Review by Frank Plowright
For a generation of 1960s British children the distinctive hornpipe theme tune ending five minute animated tales of faltering pirate Captain Pugwash signalled the closure of children’s television for the night. By current standards the animation was primitive, using cardboard illustrations layered over painted backdrops with motion simulated by levers, but the charm lay in the scripts and John Ryan’s excellent art. Plenty of examples are found on You Tube and the feature was revived twice, adding colour in the 1970s, and more sophisticated animation in the 1990s.
To coincide with the original broadcasts Ryan produced a weekly single tier strip for venerable TV listings magazine Radio Times from 1960 to 1965, and it’s these that are collected in the Captain Pugwash Cartoon Book. It was published by Bodley Head, who also issued Ryan’s text and illustration Captain Pugwash series, but the eccentric production really does the material no favours. Strips are printed in pale blue or green on white, on orange or blue coloured pages, and often feature an odd presentation of the same shade over four strips collected on a page. Ryan surely had some say in the matter, and one can only wonder at his choice.
Move beyond the ugly production, though, and all the charm, elegance and eccentricity of the TV show is evident in Ryan’s strips. Captain Pugwash is a pirate despite his hesitancy, cowardice and incompetence, with a surprisingly loyal crew, the most essential of which is Tom the cabin boy. He has every quality Pugwash lacks, and it’s usually down to him that the Black Pig avoids fatal interactions with rival pirate Cut-Throat Jake or the authorities. Tom, though, is largely absent here with gags not requiring his resourcefulness.
There’s a playful invention about the strips, which share the genial good nature of the animation, and Ryan doesn’t feel at all restricted by the single tier format, sometimes squeezing in eight little illustrations. The content is also varied, taking in the corniest of old music hall jokes, several rhyming strips (some almost Goreyesque), the surreality of Pugwash being squashed off a desert island by a rapidly growing cactus, plenty of wordless strips and even an odd Batman reference. These are clearly the work of a man enjoying himself, and the period setting ensures they’ve not dated badly.
A text piece details Pugwash’s print history, with another providing a brief glimpse into the picture book production process. The best bonus is a beautifully illustrated dice and counter game spread racing Pugwash to hidden treasure.
In the 1980s Ryan returned to comic strips, producing three strips re-issued most recently as Captain Pugwash Comic Book Collection.