Would you like to go for a walk with Joan Aiken, and hear how she came up with the ideas for her most famous books, the Wolves Chronicles, or visit her in her home?
Well you can!
This short film was made by Puffin Books, and shows her on the Sussex Downs, near the village where she grew up, and in the little town of Petworth, where she bought her first home – an old pub called The White Hart.
You can also see her visit the real Rose Alley where she imagined Simon meeting Dido Twite for the first time, on the banks of the Thames, near the new Globe Theatre and opposite St.Paul’s Cathedral.
And finally see the real Cuckoo Tree that inspired one of her titles – quite famous locally, and even visited by fans from as far away as Japan… but extremely hard to find!
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Or go to the Joan Aiken Website FUN page and click on the MOVIE
What if Winter came and never ended? We now know our world and our climate are changing, and the outcome may be already beyond our control. Joan Aiken imagined a time where our actions, as in the old stories before science gave us the alarming facts, would bring the wrath of the Gods or Nature down upon us; now the reality of our future is not so different.
One poetic but salutary summing up of the possibilities of increasingly wild weather conditions was given in the Beaufort Scale, a weather system devised by a Royal Navy officer, later Admiral, Sir Francis Beaufort, which shows by detailed observation increasingly worsening conditions at sea, and on land. Joan Aiken was very taken by its descriptive language and desperate message of foreboding and adapted it into a song for her play about a family trapped on a tiny Winter-fast island about to disappear into the snow and the Northern Lights…
Joan Aiken allows a bit of fun with the earlier verses and rhymes, suggesting a moderately accepting frame of mind, an observer who notes the changing conditions and takes precautions, ‘canoes return to port as…’ but Beaufort’s description for Force Twelve is simply one word – Devastation – and here we understand that everything is finally out of our hands – we may as well try and count the flakes of snow.
Kaye Webb the inspired and inspiring Editor of Puffin Books commissioned Joan Aiken to write this play in the 1970’s, and it was produced at the Young Vic Theatre. She wrote in the introduction to the Puffin edition:
“Joan Aiken’s stories are all touched with magic…so it is not surprising that she has written plays about mysterious, lonely places… and here a group of children come to the island named after the deadly ‘Winterthing’, the time when the island is so swallowed up in winter that it disappears from mortal sight.”
And of course this is not just a story, we do need to pay attention to the changes going on around us, for as Joan Aiken also wrote :
…and maybe take action before it is too late?
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More about Joan Aiken Plays can be found here
Illustration by Arvis Stewart from the Holt Rinehart Winston edition
Music by Joan’s son John Sebastian Brown
‘Once upon a time that never was…in an England that never existed…’ Joan Aiken wrote a story that was to become her signature work, a story that would live in the memories of readers and haunt them ever afterwards, just like the wolves of the now famous title.
One of the people who responded enthusiastically was an American schoolboy called William Akers in Tennessee, whose teacher read the story aloud to his class. He decided that one day he would write a screenplay of the book and get it filmed, and years later he did, having shared his plan with Joan Aiken, and sold his dream to British production company Zenith.
Although they assembled a fantastic cast including Mel Smith, Richard O’Brien and Stephanie Beacham they also ran amok with the Gothic action – having villainess Miss Slighcarp terrorise the two small heroines with a steam powered sledge and a devastating array of kitchen knives so the dream became more of a nightmare…Another young reader who never forgot the story was Russ Tunney, and his adaptation first produced in 2010 in a collaboration between the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton where he was artistic director, and touring company Forest Forge Theatre directed by Kirstie Davis, has since been published by Nick Hern Books, and presented by amateur and professional companies.
The latest hugely successful sell-out production has been at the tiny Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley, South London, where the company, like Tunney, have brought out the poetry of the book, and shown the seasons and landscape described by Joan Aiken as an ever-changing background to the adventures of the two heroines and their struggle to defeat the human ‘wolves’ of the title. This dramatic story moves from the misty snowy woods and rivers of the great house of Willoughby Chase, to the blossoming Yorkshire Dales of their journey south to find friends.
