Category Archives: Theatre

RED in Falkirk

Yesterday the Bookwitchy feet touched Falkirk soil for the first time since that fateful day in 1973. She (I mean I) saw red even on the train (a woman wearing a lovely red coat, but who wasn’t actually going where I was going). My mind was on red things, as there was a sort of dress code for attending the RED Book Award in Falkirk, and I’d dug out the few red garments I own.

Cathy MacPhail

Ever since I knew we’d be moving to Scotland, I’d been thinking how much I wanted to attend the RED Book Award, and then it happened so fast I barely knew what I was doing (I had to ditch Daughter, and feed up the camera battery), but everything worked out in the end. I walked to fth (Falkirk Town Hall), which was teeming with people in red, and I found Falkirk librarian and organiser Yvonne Manning (a Geraldine McCaughrean look-alike if ever there was one), and she showed me to the front row, despite me mentioning how I’m a back row kind of witch. There was coffee, and there were authors. All four shortlisted authors were there; Cathy MacPhail, Alan Gibbons, Oisín McGann and Alex Woolf.

Alan Gibbons and interviewers

They were being interviewed by some of the participating schools’ pupils, and it was rather like speed dating. I chatted briefly to Cathy, who’d brought her daughter along, and who said how nice Alex Woolf had turned out to be. (She was right. He is.)

Alex Woolf and interviewers

Barbara Davidson and interviewers

I found a very red lady, who turned out to be sponsor Barbara Davidson, who makes the RED award, and whose wardrobe apparently is extremely red. I like people who know what they like in the way of colour. There were even helpers wearing red boilersuits.

Back in the front row, we were treated to Yvonne Manning entering dancing, wearing a short red kilt, spotty tights and red ribbons in her hair, and she got the popstar reception treatment. Apparently ‘timing is everything’ and she managed to steer the whole day to a tight schedule.

There was a prize for anyone who found a red nose under their seat. Obviously. Another prize was offered for the school that left their seats the tidiest. After short introductions for the authors, the schools had prepared short dramatised sketches of the shortlisted books.

Yvonne Manning

At this point the Mayor came and sat on my right. Sorry, I mean Provost. Mayors are Provosts up here. Same lovely necklaces, though. And Yvonne reappeared wearing an incredible red patchwork coat, well worthy of Joseph, and it earned her some appreciative whistling from the audience.

Then it was time for prizes for the best book reviews, and the winning one was read out (after the break, after Yvonne had apologised for forgetting this important thing). She’s sweet, but also hard. The authors were given four minutes each to talk about their books; ‘speak briefly!’ They spoke about where they get ideas from. Oisín stared at people until it got ‘creepy enough.’ Cathy had found out about a real vampire in Glasgow in the 1950s, and still regrets she couldn’t have ‘It Walks Among Us’ as the title for Mosi’s War…

Alan Gibbons

Alex described how his Soul Shadows came about, which involved him writing one chapter a week, and then offering his readers several options on how to continue and they voted on which they preferred. Alan could well believe in Glaswegian vampires, and mentioned meeting Taggart once. Football is his passion. Alan’s. Not Taggart’s.

We had more dramatised books and then we listened to the woman who is the answer to my prayers. Anne Ngabia is the librarian at Grangemouth High School, and in the past she has set up little libraries in Kenya. The RED Book Award is even being shadowed by a school in Nairobi, and she showed us pictures from her libraries, as well as a short film based on Mosi’s War that they’d made.

Oisín McGann

After a very nice lunch, where I just might have offered to sue the Provost as I got him to test the veggieness of the food (if he got it wrong, I mean), the authors signed masses of books and many other things as well. The pupils thronged so much that it was hard to move for the sheer excitement of it.

Back to business again (the people of Falkirk don’t believe in half measures when they do their book awards), and we learned that the dramatised books we’d seen would tempt most people to read Alex’s book, Soul Shadows. They do believe in prizes too, so next to be rewarded were the red clothes, etc. I’d tried to bribe the judge over lunch, but it seems the prize wasn’t for old people. He turned out to be quite good at rap. Something along the lines of Red Hot. (If you want to win, I reckon wigs or pyjamas is the way to go.)

