Half a million copies sold last year alone. Still running strong after 40 years. A current total of 21 million copies for 130 titles. If there were any justice, Jean Adamson would be rich and famous. Jean who? You know, the distaff side of the team that created Topsy & Tim . Yes, they are household names, but it is only recently that Jean has enjoyed a financial security which her husband Gareth never lived to see.
Yet it is typical of this perky little 71-year-old, with a fragile-sounding voice that is wholly deceptive, to say that her life has been one long holiday. We may see years of freelance uncertainty, bringing up three kids in deep Cambridgeshire countryside (‘great for being poor’), and sudden shattering widowhood, as stressful, but to her it is earning a living doing something she wanted to do with someone she loved.
Jean and Gareth married in 1957 and had twenty-five years together. But they first met at Goldsmiths’ art college, each emerging from a bumpy wartime childhood. Jean, born in south London, was starting at the grammar school the very day war broke out, and instead found herself evacuated ‘all in our new winter uniforms in the blazing heat of that September’ to a destination only the train driver knew. ‘It played havoc with my education, but I was hooked on drawing. Art school at sixteen, just before the war ended, was like heaven – I couldn’t believe it, drawing all day!’
Gareth, two years older, left school at fourteen for art college in his native Liverpool. At fifteen he joined his family in Northumberland, where his father was organising a Home Guard group. ‘I always think of them as Captain Mainwaring and Pike – in true Pikeish fashion he was climbing the school wall to fetch fish and chips for the fire-watchers when he fell and hurt his back.’ Not funny, for he developed ankylosing spondylitis ‘which laid him low for many years – he was supposed never to walk again. Yet it was funny the way things worked out.
‘The end of the war saw lots of servicemen returning to college on big grants, and when Gareth, whose parents could never have afforded the fees, turned up for interview on disability benefit, the Head suggested that since he’d been hurt fire-watching in the Home Guard he could get a 100 per cent ex-Serviceman’s grant. Brilliant!’
Both studied illustration; Gareth then joined an advertising agency in Newcastle, and Jean taught Illustration and Design at Goldsmiths’ before going into the cartoon film industry. ‘I had a lovely time. It was a huge unit in London’s Dover Street run by an ex-UPA American – a breakaway doing new modernistic “contemporary” work, stylish amusing cartoons, very unlike Disney.’
She stayed in touch with Gareth, who visited her and then courted her by letter for a year. She laughs now, wistfully. ‘He was very witty. His letters were so funny – I kept them but somehow along the way I’ve lost them.’ They married, packed up their jobs and she moved to Newcastle where they aimed to produce illustrated books ‘which obviously meant children’s. Gareth had taught himself to be an excellent writer while on his back, and was doing all sorts of stuff, while we earned our real living with advertisements for Fairy, forerunner of Procter & Gamble in Newcastle. Then his agent mentioned Blackie had a slot for a series for young children.
‘We’d never drawn for children before. We looked around the bookshops: no need for more animals, which I liked drawing, nor fantasy and magic, which Gareth liked. There was the Janet and John series, which bore no relation to real life: Britain had started swinging, there was a whole new world coming. I’d understood that through my film work, so I suggested we do something about now.
‘We did a word-count of a Toytown book, because I’d adored Beaman as a child. Boy or girl? One of each, and because with two older brothers I’d always been a feminist, they had to be equal, so twins. We were aiming at about three-year-olds; Gareth wanted magic, but I said no, to small children everything is fresh and wonderful.’
Gareth was the writer. ‘He planned one story for every day of the week, with a repeated theme at the beginning on what they saw when they first looked through the window – that was what the story would be about. The first was Topsy & Tim: Monday Book : it was raining!’ She hunts out the original they sent to Blackie, a perfect miniature book. ‘I hadn’t meant it to be so tiny, but I feel happier with that size: the concept is so small you include only what you need.’
This little square was published as 9½ x 7 inches, the foundation for the series throughout the sixties and early seventies, until the oil crisis halved the format and they became ‘Handy Books’, very like the later Ladybird size. ‘In 1960 most children’s books were alternating four-colour/two-colour, but Blackie brought out Topsy & Tim in huge numbers with full colour on every page – and at 3s.6d [about 17p]. People didn’t know how they did it, and it was a great success.’
In 1968, after Gareth won a BBC competition for a new playwright in the north-east and seemed on the brink of Big Things like Z-Cars , they moved south to be near London; on cue, a political crisis put everything on ice, and they found themselves in fenland Wicken. They each did other books, worlds away from Topsy & Tim : Gareth was widely praised for his histories of domestic life and people at work for Abelard-Schuman, which were wonderfully hand-lettered, amusing and packed with detail, and Jean produced picture books, like the story of Ahmed, an engaging tortoise who packed ’em in with his rocking guitar, with World’s Work and Chambers. Gareth developed their habit of collecting old books into an antiquarian book business, tearing off at dawn to man his stall in antique markets. And the debts piled up.
