Monday, 15 August 2022

Bernard Cookson, Fleet Street cartoonist — a pal’s tribute

I FIRST met Bernard Cookson way back in 1964. We were the new kids on the block, cocksure

I FIRST met Bernard Cookson way back in 1964. We were the new kids on the block, cocksure and full of drive and enthusiasm.

It was at the Cartoonist’s Club’s annual get-together at one of the many Butlin’s holiday camps. Our president was Sir Billy Butlin who every year would give us doodlers and our families a week’s free holiday in return for which we were expected to judge the glamorous granny and knobbly knees competitions.

Bernard and I became good friends almost immediately. Well, in truth, Bernard got on with everyone immediately. He was extremely witty, always warm and friendly and blessed with enviable good looks.

Those days were good for young freelance cartoonists. Many newspapers published a page of gag cartoons every day, so there were lots of us hopefuls dreaming up visual jokes and bombarding editors with them.

The competition was fierce and sometimes weeks would go by without a sale. The ultimate goal was to get work accepted by Punch magazine, which paid more than the others and was very picky about who it allowed in.

Bernard got in very quickly. His cartoons were quirky, incisive and very funny. Back then his hero was a regular Punch contributor called Eric Burgin whose style he blatantly copied.

However, over the years, this changed and Bernard’s unique style emerged, loose and flowing and unlike any other cartoonist. He got a regular spot in the Daily Sketch — a single column cartoon called The Nightlys about a young couple of telly addicts.

His work started appearing regularly in the Daily Mirror, Punch and many other magazines until eventually he was offered the job of political and social cartoonist on the London Evening News where his work proved a very popular feature right up until the paper closed in 1980.

Not bad this meteoric rise for an illegitimate lad born in Manchester to a poor 16-year-old single mother who named him Christopher Robin Kemp. (I told him he was lucky she didn’t call him Winnie the Pooh!)

At 10 months old he was handed over for adoption and his new parents, whom he loved dearly, christened him Bernard.

He trained as a graphic designer and found he had a real talent for drawing, burning the midnight oil after work to earn a bit more money, illustrating penny dreadfuls usually about teenage unrequited love.

After two years of National Service in the RAF (mostly in sunny Cyprus), he returned to Manchester and graphic design but was soon making more money from his freelance cartoons, so he upped sticks and moved south to Henley with his first wife Joyce and two young children, Jeremy and Elizabeth.

I lived nearby and we renewed our friendship. Soon we were collaborating with one another writing comedy scripts for TV. This proved just as tough as when we were trying to start our cartoon careers. Rejection followed rejection until at last we started getting our efforts accepted by the likes of Tommy Cooper and Dave Allen.

I don’t think I have ever laughed as much as I did during that period. We just seemed to be tuned into the same humour wavelength, guffawing until we ached and desperately trying to get it all down on paper to send to the TV shows. We thought then that we were going to be the new Galton and Simpson but, sadly, it was not to be.

Bernard’s marriage broke up and a little later so did mine. We went our different ways and the scriptwriting came to an abrupt end. Luckily, our friendship didn’t and we continued to meet up in London from time to time, drink too much and end up on a fairly regular basis missing our trains home.

Bernard continued to live in Henley. He was a founding member and a stalwart of the Monday club, a weekly get-together of a happy group of individuals who enjoyed good conversation, nice restaurants and unhealthy doses of red wine.

This was changed to healthy doses when Bernard’s second wife Franky came into his life and rescued him and his liver from further damage.

With her love and encouragement, he got down to developing the skills he had honed while scriptwriting years before and wrote an exciting novel about the theft of the Turin shroud which sold well.

This perhaps helped the Cooksons to buy an old ruin in Crete which they turned into a delightful home high up on a hill overlooking the sea and mountains. My wife and I were invited many times to stay and it was always a joy. Sun, sea, great conversation, retsina and more guffawing. What more could an old cartoonist want?

Bernard carried on sending wonderfully funny cartoons to the Spectator and The Oldie magazines plus many charitable causes right up until the end.

He passes away after a brave fight against cancer on January 26. The laughter stopped. I will miss him. He was a good man. He was my best pal.

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