RED clothes winners

With ‘no time for fun’ the authors were then seated in two blue velvet sofas (they got the colour wrong there, didn’t they?) and the Q&A session kicked off. Good questions, and lots of them, so I won’t go into detail here. Halfway through Oisín was asked to do a drawing, and Yvonne magicked up a flipchart out of nowhere and while the others laboured over more answers, Oisín drew a fabulous picture of, well, of something.

Oisín McGann

Provost Reid, Barbara Davidson, Alan Gibbons and pupil from Denny HS

Finally, the time came to announce the winner. Provost Reid – in his beautiful red gown – made everyone stamp their feet to sound like a drumroll, and I rather hoped the ‘terraces’ behind me wouldn’t collapse under all that vigour. He told us how much he likes books, and then it was over to a fez-wearing pupil from Denny to open the red envelope and tell us the winner was

Alan Gibbons. His thank you speech was on the topic of ‘ you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ and that could be libraries, or it could be your life. We complain too much in our comfortable lives, compared to those readers in Kenya we met earlier.

There were prizes, naturally, for the runners-up. And photos. Lots and lots of them. Cathy commandeered her handbag to be brought and she pondered taking a selfie, but in the end she went for a conventional picture of her and her pals.

Cathy MacPhail, Alex Woolf, Alan Gibbons, Provost Reid and Oisín McGann

Cathy MacPhail and Alex Woolf

Us old ones chatted over mugs of tea before going our separate ways. And some of the helpers and I have vowed to wear much warmer clothes next time (that is, if I’m ever allowed back).

A big thank you from me, to Yvonne for inviting me when I dropped a heavy hint, and to her helpers for helping so well, the schools for their magnificent work, and to Cathy, Alan, Oisín and Alex for writing the books that caused us all to be there, at fth.

And the prize for tidiest row of seats? The prize was Oisín’s picture. And I can assure you it won’t go to us on the front row. Cough.

YAY! YA+

And they have gone live! I might have whispered about Kirkland Ciccone’s grand YA plans before, but now the website is publicly available and it’s actually got stuff on it. Not too much dust yet, either.

Kirkland Ciccone

We can’t let London have all the fun, and not even Edinburgh or Glasgow. It makes sense to take Scotland’s first YA festival to Cumbernauld. It’s where it’s all happening. (Secretly I’m hoping for Craig Ferguson.)

Keith Charters

But if I can’t have Craig, then Kirkland has put together a lovely list of YA authors from, or living in, Scotland. They are Catherine MacPhail, Linda Strachan, Barry Hutchison, Theresa Breslin, Keith Charters, Matt Cartney, Victoria Campbell, Lari Don, Roy Gill and Alex Nye. As well as Kirkie himself. There could have been more names on the list, and by this I mean that there are more YA authors in Scotland. Many more. Some were busy. And then I gather Kirkie and his Cumbernauld theatre venue ran out of space. (The answer would be a second day… Or a third.)

Theresa Breslin

The day we do have is April 24th and I’m so looking forward to it. I have demanded to revert to being 14 again. If that’s not possible, I’ll have a press pass (which will probably be home made by Kirkie, but hey, as long as it gets me in).

This time round it will be for schools only. It’s a good way to start, and will mean larger audiences than the old-fashioned way with organic ticket-buying individuals. But I would say that if you are of the organic persuasion, I’d pester. Like crazy. Or there is always gate-crashing.

Linda Strachan

I’m quietly hoping this Yay! YA+ will be a success, and that it will grow into something big, and regular. Because, as I said, we have lots more authors were these came from. This year’s list contains lots of my favourites, and erm, no one that I hate, plus a couple of unknowns (to me).

So that’s all pretty good.

Ever younger kettles

Aunt Scarborough introduced the young Offspring to the Singing Kettle about twenty years ago. At that time they were mainly famous in Scotland, but filtered south to England during the period when we adored them the most. They were wonderful. And funny. Good all round entertainers, who took well known tunes and gave them new lyrics, or wrote their own, or simply used traditional songs for children, but in a fun way. Nothing boring about them at all. I would happily have listened to them with no child as an excuse.

