Why do I write for children? How do I write for children?
These are questions I’m often asked because the most well-known of my recent works have been children’s books.
The answer is that I don’t only write for children, I write for all ages, from pre-school children to exceedingly mature adults. The plain fact is that I love writing, and I love the fact that people (of any age) want to read what I write, and get pleasure from it.
As this stage it might make sense to introduce myself and give you some stats about myself as a writer, before I enlarge on the business of writing.
I was born in London in the UK in 1944. After leaving school at 16 I did a variety of jobs, but I always wanted to write. My professional writing life began in 1965, when I sold a poem to a newspaper called Tribune. Over the next few years (while studying as a mature student for a Teaching Diploma) I became a performance poet, culminating in an appearance on BBC Radio 1’s John Peel Show in 1968. I had already nurtured ambitions to write a novel, but this radio appearance made me want to explore the medium of radio as a form of writing.
Cutting to the chase and jumping a couple of years, in 1971 I got a commission (through an agent) to write a thriller novel; and also sold a sitcom pilot idea to BBC radio. The thriller novel was called “Down Payment on Death”. The radio sitcom was called “Parsley Sidings”, and the BBC cast Arthur Lowe, Kenneth Connor, Ian Lavender & Liz Fraser in it.
The novel did OK, but the radio sitcom did better – going on to 21 episodes over 2 series; and so I put my energy into scriptwriting.
Over the next 14 years I became a comedy scriptwriter on both radio & TV – sitcoms & sketch shows – writing for people like Frankie Howerd, Ronnie Barker, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, etc.
Then, in the early 1980s, I was approached by a children’s publisher and asked if I’d like to write a comedy book for children. My answer was, of course, “Yes”, and I co-opted my son, Duncan (then aged 13) to help me write the book. It was called “How To Handle Grown-Ups”, and was a kind of sketch comedy-book of excuses. It sold very well, and we went on to write a further two books in the same series. At this point BBCTV became interested and asked if we would like to turn the books into a TV sitcom for children. We did, and that became my first work for children’s TV: “Bad Boyes”, co-written with Duncan (by now aged 16). The series did well, winning a Royal Television Society Award for Best Children’s Drama Series. The books also did well, the combined “How To Handle Grown-Ups/ Bad Boyes” series of books selling three quarters of a million copies.
This success meant that doors opened to me to write more for children: both books and for TV.
For his part, Duncan told me (after we’d picked up the RTS Award) that – at the age of 17 – he was retiring from writing. He felt it was too unstable a profession. Instead, he was going to study Graphic Design. (He did, and is now a very successful graphic designer).
I had previously written television scripts for adult audiences for both BBCTV and ITV in the UK, as well as for American television; now I added television scripts for children and young teens (“The Ghost Hunter”; “Woof”; “Harry’s Mad”;’ “Julia Jekyll and Harriet Hyde”; “Uncle Jack”; “Out of Sight”; “Whizziwig”; “Spatz”; “Powers”; “Time Riders”; “Monster TV”; “Legend of the Lost Keys”; “Gypsy Girl”), not just for the BBC and ITV, but also writing for American studios, including Disney. My international career continued while I was living in Ireland during the 1990s, when one of my scripts for the RTE sitcom “Upwardly Mobile” was shortlisted for the prestigious Golden Rose of Montreux Best Situation Comedy, a first for a scripted show from RTE.
At the same I was also busy scriptwriting for radio, something I had continued to do ever since my first sitcom in 1971. Over the years I had created and written different sitcoms for radio (“Albert & Me” starring Richard Beckinsale, and later Robert Lindsay; “Tony’s” with Victor Spinetti and John Laurie) as well as writing for sketch shows. These had always been recorded in front of studio audiences, the convention for broadcast comedy at that time, and now I wanted to do something different: comedy that didn’t need three big gags a page to make the studio audience laugh out loud, but character comedy that would make them smile, and with which I could couple more serious moments and themes. What I was after was a hybrid: comedy-drama. I decided to set it in a junior school, and base it on my experiences as a teacher. And so “King Street Junior” was created.
Fortunately for me I was working with a producer called John Fawcett Wilson, who was very enthusiastic about this concept. The BBC were much harder to convince. They insisted that as the pilot show for “King Street Junior” had been commissioned by the Light Entertainment Department it had to be recorded in front of a studio audience. We explained to them “it’s not that kind of comedy show”, and asked for a studio in Broadcasting House that did drama productions. We were informed that all those studios were already booked. The only studio available to us, they told us, was the Paris Theatre, with rows of seats for the audience. Whether the BBC hoped that John and I would relent and perform and record the pilot in front of an audience after all, I don’t know. All I do know is that John’s original memo about the show stated that it would be non-audience and we recorded the pilot episode on the stage of the Paris to an empty theatre. The cast were fantastic, the sound effects were perfect, and even in that empty theatre it felt good.
“King Street Junior” eventually ran for 20 years (1985-2005) with 100 episodes, built up a worldwide audience of 22 million, and still airs on BBCRadio4 Extra. In my opinion, all thanks to John Fawcett Wilson for sticking to his guns.
As a result of my being successful with a non-audience show, and one that had as much drama as comedy, I was now able to pitch ideas to BBC Radio Drama, and went on to work with the brilliant producer, Marilyn Imrie, with three series of a comedy-drama series I’d created called “Coming Alive”, starring Karl Howman and Phyllis Logan. Marilyn and I then went on to make a trilogy of plays starring Geoffrey Palmer and Wendy Craig, the “Crosswords” Trilogy: “Arthur in Bournemouth”; “Leonardo in Lyme Regis” and “Shakespeare in Southampton”. Other radio plays followed, and I found myself switching between TV, radio and children’s books, very different genres to work in.
And now I have added another dimension. Recently, in addition to continuing to write books for children, I have gone back to my roots: writing crime novels for adults. The first in a new series, set in London in the early 1920s and featuring Detective Chief Inspector Stark, “ASSASSINS”, has just been published in the UK and the USA, to good reviews in prestigious American literary magazines Kirkus and Book List:
“Against a backdrop of political unrest, a multiple murderer wreaks havoc in post-World War I Britain.October 1921. Shots are fired outside the residence of Lord Amersham’s home in Regent’s Park. When Scotland Yard DCI Paul Stark arrives with his sergeant, Robert Danvers, he’s confronted by a furious Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for the Colonies. Three bullets found their mark, indicating that the killer was an experienced gunman. Amersham’s vocal opposition to both the British Communist Party and the fight for Irish independence made him the target of many. Suspicion naturally falls on charismatic Irish Republican Army leader Michael Collins, who at first bristles under Stark’s questions but ultimately offers his assistance. Besides providing interesting nuggets of history, Eldridge (Roman Invasion, -++, etc.) depicts his lead characters with complexity and compassion, auguring well for this series kickoff.” (Kirkus)
“The assassination of a nobleman in broad daylight in front of his London house in 1921 upsets the ruling class. Eldridge presents an appealing cast: DCI Stark, a decorated veteran who came home from the war to find his wife dead of influenza, now lives with his parents, who help care for his eight-year-old son; and his able assistant, DS Robert Danvers, who’s estranged from his upper-class father for his choice of occupation. A smart start to a proposed series, with politics threaded through procedure, plus a hint of romance.” (Booklist)
The second novel in the series, SHADOWS OF THE DEAD, is to be published in the UK in January 2017, coming out in the US soon afterwards. Another step on this writer’s journey.