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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Ron "Nobby" Clark (1923-2009)

Ron Clark at his drawing board in the 1980s

It's a sad fact that my interest in the history of British comics and the creators behind the strips that entertained generations of children inevitably means noting the passing of some of its foremost talents.

I had the pleasure of corresponding and chatting to Nobby Clark on a number of occasions and he coped with my dozens of questions with patience and humour. "I'll be happy to help in your research," he wrote in 1999, "but remember we're going back some forty or fifty years. Much has happened in between and I've only my memory to rely on. What I will tell you is about as near to the truth to the best of my knowledge." You can't ask for better than that.

He was born, on 23 August 1923, Ronald Albert George Clark but signed his letters Nobby, a nickname that has been attached to men with the surname Clark since the 16th century. His parents were Albert Thomas Clark and his wife Nellie (nee Smith), a nurse he met whilst recovering from injuries sustained during the war, where he had been a sniper with the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

I outlined some of Nobby's career in an obituary published in yesterday's Guardian (4 April), so I'll stick here to some additional details. He worked at the Gaumont-British Animation studios alongside a number of artists who were to become stalwarts of the British comics scene: Eric Bradbury, Mike Western, Alf Saporito, Harry Hargreaves, Ron Smith, Bill Holroyd and others. It was through Nobby that many of these artists got their break at Amalgamated Press as he persuaded them to submit samples. I recently heard from Eileen Banks (then Whatley) who worked as a letterer on Ted Holmes' Cowboy Comics in the early- to mid-1950s, who recalls that it was Nobby who suggested to Pete Banks, her husband-to-be, that she might find work as a freelancer with the A.P. once her health was restored (she had left G-B Animation to receive treatment for T.B.).

A storyboard meeting at G-B Animation
Clark is standing, third from right in doorway with Mike Western leaning on the chair back next to him

Animation was Nobby's favoured profession: "If Rank had dumped his Charm School instead of G.B.A. I'd probably still be there," he later recalled. His later career returned him to animation, working with Jack Stokes on the French movie Asterix versus Caesar and on later productions The Forgotten Toys and Percy the Park Keeper.

Yet it was his anonymous contributions to comics that dominated his working life. When G-B Animation folded in 1949, Nobbby teamed up with Eric Bradbury to produce samples to take to prospective employers. He approached Arthur Bouchier, then editor of Comic Cuts, who was unable to find a position for the newcomers but sent them to Leonard Matthews, editor of Knockout. Nobby quickly established himself and within weeks was offered a staff position.

He "wrote" dozens of humour scripts, often taking over established characters from Hugh McNeill ("Our Ernie", "Deed-a-Day Danny", "Young Joey") as well as creating new characters like "Blossom" and "Freddie Frog". I put inverted commas around "wrote" because he produced visual scripts, drawing out ideas with the text pencilled in as he had done on his initial samples. "It worked and nobody complained," he told me. "I still maintain you can't visualise on a typewriter to this day."

Blossom art by Eric Bradbury; Freddie Frog art by Harry Hargreaves

Nobby was one of the important figures in moving the action story away from historicals to more modern adventures. Although his first action strip was a Western, he took over the writing of "Captain Phantom", a wartime spystrip featuring a "man of a thousand disguises". These were fast-moving and entertaining yarns which helped establish a more modern style of adventure strip in the UK with writers like Nobby Clark and Mike Butterworth ushering in the kind of strips that would dominate during the 1960s. Nobby's contributions included "Space Family Rollinson" (SF), "Johnnie Wingco" (aerial adventure) and "Ginger Tom" (historical). Most of these were created for Arthur Bouchier, who had taken editorial charge of Knockout in 1953 under Matthews.

Johnnie Wingco art by Mike Western

In 1959, Nobby worked with Bouchier on the dummy of a new comic title for Monty Haydon, manager of the group of papers that included Knockout. With various strips created, Len Matthews shuffled the contents, moving "Buster" to the front cover and naming the paper after the character. This was shortly after the A.P. was bought out Daily Mirror Newspapers and renamed Fleetway Publications and Matthews was keen to exploit the popularity of the "Andy Capp" strip published by the Daily Mirror, published by Fleetway's parent company. Thus, Buster became briefly "the son of Andy Capp", although the exploitation of his character angered Capp's creator Reg Smythe and, to smooth things over, the family connection was dropped and the artist and writer dumped.

