Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Felix Dennis (1947-2014)

Felix Dennis, who has died aged 67, turned a magazine publishing business that once earned him an average income of £850 a year into one of the world's largest independent media companies with an annual turnover of over £100 million. Dennis had always been an astute businessman, able to adapt to get his way. At the famous OZ trial, where he was one of the three defendants. he provided an early example:
When I first went round looking for printers, for example, I wasn't dressed as I am now. I had very long hair; I had come from a culture different to theirs; I had a small magazine with an unestablished credit rating; and no printer's going to print a magazine that has colour and has a weird name like OZ with a freaky, long-haired guy in front of him saying 'Don't worry, we'll pay you'. And it was only after I began wearing suits and carrying a very heavy brief case  and waving a cheque book, that we ever found printers at all. (The Trials of OZ by Tony Palmer, Blond & Briggs, 1971, p.109)
The issue of OZ on trial for obscenity was the infamous "School Kids" issue, the twenty-eighth issue of the magazine, published in May 1970. Created by a group of around 20 under-eighteens drawn to the magazine via an advert in an earlier issue, the issue led to the paper's office being raided by police, the editors questioned and, a year or so later, an obscenity trial at the Old Bailey.

One of the most famous images discussed at the trial was the juxtaposition of Rupert Bear and a strip by Robert Crumb—Rupert's head was substituted over the original artwork in a 6-panel strip put together by 15-year-old Vivian Berger. Later, Berger had to defend his work in front of a jury, saying that it was "the kind of drawing that goes around every classroom, every day, in every school." Artist Feliks Topolski, a witness for the defence, described it as "satirical art", while Marsha Rowe called it "puerile, rebellious and not pornographic." Clive James "laughed like a drain at the priapic Rupert the Bear but found the rest thick-witted and raucous in the usual Oz way."

Vivian Berger (and his mum, Grace Berger, who was the chair of the National Council for Civil Liberties) is interviewed in the following video – the annoying high-pitched whine at the beginning only lasts about 15 seconds...

The three editors were found guilty but the decision was overturned at appeal. Scotland Yard's Obscene Publications Squad was later found to be thoroughly corrupt, with officers not only accepting bribes from pornographers but also involved in every aspect of the supply chain, including writing and editing pornographic magazines.

Sales of OZ grew immediately after the trial but the magazine folded after 48 issues in 1973. Dennis had launched a sideline of underground comix to help generate cash for the struggling OZ. H. Bunch Associates published around two dozen comics between 1972 and 1975, a mixture of reprints and original British material by the likes of Chris Welch (creator of the memorable Ogoth), Edward Barker and Joe Petagno, alongside newcomers Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons and Trev Goring, who went on to work in mainstream comics.

Dennis found himself greater success with Kung-Fu Monthly magazine and, from 1976, he headed an increasingly successful consumer magazine empire. Dennis Publishing nowadays publishes 70 magazines, from Maxim to The Week, and has diversified into websites, apps, online publishing and many other ventures.

Obituaries: The Guardian (23 June 2014), Daily Telegraph (23 June 2014), The Independent (24 June 2014).

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