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…
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
In this 2011 article, Lew Stringer explores the history of Top Spot, comparing it with Titan’s CLINT comic magazine
Features more credits and information on Top Spot, its free gifts and more
More Eagle Daze…
Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews
Roger explores the beginnings of the destruction of the Eagle…
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…
Roger outlines how Matthews jealousy almost destroyed the Eagle…
Roger reveals a possible mole working on the Eagle and trouble behind the scenes on Girl…
How a Marks & Spencer Floor Detective Became Managing Editor of Eagle…
Roger reveals how Dan Dare co-creator Frank Hampson was thorn in Leonard Matthews side…
Trouble at the top for ‘The Management”, the troubled debut of Boys’ World – and the demise of Ranger
On the creation of Martspress, the company that would publish TV21 in its later, cheaper incarnation…
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…
A phone-call out of the blue brings about a closer relationship with the one man Roger had once feared the most…
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
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…
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.
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