Meet Joan Aiken…

JA Movie

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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Click here to watch

 Or go to the Joan Aiken Website FUN page and click on the MOVIE

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trick or Treat? Life with Joan Aiken’s Mortimer the Raven…

Mortimer &amp; Jones Fam.

A typical day for the Jones Family – mayhem with Mortimer, or occasionally miracles; although Joan Aiken described him as the personification of a wonderfully childish ID to the sensible Arabel’s Ego, his wilful mischief which severely tried their patience was just as likely to turn up lost treasure and bring delight to his weary but ever-loving family!

As a couple of Mortimer fans have observed, ravens have a long and significant history in legends and literature, there is much fascinating material to be found about them, whether as ‘tricksters’ or all knowing clowns, or prophets of doom; Joan Aiken would have been familiar with many of these myths and stories. She was also an early reader of Edgar Allan Poe, and even won a china bust of the writer as an award for one of her own mysteries – and Poe is obviously responsible for Mortimer’s one and only utterance of ‘Nevermore!’ taken from his poem The Raven.

In fact Joan Aiken’s raven is as much a parody of Poe’s aggravating night time visitor, as he is a figment of Aiken’s own imagination; but he also owes a good deal of his insouciant character and the wicked twinkle of his eye to his artist creator, Quentin Blake who drew the characters of the Jones family and their ‘great awful bird’ for the first Jackanory stories where he appeared.

Mort Poortrait

In this one, ‘Mortimer’s Portrait on Glass’ which has luckily been preserved, he is also given voice (as, charmingly is Arabel too) by the great Bernard Cribbins in a fantastic tale of a typical Jones family holiday which includes the gleeful destruction of a glass factory and the discovery of a dinosaur…

Joan Aiken had an enormous amount of fun incorporating the worst disasters that could occur in or out of the family home in a way that is deeply cathartic to the parents of small children, and which all can enjoy sharing at any reading aloud session.

Thanks are also due to the amazing puppet team led by Francis Wright,  with designs by Malcolm James for the BBC who brought several series of the stories to life on CBBC, and built wonderful sets that even took Mortimer back to his ancestral home at The Tower of London.

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These delightful puppet films are now available to download here, although sadly the BBC store itself will be closing down soon. (Or even more fun – in Spanish here! )

So if you are out Trick or Treating over the Hallowe’en season, one door you should perhaps not knock at is that of the Jones Family in Rainwater Crescent, London NW3 and a half…like the burglar from that story above coming back for his sock…?

You are likely to get more of a trick than you bargained for!

Mortimer &amp; pirate.

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Other recommended reading for Mortimer fans:

a lovely blog on Three Sets of Ravens  by Nick Swarbrick,

and  posts from the always erudite Calmgrove

Quentin Blake can also be seen here talking about working with Joan Aiken