Aladdin's lampoon

Adrian Mitchell writes for children – and against the Poet Laureate

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… it’s panto time. All over the country, theatres are dusting off the old standards: Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White… seasonal moneyspinners that might fund more elevated productions throughout the year. But some aren’t content with old standards. The Dubbeljoint Theatre Company in Belfast, for one, is putting on a brand new version of Aladdin by a writer whose long career has produced sensational works for adults and children alike.

Adrian Mitchell has been in Belfast all week, to help with rehearsals, taking notes and swapping ideas with the director, or else breaking away from the tobacco-ridden interior for “non-smoking breaks” outdoors. After the show opens, tonight [Saturday], he’ll return home – to the pretty street near Hampstead Heath, in London, where he lives with his wife Celia and a six-year old golden retreiver Daisy.

Arriving to meet him there last weekend, I spied Mitchell from my car. He lagged behind Daisy, who pulled on her lead like a tugboat. Now 72, the playwright, poet and controversialist wore a scarlet pullover. His cheeks were almost as red and, like the dog, he trailed clouds of steam into the crisp morning air. Squinting a little, I thought they looked a bit like Father Christmas and Rudolph.

I decided to give Mitchell a few minutes to settle inside. But not long enough, it seemed. I had misunderstood our arrangments and when I rang the doorbell it was answered by Celia, who didn’t entirely conceal her horror at my early arrival. She called upstairs to Adrian – in the shower, presumably – then took me into the kitchen. Daisy barked amiably and lunged at me with her wet nose till Celia shooed her out.

The house is ramshackle bohemian: somewhat worn, with interesting coloured or textured glass here and there, and every surface crammed with items relating to lives spent in the arts and politics. Several related to Mitchell’s many successful productions – though I was unable to spy anything associated with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which he adapted with great success for the Royal Shakespeare Company some years ago and which has been revived several times. This year it’s showing in Leeds and Leicester.

And that’s not the end of the Mitchell-family’s Christmas entertainments. One of their daughters is performing in a soccer-themed extravaganza at the Battersea Arts Centre. Celia, an actress herself, told me while I waited in the kitchen for Adrian that she’d recently been to see the daughter’s show and forgot to turn off her mobile phone. When it rang, everything stopped as one of the actors came out of character to answer it for her. “Yolanda is back from Paris,” he announced to the amused audience, and to Celia’s mortification, handing back the phone.

Hearing Adrian, Celia gave me a leaflet for her daughter’s show, then led me into the sitting room where the freshly scrubbed writer was waiting for me.

Mitchell was born in London in 1932. Severely bullied at school, he went on to study at Oxford University. Afterwards he worked in journalism. Among other things, he wrote the first interview with the Beatles in a British national paper. He remains a friend of Paul McCartney, and did a reading at his marriage to Heather Mills.

He’d already published novels and poetry when he was dropped as TV critic on the Sunday Times: his reviews were too “political”, they told him. Not long after, Mitchell wrote the script for Peter Brook’s extraordinary, groundbreaking play, Marat/Sade, at the RSC. And his work for Kenneth Tynan, at the new National Theatre, horrified the founding artistic-director: Laurence Olivier demanded the excision certain words from the script: notably “clitoris” and “God damn the Queen”. But Mitchell refused. The play was damned by older, conservative critics, he says, but applauded enthusiastically by their younger, lefty counterparts.

In all, he has published 12 plays, six books of poetry, and 12 books for children. By turns joyous, pointless, political, miserable, droll and sexy, Mitchell’s work tends to combine strong emotion with lively wordplay. His elegies, notably those written to an adopted daughter who overdosed on heroin, are heartbreaking; a tribute to fellow-poet Roger McGough causes me to break out into helpless laughter on a crowded underground train. Whatever the topic, the writing is always easy to read – hence its appeal to both children and adults. More than with many writers, you come away from it feeling you really ought to have a go yourself.

