Peter Collington tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about his wordless picture book which this year becomes a TV film.
One Christmas Eve when I was young, my brother and I were given silver guns in leather holsters. It was the best present I had ever had. The fawn-coloured leather smelt so good I kept bringing the holster up to my nose to repeat the sensation. The guns slipped perfectly into the holsters and my brother and I spent hours, days and weeks practising fast draws and blowing each other away to the sound of exploding caps with a drifting thread of smoke.
I vowed never to forget the man who gave us those wonderful presents. He was Father Christmas. At that stage I didn’t know exactly how he knew what present I wanted and how he found the Dutch cottages at the end of the quay in Mudeford where we lived. I just knew he would.
But when I grew up and had a child of my own, I began to get more concerned about the practicalities of how Father Christmas found each child’s house and how he knew what presents they wanted. When my daughter was six, we were living on a new housing estate in Creekmoor, near Poole in Dorset. The house did not have a chimney. My daughter and I were worried about how Father Christmas would gain entry.
I remember strolling around the estate trying to think of ideas for a new book. I needed money fast. Bills and rent were mounting up. I was so broke I hadn’t been able to get all the presents my daughter wanted. Everything seemed hopeless and I prayed for a miracle of some sort. As I tucked my daughter into bed, she said, `Are you sure Father Christmas will be able to get in, Dad?’
`Sure,’ I lied, ‘He probably has duplicate keys .to every house.’ This seemed to satisfy her and she quickly dropped off to sleep.
But sleep didn’t come for me quite so easily. I lay in bed and tossed and turned. I went downstairs and unlocked the door and was then kept awake thinking how easy it would be for a burglar to come in and rip off our rented TV so I went down and locked the door again. What would my daughter’s state of mind be, in the morning, when she looked down at the end of her bed and found that the stocking was empty?
I stared out of the bedroom window. Up there, somewhere, was Father Christmas. There had to be some way of getting him down to the right house in the hope he had on board the presents my house so desperately needed. My confidence in his navigational abilities was fast fading. It was getting close to morning …
I heard a noise in the next room. I peeped in. There, at the end of my daughter’s bed, scrutinizing her note to Santa, was a 7-inch high fairy! She flew downstairs and I heard the key turning in the front door. I crept down myself and sneaked a look round the comer. A host of fairies had flown into the room and were collecting the now lighted candles from the Christmas tree. Each fairy took a candle and flew back outside into the snowy night.
This was incredible!
I rushed upstairs and looked out of the bedroom window. The fairies had formed a flare path with their candles on the street. Were they going to guide Father Christmas’s sleigh into land? I grabbed my camera but found I was out of film so I did the next best thing. I seized a 3H pencil and a stack of drawing paper. I began to sketch like crazy.
The fairies’ candles looked so beautiful shining out on that Christmas Eve. I just had to record it as accurately as I could. When Father Christmas came down majestically to land, the point of my 3H pencil snapped in the excitement. Quickly I found a replacement, an FIB (not so good for details, but perfect for hazy first impressions).
The fairy was now showing Father Christmas my daughter’s note. He drew back the tarpaulin and there were all the presents. Boy, was I drawing fast now! Father Christmas put the selected presents into his sack. The little fairy drew out her own pencil (I don’t know if it was a 3H or an HB like mine, it was too far away) and proceeded to tick off all the presents as you would on a check list.
Father Christmas’s boots crunched on the snow, then hit the carpet and I heard him wheezing up the stairs. I stayed in the shadows and kept drawing. He came to the top of the hallway and I caught a fleeting glimpse of that wonderful flushed face. This was the same man who’d brought my brother and me the guns all those years ago. I wanted to rush over and say `thanks’, but managed to stop myself. This would have been inappropriate behaviour in the circumstances. Father Christmas was working. He wouldn’t want any interruptions.
It seemed only a matter of moments before he was gone. At first I felt an empty feeling because I’d had a chance to shake hands with one of the most important people in the world and I’d blown it. A feeling of great regret hung over me. And then it dawned on me. I looked over all the sketches I’d done. Father Christmas had given me something special, too: an idea for a book. Now I would be able to pay the rent, keep up the HP payments and stock the fridge.
When my daughter woke up the next morning, she was in a state of high excitement. She ripped off all the wrapping paper to get to her gifts. Every present on her list was there. She called out to me. I went into her room and just the look on her face was the best Christmas present I could have ever had.
One year and four months later, I finished the book (the sketches had been invaluable). When it came out, it was reviewed everywhere and was a great success. It’s even been turned into a film to be shown this Christmas on BBC1. The thing we don’t realise about fairy tales is that sometimes in life they actually happen …
The cover of Peter Collington’s On Christmas Eve (0 434 93324 4, £7.95), is featured on the front of BfK this month. The book was published by Heinemann in 1990 and the paperback (Mammoth, 0 7497 0967 7,£3.99) has just become available. BBC1 are transmitting the animated film at Christmas.
His latest book, again wordless, is The Midnight Circus, 0 434 93225 2, at £8.99.