The Drunken Bakers is a strip cartoon in the British adult humour magazine Viz created by Barney Farmer and Lee Healey. It depicts the alcohol-dominated lives of two forlorn bakers who attempt to run a small bakery. The strip was adapted into a video-art installation piece by the artist Mark Leckey in 2006.
The strip has been compared to the work of Samuel Beckett. Its nihilistic aspects have impressed critics. The two bakers run (or at least attempt to run) a bakery together. Their names have never been mentioned; one has sparse black hair, the other has a bulbous nose and large phiz of fair (possibly blond) hair. They are drawn as – and have the personalities of – a pair of classic clown archetypes, an odd couple: the curly haired but balding one being short and aggressive, the taller being doleful. Both bakers suffer from severe alcoholism, and every strip shows them drinking strong alcoholic beverages such as various liqueurs. They try their best to bake something every night, but because of their inebriation, the results are always hopeless.
Comedy drunks have been around since drinks began, but few have been so utterly forlorn as The Drunken Bakers. As the name suggests, this cartoon strip – a semi-regular feature in that fine comic institution, Viz – concerns some bakers who get drunk. The essentials don’t vary much: the average black-and-white, page-long episode sees a customer coming in with a simple request for, say, a wedding cake or some buns. With the best of intentions, the sweet-looking, white-haired pair head out back to gather ingredients and mix dough. But soon, one will quietly suggest a little drop of something – Drambuie or gin, perhaps – and the other will stoically agree. Before long, they’re both staggering round a smoke-filled bakery surrounded by empty spirits bottles. Again. It’s tricky to say what’s so appealing about their slide from being worthy citizens to utterly wrecked lost souls. Writer Barney Farmer and artist Lee Healey imbue the strips with a real sense of despondency; these aren’t drunks who have convivial escapades or adventures – they are drunks who drink, get drunk, pass out and burn the cakes. And being bakers somehow makes it worse: it seems such a wholesome occupation. Recently, one baker headed off for supplies and, in the next speech-free frame, was shown on his hands and knees in a shopping centre surrounded by liquid oozing out from a mess of broken glass and polythene. The look of sad befuddlement on his face was kind of moving. So, yes, clearly there are limits, plot-wise. But I’m hoping that for some while longer, Viz continues to show us the non-exploits of two bakers who, tragically, never quite manage to bake.
With “Drunken Bakers,” as with “Shades of Destructors,” Mr. Leckey raises his game considerably, but through simplicity not complication. He forsakes collage, color, youth and music, as well as moving images, to dwell on more advanced dissipation: that of two middle-aged Bumstead-like alcoholics haplessly lurching from one disaster and one drink to the next as they attempt to run a bakery. He has ingeniously filmed the comic strip with close-ups and jump-cuts, creating a kind of stop-action animation, and added a skillfully explicit soundtrack replete with convincing belches, slurps, breaking glass and vomiting. (The comic’s speech balloons, which Mr. Leckey deleted, are read verbatim by Mr. Leckey and Steven Claydon, a member of Jack2Jack.)
At Passerby, the projection fills one wall of a small, once-pristine white-on-white room whose growing decrepitude adds to the train-wreck-watching atmosphere. While clarifying and savoring the aesthetic compression of Mr. Farmer’s dialogue and Mr. Healey’s line, Mr. Leckey conveys an oppressive sense of the drinker’s irresistible drive for oblivion, excavating the painful realities that often spur comedy.
Mr. Leckey used “Drunken Bakers” without contacting Viz, which, in a rare instance of corporate enlightenment, granted him permission retroactively.
Joe Bish: Tell us about how you started Drunken Bakers.
Barney Farmer: The idea for Drunken Bakers came about because I had been on a stag do for a couple of days and we got back to London and it had been proper brutal drinking. I had this one mate who was always the last one to finish, so we rolled off the train at Paddington where he was getting his train back to Croydon and I was getting my train back up north, and we went for one pint. Ten hours later I was lying face down on the floor in his horrible Croydon digs.
It made me think there are always people that make you think ‘Who’s pulling you along in your life?’, y’know? There’s always one person who makes you go for a drink and then you end up on the piss five nights out of seven. I was so hammered the conversations we were having in the pub were like chopped up and cyclical chats that kept coming back on themselves and were really banal and funny. I wrote the first strip a couple of days later, and then me and Lee thought we’d get something over for Viz, so I dug this strip out, sent it with about 30 others, and that was the only one they picked out. It was all from heavy drinking, which is quite apt really.
