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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fred Basset: Celebrating Fifty Years’

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FRED BASSET: CELEBRATING 50 YEARS
By Alex Graham and Michael Martin
Summersdale Publishers Ltd., $24.95, 112 pages

Animals have long played a vital role in the history of comic strips and animation. They have been portrayed as faithful pets, cuddly creatures, second bananas, mischievous scamps and, more often than not, the most intelligent of protagonists.

One of the most popular cartoon animals is undoubtedly the dog. The funny pages have been graced by Tige ("Buster Brown"), Snoopy ("Peanuts"), Otto ("Beetle Bailey"), Dogmatix ("The Adventures of Asterix") and Marmaduke ("Marmaduke"), among others. Conversely, animation cells have been dominated by such canine luminaries as Brian Griffin ("Family Guy"), Dino ("The Flintstones"), Gromit ("Wallace and Gromit"), Pluto (Walt Disney) and Scooby-Doo ("Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?").

Here's another dog that also deserves top billing: Fred Basset. While not as well-known in North America (although his fan base included humorist Sir P.G. Wodehouse and cartoonists Charles M. Schulz and Hank Ketchum), this syndicated daily strip first appeared in The Daily Mail on July 8, 1963. The basset hound, his nameless owners and a supporting cast of characters were originally created by the now-deceased Scottish cartoonist Alex Graham. For the past two decades, he's been in the good hands of illustrator Michael Martin and Graham's daughter Arran.

The United Kingdom's favorite four-legged friend turned 50 last year. That's quite the accomplishment for a comic strip in any country. To celebrate this important milestone, Summersdale Publishers has released "Fred Basset: Celebrating 50 Years." This book collection contains three great strips for every year that Fred has amused, entertained and made his loyal legion of readers laugh out loud.

In the book's foreword, Miss Graham revealed that Fred Basset was "first commissioned ... for an initial period of just six months" and her father "would have been amazed to see Fred turn 50." Her method of coming up with ideas is to "carry a notebook, as does [her husband] Alistair, and we jot down anything we observe or hear which we think might work as an idea."

"Catchphrases or expressions used on the radio or television, especially cookery programs, can be a good source (apologies for that!)"

Miss Graham regularly communicates with Mr. Martin, who lives in France, by email and fax. The cartoonist "draws up roughs based on the storylines ... . These roughs will contain Michael's own contributions, not just to the original concept, but also new twists for the storyline." She writes that it's "at this stage that personal contact is vital so that discussions can take place and the strip can be finalized."

The final product, be it from Miss Graham or Mr. Martin's talented fountain pen, remains a sight to behold. Here are some examples of the classic, lighthearted cartoons involving the lovable and legendary cartoon dog between 1963 and 2013:

A 1964 cartoon shows an angry mailman chasing Fred. This unusual role reversal causes the latter to remark, "I'll never live this down ... ."

A 1971 cartoon sees a cross Fred remarking, "Typical! You doze off for a minute, and what happens ... ?" With his owner sitting in a chair, reading the paper and using poor Fred as an ottoman, he says, "You find yourself being taken advantage of ... ."

A 1984 cartoon begins with Fred reading a note: "Fred. You were asleep, and I didn't want to disturb you. Had to go out — back soon." The stunned canine looks directly at the readers and says, "I knew I could read, but I didn't know that she knew I could read!"

A 1998 cartoon has Fred looking through a cabinet exclaiming, "Now where is that compact disc of his? ... Got it!" The basset hound buries the CD, and mischievously walks away proclaiming, "That's the last time he duets with Pavarotti!"

A 2010 cartoon begins with Fred's owners setting up a new flat-screen TV. The comic strip hero says, "Ooh, a new television!" in the first panel, but looks perplexed in the second panel when he remarks, "Where's the rest of it, then?"

In many ways, Fred Basset is the quintessential British comic strip. Our hero prefers to steer clear from most controversial issues, current events and politics. Rather, the basset hound gives his polite, albeit amusing, views (in thought balloons) on the daily life and foibles that most of us regularly face. While Fred is seen and not heard by the middle-aged couple who owns him, he will always be an important member of his family — and, in turn, our family.

Happy 50th birthday, Fred Basset. May the next 50 years bring you and your fans much health and happiness.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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