Norman Frederick Hetherington

(also worked under the names of Heth and Mr Squiggle)
Born Lilyfield, New south Wales
Died Sydney, New South Wales

By Lindsay Foyle

After the Second World War Norman Hetherington established himself in Sydney as a successful freelance cartoonist. He signed his name simply as “Heth” - in an almost Chinese appearing jumble. He had a regular round of papers he would approach, the best paying magazine first; then continue on till he arrived at the worst paying with whatever was leftover. Included in the publications he visited was The Bulletin, Man, Man Junior, Army, Humour and Quiz. While, The Bulletin published a lot of cartoons most were from freelance contributors and staff job were few. Hetherington was very pleased in 1946 when he offered a job at The Bulletin – and as was the tradition - was allowed to continue his freelance activates.

Norman Frederick Hetherington was born 29 May 1921 in Lilyfield, New South Wales to Nellie and Frederick Hetherington. He attended Fort Street High School and then went on to enrol at East Sydney Technical Collage to study art. In 1938 The Bulletin published one of his cartoons. Ted Scorfield was the art director; John Frith cartoon editor. Both Scorfield and Frith drew cartoons every week. Frith also liaised with the numerous freelance cartoonists who frequented the offices. He even suggested ideas for cartoons to some of them. Hetherington was welcomed into The Bulletin fraternity seemed to be on his way to becoming an established cartoonist. However, his plans changed the following year when World War Two erupted and he enlisted in the army and ending up as a solder in the 1st Australian Army Entertainment Unit.

After the war ended and he eventually re-joined The Bulletin, Hetherington was basically filling the hole left by John Frith. He had departed to become the first full time cartoonist working on The Sydney Morning Herald. Frith said, “My mind was in turmoil, would it be wise to exchange the leisurely life on The Bulletin for the pressure-cooking atmosphere of a daily newspaper? He dangled a good salary and prestige as bait and in no time at all I swallowed the hook.”

It did not take Frith long before he realised he had been much happier at The Bulletin, so when in 1950 when he was offered a job on The Herald in Melbourne he quickly resigned. The first person he asked to fill the hole he was creating at The Sydney Morning Herald was Hetherington. However a year before Norman’s father had given him a copy of a 1935 edition of an American magazine, Popular Science Monthly. It contained instructions for making a puppet out of used bicycle inner tubes. The article sparked an interest in puppetry that continued the rest of Norman’s life.

The offer to work for The Sydney Morning Herald was very tempting, but Ted Scorfield suggested to Hetherington that if he took the job he would be expected to give up his puppetry. It was not something Hetherington was prepared to do, so he turned down the offer.

At The Bulletin, all the staff artists were allowed to continue their freelance work, however in 1950 opportunities for freelance artists in Sydney were not what they had been when Hetherington was starting out. Smith’s Weekly one of the major employers of cartoonists had closed. Also, many of the Sydney comic book publishers had been forced to close because of the flood of imported American comics, which were being sold off at cost.

While not quite what would normally be considered as freelance work for a cartoonist, Hetherington put on many Christmas puppet shows held in Sydney department stores in the 1950s (which continued into the 1980s), which included versions of old favourites such as Ali Baba, St George and the Dragon and Alladin.

Hetherington’s cartoons continued to appear weekly in The Bulletin and in 1955 when Lucy Black Johnson and Pyke Johnson Jr., were gathering cartoons from all over the world for the book Cartoon Treasury, Norman was one of the few Australians selected to contribute.

The arrival of television in Australia in 1956 started Hetherington on a new direction with his puppets. He attended an ABC-TV training school and soon after he joined with Annette Onslow to create Nicky and Noodle, and in 1957 another series, Jolly Gene and His Fun Machine for Channel Seven.

Hetherington was doing the right thing in looking for work away from The Bulletin. In the middle 1958 Norman Lindsay got a letter from David Adams - the editor of The Bulletin - telling him his salary from the magazine would stop at the end of the next week. He was only getting 800 pounds a year. Lindsay said, “Damn it, I’d expect an association lasting sixty years to count for something. You’d think I was an office boy they’d caught pinching stamps.” For some time, Lindsay had though The Bulletin was dying of senile decay and nobody they seemed to know how to revive it. Despite the disappointment of no longer cartooning for The Bulletin, Lindsay could not let the connection with the paper end and continued to send book reviews. Despite his reputation as one of the best artists and authors in Australia he was paid at the same rate as all the other contributors. Lindsay had difficult in breaking his association with The Bulletin and the people who worked for it. He even gives his etching press to Hetherington, who kept it in his workshop under his house in Mosman and use it regularly.

