Graham at work on his version of Beauty and the Beast. Photo by Peter Wiles
“Publishers just consider me old-fashioned now,” laughs Graham Oakley. “I’m no longer publishable. During the Church Mice times I could publish anything I wanted but now I’m no longer in fashion I have as many problems getting a book published as a beginner. But then again, it doesn’t matter. I’m at the age when I’m past caring. I mean, my career is over – I’ve had my day, really. I merely do it to amuse myself.”
It comes as quite a surprise to hear that Graham’s work is no longer valued by the market, begging the question: are today’s children really so very different to generations past? It’s true that there is something quintessentially English about his Church Mice series of books – something which is evocative of a bygone era. The warm humour and intelligent social satire would not be out of place in an Ealing Studios comedy, while the slapstick chase sequences, usually involving a mouse escaping from some sort of perilous situation, bring to mind Buster Keaton’s wonderfully choreographed film work.
Devil In The Detail
But it is the style, as well as the content, which seems to cause market-fearing publishers a problem. Graham’s pictures are full of carefully drafted detail, whereas the prevailing fashion is to produce ever more in-your-face images to grab the reader’s attention.
“Certain things come natural to different people,” says Graham on the subject of his style. “I find that I am rather keen on detail, whereas some people like the broad effect. I just feel that broad effects in books are ok but they don’t leave you much to look at after the initial visual impact. My idea was to create books that can be read time and time again. The more detail there is in the pictures, the more things you’re likely to see on a second reading.”
Unfortunately it seems that it is because Graham’s drawings and stories are so well executed that they are now overlooked by publishers. If that is an example of irony, then it is rather appropriate, for Graham’s books are packed full of amusing ironies. In The Church Mice At Bay, for example, a trendy vicar preaching love, peace and understanding creates havoc and fury in the town. In the Church Mice Adrift, houses with ‘welcome’ mats on their doorsteps and names like The Haven and Cosy Nook are guarded by vicious, antisocial dogs and housewives angrily wielding frying pans. Even in the first book, The Church Mouse, there is a toothpaste manufacturer called Wrottam Ltd and a tobacconist store owned by W. Hacker.
“I hope that people find them funny, because that is what I wanted them to be,” explains Graham. But many of the jokes which are hidden in the, often very detailed, drawings are clearly not aimed at children. “I always knew that parents read the books with their children, so I felt that there should be something in it for the adult as well.
“Even my editor used to say ‘Children won’t understand this,’ and when it came to the text my publisher would often say ‘Children won’t know this word.’ But my argument is that if no one ever says it to them they are never going to learn!
“In one book I put the names of the various bell ringing tunes into the text, such as Triple Bob Major, and there were a lot of complaints from the production people who said that kids wouldn’t understand that tunes played on church bells have names. But reading a book is part education. Even if a book is purely for entertainment you can learn something from it.”
Of Mice And Men
Now 81, Graham was already well into his early forties when The Church Mouse found its way into the shops. Up until that point he had worked his way through an impressive range of art-related jobs which, although not always enjoyable, were formative in his artistic development.
“When I was quite young the prospect of making a living as an artist was almost inconceivable,” insists Graham. “But at grammar school I found that I was good at art and vaguely thought that I could perhaps use it in some way. I was so useless at everything else I had no option in the end! But from my teenage years onwards, it was always my intention to be an artist of some description. Then, when I left grammar school, I went to art school in Warrington and gradually became more and more interested in art.”
One year into his course, in 1947, Graham was called up to do National Service, and was posted overseas to the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) headquarters in Bad Oeynhausen, Germany. When presented with the suggestion that two years of core boot polishing might account for his rather accurate rendering of shiny leather shoes and hobnail boots in the Church Mice books, Graham claims that he’d never thought of it as being a memory of military service.
“I certainly didn’t like it very much! It is something one is glad to forget. The toe cap of the core boot had to look as though it was enamel, which was achieved by using a great deal of spit. I don’t know what qualities spit had, but you had to mix it with the polish then burn it. This had to be done very carefully because if you scorched the leather you’d find yourself on a charge. But if you didn’t do it you would too! Some people took to it very naturally and used to love it. They’d practically spend all night polishing boots. I could never bring myself to do that.”
After National Service, Graham returned to art school to complete his final year. “It was essentially life class, drawing from life, perspective and composition – very generalized. I don’t think they do it like that anymore. Art education is split up into all kinds of subject areas.
“I suppose it was based around what they used to call ‘commercial art’. We did ads for newspapers and that kind of thing. At that time the peak of the profession was, I suppose, to design London Underground posters. That’s what everybody aimed at, but I was always more interested in simple book illustration.”
After art school Graham took a job with a London advertising agency for six months, before an old school friend, who was an actor, persuaded him to study stage design at the Bradford Civic Theatre School.
“I’d always been vaguely interested in stage sets, so I went to drama school and then spent a long time as a scene painter in repertory companies. In rep you design and paint the set yourself. Repertory theatres are pretty few and far between now but nearly every town had one in those days. For each play we used stock scenery and painted it over and over again. There was usually a stage carpenter who would knock up any special bits.
“When I finished with that I went as a production assistant to the Royal Opera House. At the interview it was just a case of showing them my paintings rather than my set-designing skills, but that was also part of what I had to do in the job.
“I started there in 1955 and stayed there until 1957. I was a designer’s assistant so I assisted people like John Piper, who weren’t really stage designers. Piper was doing things which looked almost like his paintings, so we basically turned his paintings into opera or ballet sets. He did The Magic Flute while I was there.
“The job of converting his paintings meant being familiar with the way that stage scenery was built. There would be on-stage things like ground rows, wings that came down the sides and boarders which mask out the lighting. And there were often big constructed set pieces which we usually built on trucks so the scene crew could just wheel them in. Their construction needed us to do detailed, almost architectural, drawings.
“Of course the backdrop could virtually be like Piper’s painting, so the scene painter would just blow them up and they’d end up looking like a large version.
“I stayed there two years then tried my hand at freelance book illustration. I stuck it for a couple of years, but it was hand-to-mouth and just wasn’t working out.”