The History Behind Rupert Bear

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Rupert, Rupert the Bear,
everyone sing his name.
Rupert, Rupert the Bear,
everyone come and join,
in all of his games.

The uplifting theme tune, sung by Jackie Lee1, reached No 14 in the UK singles charts.

Famous for wearing a yellow check scarf and trousers, a red jumper and a white face2, Rupert the Bear is the longest running illustrated character in the world. First drawn by Mary Tourtel in the 1920s, Rupert has enchanted generations old and new. Over the years, this well-loved bear has experienced fame and fortune in a variety of media, such as newspaper, film, annual and television series.


In the 1920s there was an appreciation for anthropomorphic characters in British newspapers. Anthropomorphism has been very popular in literature over the centuries and has provided a platform for humour and satire as Chaucer, Lewis Carroll and Aristophanes demonstrate. Bears in particular have been accepted in society as amiable creatures, despite the fact that if someone did happen across a real one they might be mauled to death.

Mary Tourtel

Mary Tourtel born Mary Caldwell 28 January, 1874, lived in 52 Palace Street, Canterbury, before she married Herbert3 Bird Tourtel (sub-editor of the Daily Express). Tourtel came from an artistic family. Her father worked as a stained glass artist and stone mason on Canterbury Cathedral4 and one of her brothers Samuel followed in his father’s footsteps, while her eldest brother Edmund painted animals in Africa. Tourtel herself became a trained artist and well-established illustrator of children's books. Her first publication A Horse Book and Three Little Foxes appeared in 1897 when she was just 23 years old and prior to Rupert Bear she had also had various pieces of her work displayed in the Express5. So when Lord Beaverbrook owner of the Express decided that they should rival other newspapers with an anthropomorphic character of their own6, Mary Tourtel was the obvious choice to take on the task.

However, Lord Beaverbrook turned to RD Blumenfeld first for inspiration for a character to out-rival the Express’s competitors and Blumenfeld couldn’t come up with an ideal character or someone who could continue producing the character in the newspaper. After much deliberation he turned to news editor Herbert Tourtel who immediately volunteered his wife Mary who came up with the character and the stories. Or did she come up with the idea of Rupert Bear? For there is another rumour that Rupert Bear was the invention of the grandmother of Peter Bessel (a former Liberal member of Parliament) who sent the idea to the Express who paid her £50 for the rights. No matter who came up with the original idea for Rupert Bear, the truth is that nobody could have imagined how successful the bear was going to be. Rupert Bear has outlived many illustrator, writer and fellow anthropomorphic character of his day.

Rupert Bear first appeared in the Daily Express on 8 November, 1920 in a story called The Adventures of a Little Lost Bear and continues to appear in the newspaper everyday. Mary Tourtel illustrated the stories, while her husband created the captions. Two drawings appeared each day, with an accompanying set of rhyming couplets narrating the story beneath them and the promise that the story would be continued the following day.

In the early days Rupert Bear showed up only occasionally in the newspaper and there was no set pattern as to when he was going to appear. When he didn’t often Margot another character of Mary Tourtel’s (or was it Peter Bessel’s grandmother’s) showed up and a note was written that the little bear (Rupert) was on holiday. Sometimes Rupert even turned up illustrating a puzzle feature and sometimes only in prose. Rupert Bear stories have appeared in the Daily Express at times in one large panel, while at other times in a row of four small drawings and during the war only one illustration was shown. The fact that Rupert Bear was not a permanent fixture in the early days is reflective of the fact that Mary Tourtel found it difficult to stick to deadlines.

During the mid-Twenties Tourtel's stories of Rupert Bear were more imaginative than they'd previously been, with magic having a significant presence. But these story lines, over the years, became elaborate and contrived. She repeated various parts of her work and her drawing style became somewhat erratic. Tourtel's private life, in which her husband died in a German Sanitarium, was having a real impact on her work.

Ironically, Rupert Bear became even more popular. Many books reprinting her stories appeared such as those of Thomas Nelson in 1921, Sampson Low's Rupert Little Bear Adventures in 1924 and the Little Bear Series in 1928. Rupert Bear also began to appear in the Daily Express Children's Annual and a pull out supplement from the Daily Express called the Daily Express Children's Own. In 1932 the Daily Express Rupert League was also formed. Tourtel struggled to cope with the extra load and it soon became clear, as her eyesight began to fail, that a replacement for Tourtel was imminent.

