Angela Beeching on a new BBC series
More than 20 years ago Joan Aiken was commissioned to write a story for Jackanory. The brief was simple – she could write anything she wanted – Joan remembers. What arrived in the Jackanory office was a story called Arabel’s Raven. Arabel Jones, as everybody must know by now, is a little girl of five (going on 35, I always think) who lives in Rainwater Crescent, Rumbury Town, a district of London, with her taxi-driver father, Ben, his outrageous wife, Martha, and Arabel’s pet raven, Mortimer. The first story explained how Mortimer came to be part of their lives much to the delight of Arabel, who adores him, the despair of Mrs Jones who has a love/hate relationship with him, and the long-suffering patience of Mr Jones. Mortimer is a lovable fiend, a walking disaster, prone to eating everything in sight including the staircase given the chance but the Jones family, in their own peculiar way, are devoted to him. They defend him to the last when the need arises and go to extraordinary lengths to extricate him from whatever unbelievable situation he has got the family into.
Quentin Blake, who had already illustrated one or two stories for Jackanory, was commissioned to do the artwork for the programmes: something in the region of 50 to 60 colour drawings for the story, which was serialised over five days.
Further Arabel and Mortimer stories arrived, uncommissioned, at regular intervals and so began a long-standing relationship between Joan, Quentin, Bernard Cribbins (who read all but the first story), and all of us in the Jackanory office. It’s a relationship which continued over a period of more than 10 years.
Then Quentin became so busy he was unable to continue doing any more illustrations for us and I felt that his pictures were so inextricably tied up with Mortimer and Arabel that it would be almost impossible to ask somebody else to take over the work. In any case, the series had had a good run for its money, perhaps it was time to call a halt. So, no more Arabel and Mortimer stories were done apart from a special one-off Arabel’s Tree-House, which Joan wrote for Jackanory’s 25th birthday programme in 1991. On this occasion Quentin agreed to do the illustrations for the story and the jacket for the special Silver Jackanory Book.
However, in the meantime I’d started producing drama programmes for a younger audience – something we hadn’t done before – based on characters from existing books. The first of these was Jonny Briggs from Joan Eadington’s stories which had been specially written for Jackanory, followed by Simon and the Witch by Margaret Stuart Barry and Happy Families from the books by Allan Ahlberg. In 1986, while we were still making Jonny Briggs, it occurred to me that perhaps there was scope for developing Arabel Jones and family, including Mortimer, of course, into a fully-fledged live-action drama series – though the bird would not be live!
I had a meeting with Joan at her daughter Lizza’s house and asked her whether she liked the idea and whether she was able to devise some original storylines for a 12-part series which could then be dramatised. Joan agreed, but in return asked whether I’d let Lizza write the scripts. A lengthy gestation period then followed in order to get the storylines and scripts right.
A lot of correspondence flew back and forth between Joan and me, and the script-writing continued between Joan’s various trips to New York (where she lives part of the time), to Greece, Rome and other exotic locations. As we had planned that Mortimer would need to be a fully electronic, walking, wing-flapping, beak-opening, eye-moving animatronic bird, it was finally agreed we would spend some money to develop him and produce a mini-pilot programme to test his movements and see whether the whole project would work. Actually, as it was not possible for one creature to contain the mechanisms for all these movements, several versions had to be made to cover the different actions. What we ended up with was something which didmove, didflap its wings, didroll its eyes, did open its beak, but had so many working parts inside each variation and so many wires trailing out of their backsides that they were enormously heavy and very difficult to balance on small bird-like legs. Coupled with this we also had a straightforward common or garden glove puppet version and one or two strings! Two little girls were duly cast as try-outs for Arabel, a kitchen `set’ was specially built and two days were spent testing the whole operation.
It wasn’t exactly a disaster, but we all knew it hadn’t really worked. The bird was far too cumbersome and it totally lacked the charm and cheekiness in Joan and Quentin’s original creation. The little girls, through no fault of their own, did not look young enough (it wasn’t possible to cast real five-year-olds because of legal restrictions on the use of children, so we’d cast small eight and nine-year-olds) and, more to the point, they didn’t look anything like Quentin Blake’s illustrations!