Hetherington married Margaret Purnell in 1958 and in 1960 they moved into a house in the Sydney suburb of Mosman. They have two children, Rebecca an actress, and Stephen an academic philosopher.

Margaret wrote all the scripts for Mr Squiggle, a moon-dwelling marionette with a pencil for a nose, which completed “squiggles”, sent in by young viewers into full-realised drawings and cartoons. “We didn’t always stick to the script,” Norman said. “There was a lot of adlibbing, particularly in the drawing segment.”

Hetherington did all the voices to the show's puppets and Mr. Squiggle first appeared on the Children's TV Club on ABC TV, broadcast in 1959. Mr Squiggle was intended to be a temporary fill-in, but was quickly spun-off into his own program.

“As a cartoonist I wanted to make a puppet and experiment,” Hetherington said. “A puppet who could draw. I didn't think it would work either but with a very heavy head and a bit of manipulation he seemed to work. 

Hetherington said Mr Squiggle, “came into the program without even an audition... that wouldn't happen today. He was given a six-week trial and he stayed for the six weeks, six months, then six years and so on.”

Life at The Bulletin changed in November 1960 when the Prior family sold their interests in the publication to Conpress Printing, which was owned by Frank Packer. Scorfield was 74 and was not considered suitable to continue as the paper’s art director. He retired early in 1961 as soon as Less Tanner arrived back from England to take over. By then Hetherington had already departed to concentrate on his work as a puppeteer. They were not alone in leaving, as almost everybody else who had been working there had also departed.

Over the years Mr Squiggle varied from five-minute spots to a one-and-a-half-hour variety show featuring other performers. Originally being broadcast as Mr. Squiggle and Friends however there were several name changes while the basic premise remained the same: children wrote in with their "squiggles" and Mr. Squiggle would turn them into recognisable drawings by connecting lines with his pencil nose. Norman was working upside down most of the time he was drawing with Mr. Squiggle’s pencil nose from above. When it was completed Mr. Squiggle often declare “Upside down! Upside down!” and then get his female assistant – which included Miss Gina (Gina Curtis), Miss Pat (Pat Lovell), Miss Jane (Jane Fennell), and later series featured Roxanne (Roxanne Kimmorley) and Rebecca (Rebecca Hetherington, Normans’ daughter) - to turn it around to reveal the finished drawing.

Peggy said, “Mr Squiggle is and always will be a very valuable member of their family. We were terribly fortunate to be able to do what we enjoyed doing ... that's a rare thing in this world. You had fewer people breathing down your neck back then. Children’s television is probably very different today.”

When Mr Squiggle was not at home at 93 Crater Crescent, the Moon, he spent much of his time at the Hetherington’s Sydney home, along with Blackboard, Gus the Snail, who had either a TV or a flower pot for a shell, Bill the Steam Shovel and Rocket, Mr Squiggle's pet rocket.

The last episode went to air on 9 July 1999, just over 40 years after the first episode. “I taught Mr Squiggle to draw and now he draws better than I do” Norman said.

Norman and Margaret have been the recipients of several honours and awards, including the Penguin Award in 1984, and again in 1989, from the Television Society of Australia “for their outstanding contribution to children’s television in Australia”.

Norman was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 1990 ‘for service to children’s television programmes and puppetry’. In 2005, he was presented with the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Art, Design and Education (College of Fine Arts, UNSW), for contribution to the media.

The Australian Cartoonists Association presented Norman with a signed artist’s smock in 1989 and award him a Life Membership in 2008 then on 14 November 2009, the ACA presented him with the coveted Jim Russell Award for his Outstanding Contribution to Australian Cartooning. The announcement was made at the 25th Stanley Awards in Darling Harbour and was met with thunderous applause and a standing ovation.

It is generally acknowledged by many of his fellow cartoonists that they were encouraged to pick up a pencil by virtue of being able to watch Mr Squiggle's antics on television each week.

Hetherington died quietly at 2 am on 6 December 2010 at Greenwich Hospital. His health had been declining for some time and he had fallen several occasions. He had gone into hospital in an endeavour to recuperate.

His wife Margaret, daughter Rebecca, son Stephen and two grandsons survived him.

Norman Heatherington entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2011.

Further reading