Golden era of booze, fags and Flo

Being shuttled between Sunderland and Hartlepool by feuding parents was hardly a fairytale start in life for young Reg Smythe.

But the rough-and-ready upbringing spawned a "happy ever after" ending – in the form of a character called Andy Capp.

Today, the cloth-capped layabout – based on the men Reg met while growing up – is still syndicated to 50 countries.

And while Reg is sadly no longer here to see just how popular Andy still is, his surviving relations are very proud of his legacy.

"Reg described himself as a 'canvas shoe kid', just one step away from going barefoot,'" said his cousin, Ian Smyth Herdman.

"But despite his humble and quite disrupted childhood, he became one of the most influential cartoonists of his generation."

It was in 1916 that Reg's parents, shipwright Richard Smyth and Florrie Pearce, a factory worker, first met in Hartlepool.

Romance soon blossomed, but a Christmas wedding had to be hastily arranged after Florrie fell pregnant with Reg. While pregnancy out of wedlock had brought shame, Reg's birth in July 1917 was a much happier time.

"The whole family celebrated his birth," said Ian, who lives in Seaham and has just written a yet-to-be published book on Reg.

"However, the happy times and marital stability gradually deteriorated into a mire of hard times and upheaval."

Exhausted by backbreaking and monotonous shipyard shifts, Richard soon started dropping into the pub on his way home.

What little money the family had was squandered on drink – despite Florrie waiting at the pub entrance to drag him home.

"She would stand outside with baby Reg swaddled in a blanket," said Ian. "As Richard left the pub, Florrie would shout abuse.

"Florrie was always happy to admit that Flo, the character of Andy's strong-minded but long-suffering wife, was based on her.

"But Andy wasn't, as is popularly believed, based on Richard. Yes, he smoked and drank like many in those days, but Reg always said he was based on a stereotype of the men he knew."

When Richard was laid off after the war, life became even harder. The family regularly had to hide from the rent man.

But, following the birth of their daughter, Lily, in 1919, Richard finally managed to find a job at a Sunderland shipyard.

A move to Barrington Street, Monkwearmouth, soon followed and young Reg started lessons at Redby School.

He became a keen Sunderland fan during this time, often slipping past the stewards to watch parts of games for free.

"He would hang around Roker Park, knowing the exit gates were opened in the last 10 minutes of the game," said Ian.

"He also scoured the terraces for lost change. On a lucky day, he might find three or four pennies, which were spent on sweets."

The family enjoyed some happy times in Sunderland, until Florrie gave birth to twins in 1924. Both died within a year.

Yet more arguments followed and the surviving children were frequently shuttled between Sunderland and Hartlepool.

With his education in tatters, Reg failed to win a grammar school place. Instead, he left at 14 to become a butcher's boy.

He then joined the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers in 1936, but a three-year stint turned into nine when war broke out.

As a machine gunner, Reg saw action in Africa and the Middle East, and it was during this time he started drawing cartoons.

"His sketches became quite well known and he was often asked by friends to sketch a character on their letters home," said Ian.

But, despite his obvious artistic talent, Reg joined the GPO in London after demob, marrying sweetheart Vera Toyne in 1947.

"He had ample opportunity to doodle as a clerk," said Ian. "People told him he had talent, but he just lacked confidence."

Reg eventually mustered enough confidence to produce cartoons for the Northern Daily Mail as a freelance and, in 1954, The Mirror offered him a permanent post on the strength of this work.

The offer marked a turning point for Reg. At last he was able to leave his dull job – and he added an extra "e" to his surname too.

"Reg said the name of Smythe was his cartoon signature," said Ian. "He added it to sound 'more posh' to southern readers.

"At the time, though, many elderly members of the Smyth family expressed concern at his decision. They were concerned at losing the unique identity of the name to Smythe or Smith."

Reg continued with the name change, however, producing a range of Laughter at Work cartoons under the signature.

Andy Capp was born a few years later, when the Mirror's editor asked Reg to create a new Northern character to increase sales.

Reg drew on memories to produce his chain-smoking layabout.

