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TV on Tyne


Chris Donald
Chris Donald

Chris Donald - Comic rebel with a cause

Chris Donald is the man who made comics more rebellious than rock'n'roll. As founder of Viz Comics, he jointly created the characters of Sid the Sexist and the Fat Slags. He's created his first comic character in five years exclusively for the BBC.


Viz Facts

Chris Donald was born in 1960

Chris came up with the idea of Viz in 1970 when he was ten-years-old. 

Starts Viz with John Brownlow and brother Simon Donald in 1979. At the time Chris was working as a clerk for the DHSS at Longbenton.

The first issue cost 20 pence and sold just 150 copies.  But word of mouth meant that sales eventually rose to over 1 million by 1991.  

Newcastle's Kard Bar was amongst the first shops to stock Viz.

Skin Heed and Paul Whicker the tall Vicar were amongst the first characters.

Sid the Sexist was based on a friend, Graham Lines, who worked for the council in Wallsend.

Well-known Viz characters include Johnny Fartpants, Roger Mellie, Billy the Fish, Millie Tant and Biffa Bacon.

Viz's Mr Logic was based on Chris' brother.

Biffa Bacon was inspired by fights which Donald saw on the Metro in the 1980s.

Chris stopped being Viz Editor in 1999. 

November 2004 marked Viz's 25th anniversary - the magazine published The Very Very Best of.

Chris wrote Rude Kids about the life and times of Viz in 2004.

Chris currently works a few days a week for a friend who runs Barter Books in Alnwick.

Comic artist Chris Donald has always drawn inspiration from his home city - its night life, its drinking culture and its people.

Now a new television programme 'A Picture of Britain' has commissioned Chris to create a new comic character which is as cutting edge and controversial as his earlier creations.

Cutting edge

Chris Donald's cartoons of life on Tyneside have always been direct, edgy and razor sharp in their humour. 

The characters came out of the 1980s when Tyneside was undergoing huge changes including the loss of its heavy industries, and a boom in consumer culture. 

Chris Donald in his Viz days
Chris Donald in his Viz days

But today, the times are a-changing with the regeneration of Newcastle-Gateshead and the new phenomena of cultural tourism. 

Classy slappers

Newcastle is the city that inspired Chris Donald to become a cartoonist and set up Viz comic.

"I love the city and its people," he says, but Donald has been living away from the centre of town in a smart country house for the last few years.

His first stop in seeking fresh inspiration is the Bigg Market in Newcastle, source of many of his best creative ideas in the past.

Chris Donald's sketch of Duncan Bannatyne
Chris' sketch of Duncan Bannatyne

"There was always something about Geordie culture - or perhaps the lack of it - that lent itself to being lampooned," says Chris affectionately.

"I got the inspiration for Viz characters from watching people, in seedy pubs, on the streets … being sick." 

But Chris is in for a shock - the old seedy pubs are being replaced by aspirational bars like The Attic and The Living Room with trendy drinkers and VIP lounges.

One thing does remain the same though - the Geordie's ability to drink large amounts of alcohol.

Today's women drinkers have gone upmarket and Chris thinks about creating a new cartoon character - the "classy slapper". 

"There are these new women - super slags, classy slappers - a footballer's wifey, aspirational sort of thing.

"They're like the Fat Slags, but they're not fat. They're thin and they realise that there's benefits to being thin and dressing in designer labels."

Class wars

Another source of inspiration for Chris Donald is the class divide. "Conflict between the working class and the middle class is where I get the inspiration for my cartoons," he says.

Today Chris finds that middle class culture is invading previously working class areas of the city, such as Shieldfield, Heaton and the Ouseburn.

"The middle class have won the war. While the working class were getting pissed in town, the middle classes were breaking out and buying up their property," says Chris.

To prove a point, Chris visits the Biscuit Factory, a huge art shop, deep in the heart of Shieldfield.

Cartoon by Chris Donald
Chris creates a new cartoon

Newcastle City Council is trying to develop the area as a creative quarter, an antidote to all the warehouses and back street garages that once populated the neighbourhood.

Chris loves the Biscuit Factory but it conjures up the seeds of a new cartoon character - an art connoisseur called Art Carbuncle.

Cool or crude?

Next stop on Chris' cultural journey is the regenerated Newcastle and Gateshead riverfront.

The area has been hailed as the new Barcelona, but Chris is worried that the culture being pedalled isn't authentic.

He remembers the words of his mate Marshall Hall who contends that "Newcastle was an exporter of ships and coal. Now it's an importer of culture". 

"We're being marketed as a new Barcelona, a capital of culture and at the same time as a party city," says Chris. "It’s what I call beer tourism. We've got people coming here for stag nights."

Standing on Dog Leap Stairs, Chris remembers when his great, great, great grandfather had a watch making shop on the Quayside.

Today the area is like the historic Quayside's "Siamese twin" - the place has changed beyond recognition.

The Baltic is the symbol of the new Newcastle, "a temple to poncy art" as Chris describes it, a criticism he puts to curator Alessandro Vincentelli.

Vincentelli defends the Baltic as a showcase for "the very best in contemporary culture - the kind of work you see in Paris, London and Liverpool - and we've got it here in Newcastle".

Chris remains unconvinced, and wonders whether he can conjure up a new cartoon character inspired by the Baltic.

Carrying culture to Newcastle?

Next door at The Sage Gateshead, Chris wants to know if its music is reaching everyone or if it's just for a select elite.

Director Antony Sargent is keen to stress that a wide range of people visit The Sage including locals from just a few streets away in Gateshead.

Chris' new character - Art Carbuncle
Art Carbuncle - Chris' new creation

"I honestly think you'd see the same cross section of people here you'd see in Tesco," he says. Plus the performers aren't all imported - there are some local musicians playing there.

Chris is impressed by The Sage but he can't help feeling that there's some "potential conflict being glossed over". 

Re-animated Tyneside

So what has Chris learned from his tour of the new Newcastle and Gateshead?

His trip has inspired a new cartoon character called Art Carbuncle, a culture trainspotter who is a bit of a pretentious pseud.

"That'll get up the noses of the art lovers and the marketeers of the city. That's how I work by annoying people, I expose their weaknesses," says Chris.

"We've gained a lot from the new developments on Tyneside, but we've got a hell of a lot to lose.

"There seems to be a loss of Geordieness, a loss of individually. In 20 years time maybe Newcastle will be the same as Manchester or Leeds, which will be a shame."

One thing is for sure, Chris' irreverent humour and eye for a political pot shot have clearly not deserted him. 

last updated: 28/06/05
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