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Heidi - Andrew Pollard

Published in The Lowdown November 2008

"What's next year's show going to be?" said Sue Andrews, the General Manager of Northern Broadsides as my adaptation of The Waterbabies set out on tour last year.  Well, there's nothing like a potential commission to get your mind whirring.  Johanna Spyri's Heidi very quickly came to me. The Waterbabies had been about a boy, Heidi was about a girl - so that, at least, balanced things out in the sex stakes!

Now, Heidi may not, at first, seem like an obvious choice for Northern Broadsides with their reputation for down to earth, gritty interpretations of classic plays and Heidi certainly has a very sugary-sweet reputation - so how would the two work together? Well, on reading the book it struck me that Heidi is a girl of the hills. Now any film or TV version I've seen has Heidi speaking in a general RP type of accent (especially the dubbed version I watched as a kid). I began to think that if we were really to hear Heidi speaking she would speak with the dialect of her region - which could, conceivably, be the equivalent of a Yorkshire/Lancashire Pennine accent.

Then, very quickly, the idea of telling Heidi's story through the eyes of the mountain goats came to me. Using the goats would give me a fresh perspective on the story would help take away some of that sugariness. They would also bring a great deal of added comedy to the story. Instantly, I could see the goats doing a hooven clog dance - accapella bleating, etc.

Also, the novel has a lot of Christianity running through it and as our audience would be multi-ethnic, I wanted to get away from that. To my mind goats have no religion - except the worshipping of food and a love of being outdoors - but they do respond to kindness. The moral from The Waterbabies was  "Do as you would be done by." This could equally be applied to the story of Heidi. No matter what happens to her in the story - and however badly she's treated by adults she brings with her a child's purity and positivism.

Before I started to rough out a first draft proper, I decided to canvas friends and family on their feelings about the Heidi Book. What they talked most of were very visceral things - the mountains, the meadows, the creamy milk, the warm bread and the lovely cheese. Basically - food and the open air.  And what do goats like most?  Food and the open air. In fact most of the book is a kind of argument about urban versus country living so things were beginning to tie in nicely.

My first priority was to carve out the spine of the story. For all my thoughts about goats  it is the story of Heidi I have to tell - and I wanted to make it as dramatic, funny and moving as I could. Books like Heidi (and The Waterbabies) were often written for children's periodicals of the time and so are episodic in structure. I needed to create something with more immediacy - and look for the drama. With a time frame of no more than 45 minutes per act, I needed to find those dramatic points and tell them as swiftly and dramatically as possible.

There were also other important factors to consider. I would be working closely with the same director as The Waterbabies, Adam Sunderland, whose style is very visual/physical with the use of a few props becoming a multitude of things and we would have only five actors at our disposal. So with all this in mind, I began the first draft. I decided the framework would be Peter the Goatherd trying to tell his version of Heidi's story but being constantly undermined as the goats literally "butt in" with their own view of things, playing all the characters as they do so. However, almost immediately as I began, another idea came to me that would not go away: it's the present day in the Pennines and four bored goats are penned up in a barn for the night.  When they find an old book of Heidi and begin eating the pages from it, they find themselves regurgitating the story and co-opt the farmer's daughter to play Heidi.

Unusually, I began to write two versions and when I had written, very roughly, about fifteen minutes of each version, I gave them to the director to read. I knew which one excited me more - but wanted to see if we agreed. Thankfully we did. The goats eating the book gave us some more layers to play with - a play within a play, if you like - and also, setting the piece in a barn meant the director could utilise lots of farm equipment to help tell the story.

So I began again.  I tried to give each goat a distinct personality. One goat liked music (I can't emphasise enough how much live music adds to a show like this, and actor/musician Becka Hughes has done some marvellous underscoring and worked wonders with my rather rudimentary lyrics.) Another goat watches films through the farmhouse window - and so constantly adds filmic references to the story.

In order to still give the goats their own take on the story I limited the "regurgitations" to just the essential pieces of narration needed to forward the story and I made them speak these bits in a very heightened RP voice to, hopefully, make it clear that it was actual pieces of the book they were speaking (and as a nod to those RP dubbed versions of my childhood). When it came to playing out the scenes - I gave the goats their head (or horns) and let them play the characters however their goaty minds saw them. In the second draft I began to give the goats their own language - not too dissimilar from our own - but enough to give it a comic and odd quality - for example "eyes" became " Ogglepeepers"  - a human became a "hubean",  "education became "eggulation", etc.

As I said earlier, I knew the show was to be highly visual in style (almost filmic), so I included as many visual set pieces as I could, often with no idea how they would be staged - but such is the skill of Adam, the director, I always have confidence he'll find a solution!

It is always difficult knowing quite where to pitch a children's show. I was asked to write this for kids aged five and up. Well, there is a big difference in understanding and sophistication between a kid who's five and a kid who's, say, nine.  I also have to remember that a lot of adults will come and watch the show so I must try and include a little something for everyone. The "play within a play" format, with one set of characters playing another lot of characters, is not a particularly easy one to grasp when you're five but I don't want to dumb things down too much because if it starts to bore me in the writing, it's certainly going to bore the kids. Besides, children watch a lot of sophisticated TV and film without entirely knowing everything that is going on - so one has to hope that if the central spine of the story is clear and the central characters clearly defined, then that will carry the younger ones along. I want every little girl to identify, in some way, with Heidi and every boy with Goat Peter (or the other way round, if that's how they feel!)

This year, I knew I would not be able to attend ANY rehearsals as I would be working away - but Adam and I have a great deal of trust - and we both knew that if any cuts or slight re-workings were made in rehearsal (and there are always cuts and re-workings) it would only be to help shape the story or move it along. Often in rehearsal, one finds that a "look" or a gesture can be much stronger than a couple of lines - so I am unfazed by cuts to the script - as long as I'm kept in the loop. And even if I could attend rehearsals there always comes a time with a new show when the writer is no longer wanted. The director and actors have to begin to  "own" it for themselves - and with the magical alchemy of theatre turn it into a fully-fledged show. 

As I write this, the show has already opened to great feedback and reviews but there is still tinkering to be done.  On my flying visit to an early performance, I felt the "Goaty" language was perhaps a little too hard to grasp straight away, especially for the younger children, so we have snipped and toned it down somewhat. There will, inevitably, be other little changes as the show goes on its merry way to venues as diverse as Skipton Cattle Market and Greenwich Theatre in London - but that is the nature of live theatre. Bring on the goats.

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