ALISON PRINCE: AN AUTUR There can be few readers of this blog who do not remember the children’s TV series, Trumpton. The scriptwriter for that marvellous programme was Alison Prince.‘I was asked if I’d like to write the scripts for a puppet programme about a fire station.
I went to see the puppets, which were like bendy toys, and was shown the opening sequence, where the wee men slide down the greasy pole into the fire engine. They all looked rather alike, so the first thing was to give them names. There could be a pair of twins, to deal with two at one blow, and the rest would have to get whatever characters I could dream up. So there they were – Pugh, Pugh,Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb. Freddie Phillips, who wrote and played the music, put them into that order, but I invented the names.....I never thought Trumpton would become a classic. I was paid £15 per story, no repeat fees. It seemed OK at the time.’
Alison also wrote the Jackanory scripts, children’s fiction, two acclaimed biographies, one of Kenneth Grahame (famous for his book The Wind in the Willows),and one of Hans Christian Andersen, as well as several collections of poetry.
In 2017, when she was 86, I interviewed Alison at her cottage in Whiting Bay on the Isle of Arran for my book Autumn Voices.What follows is an abridged version of her chapter in that book. With several breaks while a care-worker came to see if she needed anything(Alison has three visits a day), and friends dropped by, Alison and I talked:
‘There is no lack of ideas coming to me, but my imagination is becoming more scrupulously looked at because you have less time left and you haveto be
hard-headed about how you use that time and how important the various ideas are.
The different kinds of writing I have done - screen, fiction,non-fiction, poetry – are very different things. The basic process might be the same. Although the sounds made by a double base and a French horn are very different, you still need to know the principles of music to play them. The difference between writing for children and for adults is mainly technical. You have to strive for a greater clarity of meaning and avoid long, complicated sentences. You have to be able to hear the words that come off the page into the reader’sear. Writing, after all, is only a way of notating a spoken system.
Arran is very much part of my background because I came here as a child. I had wonderful holidays here. It was everybody’s dream childhood. I always planned to come back. When I did, it still smelled the same as I remembered it. I have now been here thirty-six years. I try not to be too specific about the setting of my books, but a lot of the settings of my children’s books are, in fact, on Arran.
The aspect of ageing I fear most is becoming a nuisance to other people. There are health issues, too, but I can accept those as part of life.Last year I had a heart valve transplant, which made me breathless and playing the clarinet difficult. In the mid 1950s, I travelled around Europe for three months on seven pounds. And I then went to India. But I don’t travel much these days.
You don’t have the power to choose what things in your life influence your writing. They either lodge in your mind, or they don’t. I think my creativity has changed over the years. The physical energy is less. I used to be able to keep going almost without a stop. I am writing far more poetry than I used to, partly because I work in shorter, but more intensive bursts. Also, I no longer want to do that huge output thing. A lot of my writing is by hand in notebooks, which I carry around with me.
Quite obviously I don’t have the memory that I used to and I have just lost my driving licence which means a huge loss of freedom. There are moments, when the batteries are low, that I think, O sod it!’
Alison read a poem to me she was working on at the moment about the care-workers who visited her three times a day:
‘They now write notes about me to each other
And leave them on the table in full view
It’s kindly meant, but makes me feel like an item on display
That must be checked at intervals
In case a part should be absent or defective.
This appears to happen gradually
Though they’re quick to say, She’s not all there,
The odd thing is, they never look for what’s been lost
You can’t have everything, they say,
But don’t know what it is you haven’t got.
I don’t read as much as I used to. Partly because so many books fall into recognisable and predictable categories - but not the classics, like Trollope, for example. They transcend categories. I love reading other languages. I can read in French, German, Spanish, Russian.