Now they are stopping their Singing Kettling. The two main stars retired a while back, and with the audience age plummeting, they no longer have their ideal primary school aged children, but are performing funny songs to children perhaps too young to understand. (See my comments about this below. ‘Little Diddle’ didn’t even know his own name. But he was cute.)

But I simply had to treat Daughter to one more humiliation while she’s home for Christmas, and take her to see the farewell tour. (She enjoyed it, really.) It was good, but I can see that things are not what they were. Lots of things aren’t. The Singing Kettle have provided fun and intelligent songs for many, many children. And judging by comments from various astrophysicists on Daughter’s facebook page, and the fact that Dodo gave Son a Singing Kettle DVD for Christmas, I’d say that those primary age children may have got older, but they never forgot. That’s proof of quality.

Below is CultureWitch’s review of Monday morning’s concert at the Albert Halls.

“There was a slight disadvantage to sitting on row five when they used their large water ‘pistol’ from the stage. It reached. Very well, too. Although I didn’t do what many parents did, which was to hold their children in front of them as shields. Some parents they turned out to be!

The Singing Kettle at Stirling Albert Halls

I – on the other hand – was an exemplary parent and brought my baby girl to what has been advertised as the last tour for The Singing Kettle. She probably hadn’t been since the millennium concert at the Albert Halls in Stirling, which means it had been a 15 year gap. Contrary to what Daughter thought, you can actually go to these shows as an adult. Neither of us fell over, bumped our heads and cried, nor did we require help to go to the toilet.

It was good. Apart – possibly – from the water and the fact that The Singing Kettle will be no more. It was a tonic, on a Monday morning after Christmas, with plenty of grinning and laughing, not to mention singing. I did draw the line at rocking my poor head from left to right and forwards and back, going over the Irish Sea.

The Singing Kettle mug

Despite there being no Artie and Cilla anymore, Kevin and Anya did a great job, ably assisted by the still baby-faced Gary and his purple trombone. Anya is testament to the strength of the brand, having herself been one of the audience participants, being invited onto the stage. (She clearly never left, which was something I did think about as parents blithely let their offspring wander off with these strangers, in order to perform on stage with them. Did they see them again? ‘The tiniest ever’ Diddle in the first half was the smallest, cutest participant I have ever seen. A little confused maybe, but so keen, and later seen trying to return to the stage again.)

We knew some of the songs (because back then we were pros) and some not, as they were possibly using new material as well as recycling old songs forever. Daughter had forgotten Bunny Fou Fou, but not I. And you have to love Music Man (even without Cilla…).

The preparing and cooking (and subsequent burning) of the turkey made an impression on the younger part of the audience, especially cleaning it with a toilet brush. The snowman who sneezed all over and the galloping reindeer, not to mention the adorable yellow ducks (including tiny Diddle) helped make this a very visual show.

But we weren’t allowed to take pictures (if I’d been Diddle’s mother, I’d have taken a photo of him in his duck costume anyway!) so we don’t have much to show you. Daughter did hit the merchandise stall as soon as we arrived, however. It might be her last opportunity.

The Singing Kettle mug

There was some Hokey Cokey at the end, and a fitting finale of pushing Granny off the bus. (As if we would…)

If you’ve never seen The Singing Kettle live, I feel sorry for you. We used to travel across half the country for them, whereas now it was a mere walk away.”

Best of 2014

I was about to say that whereas I had told myself I’d go for fewer books on my best list of the year (best books, not best list) this time, it has proved too hard to do. But then I discovered I managed to slim the list last year, so I have a bit of credit and I can let the list swell. Because I must.

Can’t even offer you a photogenic pile of best books, with most of them still hiding in boxes. Besides, one of the best comes on Kindle, and the Resident IT Consultant’s e-reader isn’t the prettiest of things to take a picture of.

2014 was a good year for series of books coming to an end, be it the two-pack type or the trilogy or the ten-pack. I decided not to put those on The List, but I am happy to mention them.

