What, then, is Spare Ribs, and why should it not be left in the obscurity that Fate has clearly designated for it?
To repeat: Spare Ribs appeared in the Daily Express from 9 August 1976 to 6 March 1977, a total of 182 strips, written by Frank Dickens and drawn by Don Roberts.
Dickens was already a cartoon strip veteran, albeit as a writer/artist, whilst Roberts had not previously drawn a daily strip. Dickens’ art was primitive: little rounded figures with button eyes and no human dimension, whilst Roberts employed a more realistic style, bringing an elegance to the strip that, paradoxically, seemed to free Dickens to a much more wordy style, building on the differing characters of the girls who appeared in the strip.
There were four characters. The main one was Debbie, an eighteen year old typist working for Mr Rickett in an administration department of Bentridge’s Department Store, in London.
Debbie, who turned nineteen during the strip’s run, was a frustrated romantic. Sharing a flat with two or three other girls of similar age and aspiration, Debbie was looking for a man, and marriage. Already frustrated in her ambition to be a schoolgirl bride, Debbie was not just waiting for Mr Right, but actively out to explore every opportunity to be found by him (sweeping off of feet essential). Despite being a perfectly attractive blonde eighteen year old, Debbie wasn’t getting anywhere. Even when she was going out with Neville long enough for him to introduce her to his mates, his mates were a double-edged sword.
Suzi, with whom she shared an office, was beyond all that. Suzi was three to four years older than Debbie, and married to John. Suzi occasionally had a bit of a lofty attitude towards Debbie’s antics, but it seems she was a bit like Debbie before meeting her future husband. Not that that entirely slowed her down: Suzi was frequently propositioned by the Ginger Haired Man from Downstairs, over things like Dirty Weekends, or other disgusting suggestions that took Suzi’s breath away – usually because she was running to keep up and hear what’s being suggested.
Maisie was introduced four weeks into the strip’s run, initially anonymously (neither Debbie nor Suzi were named at first). She was another secretary friend of Debbie, a slighter girl, drawn a head shorter than the two principals. This made her look even younger, but it was soon clear that she was actually aged somewhere between Debbie and Suzi. Maisie was the most balanced of the girls: not (quite) cynical, but wholly unromantic. Initially, she was changing boyfriends almost daily, but she soon settled into a relationship with Guy, a biker, whose attention was not always focussed exclusively on Maisie, but then lifts to and from work on the bike do save an awful amount in bus fares.
And the last of the gang was Kelly, a black girl who worked with Maisie. Kelly, I’m sorry to say, was not much more than a token, though not in any racial sense. She was basically a foil to Maisie, and only two strips in the entire run dealt directly with her experiences.
The humour is gentle and friendly. It’s primarily divided between Debbie’s naïve chasing of any prospect of romance, and the everyday experience of life in an office forty years ago, rife with the kind of generalised sexual harassment that would not be tolerated for a minute today, but which is accepted in the strip as a commonplace occupational hazard.
The girls recognise that they are powerless against the male establishment, and adapt accordingly, ranking the best known horrors with appropriate nicknames. The archetypal version of this, which I’d ‘remembered’ all those years, featured Kelly being fanned with a handkerchief, as a result of being forced to share a lift with Fletcher the Letcher, Roper the Groper, ‘Weirdo’ Watkins and ‘Eyeballs’ Smith!
It’s a lovely recollection, but it’s also a fiction. The actual strip featured Debbie leaving the lift unscathed, with the four men having behaved like perfect gentlemen – all of them waiting for someone else to make the first move. But Roper the Groper wasn’t there, it was actually Randy Andy. And Roper was a misremembrance, Dickens’ off-stage being Pope the Grope.
These figures never appeared in the strip, with the except of Fletcher the Letcher, at the Office Xmas Party. They were fantastic figures who were left to the audience’s imagination. Indeed, very few people outside of Debbie, Suzi, Maisie and Kelly appeared onscreen, and those few mainly as background figures, or foils for jokes. No, this was an all-girl strip, and all the better for it.
