HARING A nanny with Minnie Driver, playing on Peter Sellers’ water bed and growing up surrounded by artists, actors and society figures, dividing his days between his father’s home (a National Trust property) and his mother’s boho Kensington flat... Damien Dibben’s childhood was perfect training for a writer. But Harold Pinter thought otherwise. After spotting Damien acting alongside his own son in a school production, he recommended Damien for an RSC audition. Damien’s early career was spent acting alongside names such as Daniel Craig and Rupert Everett, designing and building film sets and scripting Hollywood movies.
And the rest is history — or rather, The History Keepers. Damien has now created a sensation with his soon-to-be-filmed children’s books about time-travelling secret agents, whose mission is to protect the past from meddlesome villains. The 14-year-old hero, Jake Djones, fights the bad guys and searches for his family, who are lost in time. Adventures play out against a sumptuous backdrop (the first books cover 16th century Venice and Rome of AD27), with gloriously OTT characters such as evil Prince Zeldt, with his murderous Escher-style staircases.
The books are published in 40 countries and 25 languages (includingHebrew)andhavebeensnapped up by award-winning Working Title Films as its first franchise for children, with a script by Damien.
“History is the most incredible story of all,” says Damien, “with an incredible cast of characters, heroes and villains, explorers, inventors, world-changers, the epic sweep of all that, but also the minute stories — and most incredible is the fact that it’s all actually happened.”
That’s three “incredibles” in one sentence. Damien is really, really, really excited about history and his enthusiasm fills the books with energy. Characters utter their lines with a flourish — history keeper Nathan hands Jake a “flint lighter” with the dramatic words: “Keep it with you. History gets darker than you could ever imagine.” These are not disguised textbooks from the hide-veg-in-your-kids’-pasta-sauce school of thought. Yet readers will learn about the inventions, food and fashions of major civilisations.
Damien’s home is appropriately set between the Tate Modern and the Globe and furnished with 18thcentury globes, a 17th-century tapestry and a 1950s orrery. He is fascinated by the way history endures in tangible form — for Circus Maximus (the second book), many Roman locations were still standing and could be visited.
The history keepers swallow “atomium” liquid, then sail a ship into another era. On a ferry trip to St Malo, mid-Channel, it occurred to Damien that there was no land in sight and “this bit of sea was the same as it was 100 or 1,000 or a million years ago”. This gave him the idea that the history keepers would time-travel by water — making an actual geographical journey. For the time-travel science, he liaises with Cambridge physics professor Andy Parker, mastermind of the Large Hadron Collider.
Time-travellers also benefit from a Jewish sense of humour. The history keepers’ exploits are perilous, but humour is ever-present. “My maternal grandparents came from Poland and my mother’s side of the family had this incredible sense of humour,” says Damien. “It’s best if you can tell a story through the prism of humour, even if it’s a tragic story.” Inner strength (“valour”, as history keepers call it) is also vital. And it helps to have an animal sidekick, as every adventurer knows. A “mad dog lover”, Damien includes several dogs in his plots, along with a parrot and exotic pets such as vultures.
Damien’s Jack Russell, Dudley, even has his own claim to fame — he is related to the canine companions of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. The History Keepers: Circus Maximus is out now from Corgi Books, at £6.99. www. thehistorykeepers.com