06 Oct 2009 One of the world’s best known comic strip characters, Dennis the Menace, was inspired by a mechanic who lives in a small Hawke’s Bay town in rural New Zealand.
Robert Fair, now 62, emigrated to New Zealand 40 years ago but used to visit the English home of David Law, the creator of Dennis the Menace, in the early 1950s.
It’s just been revealed that the young Robert’s childhood antics provided cartoonist Law with inspiration for what has become the longest running strip in the UK’s popular comic, The Beano.
‘Robert the Brat’ The revelation was news to Mr Fair who is a mechanic in Porangahau, a farming region of Central Hawke’s Bay.
He only learned of his place in literary history after Mr Law’s daughter Rosemary Moffat, revealed the secret to British media. She said Robert was a bit of a brat and used to visit her parents’ home in the early 1950s, as the Fairs and Laws were family friends.
She said her father had never told Robert Fair’s parents of the real story behind the inspiration for Dennis the Menace because he didn’t want to offend them.
But Robert Fair, who grew up in Dundee, said it was magic to find out the secret.
"I can remember reading the comic all those years ago, but I had no idea. I do remember getting up to a few little tricks. We used to wait for mum and dad to come in and we'd put books on top of the door and jump out the window. We were just getting up to mischief, it was nothing malicious," said Mr Fair.
Ms Moffat, who apparently inspired her father to create Beryl the Peril, told London’s Sunday Times that Mr Fair was a bit of a devil.
"Robert was a little brat when he was a boy and my father based Dennis’ energy, movement and sense of mischief on him when he was doing his drawings," she said.
The original maker may be interested to know where Dennis’ inspiration - Robert the brat - ended up.
The well-behaved former Scotsman lives on the coast of a quiet, isolated farming region where he’s a respected member of a tight-knit community.
His home town of Porangahau has one main claim to fame - it boasts the longest place name in the world.
Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu is the name for Porangahau’s famous hill which has become a popular tourist attraction.
The name means ‘The hilltop where Tamatea, with big knees, conqueror of mountains, eater of land, traveller over land and sea, played his koauau (flute) to his beloved’.
Robert Fair has been inundated with media interest since news of his Dennis the Menace link was publicised, much to his amusement, says wife Oli.
"He’s been on BBC radio, interviewed on television and had several phone calls from media in the UK, Australia and all over.
"Bob looks nothing like Dennis the Menace but he is a bit of a character and tells good jokes. He’s a clever man with a lot of good mates who get up to all sorts of things - boys will be boys," says Mrs Fair.
She says that in all the 40 years he’s lived in New Zealand Robert has never returned to Scotland even for a visit. His 94-year-old mother who lives in Dundee, has also been amused by the Dennis the Menace revelation and backed up the Laws’ theory by saying "Robert was into everything when he was a child."
The first Dennis the Menace comic strip appeared in issue 452 of The Beano, released on 15 March 1951. From issue 1678 onwards (dated 14 September 1974) Dennis the Menace replaced Biffo the Bear on the front cover and has been there ever since.
The character’s dog Gnasher became part of the title in 1970 and the comic strip has been known as Dennis the Menace and Gnasher ever since.
Dennis the Menace and Gnasher was first drawn by David Law from 1951-1970 then by David Sutherland from 1970-1988 and other well known cartoonists have shared the role since.
A Dennis the Menace puppet series was also produced in the early 1990s for broadcast on children’s television and has been a popular cartoon on BBC One in the UK. A new animated series screened on CBBC this year.
For the comic strip’s 40th anniversary in 1991 a special pull-out poster supplement (including a story featuring Dennis appearing on This is Your Life) was produced in celebration. Dennis’s trade mark red-and-black hand knitted jumper and spiky hair was given a make over and he wore a tracksuit, sported a pair of shades and carried a personal stereo. But the revamp lasted only one story.