If I had a pound for every time someone asked me how this cartoon series got started, I’d have, um, about six pounds. Readers of this blog, and anyone who knows me, will have realised that I’m passionate about music. And that I have a strange sense of humour. My brain frequently puts the two together: it’s wired to constantly search for music related jokes.
For example, I saw a house called Mayfield yesterday, and was immediately seized by the desire to put a sign outside the house on the left saying Curtis. Another called The Hollies? Someone should buy the house next door and call it Herman’s Hermits. What car did Gerry Marsden drive? An Audi Adooit. And I have a plan one day to move to the nearby village of Seer Green, just so I can call my house Skyer Blue and have the best address in England, maybe plonk a big yellow submarine in the front garden to clarify. And so on.
I can’t switch these thoughts off, and some time about 2007, a cartoon gag idea came into my head which refused to go away:
A very young Elton John is in the JobCentre, looking at job offers. Among the cards offering jobs as warehousemen and sales assistants, we can make out one saying “Wanted: sculptor” and another saying “Can you make up potions?”. Suggested caption: “Key moments in music history”.
I didn’t try to draw it up as I’m hopeless at art. I just wrote the idea on a small piece of paper and left it in a box on my desk, and there it stayed while I got on with my busy life. After four years I had a second idea (they were coming thick and fast), this time not music related:
A boffin-looking (sic) man is in a supermarket scratching his head, in front of a display of cat food.
Caption: Schrödinger in the supermarket.
Now I had two gags, surely I was virtually a professional writer? I wondered whether there were any cartoonists who would consider other people’s ideas – I like to try these things – and found a Q&A forum on the Cartoonists’ Club of Great Britain’s website. In 2011 I proudly posted my gags, asking whether any cartoonists fancied drawing them up, and waited for the stampede.
There was no stampede, but a few politely encouraging responses – it’s a supportive community. Then I had a response from a cartoonist called Wilbur Dawbarn, saying he’d like to draw up the Schrödinger gag. I said yes please! and we agreed terms. He very sensibly suggested that I should remove the idea from my post on the forum, which I did, and the Elton gag was left all alone there – and eleven years later, it’s still standing:
Very soon Will (as Wilbur called himself in normal life) had drawn up the gag. As any cartoonist knows, there’s a big difference between drawing a cartoon and getting it published, and I wasn’t counting any chickens, but when he sent it through I was already thrilled to see my idea rendered by a professional:
And I was even more thrilled when he told me the cartoon had been accepted by Prospect, a British current affairs and general interest magazine. It was published in the July 2011 edition, and of course I bought a copy, spending a fair percentage of my writer’s fee.
Will encouraged me to send him more ideas, and I was grateful for that: not many cartoonists seemed to be open to collaboration. I had nothing else in the locker at the time. But now I had made the contact, I returned to my Elton John idea. Perhaps I could get a series of music gags going?
I realised that I’d never found it difficult to think up the jokes – what I had failed to do was capture them. So I made a point of scribbling them down when I thought of them, and even sat and brainstormed for the odd hour, focusing on quirky performers and songs with lyrics which could be portrayed from an amusing, unexpected angle. I found a moderate intake of alcohol aided this process, although I followed the writer’s maxim “write drunk, edit sober”. The floodgates opened and the ideas came in rapidly. Before long I had about thirty gag ideas, which I tidied up and sent to Will.
Before long he emailed back saying that he thought the idea could work: he would like to draw up five of the gags and try to get a magazine interested in the series. Some of the ideas he found too cryptic or too obscure – reflecting the strange workings of my mind, and my obsessive pop music knowledge respectively – or simply not funny, but he said he really loved a few of them. So after some to-and-fro we settled on the series title Forgotten Moments in Music History, and Will got to work drawing them up. Soon I was thrilled to get his brilliant artwork through – featuring my scruffy little signature:
The days when tabloid newspapers published a whole page of cartoons every day were long gone: there were few potential buyers. Will tried some music magazines without success, and then pitched to the fortnightly satirical magazine Private Eye, who were, and remain, by far Britain’s biggest buyer of cartoons.
