About the strip > The 80s
Alex is a satirical daily comic strip set mostly in the financial world. Its eponymous (anti-) hero is a cynical, materialistic, status-obsessed banker. The strip (and he) casts a cynical eye over news stories, politics and corporate life, combining social commentary with an ongoing narrative about the characters’ personal lives; their marriages and affairs, their children and their business setbacks. The strip also documents technological innovations as they happen.
Alex started life in 1987 in the London Daily News: a Robert Maxwell-funded newspaper that was designed to be a rival to the London Evening Standard.
Charles Peattie had been writing the “Dick” cartoon in the (now defunct) Melody Maker with Mark Warren since the mid 1980s. Hearing of the impending launch of the Daily News they pitched various cartoon ideas to the features editor Nigel Horne. One was an ‘ensemble’ strip about four young people sharing a house: an idealistic political one, a wannabe famous one, a yuppie and a central everyman-ish character. Oddly the yuppie turned out to have all the best lines and so Charles and Mark ditched the other characters and went with him as their protagonist. They called him ‘Alec’ (as in ‘Smart Alec’).
But with the launch of the Daily News being constantly delayed, Mark was offered a copywriting job in an advertising agency and took it. So Charles began looking for another collaborator.
He was introduced to Russell Taylor at the Christmas party of Design and Art Direction (another now defunct publication) where they both worked. Charles and Mark produced “Ad Nauseam” - a monthly cartoon parodying contemporary adverts - and Russell was a freelance journalist. After a few plastic cups of cheap wine too many, Russell pitched his writing services to Charles. Charles, faced with the choice of having to drop the strip otherwise, cautiously accepted. He thought "Alec" might last a year or eighteen months.
The day before the paper’s launch they discovered that there was already a comic strip character called “Alec” so they changed his name to “Alex”. This first strip (and the only one in which he was called “Alec”) ran in the dummy edition of the London Daily News on February 17th 1987.
There were things that the strip got wrong. The figure quoted for Alex’s salary was ludicrously low. Charles and Russell, being humbly-paid arty types, simply had no idea what bankers earned.
When real life City types started contacting them to buy the original artwork they expressed puzzlement. If Alex was so successful, how come he was so badly paid? Or was this meant to be a joke in itself?
17 Feb 87
The London Daily News established its Maxwellian credentials in its very first edition. Page three featured a puff piece about the glitzy launch party of the long anticipated newspaper, under the headline “What a Swell Party this is”. It was accompanied by a large photograph of Lady Diana arriving wearing a glamorous evening gown. Only on closer inspection of the caption beneath the photo was the reader made aware that Diana was actually arriving at the opening night of the musical “High Society” and had not been at Captain Bob’s bash at all..
Alex was clearly a natural fit at this paper.
This was the first joke that Russell wrote which he felt grasped the character of Alex.
04 Mar 87
The first real character to emerge, apart from Alex himself, was a tramp. He proved quite popular as a foil to Alex, but didn’t last long. Readers still ask after him.
05 Mar 87
This was one of the initial strips that Charles had shown Russell when they first talked about collaborating and the one that persuaded Russell that this character was genuinely original and funny.
13 Mar 87
The London Daily News had no particular faith in "Alex" and had consigned it to the City pages. The paper carried a bank of three other comic strips: "Baby" by Michael Heath; an American import called "Shoe"; and "Soho Square" a cartoon set in an advertising agency. Advertising had been the cool industry of the mid 80s and this was the strip that everyone at the paper confidently tipped for success.
"Alex" flew beneath the radar - which gave Charles and Russell the chance to work out how to write jokes which would appeal to the City, a subject they knew next to nothing about.
16 Mar 87
14 Apr 87
02 Jun 87
The other regular characters in the strip started to join Alex in those first few months. Penny began life as Alex’s lodger, but seemed so sweet and likeable that it was inconceivable that she wouldn't end up becoming his girlfriend.
04 Jun 87
Alex’s colleague Clive, who started as a “voice off”, became a fully-formed mirror image of Alex, equally self-obsessed, but manifesting as shyness and neurosis, (and probably emerging from Charles and Russell’s own subconscious anxieties).
09 Jun 87
On June 11th Charles and Russell’s mettle was tested in a General Election. These are always problematic for newspaper cartoonists as you have to write a joke on the Thursday (when no one knows the result) which will appear in the paper on the Friday (when everyone will know the result). This is why cartoonists invariably run a bland, neutral cartoon on the Friday. Charles and Russell naively did something they’ve never dared do since and attempted to predict the result. They would have looked utter fools and probably been fired had Labour won, and they both had sleepless nights that Thursday. Luckily the election was pretty much a foregone conclusion and, as Alex predicted, returned Margaret Thatcher to Downing Street.
12 Jun 87
By now the cartoonists had acquired a few City contacts, who would put them right about who Alex really was, what he did all day, where he would have gone to school, where he ate out, what kind of car he’d be driving, even details about his family background (“No, no, no… I’ll tell you what his parents are like…”). Some of these readers (clients? customers? targets of satire?) would become regular ‘moles’. A few of them are still lunching with the creators to this day.
