Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part Two

A young Brian Woodford and some of the Amalgamated Press titles that he worked upon between 1955 and 1962, including Top Spot
A young Brian Woodford and some of the Amalgamated Press titles that he worked upon between 1955 and 1962, including Top Spot

Leonard Matthews, General Managing Editor of Fleetway and the Eagle Group of Comics, was a “Creative Visionary”… but that, Roger Perry argues in his extensive biography of the man which continues here on downthetubes (Part One here), is only due to him having utilised the ideas of others. 

The comic magazine Top Spot, published in 1958, was certainly Matthews’ brainchild – but it was the male counterpart of an already existing magazine and it was a title that faced plenty of problems as it ran its course before merging with Film Fun after just 58 issues…

1955

Leonard Matthews. Photo courtesy Steve Holland
Leonard Matthews. Photo courtesy Steve Holland

At this point, I feel I need to bring in a second individual who, at the age of 15, had been hired as an office boy for Amalgamated Press. Having first carried out general duties from a pool area based on the first floor level, he had then been transferred up to the sixth to work on Playhour. Over time, Brian Woodford went from that title onto the Jack and Jill comic and then over onto the Thriller Picture Library as a junior sub-editor. It was during his time on Thriller (in 1958) that Matthews came up with the idea of producing Top Spot – a male counterpart to the highly successful teenage girls’ romance magazine Valentine… but I shall come back to that in a moment.

The list of Matthews’ achievements is long, with perhaps his most notable success being the stupendous Look and Learn which he eventually launched six years later in 1962. This was to be a sumptuously illustrated weekly, inspired by two Italian magazines, Conoscere and La Vita Meravigliose – both popular educational papers being published at that time from the northern Italian city of Milan.

On visiting that country, he’d seen and bought these two magazines with the view to producing something similar in the UK, but on presenting the idea to the Amalgamated Press board, it was turned down due to fears that this new paper might damage other existing titles such as The Children’s Newspaper. One needs to understand that the true geniuses behind Look and Learn were the creators of these two fine Italian magazines… for once having been given the idea, Matthews then went on to create his own version.

Arthur Mee, founder of The Children’s Newspaper
Arthur Mee, founder of The Children’s Newspaper

1957

In the latter half of the 1950s, Matthews became Managing Editor of Amalgamated Press’s comics, including the girls’ and nursery titles as well as all the boys’ titles.

“Back in those days, the Juvenile Section was broken down into smaller groups,” Brian Woodford explains. “Sun and Comet, Playhour and Jack and Jill having been in one group; Lion, Tiger and School Friend were in another but they were in another building entirely – on John Carpenter Street. Ted Holmes had a third group on the same floor as Matthews, and although it had seemed fairly sudden at the time, gradually Matthews had taken over all the groups, pushing aside all those group-editors until he had them all gathered under his wing.

Film Fun, Radio Fun and Chick’s Own were in another group.”

Top Spot made no bones about what its target audience was looking for.
Top Spot made no bones about what its target audience was looking for.
The final issues of Top Spot promoted its comic elements rather than its magazine features. Art by Renato Polese.
The final issues of Top Spot promoted its comic elements rather than its magazine features. Art by Renato Polese.

1958

As I have already said, it was during Brian Woodford’s time on Thriller that Matthews had come up with the idea of publishing Top Spot. While Frank Capern was carrying out the creative work on the presentation dummy, Matthews had regularly approached Woodford to ask such questions as to the likes and dislikes of teenage boys – in general, he wanted to know what they would like to see in this newly proposed paper.

Perhaps it was due to Brian’s enthusiasm that, as the launch-date approached, Matthews pulled him off Thriller and over on to Top Spot – not only as an editorial assistant (and part-time male model) but he also had been given a regular weekly jazz column to write. (As Lew Sringer notes on his blog, the target audience for Top Spot was adult males, specifically late teens, early twenties, and to attract this demographic the paper used a mixture of tough comic strips and prose stories, articles on such items as jazz and sport, jokes, and titillating photos of glamorous models).

Rumbling away in the background, the Mirror Group had been itching to get their talons into the Amalgamated Press, and in late 1958 – this being at the same time that Top Spot had been launched – the original owners of the Amalgamated Press, the Berry family, had finally relinquished their hold. The company was bought and taken over. Due to the building in which they were housed being called Fleetway House, the company was logically renamed Fleetway Publications.

Although it was regarded as being dated, Film Fun – launched in 1920 – outlasted titles like Top Spot, the latter having merged into this ageing title in January 1960. Film Fun continued until September 1962, merging with Buster after 2225 issues. At its peak, it was selling 800,000 copies a week.
Although it was regarded as being dated, Film Fun – launched in 1920 – outlasted titles like Top Spot, the latter having merged into this ageing title in January 1960. Film Fun continued until September 1962, merging with Buster after 2225 issues. At its peak, it was selling 800,000 copies a week.

