When did you first encounter Judith Kerr’s book?
I didn’t encounter the book as a child, which is a shame because it’s the ultimate children’s book. But I encountered it probably about 10 or 12 years ago. We [David and Judith Kerr] share a publisher in Harper Collins and I got to meet Judith. Then I started to piece together all this incredible work that she made and at the top of the tree is this masterpiece.
What was your first reaction to it?
The book is a thing of beauty. I mean Judith Kerr was not only an incredible writer, she was obviously a world-class illustrator as well. And that on the surface of it seems very simple because you think: ‘Oh animal comes to tea’ but if you start thinking about it, you’re thinking: ‘Oh well, this is a tiger and, out of all the animals she could have chosen, she picked out one that was really dangerous’. And then it has this really surprising, almost downbeat, ending, with the tiger never coming again which leaves this question, why? And I think that’s why children and parents have returned to it over and over again.
The book was first published in 1968; It’s not been out of print for 51 years. This Christmas it will be on Channel 4. What is its enduring appeal?
I think the book is almost like a piece of instant nostalgia because it does make you think of your own childhood. And I do think that we would want to share that with children. A lot of children’s things have nostalgia, like Harry Potter instantly had a sense of nostalgia to it.
I think the book is very comforting. And Judith said herself that she thought it was quite popular because it was short and parents quite liked reading short stories to their kids! [Laughs] But I think it’s beautifully told. There isn’t a word out of place, the illustrations are just gorgeous. And I think there is a tension throughout because it is a tiger. I know Michael Rosen was trying to draw comparisons with Judith’s experiences as a child fleeing Nazi Germany because he seemed to think that the tiger was the Nazi’s. She denies that. But who knows what goes on in someone’s subconscious when they create a story. Certainly it is a very interesting puzzle. And it is deceptively simple. I think it’s the kind of book that everyone thinks‚ ‘Oh, I could write a story like that’. Well, just try! Because in fifty-one years no one has written anything quite like that again.
What is the story really about to you?
I think the story is about childhood because the fact that the tiger only visits Sophie and her mum once, and they’re the only people to see it, makes me think that it’s something that she imagines. And the fact that it doesn’t come again is maybe because childhood is something you pass through and then the wonderful imagination that you have as a child sort of changes, doesn’t it? And the imaginary world and the real world stop blurring. And now there’s just the real world. So that’s my reading of it, whether that be Judith’s or someone else’s, I don’t know. But I think there are sort of multiple readings of it. Which is why I think it’s such a favourite for so many people.
If a tiger turned up at your door and ate up your pantry and dinner where would you take your family on the high street and what would you choose?
Well, I think I would take my family to have fish and chips because I really like fish and chips. But actually in the story they have sausage and chips, don’t they? Which does sounds good as well. I want to go to that cafe because I want to go to a cafe where you can just have sausage and chips and nothing else. Sounds great. [Laughs]
What drew you to want to narrate Lupus’s new adaptation?
I knew Judith well and I really, really adored her. And she’s just such an incredible inspiration. Her work is so brilliant. And for her to have been in her 90s and still creating fantastic work is virtually unheard of. I really wanted to be a part of it. I was chuffed that she wanted me to narrate because she thought that, because I tell stories too, I would understand how to say the lines… I don’t know. But I’m so proud to be associated with it because it’s a stone cold classic. Just like the book has been around for over 50 years, hopefully the cartoon will have this incredible longevity to.
Were you familiar with Lupus’s hand-drawn animation style?
When you hear that a much-loved children’s book is becoming an animated film, part of you is worried that somehow it is not going to stay true to the beautiful illustrations that Judith did. But this hand-drawn style obviously suits it perfectly. And it is very, very faithful to the book. It enlarges and develops the book rather than adding to it in a way that wouldn’t be right. So, having seen some of the animation, I’m absolutely thrilled because it couldn’t have come out better. The worst thing would be if it was some sort of terrible modern adaptation. Sometimes you’re flicking through the channels on the TV and you see some something - I’m not going to things by name. But like much loved classics from the past and you see that there’s some sort of modern style that they’ve done with it and it sort of just looks hideous because it doesn’t look how you feel it should look but this looks, to my eyes, this is exactly how The Tiger Who Came to Tea should look.
Why do you think children’s books have such a special place in the national psyche?
I think you never forget the first book you ever read because often it’s a really big deal, you reading a book. And I think that we’re lucky in Britain because we’ve got lots of great children’s authors... I’m not including myself in that list [Laughs]. We’ve had lots of great ones from the past, lots of incredible classics came out from this country. I suppose the real pleasure is passing on a book that you loved as a child to your own children. And so I think that’s why children’s books can have such longevity. It’s like you get to relive your childhood when you have children to some extent. You get to play again, you get to read children’s books again, all those kinds of things. So there’s nothing better than reaching for something you loved as a child and passing it on. I think that maybe that’s why they have such a place.
I also think that they’re taken seriously now. I think maybe it used be that it was just thought that things for children were irrelevant to what was going on. It was just like, ‘oh, silly things for children’ [waves hand dismissively]. I don’t think people see it that way anymore. Also I think adults are not shy of saying they like children’s books. All those grownups who read you know Harry Potter on the tube, they didn’t have a problem with it did they? You know, it’s sort of meant for children but certainly be enjoyed by grownups too.
What are your favourite kids books and why at the moment?
Well, Judith has written loads of brilliant books. I love the Mog books and I love some of the most recent books like Katinka’s Tail. I’ve read them a lot with my son. I get to read them to him. Roald Dahl is a kind of evergreen. The Twits is my absolute favourite because it’s so funny and anarchic. Children kind of enter the story at one point but it’s a children’s book really with no... Well, there’s some boys who get stuck to a tree at one point but apart from that there are no children in the story. And I think that’s amazing. And Oliver Jeffers books, I really love. There’s some really brilliant people around at the moment. I think we’re kind of spoilt for choice.