After a while, he had a reply saying they were considering it. I say “they” – in fact all main decisions at the Eye are made by the editor Ian Hislop. (At the time of writing he has been editor for 35 years, having done the job since he was 26.). Then it all went quiet for a few months, and we started to assume that it had been, well, forgotten.
But eventually the Eye told us they were going to give the series a trial run, and they published the first in the series in issue no. 1318, 13-26 July 2012:
I was so happy. I could come up with all the daft music jokes I liked, and they would be seen by a readership of over 200,000. And even get paid for them. And if Debbie suggested that I should stop making stupid jokes in conversation, I could point out how lucky – privileged – she was to hear them for free, when Britain’s leading (well, only) satirical magazine was happy to pay me for them. This was so much more exciting than the day job. But I started feeling pressure – they had accepted five cartoons, but wouldn’t print the Christmas themed one until December. I would need to come up with more ideas quickly, and the other 25 of my initial pitch to Will had been ruled out.
In the event, I had more time than I expected: early publication was erratic. Some issues carried our series, some didn’t. When it did appear, it kept moving around the magazine. We were slightly discouraged, but I pointed out to Will – rather grandly – that the BBC had moved Monty Python’s Flying Circus around the schedule when it first aired.
Eventually the series found a regular (and, I thought, prestigious) spot on the letters page, and my gag ideas flowed, if not freely, at least adequately to keep it ticking over. From each batch of eight or so, Will knocked back about a third of my gags as either too obscure, too cryptic or just not funny – although he was always fair, and would try one he wasn’t keen on if I really rooted for it. Then he would submit a list of six, of which the Eye would typically go for two or three. This meant typically only about one gag in four made it from conception to publication, so roughly two gag ideas a week were needed to keep the series in play.
From the first, the geeky subject matter attracted contributions to Pedantry Corner, perhaps encouraged by the proximity of the two features. Some were fair enough: the departure board for the midnight train to Tbilisi should indeed have shown 00:00, not 12:00. And Paul McCartney was wrongly shown holding the gun right-handed. (OK, it turns out he’s left-handed – who knew?). Some of it we batted away: in the books and on the TV he’s Great Uncle Bulgaria, but in The Wombling Song he’s plain Uncle Bulgaria.
But the most irritating strand of pedantry insisted on identifying the song with the writer rather than the singer. Should we make the joke about Bernie Taupin instead of Elton John, because he wrote the lyrics? I’m sure Will could draw an excellent likeness of Bernie, but how many readers would recognise it? I tried to shrug off the ill-informed pedantry – it at least showed engagement and raised the profile of our series – but I’m so proud of my nerdy pop knowledge that I found it difficult not to rise to the bait.
There was sometimes creative tension between Will and me about my gags. I tended to embrace the obscure and the cryptic. I was in search of the perfect gag: I would be happy to have just one reader understood it, if they thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. Will was obliged to be more practical: he preferred gags based on song titles, where no knowledge of the lyric was required. And he knew that we had to get it past Ian Hislop.
Ian Hislop is famously not “down with the kids” and he makes no effort to be. I stalked his Desert Island Discs choices from 1994 for some pointers as to what might be well received. I was unable to come up with any rib-ticklers based on Handel’s Zadok the Priest or Monteverdi’s Exulta, filia Sion, although I did manage a Madness joke. Fortunately for us, according to Will’s insider at the Eye, Hislop recognised his cultural blind spot and accepted help from colleagues in choosing between our ideas.
Many of the cartoons were as much puzzle as joke – I have been asked whether we publish the solutions anywhere. With most batches of gags I sent to Will, he would reply seeking explanations of one or two. Usually my replies weren’t enough to save them: he rightly reasoned that if he didn’t get them, nor would the readers. It might be possible to Google the ‘solution’, but no reader wants to work that hard. Will did get this one through, though, after a little nudge – and it is one of my favourites:
As the series approached its first Christmas, once the Eye had run the Roy Wood Christmas gag, Ian Hislop requested another festive themed cartoon. Maybe it’s the Scrooge in me, but I always had trouble thinking of decent Christmas jokes. Luckily Will rode to the rescue with one of his own. I did, however, get to write one of the Private Eye Christmas cards one year:
Initially Will specialised in Christmas gags, but over time he started contributing more of his own ideas. I was rather protective at first, but he is a top cartoonist who regularly comes up with extremely funny jokes – why would he not also come up with first rate music gags? And of course I needed his help to keep the series going – it was becoming a struggle to come up with enough ideas to satisfy the Eye. This is my all-time favourite of Will’s:
There are two ways to tell whose it is. Mine tend to be more oblique, and cryptic than Will’s, sometimes with a reference to the lyrics, not just the title. More obviously, mine carry the “Rik” scribble. In the later years of the series, Will and I were contributing ideas roughly equally.