Jean speaks of him affectionately as a walking chaos, hopeless with money, always breaking or losing things, multi-talented but soon bored with any one project. Yet they never fought and she happily followed his lead. He tended to suddenly ditch agents until Blackie suggested they did not need one at all. But Blackie came infuriatingly to take them for granted, changing things without consultation and growing careless with the printing. Then the scene changed, and 1988 brought a new format and a fresh style; it is only recently, however, that Jean’s new agent, Sheila Watson, has performed miracles with the contract problems she had been left with.
Gareth’s brain tumour was misdiagnosed until it was far too late. They had decided to renovate a derelict 16th-century house in a nearby village, but he did not live to see its splendid beamed glory. With tragic irony, his death and a wise builder freed Jean from debt. As someone who had never even visited the bank, she now took on everything, dealt with the massive rebuilding, their three children (Leo was twenty, Gabrielle eighteen and Kate sixteen – today she has four grandchildren ‘whom Gareth would have loved’), and bringing Topsy & Tim into a new era with Penguin and now Ladybird, with Gareth’s name kept alive. Blackie were relieved – Topsy & Tim was their major takeover asset.
Jean has added 39 titles. She had usually done the research, the page roughs and picture layouts, leaving space for Gareth’s words. ‘It was the writing that made them so popular – someone would have illustrated them. Yes, I’d done the spadework, but I found the writing incredibly difficult: to keep titles flowing they had become very informative, and that’s hard in one little paragraph per page while telling a jolly story.’
With the ’88 makeover Blackie used a new artist and added an outline and bright ink colouring. ‘A great lift,’ says Jean, though I personally miss the texture and shadows of the originals. Later Penguin would restyle the covers, and add contemporary ideas like nits, dinosaurs, bullying and Jenny in her wheelchair. Jean no longer draws them, but offers what amounts to a storyboard for other illustrators. She has prepared an amazing style-bible, listing and illustrating every detail of the twins’ appearance and lives, their house, town, neighbours, friends and their families. When she speaks of there being a huge mine of out-of-print Topsy & Tim titles to work out, she could add that she has provided the treasure map.
Topsy and Tim are forever young. ‘They started off pre-school, went to playgroup for years, then primary school and their fifth birthday, and are now back in playgroup!’ But their world changes. That first Monday Book now has coloured wellingtons and a neighbour, not the milkman, calling ‘Nice weather for ducks!’ – because many people no longer have a milkman, just as the early twins had never seen a motorway. Back in the time of Handy Books, black children in rural Cambridgeshire were sparse, so chancing upon someone who taught in a Gravesend school with 70 per cent Sikh children, Jean spent a day with a Sikh family, visiting Sikh shops and a temple, photographing, sketching and learning to count to five in Punjabi. The result was Topsy & Tim Meet New Friends .
Topsy & Tim are also “new experience” books. Topsy & Tim Go Swimming is one of the most popular titles: ‘Parents trust them, so if Topsy and Tim go sailing or pony-trekking, their children can do that too.’ Thus the one unchanging essence of the whole series is reassurance – the twins’ parents will not divorce, but a friend’s might. ‘Dads in particular tend to think they’re a bit tame, suggesting titles like ‘Topsy & Tim Stone the Ducks’, forgetting how they relate to very young children.’ Apparently simple, Jean’s stories are also spot on from a psychological point of view, appealing to very young children at a deep level. Thus, in Topsy & Tim and the New Baby , the twins and their friend Tony have a drink from the fridge after seeing his new baby sister breastfed; in Topsy & Tim Visit Granny and Granpa , they come to understand that their mum was once a child too.
The morning we met Jean had received a batch of charming letters from a Welsh school who had never before had an author visit, but which had some Welsh editions of Topsy & Tim from years ago. The twins are apparently too British to travel far abroad (although instructions to the illustrator to avoid steering wheels prove her publishers live in hope). With an old Topsy & Tim video still in the Internet’s top 50, a new one is planned, ‘possibly with those little CD things’ – high-tech Topsy and Tim toddle into the new millennium.
Topsy & Tim books are published by Ladybird, now part of the Penguin Group. The following is a selection of those available. As some titles mentioned in the article are no longer in print, contact Ladybird for their catalogue with a full listing.
Start School , 0 7214 2841 X
Make a New Friend (Jenny in her wheelchair), 0 7214 2843 6
Go to the Park , 0 7214 2847 9
And the New Baby . 0 7214 2851 7
Go to Hospital , 0 7214 2853 3
Meet the Police , 0 7214 2858 4
£2.99 each pbk
Storybooks published in April 1999:
A Special Visit , 0 7214 2041 9
Buckets and Spades , 0 7214 2042 7
Old Shoes, New Shoes , 0 7214 2043 5
Little Shoppers , 0 7214 2044 3
£2.50 each hbk
Storybook collections published in June 1999:
Growing Up Stories , People Who Help Us Stories and First School Stories , £4.99 each hbk, £3.99 each pbk
There are also Wipe-Clean Books (£2.50 each pbk), Sticker Activity Books (£2.50 each pbk), A Doll Dressing Book (£2.99 pbk) and Book and Tape packs (£3.99 each inc. VAT).
Photographs by Martin Ellis.
Stephanie Nettell is a critic, author and journalist on children’s books.