The Worst Witch author Jill Murphy on why she is just like Mildred Hubble
PUBLISHED: 13:33 17 April 2019 | UPDATED: 13:33 17 April 2019
©Luc Percival Photography
Writer and illustrator Jill Murphy has entertained readers for decades with her bestselling Worst Witch novels.
The first book was released in 1974 and tells the story of the loveable but hapless Mildred Hubble and her trials and tribulations at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches.
Taking inspiration from her strict secondary school, where nuns used to appear in the corridors out of nowhere like Miss Hardbroom, it was the first magical school story and captured the imagination of youngsters.
There has also been a film and two successful TV adaptations on ITV in the late 90s and it is spanning a new generation of fans in the current BBC version.
As The Worst Witch tour comes to Norwich Theatre Royal ahead of a West End run, we spoke to Jill about the magic of The Worst Witch and how it continues to cast a spell over audiences.
How did you first get interested in writing?
I started writing when I could first hold a pencil and I would sit by myself telling stories and drawing pictures.
I was exactly like Mildred and got a scholarship to a school where the other children were very bright and one teacher asked me how I got there in the first place.
I got in by the skin of my teeth when I passed my 11 plus and I really would have done better at my local school with my best friends.
I couldn't really keep up at the school, and had a dreadful time. I had my long dark hair in plaits just like Mildred, and wondered how I could put my experience into a story.
My school reports would say how upsetting it was to see me not working to capacity at a vital stage in my school career and how I only focused on Art and English.
Everyone else destined for university and I felt very left out.
At that point there were lots of everyday school stories and I wanted to write a very different one. I had a lightbulb idea when I came home one day with my two friends, and my mum said we looked like the three witches in our dark school uniforms with dark hats and striped hatbands and striped ties.
How did you get your big break with The Worst Witch?
I invented a school for witches with proper teachers instead of witchy old crones, with a potion laboratory instead of chemistry lab and the pupils arriving at school on broomsticks instead of bikes.
A lot of publishers said it was too frightening for children but eventually a small left-wing and poetry publisher called Allison & Busby loved it and took me on, as they wanted to launch a children's section.
They let me do what I liked with it and after they released the first book I immediately got fan letters and the whole thing took off like a rocket, so it turned into a long running series.
I always do all my own pictures and I am lucky that I can draw and write.
It is one of the reasons I don't write for grown-ups, as adult books aren't usually illustrated, and I like drawing!
What is your favourite book and why?
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the whole Narnia series as I thought they had really happened.
C.S. Lewis was such a fantastic writer and I remember sitting at the back of my parents' wardrobe imagining the cold air and hoping the back of it was going to disappear and I would be in Narnia.
I also loved the illustrations by Pauline Baynes and I would copy them and post them on my walls.
She once wrote me a fan letter for my picture book The Last Noo-Noo and said she had bought loads of copies, which was such an amazing compliment.
Why do you think The Worst Witch resonates with readers?
It is very touching that The Worst Witch resonates with people. I am Mildred grown-up, so it always makes me feel as if they like me personally.
Mildred blunders on through the swamp and eventually something nice happens to her so people believe in the character.
When children are growing up they usually have no control over their own life so it is nice for my readers to see Mildred, who can't keep up, finding her own way in the end.
Mildred was based on you, but are there any other characters inspired by people you've met?
All the characters are an amalgamation of people I've encountered.
I was taught by nuns, and there was one of them who would always appear in the cloisters and dark doorways when we were discussing her, just like Miss Hardbroom, which made us jump out of our skins.
When I was at primary school there was a girl who terrified us and made us bring a toy to her every week, threatening to turn us into something if we didn't. Her sidekick was even worse which inspired Ethel and Drusilla.
The teachers were all based on my own teachers, who weren't all nuns. Miss Drill was our nice gym teacher who I always hoped would be on duty and Miss Bat was the lovely, elderly music teacher called Miss Dowling who was always trying to make us interested in music.
What can people expect from the stage show?
I am absolutely thrilled with it and it is a real family show with lots for both girls and boys.
The Company kindly let me be involved with the production and the script was written by playwright Emma Reeves who is also the original writer of the CBBC TV series.
The Worst Witch is my baby and I am very protective of her so it is nice for me to be taken seriously and the script is spectacular.
Emma is a first-class playwright and it was a joy to watch my stories burst into life on stage. During rehearsals, the Director, Theresa Heskins, reminded me of a sheepdog, trying to round up the actors while they were co-ordinating all their other stage activities, such as dance and music and aerial work fifteen feet in the air with no harnesses!
The production has been ingeniously put together and is set at the end of their five years at Miss Cackle's Academy when the pupils are putting on a production about their time at school, so it is a play within a play.
What is lovely for me is that it has been a perfect translation to the stage, using my characters with lovely interactive touches such as Miss Hardbroom and cast members wandering among the audience as they take their seats.
I've seen it several times and am blown away by it each time.
What did you think of the TV adaptations and the film?
They are all very different, the one on ITV was very realistic and had a wonderful Miss Hardbroom and the CBBC one is more modernised and really good fun and lively and looks like a school you could go to.
The girl who plays Mildred in the new version is fantastic and she is in Game of Thrones at the moment.
The film was the first stab at The Worst Witch and although it had a fantastic cast with Diana Rigg and Tim Curry it didn't quite work, even though everyone tried their damndest.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on a follow-up to the very first picture book I did called Peace at Last where Daddy bear can't sleep and I have kept the same characters but made it slightly modernised as it was published in 1980 and now mums stay at home much less.
Finally, why should be people get tickets to The Worst Witch?
No-one is more fussy than me and I love this show! I think it is one of the best children's shows I have ever seen. It has great music, dancing, flying, a perfect cast and it will send you dancing out into the street!
The Worst Witch is at Norwich Theatre Royal until April 20 and you can purchase tickets at theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk, at the box office or by phone on 01603 630000