Nobby was sent out to Spain to find new artists for the new paper and discovered a talented group which included Angel Nadal, Juan Rafart (Raf), Jorge Gins (Gin) and Martz Schmidt--Spanish despite the name. Raf drew Nobby's "Tony Hancock & Sid James" Film Fun strip ahead of the launch of Buster, for which Nobby wrote the bulk of the early strips, including "Buster", "Uppsy Daisy", "Lazy Sprockett", "Dumbell Fumblebee", "Bam, Splat and Blooie", "Cocky Doodle" and "Phantom Force Five".

Buster art by Bill Titcombe

He was also drafted in to write for the new Princess comic, writing "Circus Ballerina" and, later, "My Chum Yum Yum" for Tina. As the script writer for "Billy Bunter" in Valiant, he was the logical choice to write the adventures of Billy's sister, Bessie, for June & School Friend.

Nobby left Fleetway in 1969. Changes in management and changes of office began to make the job pall. "The final straw coming when Roy Davis and myself found ourselves, along with Alf Saporito and a few others, dumped in a large room with hardly any daylight." Various departments were being amalgamated and voluntary redundancy was being offered to some staff. Nobby took it and began working from home, continuing his association with some of the titles edited by Bob Paynter. A visit to King's Reach Tower convinced him he'd made the right decision.

Nobby was married to Jill Lee, whom he met at G-B Animation, in 1950 and had four children and six grandchildren. He was devoted to his family and passed on tips to all those who showed any talent for drawing. He also enjoyed gardening and had a fascination for history, often taking his children out for Sunday afternoon jaunts to historical sites. A lifelong fascination with military machinery and aircraft was inspired by his father and his time in the R.A.F. during the Second World War.

Nobby died on 21 March, aged 85. I'm sure you'll all join me in raising a glass to his memory.

Tony Hancock art by Juan Rafart

(* My thanks to Chris Clark and Charles Slack for their help with the above and for the photograph; the photo from the G-B Animation is part of the collection of Bob Egby; artwork © IPC Media.)


King Viswa said...

Well, What To Say, Very sad indeed.

Billy Bunter and his sister Bessie Bunter have been introduced to India and Guess what, they were Run-Away sucess.

I Guess, Billy bunter was also a success story in Dutch as they made couple of Movies on Billy Bunter also.

A Friend of Mine blogged about Billy bunter's films with download links.Here is the link to that story:

Very Sad Indeed.

King Viswa.

Rafiq Raja said...

I haven't heard much about Nobby Clark, other than the Billy Bunter and Bessie Bunter. For obvious reasons, as they were the only ones introduced in India in our Comics.

His work towards the 9th Art is well documented as is evident from your post.

Thanks for sharing the news Steve, of which I wouldn't have known if you hadn't.

He seem to have lived his life as he would have wished always. Our hearts go with his family, during this period. May his soul rest in peace.

denedhu said...


Remember recent news of the Spanish Panini edition of the Hugo Pratt UK strips?

Now I discovered that one of the most important French publishers, Casterman, will do the same in France next month:

Auteur : Hugo Pratt
Pages : 688
Prix : 45,00 €

Spanish, French... will we ever see the Complete UK Pratt in its original language?

Anonymous said...

Dear friend:
The name “Ron Clark” was a mistery to my friend Sergio Bleda and me during years, for he signed some scripts of “Sir Tim O’Theo”, a character created by Joan Raffart (Raf) in the ‘70s, and inspired by Sherlock Holmes. The writers of this comic strip were the same Raf, Andrés (Andreu) Martín, and the mysterious Ron Clark. Recently, Spanish comic researcher Toni Guiral wrote about Clark in a compilation of Sir Tim O´Theo long and short stories, and we knew of Clark´s true identity… We´ve been thinking all these years “Ron Clark” was the pseudonym of another Spanish author.
Sergio has told me about this post in your blog, and we too, from Spain, raise a glass in his memory.
Alberto López Aroca