The Jewish Chronicle - JC Magazine - - Family Life -

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

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