Settling into the deep sofa, I ask how he came to write Aladdin. “I had mixed feelings about panto as a kid. I loved the stories and used to fall in love with Cinderella every year, but a lot of the time they stopped the story and someone came on to croon their latest hit…

“I was asked by a children’s theatre in Minneapolis to write a traditional British panto. I asked if they knew what they were asking for, and explained the obligatory elements: the cross-dressing, the slush scene, the transformation scene, the bit where children come on stage, and the final walk-down. But they still sounded excited, so I wrote a couple of drafts.” He flew over to do some workshops. “But at the last moment they decided American children wouldn’t understand it…”

Which is how it ends up being premiered in Belfast. “I think they [in the US] are absolutely wrong. I have worked with American children. I think it was the grown-ups who didn’t understand.”

He greatly prefers to write plays for children. “You get a greater reward. Not financially: you get considerably less money. But you get an audience without any theory or prejudice. And they’re very easily bored, which they will show immediately. If they’re hitting each other you know that part of the play needs fixing.”

Children like short scenes, he says, lots of action, different places, magic, lots of songs – but not long or soppy ones. “They don’t like crying onstage: it embarrasses them, like kissing. They like death so long as it’s done with style. A sword fight they love… They think the theatre is a magic place. They don’t slump the way adults do, they lean forward.”

His latest book of children’s poetry, Daft as a Doughnut, came out a few weeks ago. The great poet Carol Ann Duffy, who is Scottish, highly commends it: “I cannot think of a better living English poet to lead young readers into the magic rooms of poetry’s enchanted palace.”

As should be apparent already, Mitchell is somewhat childlike himself. More than six decades after he was traumatised, at school, in Somerset during the war, he’s still visibly stirred by the memory. “When I was eight I was incredibly badly bullied every day. I went home one day and said ‘I’m not going back, I’d rather be dead.’ My mother said, is it the maths? I said ‘No, it’s the torture.’ I was getting death threats, which you take seriously at that age. So I told her what had been happening – but not everything because when you are a victim you feel ashamed.”

His next school was more congenial. One day a teacher sent him out of the class – as a punishment, he supposed – only to surprise him when he returned by performing with his classmates a play he’d submitted instead of an essay. (This first staged work was called Animal Brains Trust. Based on the popular radio quiz, it featured a Professor Toad and a Commander Kangaroo.)

At the front of every book he publishes, Mitchell inserts a stern injunction prohibiting the use of his work in exams or tests. I remember my own English teacher alluding to this injunction: I felt at the time that it gave Mitchell an excitingly outlaw quality. Now, I regret to say, I wonder if it may have been crafty marketing. “It’s very bad marketing,” he insists. “I see my friends getting paid very well to “do” enormous educational rallies, and I’m not invited because I’m not on the National Curriculum…

“I think that tests and exams dominate education and squash it. They’re an educational experiment that has failed dismally.”

Mitchell holds other radical views. He’s well known as a pacifist, for instance. His latest collection of poetry features on its cover an aerial view of some of the two million people who marched against the war in London early last year. Mitchell was one of the speakers who addressed them in Hyde Park.

The title of that collection, The Shadow Knows, alludes to his appointment, by the socialist magazine Red Pepper, to work as Shadow Poet Laureate. As such, he has openly attacked the work of the official laureate, his former friend Andrew Motion. One attack reads in part like this: “I see the Laureate’s work like this:/ A long thin streak of yellow piss.” Which seems to confirm that people who are engagingly childlike can also be unappealingly childish.

Mitchell insists he was attacking the institution of poet laureate as much as Motion himself, but his loathing of the post seems to have developed late in life because in his previous collection of poems he wrote with great affection about the former incumbent, Ted Hughes.

“The official elegy for princess Margaret was the final straw,” hs says, by way of not-entirely-convincing explanation. “There had to be an antidote: a poet who would stalk the powerful and the pretentious. I don’t think poets should take titles, only joke titles.” So saying, Hampstead Heath’s champion of pantomime dubs me Shadow Poet Laureate too, right there in his sitting room. Is it possible? Is that great honour really mine? Oh yes it is. But, oh no it isn’t: “There are hundreds of us,” Mitchell adds conspiratorially. “We’re everywhere.”

1632 words. First published 18 December 04. © The Financial Times