1. Grange Hill Rules O.K.?
|2. The Crazy Joke Book||Rogers||Beaver|
|3. The Worzel Gummidge Cookbook||Hall||Knight|
|4. I Like This Poem||Webb||Puffin|
|5. Star Trek: The Motion Picture||Roddenbury||Futura|
|6. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory||Dahl||Puffin|
|7. Send Off For It||Gundrey||Beaver|
|9. Tarka the Otter||Williamson||Puffin|
|10. The Crack-a-Joke Book||Puffin|
|11. Young Spotter’s Guides: Birds||Usborne|
|12. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator||Dahl||Puffin|
|13. The Space Monster||Macdonald Educational|
|14. Charlotte’s Web||White||Puffin|
|15. Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew meet Dracula||Armada|
|16. The Machine Gunners||Westall||Puffin|
|17. Burglar Bill||Ahlberg||Picture Lions|
|18. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe||Lively||Piccolo|
|19. Worzel Gummidge Again||Todd||Puffin|
|20. Prehistoric Animals||Macdonald Educational|
This list is taken from Books for Students’ sales during the Spring term.
SOUND AND VISION
As readers we sometimes have strong feelings about how a book is treated on TV.
But what is it like for an author?
We asked John Rowe Townsend for his reactions to Southern TV’s serial of Noah’s Castle.
It’s exciting, of course, to have a book serialized on the box. For children (and most adults) the small screen is for real, the small screen is special, the small screen is fame. Suddenly the title of your book is known and the characters are familiar faces. You’re flattered that so much time and talent, such huge amounts of money, have been poured into something that began with yourself sitting alone at a typewriter.
It doesn’t last. Nobody’s going to remember the author’s name. You’re still only as good as your next book, and that’s what you have to get on with. But it’s heady for a while.
Naturally people ask you what you thought of the production. A simple question, but not necessarily easy to answer. As author you tend to think that the ideal TV version would follow the text as closely as possible. This isn’t so. A TV programme is something quite different from a book. What you have to hope for is not a literal translation but a rendering that is good of its own kind.
I’ve had two books made into ITV serials. The first was The Intruder, made by Peter Plummer for Granada. Visually beautiful, I thought, excellently cast, intelligently directed, but the script could have been better. The current one is Noah’s Castle, now being transmitted in seven parts.
This is a story set in the near future, at a time when (it’s supposed) the British economy has crashed and inflation has gone through the roof. A loaf of bread costs first pounds, then hundreds of pounds, then thousands of pounds. Armies of unemployed roam the streets and people are starving. It’s told from a young person’s point of view, but the main character is really a father. Norman Mortimer, with a wife and four children, is determined that whatever happens to anyone else his family is not going to suffer. He’s bought a big old Victorian house and stocked its basement with everything you could possibly need to survive a siege. The Mortimer teenagers are still eating well. But they can’t bear to see what is happening to those around them. One by one they peel away; and in the end, when his fortress really is besieged, Father is left heroically defending nobody.
The heart of the story is a moral dilemma. It’s not Father’s dilemma. He has none. `My family comes first’ is his view of the matter. But his children are in an agonising position. It’s easy to sympathise with people in want; not so easy to cut yourself off from a home of plenty and face starvation yourself. It’s easy to disapprove of a parent’s actions – but when it’s your father, who is doing it all to protect you, can you give him away? Do you love him or hate him – or both?
Noah’s Castle could have been presented simply as a strong action story, with Father presumably as the baddie. I’m gratified that the script by Nick McCarty is not only powerful but sensitive. The moral issue is never lost sight of, and Norman Mortimer (admirably played by David Neal) is exactly as I see him myself: a deeply ambiguous character. I’m delighted with Colin Nuttley’s production and with the young actors whose characterisations of the teenagers are distinctive and all different.
There will be people who think this is not a suitable subject for children’s TV. Well, that’s a branch of an old argument. Myself, I haven’t the slightest objection to TV comedy, to easy light-hearted stuff, even to escapism. But I believe that young people are also capable of facing up to serious issues, and here I think that all concerned have tried to give them a chance to do so.
I’ve often been asked by readers of the book, and I expect to be asked by viewers, what I think of Norman Mortimer’s morality myself. Actually I can’t make up my mind. When I look at him from outside, so to speak, I condemn him, but when as a father I put myself in his place I’m not so sure. Isn’t it a father’s job to protect his offspring at all costs?