This script also uses folk songs – Wild Mountain Thyme and Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair – as well as scenes of skating and travelling to give a visual sense of the journey of discovery made by the characters, and their developing relationships, and this production has some lovely sequences of movement and dance, not just with the wolves, but with the snowy and then greening trees on their way.
Tunney’s script is also pure pantomime, in the best sense of storytelling, and allows for some wild comedy in the performances. The actors are often visibly seen changing from one role to another, and collude with the audience, moving in and out of their characters in the story just as a parent does when reading aloud. This allows a dramatic suspension of disbelief and scenes of riotous humour at the expense of what might otherwise be terrifying villains like Miss Slighcarp, the evil governess – here in The Jack production appropriately dressed in wolf skins! Just as Joan Aiken’s original story appealed to adults and children alike, with excitement and comedy blended with poetic atmosphere, this is the best kind of family entertainment.
It seems like the perfect day, January 4th, on the anniversary of Joan’s death in the middle of the bleak midwinter, to celebrate another honouring of her most famous story with its evergreen depiction of hope and friendship, and the fact that it still, after fifty years in print, keeps springing up in new versions and wonderful re-incarnations and finding new audiences.
I have to say the oddly perfect moment (now luckily with its own happy ending!) was when the actress playing Bonnie Green confronted her evil governess and in attempting to knock a giant cane out of her hands, was herself injured but carried on bravely to the end of the show. Simon her dear friend and protector, who in the story helps her escape in his donkey cart full of geese on the way to market, was also on hand after the performance to convey her to A & E in Lewisham and make sure no bones were broken!
Thanks to all these passionate followers, the spirit of Joan Aiken lives on.
Thanks to all at The Jack Studio for a fantastic evening!
Could this be a festive stroll in the park for Sir Willoughby and Lady Green and Sylvia, taking gifts to Aunt Jane in the Dower House? Bonnie must be off shooting wolves with Simon in order to safeguard Lady Green’s new herd of deer (and perhaps bag her another wolf stole?) or maybe she is back home at Willoughby Chase, tyrannising Mrs Shubunkin and the kitchen staff and being adored and spoiled with sugar plums as they prepare the gigantic Christmas turkey and dozens of figgy puddings, with diamonds due to be concealed inside them instead of sixpences…
Could this ever be possible? Joan Aiken did have a go at a merry sequel, but it was too tongue in cheek, even by her wild standards to ever see the light of day:When she imagined the famous first volume of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken was planning to replicate the eye-watering reading of her own early childhood, full of oubliettes and haunted castles, blunderbusses and shipwrecks, as it was these wild adventures that she had most enjoyed, not some of the more saccharine tales generally recommended for children in the 1920’s. But when she herself became a children’s writer she was always very concerned for the well-being of her readers, as she wrote in her spirited guide The Way to Write for Children:
Very good, but happy endings? Not necessarily, besides they so rarely last for long in real life, and if you have polished off all future adventures for your characters, then where is the next story to come from…?
In this festive tale that Joan once cooked up, the puddings turn out to have been poisoned by an impostor cook called Mrs Svengali – now seen off with her fiendish highwayman friends by Bonnie and Sylvia who have been practising with crossbows.
The ever resourceful Bonnie turns to the newly arrived Duchess of Battersea, Simon’s Aunt Hettie, who was to have provided the diamonds for the puddings saying:
Even now Joan Aiken can’t quite allow herself a happy ending – let’s hope the ever capable Mrs Shubunkin has some spirits of Rhubarb on hand for poor Aunt Hettie – like many a Happy Christmas Day, this one might end with the need for a dose of salts!
I hope you (and Joan Aiken!) will forgive me for this bit of festive nonsense!
Find out about the real Wolves sequels here