Have you done any jobs where you’re out of bed really early in the morning? Like, stupidly early in the morning? When I was a kid there were miles more bakeries. I did a stint as a postman once – you woke up to see the bakers who’d already done their day’s work as you were walking down the road, and they were sort of trapped in a different day-cycle to the rest of us. And I figured then, the way bakeries are all closing and being driven out of business with Greggs and the rest of them, I thought it would be quite depressing.
Mike Rampton: Hi Barney, congratulations on the book! It’s a hard piece of work to describe.
Barney Farmer: I tried to write the sort of book that I like to read. I’ve sat down and tried to write a conventional type of story with a beginning, a middle and an end before, in a linear narrative kind of way, but every time I’ve started it it hasn’t felt right. It hasn’t felt like a reflection of these characters. The way I’ve always written the strips for Viz starts as snatches of conversation and little thumbnail sketches here and there. I wrote the book exactly the same way.
It’s almost like one long poem.
I thought people would assume I was being pretentious – this loudmouth off Twitter who does a comic strip thinks he’s a poet now. But it comes back to how the strips are written – there are patterns of speech which I’d overhear and find quite lyrical. So it was written as dialogue, but then I would recognise afterwards that little bits of dialogue and small trains of thought worked as kind of found poems.
They’re all accidents, with one or two tweaks – if you put a few rhymes in, people know you can make stuff rhyme, so get that if you’re not, it’s deliberate. “Oh, he actually can rhyme, so he’s decided not to here.”
Are the recipes real?
The recipes are real. There’s a recipe in there for scones, and one for Dundee cakes. They’re all factually correct. That’s another target market – if it doesn’t sell well as a novel or whatever it is, I can go after the foodies.
Why bakers? Do you have a baking background?
In Preston, where I’m based, all the good bakeries were purged within a period of about ten years by Greggs and other regional chains. These old family-run concerns would close one day and be a Greggs a week later, which I took as a personal affront. My mother worked in a bakery when she was younger, before I came along, and continued to bake. I started baking when I was about 12 or 13, because I wasn’t getting the cakes I wanted. I could probably still knock up a pretty mean cake if I so choose. I seldom do.
What about the drunkenness? A lot of the details feel like they can only come from intimate familiarity…
I come from a town just on the edge of Preston, Royston Vasey basically. All the mills closed down, and all there was in the town was a hardened drinking culture which everyone got into, generally before they left school. You’d be out round the pubs, and than that would be you.
So many people I grew up with are now just totally shot. I was the perfect age for the E generation but it completely passed me by. I was immersed in the mythology and romance of drink. I didn’t need a new mythology, I had Mark E Smith and Shane MacGowan and Bukowski.
On and off I’ve been a very heavy drinker – I don’t think I’m an alcoholic, but I drink regularly and really really enjoy it. Everybody has their moments where they get to the edge and look over for a year or two – a job’ll take you somewhere or you’ll meet certain people and end up on the lash for eighteen months. We’ve all done that.
When you’re on that plateau of booze consumption you only need one good or bad bit of news to go over, and generally you don’t come back. It’s much more corrosive than drugs – I’ve known heroin addicts and alcoholics, and the heroin addicts all look better than me and the alcoholics are either dead or still alcoholics. It’s a villainous substance, but it’s fantastic.
There’s an almost industrial, joyless quality to the drinking in the strip.
There’s a critical point where you go one way or the other. I was much heavier drinker when i was a younger man and ended up in a right state. I was on me tod with two litres of super strong white cider, and took a big pull on it – there’s an incident like this in the book – and thought “I can’t believe I wasted all that money in pubs!” I heard myself say that inside my head and went about six months totally dry on the back of it, and I’ve never really been anywhere near that point since.
Looking through older strips, a surprising amount of the backstory mentioned in the book is alluded to – was it always mapped out?
No, and I still don’t know the full story. There aren’t any hard or fast conclusions. Hopefully the book works if you’ve never read the strip or only seen it once or twice, but would also work for people who’ve been reading it for a long time. All the backstory and things like that evolved in the same way that you find out about a person in your life – in fragments.
The story has been told in hints and half-remembered details scattered across fifteen or sixteen years. A few more details might come to me over the next few years. When I’m writing the characters I’ll remember something else about them.
The bakers themselves have never been named – do you know what they’re called?
You tell people things like I’m about to tell you and they think you’re either pretentious or an idiot, but I genuinely don’t know their names. It’s as much of a mystery to me as it is to anyone that’s followed the strip and wondered.
I’m going to sound like the biggest cliche, but I’m reading Samuel Beckett’s Molloy at the moment – if you’ve never read it I’d really recommend it, it’s amazingly funny – and I’m not saying I’ve written a shallow Beckett ripoff, but I think you can detect his influence in anything that’s come out since him.
