A Southport Expedition


It’s been a while, since Derby in january in fact, since I went ahywhere further than Manchester City Centre, so the time seemed ripe for a day out on Friday. Even so, having survived six months of the pandemic, I’m a little twitchy about venturing further afield, especially given how much time that’s goimg to mean breathing through a facemask.

Nor did the lead up on Thursday make me feel calmer. I’d been encouraged by my manager to give myself a treat, take a day off to do something I wanted, and I wanted to do this anyway: a Friday off work, especially one that balanced out a Woorking Sunday I hadn’t been able to get out of, was tailor-made. I was up for it, psyched, ready, except that the leave hadn’t been put through. My manager works from home: I e-mailed him. No reply. Time passing. Oscillating between rising frustration and the fury I’m going to feel if it falls through.

It’s not as if I’m not worked up already. I got home Wednesday to a letter asking me to phone in to make an appointment for my flu jab this year except that they told me to ring an obsolete number then the transfer option kept telling me  it had failed and cutting me off. I don’t need any more aggravation.

Eventually, I go to another Manager and between him and my very sweet Ops Manager, who’s an absolute darling, it’s agreed – but still not booked into my schedule when I leave at 9.00pm – and I am spared the horrendous Friday I would have inflicted on everybody within socially distanced reach.

Standard Operating Procedure gets me to Stockport Railway Station with only half an hour to spare, which is ample time to steady and serious rain to set in. This is August, isn’t it? The Friday before the Bank Holiday weekend? Of course.

There are two changes in the outbound journey, Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Oxford Road. There used to be direct trains to Southport but no more. The journey will take nearly two hours. I could cut that down to eighty minutes and save 80p on the return fare if I spend ages on the bus and walking to travel from Manchester Victoria, plus have to get home from the City Centre on top. I am lavish, I spend the money.

As far as Bolton it’s a familiar journey, one I made five days a week for most of the 2000s, so I turn immediately to my big heavy book: there are few happy associations with that journey.

It’s a long, slow, stopping journey that stops everywhere but still manages to outpace the rain, if not the overhanging cloud. I get in a good long shift of reading as we cross the plains of lower Central Lancashire, the wet fields to each side, the numerous level-crossings in our favour, but my bum is sore from sitting by the time we reach Southport and I can stand up, shuffle and, once out of the station, full down my facemask: the fresh air is a heady wine.

I have a long history with Southport. My parents hated Blackpool for its noisiness, its brashess and its crowds so this was the first experience of a seaside resort, with its long beaches and invisible seas. Here was where I played with my first camera, getting great shots without pointing. Here was where Dad and I spent one early morning before breakfast waking a mile out across the sands without reaching the sea. Here was where Mam would occasionally take my little sister and I to the seaside for the day: in 1968, the year I discovered Test Cricket and watched the Ashes avidly, we visited on the last day of the series, the one at the Oval, when hundreds of volunteers mopped the field dry to give England a chance of the draw, ten fielders crouched round the bat. At least every third bloke on the Fronty had a transister radio tuned to the Test pressed to his ear and I flitted from one to another, never more than thirty seconds away from the next update, until Deadly Derek Underwood took the last wicket. Was that the one where we got back to Victoria and found Dad there, straight from work, to run us home, the perfect end?

But I’m not in Southport for any of that, not today. I’m here because Southport is where the Eagle was created between Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson, and where Dan Dare was created at the latter’s kitchen table. It’s the 70th Anniversary this year, albeit not this time of year, and there’s an Exhibition. I head straight for the Atkinson Gallery to visit it.

The Dan Dare part is very small, far smaller than previous Exhibitions I’ve visited, basically one little room and an additional glass case as a component of a larger Exhibition dedicated to the Sefton Coast: Dan’s contribution is the ‘Inspirational Coast’.

There’s an array of books and comics, many of which are laid out in a bit of a jumble, all but a handful of which I have in my own collection. My copy of Eagle no. 1 is is far better nick than theirs though I can’t say the same for Annual no. 1.

But as always it’s the original art that makes the journey worthwhile and though the pages are few, they are especially wonderful. To my enormous glee Hampson is represented by a page from ‘The Man from Nowhere’, the cover of the issue of Eagle published the day i was born!There’s original art of Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell’s ‘The Platinum Planet’, misidentified as its sequel, ‘The Earth-Stealers’. And Keith Watson, on whose art I grew up, is represented by the last Dan Dare page he drew, the page that was the foundation for Spaceship Away.

Hampson’s pages intrigued me. Usually,  Hampson took the cover page and divided the several panels of page 2 between his assistants, but this is a paste down of individual panels in ones and twos. I’d love to know why.

