This interview features in my book The Life and Work of George Melly, as well as in my documentary, George Melly The certainty of Hazard...
It's not often I get to chat to genuine legends, a word used for just about everyone these days. But Wally Fawkes, now aged 94, is one where the word genuinely fits the man in question. Born in Canada, Fawkes always had an interest in comic books and cartoons, but his first job was during the war, painting the roofs of factories in camouflage tones to hide them from bombers. He won an art competition during the war run by the Daily Mail and ended up getting work there providing illustrations from 1945 onwards. He also struck up his passion for jazz, playing in war time bands and eventually joining the legendary Humphrey Lyttelton band. Around this time he took on the pseudonym Trog, and quit professional jazz in 1956 to give the cartooning the full attention it required. He provided strips and caricatures for The Spectator, Private Eye and the New Statesman, with George Melly as his text writer.
I rang Wally's home one Monday afternoon, his wife answering the phone and disturbing Wally from listening to an audiobook on his headphones. He then came to the phone, a gentle sounding and good humoured bloke, very easy and nice to talk to.
So Wally, you knew George all those years. How would you sum up his character in the early days of the 1950s?
He didn't really change. George was always larger than life, which made everybody else seem smaller than life. He had a terrific sort of life force with him, incredible enthusiasms. I remember saying to him once, after some outrageous bit of behaviour, 'If only you could overcome your shyness, there'd be no end to your possibilities.'
I'm interested in how you both ended up working on the Flook comic strips together, with you doing the art work and George writing the text.
Well Trog was my pen name. Humph had been writing them for me before then. I had got to the stage that playing in Humph's band, with the increasing amount of touring while keeping the strip going, and other political cartoons emerging, I was finding it difficult to keep all the things together. I knew for a fact that the playing was fun, enormous fun, and I loved it, but it was not a career. I knew my real work was the cartooning. I could do it from home, for a start. You can't play in a band from home, not without the neighbours complaining. So I quit Humph's band in 56 to spend more time with the cartooning. So Humph was doing the Flook strip, and by releasing him from the strip, it enabled him to really get on the road in a big way. So it became more than full time. The manager of the Mick Mulligan band, for whom George was singing, was a friend, and I was telling him about this and he said 'Why not get George in to do the strip?' I knew George as a sort of outlandish and marvellous man, but I hadn't thought of him for the job. But of course he was brilliant. He brought to it the social world that he inhabited, because he liked them but he mocked them mercilessly. He loved the minor aristocracy. And he really bit the hand that fed him, and I am like that too. That was perfect for the strip and perfect for the time. The middle fifties was when the social scene was beginning to unravel. You can't think now, but the Prime Minister was called Sir Alec Douglas-Home. But we accepted all that. Then the whole thing changed. The revolution I suppose, the revolution in the theatre, all before rock and roll and pop took over, to put an end to us (jazzers).
I suppose the jazz thing came back again bigger in the 1970s didn't it though?
Oh yeah. George came back too, but it was different, it was to do with his personality. If he'd been a trumpet player or a trombonist it would have been different, but it was his singing, which was extravagant to say the least. It made me wince every now and again. It wasn't my favourite sound, George's voice. (Laughs)
But you and George were playing with John Chilton for a bit weren't you, in the early 1970s?
Yeah that's right, we were playing at Merlin's Cave, near King's Cross every Sunday, around mid day.
What were those shows like?
Oh, fabulous! Tremendous. They were lovely, absolutely lovely. And children were allowed in too. You couldn't get in unless you had a child with you. They used to blow their coke bottles at us in retaliation as we blasted away. And the visiting Americans used to come in. And then George started coming in, and that put an end to it, in a way and as far as I was concerned, because we were then accompanying a singer instead of having a free time blowing. You had to be accompanying, which still had its own sense of fun, but it became less of an attraction. Then George took the band on the road, world tours, Australia, America, and again I couldn't do that.
You just fancied playing for fun?
Yeah. I was enormously fond of George. But musically I didn't see it as a step forward. And I didn't have the time either. I was just playing twice a week in pubs all within the London area. That suited me perfectly, it was tremendous fun. I played a lot with George and John Chilton. That was a good partnership.
So you knew George for years. What are some of your favourite memories nearer to the end of his life?
My favourite story... (Laughs) I mean towards the end George got slightly pompous. He did that Christmas gig every year at Ronnie Scott's, and then it changed hands and became less of a serious heavy jazz venue and it broadened itself up a bit. I saw him after he'd done the first one under the new management, and I asked him 'How was the new club?' he said, 'Oh it was terrible,' thinking that it was because the principals had all been changed, but he said, ' The doorman didn't know me.' So that upset him more than anything. And there was another occasion when the band and George played an old people's home. He turned up and there was a lovely old lady sitting at the front of the entrance. And she said 'Oh hello!' (very excitedly) and George said 'Oh, do you know who I am?' And she said 'No, but here comes matron, she'll tell you.' (Laughs)
That's a really good one.
Yeah. His ego tripped him up every now and then, but it was colossal and it took a lot to trip it up.
So you think he was kind of a loveable egomaniac?
Yeah! Who said that?
That's very good. But it was great fun doing the Flook strip. We spent a lot of time doing that together. He wrote the stories. We had a conference every week at the Daily Mail and we discussed future lines to explore. Then he filled it all out. He was more wordy than Humph, in fact it got to the stage when there was hardly any room in the frame at all to do any drawing. It was all balloons and words, you couldn't see the people. But we overcame that. You can't keep a good man down. But he had a huge success in later years as a singer. A lot of grey haired old ladies used to go along to be shocked by him. He got a lot of pleasure out of it.
Do you remember him more as a great figure than a musical talent? I think you once said he used to shout a bit too much.
Yes. The more he shouted the more out of tune it went. But some things he did were better when he took it more quietly. He was influenced by Bessie Smith mostly, and in those days they didn't have microphones. She used to sing down a great cone to get heard, to project the voice. Bessie opened it up and hollered away. Fantastic power. George did all that but with a microphone, not instead of. Without a microphone it might have been better.
So it was double amplified!
(Laughs) Yeah! He had such effervescence. I swore that I saw him smile out loud. It was all tremendous fun.