As I didn’t have any direct contact with the Eye, I didn’t get to go to their occasional cartoonists’ get-togethers, although I did meet Ian Hislop once, at a book launch in December 2012 – even if I had to pay to do so. I attended the launch of Private Eye: A Cartoon History at the Olivier Theatre, no less, in September 2013. After paying my £25 I joined the queue to get the book signed, and when I reached the desk, introduced myself to Ian as the writer of Forgotten Moments. He stood up, shook my hand and said how much he liked the series: earlier that day he had chosen the next three ideas, and he mentioned two of them, confirming to me that he was personally involved in the choice. I mentioned it could be hard work coming up with acceptable ideas. “Well, there’s enough” he replied.
I had other plans for the franchise. Knowing how important pop music is to the boomer generation, I felt it would make a good set of greetings cards, so I touted the idea around a number of companies. Eventually, one called Peartree Heybridge went for it, and published a range of eighteen cards from the series. Sportingly, Ian Hislop raised no objection, provided Private Eye was credited on the back.
Will and I attended the launch at the Progressive Greetings Live trade fair in May 2014. At the Peartree Heybridge stand, our dreams of retiring on the proceeds were already starting to look fragile: there was a buzz around a few of the stands, but not, sadly, at this one. Sales indeed proved very modest: they ran it for a couple of years before pulling the plug. One card from the series outsold the rest by some way: our dark take on Space Oddity.
More ambitiously, I even conceived the idea of a jukebox musical, loosely based on the Forgotten Moments theme. It starts off with the ghosts of Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix and a youthful Elvis Presley meeting up by the Dakota building in New York on 8 December 1980, waiting to greet John Lennon. They then form a kind of superhero band who go round having crazy adventures and righting wrongs in chaotic fashion. That’s as far as it got. Just as well probably, I don’t think any producer could have afforded the music rights.
I sometimes sent Will non-music ideas, but the economics of one-off cartoons can be brutal. An artist expends time, skill and effort drawing up ideas to have the great majority knocked back, and revenue sharing with a writer then makes the economics virtually unworkable. The advantage of a series like Forgotten Moments for Will was that the Eye would accept or reject ideas on the basis of a verbal summary, so he knew before starting work on them that he would get paid for it. But he did draw up a few of my non-music ideas, and one was accepted by the Eye:
Towards the end of 2020 (and after quite a few lockdown gags) we got the news we had been fearing: after a run of eight and a half years, and 216 cartoons, Will received the message “Ian thinks this has run its course.” The final cartoon in the series appeared at the end of the year. The last non-Christmas joke was quite apt:
After 35 years in the job, Hislop probably knows what he’s doing. I had felt that the series was becoming a little stale – certainly, my favourite gags tend to come from earlier in the series. Happily, Will was invited to pitch a new series, and his Eco Chamber now dispenses laughs and dire warnings from the same Eye letters page.
Never one to leave a dead horse unflogged, I have started my own Forgotten Moments greetings card shop on Etsy. Sales have once again been modest, but it’s satisfying to run it (except when a card is struck out for image rights infringement – I can’t say which it was for legal confidentiality reasons, but I did find it rather ironic) and I do get a little thrill every time my phone goes ka-ching to announce a sale. The best sellers in the range of eighteen are not only both Bowie gags – they are both based on the same actual song. That man’s fans are so devoted. Neil and Buzz is one of them, of course. This is the other:
But what, you ask, happened to the joke that started it all, Elton John at the JobCentre? It was rejected from the first batch, but I persisted. After a tweak, we sneaked in as fm41:
You can also find a Forgotten Moments in Music History blog, where the cartoons are sporadically released onto the internet – eventually they will all be out there. Fly, my pretties!