We're Going On A Bear Hunt is this year's Channel 4 Christmas animation. This much-loved picture book written by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury has been brought to life by Lupus Films, whose previous work includes The Snowman and The Snowman and The Snowdog. This beautiful half-hour film, while still paying respect to the original text, introduces a back-story of love and loss.
Acclaimed British singer-songwriter George Ezra has written and recorded the theme song. The 23-year-old, whose debut album Wanted On Voyage was one of the UK’s best-selling of 2014, has penned a distinctive, sweet song called Me & You for the film’s soundtrack. Me & You marks the first time that George has composed a bespoke song for film or television.
Michael, how involved were you in the process and how do you feel when someone comes to you and says, "We are going to take one of your best loved stories and make it our own?"
One of my best loved or not, I’m not sure? I have a very open attitude to the text as it started out as a folk chant at Brownies and American summer camps.
When I came to write it down it didn’t really work because I make noises rather than read, so then I had to adapt it. It was very short which is why I created the forest and the snow storm. So that is how the book was written, but the characters, the landscapes, that’s all Helen Oxenbury's. We have to remember that Helen created those. It’s many stories when you think about it. The dog has a story. The baby has a story. They all have stories.
[Jokes] In terms about what I feel about these awful people and, "What have they done to my book?!" I was more worried on Helen’s account and thought, "What is Helen going to make of her Suffolk beautiful landscapes being made into an animation!?"
But by then I was involved. I was sent me the script and I had a look at it... I had a scripting hat on then. That is partly how the whole loss element evolved. We sat down and thought what the motives must be. In every story people must have motives.
Michael, what is so special about this story?
In one respect I am the least qualified person to answer that. When I first saw Helen’s drawings- and I’m utterly, utterly ashamed of this- I had no idea what the pictures were to do with the story. I sat there looking at the picture thinking, ‘These are actually incredible paintings but what has it go to do with going on a bear hunt?’
It was only when the book came out I realised what it was. With the greatest of children's books, what actually happens is you start off with a situation where a parent or carer is sitting with a child on their lap. They are sharing a book like this [demonstrates]- child sitting this way- the parent is saying the words and the child is looking at the pictures. The words don’t say anything about all the stuff, all the drama that Helen has created. Helen has created a story that the child reads, not the adult. Poor old adult -talking away in the background- just doesn’t get it! So the child says ‘teddy’ ‘dog’ ‘grass’...The more they read it the more they anticipate it, So the children are the interpreters. It is a tremendous way to give power to the child.
Then there is this chant which exists around it and beyond it, before it and after it, which you can carry away with you, with the picture. But of course the story itself has danger and you survive the danger. The heart of any great story has fear and anxiety of one sort or another and you survive it. So what you hear through fiction is that you do survive, you can survive and you can get through stuff. That’s what you get from it. So each time you read it you test it one more time. Will you get through? Maybe..? And hurrah! And yes, we have got through! So it keeps testing you every time.
I think an analogy would be Where The Wild Things Are, or something like that. Where you have the journey there and the journey back- danger- overcoming the danger- and getting back. These picture books have this power of doing that.
This animation is a whole other thing in which you’ve got many voices, you’ve got the song and you’ve got each of the stories brought out.
I can say all that but it all has very little to do with me. Seriously, I just tweaked a few words. Went round and did it again.
Michael, when we first read the book we perhaps don't see the different layers. The sort of ‘you’ve got to go through it’ thing. We just take it literally.
This is the power of all art. It is the thing it is but it can also be something else. So we can always just dwell on the thing. A book about a mosquito- is it about a mosquito or all the things that bother you? Rembrandt painted himself, but that painting is also about old age and regret or illness. It can be about all those things depending of who we are. You can do that. It’s the fundamental thing about human existence in time. You have to go through time. You have to go through tomorrow. We go to bed and we run through tomorrow. We all do.
The thing about nursery rhymes is that they express very fundamental and elemental things. "It’s raining it’s pouring the old man is snoring…." We have all done that symbolically one way or another. We have been fed up with the weather... or felt low. Humpty Dumpty - it’s a very powerful statement about things being broken. There is one element that you can’t put back together. All these little simple rhymes survive because they express the voice of the people. We live in a time of fun. We have great stars we adore- like George Ezra - because they write this stuff - but simmering along underneath is this wonderful folk tradition that expresses these deep ideas. You don’t even have to say it. It’s tacit. It’s just ticking away. But that’s the power of art.
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a story you have read in schools for us and at multi- school events. Having seen the animation are you going to do it differently at all? Are you going to tweak it? Have you changed how you feel about the pace and the tone?
Every time I perform it I do it differently anyway. Wherever I am I add in bits of stuff. Maybe running down the road- with a William Tell overture in it! Or changing the whole ending so I’m going up and down flats in a tower block. So it changes every time and I always do it with noises, not words. I warn the audience beforehand and I say that’s the great thing about live performance. Like Van Morrison [in his voice] “Don’t expect this to be anything like the record!” So, this probably won’t affect it- I’ll just carry on doing my rather odd performances.
