Sunday, 5 February 2012

Enter The Dragon

X marks the spot
There was a time in the early 90's when a small collective of artists and designers got together to share a studio in the heart of Chinatown. It was Rian Hughes who had seen the advertisement in the papers and responded immediately to what seemed an absolute bargain. A few telephone calls later and we'd rustled up quite a posse to inhabit the space and share the very reasonable rent. Life was good. We all got on very well and as freelancers it was a relief to work in the company of like-minded people rather than working at home alone, which is very often the case for freelance professionals. This was up until it all went horribly wrong. Rian has written about this in part for a new book he's working on to be published by Image, but I figured it would be good to ask John Tomlinson to write about it too, as he was someone who came off a little bit worse than the rest of us; so here's John's account...

Baldrick’s Cunning Plan 
by John Tomlinson

In the 90’s when I was a freelance writer/editor, I moved (with Steve Cook and others) into a roomy two-tier studio in London’s Wardour Street, former HQ of a small design agency. The agency had been badly hit by recession and one of the partners, call him Baldrick, was looking to rent out the studio at what seemed, to a bunch of struggling freelancers, a very reasonable rate. So we moved in – me, Steve, artist/designer Rian Hughes, comics artists Kev Hopgood, Andy Lanning and Brian Williamson and illustrators Kim Dalziel, Pauline Doyle and Lucy Maddison. I call our landlord (whose real name I remember very well) Baldrick because that’s who he resembled. Not Tony Robinson, the actor who played the character of Baldrick in Blackadder, but Baldrick himself – sickly, shifty and dim. He wasn’t dim, though. Not a bit. The Saturday morning we moved in he greeted us in a green sweater, which offset his waxen pallor. As we lugged boxes and furniture into the studio he observed our labours with the languid disinterest of a grazing ruminant, gumming his way through a sandwich in the company of his silent but unmistakably furious wife. Later I had cause to remember that silent fury.

The only surviving photograph. L-R: John Tomlinson, 
Kim Dalziel & Lucy Maddison. Below: Pauline Doyle.
For the first few months everything was fine. We all got along so well that Rian suggested an umbrella name for our small collective. Something classy, something prestigious... something like Hughes Associates. For some reason this didn’t meet with universal enthusiasm, although you can't blame a man for trying. There were other minor hiccups: Andy put up a jokey cartoon notice on the interior door to the studio (or possibly the toilet, records are spotty at best). Rian immediately took it down on the grounds that it was ‘not aesthetically pleasing’. Two associates, neither of them Rian or Steve, tried to stiff me for ‘my’ share of a colossal phone bill, although I hadn't been in much and hadn’t used the phone. When I objected it was suggested that if I were me I should consider my future in the studio very carefully. After an itemised bill revealed that much of the eye watering expense was the result of numerous transatlantic phonecalls (not mine) a compromise was reached and, for a quiet life, I agreed to pay half what I’d been asked. We continued to get along, by and large.

Until the real owners showed up.

It could have been worse. Legend had it that much of the area, adjacent to Chinatown, was owned by the Triads. After a disappointing dearth of black clad gangs kung fu-ing each other in the streets below we discounted the rumours. The owners were only businessmen – but they had no idea we were there, or that Baldrick had illegally sublet the studio. All things considered their response was quite reasonable – we could stay, but we’d have to pay the real rate.

The stolen Captain Britain artwork
Of course, it was prohibitively expensive. We took Baldrick’s deception badly, gave notice and withheld the last month’s rent. Not best pleased, Baldrick snuck in at the weekend, changed the locks and padlocked the main door. He also nicked a great deal of our stuff, including a new phone/fax machine and two pieces of framed original artwork belonging to me: a Steve Dillon painting of Captain Britain and a portrait of Mr. Stay Puft (from Ghostbusters) by Andy Lanning. He even took a jacket of mine that I'd left hanging on the back of a door. Doubtless he looted other people’s stuff too, but one thing’s for sure, he harvested an extensive John Tomlinson collection. Baldrick held us to ransom – we could cough up or kiss our stuff goodbye.

At no stage did we consider involving The Law, which may have been a mistake. Instead we rang a locksmith and turned up mob-handed one Saturday night with a van to do a moonlight flit. At that time Tundra UK (a short-lived but fondly remembered independent publisher) had offices over the river at Butler's Wharf. From 10PM until sometime after 3AM me, Steve, Andy, Kev, Brian, plus Tundra guys Steve White and Dave Elliot drove back and forth across the Thames, burgling our remaining possessions from Baldrick's febrile clutches and piling them up in a spare office at Tundra. It was tough going – Andy was actually crying with exhaustion by the end – but there was a general air of triumph, of having stuffed up Baldrick good and propah. Of course I never saw the phone/fax, Captain Britain, Mr. Stay Puft or my jacket again.

Some good came of the whole dismal episode – Brian and Lucy later fell in love, got married and had kids. Looking back from the perspective of another, particularly brutal recession it's hard to feel too angry, even with Baldrick – he was probably just trying to survive in straitened circumstances. And really, what punishment could be worse than his actual fate – waking up each day to look into that face, the face of Baldrick – perhaps no longer in the company of his wife, who may have thought twice about being married to a liar and a thief. I’m still a bit narked about the artwork though.

 UPDATE  Rian Hughes adds... "I remember it well. The part that sticks in my mind is the dodgy "ask no questions" locksmith we found. He looks at the industrial-strength drillproof lock that Baldrick had just installed. "Drillproof lock", he helpfully states. A pause. He hefts a drill that looks like something Sigourney Weaver would wield in Aliens out of a toolbox. "Should take me five minutes". Baldrick had also locked and taken the keys to all the filing cabinets, so they had to be drilled out too. I lost the cover to the first issue of the Fantagraphics version of Dare. I managed to recreate it, but the original is still out there somewhere..."

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