Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Moving Stories in the archive: 'The Machine Gunners' and the BBC

In this special blog post to coincide with our current exhibition Moving Stories: Children's Books from Page to Screen, we look at another children's book featured in our collection that has been adapted for the screen, Robert Westall's The Machine Gunners.

First published in 1975, The Machine Gunners was Robert Westall’s very first novel. The story follows a group of north east school children during the Second World War who manage to take the machine gun from a crashed German aircraft. Originally written for Westall’s son, Christopher (who later died in a tragic motorcycle accident), the book draws heavily upon Westall's own childhood on the north east coast (the book is set in fictional 'Garmouth', largely based on Tynemouth where Westall spent the war as a boy). Upon its release, The Machine Gunners was critically acclaimed and brought Westall the first of his two Carnegie Awards. The novel is still a much-loved classic and in 2007 made the list of top ten all time Carnegie winners.

One of the notebooks in which Robert Westall wrote his manuscript for The Machine Gunners,
from the collection here at Seven Stories

In 1981, six years after the book's publication the production rights were bought by the BBC. Television drama made for children and young people was becoming increasingly popular at this time (Grange Hill had only just made its first appearance three years earlier in 1978) and television companies were eager for stories that had potential for serialisation. The much-loved and critically acclaimed, The Machine Gunners, presented an ideal opportunity for the BBC and they set out to secure the rights for a six part drama.

Letters from the BBC to Robert Westall about The Machine Gunners,
from the Robert Westall collection here at Seven Stories

The first episode aired on 23 February 1983. The script was written by another well-known writer originally from the north east, William Corlett - who, as well as being a script writer and playwright, produced a number of successful novels for children and adults. The series director was Colin Cant, a specialist in children's drama who, as well as serving for many years on Grange Hill, went on to direct other children's book adaptations including Moondial (by Helen Cresswell) and The Children of Green Knowe (by Lucy M. Boston).

The series was well received by audiences and is even now fondly remembered by many. Of the adaptation Robert Westall himself wrote:

"I quite approve of the TV serial made from 'The Machine Gunners'.   The script writer was William Corlett, who also writes children's novels.   He loved the book very much – perhaps too much, for he could not bear to leave many incidents out, and at times (as in the Mrs. Spalding incident with her knickers), things got a little rushed and blurred.   The fault lies with the BBC producers, who did not allow more than six episodes.   It takes about ten episodes to do justice even to a children's book, and they just don't seem to have the nerve to allow this many episodes."

('About 'The Machine Gunners'',

Another of the notebooks in which Robert Westall wrote his manuscript for The Machine Gunners,
from the collection here at Seven Stories

In 2002, The Machine Gunners was again adapted by the BBC but this time for radio. The story has also appeared on stage - in 2011 a stage version was performed at Polka Theatre in London, commissioned by the Imperial War Museum.

The Robert Westall collection is available to consult by appointment at Seven Stories Collections Department. If you'd like to find out more about this collection or others that we hold you can
email: or phone: 01914952707.

Material from the Seven Stories archive is currently on display at  an exhibition looking at the work of Robert Westall at the Friends of Weaver Hall Museum in Northwich, Cheshire: 

If you'd like to find out more about other children's books adapted for the screen then why not visit our exhibition Moving Stories: Children's Books from Page to Screen at the Seven Stories visitor centre, Newcastle upon Tyne, until April 2015

Friday, 16 May 2014

The 40th anniversary of 'The Trouble with Donovan Croft' - with guest contributor, Bernard Ashley

This month marks the 40th anniversary of The Trouble with Donovan Croft, a book that has remained a children’s classic ever since it was first published in 1974. Bernard Ashley’s first novel appeared at a time when children’s writers were increasingly creating books that challenged ideologies and addressed real issues affecting real children. Firmly in the vanguard of this movement, the novel is well known for addressing a number of big issues including racism, isolation and the challenges faced by foster families. Though the book has taught many children valuable lessons on the destructive impact of prejudice, it is the brilliantly accurate depiction of the key relationships that capture the imagination, particularly the wordless relationship between the selectively mute Donovan and his friend and foster brother, Keith.

