The Aussie larrikin chalks up a century

BY MEL BONDFIELD

Ginger Meggs, Australia’s longest-running comic strip character, has chalked up a century. The NFSA marks the milestone with newly digitised footage of Ginger and his creator James Charles Bancks.

Not just one of 'Us Fellers'

The red-headed rascal, Ginger Meggs, first appeared in print on 13 November 1921.

‘Meggsie’, a young Aussie larrikin, began life as a supporting character named Ginger Smith in the comic strip Us Fellers, by James (Jim) Bancks (1889–1952), in the Sydney Sunday Sun.

Before long it became clear that Ginger was the most popular character in the strip and soon Us Fellers made way for Ginger Meggs.

Close up of a cartoonist's sketch of a boy and comedienne, c1923

James Bancks sketch of Ginger Meggs greeting comedienne Nellie Wallace, c1923. NFSA title: 10118.

Ginger was such a popular character that, even in the early 1920s, his image was being used to promote other events.

In the following silent film – the earliest known footage held in the NFSA collection of Bancks drawing Ginger – Bancks creates a cartoon to welcome the famous comedienne Nellie Wallace who was coming to perform at the Tivoli Theatre. A welcome from ‘Meggsie’ must have been a solid endorsement at the time!

This footage was originally captured on 35mm nitrate film and recently a new digital copy was created by the NFSA from the original preservation copy:

An unlikely ambassador for road safety

Bancks and Ginger returned to the big screen in 1947 to deliver a road safety message to schoolchildren. The 6-minute educational film, produced by the Road Safety Council of NSW, covered school bus safety, crossing the road, riding bicycles in the neighbourhood and playing on the street when cars are around.

The safety messages are interspersed with shots of Bancks speaking directly to camera and sketches of Ginger getting into accidents on his bike, in order to reinforce the importance of road safety.

The film was shot on the streets near Sydney’s Bondi Beach and featured children from Bondi Beach Public School. This was also recently digitised by the NFSA from the original 16mm print. Here is an excerpt from the film showing kids how to safely get on and off the school bus:

Bancks continued to write and illustrate Ginger Meggs for 31 years until his death in 1952. Since then, Ginger Meggs has been written and illustrated by 4 different cartoonists who have guided him through the decades and into the 21st century: Ron Vivian from 1953 to 1973, Lloyd Piper from 1973 to 1983, James Kemsley from 1984 to 2007 and Jason Chatfield from 2007 to the present day.

Keeping up with the times

While Ginger has always been depicted as a mischievous kid who – along with his best friends, trusty dog and pet monkey – is constantly in trouble, the character has developed and been updated throughout the decades to reflect societal changes.

In the following clip from Nine Network’s The Midday Show, host Ray Martin interviews cartoonist James Kemsley on Ginger’s 65th anniversary.

Kemsley talks about the changes he personally incorporated into the cartoon strip, including updated technology like video recorders, but also how he’s curbed some of the behaviours and racist attitudes that would no longer be tolerated.

However, he does credit Bancks with starting these trends by incorporating features like radio stations and modern appliances in the comic strips after they became mainstream in society. Watch the interview with Kemsley in full:

Ginger's enduring legacy

Over the past century, Ginger has been commemorated in several songs, a feature film, a silver dollar coin, with his own park and on a postage stamp, such is the strength of his enduring popularity.

In more recent times, cartoonist Jason Chatfield has kept Ginger updated, not just with the latest technologies like smartphones, but also with a diverse group of friends and by tackling modern challenges, like life during a global pandemic.

You can find out more about the history of Australia’s longest running and most famous comic strip on the official Ginger Meggs website, run by Jim Bancks’ great-grandnephew, Tristan Bancks, and Jason Chatfield.