Eight or nine months later – in the autumn of 1959 – with the Mirror Group beginning to sink their claws into AP’s flesh, Matthews was encouraged to bring a new slate of titles to the group to replace some of the long-running (and by then, somewhat old-fashioned) titles, such as Film Fun – a magazine that dated back to 1920.

1959

On Top Spot – with staff quickly increasing to around 12 – so too had its problems become compounded… problems that might possibly have contributed to its eventual downfall (adding to which had been the disastrous printers strike of May and June that year that hadn’t done Top Spot – or so many other publications – any favours at all).

With each staff member keen to offer his (or her) own thoughts and opinion, the magazine was becoming akin to a ship without a rudder. Adding to that, one does have to wonder as to who the original editor might have been… for this is something that Woodford has been reluctant to specify, apart from saying that in its final death throes, it had been left to him to take on that particular role.

A clue as to who that original unknown editor might have been can be gleaned from a relatively anonymous titbit of information found on Lew Stringer’s blog provided by a Netherlands-based commentator, “John“, one of the team working on the Westfries Archive site, a project totally unconnected with comics:

Playhour editor David Roberts was the genius behind Top Spot, and for a couple of weeks he’d had his own page, interviewing celebrities before ‘he fell ill’ and moved on to other projects. You will find some photographs of him talking to Diana Dors and other famous stars in the first couple of issues.”

One does have to ask as to whether this enlightening and somewhat revealing piece of knowledgeable fact wasn’t perhaps written by some ex-member of Fleetway staff who wishes to keep a low profile. He certainly appears to have had a convincing amount of inside data as to the movements of staff, and he also appears to have had some knowledge over who was actually doing what and where.

And so, was David Roberts Top Spot’s original editor? Alfred Wallace has also been mentioned as having had the role, but Woodford now says this… although you’ll note that he still doesn’t actually answer the question:

“While David Roberts did indeed write some interview articles in the early days of Top Spot, he was not its creator. Top Spot was the brainchild of Leonard Matthews and the original concept was for it to be a male counterpart to the very successful Valentine, published by AP. I worked on Top Spot as an editorial assistant from its first issue when we had an extensive staff, and continued putting it all together up to the last issue as editor when we were down to just two people – myself and staff writer Edmund H. Burke.

Top Spot might well have been the brainchild of Leonard Matthews, but it had been the male counterpart of an already existing magazine called Valentine, and once again, the true brainchild behind Valentine had been the creative talent of someone else entirely – the talented Mike Butterworth, best known to comics fans for writing The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire, first published in Ranger in September 1965, then Look and Learn from Issue 232 (June 1966) when the two titles merged after the 40th issue of Ranger.

David Roberts and Brian Woodford with copies of Top Spot in its varying cover looks. Riding pillion on the motorbike is Eileen Earl (or Earle), who had been Leonard Matthews’ secretary up until the time Elizabeth Flower assumed that role. Montage by Roger Perry
David Roberts and Brian Woodford with copies of Top Spot in its varying cover looks. Riding pillion on the motorbike is Eileen Earl (or Earle), who had been Leonard Matthews’ secretary up until the time Elizabeth Flower assumed that role. Montage by Roger Perry

The following is taken from a blog called Michael Moorcock’s Miscellany, the site of a formerAmalgamated Press staffer and now a well-known author. In an exchange of mailings that spanned the 9th and 10th of April 2013, Moorcock and Woodford (the latter being under the auspicious guise of Albion – Moonbeam Traveller) wrote:

Moorcock: Alf Wallace was known to the lads in his department as ManTan the Mighty because of his horrible orange bottled tan. He ‘edited’ (although he had no real editing experience) a short lived magazine called something like Top Spot. I remember discovering that Alf [Wallace] was running a scam, paying himself for reprints by others on the pay-sheets. Outraged, I told Bill Baker, not sure of what [else] to do. He told me to forget it. I then discovered that Bill was doing [much] the same thing.

Woodford: Alf never actually did edit Top Spot. With the huge payroll it had – [this being] one of the reasons for its failure – it was difficult at times to know who actually was in charge. It was a cash cow for so many, including Alf, who paid themselves handsomely for such things as simply reading American material to determine if the British rights should be bought or not. It had been determined that [the] publication should cease but there was so much stock on the books that had to be used up [first] before that could happen. Ed Burke did some editing, caption writing and such but I was essentially the editor

Moorcock: Alf bought himself three houses with his ill-gotten gains, Bill told me. Bill probably bought another round. He at least was a wonky idealist.

