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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Real Roy of the Rovers Stuff

Barrie Tomlinson joined Fleetway Publications back in 1961 and rose to become Group Editor in the late 1970s after nine years in the editorial seat on Tiger. During that period he grew to know all the ins and outs of Melchester Rovers' most famous star, the most famous footballer in the UK, Roy Race. It was his suggestion that Roy deserved his own title, and Roy of the Rovers was launched in 1976 with Tomlinson as editor.

Nobody is better placed to write about Roy's history during that period, and Barrie's book is an enjoyable romp through the many ways he tried to get Roy into the public eye through newspaper publicity and a clever use of celebrity endorsement. The debut issue of Roy of the Rovers was endorsed by no less a person than HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, who penned an article for that first number. Over the years Barrie had brought in some of the biggest celebrity names either on the pitch (England's World Cup-winning manager, Alf Ramsey, footballers Bobby Moore, Malcolm Macdonald and Bob Wilson, amongst many others, cricketers Geoff Boycott and Ian Botham, etc.) or off (Peter Sellers, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise) to write for and support both Tiger and Roy of the Rovers.

The additional publicity generated helped keep Roy in the papers and, therefore, reminded parents that he was still around. Comics were always seen as a parent-buy for their children and Roy's longevity meant that father's who had read the comic in the fifties could be buying the same title for their children to read in the seventies.

Just as unique amongst boys' comics, Roy of the Rovers was an ongoing soap-opera. While football may have been at its centre, the stories were built around Roy; the once eternally 29-year-old player began to grow older; he married, had children, suffered problems that affected his concentration and ability to play. Racey's Rocket would often win the day, but the skill of writers like Tom Tully was always to reflect real-world problems in the strip without letting up on the excitement on the pitch.

By mixing fact and fiction, stories were able to tackle hooliganism, Roy's family could cheer on the procession at the Royal Wedding of Charles and Di (Diana also being the name of Roy's third child, born around the same time as Prince William), and Penny could walk out on her famous husband. One of the most famous storylines of all, which left readers asking "Who shot Roy?", was inspired by the national attention a similar shooting had achieved in the end-of-season finale of TV series Dallas. Like "Who shot J.R.?", a number of suspects were introduced ahead of the shooting until the dramatic cover for 19 December 1981 saw Roy shot from off-panel. Inside were Get Well Soon messages from Trevor Francis, Terry O'Neill, Lawrie McMenemy and many other fellow footballers.

All this effort kept Roy in the spotlight for quite a few years whilst many contemporary papers were merged or simply folded. Tiger merged into Eagle in 1985, but Roy was able to sustain his own title until 1993. Roy himself has reappeared a number of times and any extraordinary action on the pitch will still earn a player comparison to Melchester Rovers' most famous son to this day.

Tomlinson's book covers this turbulent period of British comics, introducing some of the characters behind the scenes of the various comics he worked on and relating dozens of anecdotes about how he persuaded the likes of Sir Alf Ramsey to become a character within the story. He also covers turning Roy into the star of stamps, Roy's exploits in the Daily Star, the Tiger Sports Stars of the Year and many other aspects of the Roy story.

The book is packed with photos of Tomlinson meeting the many celebrities who populated the pages of Tiger and Roy of the Rovers. Perhaps the most interesting are to finally discover what his various sub-editors looked like (Ian Vosper, Paul Gettens) as photos of the real editors were almost unknown in comics that were "edited" by Tharg and Big E. Also the "before" photos of Tomlinson helping Suzanne Dando out of a sack is a treat as Roy's face was painted over the photograph when it originally appeared in Roy of the Rovers in 1982.

Hopefully this won't be the only time Barrie Tomlinson turns his attention back to his days at IPC Magazines. I'm sure there are many dozens of stories to be told about other titles he worked on, most notably the new Eagle and 2000AD.

Real Roy of the Rovers Stuff by Barrie Tomlinson. Pitch Publishing ISBN 978-1785-31212-0, October 2016, 192pp, £14.99. Available from Amazon.

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