A la Recherche du ‘Spare Ribs’ Perdu – Part 1

A long, long time ago, I can still remember…
This begins with not remembering, not remembering something I used to know, that I’d held in mind for four decades and which, I suddenly found, had slipped out of my mind.
But this is the Internet Age. Whatever you want to know, whatever you need to remember, just go on-line: the information is out there, somewhere.
Except that it wasn’t. What I wanted to know, what I wanted to be reminded of, was something sufficiently obscure that, as yet, no enthusiast with access to the Web had yet seen to post details. Even though a person very famous in his field was involved, directly, no accounts of his career, of his achievements, made more than the most fleeting of mentions of this topic.
But that’s the thing about the Internet: all the information is there because someone with enough passion and eagerness has chosen to upload it. Part of this story is that someone turning out to be me.

Given my general left-soft-liberal political leanings, I imagine that you’d be surprised to learn that I practically grew up on the Daily Express. My parents had the Sunday Express delivered each weekend, and my grandparents in Droylsden (where we went for Saturday dinner, week-in, week-out) took the Daily. Not that I actually read the paper, as such in those days. Once I became interested in football, and cricket, I’d start to read the Sports pages. But in the Sixties, when I was a kid, the Express interested me only for its cartoon strips.
Not Rupert the Bear, unless perhaps when I was very young, too young to remember. And certainly not the interminable Gambols by Barry Appleby, which ran on the back page in a solus.  But in the Sixties, the Express had a cartoon page that was the envy of Fleet Street, featuring Gun Law by Harry Bishop, the strip version of the TV Western, Gunsmoke, Sydney Jordan’s classic Jeff Hawke at its peak, as written by Willie Patterson, and James Bond, adapted by Jim Lawrence and Yaroslav ‘Larry’ Horak. What a line-up! There wasn’t a paper in the UK that coud better that combination!
So each week at Droylsden, I would gather together a week’s papers and catch up on the stories in each of these three strips.
This line-up ran throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies, and was only broken when Jeff Hawke ceased in 1974. It was the beginning of the end of the great daily adventure strips, and both Gun Law and James Bond would themselves be cancelled, in quick succession, in late 1976. By Xmas of that year, the Express’s cartoon section would consist entirely of humour strips. The first strip to make this breakthrough was Spare Ribs.

Spare Ribs was a gentle, office based daily humour strip, set in a London Department Store and centring upon the daily life of four young secretaries. It was written by Frank Dickens, who was already famous for his Bristow office-based strip in the London Evening Standard, which has since gone on to be the longest running UK strip produced by a single creator, and was drawn by Don Roberts.
I don’t remember much about the strip from the days it was running. I liked it, and enough to have decided that I would like to have kept it, clipping it out each week. But I’d decided that too late for the first few weeks, and as I couldn’t have a complete selection, I decided to wait, and buy the strip when it was complied in book form.
That intention demonstrates not only a serious liking for the strip, but an optimism that not so much bordered on naiveté as shared an Open Border Pact with it. This was the mid-Seventies, and the number of British newspaper strips being collected could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The Daily Mail‘s Fred Bassett, The Perishers from the Daily Mirror and the terminally unfunny Gambols appeared regularly. But if the Express had never thought, in all those years, to capitalise upon its big three adventure strips, what likelihood was there that Spare Ribs would be thus honoured when it had run for long enough?
Sadly, that never became an issue: one weekend at Droylsden, I collated the papers and was shocked to find that, without warning or explanation, Spare Ribs was gone. In its place was tEMpS, a humour strip on a similar basis, but this time written and drawn by Dickens, and frankly it was awful. All the wit of Spare Ribs, all the elegance of Roberts’ drawings, the easy, written humour were sacrificed to accommodate Dickens’ primitive cartoons of short, round, wholly unrealistic figures, with very little room for dialogue.
Thankfully, the previous week’s papers had not yet been thrown out, and I was able to clip and keep the last week of continuity. A pitifully small representation, but all I was ever going to see of a strip I’d really enjoyed, and that deserved a far longer run than it received: not even a full year.