An unsatisfactory reply, you may think. Perhaps, but let me quote from Peter Plummer’s splendid essay on televising fiction for adolescents in Teenage Reading, edited by Peter Kennerley (Ward Lock, £3.75): `What the very best of TFA offers in the end,’ he says, ‘will always take the form of a question, hopefully never of a statement, and unquestionably never of an answer.’ I’d like to think that Noah’s Castle came within this definition.
God’s Wonderful Railway
This beautifully produced and acted recent serial had as its background the Severn Valley Railway, from its beginning in 1850 until the First World War.
Permanent Way (BBC 0 563 17827 2) and Clear Ahead (BBC 0 563 17829 9) both by Avril Rowlands are based on the series. They stand up well as books in their own right – sadly at £1.25 each in paperback they are overpriced for most school bookshops. A pity because they are just what’s needed to hook railway addicts on to stories.
Recommended for those with O/A Level Shakespeare phobia – Shakespeare Superscribe (Penguin £1.50).
Transcripts from Capital Radio’s `Set Books’ series in which Maggie Norden got actors, directors and critics to talk about some of the plays. It’s interesting and occasionally staggeringly brilliant. I defy anyone not to feel differently about Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth after listening to Ian McKellan – he really is a teacher.
We’ll be reviewing this and other aids to teaching the bard in a later issue of Books for Keeps.
Coming shortly –
The Black Stallion,
a film based on the novel by Walter Farley (Knight, 60p). The cast includes Mickey Rooney.
Apparently the film has been very well received in America (where it was produced by Francis Coppola) as good family entertainment. There’s nothing like a horse and child combination for success – National Velvet is still going strong. The book, written in 1941, is about a boy and a wild half-Arab stallion who meet at a small port on the Red Sea, survive a shipwreck together, are rescued from a desert island, get back to New York and finally, with the help of neighbour old Henry, who is good with horses, end up (you’ve guessed it) on a Chicago race track. The film hasn’t been released in this country at the time of writing – it’s promised for April/May.
The book is an undemanding read in the Willard Price mould – short chapters, lots of action. If the film goes down well here, there are a whole heap of other Black Stallion stories to satisfy the fans.
What makes a Bestseller?
In the (adult) bestsellers list in the Bookseller for 15th March, eight out of fifteen hardbacks and six out of fifteen paperbacks had direct links with film or TV. (Five of them were BBC Publications.) In the March issue of Books for Keeps our three guest reviewers, all of whom run school bookshops, said they didn’t think TV had a major influence on what was bought. There were noises of agreement from all over the country, particularly in primary schools.
Look at this issue’s Top 20, supplied by Books for Students. Two titles from the cinema, four from television. It’s no surprise to see Grange Hill Rules O.K.? at number one – it would have been amazing if it hadn’t got there. But The Worzel Gummidge Cookbook? A spin-off – not even the book of the series. And it’s Worzel Gummidge, Barbara Euphan Todd style, creeping in at number nineteen. Is this really what the kids are buying?
Well it may be? but in fact this list tells us what teachers are ordering. It is compiled from books issued from (in this case) the Leamington depot. Teachers ordering may well be in touch with what their readers want or will buy; but this list doesn’t tell us whether these books were sold to children. Even more important from our point of view it doesn’t tell us whether the purchase was successful in the child’s terms. How many copies of Tarka the Otter are gathering dust because it was more difficult to read than the film was to watch?
Do you think we need information about what actually sells and what is successful? If you do let us know.
Would you be interested in taking part in a survey by filling in a form perhaps once or twice a term giving information about sales in your bookshop? If you would, let us know.
For the absolutely hard-line book hater
You might try the Beaver Flash Gordon Puzzle Books, 60p. The drawings are crude and the story minimal; but it is there and the puzzles (each given a generous time rating to pit yourself against) actually develop skills needed for reading.
For watchers of old movies, Beaver’s Famous Lives: Showbiz (70p) has 186 entries which tell you who’s dead, when they were born and what their real names were. Youngest entry is Elizabeth Taylor, born 1932, and if Bogart was still alive he’d be 81 -dreadful thought!