Imagine you are a successful film animator living in London in the 1930s and you’ve just finished work on the first Technicolor cartoon ever made in Britain. You are given two job offers; one is to go and work for the Disney team in Hollywood and animate Mickey Mouse and his other incredibly successful chums, the other is to go and live in Ipswich and take a role working on a character called Steve the Horse. Which would you take? This was the choice that faced Carl Giles in his early career. He chose Steve, and in hindsight this was actually a pretty good decision as it was this that set him on a trajectory to be named Britain’s best loved cartoonist of the 20th century.
Giles was born on 29th September 1916 in Islington, London, although his family came from Suffolk and this may have been a contributing factor when plumping for Ipswich over Hollywood after his initial success. Despite no formal art training Giles started out work as an office boy in an advertising agency in London and was quickly promoted to the animation studio to create moving film cartoons. After spending a period working with film-maker Alexander Korda he then moved to the Ipswich studio of Ronald Davies where he began work on the afore mentioned Steve and helped to animate six eight minute cartoons.
Just before the break-out of the Second World War, Giles moved back to London for his first full-time job as a cartoonist for Reynolds News. In September 1943 he moved to a better paid job with the Express Newspaper Group, with whom he spent the rest of his cartooning career, (later Giles expressed guilt for abandoning the more left wing Reynolds News). A year later he flew to Belgium as the group’s cartooning war correspondent and stayed with the troops as they fought their way across northern Europe, until the last days of the war. During this time he found favour with the public with his popular caricature depictions of Hitler and Mussolini.
Giles had interestingly married his cousin, Joan, in 1942 and after his time in Europe returned to his married life with her in their rented cottage just outside Ipswich. In 1946 Carl and Joan moved to Witnesham where they would remain for the rest of their lives at Hillbrow Farm.
Giles’ work at the Express Newspaper Group (1945-1990) spanned an incredibly fascinating period of time in both British and world history, including the end of WWII, the Cold War, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the crises that came with that, the Space Race and first moon landing, as well as Britain’s loss of Empire and influence around the globe and entry into the European Union, the creation of the National Health Service, Queen Elizibeth II’s coronation and the opening of the Eurotunnel to name but a few of the significant points.
Throughout these important and often very serious events Giles used his brand of wit and humour to both entertain and give an insight to his readership. One of his most powerful tools in his communication to readers was his host of regular characters that appeared in his cartoons’ take of the news headlines. Most of these characters came from The Giles Family, which was vast. It incorporated Mother and Father and their five children and their spouses as well as grandchildren and the imposing Grandma, not to mention two pet dogs, a cat and a parrot all with unique personalities.
Of all these figures Grandma was perhaps Giles’ most famous character; she was unveiled as a statue in Ipswich Town Centre in 1993 as a mark of respect for the long and distinguished career Giles had enjoyed working in the town. The Statue’s placement (in the now ‘Giles Circus’) is deliberate so that Grandma can keep a watch on Giles’ former office on the second floor where he created the majority of his work across the road from her situation.
In the words of Michael Parkinson writing in the foreword for the 27th Giles Annual (1972-3) “His humour is never hurtful or vicious. It touches all of us who are possessed of that most important human quality, the ability to laugh at ourselves. The man who can make us do that is not simply a gifted cartoonist, he is an important part of our lives and therefore he is blessed”. Well said Parky. Thanks Giles.