Our story of cartoonist Jim Needle revived memories of the mural he created in the bar at the New Theatre, Oxford.

Hundreds of theatregoers admired his work, which showed the faces of dozens of famous showbiz characters.

Sadly, it didn’t stay in place for long. Completed in January 1977, it was gone within 18 months, a victim of a modernisation scheme. Only the face of actor Robertson Hare survived.

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Jim had spent four months drawing the 81 faces – everyone from Basil Brush to Sir Laurence Olivier, and Morecambe and Wise to Andre Previn.

He used theatre programmes dating back to the 1930s to pay his own tribute to the stage.

The mural was the idea of the then general manager, Barrie Stead, who had seen a series of cartoons in the Variety Bar at the London Palladium.

When he returned to Oxford, he spoke to Jim, who set to work after they had sifted through the theatre’s collection of old photographs and picked those best covering the theatre’s history.

But when new owners took over and builders moved in to redesign the bar, Jim’s famous wall came tumbling down.

Theatre managing director Paul Gregg said at the time: “It is very unfortunate and we were all sorry to see it go, but we could not preserve it.

“The entire bar is being reorganised at a cost of £100,000 and when it reopens, it will have an American piano-bar style. Jim’s particular wall had to be knocked down to give the bar more space.”

Oxford Mail:

Jim said: “I was sad to see the wall come down. I popped in to see if I could keep any of the faces, but everything was in a great pile of rubble on the floor. All I could rescue was the cartoon of Robertson Hare.”

Jim, who lived in Canal Street, Jericho, had a close association with the New Theatre for many years, working behind the scenes as a part-time stage hand. His father, Charlie, had been stage manager for 25 years until his death in 1961 and his mother worked in the bar.

Many people commissioned Jim to create cartoons to mark birthdays, anniversaries and retirements, and his cartoons regularly appeared in the Oxford Mail, in pubs and on Oxford buses.

As we recalled (Memory Lane, March 28 last year), 60 of his cartoons appeared in a book by David Perkins giving advice to fellow estate agents on how to avoid the pitfalls of new housing legislation.

His work also appeared on display in many Oxford buildings, including pubs.

Bob Moore, who ran the Radcliffe Arms in Jericho, recalled seeing in the Oxford Mail a cartoon of a barmaid telling a drunken customer: “Yes, you’re probably right, I’m not the perfect barmaid, but to be fair, darling, you ain’t the perfect customer!”

Mr Moore wrote: “I called Jim to ask if I could have his original drawing. It was duly delivered in exchange for a pint of Guinness. The drawing was framed and hung in my pubs and bars for more than 20 years.”

After Jim’s death in 1997, his many friends paid tribute to him at a packed memorial service at St Barnabas Church in Jericho.

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About the author 

Andy is the Trade and Tourism reporter for the Oxford Mail and you can sign up to his newsletters for free here. 

He joined the team more than 20 years ago and he covers community news across Oxfordshire.

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