The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Jackanory – a Fund of Stories

cottrell_boyce_frank_web_36Author and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce sent us this simple message in support of the CMF celebration of 'Jackanory's' 50th birthday...

When I said I was going to the 'Jackanory' Birthday party my friends howled their jealousy and swooned their nostalgia.

Lynda Buckley Archer said, “School often made me anxious, snuggling up with marmite on toast and 'Jackanory' made me feel safe and happy.” Nicola Davies said just hearing the theme tune made was enough to make her purr.

Of course 'Jackanory' wasn’t always cosy. The unease I felt when listening to 'Charlotte Sometimes' or the first 'Greene Knowe' book put me right off my Marmite. Finding Miss Slighcarp in the slot I associated with that magical woollen muffler of a voice - Bernard Cribbins - was like finding a cluster of scorpions in my lunch box. As for Tom Baker’s crazed, intense reading of the 'Iron Giant' … I still shudder now.

Loving a book on 'Jackanory' meant I would hunt the original down, and its sequels and other works by the same writer. But promoting and directing our reading was the least of its good effects.

Far far more important was that it made reading a shared experience. We often talk about reading as though it was a solitary, isolating activity. But for most of history, and certainly for me, stories are things we share - around the fire, at the bedside, on the “story mat” at the end of the day in primary school and definitely on 'Jackanory'. Joolze Tudor remembers children charging around the Playground yelling, “Neverrr.More!” after hearing CribbinsBernard Cribbin’s hilarious rendition of Joan Aiken’s Arabel’s Raven. Phil Earle said that Rik Mayall’s rendition of 'George’s Marvellous Medicine', seemed to burst out of the television. Next day at school, everyone was talking about it. A water cooler moment based around a book. “None of us could believe what we’d just seen. It broke every rule.” I felt very much the same about Kenneth Williams reading 'The Land of Green Ginger'. Phil called it his first water cooler moment - like watching 'Doctor Who' or 'Game of Thrones'. Joan Aiken and Helen Cresswell were the Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat of 'Jackanory'.

jackanory K Williams'Jackanory' helped create a shared culture for us - something that was not being shoved down our throats by giant brands or merchandising - hence all the swoons of nostalgia and these vivid memories. I would never have known 'The House That Sailed Away', for instance, or 'Agaton Saxe' or 'The Minnow on the Say', without 'Jackanory'. I hope it will be remembered that it actively commissioned some truly wonderful work. I think I’m right in saying that 'Mortimer the Raven' was made especially for 'Jackanory'. And there’s the sublime 'Lizzie Dripping' who stepped into the world on 'Jackanory Playhouse'. And of course the art work. I’m pretty sure my first encounter with Quentin Blake was on 'Jackanory' and that I learnt to appreciate the different voices of illustrators from watching the show.

I learnt so much. I’m not the only one. Brian Minchin, the producer of Doctor Who, wrote me a long, lyrical email about how that Tom Baker rendition had influenced him.

“Looking at it now,” he said, “what grips me is the utter belief that production had in the importance of the story it was telling. There are no layers of irony or nods and winks. This is a full on and committed attempt to bring Ted Hughes to life on a tiny budget but with complete conviction … I’m only realising it now, but it must have affected me, cos that ingeniously created world and that commitment is something I'm trying to recreate now every day at work!”

That’s a great legacy but I think there was something more profound going on too. One of the unconsidered marvels of human complexity is our ability to recognise voices. When I switch on the Today programme half way through an item I often know who’s speaking … even if it’s someone who has been out of the public ear for years and who didn’t mean that much to me anyway. This morning for instance it was … of all people … Norman Lamont. It never ceases to amaze and delight me that I recognise not just the words and their meaning but the actual identity of the speaker. Even if they’re nothing but an ex-chancellor of the exchequer.

How much more amazing and delightful to have these voices in my memory bank - Bernard Cribbins, Kenneth Williams, Joanna Lumely, Bernard Holley and Liz Crowther. And - someone whose voice I haven’t heard since then but who I imitate when I read his stories, whose cadences are part of that intimate story-telling moment between me and my children … John Grant, who read 'Littlenose the Hunter.'

Nostalgia is often regarded as a trivial emotion. But the complex magic of these voices pull us back to a moment when our minds were fresh. They bless the present with the beauty of our past. They bring back to us the open-hearted enthusiasm and willingness to listen that we had as children. The rhythms and cadences we heard while cuddled up with the marmite continue to reverberate in our work and in our play.

'Jackanory' laid down in my heart as well as my mind a fund of stories that I can draw on now, not just for writing or reading, but for when I’m troubled or bored or feeling lost.

One person who reacted to my question was Michael Rosen who said he was booked to appear on it but the show was cancelled. Just as I was booked to appear today and had to cancel.

The reason I’m not there is that I’m at a fund-raising event for the Reader Organisation. The Reader believes in the power of reading aloud. Its volunteers read big ambitious books not just in schools, but in prisons, in drug rehab, in hospitals, to people who struggle. One of the prison reading groups did 'Henry V'. Afterwards one of the prisoners who had attended the readings said something which went straight to the heart of what 'Jackanory' did to me.   This man was in for violent crimes and the story of how Prince Hal rejected his old friends and began again really hit a chord with him. He said that listening to someone else read - knowing he was not going to be asked for any “input” or “insight” - was “the first time I had ever felt alert without feeling stressed”, the only time he’d felt fully switched on without the threat of violence. That’s what human voices do.

Thank you 'Jackanory', Come back soon.

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