Cartoonist Bill Tidy at 80 is still 'relentlessly' busy, turning his whimsical eye on topics including the discovery of Richard III's remains under a car park. Lynne Dixon meets him at his home near Ashbourne.
WHETHER it's the exciting discovery of King Richard III under a car park or the joys of tripe – the edible kind, that is – you just never know where a conversation with cartoonist Bill Tidy will take you.
Archaeology is certainly one of his great passions, as I found out when I went to meet him at the converted Victorian farmhouse near Ashbourne that he shares with Rosa, his Italian-born wife of 54 years.
Famous for highly popular cartoon strips The Cloggies in Private Eye and the Fosdyke Saga in The Daily Mirror, Bill nowadays devotes a lot of his time to creating cartoons for British Archaeology, a bi-monthly magazine.
When the remains of Richard III were found under a social services car park in Leicester, Bill couldn't resist drawing on the theme for the magazine.
"As the grave was open to the elements for a while, my theme just had to be 'an umbrella, an umbrella, my kingdom for an umbrella'", he jokes, as we chat in his studio while Rosa, a brilliant cook, conjures up some Mediterranean magic with mouth-watering aromas in the cosy farmhouse kitchen next door.
Amazingly, Bill is now 80, though you would hardly know it. Still imposingly tall and straight-backed, he's brimming with energy, fresh ideas and sharp wit, not to mention those incredibly fast drawing skills that he has always been admired for.
As a celebrity cartoonist he has appeared on numerous TV shows, from Countdown and Watercolour Challenge to Through the Keyhole and Countryfile. Then there was Blankety Blank and Celebrity Squares, as well as BBC radio's The News Quiz and Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Back in the 1970s he was even the subject of a This is Your Life.
Today, a still relentlessly busy ("relentless" being his own description) Bill illustrates books on archaeology with his friend Dr Paul Bahn, contributes the Kegbuster strip cartoon for What's Brewing, the monthly real ale magazine, and writes and illustrates books, among them his autobiography, Is There Any News of the Iceberg?
His current writing project is close to his heart. It's a humorous take on today's attitudes to ageing and includes contributions from showbiz friends like Chris Tarrant, Barry Cryer, Robert Powell and Nicholas Parsons, his oldest pal. "The book is called Don't Write Us Off and I'm hoping it will be out by the end of the year. It should make a good Christmas present," he grins.
Although Bill's latest book will be light reading, there'll be a serious underlying message, too. "People seem to think that if you're over 70 you're ready for the drop," he says. "I'm hoping it will be an inspiring read, especially for people who don't want to retire, like me. Compulsory retirement can be a death sentence and celebrities can suffer from ageist attitudes just like the man in the street."
As Bill points out, people are now living longer "and 70 is the new 50".
"My friend Nick Parsons is 90 and still presenting the quick fire Just a Minute show on Radio Four. He's been round the block a few times and is a wise old devil."
Returning to his love of archaeology, Bill shows me two of his favourite books he has illustrated, Dirty Diggers – Tales from the Archaeological Trenches and Disgraceful Archaeology – Or Things You Shouldn't Know About. "A lot of people think it's a very dusty, extremely academic subject, but actually it's fascinating stuff and archaeologists are real people. Finding the remains of King Richard III was a great discovery, something of massive public interest. And it gave me a great idea for a cartoon."
Last year's BBC drama series The White Queen, set at the time of the Wars of the Roses, provided still more fodder for Bill's mischievous pen. "Historians spotted various inaccuracies in it, including zips in clothing and a double-glazed window in one scene." This prompted Bill to come up with a cartoon for the archaeological magazine depicting a double-glazing firm's van bearing the words "By appointment to Richard III and Henry VII".
When a new visitor centre was built at the historic Creswell Crags site, opened by Sir David Attenborough, Bill was delighted to be asked to provide the voiceover. "The site features Britain's oldest cave art – it's a super place to visit."
Bill's keen sense of humour and quick-off-the-mark drawing skills have served him well all his life, despite never having had any formal art training. Born in Tranmere, a suburb of Birkenhead, in 1933, he was brought up in Liverpool, leaving school at 15. "My first published cartoon appeared in the school magazine. I was always good at drawing but never came top in art at school. Annoyingly, I always came second to a boy who drew perfect bowls of fruit and flowers!"
