Goodnight Mister Tom: Escape to the country

On the 30th anniversary of its publication, the popular wartime tale Goodnight Mister Tom is to hit the stage. Arifa Akbar celebrates the rebirth of a children's classic

Those of us who were school-age when Goodnight Mister Tom was first published remember it as a bewitching children's story of friendship between a lonely 10-year-old boy and an equally lonely old widower, with the Blitz bombing of London as its backdrop. Adults equally in thrall to the novel may also remember its sensitive handling of the more adult themes of child abuse, depression, death and bereavement.

The book, first published in 1981, has since become a phenomenon, selling over 1.2 million copies in the UK alone, translated worldwide and hailed as a masterful "crossover novel" for adults and children of all ages, long before the success of Harry Potter.

Set during the Second World War, Goodnight Mister Tom follows William Beech, a young boy evacuated from his London home where he has been living with his depressed, violent and abusive single mother, to the safety of the countryside where he builds an unlikely and magical friendship with the elderly recluse Tom Oakley, who lost his wife and child in an accident decades ago, and has never recovered.

The book has won numerous awards, including a commendation for the Carnegie Medal. Its Bafta award-winning TV adaptation starred John Thaw and drew 14 million viewers, while a musical version came to the stage in 1995.

Thirty years on, the novel is set to be published in an anniversary edition by Puffin in March that will introduce the story to a whole new generation of children. It has also been adapted as a stage play for the first time by the Children's Touring Partnership. Starring the Olivier Award winner Oliver Ford Davies and adapted by David Wood, the new production opens at the Chichester Festival Theatre on 2 February and will tour across 14 venues. Like the phenomenally successful War Horse, this children's book adaptation also incorporates puppetry. The dog, Sammy – a central character – is represented by a puppet which has been created by Toby Olié, who gave on-stage life to the farm horse Joey in War Horse.

No-one is more surprised by the story's indefatigable appeal than its writer, Michelle Magorian, now 63, who wrote the book as a 20-something jobbing repertory actress. Looking back now, she reflects how the story initially came to her in a vision as she struggled to combine writing with acting six days a week.

"I suddenly saw this very strong image of a boy standing in a graveyard and I thought, 'you are an evacuee and you are terrified. I have to write about you'," she recalls.

"Then I remembered the stories my mother had told me about children she had nursed during the Blitz, about the boy who had never slept in a bed before, and the boy whose mother sewed his underwear lining with newspaper during the winter and had to unpick it in the summer. I was writing a collection of ten short stories then but I had to know what happened to this little boy that I had seen in the graveyard."

She set to work at once, in between acting jobs. The result, some four years later, was the first draft of a book that has now become a modern classic. The novel has struck a chord with a remarkable number of readers precisely because it does not dodge the spiky themes of loneliness and isolation that precede the friendship.

"I keep thinking, 'why is it that it has stayed on the shelves?' The only thing I can think is that it's because two people who are hurt come to live together and heal each other," she reflects.

Magorian, whose latest novel, Just Henry, won the Costa Book Award for children's fiction in 2008 (it came to her in a similar lightning flash, after a night of insomnia), feels that the distinction between children's and adult's stories can be very artificial. War Horse, she says, is a case in point: "I'm a very nosy person and looking around at the audience when I went to see War Horse, I noticed there were people of every single age. There was even a row of 17 to 18 year olds sitting there and when the play ended, they leapt to their feet."

Wood, who has adapted the works of Philip Pullman and Philippa Pearce for the stage as well as Roald Dahl's The BFG, believes that a friendship which involves a generational jump or an alliance between two misfits is a perennially fascinating one. "In The BFG, Sophie is an orphan, feisty and disadvantaged and the BFG is a misfit like her; individually they are weak, but together they can become a team," he says. "There's a similar sense of a team here: William has been abused and Tom is forced out of his shell after grieving for years. Both are misfits and loners in society."

The theatrical resuscitation of Magorian's novel chimes with the 70th anniversary of the Blitz this September, which will be marked by an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum called The Children's War, examining the dramas on the home front through the eyes of children.

Magorian's child's-eye view of the Second World War carries the emotional fracture, loss and local violence of the wider conflict without ever showing the actual effects of war itself. "What is remarkable to me is that Goodnight Mister Tom is a war story but there's very little in it that's about the war," says Wood. "It's set in the countryside and it deals with evacuating children from the danger zone of the capital city. It is about a friendship that comes about as a result of that. These two would never have met and become friends if it was not for the war."

'Goodnight Mister Tom', Chichester Festival Theatre (01243 781312; 2 to 5 February; then touring to 14 May ( )

Young at heart: crossover theatre hits

1. War Horse

Nick Stafford's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, received glowing reviews when it opened at the National Theatre in 2007. It transferred to the West End and is still playing to packed audiences today. It took a staggering £13.2m in 2010 alone.

2. Matilda

The Royal Shakespeare Company brought in a crack trio to adapt Roald Dahl's school classic into a musical for its 2010 Christmas show. Australian comedian Tim Minchin provided the music and lyrics, Dennis Kelly wrote the script and West End whiz Matthew Warchus directed. The result was a critical and box-office smash hit.

3. The Railway Children

First staged at York's National Railway Museum and then on a disused platform at London's Waterloo Station – where it attracted adults with misty-eyed memories of E. Nesbit's classic book and the 1970 film – the innovative production used a real, moving steam train to immerse audiences fully in the world of the Waterbury children.

4. His Dark Materials

Nicholas Hytner directed an ambitious adaptation of Philip Pullman's seminal fantasy trilogy at the National Theatre in 2003. Split into two parts, each over three hours long, its huge, stellar cast included Dominic Cooper as Will and Anna Maxwell Martin as Lyra. Ben Whishaw, Niamh Cusack and Patricia Hodge also starred.

Luke Grundy

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