It was all about how Mr Men creator Roger Hargreaves had created the characters with one aim in mind: to make some serious money!
In 2004 the Mr Men empire was sold for £28 million, so I think we can safely say he succeeded. Intrigued by this business-like vision, I thought I ought to investigate…
It all started in 1971 when Roger Hargreaves’ eight-year-old son Adam asked, “What does a tickle look like?” In answer, Roger Hargreaves drew an orange man with long, bendy arms.
Adam says, “It was the day that changed our lives.”
Over the next few months more Mr Men followed; Mr Bump, Mr Happy, Mr Sneeze, Mr Nosey and My Greedy. These first six Mr Men books were published in the UK in an iconic pocket-sized format, priced at 20p each.
In the Telegraph interview, Adam explains how his father, who was an advertising copywriter, wanted to find a way to make money and escape his daily commute into London:
“My dad was very ambitious. It wasn’t just writing books for us kids. It just evolved from that. He sat down and wanted to create an idea that would give him a lifestyle and way of living that he wanted.”
He was inspired by the success of Snoopy:
“He had seen what had happened with the strip cartoons in the sixties and the likes of Snoopy and that kind of thing; that you could take characters and they could become commercially successful.”
In the mid-1970s, Roger Hargreaves and his agent Richard Culley licensed “everything and anything,” including baked bean cans and yoghurt pots, which were massively successful in Sainsbury’s (I checked; they’re still being sold today).
Interestingly, it was his day job that helped him recognise the money-making potential of what he had created:
“His background in advertising made him see the importance of simple designs and simple character names – which is why they have international appeal.”
That appeal was cemented in 1975 when an animated TV series was created for the BBC, with Arthur Lowe of Dad’s Army providing the legendary voices and narration. You can watch the Mr Happy episode here (remember the theme tune? Ahhhhh, I defy you not to smile).
Throughout his career, Roger Hargreaves wrote 46 Mr Men and 33 Little Miss books. They were an instant hit, selling more than one million copies in the first three years alone. (Ultimately he became so wealthy he moved to Guernsey as a tax exile).
“My father worked very quickly and once he had an idea, he could write a book in a day. He wasn’t one to go back and fiddle with things. He was as much an ideas man as an artist.”
Sadly, in 1988 Hargreaves suffered a stroke. He was taken to hospital but died later that day at the age of just 53.
And that could have been the end of the story.
At the time of his father’s death, Adam was 25-years-old and working as a dairyman and stockman, with a view to being a farmer. However, he had completed a foundation course at Brighton Art College prior to switching to farming. “I had no idea about publishing or merchandise. The only thing I could do was draw.”
He took over the running of the Mr Men and Little Miss empire and set about learning his father’s art style (which he says took “years of trial and error”).
“It took me a long time to step in to my father’s shoes. I wasn’t convinced I could reproduce his style. I sat for years thinking I couldn’t do it.”
Twenty six years later, after selling the rights to the Mr Men to entertainment group Chorion, Adam still invents new characters (he says his favourites are Mr Cheeky, Mr Rude and Mr Cool). And the Mr Men are as popular as ever. Stella McCartney commissioned him to create Little Miss Stella for the invitations to her 2006 fashion show.
But his lifelong ambition is to paint and that’s what he has been doing for the past 4 years, exhibiting and selling his work in galleries around the UK.
“I love the Mr Men. They are part of my life. They are with me every day, and their success has meant that I can now go and do my own thing. And for that I am profoundly grateful to my father.”
I don’t know about you but I LOVED the Mr Men books! They were a huge part of my childhood. Isn’t it amazing to think they started as a quick sketch done by a father for his 8-year-old son in response to an innocent little question? (Hmm…where did I put my sketchbook? I feel some doodles coming on!).
Here are a few more mind-boggling facts to end with:
The Mr Men and Little Miss books are the best selling children’s titles in the UK after Harry Potter.
They have sold a staggering 100 million copies in 30 countries.
And, get this:
A Mr Men book is sold every 2.5 seconds worldwide!