Anatomy 1998

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An Interview with Helen Cresswell

ARMED WITH an obsolete tape recorder and a list of questions I visited Helen Cresswell at her home in a village midway between Mansfield and Newark. Helen Cresswell has written many books for children including "The Secret World of Polly Flint," "The Bongleweed," "Moon Dial," and the Bagthorpe saga. She is also a prolific screenwriter developing television adaptations of such classics as "Five Children and It," and The Phoenix and the Carpet," by E. Nesbit. She recently wrote a series of "Famous Five" dramas and is currently working on a film adaptation of her latest novel, "Stonestruck."

I wondered if there are any subjects that you consider to be taboo? You've written about witches which to many people is a taboo subject.

Yes. That all came in with this sort of fundamental Christian thing. I think (touch wood) that it's been and gone. It's not so much a question of my having taboos as that I actually write out of my own childhood rather than trying to be madly contemporary, as I think that is a big mistake for anybody to make. In my day there was no question of writing about some of the things that are making headlines now. That book "Junk" that won the Carnegie Medal, all to do with kids getting caught up in heroin taking and girls getting pregnant at sixteen while they're still taking heroin, might once have been regarded as taboo. I would still consider it to be for teenagers rather than for what I would call 'proper children.' Obviously there's a taboo on bad language but then I wouldn't tend to write it anyway. I'm not conscious of boundaries when I write. I'm not even terribly conscious that I'm writing for children at all; I'm just enjoying myself. Though what that says for my mental age one doesn't know.

So there's nothing that you would consciously censor then?

No. Not really. I get quite sick of the fact that a lot of stuff these days is 'agenda-driven.' If you look at titles even for younger children then there's a flavour of the month. For instance it might be bullying, and then all the books are to do with that, and then it's step-fathers and step-mothers. The point is that you can see it. I think that's horrible and no way to write a story.

So you wouldn't recommend it?

I wouldn't recommend it at all. It's quite possible that a bully might turn up in one of my books but it wouldn't be because I'd sat down one day and thought, "Whats a good 'in' subject? I know, let's write a book about bullying."

I've noticed that you have a real ear for the way that children talk to one another. Do you have to update that in any way?

This is interesting because just yesterday they started re-showing "The Demon Headmaster," which I adapted from books that were actually written in the early 1980's by Gillian Cross. There are a number of people that have said to me, and the critics said it too, that this is just like listening to real children not drama school kids reading lines. You either have got an ear, or you haven't I think I have an innate ear for dialogue full stop. You pick it up from the television, or from newspapers. Somehow you know what's vaguely in. When I say 'vaguely in' I mean it, because there's nothing more painful than the sight of any grown-up trying to fall over backwards to be super-cool. Kids can see right through it. People who write books like that are extra silly because within two years it's going to be 'out' anyway as children change their patterns and their buzz-words.

Some people just have a 'tin ear'. They cannot write dialogue. dialogue on the printed page can be completely different to that which is spoken. I think my dialogue works both ways, but then I've written so may of my books knowing they were for television; right from "Lizzie Dripping" to "Stonestruck." I've adapted three of E. Nesbit's books including "The Phoenix and the Carpet," and you can lift her dialogue straight off the page - she'd got an ear. Okay it's period dialogue but nevertheless it sounded natural for those sorts of kids.

When you're looking to adapt something is that what you're looking for - something with strong dialogue?

Not at all. Usually I don't choose anyway. They come to me with an idea. When you're adapting you quite often have to change things that are not necessarily all that dramatic. It's very difficult to say what you do when you're adapting. I tend to do it intuitively, but you pick the bones out and tighten it up. In the very first episode of "The Demon Headmaster" there was little tension until I hit upon the idea of flashing three men in white coats onto the screen. They never actually speak but are seen in the distance talking to the headmaster. This is spooky and just feeds in that little bit of 'what's going on here?' that otherwise would have been lacking.

Have you ever adapted one of your own books?

Yes. More than any other, but in a funny sense I'm not adapting them because they were written for television so it's easy to turn them into television scripts because I've already seen them in my head. I haven't yet adapted one of my books that wasn't originally written for television. That would be an interesting exercise. At the moment I'm working on my first animation. I'm adapting Alison Uttley's "Little Grey Rabbit."

Is there a difference between novel writing and writing screenplays?

Yes. I like writing screenplays because in a sense I'm part of a team. I can ring other people or visit the locations and see how they're doing. I can work nine to five and it's like a proper job. With my own writing I get up early and sit by myself working. By ten o'clock I've finished for the day.

Do you have boundaries in relation to the language that you use?

In the sense that my books are not an easy read I don't have boundaries. I'm not Enid Blyton by a long stick. I don't think 'Oh I can't use that word, it's got three syllables in it.' I use whatever jolly word I want to, and I think that if they can't pick up its meaning from the sentence then there's always a dictionary they can go to. It never even crosses my mind to make it simple, so I haven't any boundaries language-wise at all. The only exception to that is if I'm commissioned to write books for early or reluctant readers. You know then that the vocabulary mustn't be daunting.

What starts a story off for you? Is it anything in particular?

Places are quite common, or it can even be an item on the news. I got the idea for "The Bongleweed" from a little item I saw on Blue Peter.

How do you develop an idea?

I wait for a long while. I just sow it into my sub-conscious because I'm a great believer in the sub-conscious doing most of the work and I know better than to sit down and try to write straight away. Like an oyster making a pearl you let a little bit of grit get in and then it takes time for the pearl to develop. I do very little plotting. I'm a pretty hopeless plotter basically. I sit down and write and see what happens.

How do you see the future of children's TV?

We must never forget that what children usually like watching, apart from good children's programmes is Coronation Street and Eastenders. When you're a child you want to know what's going on. Therefore you have to keep children's programmes up to a high standard because you're competing with really sharp programmes like The Bill.

Is there still a market for Timeslip books?

Oh yes. What is hard is to think of something fresh. My latest - "Stonestruck" - is set at Powys Castle. The Present is actually the time of the Second World War, and a child is evacuated from London to a Welsh village. Whenever a peacock's scream is heard you know there's been a slip because there are no peacocks at Powys.

One of the bees in my bonnet is that I don't believe in linear time. We say we've got three dimensions but we don't know how many dimensions we've got. We think we know about Time, but do we?

Physically, how do you write?

I still do it in pen and ink. I won't use a biro. I love the lovely fat feel of the pen in my hand.

Do you have your work typed up then?

No. I've got an electronic type-writer. I do it myself. If people say "Have you got it on disc? I say, "I've got it in duplicate with a carbon."

Helen Purcell Houldsworth

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