Violence was part of everyday life for cartoon character Andy Capp. Now society has changed, and with it the nature of crime—so why not the ways that we deal with it?by Ian Blair / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
In contrast to previous general election campaigns, crime did not feature prominently in 2010. Several opinion polls found that the issue was only the fifth most important to voters in Britain after the economy, health, education and immigration. But crime—and its ugly sister, antisocial behaviour—will always be with us, and sooner or later the coalition government will have to come up with some policies to deal with it.
Nothing in the manifestos or in the campaign showed that either of the parties in power (or Labour for that matter) had anything thoughtful or new to say about the subject, with the exception of a strange Tory proposal about directly elected police commissioners. And the coalition has so far shown no sign of recognising how crime is changing, or of learning from Labour’s record on antisocial behaviour.
To understand today’s patterns of crime, it helps to remember Andy Capp. It may be some time since readers of Prospect thought about Capp, a character created by the cartoonist Reg Smythe in 1957. He still appears in a long-running cartoon strip, published in the Daily Mirror (Smythe died in 1998 but others took over from him). Capp lives in Hartlepool and is a work-evading, feckless scrounger who comes out on top through ingenuity, barefaced lying and unscrupulousness. He is the pen-and-ink version of Albert Steptoe from the classic BBC sitcom Steptoe & Son. But there is one key difference between Albert and Andy: violence. In Capp’s world, violence is not only a fact of life but is celebrated and regarded as funny. Before it was cleaned up, there were two recurring scenarios in the cartoon, pub fights and a tussle at home with Flo, Andy’s battle-axe of a wife, usually portrayed waiting behind the front door with a rolling pin. The fights are shown as a cloud of dust with fists and feet sticking out at random; characters later appear with injuries or bandages.
The only parallel to this I can find is Asterix—but that cartoon is set in a context of war and occupation. Smythe was not drawing on a historical or mythical world but one which many of his audience would understand and some would have experienced—a world in which violence is part of everyday life and, in some contexts, perfectly acceptable.