One of these contacts showed the creators his prize possession and an item which emblematised the Yuppie breed: a mobile phone (actually no one had yet settled on a name for these new gadgets - they were sometimes referred to as “portable phones” or “roamaphones”). Charles and Russell, despite being unable to aspire to owning one of those brick-sized status symbols, nevertheless used their imaginations to figure out interesting uses they could be put to.
20 Jun 87
Clive’s girlfriend Bridget was another “voice off” for quite a long time, but seemed to hit a nerve with certain people. One lady actually phoned in more than once to quiz the creators about where they got their ideas from. She was paranoid that they were being being fed stories about her by her boyfriends’ best mate.
13 Jul 87
Back in the real world the Evening Standard had not taken lightly to having its cosy monopoly on the London evening paper market broken. A bitter circulation war had ensued with rival delivery vans blocking each other’s distribution areas. In a brilliant, if ruthless spoiler campaign the Standard had re-launched the old ‘London Evening News’ (a title it had absorbed and closed down in 1980) on the same day that the London Daily News appeared. This sowed deliberate confusion in the minds of London commuters, who found that instead of one evening newspaper on the newsstands there were suddenly three of them. They’d seen the ads for the new newspaper but no one knew which of these two similarly named new arrivals it was - the ‘London Evening News’ or the ‘London Daily News’? This was the age when people had to pay for evening newspapers and a savage price-cutting war ensued. Within a couple of months the Daily News was selling for 10p and the Evening News for 5p, which caused Londoners to conclude that both newspapers must be crap. The Standard sat serenely aloof.
Alex was perceived to be one of the few successful features of the Daily News and Charles and Russell were asked to produce an extra strip for Saturdays. Charles had the bright idea of not asking to be paid for this extra cartoon, but instead requesting to be given an official letter saying that if the Daily News went bust then the rights to Alex would revert to its authors. The paper’s editor, Magnus Linklater, assured them that the paper would never go bust. Charles said “All right. So you won’t mind putting it in writing then.” Magnus did. The London Daily News folded six weeks later. It had lasted five months. The Standard, which had briefly had to become a quite good paper, relapsed into being rubbish again, safe in its predator-free eco-zone.
The last Alex joke that ran in the LDN was an unusually risqué one. Perhaps it was too much for Bob Maxwell and was what caused him to pull the plug on the paper?
24 Jul 87
Rumours of the impending closure of the LDN had begun to circulate the day before it actually folded and there was a frenzy among the journalists trying to find themselves new jobs. Alex proved to be a popular feature, despite his short tenure, and his authors received offers from the Standard, the Daily Telegraph and Today.
Unfortunately for Charles and Russell, the paper that everyone advised them to move to - The Independent - didn’t seem interested in them. It was not much older than Alex himself at the time, having launched the previous September, but had already had sucked in a generation of young, clever, fresh-out-of-Oxbridge readers and had a non-partisan political stance. Naturally as contrarians, Charles and Russell respected the paper’s seeming indifference to them. After a lot of phone calls, various rebuffs and offers of more money from other papers (which the people at The Independent thought were a transparent bluff) a deal was finally agreed for Alex to appear five times a week on the Business and Finance page of the Independent under the editorship of Sarah (now Baroness) Hogg.
So it was that on September 1st 1987, on a slow news day after the August bank holiday the front page of the Independent reported a riot at the Notting Hill Carnival, the SDP voting on whether to merge with the Liberals, an Iraqi air strike against Iran and, in a small panel, that something called “Alex” was due to start on page 14.
The strip kicked off with some stock jokes about mobile phones.
09 Sep 87
And this, subsequently iconic joke on the newly-popular sport of "paintballing".
24 Sep 87
The “whites of their socks” punchline apparently became a frequently-used catch phrase for players of the game and is possibly the moment in the history of the strip when the creators’ roles and credentials as satirists became most questionable. For some months the strip had come to rely on the denizens of the City giving them ideas, such as examples of bad behaviour for them to write cartoons about. Now the strip was giving ideas back to the City boys of ways for them to behave obnoxiously.
Behind the scenes the creators were running dangerously low on ideas. They’d used up most of their standard ‘showing off ‘ scenarios for jokes. They were running out of mobile phone jokes. The era of yuppie triumphalism seemed set to continue forever, but there didn’t seem much more to say about it.
Fortunately the global economy stepped in and saved the cartoonists by precipitating a huge market crash in October of 1987. It was a scary couple of days because Russell was on holiday and Charles had to come up with an appropriate response to on Black Monday October 19th. (Charles got his revenge 20 years later when he was on a 24 hour flight to Australia the day that Lehmans went bust ).
All at once there was a deluge of new material about sackings, non-existent bonuses and bank failures to be plucked from the trees. Yuppies went through an existential crisis and bankers became a new hate figure in society (as they would be again 20 years later).
