ON Christmas Day, 1960, Stuart Trotter excitedly picked up the new Rupert Bear annual that Santa had kindly delivered to the terraced house where he lived in the County Durham pit town of Ferryhill.

Just four-years-old, but already displaying a flair for art, Stuart soon started on the colouring competition at the back of the book: carefully filling in an innocent scene depicting Rupert and his friends, Bill Badger and Algy Pug, peering into a goldfish pond.

A lifetime later, and still living in Ferryhill, Stuart is celebrating the hot-off-the-press publication of the centenary edition of The Rupert Annual – proudly credited as the official author and illustrator of a little piece of literary history.

“I have to say I made a really good job of that colouring competition when I was four, but I never sent it off,” he recalls. “I just couldn’t bear to cut it out and spoil the book.”

It remains a treasured possession at home: evidence of a love affair with the enduring little bear, resplendent in a bright red jumper, and yellow checked trousers, who has meant so much to generations.

“Back then, everything in Ferryhill was black and white – the Daily Express that the Rupert cartoon strip appeared in, The Northern Echo, all the TV programmes,” he says. “Rupert brought colour into my life every Christmas – and the fields around Ferryhill became my Nutwood.”

Stuart took over as the official illustrator of the Rupert annuals in 2008. While much of the book comprises Rupert adventures from the archives, Stuart’s job is to produce the front and back cover, as well as write and draw a new story.

In the latest tale for the centenary edition, Rupert starts off as he appeared in his original form, when he was created by Mary Tourtel 100 years ago: chocolate brown with a blue jumper, and beige scarf and trousers. By the end of the story, and without giving any of the plot away, he’s travelled through time to become the modern incarnation from the Stuart Trotter era.

Somewhere along the way, Rupert’s original brown face became white to save on printing costs. Even then, the newspaper industry was under financial pressure.

Rupert’s history goes back to November 8, 1920, when he first appeared in the Daily Express. Mary Tourtel was the wife of the paper’s night editor, and she was commissioned to come up with a cartoon to win sales from its main competitors, the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror.

Alfred Bestall, previously an illustrator for Punch, took over as the Rupert artist and storyteller in 1935 and continued into his nineties. An annual has been released every year since 1936, and Rupert was also turned into a TV star, with a catchy theme tune:

Oh, Rupert, Rupert the bear,

Every one sing his name.

Rupert, Rupert the bear,

Every one come and join…

In all of his games

Stuart started work on the centenary edition a year ago, and admits it’s a relief to see it in the shops despite the disruption of Covid-19.

“Rupert’s so iconic that you do feel a pressure to get it right – especially for his 100th birthday – because he means so much to so many people,” he explains.

Though pleased with the result, he admits to only peering at it through squinted eyes. Like so many artists, he finds it hard to examine his own work.

It’s especially important to please The Followers of Rupert, who meet to pay homage to the little bear every year. Formed in 1983, the organisation brings his most ardent fans together, and was due to stage its latest gathering, in Warwick, on August 28, until the pandemic struck.

Under normal circumstances, Stuart would have been there to sign copies of the annual, but the centenary celebration will now have to wait until next year.

“It’s good to be at the coalface – among those who keep the Rupert tradition going,” he says.

So, why does Stuart think Rupert has endured so long? “He’s stayed true to his traditions of love and warmth, friendships, and exciting adventures,” says Stuart. “There’s not a bad bone in Rupert’s body, and he reminds people of the magic of their childhoods.”

Though Rupert has clearly been a dear friend to Stuart, other characters have also enriched his professional life. Over the years, his CV has included working on Winnie The Pooh, Thomas The Tank Engine, Wallace and Gromit, and The Animals of Farthing Wood.

He also runs Rockpool Children’s Books, with the adventures of Velda, the witch – written by Sue Newgas, and illustrated by Sam Walshaw – the latest project. Rockpool is also backing Sam on a series of illustrated fairytales, called Tiny Tales, due to be published next Spring.

But, for now, Rupert is, understandably, Stuart’s priority. Hundredth birthdays don’t come along often, after all.

As Stuart and I leave the Darlington café where we’ve been chatting, an elderly woman, enjoying a pot of tea and a fruit scone, spots the centenary annual in his grasp, though she doesn’t know he’s the author.

“Rupert!” she exclaims, pointing at the book, like a little girl on Christmas morning. “Oh, I love Rupert – always have done.”

A lot has changed in a century, but the magic of Rupert Bear lives on – not just in Ferryhill but everywhere he goes.

STRAIGHT from interviewing Stuart Trotter about his life with Rupert, it was a pleasure to pay my first visit to the new community arts centre in the old Marks & Spencer building in Darlington town centre.

When I walked in, and signed the visitors’ book, I had my freshly-signed copy of The Rupert Bear centenary album under my arm.

“Oh, Rupert!” swooned the receptionist, making me feel rather incidental.

That aside, Cornerstone Arts, a not-for-profit company, should be congratulated for striving to fill the gap left by the borough council’s austerity-driven decision, back in 2012, to close the old Darlington Arts Centre, in Vane Terrace, and turn it into flats.

The Northern Echo:

Cornerstone’s long-term plan is to buy the new base outright, and apply for charity status. In the meantime, let’s hope the community rallies round and the initiative goes from strength to strength.

But what I want to know is this: if you buy a work of art from the gallery in the old Marks and Sparks store, can you take it back for a refund within 35 days if it doesn't fit on the wall?