The Unlikely Rise, Fall, And Rise Again Of "Viz" Comic
How the hilariously puerile magazine sprang to life in a Newcastle bedroom, became a British institution, nearly went bankrupt, then found a new lease of life online.
Whitley Bay, about 25 minutes' drive from Newcastle city centre, is a beautiful stretch of coastline. Around the corner from the beach is a Victorian house with a spacious back garden, where there are all sorts of unsurprising family accoutrements – a table-tennis table, a volleyball net, at least one or two cats roaming around (five live there in total) – as well as a big green shed that has been modified into a kind of office, with a sofa, chairs, and coffee-making facilities.
And in this shed are two affable middle-aged men with one of the most remarkable stories in the history of British publishing to tell. It's a story that encompasses more than 30 years, includes everyone from Hollywood actresses to Boris Johnson to David Bowie, and tells you everything you need to know about the industry's modern history.
But you wouldn't know it. They're just two average blokes. As one of them says, "The actual job's never really changed." They're Simon Thorp and Graham Dury; they write most of Viz magazine, and have done for decades.
There's plenty to talk about, but right now, we've somehow got on to the subject of the time Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross outraged the nation on Radio 2. (Thorp and Dury have known and worked with each other a very long time, and as old friends their conversation inevitably wanders everywhere.) I ask them: Do they ever worry that a simple joke could ever end up causing too much trouble to handle?
"Well, the thing about that is, Radio 2 was always a weird station," Thorp says. "A bit all over the place. You'd have someone like Mark Radcliffe in the morning and then suddenly Desmond Carrington in the afternoon. Mind you, say what you like about Desmond Carrington, he'd never phone you up to tell you he'd had sex with your granddaughter."
"Actually, that could be quite a good joke," says Dury.
"Yes. If Desmond Carrington was going around telling everyone he'd shagged their granddaughters."
Dury makes a note on the pad in front of him.
The first couple of decades of Viz are documented in this book by Chris Donald. The short version – also the one everyone involved agrees on – runs like this. In 1979, Donald, a DHSS clerical officer, along with his brother Simon and a friend called Jim Brownlow, set up the magazine from his bedroom in Jesmond, Newcastle. It started as a small fanzine for a local record label, and gradually became more popular around the local area.
It was making almost no money at all, but within six years, a deal had been signed with Virgin Books to publish the thing nationally. By the end of 1989, each bimonthly issue was clocking over a million sales. At its peak, it was the third-most-read magazine in the UK. Which is kind of odd, because we're talking about a strange mix of X-rated spoofs of children's comics, satirical news stories (long before The Onion), funny letters, and other things. It didn't pander to any one audience, retaining several characters and jokes that really should only have worked for people from Newcastle. Indeed, its comic tone was (and is) all over the place.
Thorp points out: "There were a lot of competitors when we were at our peak, magazines like Zit – they were complete copies of our business model, but they were bound to fail. The thing is, we've always been more stupid than actually funny. It's been things that make us laugh. You need to be genuine or people just won't like it."
"I knew it wouldn't last," says Dury of Viz's mega-successful period.
"Really?" says Thorp. "I didn't."
By any standards, the decline in sales since then has been significant, and it now sells in the tens of thousands, although it's holding steady. The statement "Viz isn't as funny as it used to be" has been a mantra for years, and has regularly been printed in the magazine itself. But that's a common in-joke among its readers, and anyone who still reads it knows it's not true. So what, if anything, went wrong?
"Well it's certainly a lot less visible in shops than it used to be, but I think the interesting question is why it ever hit that level in the first place," says Dury. Viz, undoubtedly a product of its time, happened to absolutely catch the 80s/early 90s media mood, when brash comedy with a fiercely British identity was in vogue. Many readers from that time simply got too old for it. And of course, sales of all British magazines have slumped dramatically.
That's not to say there haven't been a number of questionable business decisions over the years. By their own admission, Thorp and Dury are "crap" at business – which is only to be expected, given that they're illustrators and humourists. The problem seems to be that over the years the people in London paid to look after their brand haven't been much more competent.
In 2001, Donald left the magazine. The stress of producing it had taken its toll. "Don't get me wrong, Chris is one of the funniest blokes I know, says Dury. "But it got very difficult to work for him by the end. We moved into this office, and he got himself a partitioned-off booth. Then we moved office again, and it was even more partitioned off."