20 Oct 87
23 Oct 87
26 Oct 87
27 Oct 87
28 Oct 87
29 Oct 87
05 Nov 87
10 Nov 87
13 Nov 87
Alex’s role model was his boss Rupert - a patrician figure from the Old School Tie days of the City of London.
26 Nov 87
11 Dec 87
The fall out from the Crash continued to be felt and there was not much festive cheer in the City that Christmas.
16 Dec 87
In autumn 1987 the first Alex book was published by Heinemann. A small print run, which sold out by Christmas.
Vince the Moneybroker was another popular character who emerged at this time. The creators had no idea what moneybrokers did except wear white socks, drink pints of port and talk in Cockney rhyming slang but this sufficed for joke purposes.
23 Dec 87
A new year began but things were still bleak for the City.
16 Feb 88
The creators moved into a small office in what used to be called by estate agents ‘North Soho’ (i.e.: north ‘of’ Soho) but near enough to the watering holes where media folk hung out at the time.
As an escape from the gloom of Alex’s professional world Charles and Russell decided to start focusing more on their characters’ lives, starting with Alex’s engagement and marriage to Penny.
30 Mar 88
Police detectives raided Alex's office and arrested his boss Rupert on fraud charges.
28 Apr 88
16 May 88
The Innovations catalogue (which fell out of all Sunday newspapers at the time) provided a seemingly limitless supply of pointless must-have Yuppie gadgets. Alex of course had them all.
29 Jun 88
30 Jun 88
It was the era of HIV and ‘safe sex’.
01 Jul 88
The world was beginning to go digital with the arrival of satellite TV. This showed up a weird anomaly. The satellite dish attached to the side of one’s house, which would soon become deeply naff, was for a short time considered to be a status symbol.
22 Jul 88
Did we mention that we did quite a few gadget jokes in those days?
11 Oct 88
26 Oct 88
Alex was clearly not very busy at work because Penny quickly fell pregnant.
10 Nov 88
11 Nov 88
30 Nov 88
A surprisingly early first mention for compliance in the strip. Little did the cartoonists know back then how many hundreds more jokes the subject would spawn in the 21st Century.
04 Jan 89
As Eastern bloc Communism went into a decline and The Cold War petered out, threats to the environment moved in to take the place of nuclear obliteration as a focus for global calamity fears.
15 Mar 89
The “empathy bulge” was a must-have accessory for expectant caring, sharing couples.
13 May 89
Meanwhile in an attraction of opposites, Clive embarked on an ill-judged affair with Ruth, a high-flying American female executive.
16 Jun 89
People began to champion environmental causes which were very out of kilter with the materialistic values that Alex had traditionally espoused.
13 Jul 89
Alex and Penny’s son, Christopher, was born.
11 Sep 89
07 Oct 89
Alex and Clive went on a business trip to Japan where they experienced an earth tremor. Coincidentally the joke ran on the same day as the San Francisco earthquake. It was the only mention of earthquakes in the newspaper that day (the San Francisco quake occurred at 5pm EST and so was too late to make the British papers). Alex was commended at the Independent’s morning conference for his powers of precognition.
18 Oct 89
A new rule was agreed for the writing of the cartoon, which was that unlike most cartoon characters, which remain the same as they were when they first appeared in print, the Alex strip would reflect the passing of time. Charlie Brown was eight years old from 1950 to 2000, Dilbert seems to be permanently aged about 32, Fred Basset should probably have been put down years ago. But the Alex characters age realistically. So Christopher (b 1989) is now an adult. This has not always been to the creators’ advantage.
As the 80s drew to a close parenthood was suddenly all the rage and baby Christopher was the ultimate fashion accessory.
08 Nov 89
The “Independent Pursuits” cryptic crossword No 64 which appeared in November was teasingly entitled "Stripshow". It turned out to be themed around the Alex cartoon with answers to clues including PEATTIE, TAYLOR, ALEX, PENNY, CLIVE and RUPERT.
Back in cartoonland Alex and Clive were sent on a character-building course by their bank to New York, where they had to survive on the streets as homeless people (this team-bonding exercise for bankers actually existed and was an example of reality becoming stranger that the cartoon itself).
20 Nov 89
24 Nov 89
30 Nov 89
The "Velvet Revolution” during which the Berlin Wall fell and Communist regimes were overthrown across Eastern Europe occurred at the same time as Alex was slumming it on the streets of New York. This would begin a unwitting tradition in which Alex was either on holiday or engaged in some fantastical storyline when major world events were taking place.
At Christmas that year the strip ran a storyline for three weeks based on “A Christmas Carol” in which Alex was taken by ghosts to visit scenes from his childhood and the distant future, but failed to learn anything redeeming from it at all. This theme was ‘re-imagineered’ (in Hollywood parlance) as the “It’s a Wonderful Crisis” story which ran over Christmas 2012-13.
Sure enough, while Alex was away the Communist government in Rumania was ousted and President Ceausescu was executed on Christmas Day.