I think that performance element is why it is such a firm family favourite and that is why it has such enduring qualities. Part of Bear Hunt’s success is the way it invites adults to share and take part in the reading experience. What are your top tips for encouraging family reading?
Enjoy it. It’s got a rhythm. Use any tune you like. You to take the tune I use but there are plenty of others you can make up. That’s what chants do for you. If it’s not written down a melodic line so you can chant it and the advantage of the repetition is that children will join in so long as you give it a little bit of welly on the beat. So play with that and use that and do funny voices. Muck around with it and kiddies will do it themselves. They will just take it and run with it. And they do. I get letters and tweets every day, people saying, “We were on holiday and we went on a shell hunt and we made up a song about it.”
George, I understand this was a favourite of yours when you were younger and you’ve got a mum who is a teacher. Were you a bookish child? Were you a reader, and if so, do you think that that led you towards a career that’s so creative?
I wasn’t very academic at school but was always very creative. When I was about 14, I really got into music. As a child I wasn’t really a book-lover but as a teenage I really was and I found it for myself which was amazing. I think the reason why creativity was so appealing for someone like me is that I think children work well outside of rules because they are then in control in some way. At some point somewhere I realised there aren’t any rules and that there is nothing that says Bob Dylan is who he is because someone allowed him to be. He just gave it a go.
What did you like to read?
I really liked the Ben Elton books. The first one I read was Dead Famous which my mum got me. Captain Underpants when I was a bit younger- comic strip - if I remember rightly. I remember when I was about 15, a friend of my mum left a Murakami book and I picked it up and I fell in love which that as well, so I think it is chance that you come across books that you love.
You probably don’t get time to read now...
I do actually. I make sure I do. I found that being on tour it is so easy to get into your bunk and put every episode of Game of Thrones on - so I started to read instead. Actually this last month I have started the Philip Pullman Series. I didn’t know they were a thing and I’ve never read a book faster. I love it. I’m on the second one in the moment.
Michael, I’m thinking about the expectations of people who know the book who are going to watch this for the first time. My surprise was that it was much sadder than I was expecting. A lot of people especially at Christmas will find it sadder that they perhaps expected, do you think?
Maybe. We use the word sad. It can mean quite a few things can’t it? It can mean you are utterly bereft and it can also mean you are empathetic. They are very different feelings really but we just have this little word, “sad”. The sadness here seems to be about empathy- that is what is being expressed between the people and people are sypathising with each other’s situation so they may well feel sad. I would hope that people feel they are empathetic toward the piece- this is art- but also that the film is empathetic towards them. These people who have been through this stuff were having a party- a shin-dig in the end. Does that tally with anything that you are doing? It is not possible to have Christmas without thinking that there is someone who could have been there and might have been there because that is the nature of human existence. So we all have those thoughts of Christmas. You have to have ways of dealing with that one way or another. So maybe this plays into that strand. We can’t all be endlessly jolly.
The bereavement theme- was that your idea Michael?
Yes it evolved. When you sit with any scripty group if you identify something that doesn’t work you put up a flag. I happened to be the one that said, “What if there has been a bereavement?” That seemed to work and the animators ran with it.
The collaboration of the story and the music and illustration and the animation just comes together so beautifully. Is there a picture book that you would like to see brought to life in an animation?
Oh hundreds. I have said before, Where The Wild Things Are. There is an animation but it is just of the pictures. There is also a stage show, I’m not sure if it came to the UK. Then there is the Cusack movie which went off at an adult tangent, but you could do a beautiful children's animation of Where The Wild Things Are and expand it outwards. Many picture books, the fundamental ones that deal with something big, would work as animation. Lupus Films are a very very special team because they think about what they are doing. The really think it through and they go on thinking it through even when they think they’ve got it. If they found something or thought of something I’m sure it would be brilliant.
Classic children’s books are often the result of an inspired pairing between writer and illustrator- you have credited Helen so many times today. Is there another illustrator you would love to work with?
Not more so than Helen. Also the last book I did, A Great Big Cuddle, was with Chris Riddell the current Children’s Laureate.
George, how long did it take you to write the soundtrack and what was the process?
It was really easy. Any anxiety I had with regard to writing to a brief disappeared. It was the first song that I sat down to write after being introduced to the characters. It was a relatively easy song for me to write. It was the first I sent and they loved it. The funny thing about being asked to write music to this book is that I remember it so closely to my own childhood. To me it is the one book I remember all three of my siblings having read to us at the same time. We all had different things read to us but it is the one I remember being read to us all together.
Big thanks to Channel 4, Walker Books, Lupus Films, Michael Rosen and George Ezra. We can't wait to see the screening on Christmas Eve. Happy Christmas from everyone on the Just Imagine Team!