According to Woodford, staff of Top Spot had not been shy in dipping their hands for the slightest thing into the freelance pot. Top Spot had bought in a huge selection of short stories and illustrations from a number of American magazines and this was where the staff had earned copious amounts of extra cash for just reading the material and giving it either the thumbs up sign…  or down, as the case may be. There were just too many cooks in the kitchen and thus had created far too many overheads.

For all its fascination with the female form, some of Top Spot's stories featured strong female characters, such as this tale, "Harry Tracy's Girl". Art by Gino D'Antonio.
For all its fascination with the female form, some of Top Spot‘s stories featured strong female characters, such as this tale, “Harry Tracy’s Girl”. Art by Gino D’Antonio.

Due to sales failing to reach the desired levels, a big effort was made in an attempt to pull it out of the fire under the leadership of James Stagg, but even these efforts had been thwarted by the disastrous printer’s strike which shut everything down for six weeks during the months of May and June of that year.

Top Spot was on its last legs, and as staff was either spun off into unemployment or were transferred onto other titles, all that remained were Brian and Ed with the former acting as an editorial assistant from the very first issue and the latter purely there as a writer with virtually no real editorial experience behind him.

Woodford: Edmund Burke, an American writer who became a good friend, assisted but production hadn’t been his forte. We shared an office with desks face to face.   We always had a chess game on the go in the centre making our moves between work bits.   The only time we ever saw Matthews was when he hoped to surprise us.   The door would suddenly fly open, crashing back on its hinges, and he would stand on the threshold glaring in without saying a word.   Then he turned and stomped off.  I don’t know if he was trying to catch us at something but we had a good chuckle about it afterwards.

Brian Woodford
Brian Woodford today.

But for all that, Brian always speaks highly of Matthews.

“My liking of Matthews is because he was instrumental in giving me a chance on the career ladder,” he says. “He made me an editorial assistant on Top Spot and for its final months, I was essentially the editor.

In Part Three, I speak of the growing involvement of the Mirror Group – particularly that of Cecil Harmsworth King and Hugh Cudlipp – and of how Matthews had tried to poach Frank Hampson away from Eagle

Roger Perry
The Philippines

Update, 21st December 2015: Shortly fter this article was published, Brian Woodford contacted Roger to say he is sure the editor of Top Spot was Jim Hunt.

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Further Reading

Top Spot – the CLINT of 1958?

In this 2011 article, Lew Stringer explores the history of Top Spot, comparing it with Titan’s CLINT comic magazine

Dan Dare Info: Top Spot Notes

Features more credits and information on Top Spot, its free gifts and more

The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History: An Interview with Brian Woodford

More Eagle Daze…

Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews

• Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part One

Roger explores the beginnings of the destruction of the Eagle

• Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part Two

The comic magazine Top Spot, published in 1958, was Matthews’ brainchild – but it was the male counterpart of an already existing magazine and it was a title that faced plenty of problems as it ran its course before merging with Film Fun after just 58 issues…

• Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part Three

Roger outlines how Matthews jealousy almost destroyed the Eagle

• Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part Four

Roger reveals a possible mole working on the Eagle and trouble behind the scenes on Girl

• Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part Five

How a Marks & Spencer Floor Detective Became Managing Editor of Eagle

• Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part Six

Roger reveals how Dan Dare co-creator Frank Hampson was thorn in Leonard Matthews side…

• Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part Seven

Trouble at the top for ‘The Management”, the troubled debut of Boys’ World – and the demise of Ranger

• Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part Eight

On the creation of Martspress, the company that would publish TV21 in its later, cheaper incarnation…

• Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part Nine

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, Roger recalls how Men Only was given a new lease of life – and Leonard Matthews’ ignorance of Star Wars

• Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part Ten

A phone-call out of the blue brings about a closer relationship with the one man Roger had once feared the most…

Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part Eleven

A search for elusive promotional film stills end in the middle of nowhere in a one horse town without a horse – and Eagle‘s production methods are recalled

Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part Twelve

Roger clarifies points made in past chapters, looks back on Leonard Matthews career – and sums up his contribution to British comics – and publishing in general…

[divider]

This article, which is being published in a total of twelve parts, has been put together using material from Leonard Matthews’ obituary as written by George Beal for the Independent newspaper dated Friday, 5th December 1997. Also taken from the Independent newspaper dated Sunday, 23rd October 2011 is a piece authored by Jack Adrian (a.k.a. Christopher Lowder); Living with Eagles compiled and written by Sally Morris and Jan Hallwood (particularly, pages 219 to 222); David Slinn’s research notes during 2005 in connection with the authoring of Alastair Crompton’s Tomorrow Revisited and from Brian Woodford’s association with Matthews at the Amalgamated Press between 1955 and 1962.

