. These stories were beautifully drawn by Philip Mendoza and Gordon Hutchings.
Roberts also proved a dab hand at writing nursery rhymes himself and produced a series of 'New Nursery Rhymes' for Tiny Tots and the book Jack and Jill Present New Nursery Rhymes in 1961.
In the late 1950s, Roberts' output tailed off as he became involved in a new editorial role at Amalgamated Press with the newly formed Experimental Art Department. This new department was set up by Leonard Matthews as a think tank for brainstorming ideas for new titles and assisting where old titles were being revamped.
Working alongside artist and designer Trevor Newton, Roberts became the launch editor of Harold Hare's Own Paper which debuted in November 1959 (with Roberts, as usual, writing a number of strips, including 'Wendy and Her Wonderful Toby Jug', 'Here Comes Mr. Toad' and 'Moony From the Moon').
Through the Experimental Art Department, Roberts was also involved in the creation of Princess (1960), Buster (1960), Look and Learn where, for a few early issues in 1962, he was listed as Managing Editor, and Treasure (1963).
For the latter, Roberts penned a new strip, 'Princess Marigold and the Magic Spell' which ran for five episodes, returning in 1964 for a long run on the paper's back cover, only coming to an end when Treasure folded in 1971, although the later stories were by other hands. One of the story's stars, Wizard Weezle, then continued to appear in Playhour until the 1980s making him, perhaps, Roberts' most enduring character.
Because payment records do not exist for most of Fleetway's comics, it is impossible to know the full extent of Roberts' output. For some years it was the policy of management to allow editorial staff to write for papers they were involved with, giving their regular wages a boost by earning money freelancing. Authors like Roberts could make a great deal of money each week by writing storylines and captions which earned him three guineas apiece. When the Amalgamated Press were taken over by Daily Mirror Newspapers in January 1959, this practice was no longer allowed (staff being expected to pen storylines as part of the duties already paid for in their weekly wage packet), perhaps explaining Roberts' decision to take on a more managerial role with the Experimental Art Department; it almost certainly explains why, although he worked full-time for the A.P. (soon to be renamed Fleetway Publications), he began writing text stories for a number of books for Adprint, including Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans (1959), illustrated by Ron Embleton, and Lone Ranger Adventure Stories (1960), illustrated by Eric Dadswell.
Roberts' known output trails off in the mid-1960s when 'Gulliver Guinea-Pig' and 'Leo the Friendly Lion' (which he had started writing in 1960) came to an end. However, it may simply be the case that Roberts switched to writing other strips for which the authorship is unknown.
It does appear that he may have left Fleetway Publications before 1968 and may have freelanced for them and others for the next few years. In 1974, his name began appearing on various books published by Purnell, amongst them Super Quiz for Boys, Super Quiz for Girls (both 1974) and as editor of the Start to Collect series in 1975. Roberts was also writing various articles and features for books published by Collins, including Lands and Peoples, Science and Invention (both 1974) and Children's Encyclopedia of the Arts of the World (1976). Art would appear to have been an interest of Roberts' as his one byline in Look and Learn was a feature on Canaletto in 1962.
Various other books, ranging in subject matter from Animals and Their Young (1978) to The Wonder Book of Railways (1980), appeared under Roberts' name over the next few years. Sadly, the latter title was one of the last he worked on as he died on the 24 August 1980, having just turned 54.
Born in London on 20 August 1926, nothing is known about Roberts' early years although it is thought that he may have been an actor in his early years. By the time he came to work on the nursery comics he was in his late twenties but already had a plump figure and a somewhat seeded look; as one of his former colleagues said: "He had curly hair and he'd got this sort of scratchy actors voice. He was chubby and he looked a bit off, rather like a Michelangelo cherub which had gone-to-seed. There used to be bets to see if his trousers would fall down or stay up because he'd got this enormous pot belly. We were always unsure whether his waistband was strong enough to keep his trousers up. They never fell down but he was quite an unhealthy so-and-so."
"He was grossly overweight," recalls another former colleague. "At one point he lost a huge amount very quickly and from being someone with something of a presence became just a little pipsqueak."
Roberts and his wife, Frances had an apartment in the red-bricked Albert Hall Mansions, Kensington, and a number of contemporaries recall him arriving for work each day by taxi. The Playhour office was on the sixth floor of Fleetway House with editor George Allen having his own office; Roberts at first shared an office with sub-editor Pat Easter and junior Brian Woodford before Basil Reynolds came on board as art editor. With his arrival, Roberts moved into Allen's office.
The two were obviously close: they usually spent their lunchtimes together at the Feathers, in Fleet Street, or the Wig & Pen Club; on Friday, they would often be joined for drinks after work by Basil Reynolds and any visiting artists. My good friend Bill Lofts recalled meeting Roberts through Bill Baker. "He had his finger in every pie, wrote adult to very juvenile stuff. Wrote scripts as well. For some reason always seemed to stand outside the Edgar Wallace plaque at Ludgate Circus."
It is thought that Roberts died of a heart attack. His wife, who was considerably older and more sophisticated, survived him until 1990 when she died at the age of 82.
Although I have not been able to locate a photo of Roberts, he was included in an episode of 'Wee Willie Winkie' in which Willie and his friend Hannibal the elephant visit the Treasure office. The illustration (drawn by John Worsley, seen here peering around the door) shows portly David Roberts waving to all as he arrives at the office. (Trevor Newton, his fellow toiler in the Experimental Art Department, is the lanky chap standing on the right raising his cup of tea.)
Like most of recollections of old colleagues, it is often their faults that stick in the memory. David Roberts' weight seems to have been his most memorable aspect; even Bill Lofts called him "a small, portly man" which, frankly, could also describe Bill (and me!). This look at Roberts' life seems to be unduly negative because of this and I should add that Roberts, as a writer, was inventive, funny and had the knack for telling tales that were hugely popular with his audience. Some of the stories he contributed to -- either solely or with others -- ran for many years. I think of him as one of the forgotten stars of Fleetway Publications; if his only contribution had been 'Gulliver Guinea-Pig' (and for many years that was the only strip by Roberts I knew of) he would still have had a place in the pantheon of great creators for having produced even that one classic. Add 'Freddie Frog', 'Willow Wood', 'Mr. Toad', 'Leo the Friendly Lion', 'Katie Country Mouse' and 'Princess Marigold' and you have a body of work that any author could be proud of.
(* 'The Dancing Princesses', Jack and Jill present New Nursury Rhymes, 'Princess Marigold' and 'Wee Willie Winkie' are © Look and Learn Magazine Ltd.)