His first job was in a shipping office in Liverpool. Then in 1952, he enlisted and joined the Royal Engineers, serving in Germany, Korea and Japan. On leaving the army in 1955, Bill worked as a layout artist at an advertising agency before becoming a freelance cartoonist, inspired by a colleague who was selling drawings to magazines. Within two years he had become a professional cartoonist and in 1959 he attended a lunch given by Punch magazine, which sealed his romantic fate.
He sat next to a charming Italian girl, Rosa, who was to become Mrs Bill Tidy the following year.
The couple went on to have three children – Sylvia, now 50, lives in Leicestershire and runs a speakers' agency and promotes showbiz people; Nick, a musician who tragically died from adult sudden death syndrome in the US in 2004; and DJ Rob, 38, who is currently staying with Bill and Rosa in Derbyshire.
"We also have two lovely grandchildren, Scarlette, who is 23, and Jones, who is 18, They are Nick's children," says Bill.
A founder member of the Cartoonists' Club of Great Britain, Bill became well known for The Cloggies, his strip cartoon which ran in the satirical magazine Private Eye from 1967 until 1981 and then in The Listener.
Another long-running and popular project was The Fosdyke Saga, a parody of The Forsyte Saga, a series of three novels and later a TV drama about an upper-class London family. Bill's comic strip centred on a northern family whose central character was Josiah Fosdyke, a Salford tripe magnate.
"It ran in The Daily Mirror from 1971 to 1984 until Robert Maxwell came along and stopped it," Bill smiles ruefully. Nevertheless, The Fosdyke Saga went on to even greater things when it was broadcast as a 42-part BBC radio series and also became a stage play in collaboration with renowned playwright Alan Plater.
The Fosdyke Saga brings us to an event which Bill was invited to at the House of Commons last October. He has me in fits of laughter as he recounts how he attended a meeting held by The Tripe Foundation – his invitation clearly in honour of Josiah Fosdyke.
"The meeting was attended by several people, including an aristocrat, an MP and a titled gentleman from the world of opera. I was asked to talk about my interest in tripe and the part, if any, it has played in my life!"
The event, it turns out, was a serious affair to mark World Tripe Day and the powers-that-be really did want Bill's take on tripe. But I couldn't help collapsing in mirth when Bill told me that he and the other distinguished visitors were all invited to sing an Anthem to Tripe to the tune of Jerusalem!
As Bill says: "There was a serious intent to it all but I don't yet quite know what it was.
"To be honest, I came out as innocent of its purpose as when I went in. But I shall know more soon as someone from the Tripe Marketing Board is coming to see me."
One of Bill Tidy's great enthusiasms in life is his love of sport, especially cricket, and he's a longstanding supporter of the charity fund-raising work of The Lord's Taverners, of which he was president in 2007-08.
Considered by many to be Britain's best cartoonist, Bill was awarded the MBE in 2000.
Musing over his major comic influences over his 50-year career, he cites The Goon Show. "I knew Sir Harry Secombe.
"He used to sing to Rosa's mother, who was crazy about opera. But when he hit the top note, he would always go into Goon mode!"
Another key influence, he tells me, has been the work of cartoonist Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, creator of the Old Bill character during the First World War. "Bill was an idle scoundrel, an anti-hero, who became enormously popular with the troops. There was such horror in the trenches but Old Bill provided a lighter side and was featured in a magazine called The Bystander. I would love to make a film about it."
When he isn't drawing and writing, Bill is a popular after dinner speaker and particularly enjoys talking to Women's Institutes.
"The members really appreciate my humour and what I do. I find them very bright and they know their history. If I make any historical quotations they know what I'm talking about."
Bill is also currently helping out with a Derby-based charity called Jet – short for jobs, education and training.
"The people I work with are dedicated to helping migrants, many from Eastern Europe, to find work.
"I draw cartoons to help them learn and understand English.
"Using universal humour, I draw pictures quickly to set them thinking laterally and improve their vocabulary. They've had an English lesson, they've enjoyed it and it's paying off."
Returning to Bill's current book on attitudes to ageing, he makes it perfectly plain that he has absolutely no plans to retire. Ever.
"My book is an angry cry that there are many men and women out there with a lot of talent and experience, yet they have to retire."
Just to reinforce his message, Bill adds: "The oldest thing in my kitchen is a cheese grater that my mum bought before I was born. It's still working and so am I.
"I wish to retire feet first and hope that I've made some mark in my calling!"