I kept those half dozen strips, taking them out at intervals to read through that last, representative week. I still have them, somewhere, but that’s where this story begins. Spare Ribs was, as I said, about four young women, secretaries all, and I remembered their names and characteristics long after the strip had faded into oblivion. Until, a few months ago, I realised that I had not looked at that handful of clippings in several years, that whilst I certainly wouldn’t have thrown them out, I had no idea where to find them, even in my pokey little flat and, worse of all, I couldn’t remember the names of the two principal girls of the strip.
So I turned to the Internet, and Google. A search against Spare Ribs produced nothing in relation to the strip, not even when paired with Dickens and/or Roberts’ names. Dickens is obviously famous, and has an official site as well as other sites referring to his work, but Spare Ribs is not even mentioned on any of these. A search against Roberts turned up a short biography of him attached to the sale of some original art, which mentions his collaboration with Dickens on Spare Ribs as if it were well-known. But nothing and no-one, as I pointed out above, could give me any information about the series, and it certainly couldn’t fill that gap in my head as to the names of the two principals. There were four girls: the two ‘junior’ stars were Maisie and Kelly, but who were the other girls?

If you can’t find it on the Internet, you have to go back to more basic forms of searching. In the past, researching background elements for novels set in past years, I had spent time at Manchester’s Central Reference Library, poring over microfilm copies of old newspapers. Central Ref had been closed for refurbishment for years, but now it was newly unveiled. Spare Ribs had run in the Daily Express: how else to find out about it than to go and read the Daily Express?
This was not as simple as it sounded. The old Central Ref had metal cabinets all round the Reference Library: if you could find a free microfilm viewer, the microfilms were there to be unspooled and read. Now, though, it was necessary to book in advance, by at least one full working day, and specify what you wanted to read so that it could be brought in from off-site in readiness. The second problem was that I didn’t know exactly when the strip had run. Less than a year, certainly, and from one year into another, of that I was confident, but of which two years I was far from sure. In the old Central Ref, it would have been simplicity itself to grab single reels from enough Decembers until I tracked the series down, and then back-calculate to find an approximate start date, based on the strip numbering. Instead, I had to ask for the December microfilms for four years – 1974 to 1977 inclusive – in the hope of finding which one was relevant.
I knew it couldn’t have been as late as 1978, when I was living in Nottingham and not regularly spending Saturday afternoons in Droylsden, and I doubted it would be as early as 1974, but included that year because it would have been frustrating to have to make a second visit just to date the series if my memory was that far out. However, I found the strip at my third attempt, in December 1976, giving me a running time of 1976/7.
What then? I could use the strip numbering to make a rough calculation as to when Spare Ribs had started, though getting to grips with the strip from its beginning would have to be a matter for my next visit. I hadn’t thought much further than the dating exercise but the afternoon was young yet, so why not take the opportunity to read the strip for the first time in nearly forty years. And answer the most important question of them all. Would I still find it funny?

Consider the circumstances. When Spare Ribs had originally run, I was twenty, turning twenty-one, at Law College cramming for my Solicitors’ Part II Final Exams, unaware that I was about to start almost a full year of unemployment as I struggled to get the necessary Articles of Clerkship that would enable me to qualify. I’d spent three years at University, but whilst living at home, depriving myself of the social benefits of the process. I was young and naive and I liked my entertainment light and simple.
And here I was, looking at the back-end of my fifties from a closer range than I felt comfortable, after a series of reverses that had thrown my life off the course of many years. I was many times more cynical than my young self had been, prey to depression, my tastes jaded by over-exposure to things light and simple.
Other than those half dozen clipped strips, I had not looked at Spare Ribs in all that time. I was only too aware that memory might be lending a golden glow that made the cartoon something more than it had been, that the humour might have evaporated along with my naïve young self, that it might well be too much a product of its times to be funny in these later days. Was I expecting too much? Would this be nothing but a deflating experience?
Actually, no. Debbie (Debbie! Of course!) was interested in the new Xmas temp but unable to tell if he was tall, dark and handsome, given that he was dressed in a Santa Claus suit and beard. Her colleague (no, she wasn’t named in any of the five weeks continuity I had available, but her name was Suzi) was gently mocking of Debbie’s eagerness/desperation towards her non-existent relationships, and I was smiling, and giggling again (or as much as one can giggle when in a serious Research Room at a serious Library).
It had held up. I was going to enjoy these re-readings.

