Ipswich cartoon legend Carl Giles has his ‘Grandma’ featured in New Wolsey musical
- Credit: Archant
The New Wolsey Theatre enjoys coming up with shows with a local flavour. We take a look at how they are taking Carl Giles’ creations from the page to the stage for a brand new musical with an 1980s flavour
Celebrated cartoonist Carl Giles is Suffolk’s national treasure. Giles lived and worked in Ipswich for 50 years in a first floor studio overlooking Princes Street, The Town Hall and the approaches to the Cornhill. This area is now marked by the Giles statue, depicting his most famous character Grandma, the most fearsome umbrella wielding battleaxe to have ever taken on the establishment.
Now tetchy Grandma and her family of lovable ‘everybody’s’ are being given voice in a new musical being staged by the New Wolsey called Grandma Saves The Day.
Just as Giles commemorated his adopted hometown by featuring local landmarks - both physical and cultural – the New Wolsey will be looking to bring Giles’ heightened cartoon world to life.
Directed by artistic director Peter Rowe and staged in the New Wolsey Theatre’s trademark actor-musician style, this innovative new musical, is packed with 80’s hits including Our House, Simply the Best and Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and brings Thatcher’s Britain back to life.
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What’s it about?
Phil Willmott (writer): “The idea for the show has been around for quite some time. I am always looking for ideas for shows that have a nice nostalgia element and a show about Giles and his family of cartoon characters seemed perfect. I remember as a kid, every year someone would get the Giles annual for that year and I loved that family that he depicted. I remember pouring over the cartoons and I loved spotting little details that I’d missed on a previous viewing. It seemed to me that he packed so much detail in there.
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“He was also giving me a gentle lesson in contemporary politics. Grandma was unafraid to take on the establishment. She was the voice of the people. Dad was this relaxed figure in the background, putting his feet up, reading the paper. It was Grandma who was agitated and going into battle. I wondered whether it would be possible to write a play about this famous extended family.
“It’s set in the late 1980s, at the height of Mrs Thatcher’s reign, and we have an aspirational working class family wanting to buy their own council house and invest in stocks and shares living next door to Giles Grandman and her family. I think that would be an interesting dynamic.
How are going to capture the spirit and look of a Giles cartoon on stage?
Peter Rowe: “We have a wonderful set and costume designer Cleo Pettitt who has become completely absorbed in the world of Carl Giles and she has designed a hand-drawn, black and white world for our families to live in. The story has a Romeo and Juliet feel to it with a ‘forbidden’ romance going on between the teenagers in both families and we establish a sense of place and time by incorporating the pop songs and chart hits of the era. The music, performed in the actor-musician style of Our Blue Heaven and the rock’n’roll panto, will provide a lot of the atmosphere and the rest comes from Cleo who has developed a passion for Giles drawing style and has come up with a wonderful set. The characters in the play are based on the characters as drawn by Giles.
Who was Carl Giles?
Giles, born in Islington in 1916, first moved to Ipswich in 1936 to take a job with the film-maker, Roland Davies, who was setting up a studio in Museum Street to create animated versions of his popular newspaper strip Steve The Horse.
Although he was a London lad, his family had strong links with Suffolk. His father, tobacconist, was born in Newmarket and his grandfather was a successful jockey who rode for King Edward VII.
Even though he rose to become head animator at Davies Ipswich studio, Giles returned to London in 1938 and lived there through the blitz. He married his cousin, Joan, on 14th March 1942, at St. John’s Church in East Finchley, and they spent their honeymoon night in the Dickens Suite of the Great White Horse in Ipswich.
Shortly after his marriage Giles found himself being squabbled over by several leading newspapers who wanted the benefit of his warm-hearted but deceptively sharp comic observations.
In 1943 he was interviewed for a job on the Evening Standard, but was simultaneously offered a job on the Daily and Sunday Express instead, at a higher salary of 20 guineas per week. Giles later said that he never agreed with the Daily Express’s politics, and felt guilty for abandoning his left wing roots the decision to work for Express newspapers made him a rich man. By 1955 he was being paid £8,060 for producing three cartoons a week.
This secure salary allowed him and Joan to start married life in a rented cottage in the village of Tuddenham, on the outskirts of Ipswich and finally settled in Hillbrow Farm, near Witnesham, in 1946 where they remained for the rest of their lives.
Giles also had a wide-ranging friendship base which used to descend on Ipswich at regular intervals for long-boozy lunches during which tall stories would be swapped over several beers and a good meal. It was not unusual to see Carl Giles waiting on Ipswich station platform ready to welcome lunch-club regulars Eric Sykes, ‘Til Death Us Do Part’ writer Johnny Speight and actor Warren Mitchell to the town.
On the evening of his 60th birthday party, Giles held an impromptu pre-party drinking session at the Barley Mow pub and the locals were surprised when Giles’ lunch-club regulars walked in augmented by Tommy Cooper.
Carl Giles died on August 7, 1995, seven months after his wife Joan. He was buried alongside his wife in the small village churchyard in Tuddenham, about two miles from his farm and very close to the village pub, The Fountain.
Grandma Saves The Day! A Musical Featuring The Giles Family, runs from Friday April 26 to Saturday May 18.