When did you first encounter Judith Kerr’s book and what was your reaction to it?
I first came across The Tiger Who Came to Tea when it was given to one of our children, so that’s nearly two decades ago. And I remember being really taken by the simplicity of the drawings because there’s something rather child-like about them. And I also felt that they reminded me of my childhood because of the tights, length of the skirts and the kind of ‘society model’ of the mum - stays at home - and the dad. Well, that wasn’t my society model when I was growing up, but there was something beautifully old-fashioned about it, like when you go back and read the Chronicles of Narnia books, you think the language is something from another time. But my children really enjoyed the story. I was never read to when I was growing up, so I didn’t know this book from my youth so it met two needs - my need to be a parent but also to be a child who didn’t encounter the book when it was first out.
The book has a very 60s look. Does the look appeal to you?
It does have a particular feel of its own, from a certain era, but it doesn’t seem constricted by it. It feels like it comes from another time, the way that a lot of stories do, but I don’t think it feels hemmed in by it. I think it will be really exciting to see how they use that animation - modern-day techniques create the beautiful animation that’s available to us now technologically but with that hint of it coming from another place. It feels a little like we’re in that accessible territory of taking a well-known story and giving it a slightly different form.
The book was published in 1968; it’s been out for 51 years. Why do you think it has an enduring appeal?
I think it’s the inherent danger of that creature that turns up at the door and is not pushed away. How many children say that their favourite animal is a tiger? Because it’s immense and deeply beautiful so it looks like it would draw you in to cuddle it, but there’s something terrifying about it, yet they’re not frightened by it. They allow the tiger in. And that thing, where a parent is not afraid of a new adventure and so invites the new adventure into the child’s life because the child is ready for it. I think that’s got sort of a universal long-term appeal.
When you read it to your kids, did you use a particular voice for mummy or the Tiger?
Oh yes. All the characters have different voices. So, mummy is very well-behaved and she knows her own boundaries and she knows the boundaries that are acceptable and accepted in her child. The tiger is... Well, it’s a different voice every time. He started off as somebody very proper and says: “Excuse me”, so knows his manners but knows that he’s going to overstep all the boundaries - like a really powerful oligarch! But I also went through all the accents, all the regions, all the countries. So he’s just something “Other”, but knows the language to use in order to find his way in.
What drew you to wanting to be the voice of mummy in this new adaptation?
I suppose I’ve had a bit of practice at reading the story but also at being a mummy. What I love about Mummy is that she is so child-like herself and with the drawings, often you don’t quite know who’s the parent and who’s the child, and there’s so much wonder in the Mummy’s face. And when they’re standing next to Daddy, they do both look like children, like they’ve both gone on an adventure. I suppose that’s what drew me is that the mummy is not there imposing authority but she’s agreeing to go on the journey with her daughter and be a child with her but to be a safe child.
Why do you think children’s books have such a special place in the national psyche?
I think children’s books are like the stories that have always been handed down from generation to generation, from time immemorial. Those stories that say, “I know you, I’m going to tell you this story, I’m going to entrust this story to you and we’re going to re-tell it because we remember that time when we sat down together”. It’s about putting back together the experience of relationship. And I think that’s a profound need in children and human beings. To remember things and put things back together, where you feel a sense of security and nostalgia. And the repetition of words is a deeply comforting and hopeful thing for children and for people, where you say, “Oh, I know these words, I remember this”, and therefore I’m rooted somewhere.
What are your favourite children books and what would you like to see adapted next?
When I was at school, Enid Blyton was banned because she was so sexist and uncool. Because of that my mum forced me to read Enid Blyton because she didn’t think that there should be that kind of censorship. So, I disobeyed the school and read The Magic Faraway Tree. And that book transported me, because I was being disobedient. I wasn’t allowed to read it so I read it secretly, which made it really exciting. I don’t think it’s probably a very exciting book, but the circumstances made it more thrilling. But the idea of The Magic Faraway Tree is that, at the top of the tree each day, there’s a new world that [the children] can go up to and encounter. That, for me, was like, “Wow, that’s it, that’s it!” And I just went back and back to that book.
If the tiger turned up to your door and ate up your pantry and drank everything in the taps, would you take your family up to a café, or order in?
If the tiger had been in my house and eaten everything, there would be chaos, which I’d have to tidy. So we’d either do that first before we order in. But I do like going out. Actually, I like the phrase: “Shall we go up to the cafe?” so I’d probably do that.
When is the last time someone dropped round to your house for tea?
People generally don’t drop round to ours because they know I’m not going to invite any old tiger into my house. We’re not home a lot so I like to organise “Do you fancy coming round?”, then the excitement of waiting for them to come, I like that.
Will you watch The Tiger Who Came to Tea when it comes out on Channel 4 this Christmas?
I will watch but I won’t say: “You’ve all got to sit down and watch The Tiger Who Came to Tea” to everyone in my house because that might be embarrassing for them, and me, if they goL “That’s not ‘Mummy!” But they will probably, hopefully, watch it secretly on their own. Or they won’t!