Pat Triggs talks to Helen Nicoll, partner with Jan Pienkowski in a unique collaboration
If you are in the habit of stopping off for a cup of coffee at Membury Services on the M4 you might have noticed, from time to time, a man and woman engaged in animated conversation, very occupied with paper and coloured markers and, among other things, apparently concocting spells. What you were witnessing was a meeting of that unique collaboration between Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski which has produced the very popular and successful Meg and Mog series. Membury Services – helpfully situated between London (Jan) and Marlborough (Helen) – provides a good place to work they say: ‘No-one disturbs you.’
They first met over fifteen years ago when Helen Nicoll was the producer of Watch for BBC Schools’ TV. `A friend said, “I’ve got this Polish friend you should meet”. Somehow I thought he’d be 50 with a beard! Jan and I worked together for four years on Watch. He did all the graphics for the titles and invented this crazy form of animation: he dressed all in black, with a black veil, black gloves, and drew onto tracing paper; filmed, lit from the front, he couldn’t be seen.’ With a little technical trickery this became a 2-3 minute animated story. `We made up a story for whatever each programme was about. After about three years Jan said, “You know we are mad; we do all this, two transmissions and it’s lost. We ought to do a book.” And that’s where the idea for the Meg and Mog books came from. We’d already done Meg stories on film.’
They signed a contract with Heinemann for two books. `If we hadn’t signed I would never have done it. I was working in TV until six weeks before my daughter was born and then I gave up. I don’t think you can be a TV producer and a mother; they are both too time-consuming. We did the first book then and the second was due when Hannah was two months old. It was wildly inconvenient at the time; but nice to be able to go on writing after.’
The Nicoll/Pienkowski partnership is unusual in children’s publishing because of the way they work. `We had worked together for such a long time we knew we were able to work together. It’s not unusual when people work together for one person to mind so desperately about their bit that they can’t see what the greater good has to be. I’ve worked in TV so I am as involved as Jan in what the page looks like. And he’s much better at spells than I am. I can never find the rhymes. If Jan thinks my storyline is hopeless we destroy it. In a true collaboration you’ve got to allow yourself to be relaxed, be able to see another direction which might do quite as well and end you up in a better place.’
The ideas for the stories come in a variety of ways. `For the early books we’d just start with a completely white piece of paper and say “What shall we do this time?” Mog at the Zoo came from a story I’d written on a visit to a school. I told David Wood about it when he was writing the Meg and Mog Show and he included it – so we knew we had to do that one. What David Wood did in the show helped us to see possibilities for future developments, it allowed the characters to develop for us. Meg always had been a complete character, of course, and we knew Mog was a sort of look-at-me-no-hands person, but we hadn’t developed the daredevil in him as much as we could.’ And now Owl is the central character in one of the latest books. `Children in schools are always asking me to tell about when Meg went to school. It seemed a good idea for a book. I said, “We could send her to night school”. Jan said, “I don’t think we should. She’s inefficient but that’s the way she is. Let’s send one of the others.” Once we’d decided it would be Owl everything else followed.’ Like Meg saying, `Come on! You’ll love it’, lessons in swooping and pouncing, school dinner and Sports Night with Meg in a spell-made special hat.
Jan and Helen intended the first Meg and Mog books to be for children who had just learned to read and that hasn’t altered. `But there are 4 and 8 year olds who are in the same spot with reading. If you are eight you don’t want babyish-looking material. That’s why we do things like Meg’s Eggs – no-one could be ashamed of reading that.’ Three years ago Helen had the chance to do a very personal bit of market research on this. `Tom, my son, was seven and having a very hard time with reading. But he was obsessed with medieval history, knights and tournaments. I decided to try him on Meg’s Castle and see what happened. It worked. I could see it working and it worked for all the reasons we made it the way it is. That was very satisfying.’
Her family and Meg and Mog have kept Helen Nicoll busy but she has also found time to do the Young Puffin magazine, The Egg for two years (‘Jan did the layouts; I became his paste-up slave. It was a happy time.’), produce an anthology for Kestrel, Poems for Seven Year Olds and Under with illustrations by Michael Foreman (‘I don’t know why publishers are so keen to keep writers and illustrators apart.’), played a large part in securing the franchise for Radio Wiltshire and in the last year has set up her own company, Cover to Cover, which produces sound tapes of unabridged novels and stories. To an impressive list of nineteenth century novels she and her partner have recently added some children’s stories – Just So Stories read by Johnny Morris, Stig of the Dump read by Martin Jarvis, The Worst Witch read by Miriam Margolyes, The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark read by Maureen Lipman. (Plus, coming soon Treasure Island and Flat Stanley, and in preparation Fantastic Mr Fox.)
Helen Nicoll is passionate about this project which is still in its early days and in need of a lot of support. `My royalties from Meg and Mog are helping to finance Cover to Cover. That’s all right, isn’t it – a sort of poetic justice.’ A nice thought. But we hope she and Jan will find time for more Meg and Mog books in the future.
Mog in the Fog, Heinemann, 0 434 95430 6, £3.95
Owl at School, Heinemann, 0 434 95431 4, £3.95
Poems for Seven Year Olds and Under, Kestrel, 07226 5789 7,£5.50
Cover to Cover, for details write to Townsend Poulshot, Devizes, Wiltshire.