They are Timothée de Fombelle with Vango 2, Caroline Lawrence with the fourth book about Detective Pinkerton, Derek Landy at the end of his ten book Skulduggery Pleasant marathon, Lucy Hawking and the fourth book about George in space, Gennifer Choldenko and the last Al Capone story, Deborah Ellis about Parvana again, Teri Terry’s dystopia had as satisfying an end as you could hope for, Gillian Philip finally finished her faeries in Icefall, and Che Golden sorted her fairies out too.

Helen Grant and Eoin Colfer did beautifully with their second books from Belgium and time travel London, so there is more to look forward to there.

Two authors are standing shoulder to shoulder on my awards stand this year; Michelle Magorian and Nick Green. Michelle for Impossible! and Nick with his Firebird ebook trilogy.

The runners-up are – in no particular order – Ali Sparkes and Destination Earth, Sally Nicholls and Shadow Girl, Cliff McNish and Going Home, Tanya Landman and Buffalo Soldier, Ellen Renner and Tribute, Simon Mason and Running Girl, Carl Hiaasen and Skink No Surrender, Robin Talley and Lies We tell Ourselves.

Thank you everyone, for hours and hours of good company, and please keep up the good work!

Michelle Magorian in the limelight

If anyone had told me ten years ago that I’d be able to put together a few questions for Michelle Magorian, and that she’d actually answer them for me, and take the time to check that she hadn’t written too much (too much? – Impossible!), would have seemed close to unbelievable.

There is a love and respect for Michelle both among ‘ordinary’ readers and among her peers, which stands out. She’s not the most famous author in the world, nor the richest, but there is something about the way people have a special room in their hearts for her and Mister Tom.

I loved her new novel Impossible! and I felt I wanted to ask her about it, and why it took so much longer to appear in print than you’d expect from a ‘Michelle Magorian novel.’ Why didn’t publishers tear it from her hands? Here is Michelle with – nearly all – the answers:

  1. You must be the same age as Josie. What things do/did you have in common? Were you in the Girl Guides?

I was in the Girl Guides. It was the only way I could go camping. Like Josie I was also a tomboy and went to ballet classes and I loved acting. In my teens I used to hide in our local theatre and watch new companies set up the scenery and lights. I was discovered by the man who ran the theatre who said, ‘you naughty girl!’ He directed to me to his office where he promptly gave me fliers to hand out to people to advertise the new show.

  1. And did you watch ITV? You must have got those commercials from somewhere.

Yes. My family watched some of the programmes mentioned in Impossible! Other commercial jingles around at the time were:

            Don’t forget the fruit gums Mum, You’re never alone with a strand and You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.

  1. Were you too young to have seen a Joan Littlewood production back then, or is this told from experience? If not then, did you see one later?

I was too young but when I was a drama student I knew of her and I assumed most people did. It was only later when I was carrying out research that I discovered how badly the Arts Council in this country had treated her and how she was fêted abroad. At a time when new playwrights in England were being hailed as angry young men, girls and women were told that they must never show their anger as it would make them appear ugly. Joan Littlewood did not follow this advice!

During my research I also began to have the most extraordinary coincidences. I remember looking at my October 1959 calendar and thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if Joan Littlewood was directing a production that had crowd scenes in it so that Josie could be one of the crowd’. To my astonishment I discovered that at that exact time she was directing a new musical called Make Me an Offer and that there were market scenes in the Portobello Road. I couldn’t believe it. Then I discovered that one of the cast was a young Sheila Hancock.

  1. And for the celebrity question; do you know Sheila Hancock?

I had met her briefly at award ceremonies and then later when she was made Chancellor of Portsmouth University. I received a doctorate there and try to attend at least one ceremony a year to show my support to the students who are receiving their degrees. She very kindly allowed me to interview her and shared her memories with me.

And then, before one of the summer ceremonies, when I was standing in the waiting area in my robe she suddenly walked up to me and said, ‘I’ve been offered the part of the grandmother in Just Henry.’ I was stunned having only just received the script the previous evening. After we had chatted I realised that the vice-chancellor was standing nearby. ‘This is all under wraps, ‘ I exclaimed. ‘I haven’t heard a word,’ he said.

