Following Philippa Pearce’s death in December 2006, a series of memorial lectures was organised in her honour to ‘acknowledge and understand excellence in writing for children, and to emphasize its continuing vital importance’. In one of the first lectures in the series, David Wood discussed his adaptation of Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden for the stage. Here he presents a shortened version of his paper which focuses on his collaboration with Philippa Pearce.
Not long after the play of Tom’s Midnight Garden was first produced, Philippa Pearce asked me what had been the most difficult thing about adapting the novel for the stage. I told her that it was finding logical reasons for Tom to stay in his pyjamas throughout most of the play. There are several scenes set in the ’50s in daytime, when he certainly wouldn’t be wearing pyjamas, but I wanted to avoid scene breaks or superfluous dialogue to cover costume changes. At one point Aunt Gwen finds him reading in his room. ‘Not dressed yet, Tom?’ she frowns. ‘It’s nearly lunchtime!’
I think Philippa enjoyed the fact that I had chosen an example of the nitty gritty, the craft of playwriting rather than some high-flown literary problem. A vital part of her artistry was the fact that she was a great craftswoman, affording great care to detail, choice of word or even punctuation mark.
One of my first jobs was to ‘find the interval’. Most theatre managers want to sell large quantities of ice cream, so insist on an interval. But, of course, the structure of a book is different from that of a play. You don’t automatically find a good cliff hanging moment exactly half way through. Finding a strong end of Act One becomes essential – we want our young audience to want to come back into the auditorium for Act Two! Philippa understood all this and was intrigued by the process of adaptation. She accepted that sometimes changes had to be made, the running order of events adjusted. She understood that the narrative voice telling the story in the book couldn’t be exactly the same voice in the play. But I think she trusted me to be faithful to the story, which to me is a vital ingredient of adaptation.
And because we discussed things from day one, I like to think that she felt part of the process. There was a lovely moment when, as we watched a performance together, after one exchange of lines, she whispered to me, ‘Was that you or me? It was rather good! I hope it was me!’
Planning a stage version
But I’m jumping ahead. The idea – ten years ago – to adapt Tom’s Midnight Garden didn’t come from me. It was Tony Graham, the Artistic Director at Unicorn Theatre, who suggested it. Rather arrogantly, I told him, no, I was certain it had been done already. Totally wrong. Yes, it had been done on radio, television, audio – and, we discovered, there was a film in preparation – but there had never been a stage version. From what we could find out, it seemed that previous requests to adapt the book for the stage had been refused. It made me wonder if Miss Pearce – who took on a rather stern image in my mind – simply wasn’t interested in theatre.
Anyway, a meeting was arranged. I set off for Philippa’s cottage in Great Shelford using a splendid hand-drawn map, plus detailed handwritten instructions. It turned out that ‘stern’ was one of the least appropriate adjectives to describe Philippa. She cooked me a lovely lunch, ending up with a cheese called ‘stinky bishop’. Then we talked. And delicious talk it was.
I discovered that far from having no interest in theatre, Philippa loved it. She often travelled to London to see productions at the National or the RSC. We shared a love of the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby. This turned out to be rather helpful. I pinched David Edgar’s use of narration by the character to whom things are happening – you may remember Roger Rees as Nicholas announcing, ‘And Nicholas went to London!’ What’s so great about this technique, particularly in children’s theatre, is that it keeps the focus on the right character. Children don’t have the same range of vision as adults. Their heads move as they watch the stage. So it doesn’t help to have a narrator on the side of the stage telling you something when you are meant to be watching something centre stage. Human nature means that the eyes go to the moving mouth of the speaker. So, Tom became his own narrator, and Philippa approved.
She did understand my belief that many of her ideas in the book are inherently theatrical – the voices of the house that talk to Tom, the clock striking thirteen, the two time zones, the theme of loneliness and longing for freedom, shared by both Tom and Hatty, the twist at the end – the wonderful Mrs Bartholomew revelation. I knew these ideas would translate well to the stage, and suggested it might be possible to encourage the audience to use their imaginations by not having a naturalistic set. I thought the costumes should faithfully reflect both the 1950s and the Edwardian periods, but that the locations, including the garden, could be created simply, using light and a few specific objects such as the grandfather clock or a door frame.
Philippa explained how personal the inspiration for the book was. How traumatic it was for her when her family left the mill, and how she began to think about time passing, yet things staying the same – for example her dining room table. She wrote about this later in a programme note:
‘I was the youngest of four children. We lived in a big old house with a garden to match, with trees to climb and secret places. Long after I had left home, I remembered it all. There I had spent a happy childhood with my brothers and sister. There my father had been born; in that garden he had played with his seven siblings in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, at the end of the 19th century.
I began to imagine two childhoods widely separated by Time, but taking place in the same garden. I imagined these childhoods superimposed upon each other, as ghostly and yet as real as two images coinciding from a wrongly working camera.
In my story a little Victorian girl would play with a boy from the 20th century. Eventually she would have to grow up, leave the garden: how would that happen?
