My dad would be tickled pink to know the Mr. Men are still a hit
Fifty years after the first book, the little boy who inspired the cartoons talks about taking on his father’s mantle
IT WAS the sort of impossible question that every parent has been posed by a curious child. But when eight-year-old Adam Hargreaves asked his father Roger: “What does a tickle look like?”, the answer would change the course of their lives. Roger grabbed a pen and drew a jolly orange character with a blue hat and very long arms, creating the very first member of the famous Mr. Men series. Now 50 years on from that first rough caricature, Mr. Tickle and his friends – along with their Little Miss counterparts – are cultural icons and a publishing phenomenon. The books have sold 250 million copies in 20 different languages and the beloved characters have appeared as animations, toys and even postage stamps. Their creator is almost as well known as the characters, ranked as Britain’s third best-selling author of all time at the last count. But while Roger Hargreaves’ name is on the cover of every book, it is Adam who has been holding the pen since his father’s untimely death in 1988. “The Mr. Men were his concept. I’ve always felt too awkward to put my own name on there,” he says. “He was quite an ambitious man and wanted to create something successful. It’s been lovely to see the recognition of his name grow in the 30 years since he died.” Charles Roger Hargreaves was born in Cleckheaton,WestYorkshire, in May 1935 and had a flair for art and drawing cartoons from a young age.After leaving school, he worked for his father’s laundry business, before going into advertising copywriting. He rose to creative director, but dreamed of escaping the commute to London and spending more time at home in Sussex with wife Christine and their four children – Adam, Giles and twins Sophie and Amelia.
S OME of his doodles had already been turned into characters used to advertise a headache remedy called Askit Powders, but when Adam’s enquiry spawned Mr. Tickle, Roger realised he was on to something special. “I don’t remember it but my question set a chain of thought off in my dad’s mind that you could personify a tickle and turn it into a character,” says Adam, 57. “And therefore, you could personify any human emotion or characteristic. “It was a moment of genius because there are loads of children’s characters that are personifications of toys or trains, but not emotions. “Each character personifies a part of human nature, so we recognise ourselves in them and have an automatic affinity with them. That’s the answer to their longevity and success. “The idea translates into other languages and cultures very easily too, and he visualised it brilliantly.The drawings are so bold and simple – they were unique at the time.” A publisher thought so too and in August 1971, Mr. Tickle went on sale alongside five further titles – Mr. Greedy, Mr. Happy, Mr. Nosey, Mr. Sneeze and Mr. Bump. The books were just 15p each and came in a handy child-size format, making them hugely collectible and also a speedy read for “weary dads” at bedtime. Roger’s stories were an instant success, selling more than one million copies within three years. They also spawned an animated BBC series in 1974, narrated by Dad’s Army star Arthur Lowe. Two years later, Roger was able to quit his day job and work on his publishing empire full time from home, using his commercial nous to take advantage of opportunities like merchandising, national newspaper comic strips and even an album of songs. He introduced the first 13 Little Miss books in 1981, which were also turned into a TV series narrated by actress Pauline Collins and her husband John Alderton. But Adam says the life-changing success of his father’s books was something he didn’t really appreciate at the time, finding it a bit embarrassing and uncool. “The house was full of Mr. Men things and as a teenager, I was rather awkward and difficult. I tried to ignore it and shun it,” he recalls. “My sisters were seven years younger than me so it was almost written for them. Little Miss Twins is based on them. “My biggest memory is that my dad did a poster promotion on the back of the books, which he thought would be a small sideline, but it took off in an incredible way. “I remember sitting at the dining room table writing addresses, my brother was rolling up posters to put into tubes and my sisters were sticking stamps on. He had a little production line so he could get through the orders. “It was how we earned our pocket money!” Roger would also create the Timbuctoo books and other characters like John Mouse, and Roundy and Squary, but his career was cut short when he suffered a stroke in September 1988 and died the following day aged 53. “It was a truly tragic moment in our lives as a family,” says Adam, who was 25 at the time and had recently become a father himself. “It threw us completely. It also left a creative hole for the Mr. Men, and nobody to run the business.” Adam had inherited his dad’s artistic flair, drawing with him as a child and enjoying the plentiful supply of pens and paper in his studio. But after studying art at college for a