In 1935 the Daily Express believed it had enough Rupert stories to be able to start creating Annuals. The Annual would bring together all the stories that were printed in the newspaper over the previous year. The first one released in 1936 at Christmas time was the only one to feature Tourtel's work and featured a hard cover, black and white print and red tinting. Rupert Bear Annuals were extremely popular in the 1950s selling 1.7 million. Today the Rupert Annual is still one of the top three Annual titles sold worldwide.

Alfred E Bestall

Born 14 December, 1892 in Mandalay, Upper Burma, Alfred Edmeades Bestall was the second person to draw Rupert Bear. In Bestall’s youth he attended local schools in Sheffield and north Shields, as well as a School in South Sea and Rydal School in Colwyn Bay. He obtained a scholarship to the Birmingham Central School (now college) of Art7 through sending a piece of art work to them featuring a mouse. He continued his education at the LCC Central School of Art for a year, before joining the British Army in 1915. Bestall worked out in Flanders delivering the fighting troups to their stations by red London buses. During his time abroad he created portraits of girlfriends of his friends and officers from photos and created a page for Blighty8.

On returning home from the war Bestall returned to the LCC Central School of Art. He also visited James Mackenzie editor of Blighty, who published some of his work and found an agent Graham Hopkins of Byron Agency. With Graham Hopkins help, Bestall ended up drawing illustrations for an expensive presentation edition of Enid Blyton’s stories. He began painting for The Amalgamated Press who published the Girl’s Own Annual, illustrated for Punch, Tatler, over 50 books including The Boy Next Door and The Play's the Thing , both by Enid Blyton, along with Myths and Legends of Many Lands and Spanish Goldfish (in 1935) and illustrated a series of AA Milne parodies by Ethel Mannin. Then in 1935 Bestall was called upon to write the Rupert Bear stories. The first Rupert story Bestall created was Rupert, Algy and the Smugglers and appeared on 28 June, 1935.

At first Bestall thought he might be able to illustrate and write Rupert Bear stories, as well as write and illustrate for other products. However, this was not to be as he spent so much time and effort working on Rupert Bear, that it became a full time job. It is known that 40 stories each year were specially designed for the Annuals and during 28 June, 1935 to 22 July, 1965, 273 Rupert stories were written by Bestall and 224 were published in strips for the Daily Express. 240 were specially written for Annuals and at least 7 appeared first in the Adventure series9.This was the first time that Bestall had actually written and illustrated stories, and he was amazingly successful. So successful that many of Rupert Bear’s fans prefer Bestall’s stories and illustrations.

Tourtell died on 15 March, 1948, aged 74. Up until this time Bestall hadn’t signed his Rupert work, out of respect for her. The first story to hold his signature was called Rupert and Ting-Ling, which ran from 27 May to 21 July, 1948. Later that year, the initial B was to be found in the 1948 Annual. Stories specially written for the Annuals were now signed, starting with Rupert and the Twins and Rupert and Pong-Ping's Party, which both featured in the 1949 Annual. Two appeared in the 1938 and 1939 Boys and Girls books. Originally, Bestall was given six weeks to prove that he was the ideal candidate to deliver Rupert Bear to their readers and thirty years later he was still illustrating Rupert Bear stories for them.

During these eventful years a variety of changes took place, for example the 193610 Annual put a stop to the production of Sampson Low’s books that featured Tourtel’s old stories and illustrations. New characters were invented and the plots and illustrations became more interesting and realistic, now that there was no magic. Bestall loved watching silent film and therefore made the illustrated strips more film like, nothing was monotonous and he broke away from literary tradition. These all helped secure Rupert Bear in the world of children’s literature. Some people even felt the Bestall creations were better than AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh.

Tourtel was influenced by fairy stories that were more like the Brothers Grimm than those of Hans Christian Andersen and she favoured magic so much that it can be seen weaving through the Rupert Bear adventures. The wise old goat was a mystic and whenever Tourtel could not think of how Rupert Bear could get home safely she'd invent a fairy to get him home safely. Other characters in Tourtel’s repertoire were Bill Badger, Edward Trunk, Algy Pug, Podgy Pig, the Rabbit Twins and the pet monkey Beppo. Bestall added a host of new characters including Uncle Bruno, Pong-Ping, Tigerlily and her father, Bingo, Podgy's cousin Rosalie, the Merboy, and the Girl Guides and Boy Scouts.

