In the spirit of Joan Aiken…

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‘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…Steam sleighAnother 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.

Slighcarp

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.

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Tunney play

Script published by Nick Hern Books

Read more about Tunney’s adaptation here

Thanks to all at The Jack Studio for a fantastic evening!

Illustration from the Folio edition by Bill Bragg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s a Joan Aiken novel – what did you expect?

Smile of the Stranger

Nowadays everyone is a reviewer, but are they all on the same page?

Joan Aiken was lucky enough to be regularly reviewed in newspapers and book supplements as her books came out, but she would have been astonished to see the numbers of readers who now like to post and share their thoughts on book sites like Goodreads, or leave reviews on Amazon, and the wild variety of tastes and opinions they  seem to offer on their reading of the same novel!

It has to be said that Joan Aiken loved a good plot, and often got completely carried away  finding herself with many too many loose ends to tie up, let alone characters to dispose of in various ghoulish or gruesome ways…  Romance, it has to be said,  was not her forte; she believed her writing for children should have a positive outcome, and have, if not a classically happy ending, then at least one that offered hope to young readers who had followed heart in mouth the adventures of her heroes and heroines.

But with her adult novels, whether Gothic period adventure or modern murder mystery, the outcome was never predictable…and there wasn’t always a romantic outcome for these adult heroes and heroines. As one reviewer pointed out, ‘With Joan Aiken a good death can count as a happy ending.’ Heroines were as likely to come to grief as find a man, but they would have a lot of useful experience along the way…

Much seems to depend on the expectation of the reader, and here, often the cover design or publisher’s blurb can do more harm than good. When Joan Aiken’s novels appeared in their garish 1970’s ‘airport’ paperback covers they often showed scenes wildly removed from their actual content – girls ran from castles in their nighties while brooding villains looked on, when the girl in the novel in question was in fact described as a duffel-coat and jeans wearing gap toothed urchin – a kind of grown up Dido Twite perhaps? These ‘Gothic Romance’ covers have now given rise to a whole genre in themselves, and have their own fascinating backstory!

But when novels are misrepresented in their presentation or description, then howls of rage and disappointment regularly pop up:

“It’s been marketed as a romance, which it isn’t. The “romance” in it is a one night stand followed by years of not communicating…”

Quite so, very sad.

But another reader of the same story finds that:

“Aiken’s gift was that she understood human nature, and here it is in all its glory, in this book. Every part of it. The relationships are real, and complicated, and untidy, like all relationships.”

Yet another finds:

“The characters were godless intellectuals trying to answer life’s great questions without the benefit of any useful tools.”

or alternatively that the novel offers:

“A psychological drama, love story, comedy, tragedy, cold war commentary, family drama, and is entirely brilliant and moving.”

So, Dear Reader, I share your rage and disappointment if you feel you were sold a pup, but if you want a thoughtful and slightly off beat view of the world, the benefit of Joan Aiken’s wide reading of all kinds of literary genres and wicked ear for dialogue, plus her generous dollops of years of interesting journeys and life experience, as opposed to a chocolate box full of make believe, then I would heartily recommend giving her a go.

But don’t blame her for the blurb, dip in – which you can now easily do online – and you might find that far from being: ‘a waste of time’  ‘with no shooting’ this one might turn out to be for you – ‘The loveliest book in the English Language!’

And I’ll give you a clue – it isn’t the one shown on the cover above…that one is wonderfully romantic!

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Find some of Joan Aiken’s Period novels here

and intriguing ‘Modern’ mysteries here

Lots more coming to EBooks soon