It seems like the more successful the magazine got and the more money he made, the less Donald wanted to be there. In his book he writes, "Once you realise a dream – as someone blessed with more money than sense is often able to do – you discover that dreaming the dream was actually the whole point of the exercise." Thorp says: "I don't think he needed to do it any more, and that was it."
Donald's resignation was at least in part sparked by the fact that publisher John Brown (the Virgin director who set up his own company to handle Viz around the time of the magazine's peak) had sold the magazine to former Loaded publisher James Brown's (no relation) company I Feel Good (IFG), for £6.4 million.
Dury and Thorp aren't overwhelmingly positive about either Brown. It seems that John Brown had ideas far above the magazine's station. Dury says: "They put us up in a hotel in Devon, trying to get us to write a film. We ended up getting pissed and playing pool all week. It was a lovely week, mind."
Things didn't really improve under IFG. As Dury puts it: "Under James Brown there were more deadlines than we could cope with. That was pretty horrendous. And the whole issue over payment… At one point we were owed money for six comics [Note: James Brown denies this - see update at the end of this article]. We started putting jokes in the comic itself, asking if anyone had seen IFG's accounts department. It's funny now – actually, it was really funny at the time – but it shouldn't have been like that."
The magazine was being looked after by a metropolitan publishing clique that didn't really understand its audience or culture, but thought they saw a lucrative cash cow. Thorp says: "We used to have a lunch in London, because that was what Private Eye did. Apparently that was a good idea. But people didn't show up. Which isn't really that surprising. Who'd go to a Viz lunch? Boris Johnson [then editor of The Spectator] did, though. He liked us. He got us to draw stuff for The Spectator, and I think we managed to successfully lower their tone… I've seen novelty records, someone came to us with a prototype Viz fizzy drink. I mean, who'd buy that?"
If you want one venture that sums it all up, you only need to look at the 2004 Fat Slags film, which boasts a cast list including:
– Dolph Lundgren
– Sophie Thompson (Emma's sister)
– Geri Halliwell
– Hugh Dennis
– Les Dennis
– Naomi Campbell
On IMDB it has a rating of 2.4/10, and a single review, titled "Vapid, unfunny, uninspired nonsense", which begins, "This is about as low as the British film industry can get."
Thorp says: "We never wanted it to happen. And the publishers were saying, 'Don't worry about it, it won't get made.' Then they were saying, 'Don't worry, it won't get distributed.' I think I'm right in saying it was watched by 81 people in a grand total of five cinemas. I remember the director meeting with us and saying: 'Yes, these characters… They're hard drinkers, they're promiscuous…but in the end – they're just looking for love!' I mean, they just didn't get it."
"The problem's this," says Dury. "If you read Biffa Bacon, it's like Dennis the Menace. You read that voice in your head. You don't hear someone else's. Basically, the only things that work for us are… Well, flat things work, like T-shirts and posters." (Author's note: This poster is a personal favourite.)
The attempts to diversify the brand carried on long into the 21st century. "The Profanisaurus app looked really popular," Thorp says. "We thought it would make us rich. Somehow all we got was a bill for the development fee at the end of it." And the bad business calls seem to have extended beyond the merchandise. Dury says: "We were told too much money was coming from newsstand sales rather than adverts. Then the advertising market collapsed with the credit crunch, and we never heard that line again."
On the financial side, things perhaps reached their nadir in 2012. The magazine, which had been published by Dennis Publishing for the past eight years, was operating out of an office in Tynemouth, but overheads proved too much even for that. Dury and Thorp were forced to let two members of staff go, and relocated to the shed in Dury's back garden. "If we hadn't done it, we'd definitely have gone under," says Thorp.
And then things took a surprising turn.
Viz has, essentially, returned to how it started: a tiny team based in someone's house, helped out by a team of outside contributors. And now the comic is quietly making something of a comeback. It's got nearly 300,000 Facebook likes, over 100,000 Twitter followers, and a steady circulation around the 60,000 mark.
"This is the most enjoyable time we've ever had," says Dury.
"You look at the past and you think – how did we ever get a comic out?" says Thorp. "I suppose the one constant thing is that Graham and I have always loved writing it. We always worked as a pair. And we couldn't do anything else. If we had unlimited money, we'd still do it, we'd just do one book a year."
"But then we'd do bugger all and have a massive panic in November," says Dury.
The magazine feels different, more sure of itself. "I believe it's funnier now," says Thorp. "If you look at it [previously], it was very hit and miss."
And no doubt the internet has changed things a bit. "We get a lot of honest feedback, people saying 'That was shit' or 'That was good', basically," says Dury. "But if you start worrying about what makes your audience laugh, it doesn't really work."