With the onset of the Second World War Rupert Bear was kept in Express newspapers to boost morale among the forces. The Rupert stories were situated in the idyllic English countryside into which the war was never allowed to intrude and it was thought that Rupert added a little haven of normality in a chaotic world and that he was good for public morale. Newspapers were reduced in size to single sheets with only one picture of Rupert appearing each day, while Rupert Annuals were reduced to quarto size paperbacks and only resumed its hard covers in 1952.11. To make up for this the worldwide released Rupert Annual's were produced in full colour during 1942. The Rupert Annual was one of the only children's annuals to survive the War, but when the war ended it was thought that many new annuals would be produced. Therefore, games, colouring pages and origami were added.

Although Bestall continued creating Annual covers until 1973 and created some end papers, which included 'The Frog’s Chorus', Bestall’s official retirement occurred in 196512. His last story was Rupert and the Winkybickies, which finished in July 1965. His retirement came at a good time for he was grieving from his mother’s death and had to make arrangements for his older sister who was handicapped and needed looking after. Bestall never did marry and so the last few years of his life were spent quite alone. He did have the occasional visitor to his home in Beddgelert, Snowdonia and he was never short of letters to respond to.

Rupert Reaches Sixty - 1980

With the arrival of 1980 Rupert Bear's 60th Birthday, came a lot of media interest. First the Daily Express did a feature on Bestall, then Wales Today, who were soon followed by the Sunday Times, Caernafon and Denbigh Herald and Methodist Recorder. In 1981 Bestall was interviewed by Terry Jones for the BBC and Pebble Mill and Ann Saba from Canada phoned one early afternoon to ask Bestall some questions on Rupert Bear that would then be broadcast to the rest of Canada.

One thing that always surprised Bestall was the fact that people paid serious attention to Rupert and studied him in meticulous detail. Children even looked up to Rupert Bear as a mentor and Bestall felt quite pressurised to make him this way. Both The Rupert Index a private publication by Norman Shaw of Upper Norwood and the Followers of Rupert an organisation set up in 1983 by Tony Shuker a school-master in Newark, Nottinghamshire, reflect people's studies of Rupert Bear.

Win or lose, sink or swim.
One thing is certain, we'll never give in.
Side by side, hand in hand.
We all stand together.

- the Frog Chorus written by Paul McCartney

In 1982 the Girl Guides in Beddgelert helped Bestall celebrate his 93rd birthday and the following July he went to a Buckingham Palace garden party before visiting Sir Paul McCartney at his house in Cavendish Avenue and stopping by Elstree studios where he watched Rupert and the Frog Song by Sir Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney and Geoff Dunbar13 twice through. The film tells the tale of Rupert Bear stumbling across a frog rehearsal in a cave known as the Palace (aka The Frog Cavern). The inspiration for this film came from an illustration by Alfred Bestall in the 1958 Rupert Bear Annual and the fact that McCartney's children shared the same passion for Rupert as he did. Bestall then went on to be interviewed by George Perry for a biography, saw an exhibition of his endpapers in Tunbridge Wells and had a hip replacement in Guildford County Hospital.

In memory of Bestall’s life John Harrold incorporated Alfred Bestall's portrait, surrounded by Nutwood characters, on the cover of the 1985 Annual. This also commemorated the 65th anniversary of the first Rupert story by Mary Tourtel, the 50th Rupert Annual, and the outstanding contribution which he had made to the enchanted and enchanting world of Nutwood. Today an English Heritage Blue Plaque at 58 Cranes Park, Surbiton, London reminds people of Bestall’s life.

In 1985 he received an MBE from the Queen, which he was unable to receive in person, for he had contracted bone cancer. So on his 93rd Birthday the Prince of Wales sent a telemessage, which read:

I have heard that you were sadly unable to receive your MBE from the Queen recently. I wanted to send you my congratulations on your award and to wish you a very happy birthday with many happy returns. As a child I well remember your marvellous illustrations of Rupert Bear.

Bestall spent his 93rd birthday in hospital at Caernarvon, before being transferred to Wern Nursing Home, where he died peacefully on 15 January, 1986. That same year the film Rupert and the Frog Song, which was inspired by one of Bestall’s drawings, was nominated for the 'Best Music Video - Short Form' at the Grammy Awards and won a UK BAFTA (British Academy Award) for Best Animated Short Film. The film has since been a theatrical accompaniment to McCartney's feature film Give my Regards to Broad Street and been re-released on DVD in September 2004 to mark its 20th Anniversary.

Rupert Bear's place is firmly established in the history of popular culture and he remains a favourite children's character for whom Alfred Bestall will be fondly remembered,
Said a spokesman for English Heritage.

