Politically correct attack 'gay-basher' Dennis

Marc Horne

He is Britain's most iconic troublemaker and has delighted millions for generations with his anarchic antics and cheeky mischief.

But now it has been revealed that the behaviour of children's cartoon character Dennis the Menace was deliberately toned down to avoid claims from the PC brigade that he was encouraging "gay-bashing".

A long-running Beano magazine editor has disclosed that the 70-year-old comic had to be significantly changed so as not to offend modern-day sensibilities.

Euan Kerr says that he stopped Dennis from menacing fellow character Walter the Softy in the late 1980s because of fears that his behaviour appeared to endorse the violent bullying of homosexuals. But some fans of Dennis the Menace now feels the pendulum has swung too far in favour of political correctness and they hope there will be a return to the comic's anti- establishment roots.

Kerr, who edited the Beano between 1984 and 2006 and is now at the helm of its sister comic BeanoMax, has spoken out in a book chronicling the official history of the comic, which will be published later this month.

He said: "I definitely felt a sense of responsibility in making sure the characters did nothing that was easily imitable. The evidence is that the kids understand a comic is a comic and that it isn't anything like real life.

"But the relationship between Dennis and Walter was always one that worried me. There were accusations from certain quarters that it was a little like gay-bashing. This obviously wasn't the way we intended it to be perceived."

The comic's most popular character routinely ridiculed and tormented Walter, an effete, bespectacled boy, known as the "Prince of Softies," who spent his days sewing, picking flowers and holding tea parties for his teddy bears. But the decision was taken that this belligerent hostility had to stop.

"We decided the best way to approach it was to make sure that even though he and Dennis didn't get along, Walter was completely happy about who he was and a confident, likeable character in his own right. We eventually give Walter a girlfriend too, as a measure to combat any further criticism."

Kerr, who has worked at the Dundee-based comic for decades, conceded that other aspects of the Beano had been softened to avoid falling foul of liberal critics.

"The comic has certainly changed over the years to come in line with political correctness," he said.

"For example, every strip used to end with the rogue of the piece being punished in some way  — usually a smack across the head or a slipper across the bottom. This sort of corporal punishment became outdated and eventually it was phased out."

Similar changes took place at the Dandy, where the burly cowboy Desperate Dan, who used to shave with a blowtorch and smoke tobacco by the bucket-full, was forced to go on a diet and had his six-shooter replaced by a water pistol.

But Kerr believes the time is right for a swing away from political correctness.

"Luckily for us, I think there is a real resistance to the overt political correctness creeping into British life and the Beano can hopefully use this to its advantage."

There are already signs that the balance is slowly turning against PC culture. The Beano recently ran a controversial strip entitled The Neds, which chronicled the misadventures of work-shy, Scottish ne'er-do-wells.

John Midgeley, of the Campaign Against Political Correctness, was dumbfounded by the idea of the Beano fuelling anti-gay sentiment. He said: "For 70 years the Beano has been read by children and they do not look at comics through politically correct eyes.

"It's a great shame that in recent years this national institution has been watered down to placate a tiny minority of humourless, do-gooding adults."

Matthew Jarron, the curator of a hugely successful Beano exhibition at Dundee University, claimed the decision to tone down the spike-haired menace's behaviour was "daft". He said: "I'd be absolutely amazed if any child ever interpreted Dennis's behaviour towards Walter and the softies as gay-bashing.

"The softies had their own strange way of life where they liked skipping and picking flowers and doing very girly things. I'm sure it was never intended by the writers - and I'm sure it was never picked up by the children - that this could somehow be linked to homosexuality."

 • The History of the Beano - The Story So Far is published by Waverley Books.

A child of its time

The Beano proved to be incredibly popular when it first hit the news stands on July 26, 1938. The comic, which gave away a free Whoopee Mask and featured the hapless ostrich Big Eggo on the front cover, sold nearly half a million copies.

But while the Beano itself is still going strong, it is instantly noticeable that there are some aspects of the 70-year-old comic which have not stood the test of time so well.

The original Beano 1938 masthead features a caricature of grinning African boy with a bunch of bananas protruding from the pocket of his tattered trousers. While the character, named Peanut, proved popular with pre-war youngsters, his appearance today would doubtless provoke a storm of controversy.

Christopher Riches, who edited The History Of The Beano, said: "It has always been a child of its times, however, and as one looks over 70 years of Beanos, there is some content that would no longer be thought acceptable. The drawing of Peanut on the front cover is something that would never even be contemplated today.

"To place the Beano in the context of the time, we have kept the image of Peanut in the book, but we certainly do not wish to cause any offence by doing so.

"In that first issue there is also a cartoon strip called Big Fat Joe with the subtitle '1 Ton of Fun' which would not pass muster today.

"But then what would have been the response in 1938 to such popular strips of 2008 such as Robbie Rebel  — Nobody Tells Him What To Do?"

The illustrated history of the Beano also features reproductions of a propaganda strip which ran during the Second World War entitled Mussa da Wop  — He's a Big-a-da-flop.