Jim's Spectacular Christmas
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Actress and author Dame Emma Thompson is feeling festive with her latest children’s book, Jim’s Spectacular Christmas, which is out now. While speaking on The Chris Evans Breakfast Show with Sky, the Oscar winner revealed the real-life inspiration behind the loveable dog who lived in the V&A museum, and why she found the process of writing “therapeutic”. That's my dad. That's the Magic Roundabout,” the Matilda actress shared. “I was brought up by somebody who said you cannot talk down to children. Why would you do that? I mean, he'd meet a baby and shake his hand and go, ‘Hello, nice to meet you,’ and was quite forthright and firm with children.” For Jim’s Spectacular Christmas, the Love Actually star teamed up with Gruffalo illustrator Axel Scheffler, and Emma explained to Chris why she wanted to centre a story around a dog and his feelings in the festive season.
A gamey whiff’ and ‘a rheumy eye’: Jim the dog. Illustration: Axel Scheffler/Puffin in collaboration with the V&A/PA So began a correspondence that continued over the years with requests to Scheffler to design letterheads for both Thompson and her actor mother, Phyllida Law. Though they never actually met in person, they exchanged gifts on the birth of their first children; hers to him was a food hamper; his to her was a picture of a pig wheeling a pram. A pig? Yes, she explains, a pig is her letterhead emblem. When she later became a dame he drew her a picture of a pig wearing a dame badge. “So, without ever meeting, Axel has been part of the illustration of my la-i-ife.” She draws the vowel out into a camp diphthong as part of a running joke with Scheffler as to which of them will seem most exciting to the children for whom their new book is intended: the actor who starred as Nanny McPhee and now as Mrs Trunchbull in the film of Matilda the Musical or the illustrator of the mega-selling Gruffalo books. Emma Thompson reads Jim’s Spectacular Christmas to schoolchildren at the V&A Museum. Photograph: James Watkins/PuffinIt was Thompson who brought Scheffler in on Jim’s Spectacular Christmas, having already written the story, complete with character sketches, and folded them up into a little book. Though an award-winning screenwriter, she had no ambition to diversify into picture books, she says. But she agreed to this one because it was pitched to her as an invitation from Henry Cole himself, just as the three Peter Rabbit books she has previously written were pitched as invitations from Peter: “There’s still a little bit of me that thinks it was Peter Rabbit himself who asked me,” she says. “I love writing for children. I think it’s perhaps a legacy from dad.” Her sister, Sophie, also now writes books for children. Their father, Eric Thompson, presented the children’s TV programme Play School and went on to create and narrate The Magic Roundabout.
Settling herself on the steps in their midst, beside a large cardboard cut-out of Jim, Thompson asks who has heard of the Gruffalo and a rafter-rattling cheer goes up. Scheffler lurks in the shadows as she starts to read from the book. “Now what,” she asks, “do you think ‘a gamey whiff’ means?” Emma was first inspired to write the book after receiving a Jim-shaped Christmas decoration as a gift, with the original spark coming from a drawing that Sir Henry had made of his pet. She said: “It’s actually about canine conscience…because he does something that makes him feel guilty. So it's about guilt, which of course is what Christmas is all about. Christmas is all about guilt. The guilt present, that guilt gift, the fact that you feel guilty because you're not with your parents, auntie, siblings, Christmas is just a time that's absolutely built for guilt.”Thompson writes like she talks: irreverent, refreshingly un-grand and with a comic timing that is accentuated in the book by Scheffler’s deployment of mini-tableaux Jim’s Spectacular Christmas is about the real pup, called Jim, who belonged to Sir Henry Cole, the V&A museum’s founding director. Sir Henry famously sent the first ever Christmas Card in 1843, and founded the V&A in 1852.