My father told us about the Victorian garden. He also told us of the great frost of 1894-5, when he skated all the way from Cambridge (or Castleford) to Ely. Just what my story needed. Hatty would skate her way to a grown-up happy ending.’
Philippa was wonderfully hands-on – in a very constructive, supportive and sensitive way, reacting to the synopsis, the first draft and the second draft. She would come back to me with pages of wonderfully detailed notes. I’ll give you some examples.
I had given Tom a torch, with which to read under the bedclothes. Wrong! The whole point is that Uncle Alan doesn’t allow him to read after lights out. A torch would mean he could, and it would give him a little victory over Uncle Alan, which would be wrong. Philippa wrote: ‘Important that this (the torch) should be taken away for good? It shouldn’t be an available alternative to moonlight later.’ She was rightly saying that if he had a torch, he would be able to see the grandfather clock, without having to open the garden door to let in the moonlight!
A bigger problem, and one we discussed a lot, was to do with language. Tom, in his role as narrator, often used some of Philippa’s wonderfully descriptive phrases, particularly when seeing the garden for the first time. Philippa wrote: ‘This is one example of many which raises quite a large issue. By using the wording of the original narrative in speeches (or letters) you have given these a non-realistic, literary tone (e.g. ‘thick beetle-browed yew trees’). You may have calculated that at certain times this heightened speech is justified by the whole atmosphere created. Something I can’t properly judge. Even so there are some things which would seem outside Tom’s experience of knowledge e.g. ‘a fan of peacock feathers’ and ‘a housemaid’.
This was a tricky one. I argued that Tom could have two voices – a narrative voice and a voice in role – his character voice. I thought, and still do, that the narrative voice could be more literary, almost as though an older Tom is looking back at what happened. Anyway, we managed to agree, and sometimes to agree to differ, until it was possible to see whether it worked in performance.
I wanted Tom to help Hatty get one up on her cousins. This would, I thought, help bond Tom and Hatty. So I had him interrupt a game of pig-in-the-middle, by catching the apple the cousins were throwing over Hatty’s head, teasing her. Philippa pointed out that Tom couldn’t catch the apple or hold it – it was not in his time zone. Eventually we came up with a better apple idea. Hatty is told she can have the apple if she can guess which of the cousins is holding it behind his back. Tom, invisible to the cousins, goes round and points out the answer to Hatty. This achieves the bonding, without the apple-holding!
This also led to an idea which became an important feature of the play. After this moment of triumph for Hatty against her cousins, I had her shake hands with Tom. Wrong! They cannot touch. So, with Philippa’s approval, I introduced the notion of them trying to shake hands, but realising that they cannot. This becomes a gesture in which they hold up their hands, palm to palm but don’t actually touch. They do it several times in the play, as a kind of greeting. It pays great dividends at the end, when Tom and Mrs Bartholomew – the grown up Hatty – do it, thus confirming to Tom that Mrs Bartholomew is actually Hatty. Then, right at the end, because they are now in the same time zone, the two palms actually do meet and touch, and fingers interlink, for the very first time. A lump in the throat moment I think Philippa enjoyed as much as I did!
I think you can see how hands-on Philippa was, and always in a helpful way. What was for me reassuring was that we never disagreed on structure.
Well, over the next few years, the play managed to win two awards and go to New York in the original Unicorn production. Other productions followed, and I was delighted to accompany Philippa to some of them. We also shared the occasional joint question and answer session. Philippa became not only a delightful correspondent, but a dear friend.
She wrote elegantly, delightfully and with great modesty. In early 2003: ‘since May last year I’ve been concentrating – as far as possible to the exclusion of outside attractions, however tempting – in order to work on a full length book for children. I was amazed – at my age – to find an idea gripping me – insisting on my dealing with it. I’ve been very slow – slower than usual, I think – but the end is in sight… and then I shall frisk.’ This full-length book was the beguiling The Little Gentleman.
Philippa’s last letter to me was dated 28 November 2006. We were trying to find a date for lunch. Sadly, it never happened…
But Philippa is still very much a part of my life, because our play lives on. I say ‘our play’, because I am proud and delighted that Philippa contributed to and approved of the adaptation. She ended one of her lovely letters with the words – ‘I thanked you then and thank you again now – and congratulate us both! Philippa.’
Philippa, thank you.
The play Tom’s Midnight Garden by David Wood is published by Samuel French Ltd (978 0 573 05127 2, £6.95). The novel Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce is published by Oxford, 978 0 19 279242 6, £5.99 pbk.
David Wood’s article is based on a talk delivered at the first Philippa Pearce Memorial Lecture at Homerton College, Cambridge, on 11 September 2008. Victor Watson’s talk on Philippa Pearce as a wordsmith delivered on the same occasion is published in BfK No.173. The second memorial lecture on 10 September will be given by Michael Rosen. For further information visit www.pearcelecture.com
David Wood OBE is an actor, playwright, director and magician. For further information see www.davidwood.org.uk