Martin Handford, creator of the Where’s Wally? phenomenon, discusses his hero’s visit to Tinseltown with Chris Powling.
It’s all in the detail, of course. The hunt for Wally, not to mention his latterday companions Woof, Wenda, Wizard Whitebeard and the baddie Odlaw, is only part of the fun as we scour locations (Where’s Wally?), historical periods (Where’s Wally Now?) and fantasy lands (Where’s Wally? 3: The Fantastic Journey) across immaculately laid out double spreads that teem with slapstick, visual gags and relentless needle-sharp observation. Wally’s wide-eyed walkabouts have been a runaway success for years now – with over thirty million books sold world-wide plus a top-rating children’s TV programme and a full-colour comic-strip in one of our national dailies to their credit. Clearly, this is a show which will run and run.
So Wally’s trip to Hollywood, the ultimate fantasy-historical location, was pre-ordained, perhaps. ‘I was particularly interested in history as a child,’ says Martin Handford. ‘And anything that brought that subject to life was captivating for me … historical movies were the ideal way of telling historical stories.’ Especially alluring, for him, were ‘the costumes, the crowd scenes, the Good Guy/Bad Guy element – the sort of films that were fully-fledged epics on which care and expense had been lavished! If uniforms, for instance, were unusually colourful or battle scenes shown in a particularly exciting way then I was thrilled. My interest in films was more in how the film-makers made the scenes rather than controlled the performances of individual actors.’
In short, he’s a natural second-unit director. Where’s Wally? In Hollywood offers a series of wide-screen movie ‘stills’ which combine the swashbuckle of Michael Curtiz, the eye for action of Yakima Canutt and the sublime choreography of Busby Berkeley. For all his warm feelings towards The Sea Hawk or Ben Hur, in fact, Martin’s own favourite spread is ‘A Tremendous Song and Dance’ which could have been lifted straight from 42nd Street or Gold Diggers of 1933. ‘This is simply because the subject-matter offered the most scope for the best use of a crowd scene in that the formations you get in musicals are perfect – straight lines, the same clothes or uniforms, visually striking blocks of colour – harder to design, of course, because you can’t deviate too much from the shapes you’re trying to make but incredibly satisfying.’ Also, he admits, they were even more laborious to draw than usual: two months, probably, of overnight effort (his preferred working time) on this particular double-spread instead of the usual six weeks, working actual size, with every line done free-hand – if that’s the right word for the curiously cramped way in which he holds his pen. Didn’t his teachers ever try to correct this? ‘Well, yes they did … in primary school. But I think I must have been a bit stubborn and just didn’t want to change.’
He’s stubborn, he says wrily, in other ways, too – about the sort of scenes in which he’s willing to place Wally, for example. Notable for their absence in this case are disaster-movies, gangster films and accounts of contemporary warfare. ‘Real tragedies are much too close for comfort,’ he insists. ‘There’s a level of violence beyond which I just won’t go especially where people are alive who might recall what actually happened.’ Crucial, here, is his clear image of the central character on whom all his books are based. ‘My vision of Wally is of a sort of Everyman – young, and with a very open mind, who’s happy to travel to places and observe everything that goes on around. He’s got no motivation or ambition. He just soaks up everything – someone who’s well-meaning and never gets phased or frightened by situations. He always sees things with a sense of wonder. It’s essentially a child’s vision of the world.’”
Quite … and in a world full of people who are overly motivated, or only too ambitious, is none the worse for that.
For Martin, in fact, the perfect Wally would be James Stewart as he appeared in A Wonderful Life. He has equally strong preferences for casting his other characters – Terry Thomas as Odlaw, Burgess Meredith as Wizard Whitebeard and that wonderful performer Rin-Tin-Tin (somewhat disguised) as Woof. More problematic is the part of Wenda who needs to be ‘wholesome’ and ‘a good sort’. Ginger Rogers, I suggested? ‘The wrong colouring.’ Katharine Hepburn? ‘Free-spirited, yes … but too hard-edged.’ At this point I desisted in case we had to settle for Emma Thompson.
Wait, though. Is ‘Where’s Wally? – The Movie’, a wide-screen epic in glorious technicolor so far-fetched a notion? Surely such an internationally valuable property is a natural for today’s Hollywood? Martin looked a little guarded when I put this to him. ‘Er … I hope you don’t mind me being cagey,’ he apologised. ‘You see, the more you reveal in these matters, the less likely they are to happen.’
It turns out he’s already been approached about the possibility of a cinematic Wally (though Hugh Grant will not now be considered for the central role) but there are still umpteen obstacles to be overcome before, if at all, the film goes into production. Wisely, and with another hint that deep in this shy, unassuming man there’s more than a touch of steel, he’s retained script-approval and insists on the involvement of his lifelong friend and colleague, Mike Gornall, who made such a sucess of the TV series. So, in the words of Sam Goldwyn, ‘Where’s Wally? – The Movie’ remains no more than ‘a firm maybe’ for the moment
This doesn’t seem to bother him much. ‘If it doesn’t happen, I won’t be all that upset,’ he says with a shrug. ‘The books are my first love and I always look forward to the next one … which is another fantasy book with a very strong theme to it. Do you mind if I don’t say any more about it than that right now? You see, I’ve still got a long way to go on it.’
That hint of steel again. A crucial trait, I’d have thought, in a man at the centre of a multi-million pound industry who’s determined to keep his integrity alive and well. As someone whose chances of finding Wally on some Handford spreads are about as slim as winning the National Lottery, though, I couldn’t resist one final question. ‘Are you ever tempted to drive everyone mad by leaving Wally out altogether?’ I asked him. ‘Well,’ he replies with a sideways look, ‘I have thought of radical things like that, yes. But it just wouldn’t be fair, would it?’
Indeed, it wouldn’t.
And that’s enough to settle the matter for Martin Handford. Behind his dazzling feel for design and meticulous craftsmanship, there’s an honesty, a lack of pretension and, in the best sense of the word, an innocence which reaches right to the heart of that which is childlike in all of us whatever our age. Long Live Wally, say I.
‘Where’s Wally?’ books are all published by Walker – hardbacks are £8.99, paperbacks £4.99. We give here details of those mentioned:
Where’s Wally?, 0 7445 0413 9 hbk, 0 7445 1099 6 pbk
Where’s Wally Now?, 0 7445 0711 1 hbk, 0 7445 1325 1 pbk
Where’s Wally? 3: The Fantastic Journey, 0 7445 1144 5 hbk, 0 7445 2001 0 pbk
Where’s Wally? In Hollywood, 0 7445 2232 3 hbk, 0 7445 3670 7 pbk