"He decided to name him Andy Capp, a pun for a man who could do nothing for himself. A man who was a real handicap to his wife," said Ian.

The first Andy Capp cartoon was printed in The Mirror on August 5, 1957. It was an immediate success. Soon the strips were being sold worldwide – despite featuring wife-beating scenes.

In one particular drawing, Flo is shown with a bruise on her face and the caption underneath reads: "I'm a man of few pleasures, and one of them 'appens to be knocking you down."

"Reg later stated this cartoon was dreadful. Although they were taken with a pinch of salt, he toned the cartoons down," said Ian.

"From then on he made Andy the butt of his wife's aggression, a layabout who had to step in line when Flo clicked her fingers."

By the late 1960s, awards had started started pouring in for Reg, including the American equivalent of a cartoon Oscar in 1974.

Andy was also immortalised in statue form, as a musical, in several TV shows – including the Simpsons – and with his own TV series, starring Sunderland-born actor James Bolam in 1988.

But by this time, Reg had had enough of the London rat-race and returned to his native Hartlepool – buying a luxury five-bedroom house. It was here he continued to pen Andy's cartoon capers almost every day for the next 20 years – until just before his death.

"He was a quiet man of intense thoughts," said Ian. "He often shunned the limelight in favour of quiet time with his family."

Reg was in his late 60s when his beloved mother, Florrie, died in 1982, at the age of 85. He took comfort in the thought that she would live on through his creation of Flo in Andy Capp.

His loving wife of 46 years, Vera, then died in 1997 and, only a few weeks later, Reg was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Despite his illness, Reg continued to draw from morning to night.

When he became too weak, he agonised over the pictures that still remained in his den awaiting his final touches.

With only a short time left to live, Reg married Jean Glynn at a private ceremony at his home. He died peacefully there just a few weeks later – some 27 days before his 81st birthday.

"Reg had drawn several Andy Capp strips just days before his death, which were the last to be sent to The Mirror," said Ian.

"This was just as Reg had requested, knowing that they were the last sketches he would ever draw.

"His cartoons are his legacy both to his family and to everyone who enjoyed reading them."

Worldwide fame for the North's bone-idle Andy

* Andy and Flo have separated nearly 2,000 times since the comic strip began.

* He is known as Willi Wakker in Germany, Andre Chapeau in France and Ze Do Bone in Portugal.

* Andy always had a cigarette dangling from his lips until 1983, when it was deemed politically incorrect. It was at this time Reg also gave up smoking.

* Reg received several letters from Turkish citizens, who said Andy must be Turkish, because of the similarities between his and their beliefs in marriage!

* When the children's comic Buster was launched in 1960, the masthead was entitled Buster: Son of Andy Capp. Buster wore a cloth cap like Andy and often referred to his father.

* A second child, Mandy Capp, appeared in the Daily Mirror in 1997 – despite protests from Reg. He didn't draw the cartoon and it was never a success.

* A stage musical based on Andy was performed at the Aldwych Theatre in London in 1981, with songs by Alan Price and starring Tom Courtenay as Andy.

* Sunderland's James Bolam portrayed Andy on TV in 1988. The six-episode series was shown once on ITV and never repeated.

* In The Simpsons episode Marge vs the Monorail, Homer is seen reading the cartoon. He laughs and says: "Oh Andy Capp, you wife-beating drunk!"

* Gateshead-born Brian Johnson of the band AC/DC is said to base his look on Andy – often wearing a similar-style cap.

* Andy was used in a 1989 health campaign, as an aid to suggesting that a diet of beer and fags was only suitable for a cartoon character.

* In all his time of comic fame, Andy's age has never been disclosed. Reg once said: His age is a dangerous subject, only second to asking Florrie hers!"

* Although Reg died in 1998, the cartoon is still drawn in his style and is syndicated to 50 countries.

* American firm ConAgra Foods manufactures a range of snack products known as Andy Capp's Fries.

* A long-haired Andy is used as the symbol for the Suny Oneonta Women's Rugby Football Club in America.