As I’ve already said, Dickens was already a veteran when he started Spare Ribs, but as far as I’ve been able to determine, this was his first, and only, collaboration. Primarily, he was a blunt, gag-a-day creator, with a primitive cartoon style: short, rounded figures with face-splitting grins and dialogue kept brief and clipped by necessity, as Dickens’ lettering was big and crude.
Collaborating with Don Roberts, who had never previously drawn a daily cartoon, freed Dickens up to employ a much more verbal humour. Roberts was a marvellously fluid, elegant cartoonist, whose style was much more detailed, and much more human in aspect, without bordering on realism. He eschewed panel borders, moving from image to image with backgrounds that were usually minimal, establishing context, but which, when required, could become beautifully detailed.
In keeping with the fashions of the time (1976/7), Roberts’ girls were slim and blonde, and given to midi-length skirts and clumpy platform-soled shoes. Each girl had a distinctive look, with hair-styles involving individual, complex fly-away strands (Kelly wore her hair in an afro). They were stylised, with small, high, round breasts, after drawn as circles in tight tops, but below the waist they flared out, knee-length skirts drawn almost as triangles, with skinny calves below.
Originally, the strip having started at the height of the drought summer, Debbie wore sleeveless tops and bell-bottomed pants, but as autumn settled in, she too went into skirts. For contrast, Debbie usually wore mainly white tops, Suzi black blouses, and Maisie a long-sleeved, high-necked grey top: Kelly was her own contrast.
Roberts’s skill at manipulating space, and his neat, pristine lettering, freed up Dickens to a much more verbal style. The girls could have conversations, even monologues of surprising length, without the strip getting cramped: one January 1977 strip actually extended to eight word balloons as Debbie and Suzi explored some of the instructions the former was following on the road to becoming a career woman. Roberts was adept at framing such conversations, and at providing the relatively rarer moments of visual comedy that kept Spare Ribs from getting samey.
The real strength of the combination lies in the fact that even the most verbal of strips can’t simply be extracted and related in prose and have the same effect. Dickens wasn’t writing gags, he was exploring a comedy that arose from personality and circumstance, that depended upon the careful staging Roberts provided.
This shone through even the negative, white on black, that I read, but it’s amazing by how much Roberts’ art improves by seeing it in its proper form: in the strip of Saturday 5 March 1977, a week before the end, the joke is typically gentle: Debbie answers a phone call meant for Suzi, the unheard caller compliments her voice, Debbie accepts the compliments, gives some details about herself… but in the background, Suzi is reacting to each stage: typing, turning her head quizzically, rising with claw-like hands as Debbie protectively cradles the receiver away from her, apologising that Suzi isn’t in the office at the moment…
See, it doesn’t work in print, does it? The dialogue isn’t even funny in itself, but the strip is funny because you can see the two girls, and because Roberts is so deft with their emotions, and because it is Suzi’s responses – executed with such minimalist expressiveness – that bring forth the giggle-in-the-sleeve for the researcher in the Library.
The subtlety of those expressions is lost in the negative strips of the microfilm.
Originally, Dickens wrote the strip as gag-a-day, with no continuity between strips, but by the end of September he was starting to develop two-stage gags that would run over two strips. Kelly alerts Debbie to the fact that someone has written ‘I love Debbie’ on the wall in the lift. Debbie races to read it, only to discover that it’s written practically at the bottom of the wall (she muses, hopefully, that he could still be dark and handsome). The next day, she identifies the writer out of 327 men plus a spotty little post-boy: no prizes for the correct answer.
But in the run-up to Xmas, and in particular the Office Xmas Party, Dickens started to extend his story-lines to a week at a time, most weeks, though that would not keep him from dropping one-off gags into the mix.