  1. Who actually were Scowler and Moustache? Just a couple of crooks?

If I answer this question it will give away some of the Just Henry plot. So – and this is for your eyes only…

(Sorry!)

  1. I know you researched things, but were there really that many police available to solve crimes and rescue people even then?

The River Police were fantastic. As I mentioned many of them were ex-Navy. One of their many jobs (which I haven’t mentioned in the book) is that they had to keep an eye out for ‘jumpers’ (people who committed suicide). In Impossible! the extremely nasty piece of work who is after Josie has been known to Scotland Yard for some time, which is why they are using extra man power. Although he has been responsible for a number of crimes they have never had enough evidence to pin him down as he always has other people to do his dirty work and if those ‘hired helps’ don’t do a good job they ‘disappear’ until their bodies are found. Naturally I haven’t put those details in the story as it is a book for young people but I have hinted at it in a conversation between DI Gallaway and Auntie Win. They are also convinced that Josie’s life is in danger.

  1. Five years ago you reckoned the book could be out in a year. What slowed things down?

When I delivered it to my publisher I was extremely shocked to be told that she wanted me to cut most of it and make it more of a stage school story, and for it to be no more than 60,000 words but the book was mainly about a child actor working professionally in an adult world and how those experiences changed her. I looked for ways I could cut it but realised that she was telling me that it was not the kind of book she wanted to publish. In other words it was a rejection.

The literary agent representing me offered it to other publishers but she told me that they had rejected it too because it was historical fiction and that my way of writing was too traditional. She suggested I find a publisher for it myself but as you know publishers won’t look at a book unless it comes through a literary agent.

I decided to ask Martin West for advice. He had been my editor for Goodnight Mister Tom. It was then that I discovered that he had started an independent publishing company called Troika Books. He asked me to send him the manuscript and loved it. He said it had him laughing one moment and then wondering how the hell Josie was going to get out of trouble the next, which was exactly what I had intended, a mixture of comedy and drama.

He also knew of Joan Littlewood and had actually been and seen the original performance of Oh What a Lovely War at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was later that I began to wonder if some of those publishers who had rejected the manuscript had thought that Joan Littlewood was a character I had invented as I have discovered since then that there are many people who have never heard of her.

By the way, they loved her in Sweden! And in France and in Russia and…

  1. Do you think people and publishers see you mainly as a writer of WW11 fiction? More of your novels are about the theatre, although Cuckoo In the Nest obviously shares some wartime experiences.

Perhaps they do. I don’t know. Most of my books contain the seeds of later books. Goodnight Mister Tom and A Little Love Song are the only novels I have written set in the second world war although Back Home, Cuckoo In the Nest, A Spoonful of Jam and Just Henry are about families finding ways to adjust to living together and cope with post war problems.

In 1947 there was a baby boom as demobbed men returned to England and families took to their beds to keep warm as electricity was rationed during the coldest winter since the 1880s so even Josie’s existence is influenced by the second world war.

  1. Do you have any thoughts on publishing today (that you are willing to share?)

I think thoughts about publishing today would be better coming from someone inside the industry. I have noticed a lot of moving around of staff from one publisher to another.

  1. Might you return to these characters in another book? Or have they suffered enough?

I will be returning to some minor characters for another children’s novel for Troika Books but I have to confess that I would also like to write an adult book about one of the people who is in Impossible!

Witch and Michelle Magorian

Coincidences are good. They show that something was meant to be. Michelle’s writing is ‘too traditional?’ And they don’t want historical fiction? What’s wrong with people? God bless Troika Books.

I’m already looking forward to both these books. Take your time, though, Michelle. I can wait.

And I can’t resist this: ‘Den gula hinnan det är känt, den borstas bort med Pepsodent!’ It’s the only jingle I can recite, and try and visualise it delivered by Björn Borg if you can.

Impossible!

How I have waited for ‘the next’ Michelle Magorian novel! And here it is, and it is absolutely perfect and well worth the six-year wait, and I love it! (No apologies for the exclamation marks. There is one in the title of the book, too, and I’m not sure I understand the title. I might have missed something.)

