The Pick - I Wish I Could See My Little Willy

July 21, 2011

I Wish I Could See My Little Willy


A bikini-clad young woman sits on the beach with a cat on her lap. A passing spiv raises his hat to her and says: "I wish I was that lucky cat."

"I don't think you do," she replies. "He only came back from the vet's this morning."

Two men notice a sign for "Tea & crumpet 1/6". One turns to the other and says: "I wonder what the tea is like?"

And what about the woman who tells the painter and decorator: "I want you to touch up the place where my husband put his hand last night!"

Welcome to the world of the traditional English seaside "saucy postcard". The last of these three was the work of Donald McGill, one of the most prolific workers in the field, about whom George Orwell wrote a celebrated essay in 1941. Everyone was familiar, he noted, with the "endless succession of fat women in tight bathing-dresses and the crude drawing and unbearable colours, chiefly hedge-sparrow's egg tint and Post Office red". All were based on a number of broad assumptions such as that "every man is plotting seduction and every woman is plotting marriage" and that "sex-appeal vanishes about the age of twenty-five...The amorous honeymooning couple reappear as the grim-faced wife and moustachioed, red-nosed husband."

A significant proportion of McGill's work, Orwell also pointed out, was "far more obscene than anything else that is now printed in England". In the early 1950s, attempts to protect the nation's morals meant that such cards were repeatedly prosecuted in the Margate Magistrate's Court. Some were let off, others destroyed as obscene - even when they were often freely available in Ramsgate, just along the coast.

The old courthouse has become the Margate Museum, one of the venues where people can now once again debate and judge the prosecuted postcards. The Dreamland Trust, Thanet District Council and the British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent have mounted an exhibition (23 July-2 August) at the town's Pie Factory Gallery that presents all 128 of them.

They also appear on the archive's website, where the classification by subject gives a good idea of what we can expect: bananas, barmaids, bloomers, bulls, chimney sweeps, colonels, coconuts, eels, kilts, knickers, newly-weds, secretaries and vicars. It remains astonishing that the image (below left) that gives the show its title was declared obscene in 1954.

I Wish I Could See My Little Willy will be accompanied by talks at the museum on the campaign against seaside postcards and the comic graphic tradition from Thomas Rowlandson to McGill; Getting the Joke, Neil Brand's award-winning radio play about the 1953 McGill obscenity trial; and an evening of Carry On films at the Carlton Cinema.

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