The book won The Other Award (an alternative to the Carnegie medal) in 1976 and, since publication, has never been out of print. In 2005 Bernard chose Seven Stories as the home for his original manuscript, which gives a wonderful insight into the creative development of the book. In this special Seven Stories blog post Bernard Ashley talks to us about the real life inspiration for Donovan Croft, the challenges of finding a publisher, and of writing as a means of escape:

Author, Bernard Ashley (photo © Norman Smith)

'I started writing The Trouble with Donovan Croft a year or so after I took up the headship of a junior school in East London in 1971. The school was big and multi-cultural with a large percentage of its children described by the Home Office as ‘immigrants’ because their parents had come to Britain in the previous ten years. One such London-born boy gave us cause for concern: his mother had gone home to the West Indies on family business where she stayed longer than expected. There were no mobile phones, texts, and easy-to-make international calls in those days, and, despite letters from her and whatever his father said to him, the eleven-year-old fretted and seemed to think she was never coming back. He became depressed and shrank into himself.

At about the same time my wife Iris, an Infant teacher, told me of a six-year-old girl in her class who had stopped speaking to everyone: firstly to the adults at school, then to the children, and finally to her family at home.

Since the mid-sixties I had been writing for an educational publisher who published ‘readers’ I’d written for the ‘D’ stream children in my class, and two non-fiction ‘social science’ titles I’d researched for secondary schools. Now, in a difficult job which left neither time nor energy for research, I really needed to start writing again. I had discovered the truth of what Graham Greene says in Ways of Escape: ‘Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation. Auden noted: “Man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep.”’ Having a personal life outside work is essential, although for teachers it has become harder and harder in recent years. Perhaps I could write a piece of fiction without the need for research? I knew of two unusual situations no one had written about before. So I started on my first novel, with little planning except knowing there’d be a climax that hinged on whether or not elective mute Donovan could break his silence in a crisis.

A page from the original manuscript of The Trouble with Donovan Croft
by Bernard Ashley, here at Seven Stories

I wrote paragraphs in the car on Saturday mornings while waiting for one of my sons to run out onto a football pitch, and I made time some evenings, often merely revising my weekend efforts be swapping one word of phrase for another.

Although I based the start of my story on his situation, I didn’t write about my troubled eleven-year-old, nor about my wife’s silent pupil - but I did get the girl’s parents’ permission to write a story based on a child suffering from elective mutism. And of course, fired up, I had research to do after all.

As I finished each chapter I’d leave it on the pillow of my eldest son Chris – now also a children’s writer – whose enthusiasm spurred me on.

That was the time when the old quarto paper was being replaced by A4. With the book finished I went to a stationer in East Ham to buy a pack but he hadn’t any in stock; however, I was shown a special box of cream-woven, rounded-corner paper with reinforced binding edges. ‘It’s not quite your A4, sir, but it’s very close.’ And it had a very superior binder to go with it. So I bought it and typed up my story; but my wife, kissing the package for good luck as it went off to Oxford University Press, told me they’d probably reject the story but accept the binder. Which turned out to be halfway true. Having published the book OUP had an office clear-out when they moved from Ely House to Great Clarendon Street and they sent the manuscript back to me. Sans binder.

A page from the original manuscript of The Trouble with Donovan Croft
by Bernard Ashley, here at Seven Stories

The eleven-year-old boy in our school had by now gone on to secondary education, and I came very clean about my book with the staff and children, one of whom, Donovan Richards, willingly lent me his first name for the eponymous central character.

The book received generally good reviews. It was welcomed not only as one of the first school stories to be set in the state system – with which more readers could identify - but for having a black central character and a strong subtext against racism. Its paperback edition went on to win the ‘Other’ Award, an alternative to the Carnegie Medal, which was given annually for non-racist, non-sexist, non-classist children’s literature. And happily it has survived in print for forty years.

The Trouble with Donovan Croft started me on a serious writing career that I managed alongside my teaching, eschewing agents and insisting on long deadlines in order to enjoy my way of escape – writing books that would excite and entertain while giving some reassurance to children going through troubled times that they’re not the only ones. Like real-life Donovans. 
Within a few weeks of ‘Donovan’s’ fortieth anniversary in May my twenty-fourth novel will be published: The Shadow of the Zeppelin (Orchard), a story of the First World War. I’m halfway through my twenty-fifth, and I’ve planned the one after that. So I say thank you to Donovan, to OUP, and to the UK children’s books world for giving me my fruitful way of escape.'

Bernard Ashley's twenty-fourth novel, The Shadow of the Zeppelin (Orchard), is available to buy now. If you'd like to come and see the original manuscript of The Trouble with Donovan Croft or learn more about the Seven Stories Collection, email: or phone: 01914952707.