At the post-mortem we came to the conclusion that we’d been too ambitious with the bird, and the mechanisms had been over-complicated. What seemed to have worked best was the very simple glove-puppet version à la Emu and Basil Brush. The human beings were also a problem: they just didn’t look as though they’d been drawn by Quentin. Malcolm James, the designer of the bird, suggested that perhaps we should mount the entire production using puppets in the likeness of Quentin’s illustrations and that all the sets, furniture and props should be specially built to look as though they were a three-dimensional visualisation of Quentin’s pictures. We all thought this was a terrific idea, but I wasn’t certain whether Joan and Lizza would agree. After the initial shock, and helped I’m sure by the fact that Lizza had worked in puppet theatre, they gave their blessing. The project had by now been so long in the pre-production stage I think Joan was beginning to wonder if it was ever going to see the light of day.
Two years were indeed to elapse while budgets were drawn up and decisions made as to whether Mortimer and Arabel really was to go ahead. Finally we got the green light.
Malcolm James, who is a Scenic Designer in the BBC Visual Effects Department, and had been responsible among other things for creating the Psammead for the dramatisation of Five Children and It and The Return of the Psammead was to head a team to make all the puppets (17 named characters and various `extras’), design and build the sets, select and adapt the props, make the furniture, cars, police vans and everything else visually required for the production – all to look like Quentin’s drawings. Quentin provided us with reference sketches which all the people working on the project had photocopied and pinned up in every available place so they could keep as near as possible to his likenesses. Work began in the last week of January this year. The puppets were completed first so that the Costume Designer had them in plenty of time to make the clothes. Meanwhile the sets were being built in the order that we would need them for shooting and props were being bought and adapted or specially made.
A team of puppeteers led by Francis Wright, who, with several helpers, had been responsible for the manipulation of the Psammead, was selected not just for their ability as ‘dolly-wagglers’ but for the suitability of their voices for the parts. The camera crew was contracted and a whole heap of technical equipment ordered.
Meetings were held between the Director, Roger Singleton-Turner (a long-serving member of the Children’s Department who’d worked on programmes from Jackanory to Grange Hill), me and Lizza over the final points of the script; with the various workers in the Visual Effects Department; with the Costume Designer, and with John Christie, the Lighting Cameraman.
Finally, in mid-May, rehearsals began. During this period the technical equipment was moved into the studio and the first of the sets put up.
The shooting of the series took seven weeks: an exhausting business, especially for the puppeteers who had to stand with their arms in the air while doing all manner of manipulations which they couldn’t see except with the use of small monitors, all the while speaking lines, moving the puppets motions and trying not to get any parts of their bodies in shot! It was great fun, though a little fraught at times. In spite of the length of the enterprise we were all quite sad when the end finally arrived and we had to contemplate the thought of going on to other different projects.
Post-production is now under way: editing the entire series, adding opening and closing titles and the specially commissioned music. The finished programmes will be shown on BBC-1 at 4.20 pm on Mondays and Wednesdays from 15th November to 22nd December.
It’s been a very long haul, but I hope it will have been worthwhile.
Angela Beeching is the Executive Producer for Children’s Fiction at the BBC and is the Producer responsible for Mortimer and Arabel. She was a junior member of the production team when Jackanory first started in 1965.
Details of Joan Aiken’s books, with illustrations by Quentin Blake, all published by BBC Books:
Arabel’s Raven, 0 563 20909 7, £2.25 pbk
Arabel and the Escaped Black Mamba, 0 563 20910 0, £2.25 pbk
Mortimer’s Tie, 0 563 209119, £2.25 pbk
Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur, 0 562 36034 8, £2.25 pbk
Mortimer’s Portrait on Glass, 0 563 20915 1, £2.25 pbk
The Bread Bin, 0 563 20912 7, £2.25 pbk
The Mystery of Mr Jones’s Disappearing Taxi, 0 563 20917 8, £2.25 pbk
Mortimer’s Cross, 0 563 20809 0, £2.50 pbk
The Spiral Stair, 0 563 17605 9. £2.50 pbk
Mortimer and Arabel, by Joan and Lizza Aiken, 0 563 36396 7,;£8.99; 0 563 403276, £2.99 pbk
The Adventures of Arabel and Mortimer (boxed set of 4 titles), 0 563 403381, £11.99