After Bestall's retirement various artists were asked to draw Rupert; the best of them was John Harrold. Harrold was born in 1947. He first started drawing Rupert for the Daily Express in 1973 in 'Fun to Cook with Rupert', with his first work on annuals appearing in 1976. By 2006, he'd been creating artwork for Rupert annuals (covers and endpapers) for over 20 years. Harrold's work is reflective of both Bestall and Tourtal. For over 20 years Harrold has created covers and endpapers for the Rupert Annuals14 .


The Adventures of Rupert Bear was broadcast across ITV regions during midday from 28 October, 197015 until August, 1977. 156 ten-minute episodes (thats 4 series) in all, though sadly only about 70 of them still exist in the archives. Produced by Mary Turner16 and John Read17, it used string-puppets to recreate stories from Rupert Bear annuals, with the design of the puppets taken from those rather lush illustrations that graced the covers of the annuals, rather than the flatter illustrations of the stories themselves. The puppetry was of a much more simplistic form than Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds (even though one of the puppeteers was Anderson regular Christine Glanville), but the producers borrowed one idea from Anderson - the use of Rupert's flying chariot in the stories allowed them to reduce unconvincing walking scenes to a minimum.

Every episode began with a shot of a mother reading a 'Rupert' story to her child. The camera then moved past the bed to where a Rupert doll was sat on the carpet near the closet. The show's narrator, Judy Bennett18 would then tell the viewers what that week's episode was about before the main characters were introduced on the title sequence: Rupert's parents; Bill Badger; PC Growler; Pong-Ping the Pekinese dog; Podgy Pig; Raggedy; and Edward Trunk, the elephant.

21st Century Bear

We are delighted to be partnering with Express Newspapers on Rupert Bear. Rupert Bear is a fantastic addition to our family of wonderful children’s properties and has huge potential as a global brand. The new Rupert will remain true to the original character and upon entering Nutwood, children can look forward to seeing Rupert’s old friends as well as meeting a brand new cast of characters. Rupert Bear already has a formidable track record as a much loved children’s brand both in the UK and internationally and ER will be building upon this heritage as we launch the new series.
Jane Smith, Group Commercial Director, Entertainment Rights Plc

Rupert Bear and his adventures in Nutwood were also televised by Ellipse (France) in 1993 who created a total of 39 episodes. Nelvana (Canada)19 created a further 27 episodes and now Media Group Entertainment Rights want to get in on the action and create an animated series for CITV. They also wish to release DVDs and books on the character and update the bear in regards to wearing trainers20, which would then be replicated and sold to children. There will also be many new characters joining him in his adventures and his profile will be raised again. Entertainment Rights have also got plans to captivate audiences in the US, France, Germany, Spain, Canada and Australia, with the bear’s antics.

1Jackie Lee also lent her vocal skills to two other children's shows - White Horses and Inigo Pipkins.2The fact that Rupert is white, unlike other bears, arises questions of political correctness. 3 Herbert died in a German sanitorium in 1931.4 Rupert Bear still has links with Canterbury now, for he can be found in Canterbury Museum.5 In 1919 the Sunday Express featured 'In Bobtail Land' which ran for six months and was created by Mary Tourtel and at the same time she had created When Animals Work for the Daily Express.6During the 1930s, Teddy Tail appeared in the Daily Mail and 'Pip, Squeak and Wilfred' occurred in the Daily Mirror7At Birmingham Central School of Art he gained his matriculation certificate.8Blighty is an old-fashioned nickname for Britain.9The adventure series ended in 1963 having clocked up fifty books.10Also from 1936 to 1939 prose and verse ran alongside one another.11By 1952 two other people had joined the Express and started assisting in the stories of Rupert Bear, Enid Ash (1950) and Alex Cubie (1951).12Since 1965 there have been two main illustrators and 3 writers that have produced Rupert's adventures.13Dunbar had created films since the age of 12.14Gina Hart colours in every illustration Harrold creates for the Rupert Annual.15Rupert Bear was 50 in 1970.16Turner had previously worked on other puppet shows.17 Read also worked on cartoon films, then training films and documentaries and did the Special Effects for films, such as the Dambusters.18Bennet also narrated Here Comes Mumfie and The Munch Bunch.19. It is still broadcast in syndication on YTV in Canada. In the United States, the show first aired on Nickelodeon before moving to CBS.20Giving Rupert Bear less fingers and putting him in trainers has proved controversial.

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