Cartoonists go from satirising Islington trendies to sketching new kids’ series

Knife and Packer

Knife and Packer - Credit: Archant

Duo Knife and Packer’s latest book, Badly Drawn Beth, stems from their original work with ‘grown up’ cartoons, finds Alex Bellotti.

When Duncan McCoshan and Jem Packer– aka. Knife and Packer – started working together, one of their first collaborative works was the ‘It’s Grim Up North London’ cartoon strip (right), which has been satirising Islington trendies in Private Eye since 1999. “As the Grim vibe of sophistication has spread, we’ve kind of moved with it,” notes Packer, 47 – incidentally, he now lives in Hackney.

Despite making their name with ‘grown up’ cartoons for the likes of The Spectator, New Statesman and the Guardian, though, the majority of Knife and Packer’s back catalogue consists of over 30 children’s books.

Their latest, Badly Drawn Beth, follows the adventures of a young schoolgirl as she tries to survive school, family barbeques, safari parks and Granny’s evil parrot. Full of the duo’s typically knowing humour (at one point, Beth ponders why she can wake at the crack of dawn in the holidays but not on schooldays), at 220 pages the book gives Knife and Packer more wiggle room than their ‘grown up’ comic strips.

“We love cartoon strips and we’re massive fans of them as a genre,” says Packer. “The problem we had with them is that you’re quite limited in the space you have; you’ve got three or four boxes and we wanted the characters to have a bit more space to breath in. Children’s books are a really obvious place to do that, and also there’s no sense of rules – you can be as silly and ridiculous as you like.”

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Before they started working together in 1993, Packer was a gag writer and McCoshan worked in an antique bookshop and was a part-time cartoonist. The former believes their success as a partnership stems from sharing the “same sensibilities and sense of humour”, and with the new series of Beth books, they’re aiming to wind back the years once again.

“What we set out to do was to go back to the beginning of my comedy experience writing for grown ups, and Duncan’s gag writing cartoons, the spot gags for The Spectator and the New Statesman. Obviously we still cater to the age group, but we have a little bit more of grown up cartoons and comedy writing happening beneath that.”

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So they’re not underestimating a child’s intelligence? “That’s it and I’m not sure if you can get away with not doing that these days. We’re in a very sophisticated reading atmosphere in terms of all the technology that’s around, so you can’t talk down to your audience. I don’t think the nine-year-olds reading Beth would give us more than a few pages if we tried that.”

Badly Drawn Beth by Knife and Packer is published by Orchard Books for £6.99

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