Entries also come from both Wikipedia and from the internet under the heading Fleetway Publications. Further pieces have been taken from Eagle Times as and where identified; the blog-spots of Michael Moorcock’s Miscellany (particularly 9th and 10th April 2013) and Lew Stringer’s Blimey! where he refers to the Top Spot magazine. The remainder is from my own personal association with Leonard Matthews between the years of 1978 and 1991.

[divider]

• You can read Roger Perry’s full biography here on Bear Alley

Our thanks to David Slinn for providing imagery and information in the creation of this feature, and also to David Roach for identifying artist featured in the strip examples

Roger Perry

Roger Perry

Artist, designer, photographer and writer Roger Prölss Perry was the youngest of three children – the given name of Prölss deriving from the maiden name of his paternal German grandmother. Born in Guildford, Surrey in July 1938, after school he studied at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Art close to Oxford Circus, the West End and the BBC where he achieved the National Diploma in Arts and Design before commencing with a further year of study in commercial design under the guidance of Ley Kenyon DFC, noted for his writing, art and underwater photography, and lithographer Henry Houghton Trivick (1908-1982). His first job in the media industry was as an in-house illustrator on Farmers’ Weekly, beginning in March 1959, working under the direction of Art Editor Alfred Harwood, working on the seventh floor of Hulton House at 161-167 Fleet Street, London. He was there for just five months before going into two years of National Service until August 1961, returning to the company (now Long Acre Press) as a layout artist (designer) at “Juvenile Publications”, the umbrella name for Eagle, Girl, Swift and Robin. He joined the team of three other layout artists – Bruce Smith, Ron Morley and John Kingsford – on Monday, 28th August 1961 where he remained until May 1966. He then began work as Art Editor at Century 21 Publishing until June 1969. As he says: “Yes, I suppose I could be described as a ‘layout artist’ but I commissioned art (Art Editor), kept an eye on Andrew Harrison and Bob Reed (Studio Manager), took photographs as and when needed (Resident Photographer) and generally made sure that everything was present and correct when everything needed was being sent to the printer (Office Boy). I also (with the help of Linda Wheway) came up with the ideas and photographs for five books (Author?)”. From Century 21 Publishing, Perry then went to Hamlyn Books (July 1969 to October 1970); and worked for Bob Prior’s premium packages for two months before joining ex-Art Editor of Century 21 Publishing Dennis Hooper in December 1970 who was now Editor of Countdown at Polystyle Publications. Perry remained with Polystyle until September 1974, when he became Art Editor for Purnell Books, remaining with the publisher for eleven years – until 1985 when he started operating his own public relations business. Due to his growing interest in the art and the close proximity of Bath where the nerve centre of the Royal Photographic Society is, he achieved the distinction of Associate Member in 1987 for audio/ visual presentations thus entitling him to display the letters ARPS after his name… although he rarely does. Having had a life-long fascination for the Far East, he moved to the Philippines in the 1990s, where he married Marilyn Gesmundo. He lived for 11 years on Cataduanes before moving a number of times recently following Typhoon Haiyan, finally with Raquelyn Navarro in the city of Naga in Cebu. Sadly, Roger died on 23rd July 2016 following a heart attack, just one day after his 78th birthday. He is survived by his daughter, Rae. His son, Marcus, predeceased him after a long battle with cancer.

3 thoughts on “Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part Two

  • December 18, 2015 at 3:45 pm
    Permalink

    Fascinating! Definitely a cut-out-and-keep, or perhaps cut-and-paste for future and further reference. Greatly appreciated! Thanks!

  • Roger Perry.
    December 19, 2015 at 2:11 am
    Permalink

    When I put these pieces together, not only do I try to check and gather material from wherever I can, but when nearing completion, send copies of what John eventually publishes to various ex-working colleagues so that they can add or dispute what I write. From Brian Woodford – who features extensively in this part (and the next two) – he replied saying:

    I did enjoy the piece on Matthews. Sorry that you think I was vague as to the editor of TopSpot. I can say with certainty that it was not David Roberts or Alf Wallace. Neither actually worked in the TopSpot office. Matthews was very much hands on with TopSpot. The day to day running of the paper was a guy named Jim Hunt. I have no clue where he came from when he came to TopSpot nor where he went to after. Whatever else Matthews was, he was all action. Things happened when he was around and to me those happenings were infectious…certainly to a young kid who desperately wanted to be a part of it all.

  • Pingback: Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part Three | downthetubes.net

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