There are few things that more thoroughly encapsulate the British than their attitude toward the seaside. Travel to Blackpool, Skegness, or the Isle of Wight and you’re likely to find a number of staples – sticks of rock, accordion music and, of course, swimming. Among these is the classic ‘saucy seaside postcard’ a variety of postcard, which enjoyed huge popularity during the mid-20th century, thanks, in the main, to the efforts of one irrepressible man.
In the middle of last century, few could afford to venture out of the country on their holidays. Air travel had yet to become widely-practical and affordable, for one thing. Neither, for that matter, had car travel – the motorway networks had not yet been built and so travelling to a beach could take hours! A visit to a British beach therefore became an annual tradition for many British families, each of whom would stay long enough to send their friends and relatives back a postcard or two.
Saucy seaside postcards feature cartoon images, typically set on the beach or nearby, accompanied by a joke. Double-entendres, henpecked husbands and drunkenness all feature heavily. Some of these jokes were lewd, others less so; but the cruder ones were inevitably the more popular. While many different artists joined in the gold rush, few approached the levels of popularity enjoyed by one Donald Mcgill.
Donald McGill might well be the most popular artist of the last century in Britain. His name is not often recognised, but his work certainly is. He enjoyed six decades of work as a cartoonist, during which he drew more than 12,000 cartoons, which have found their way onto more than 200 million postcards. That his influence is felt even today – in an age where postcards are far more rarely sent – is testament to the popularity of his work. Though he was by no means the only person producing such material, his work was by far one of the most popular.
The sexual nature of most of the cards was never spelt out – the joke would always be hidden behind double-entendre and pun. This was best exemplified in a cartoon featuring a woman telling a story to an amazed audience. She holds her hands two feet apart in the universally recognised ‘it was this big’ gesture. Behind her, in a glass case, is a fish, alongside a picture of a semi-naked man. Of course, we all know that the woman is not talking about the fish.
As well as being inherently funny, this sort of joke gave McGill the ability to deny that any such joke existed and force the censor to explain exactly what it is about the cards which is so offensive – and in doing so appear more coarse-minded that the cartoonist they intended to moralise against. McGill himself used this strategy several times, including during a trial in 1954 in Lincoln, which resulted in him being handed a hefty fine and delivered a huge loss of business for the postcard industry.
George Orwell wrote an essay of Horizon in 1941 on the work of McGill, in which he praised him for his style and identified the major themes running through the works. Of these themes, according to Orwell, the most significant is marriage. While many of the ‘saucy seaside’ postcards make jokes about sex, few of them do so in relation to adultery or other illicit affairs. This was in stark contrast to similar cartoons being produced in France, for which such matters were a source of constant hilarity.
In the cartoons, middle-aged men are the only sort of people who ever get drunk; they are resigned to always having to defer to their wives – who are invariably hugely fat, with bulging, Kardasian-esque rears which barely fit into their tight swimming costumes. Orwell described the images as a skit on pornography and that ‘the women are caricatures of the Englishman’s secret ideal, not portraits of it’.
These images were old-fashioned even at the time of their publication, and were wildly popular during the 30s and 40s. But that did little to arrest the snapping of the censor’s scissors and so over his career McGill managed to accumulate a respectable tally of fines for having contravened law, most notably the Obscene Publications Act of 1857.
It is difficult to see how the postcards could have been considered quite so outrageous – particularly when you consider the sort of sexualised jokes and images which we are bombarded with today. But in the fifties, a newly elected Conservative government – led by Winston Churchill – was determined to arrest the moral decay of society. These postcards, as bizarre as it might seem today, were deemed a threat to the very fabric of British decency.
Suffice to say, such claims proved exaggerated – so much so that today they seem laughable. In fact, the attempts to censor the images and stifle their distribution, would come to add considerably to McGill’s reputation as an unlikely champion of free expression.
The financial penalty that this campaign of censorship brought about, however, was enough to drag McGill and his contemporaries toward the brink of ruin. By the late 50s, following a series of raids on small seaside shops across British coasts, the industry was in tatters – though it would recover in the 60s, after the government relaxed their approach a little.
You can still go and look at originals of McGill’s work on the Isle of Wight, in a museum founded by the great man’s grandson in 2010. The town’s retailers bore the brunt of the police backlash against the saucy seaside postcard, with several shops being raided by the police and the offending postcards seized in order that impressionable young minds no longer be so terribly warped.
Despite his prodigious output and widespread fame, McGill never became an exceptionally rich man – he would earn only around three guineas for every cartoon he came up with. Today, his works can fetch many thousands of pounds. He has thereby been vindicated as an artist of extraordinary talent and cultural importance, whatever the more prudish authorities of the fifties might have said.