In the New Year, Debbie went through several enthusiasms. There was the week she kept a Diary. Then, at her new flatmate’s suggestion she started training herself to become a top business executive (‘Behind every career woman there’s a flatmate who wants a room to herself…’ mused Suzi to Maisie) before becoming enthused about her summer holiday in Torremolinos.
This was not without its complications: ‘There are 23 more pay days to my holiday but I need 29!’. The ever-practical Maisie sits down with a calculator and provides Debbie with a budget that, if strictly followed, will exactly cover her air fare and hotel bill. What about my spending money? Debbie enquires: Spending money? Maisie replies, incredulously: With boys there?
These little themes, as they always do to any humour strip, added an additional degree of realism, the sense that the girls had lives that progressed, instead of little, disjointed incidents.
Having spent the time thus far in praising Spare Ribs, it’s time to acknowledge what many will see as its flaws.
You’ll notice that throughout this piece I’ve called the characters “girls.” Yet they had all left school, all were working, all led independent lives, and one of them was a married woman. They were women, not girls, and I wouldn’t think to use that term nowadays.
But in 1976/77, few people would have thought it offensive to call Debbie, Suzi, Maisie and Kelly “girls”. Spare Ribs was a reflection of the times, and this was a strip about secretaries, not about people doing serious jobs, or working towards a career. Suzi was married, but working, Debbie actively looking for a husband, Maisie and Kelly just filling in time before their eventual, inevitable marriages.
It was a strip about working girls and their pre-occupations. Debbie’s constant, anxious search. Maisie’s rarely-ruffled independence in her steady relationship with biker Guy. Even one of Kelly’s few solo moments was about her impatience over waiting for her current boyfriend.
And the constant atmosphere of sexual harassment, which the girls plainly disliked and sought to avoid – except when it was not there and they were left puzzled as to why they weren’t getting the usual attention.
Nor did the girls have any working ambitions, unless the one in which Kelly sadly mused that filing was poor training for a girl who only wanted to be a topless go-go dancer was meant to be taken seriously. Towards the end of the strip’s life, Debbie’s pursuit of becoming a top business executive lasted only until she was distracted by hearing someone say she’d got perfect child-bearing hips,
And another short series, about her considering a wide range of possible jobs, was only a set-up for shooting down outlandish notions based on little actions.
And surely the title itself had to be a provocation, given the anti-feminist nature of the strip?
All of these criticisms are true and valid, yet in a way irrelevant. Spare Ribs was not anti-feminist in any focussed sense, but rather a very conventional portrait of the times, especially as they would be viewed by Daily Express readers.
Nor did it mock, at any time. Its humour was never cruel or demeaning. Dickens and Roberts liked their little troupe of ladies. They showed them fairly, with gentle exaggeration of their traits, to amuse the audience, but never to ridicule the girls.
The area in which I think Spare Ribs was at its most potentially offensive was in the duo’s treatment of Kelly. I hadn’t realised, until I re-read the strip, just how little she’d featured, and almost entirely as a foil, mainly to Maisie. That she was black was a piece of visible diversity that was reflective of the mix in secretarial circles. But she was no more than a token in the strip.
And I’m dubious about that ‘ topless go-go dancer’ strip. The term itself was already somewhat archaic in late 1976, but it’s significance is that comes from Kelly, the black girl. It would have been unthinkable from Debbie, Suzi or Maisie.
It’s hard not to suspect that a white fourth girl would have been brought more into the interplay, given more of a personality (Kelly certainly couldn’t have been given less of one).
But still my instinct is to defend Dickens and Roberts from anything except the most casual of chauvinism or racism. The girls were heroes, knowing their place in the system, yet comfortable enough not to totally fit where they sat…
There was no warning of the strip’s demise. No attempt to prepare the reader for its imminent disappearance, no attempt to provide even the most febrile of conclusions. It was just a typical last week, illustrative of Dickens’ approach in linking the daily strips. On Monday, Debbie and Suzi call into W. H. Smiths before going home. Debbie asks her elder colleague if she’s ever aware of the difference in their ages: not in work, Suzi replies, but after… as the two grab a pile of magazines each: Woman, Woman’s Own, Woman’s Realm, House & Garden for the married Suzi, Hot Lips, True Romances, Her Scarlet Past and Hidden Passions for Debbie.