Didn’t Alan Moore compare the Drunken Bakers to Beckett?
He said they bore comparison. I’d been writing the strips for five or six years before I ever sat down and read any of Beckett’s work. I wasn’t hugely familiar with him. I’d read some Pinter, and was a huge fan of Spike Milligan, and he’s basically walked out of a Beckett play.
Chris Morris, Monty Python, and all that great seam of comedy was influenced by Beckett. I was astonished to the extent to which I’d absorbed him second or third hand through his huge influence on British absurdity and comedy.
What does the book mean for the strip?
The strips are continuing – the strips are small, small stories, generally only covering five or ten minutes of time in these people’s lives. The book is a whole day.
There won’t be no trifles. How can there be trifles with the fridge gone to fuck?
No fridge, no jelly. Milk’s gone so no custard. No cream. A pair of stale lardy Victoria sponge ain’t a trifle. Jelly never have set anyhow. Should have that in first thing with the sponge soaking.
In the fucked fridge,
with the warm specials,
no bits of fruit,
no fucking bananas,
dash of sherry,
if we have any sherry.
But fuck trifles, they’re off. Shame, because they used to go.
Old ladies, mostly. They like the fussy stuff. All the dainty cakes are for old ladies.
Battenberg is mostly old ladies. That’s why that Mr Kipling advert about having a whole one to yourself used to kill me. No you cunt that wasn’t everyone’s dream. That was the old ladies’ dream, no fucker else had that dream.
Probably the Royal idea, they all love that. Coming mother to daughter since first got invented, special for one of them, back when that was their name, before the first war and nobody cared or could do fuck all about it any road.
Ever since then a little slice of the Royal life, only a few ounce because it was dearer than a scone or a Jap and them, but something sweet and delicate wrapped up tight in white tissue paper.
Battenberg was the only one got put in the bread tissue. Fall apart if you shove it in a bag.
Only jam and thin rolled marzipan hold the cunt in one piece. Shove a 2oz slice of proper battenberg in a bag and you’d have a bag of squares and a hoop.
Alice and the girls always folded the tissue just so, nice and tight with corners tucked in, a little shining parcel in the old ladies’ hands, and I sometimes thought of ’em unwrapping it at home.
I still see that.
Some blokes had a slice, a thick slice, but you always looked at them a bit funny, back then anyway. People just did. So did their mates, you were only joining in. Nothing nasty though. Is only a bit of fucking cake, who gives a shit? And I didn’t mind a slice, every now and again.
But that prick called one a puff once and got fucking lamped for his trouble.
I had the odd slice, with tea. But not regular. It was dear. People forget you had to weigh it.
“We’re open. Is something fuckin’ burnin’?”
“When did I put them flapjacks in?”
“You fucking put ’em in.”
Never burned a thing once, few years in you have a headful of clocks, all ticking for a different bell.
Pork pies out in five,
turn down to 6,
scones in after five,
take the white barm out.
Gets harder to keep track, along the line, time changes on you, so slow you never see, more behind than ahead, fucked if you’re in a job where is half the job.
“Ha ha ha haaaa!”
“Fuck that was hot.”
“Been in oven y’daft cunt, what’d you expect?”
Not the worst I’ve had. Not the worst this week. Grab hot trays all the time now, not thinking, smelling smoke and rushing.
That cunt took a tea loaf out bare-handed so hammered once he held the tin for two minutes and peeled both his palms down to flesh. I laughed my fucking tits off.
So did he.
“Here let us tip brandy on ’em for the pain.”
Author Barney Farmer
Posted on 2nd August 2017
Characters born into the celebrated Viz comic strip, ‘Drunken Bakers’, are here for the first time immortalised in a book. A day in the life: the decline of the independent bakery, and the steeper decline of the independent bakers within it (cake and bargain booze included). A harsh reality displayed without apology, elbowing its way into our comfort zone bringing laughter and the smell of stale beer.