Impossible! is a continuation of the theatre saga featuring the Hollis family from Cuckoo In the Nest and A Spoonful of Jam, as well as blending in with the Carpenters from Just Henry. I just love re-visiting old friends! Ten years on from Henry, we meet Josie Hollis, Elsie’s baby sister; the little girl born at the end of Cuckoo In the Nest 12 years earlier. And what a girl she is!

Michelle Magorian, Impossible!

Josie has just started stage school, and is living with her Auntie Win in London. She misses her family, but desperately wants to act. But somehow it seems as if her school doesn’t want her to. They obstruct her every step. (Between you and me, they turn out to be a useless bunch, in more ways than one. But fear not.)

Struggling to make friends and to survive her school’s rules, Josie still lands some acting parts, before she is kidnapped. It’s a case of mistaken identity, and she has to be very brave.

This book is also a tribute to (the real) Joan Littlewood’s theatre company, and it’s where Josie ends up when she’s on the run from the baddies. It’s where she learns what acting should really be about and her life changes totally, again.

You can tell that Michelle knows her theatre/film/acting world, and also that she knows exactly what life in 1959 was like. This is a wonderful adventure as far as the kidnapping drama goes, and a marvellous tale of life on the stage and on the screen, big or small. The dreaded ITV was in its infancy, and it wasn’t the done thing to watch it. I guess Michelle did anyway, just like Josie.

There is no need to be interested in acting. The story will make you want to know. As far as I’m concerned it could have gone on for a few hundred pages more than the 600 it is. This is feelgood excitement of the very best kind.

(Impossible! was published last month, right on cue to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Joan Littlewood’s birth. I wish she’d been here to read it.)

Bookwitch bites #127

You know books? There is money in them. Sometimes, at least, and not only for author and publisher, although I’d wager Michael Morpurgo has made a reasonable sum from War Horse the book. Possibly more from the play and the film.

Michael Morpurgo at the Lowry

War Horse the play has just finished its second run at the Lowry, hopefully pleasing the 200,000 people who came to see it. But what’s more, it hasn’t merely earned money for Michael or the theatre. It has been estimated that Greater Manchester is better off by £15 million. And it’s pretty good that books can have such an effect.

For the last performance in Salford they had a Devon farmer as a Devon farmer extra.

Not a farmer, nor a twinkly old elf, is how Neil Gaiman doesn’t describe his friend Terry Pratchett in the Guardian this week. Terry is driven by rage, Neil claims, and I can sort of see where he’s coming from with that. I reckon Terry got pretty annoyed to hear me say that my local library service banned him from the under 16s. (Correction, it was their representative who did. Not the whole service. But still.) And any person with any decency would be furious about what’s wrong in this world. And luckily we have the non-twinkly Terry to write wonderful books about it.

Someone who scares me much more is Kevin Brooks. I know. He seems non-scary, but his books deal with people in circumstances I find hard to cope with. Kevin has just written a book for Barrington Stoke, to be published in January 2015, and it might be short, and it might be an easy read. But it’s also not an easy read, in that it deals with the hard reality for young, male, teenagers. A typical Brooks, in other words.

Barrington Stoke make books accessible to readers who would otherwise not read. Daniel Hahn was on the radio this week, talking for 13 and a half (his own description) minutes on the importance of translated books. They make books accessible to people who would otherwise not be able to read French or Finnish, or any other ‘outlandish’ language.

Daniel has also worked hard on the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, to be published in March 2015. I’m looking forward to that, and hopefully this new companion will pave the way for a few more readers, too.

Whereas authors playing football will achieve exactly what? OK, let’s not be negative or anti-sports here. I did actually want to go and see the football match between English crime writers and their Scottish counterparts. It was part of Bloody Scotland last weekend, but unfortunately the match clashed with an event, and being lazy, I chose to sit down in-doors instead of standing on the side of a rectangle of grass watching grown men kick a ball around.

The winning Bloody Scotland football team - 2014

I understand the Scottish team won. Ian Rankin is looking triumphant, and I can see Craig Robertson, Christopher Brookmyre and Michael J Malone, plus some more people I don’t recognise in shorts.