Photo by Joe Maher
Artillery Row

Happily devoid of consequences

The Beano magazine retains its quality but not all its character over the decades

When corporal punishment was banned in British state schools in 1986, Dennis the Menace no doubt breathed a sigh of relief (although the legal complexity surrounding the domestic application of Dad’s slipper probably continued to give him ongoing cause for concern). This year the red-and-black-hooped antihero turns seventy, but he was a relatively late addition to the canon of The Beano, which first appeared on newsstands in 1938.

It is just as well the characters are timeless, for otherwise they might all by now be dead, or at least have spent the last eighteen months incarcerated in their nursing homes. In celebration of Dennis’s seventh turn of the decade he and the other regular characters — historic and current — have come to London for a few months to star in Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules. It is a welcome splash of colour as winter approaches. 

The exhibition catalogue is inspired: essentially an edition of the comic, guiding visitors around the enormous amount of material that Andy Holden has brought together in room after room, deep in Somerset House. The Dandy has gone, and so has Boy’s Own, and Bunty, and the rest; this is an exuberant celebration of a national institution that blinked its way into the light as darkness was falling across Europe, and which has endured the ravages of time. 

Jonah the sailor sank decades ago

Inevitably a weekly of such longevity has an interesting and constantly-developing history; that element of The Beano is to the fore in the opening chambers. It seems that children in the 1940s had, broadly speaking, two concerns: they liked food, and they disliked punishment. While it may be tempting to dismiss this as true of children in any generation, it takes on a particularly poignant air in the context of rationing and the threat of bombing at home. 

If the quest for grub and the fear of the birch seems to come from a different world, that is because it is from a different world. In such light, any publication that has thrived in both worlds deserves our attention. The material on display challenges its viewers with a simple question: what makes children smile? The Beano has sought to answer it in war, in peace and in the vagaries of national life over the decades. 

On that front, successive editors have clearly felt themselves, perhaps not unreasonably, to be on shifting sand. Lord Snooty fell to a modern distaste for noblesse oblige, and Minnie the Minx now appears as a prototype feminist. Jonah the sailor sank decades ago, and with him the assumption of enough biblical literacy for young readers to enjoy the eponymous joke. Dennis no longer bullies Walter, who remains as annoying as ever; Rubi von Screwtop uses a wheelchair without hindrance. 

It’s not hard to see where this is going. The Bash Street Kids have been joined by Harsha and Mandi, both girls of colour. Fatty is now called Freddy, despite no discernible lifestyle changes; Spotty is now Scotty notwithstanding his ongoing (and frankly fascinating) dermatological problems. Poor Plug — named for his prodigious plug-ugliness — has retained his nomenclature, which enables a curatorial practical joke in the finest traditions of schoolboy humour.  

The career of their long-suffering Teacher continues unabated

Wandering through the galleries amounts to a return to the company of childhood friends, and the thing that jumps out constantly is the sheer quality of the drawings. All the characters that I knew so well thirty years ago had talented progenitors who were replaced imperceptibly as the years passed; many are represented here, but obviously it never occurred to me at the time. David Sutherland has been drawing The Bash Street Kids for half a century, so the schooldays of 2A and the career of their long-suffering Teacher continue unabated, trapped forever in a Sisyphean cycle of education that is never better or worse, only different.  

Perhaps that captures the essential bliss of The Beano. For all the potentially-lethal rule-breaking scrapes that entangle its characters, no-one gets killed, sent to prison or taken into care; anyone who ends up swathed in bandages at the end of one strip appears the next week as fresh as a daisy. It is the world seen through the eyes of children, one happily devoid of the possible consequences of which responsible adults are constantly aware. 

This is something Holden acknowledges, but he also insists that “it takes an element of ingenuity to make rules, but endless creativity to break them”. That is a carefree mantra that underpins the whole exhibition; yet, for all the fun, there are also frustrations. In one gallery, which displays work by artists inspired by The Beano, visitors are invited to catapult virtual paint bombs at the Mona Lisa and other great works of art; a neon sign proclaims that “art is the thing nobody asked you to do”. 

Another sign, however, next to the contemporary pieces in the centre of the room, reads “do not climb”. I asked the attendant about this: was it a test, hoping that children embracing the Beano spirit might be bold enough to disregard it, mount the podium and thereby win some sort of secret competition? “Oh, no,” she said, “there’ll be a guard in here to stop them.” Feeling somewhat deflated, I made my way downstairs. 

The mask slips towards the end

I was cheered to find myself in the middle of a living-art installation by Peter Liversidge; a protest with freshly-painted placards lining the walls, from which I was encouraged to choose one to take home. If none appealed, I could have one painted to order by a resident team of artists. I duly bounded over with child-like glee, but it turned out that visitors can’t choose a slogan of their own; instead they have to select one from a pre-approved list, sent in by Beano readers. 

“Some are political,” I was assured, and indeed they were. In no particular order, they included: “I do not like Brexit”, “Brexit is a mistake”, “Don’t get Brexit done”, “Still European”, “I hate Brexit”, “Brexit sucks”, “It’s the politicians who are to blame” and “Boris: what is there to like?” I looked hard to find any of a different political hue, and failed. The young readership of today’s Beano seems impressively well-informed, and curiously unanimous in its political affiliations. It would be interesting to peruse the original submissions. 

There is an inevitable dissonance here; as the catalogue insists, “there’s one rule Beano does advocate: the art of being true to yourself.” This is a fascinating exhibition in which joy breaks out all over the place, but the mask slips towards the end. Break the rules, but don’t climb on our staging; go on a protest, but take one of our placards with you. Dad’s slipper has been rightly rendered obsolete; perhaps in any case it’s easier to allow children to think that they’re being encouraged to break the rules, while a new orthodoxy fills the breach. 

Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules is at Somerset House until 6 March 2022.

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