But there’s more than just Dan Dare. There’s a Martin Aitchison horizontal ‘Luck of the Legion’ strip next to a Thelwell ‘Chicko’ cartoon, a superb Ashwell Wood Cutaway of the Naval Vessel St Kitts, Frank Humphris at his glorious best on ‘Riders of the Range’ and Frank Bellamy with a back page true story, ‘David – The Shepherd King’.

There’s another Bellamy original that troubles me deeply. Immaculately framed, it is the first page of ‘Frasier of Africa’, all yellows and sepias, and it disturbs me because I cannot work out how to steal it and get away with it.

It’s magnificent but it’s too scanty. The one I came to for the 40th  Anniversary was nearly ten times as big and was so good I visited twice, once on my own then with a bunch of mates to whom I’d raved: four hefty fellers in a Volkswagen Polo that needed me to start braking a loooong way before usual.

After leaving the Gallery, I check if there’s still a Pizza Hut in Southport. There is, but it’s no longer on Lord Street, instead it’s way out to Hell and gone on the Front, which means a long walk, starting off along the pier, which forms a bridge over the Marine Lake – there has to be a Marine Lake or else the only water you’d see in Southport would be out of a tap – and through a shpopping estate dominated by Matalan.

This is my first sit-down and eat-in Pizza Hut meal since before lockdown. They’re still operating on limited ingredients, no tuna for my favourite tuna’n’onions, no sweetcorn for my second favourite chicken’n’sweetcorn so I have a Hawaiian with garlic bread side.Nice and tasty and filling. And amusing to note that i finish five minutes before I would have logged in for Friday’s shift.

I have neither the weather nor the inclination to walk on further to see the beach, and neither would you in this early October greyness, so what is left is how much of awander I feel like having. Today would have been an ideal time to pay a visit to the Bakehouse, the little lean-to where six artists crammed in tho draw Dan Dare and the three other pages the Hampson Studio was committed to, but I didn’t think of that in time, and haven’t got the address on me, nor anything more than  vague idea where it is: another time then, again.

So I stroll back to Lord Street and wander northwards under the old-fashioned continuous glass canopy that accompanies the shore-side shops. A couple of times I wander into Charity Shops to fruitlessly peruse the cheap DVDs and every time i come out it takes ages before I remember I can pull down the facemask.

I went as far as a sign for Stockport Samaritans, which was apt: the Samaritans were created by the Reverend Chad Varah, who wrote adventure stories for Eagle, and Dan Dare himself for all but the first two weeks of ‘Marooned on Mercury’.

But there’s not much to look at, or smell, except cafes, restaurants and feeding places: no shortage of these in Southport. So I turn round and walk back an equal distance south but there’s nothing to attract my attention. Southport has always been an old people’s resortand whilst I might be an old person myself now, i’m not that kind of old person. The one i seem to be is the one with the arthritic right knee and hip and the lower back pain on the same side that’s exacerbating both and putting a severe crimp on how far I can walk.

So I slowly limped back to the Station. I’d tentatively identified the 15.43 for returning, a long way round via Liverpool so, with an absence of suitable attractions, I advance an hour and settle down for another long read. That’s actually been one of the best parts of the day. The isolation of a train is an ideal situation for taking a good big bite out of a long book, and I don’t get to do that kind of sustained reading as often as I used to. The train tracks down the coast, stopping everywhere, until Liverpool South Parkway interchange where I hope on a norwich train and off again in Southport, though by the time I limp heavily up our street I’m absolutely shattered – and it’s still only halfway through my shift…

