Footrot Flats: Murray Ball's enduring gift to New Zealand
When I was 11, I bought a copy of Murray Ball's first Footrot Flats book off a classmate at school for $2.50 and a pack of sandwiches. It's sitting here beside me right now as I write these words.
I was already well familiar with The Dog, Wal and the rest of the Footrot crew by then of course – had in fact been almost obsessively collecting the anthologies ever since some relative or other got me one to read while recovering from getting my tonsils out.
You couldn't grow up in 1980s New Zealand without being aware of Footrot Flats on some level – and for a farm kid from the Far North the strip held a particular appeal.
There was just so much that was familiar about it – from the macrocarpa, flax and cabbage trees that made up the background, to the relationship between Wal and the Dog himself.
My old man probably had a slightly rougher vocabulary than Wal – and by all accounts Ball, for whom 'damn' was said to be a strong word – but they both treated their dogs the same, with that odd mixture of fiery disdain and unspoken appreciation common to many farmers.
And like the Dog, I remember spending a lot of time in an upended old corrugated iron water tank. Dad had knocked the bottom out of one and chucked a plank across the inside to serve as a shelter for us kids to sit in when waiting for the school bus on rainy mornings.
Born in Feilding 78 years ago on January 26 – a birthday he shares with his creation, Mr Wallace Cadwallader Footrot – Murray Ball moved with his family to Australia when he was eight, and again to South Africa when he was 11, eventually returning to New Zealand at the age of 19.
According to Tom Scott, who profiled Ball for the New Zealand Listener in 1978, the young Kiwi grew to despise his new country, saying of South African dogs that they were "trained to bite only black men. They're exercised by walking around tennis courts while black boys wait with shovels ready to clean up".
This ire would surface again years later when the All Blacks were planning a 1985 tour of South Africa, four years after the controversial 1981 tour had provoked a veritable mini-civil war here at home.
At the time, the Dog from Footrot Flats was the All Blacks' mascot, but news of the tour plans prompted him to pen a letter (in the Dog's distinctive voice) resigning his position.
"I just wouldn't feel right sittin' there while we played rugby with the people who have killed more than 300 men, women and children in the last six months because they are not white," he wrote.
The planned tour was eventually cancelled, but an unofficial one – contested by a team dubbed the "New Zealand Cavaliers" – did go ahead the following year.
By 1976 – the year Footrot Flats first made it into print – Ball had already established himself as a talented cartoonist in the UK with his strips Stanley the Paleolithic Hero, Bruce the Barbarian and All The King's Comrades, but it's Footrot Flats that I really want to talk about here.
Originally titled Damn Dog, Footrot Flats was first accepted by Mike Robson, editor of Wellington's Evening Post. It was turned down for syndication by both The New Zealand Herald and The Auckland Star, but eventually went on to feature in newspapers around the world from 1976 until 1994, when Ball quit writing the strip.
Depending on who you talk to, he had different reasons for this, from the death of his own dog to a growing disillusionment with the state of New Zealand politics at the time.
According to John Barnett, who co-produced the 1986 film Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale alongside Ball and Pat Cox, "he stopped writing the strip because he felt it didn't reflect the New Zealand of the '90s".
Footrot Flats continued to appear in book form until well into the 2000s however, and the strip eventually spawned 27 numbered books, eight "Weekender" collections, five smaller "pocket" books and dozens of further collections both here and abroad, including Japanese, Chinese, Danish, Swedish and Dutch editions.
This is to say nothing of the Footrot Flats feature film, stage musical and short-lived theme park, as well as countless items of branded merchandise, ranging from T-shirts, coffee mugs and stuffed toys to bed sheets, hot water bottles and even beer.
"It was an institution," says Barnett of Footrot Flats – and not just in New Zealand either.
At one time running in more than 100 daily newspapers in Australia, Footrot Flats was just as big across the ditch as it was here – if not bigger.
Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale made A$4.3 million at the Aussie box office in 1987, making it the most successful animated film to ever screen in Australia – a title it would hold for another seven years, until Disney's The Lion King finally toppled it from its perch.
The Dog's Tale also cemented Ball's already existing popularity in the lucky country – Barnett recalls an incident during the film's production.
"There was one funny event – I reminded Pam [Ball's wife] about it the other day. On one occasion we were in Sydney, and somebody stole a jacket of Murray's."
"He was a bit grumpy about it, and he went to the police station and said, 'Somebody stole my jacket'. And they looked at him and said, 'Aww, yeah, well, you know, you're staying in Kings Cross, that's what happens'."
"And he said, 'I'm a bit grumpy about it'. And they said 'Oh alright, we'll take your details – what's your name?' And he said 'Murray Ball'. And they said, 'You're the bloke that does Footrot Flats! Mate, we'll be on to this in a hurry!'
"They didn't find it, but the whole tenor of the place changed – it was just bam! 'Look everybody, come out and get his autograph'.
"Because he was tucked away in Gisborne, I don't think Murray was conscious of the impact he was having."
Barnett worked with Ball for almost four years on The Dog's Tale, a period during which he says "there would have been hardly two days" when he, Ball and co-producer Pat Cox weren't getting together – whether in person or on the phone – to talk about something.
"We definitely kept in touch," he says. "Although not so much in the last few years, to my regret."
"The things that Tom [Scott] has said this week about Murray are all true – he was a terrific guy. He was a man of total integrity and he was a man with a great sense of humour and at ease with himself. He was just a delight to work with."
"He was a bloody genius," adds Peter Rowley, the man who voiced the Dog in Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale.
"He formed all these wonderful characters, and gave an edge to the agrarian world of New Zealand that only he could imagine.
"He was a very charismatic man, and was quite sure of everything. I had a lot of respect for him – he was like (Charles) Schulz with Peanuts, you know? You felt his presence – he was unique for this country. There weren't many Murray Balls."
Indeed there weren't, and Rowley's comparison of Ball to Peanuts creator Charles Schulz is particularly appropriate, given the famed cartoonist's stated admiration for Footrot Flats.
"The Dog is definitely one of my favourite cartoon characters of all time," wrote Schulz in the foreword to the only Footrot Flats collection sold in the US.
"Being a fanatic about comic strips, I am always either very impressed by good drawing, or saddened by poor drawing. I love the way Murray draws these animals. I love the relationship among all of the characters, and am especially fond of the absolutely original approach to the humour."
Murray Ball died at home in Gisborne on March 12, 2017. He was one of us, a good bloke who gave a lot more than he took from this world. Thanks for the memories Murray. We'll always remember you.