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Thursday, 28 October 2021
GRAY JOLLIFFE is living proof of the old adage that sex sells.
The 78-year-old, who made his name in the Eighties with his best-selling Wicked Willie cartoons, has published two new books in time for Christmas — and long-standing fans won’t be surprised by the subject matter.
The first, called The First Ever Christmas And Who To Blame, is an irreverent retelling of the Nativity story which casts Mary and Joseph as an ordinary Jewish couple who are always bickering.
In Jolliffe’s version, the Angel Gabriel is initially reluctant to “knock up a man’s wife” and struggles to convince her to do the deed. As he leaves afterwards, he tells her God wants her to change her name from Traci.
Later, as the couple are making their way to Bethlehem, the story intertwines with Santa’s efforts to visit every house in the world and the trouble he encounters along the way.
Jolliffe came up with the idea in the Seventies, when his children appeared in various Nativity plays, but never pursued a publishing deal. However, many of the cartoons have previously appeared on his personal Christmas cards.
He says: “I always thought of Mary and Joseph as everyday people who would argue just like everybody else. It isn’t meant to be anti-religious — it’s just looking at the whole story in a funny and secular light.
“I had so many ideas that I could easily have come up with a second book. I put ‘and who to blame’ in the title because everybody says Christmas drives them mad and they’re glad when it’s finished. However, it’s only over for about nine months before it starts up again, which means it has the same gestation period as a human baby. It’s incredibly irritating.”
The second book is Chloe & Co: Has Anyone Seen My Love Life?, which is a compendium from the past decade of Jolliffe’s Chloe & Co cartoons for the Daily Mail.
First published as Up And Running in the mid-Nineties, the series follows the dramas and dalliances of vacuous young blonde Chloe and her overweight, insecure flatmate Angela.
Since its debut, Joliffe has produced more than 6,000 three-panel strips at a rate of six per week and won the cartoon of the year award from the Cartoon Art Trust in 2010.
However, despite an early aptitude for his craft, he never envisioned making a living from it as a youngster.
Jolliffe, who lives in the Hambleden Valley, was born in Cornwall in 1937 and spent much of his childhood overseas after his father Bill joined the Royal Air Force and was posted to Washington DC during the Second World War.
Over a period of about seven years, his family moved to Miami and later Nassau before returning to the UK.
Jolliffe attended a grammar school in Peterborough and then completed two years’ National Service with the RAF before spending four years studying architecture at a college in Leicester.
After moving to London, he began working as a storyboard artist and later as a copywriter in the advertising industry.
He recalls: “As a child, I always used to make a lot of drawings, though sadly I don’t think my parents ever kept any of them. My earliest efforts were on the kitchen wall so they soon decided to get me some paper!
“To start with, I didn’t think of doing anything artistic for a career. I did well at art in school and was good at painting but it never crossed my mind to pursue it professionally because there didn’t seem to be a future in it.
“I enjoyed designing buildings, which is why I went down the architecture route and my father thought that was a smart idea too.
“However, advertising later struck me as easier and more fun. I spent many, many years enjoying myself in that industry. It’s the kind of job where you get up and think ‘thank God it’s Monday’ — that used to be my slogan, in fact.”
Jolliffe, who would eventually become creative director at London agency WCRS, was part of the team that devised the “laughing Martians” adverts for Smash instant mashed potato in the late Seventies.
He says: “We were watching footage of a potato being peeled and wondering what aliens would make of it. They’d probably laugh and wonder why we went to so much trouble. They’d say we were doing it a*** about face but they’d probably say that about a lot of things people do.
“It was fun to work on — I thought the designers did a great job of bringing the characters to life.”
He also worked on the campaign for Hamlet cigars, which was famous for its slogan “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet” and its use of Bach’s Air on a G String.
One such advert comprised a single shot of an unseen golfer trying and failing to drive his ball from a bunker.
Jolliffe says: “Talk about shooting on a shoestring — it must have been the cheapest advert ever made. Of course, in those days the industry was heavily unionised so you had to hire a full technical crew and we were all cramped into these tiny caravans. You could have shot it with three or four people but we had to employ several dozen.”
During this time he was increasingly producing cartoons for print campaigns and animation for television, including one for the cleaning product Bloo which featured the voice of Carry On star Kenneth Williams as a talking toilet.
He came up with the idea for Wicked Willie after hearing of a friend’s trouble performing in the bedroom. He drew several cartoons depicting embarrassing encounters and approached his friend Peter Mayle, an advertising industry colleague who later found fame with his series of books about Provence, about producing a book.
