Emma Thomp­son does Beatrix Pot­ter

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - SAMEER RAHIM

In the sum­mer of 2010, the Os­car-win­ning ac­tress and writer Emma Thomp­son re­ceived an in­trigu­ing pack­age in the mail. Inside was a small card­board box with a half-eaten radish leaf and a let­ter from Peter Rab­bit. The let­ter said that a “cer­tain mis­chievous twin­kle” in Thomp­son’s eye made her the per­fect per­son to write an­other ad­ven­ture for the rab­bit — a se­quel to Beatrix Pot­ter’s beloved chil­dren’s story.

“It was such a witty in­vi­ta­tion,” Thomp­son tells me, “and it was very clever be­cause in a sense I was com­pletely tricked.” She laughs in that fa­mil­iar warm and spon­ta­neous way. “If Fred­er­ick Warne,” — the pub­lisher of the Peter Rab­bit sto­ries — “had sent some of­fi­cial let­ter I would have said, ‘Don’t be ridicu­lous, I can’t think of any­thing I want to do less than step into the foot­steps of a ge­nius like Pot­ter.’” But the pub­lisher’s sweetly cun­ning ploy worked, and next week sees the pub­li­ca­tion of The Fur­ther Tale of Peter Rab­bit by Emma Thomp­son, pub­lished in time for the 110th an­niver­sary of the book’s orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion.

The story has a nice sym­me­try with the way in which Pot­ter first cre­ated her an­i­mal sto­ries. In Septem­ber 1893, Pot­ter heard that Noel Moore, the young son of her ex-gov­erness, was un­well. To cheer him up she sent him a let­ter with the story of Peter Rab­bit who, un­like his goody­goody sib­lings Flopsy, Mopsy and Cot­ton­tail, dis­obeys his mother and breaks into Mr. McGre­gor’s gar­den.

Pot­ter also in­cluded charm­ing sketches that she later coloured in for the 1902 pub­lished ver­sion. She honed her skills through draw­ing in­sects and mush­rooms and had even sub­mit­ted a sci­en­tific pa­per to The Lin­nean So­ci­ety of Lon­don (it was re­jected be­cause she was a woman). As shown in the 2006 film Miss Pot­ter, she fell in love with her ed­i­tor Nor­man Warne and they got en­gaged in op­po­si­tion to her par­ents, who thought his pro­fes­sion lowly. A month later, how­ever, Warne died.

Thomp­son is at­tracted to the dark­ness in Pot­ter’s sto­ries. “Some of them are pro­foundly un­set­tling,” Thomp­son tells me. “Of course, those were my favourites when I grew up.” When Mr. McGre­gor chases Peter Rab­bit there is the real dan­ger he will share his fa­ther’s fate — be­ing baked in a pie for the farmer’s ta­ble. “When I was do­ing Nanny McPhee,” says Thomp­son, re­fer­ring to two hugely suc­cess­ful films she wrote and starred in, “peo­ple would say, ‘But there’s death and there’s di­vorce and there’s dis­ap­point­ment.’ But chil­dren more than any­one in­stinc­tively know that life is full of dan­ger.”

She adds, “I’m sure if you asked Jo Rowl­ing, she’d say the same thing.”

In this re­spect (and oth­ers), Thomp­son takes in­spi­ra­tion from her fa­ther, Eric, who wrote and nar­rated The Magic Round­about tele­vi­sion se­ries. “He would say, ‘please don’t say I’m writ­ing for chil­dren,’” she re­calls with pas­sion. “It’s pa­tron­iz­ing to write for chil­dren as though they came from an­other planet. Dad said he wrote to please him­self.” In the same way, she says, “Pot­ter didn’t write for chil­dren; she wrote for ev­ery­one.” She in­sists her Nanny McPhee films and The Fur­ther Tale of Peter Rab­bit are not ex­clu­sively for chil­dren. “This sep­a­ra­tion of us all out into camps ac­cord­ing to our age or our sex is de­press­ing. I don’t think it’s cul­tur­ally healthy.”

Thomp­son’s fa­ther read her the Pot­ter books when she was a child, and her new book res­onates with her child­hood vis­its to Scot­land. The Fur­ther Tale, like the orig­i­nal, finds Peter Rab­bit squeez­ing un­der the gate into Mr. McGre­gor’s gar­den. He then hops into a bas­ket cov­ered with a tar­tan pic­nic cloth, eats the cheese and pickle sand­wich inside, and promptly falls asleep. When he wakes up he finds that Mr. and Mrs. McGre­gor have taken him up the High Road. There he meets a huge black rab­bit called Fin­lay McBur­ney, who turns out to be his cousin.

“I thought that Pot­ter had been so in­flu­enced by Scot­land as a child so it seemed right that he should visit,” says Thomp­son. It’s also an homage to the Scot­tish side of her fam­ily and — once more — her fa­ther: Eric wrote a book based on The Magic Round­about char­ac­ters called Dou­gal’s Scot­tish Hol­i­day.

As a child, Thomp­son was taken to High­land games — “It was a great treat to sit on a wall with a packet of crisps and see all the pipers go by” — which make their way into her book. (I won’t spoil the end­ing, but there is some mess­ing about with radish toss­ing.) She will soon be at­tend­ing sim­i­lar games in the Cowal Penin­sula, Scot­land, where she has a home. “It’s bonkers: we take this tree and throw it. It’s ab­so­lutely mad.”

Some peo­ple have said the same thing (in the nicest pos­si­ble way) about Thomp­son her­self. Let us say she is ex­actly the right kind of bonkers to write a suc­cess­ful chil­dren’s book. Her rel­ish for lan­guage is clear and there are a few lovely Scot­tish phrases that the chil­dren (and even the adults) will have to look up.

These, along with Eleanor Tay­lor’s Pot­ter-in­spired il­lus­tra­tions, make the book a de­light.

Does she have plans to take up some of Pot­ter’s other char­ac­ters?

“I have since re­ceived a com­mu­nique from Ben­jamin Bunny,” she tells me earnestly. “And I’m try­ing to think of some­thing he can join in with …”

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A “cer­tain mis­chievous twin­kle” in Emma Thomp­son’s eyes made her per­fect to write a Peter Rab­bit se­quel.

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