"It's an odd culture on Facebook," says Thorp, "You can have horrific videos of violent things from conflicts floating around on there, but we got censored when we made a joke about how eating Smarties can make you grow tits."
Which leads us back to that earlier conversation about comic acceptability. "We're a lot more conscious of what we can get away with now," says Dury. "I remember in the early days we made a joke about how Angela Rippon had wet herself during a broadcast, and thought it was incredibly daring. Now we've got a barrister, but she lets us get away with a lot of stuff."
Thorp says: "Some of those conversations are hilarious. I remember we had an entry in the Profanisaurus" – a long-running section which documents all the terms one should know in order to swear effectively – "about how flat Kate Moss's 'biffing plate' was. I remember her asking us, 'What is Kate Moss's 'biffing plate'? Could you prove it's flat in court?' And we offered a 'marriage-wrecking affair with Paul Hollywood from The Great British Bake Off', but she told us that because his marriage was salvaged in real life it had to be a 'marriage-threatening' affair. In those cases our trump card's a good one, which is that everything we write is a lie."
The comic places a lot more weight on prose jokes. Dury says: "There are a lot more features and letters now. That's because the thing Viz was originally a parody of – kids' comics – don't really exist in the same way. Same with photo stories – we used to send up Dear Deidre [from The Sun] a lot. We get the best responses for the written things."
Profanisaurus is one of the most popular sections. Thorp says: "That's generally sent in to us. It was originally Sweary Mary's Dictionary. The publisher had this site where people could submit, and had paid no attention to it, then one day we had a look and there was just this horrible, seething, racist mass of words, all with 'copyright John Brown' under it. But we had some decent ones, and it took off from there."
And some of the best-loved characters have changed in line with society. Student Grant, a nerdy university stereotype, began to feel outdated. ("They're customers now," says Dury.) Roger Mellie was just a sweary TV presenter; now he's a way to satirise recent media scandals (at the time of writing Ian Botham's Twitter account has recently posted a picture of an erect penis, and Thorp and Dury are going to have Roger's do the same). Others remain a constant: Sid the Sexist is still yet to lose his virginity, and Fru 'T' Bunn remains a sketch about a baker who makes his own sex dolls (magnificent analysis here).
Viz still retains some of its regional elements, but has an appeal that stretches across the country. Dury says: "Yeah, in a way that's not surprising. I'm not from the northeast and Thorpy's from Pontefract – those characters could come from anywhere. Actually, the only characters who are definitely from Newcastle are Sid the Sexist and Biffa."
And the magazine is far less likely to get involved in ill-advised side projects now. "The thing is, we've been doing this for 30 years," Dury says. "We know our limitations. We're unlikely to break America with it. We still get offers now – like, a West End producer came to us offering to do a musical. They see ready-made characters that they can take, and fuck up, and then give back to us. We know that now."
Above all, Viz just aims to be funny. Nothing's changed. "I like the fact no one knows where we're coming from," says Thorp. "No one knows where we really stand. There's no point trying to be too topical. There are enough people on Twitter trying to make those jokes."
Issue 259 is going to be "British Bake-Off Bonkers".
Over the years, the comic's built up a pretty impressive cult following. David Bowie's a fan, as, they tell me, are Bryan Ferry, Mike Judge ("He liked the Sisyphean nature of 8 Ace," according to Dury), Trey Parker, Matt Stone, "and we've got a couple of female vicars who like us," says Thorp.
The pair have got a lot more efficient at putting the magazine together. They don't pull all-nighters, and now they have to rely on their kids to keep tapped into youth culture. (Thorp: "We were offering Justin Bieber hot water bottles only the other month.")
And, little by little, Viz is taking on a new life, led by the internet. If it hasn't translated into riches yet, it's keeping Thorp and Dury ticking over, and the magazine remains a fundamentally British institution. "People in Australia and Canada get us a bit, but no, we're never going to crack America," Dury says. "That British self-deprecation is a cliché, but it's important. We're the first to say the comic's shit. It's always been the way. According to my dad, everyone would run out of the cinema when it was time to stand up for the national anthem."
Former Viz publisher James Brown denies any suggestion that his company was slow to pay employees. He told BuzzFeed:
"Viz were paid every month - I saw the money come in and out like a tide. I should also point out the publisher Will and I visited Viz monthly and they never once raised issue of late payments. We were a PLC. Held audited board meetings with our directors every month. All retrospective accounts will show fees and royalties going out to Viz every 30 days."