The pair had previously collaborated on Mayle’s The Honeymoon Book, which touched on similar themes.
Between 1984 and 1990, they published six Wicked Willie books and sold millions of copies around the world.
Next year, Jolliffe intends to release a compilation of the best cartoons, which he will redraw and colour using computer software.
He recalls: “Peter immediately wanted to do it. I then became worried that no one would print it as it was too rude but he disagreed. He did the text and I did the drawings, so we used to joke that I did the pink bits and he did the grey bits!
“It was actually quite acceptable to people. It was on sale in W H Smith on big promotional stands so it can’t have been that bad. The first volume was a huge success across most of Europe but the Americans wouldn’t touch it. They thought it was far too rude and I think they were very insecure about the whole concept. Oddly enough, France never went for it in a big way either.
“It seemed to ring a big bell with the British public, though. Most of the buyers were women whereas men rarely bought it, presumably because it was taking the mickey out of them. Strangely enough, nobody complained — in fact, people were saying it should be part of the sex education syllabus.
“I think it might get more complaints nowadays. Most people are open-minded but there’s more of a right-wing, oppressive element in society these days. You’ve only got to look at what’s happening in America to see that — it’s sad times if you’re a liberal.”
Asked if he had ever incorporated vignettes from his own love life, he says: “I plead the fifth on that! I used to ask other people to tell me their own funny stories, which was very helpful though I made sure not to attribute them to anyone.
“Sex is a great subject because there’s just so much material, which makes it easy to write about. I think it would help people to become more confident if they can see the funny side of sex rather than skirting around it.”
Jolliffe was inspired to write Chloe & Co by Chloe Nicholson, a photography agent and former model with whom he worked in the Eighties.
He says: “I always told her that I would make a cartoon about her one day. She had no idea how funny she was.
“One time, she said her mother-in-law had the flu for the first time so it must have been related to the Chernobyl accident, which had happened shortly beforehand.
“I said that was unlikely as it wouldn’t cause flu but radiation sickness, as with the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“She asked me what that meant and I said I couldn’t believe she’d never heard about the bombings. She said, ‘well, I have lived abroad most of my life’.
“Another time she said she’d been up all night chanting because she was a Buddhist. I asked how long she’d been practising and she said, ‘since last Thursday’.
“She’d gone to this meeting where they said you could chant for whatever you wanted, so she was chanting for a yellow Volkswagen like one she’d had when she was living in Ibiza.”
Jolliffe usually writes the strip in batches of six at a time, which takes at least 12 hours per week. He draws the outlines in pen and paper then scans them into his computer to add text and colour. He used to colour them manually using felt-tip pens but made the switch to digital almost two decades ago.
He says: “I just think about things people tell me and things I overhear, often with very little embellishment. There’s always something you can make into a joke, or at least an amusing scene.
“I always jot down little snippets I hear, particularly when someone says something ridiculous or daft. Sometimes, when I’m looking back through my work, there’ll be one I don’t remember and I’ll think, ‘how did I come up with that?’
“I might have the odd moment where I can’t think of anything but I can usually just relax into it and the ideas come naturally. It’s probably my favourite project even though Wicked Willie is my most successful.”
Jolliffe met his wife Niki in 1962, shortly after getting his first job, and they were married six months later. They now have three grown-up children and three grandchildren.
The couple relocated to Hambleden from the capital in 1990 after visiting a friend’s summer home in the village. They lived at a property on the Hambleden Estate for 20 years before moving to their current home on Pheasants Hill. Jolliffe works from a studio in converted stables behind the house and, when not drawing, enjoys playing the piano and sawing and painting his own wooden furniture.
He said: “I can’t imagine more of a paradise, quite honestly. There are many beautiful places you could live but the weather isn’t as hostile here and you can really see the area changing with the seasons. It’s ideally located for getting into London too, so it really takes some beating.
“I can’t ever see myself retiring — I think I shall be on that treadmill until I die. Even if I stopped drawing professionally, I would still paint for pleasure. I much prefer to be doing things and keeping busy, not least because it keeps Alzheimer’s at bay.
“I’m very lucky in that I’ve always had a job where I enjoy what I do. Lots of people don’t like their job but have no other option, whereas that has never been an issue for me.
“I consider myself successful for having made a living from it — although I’m not a millionaire, even if I live in an area that’s surrounded by them!”
* The First Ever Christmas And Who To Blame and Chloe & Co: Has Anyone Seen My Love Life?, both published by Amberley, are available at The Bell Bookshop in Bell Street, Henley, for £9.99 each.
05 December 2016
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