The Frank Hampson Studio – The Bakehouse Days


‘The Venus Story’ lasted almost eighteen months, the longest story ever to appear in Eagle, and possibly the longest story ever to appear in a British boys comic. It was originated by Frank Hampson who not only drew but also wrote (without compensation) the first ten episodes on his own. Hulton then provided a writer, Guy Treece, who continued the story for six weeks before taking Hampson to lunch and charmingly advising that he had no idea what to do next: having been classically trained, he couldn’t possibly do more!
Hampson soldiered on with the majority of the writing, occasionally paying other writers out of his own pocket, but he would not find a reliable writer in whom he could trust on a regular basis until 1954, when Alan Stranks, already an Eagle veteran, would take over.
Stranks would comment that Hampson threw away an awful lot of material in The Venus Story, and that he could have made the same story last for five years! Whilst the majority of Dan Dare fans hold Stranks in high regard for bringing stability to the writing of the series, and freeing Hampson up to concentrate upon the art, taking it to even greater heights, there are others who are critical of him for doing exactly as he said, and slowing the pace down.
At the same time as Treece made his invaluable contribution, Hampson had begun assembling his studio.
Harold Johns, Hampson’s contemporary and close friend from Southport Art College, was an obvious first choice, and quiet, almost secretive advertisements in trade papers brought in young, enthusiastic artists who were fascinated by Hampson and his plans and wanted to work with him: Jocelyn Thomas and Joan Humphries (later Porter), Greta Tomlinson (who would form a very fruitful partnership with Johns) and Canadian Bruce Cornwell, a much more experienced contemporary of Hampson and the first to leave after suggesting that the punishing hours and conditions were not necessary.
With a team, a studio was required, and the most unlikely of sites was found on Botanic Road, Southport. It was called the Bakehouse, and it was a brick-built lean-to and former bakery that nevertheless offered two large overhead windows, a third in one end wall and fanlight windows along its length. It was cold and cramped – an exploded drawing of the Bakehouse was produced by Graham Bleathman for Spaceship Away and reprinted in Alastair Crompton’s high quality Hampson biography Tomorrow Revisited – and everyone hated it.
But it was home to Frank Hampson’s studio, and that meant not only Dan Dare but The Great Adventurer (the life of St Paul), Rob Conway (an undistinguished strip about an air cadet joining the search for a Himalayan secret city) and Tommy Walls, a full-page advert for Wall’s Ice Cream in comic strip fashion.
And in this tiny place, a team of seven people worked longer hours than Victorian factory hands to fulfil the vision of Frank Hampson.
As I’ve already said, each weekend Hampson – who was writing the story as well as drawing it – worked alone on two full-colour ‘rough’ pages, drawn in high detail, fully-coloured and not far from being finished. Then two days were devoted to the team posing, photographing and developing each scene, leaving only three days in which to create that week’s art. Hampson would usually take the first page, it being Eagle‘s cover, and his studio would divide the panels of page two between them.
It was not merely a case of drawing individual panels and sticking these down, whilst disciplining one’s natural talent into channeling what Hampson wanted into the realism he demanded. Some original pages are little short of a jigsaw puzzle, with cut-out space ships pasted onto Spacefleet backgrounds, and figures pasted over scenes.
It was cumbersome, it was awkward, it was draining. It took hours, long draining hours, frequently working (unpaid) extra hours until the birds woke up in the morning. And that was when Frank Hampson didn’t have another, better idea that would cause days of work to be thrown out.
Bruce Cornwell, older than his colleagues, an established professional, though it unnecessary. Given his background, he was also prepared to stand up to Hampson in arguments about art where the junior artists, in their first jobs in an era where the prevailing anticipation was of jobs being for life, were not willing to do so. Exit Sterling, enter Eric Eden, another of Hampson’s friends from Southport Art College, although in a junior year. Eden would go on to a long involvement with Dan Dare, stretching way beyond Hampson’s departure in 1959, and would become the studio’s master with the airbrush, in which role he would eventually specialise.
The Bakehouse lasted less than eight months. It was inadequate from the start and Hampson had already started looking for better. Hultons wanted Marcus Morris in London, rather than commuting from Southport and, since so much money was going into it, it was better to have Hampson’s studio closer to ‘home’ as well. At first, they had to share The Firs, in Epsom, with Morris and his actress wife, Jessica Fanning, who did not like the thought of so many strangers in her home, but eventually Hampson and his wife Dorothy bought Bayford Lodge and transferred a by then much streamlined studio to there.
Why did Hampson’s assistants put up with what were extremely cruel and stressful working conditions that would horrify anyone trying to keep up with that today? In part it was because they were young, a decade junior to Frank Hampson, who was, let’s not forget, a War veteran. This was the Fifties, and not even deep enough into the Fifties for it to have taken shape as a different decade. The War was not a decade behind, food rationing still existed when Eagle was born, and you did not question your boss.
But there were two other considerations that, given all the comments made in later life by those privileged to have worked with Frank Hampson, seem, to me, to be more powerful.
The first is that not only did Frank Hampson never ask any of his studio to do something he was not prepared to do, he committed more, far, far more, in terms of intensity, in terms of effort, in terms of sheer time even than they did. Whilst some would argue whether it was all necessary, no-one ever suggested that their boss did not do even more than he asked them to do.
And every one of them were absolutely fascinated by Frank Hampson’s work. They had a ringside seat at the creation of something that, with the greatest possible respect, was beyond them, and everybody wanted to see it happen. It sounds like a dream to me (apart from the hours): to be an artist, to have the ability to create what the eye sees, and to be part of the great wellspring of ideas of someone with the ability to create what the eye could not see.
Yes, as Don Harley, the future ‘second best Dan Dare artist in the world’, always said, Hampson’s own pure unadulterated work needed only finishing to be complete, and in Harley’s eyes contained a freshness that the eventual art lacked, but Keith Watson, who would restore Hampson’s look to a feature that resisted being killed, pointed to what was published, and regards that as all the justidication ever needed for Hampson’s complex, unweildy approach.
And in 2014, we’re still talking about a weekly comic story created for seven year old boys. What more proof do we need that Frank Hampson did something spectacularly right?