At Wrecking Ball Press we wait in great anticipation for stuff like Drunken Baker by Barney Farmer to drop through the letter box. It’s what we do… A fisherman waits for a fish to bite. A hypochondriac waits for death. Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot. Bob waited in vain. We wait for the barman to catch our eye. We count the minutes before it’s time to go. The prisoner waits for sentence. I’m waiting on a call. We’re all waiting to be seen. We all watch the news, hold our breath and wait for sense. We play the waiting game. All publishers wait for the next great book. We’ve been waiting 21 years and it’s finally arrived.
p.s. Hey. Today the great _Black_Acrylic and the even greater Ben Robinson who uses that filtering moniker have/has cooked up a post about The Drunken Bakers, who I personally had never heard of before, and who seem quite awesome to say the least. Whether said Bakers are familiar to you or not, there is a serious treat up there for you. Enjoy getting at it, and please acknowledge _B_A aka Ben in your comments today to show you care. Thank you all, and, especially, thank you, Ben! … Now, as to the blog’s technical issues, I spent a few hours yesterday with my host site’s tech crew trying to figure out the problems going on here and solve them. As in previous sessions with them, they don’t see anything in and of the blog that could be causing the problems people are having. Nonetheless, they tried a few fixes, and I added a couple of plug-ins that may or may not make a difference. It’a tricky thing because the vast majority of people I approach and ask if my blog is acting troubled in any way say no, it’s fine. And the vast majority of people who are having these vexing issues seem to be people who comment here. That is one of the reasons why the host’s tech guys say the issue lies in visitors’ browsers rather than in the blog itself. They suggested I tell people to clear their browsers’ caches and cookies and/or look at the blog in a private browser window. I posted that advice on the blog’s Facebook page yesterday, and some people told me doing that solved the problem for them and others said it made no difference. Basically, I am at a loss about what to do now. Unless someone who has expertise approaches me to help investigate the blog’s interior for culprits and offer a fix, we are stuck where we are for now. I’m sorry, but there’s really nothing else I can think to do at the moment. ** _Black_Acrylic, There you are! Thanks for today again a whole bunch, Ben! Very happy the Tambellini post interested you. Welcome home. Thank goodness for your old computer. I hope any heatwaves make a bee line around you. ** Alex rose, Hey, Alex! Loveliness! I’m glad the Tamebellini work festered positively. I discovered his work when the Tate did a big thing on him in the Tanks a few years ago. His stuff is one off those things that really needs to be projected to be the killer it is. If you get a chance, take it. Lucky you with the rain. Our sky is cloudless blue but getting invisibly redder by the hour. I’m pretty good, and you? You getting some doing done amidst your being? Big love, me. ** Jamie, J-man! Thanks, yeah, fuck knows if the blog will ever be a perfect entity. I suspect not. Very happy you liked Tambellini. Like I told Alex, you have to see them projected to really, really get their spell, but one can imagine in the meantime. My day was work-y and okay basically. So, so happy to hear that looming sickness was a mere phantom, thank goodness! I did like Sam Mehren’s music, yes. I didn’t follow it hugely closely, but I was drawn in when I did. Very sad thing. Oh, the treatment. Basically you break the film’s narrative into little sections that are broken up with these headlines that announce the main thing that’s about to be spelled out in the following segment. So, like, the name of the character being introduced, the main action that the description will be covering, etc. It’s kind of dumb, but it pops and is quite readable, and with a script that has the strange attention span and movement ours does, it’s a much better solution than just trying to translate the script into a short story. Not possible with ours. Well, yeah, a lot of cramped time with the folks does sound … vexing. Earphones cranked, pretend nap? Is the place in Wales where you’ll be staying, like, pretty and atmospheric and so on, I hope? Well, if I don’t see you for the duration, I’ll hope our mutual enforced silence is a magic spell. Ha, nice day wish, thank you. May your eight hour drive today make a bullet train seem like a covered wagon. Bristling love, Dennis. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Like I said, I don’t really have any more blog fixative ammunition available right now, so I don’t know. Great to have your filming schedule pretty much nailed down. That must feel good. Yes, I know that thing with the cinematographer’s needing info. Same with us. I’m sure if you just tell her what you can, that should be enough. Best of luck with everything. ** Schlix, Hi, Uli. Thank you. I don’t know what’s going on with the blog, but I’m just going to soldier on since there is no choice. I saw your email. I’ll send you my stuff today. Zac just got back from a trip, so I’ll confer with him, and hopefully I’ll have an idea of when we can do the theme park trip in the next days. Take care, pal. ** Statictick, Your comment going blammo would appear to be business as usual around here. Congrats on the impending big health step! Fingers very entangled on my end. Never heard of Neal Brennan, no. I don’t follow comedians at all. Stand up comedy is a real toughie for me. I sort of can’t deal with it. My issue entirely. Things are reasonably pretty good here, thanks. Love and etc., me. ** Misanthrope, Seems like it’s way past fever pitch and into fatal pneumonia territory or something. The US is a fucking insane asylum. I’ll look into possible Akismet-produced problems and see if anything can be resolved that way. It never ends. Happy Thursday. ** Right. Now, scroll back up and luxuriate in the Drunken Bakers if you know what’s good for you. And say hi, etc. to your host Ben please. Thank you. See you tomorrow.