It was odd to come in in the middle, but I dutifully compiled notes about the strips I had before me, taking me up to New Year’s Eve 1976. From there, I back-calculated to establish the start of the strip. Unfortunately, I calculated wrong, working on a basis on five strips a week when there were actually six (Monday to Saturday). At least it meant I have a good look at what lead in to Spare Ribs‘ debut, with as little warning or explanation as its eventual demise.
Two further sessions enabled me to catch up to the December strips, and thereafter I proceeded in batches of a month at a time, intending to keep the process going as long as possible. This worked well until the very end of my fifth session: I was examining the reels for 7 February to 6 March 1977 and was enjoying myself until the very last strip of this batch, Saturday 5 March, stopped me in my tracks.
I recognised it instantly. Each image, each line. It was the beginning of that final week, those clipped strips that are still somewhere here. I don’t know which was worse: that the end had come so soon, or that I would still need to make another trip for a single week of papers.

I enjoyed re-discovering Spare Ribs after all that time, but the research was a time-consuming process, especially when fitting it around my shifts. Visit Central Ref alone means the best part of two hours travel by bus and tram, and though the Library itself has been impressively refurbished, they’re still relying on the old microfilm viewers. These are perfectly usable, but the controls that are supposed to scroll the reels up and down don’t work properly, making it easier – and faster – to wind things by hand. Especially when you get a reel that’s been wound on wrong way round, so the papers are ordered backwards.
As for the microfilms, these are designed to be comprehensive records of each publication, meaning that there are multiple versions for each date: first, second, third and later editions, the variations in the Scottish Daily Express and the Irish: multiple pages to wade through, and quite often the cartoon page appears two or three times over before you can move on to the next day’s edition.
Worst of all, these microfilms have been shot as negatives: I have read the entire run of Spare Ribs in white on black, twisting my eyeballs to try to see Don Roberts’ graceful, indeed elegant art as it was meant to be seen, without ever really succeeding.

And then I found them. It was an accident, in both senses of the word: in tidying a bookcase, I knocked a stack of Doonesbury strips to the floor, and had to re-collect and re-order these. And then I realised: that was where I’d stored my precious handful of Spare Ribs strips. And sure enough, I found them. In black and white, not white and black, and all the better for it, for I can see more clearly how skillful Roberts was with expressions, using minimal lines and the angle of a head to turn cartoon figures into living beings.
Had I been thinking more clearly, would I have gone into such research if I had been able to satisfy my curiosity over Debbie and Suzi’s names? Probably not. But the oversight proved to be to my advantage, in taking me back to the whole strip and reminding me of the fun it represented.
Stand by to share in that knowledge, if you are curious.

2 thoughts on “A la Recherche du ‘Spare Ribs’ Perdu – Part 1

  1. As the author of one of the websites about Frank Dickens alluded to in your very entertaining pieces about Spare Ribs, I feel we have been on similar journeys. I also used to cut out strips, in this case of ‘Bristow’ and then spent a lot of frustrating time at the British Newspaper Library photographing microfiches of the Evening Standard.
    I never knew about Spare Ribs – I had heard vaguely of Temps – and your account of it is fascinating. I always thought of Dickens in the way you describe him, a gag a day man whose drawing was as economical as he could possibly make it. I was not aware he had worked with anyone else.

    1. Hi Anthony, nice to hear from you, and nice to have introduced you to a hitherto unkown, if tiny, part of Dickens’ career. If you look further, I have posted the last seven strips on the blog so you can assess ‘Spare Ribs’ for yourself, and see how out of character it was for Dickens. I’d welcome your opinion.

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