If I were to tell you that one of my best friends died yesterday I would feel I was exaggerating somewhat, because the sad truth is I had not been in touch with Tony for some years. We never had any kind of a fight, or a falling out, but I tend to get wrapped up in the things that are right in front of my face, such as making a television show, writing blogs, conducting business, and publishing books. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, you might say. Or that could just be a lame excuse for not taking care of the things that truly matter, such as sending an occasional email to an old friend whom I knew to be, at times, a bit lonely.
Tony and I were both huge fans of Patrick McGoohan’s legendary television show, The Prisoner, and it was at a Prisoner convention that we first met. Some of you might think: “How geeky!” but that is just because you don’t know any better. Much of The Prisoner was filmed in and around the idyllic private village/hotel of Portmeirion in North Wales. It was the life’s work of the groundbreaking Welsh architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who was a pioneer of planned communities, an early voice for conservation and the National Trust, and a saviour of spectacular architecture. During the middle part of the Twentieth Century, Clough purchased, received, and rescued numerous pieces of beautiful, important, or whimsical architecture—ranging from a statue of Atlas to an entire town hall—and resurrected them among the quiet trees and rhododendrons of Portmeirion. Noel Coward was a fan of the place and wrote his masterpiece, Blithe Spirit, there. McGoohan filmed a few episodes of his earlier TV series Danger Man (known as Secret Agent in the US) at Portmeirion, and then used it as the primary location for The Prisoner, which just added to the latter’s mysterious and moody atmosphere.
Portmeirion is a site of architectural and historical importance, which means it is preserved almost exactly as it was when The Prisoner was filmed there in the late 1960s. As a result, fans going to a Prisoner convention can dress up in costume, recreate favorite scenes from the show, and generally immerse themselves in the magical place where it all happened. It would be like Star Wars fans being able to hold a convention on the planet Tatooine.
I met Tony Reeve at Portmeirion in the 1980s. I was walking up to the Town Hall (which doubled as a pub) one evening, and noticed some friends talking to a very tall fellow. At the time, I was working in the comics industry and one of my pals said: “Hey Geoff, did you know that Tony here is a cartoonist?” I asked him to tell me more but he politely declined several times, gently insisting that I could not possibly have heard of his work. I pressed back, gently as well, until he admitted that he drew a little strip called P-Nuts which was a parody of The Prisoner executed in a vaguely Charles Schultz-like style. It was one of my favorite strips of the era and when I bellowed something like: “You’re THE Tony Reeve!” he looked a bit shy, and was convinced someone had put me up to the whole thing as a prank. And Tony was a little shy at times. He was also overly tall, and quite boney, in a sort of Joey Ramone way. He had a really big chin and a pockmarked face, and I guess nobody could ever claim that he was handsome in a conventional way, but he was very striking, had a heart of gold, was brilliant, extremely funny, and made fun of his awkward body in a way that endeared him even more to his friends. As if that wasn’t enough, poor old Tony had a bad heart, terrible eyesight, and other health problems, which he tended to make fun of, rather than complain about.
Since the year 2000, my trips back to the London of my youth have become infrequent. My mom died, my brother moved to the States, and my father relocated to Ireland. I lost touch with most of the guys I had grown up with, but Tony remained one of only two close friends that I’d make a special effort to see whenever I returned to London. Tony loved cinema, art, science fiction, comics, and could always be counted on to go with me, at short notice, to a new and off-the-wall art exhibition, or the opening of the latest Cronenberg film. Tony came to visit me in the States as well, and he was equally entertaining on either side of the Atlantic—a quietly irreverent intellectual of the first order.
Tony was best known as a political cartoonist and worked for Private Eye, Punch, and The Spectator in the UK. I think The Independent published his work too. He was interested in everything and was one of the few people in my entire life with whom I could talk for hours without getting bored. He kept up with politics (as a satirical cartoonist I suppose he had to) and had plenty of opinions about what was wrong with the British Government, the way in which London was managed, and the arts scene, and he didn’t mind sharing those opinions in a humorous, sophisticated, and vaguely anti-establisment manner, which is just one of many reasons why we got along so well. All of which demands an answer to the question: Why don’t we make time for the things that are really important in life? In the time that I spent messing around on useless Facebook—just this past weekend—I could easily have sent Tony an email, or mailed him a copy of my book, which he would have enjoyed, and would doubtless have found a way to tease me about.
Money was usually a bit tight for Tony, but he managed to make a living doing his artwork, all the while with that terrible eyesight, which I found truly amazing, much like a mechanic running a successful garage with two broken hands. In the 1990s Tony had a pacemaker fitted and he was surprised by how loud it was. “You mean, you can hear it inside your body?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, I had trouble sleeping after they put it in, but you sort of get used to it.”
I suggested that he do an autobiographical comic strip about his experiences called The Ticking Man.
One night I had a vivid dream in which Tony devised an experimental comic series called Mr. Upside-Down. In the strip the layout was as you’d expect it to be, except for the fact that the nutty protagonist walked around the wrong way up, with his feet on the “ceiling” of the cartoon panels, while everyone else was where they should be, according to the unforgiving laws of gravity. It was strange, funny, and absolutely captivating. Well, at least in the dream. When I saw Tony next, in the waking world, I related this story to him and told him he should actually create the strip in real life.
“No, you should do it,” he said. “It’s your kind of thing. But if you do draw it, I ought to get royalties because it was my idea.”
“But it was only your idea in my dream, so it’s still mine.”
“No,” Tony Replied. “Even though I was a figment of your imagination at that moment, I was still based on the real me, so it’s still my idea, even if the idea came from my head, in your dream.” He was joking, of course, but he could always be counted on to debate using existential humor, and so I agreed that if I ever developed Mr. Upside-Down, I would pay him a royalty.
It’s too late for any of that now. Tony died of heart failure yesterday, and—as always seems to be the case with tragic events like these—I was just thinking about him over the weekend. You see, I’m supposed to go back to London in a couple of weeks, on business. It’ll be my first visit in years and I thought how great it would be to get together with Tony again. Maybe revisit the Tate Modern, which was a favorite haunt of ours, or go see some band he’d discovered, or catch a weird indie film that I’d never heard of.
I didn’t even know that Tony had been in hospital for a month. A whole month! He was scheduled for heart surgery, but was fed up with the pain he’d endured as a result of numerous earlier operations, so he declined. They put him on a ton of pain killers and sedatives and he slipped away. And that was Tony. Defiant right up to the end.
I could barely bring myself to look at Tony’s website today, but it is a testament to his sense of humor that the shark cartoon still made me laugh out loud. And so, dear friend Tony, I hereby assign to you, in perpetuity, all rights to Mr. Upside-Down, just in case you want to work on it—you know—some other time. I’m sure it’ll be brilliant.
Be seeing you.
Text and photographs © by Geoffrey Notkin. Illustrations © by Tony Reeve.
All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.