On Tuesday, Debbie gleefully teases a red-faced Suzi, who she’s caught secretly dipping into Her Scarlet Past, and the next day she’s enthusing to Maisie over a story about a young secretary who goes to the Park at lunch and is swept off her feet by Mr Right. Maisie is typically dismissive but, spotting that it’s 12.30, asks where they’re going for lunch: the Park? suggests Debbie.
On Thursday, Maisie has clearly indulged Debbie but is also busy ridiculing her ambitions: after all, the only bloke in sight is a middle-aged, fag-smoking Parkie. Debbie retaliates the next day by pointing out Maisie’s lack of imagination about the possible romantic encounters they could have had (Maisie’s response to Debbie’s straw-clutching: Big Deal!).
And the pair return to the office to a grumpy Suzi complaining that they’re late. Debbie’s not bothered: the mood will soon pass. Except that the phone rings, it’s obviously John, Suzi’s husband, and they’ve clearly had an argument. Go to your flaming Darts match! Suzi yells, as Debbie raises a hand to her forehead and sighs, ‘Oh God, aggro all afternoon’.
And that was it. On Monday, Spare Ribs‘s place on the cartoon page was occupied by tEmPS, a strip written and drawn by Dickens, about a young woman starting her first day with Trendi-Temps. It was crude, it was primitive, and worse, it was completely unfunny. Debbie and Suzi, Maisie and Kelly were gone, without warning or explanation, never to return
So what happened? Did the Express decide that Spare Ribs had to go? Did the Cartoon Editor change and the new one didn’t get it? Did Dickens get bored with only writing the strip, or frustrated at not having total control? Did Roberts decide that the strain of drawing a daily strip was too much for him, or that the payment he received didn’t warrant the effort? Did the pair have a blazing row and decide they couldn’t work together any more?
I have absolutely no idea. That Dickens continued to appear in the Express, starting the following week, with his new strip suggests a planned switchover, and it’s clear that whatever problems may have been perceived by the paper, they weren’t with Dickens. But the absence of any conclusion, any pay-off, suggests an abrupt decision.
(Not necessarily so: When Robert Maxwell decided he wanted radical changes to the Daily Mirror cartoon pages, Jack Dunkley ended The Larks with promotion and a move to the country but Bill Tidy, angry at the short notice given, refused to compromise and continued The Fosdyke Saga as if it would be running on the day, week, month after its last appearance.)
Nobody complained. Or, if they did, the Express didn’t acknowledge it publicly. I would have registered my feelings if, at 21, with my professional exams sat less than six weeks earlier, and limbo before me, I had thought to do so, or known how to do so. I had once written to Eagle, when I was much younger, asking for them to bring back the prose series, Horizon Unlimited, and received a polite letter effectively saying no, so perhaps I recognised it was a waste of time (at least Eagle had replied).
Doubtless I wasn’t the only one to miss Spare Ribs, or perhaps I was. It will be interesting to see if there is any response to these posts from other fans who wanted to see it last far longer.
But despite my affection for the series, and my renewed enjoyment of it, four decades onwards, the truth is that it was just an unsuccessful daily cartoon strip, that made little impact and wasn’t mourned. I think it deserved better, but I was in a decided, perhaps extremely tiny minority.
Still, I’m glad that my temporary lapse of memory prompted me into going out and re-reading the entire strip. And I’m delighted to have made the re-acquaintance of those four secretaries: dizzy and determined Debbie, solid and stable Suzi, the down-to-earth and pragmatic Maisie, and poor sweet under-developed Kelly. Still fun to listen to after all those years.