Tuesday, 23 October 2018
A HENLEY filmmaker and author is celebrating after winning best foreign feature at the Hollywood Independent Documentary Awards.
Robin Bennett’s film Fantastic Britain explores the reasons why the UK has produced some of the most widely-read and best-loved fantasy literature and what this says about us as a nation.
The film reveals that of the 35 best-selling authors worldwide in any genre, 16 write fantasy — and of these an astonishing 13 are British.
With narration from the playwright and actor Imogen Stubbs, the documentary sees Bennett hitting the road to talk to some of Britain’s most successful fantasy authors and publishers.
He begins with pioneering publisher Barry Cunningham OBE at Glastonbury, on what makes children tick and his work with the greats such as Roald Dahl, Spike Milligan, and how he discovered JK Rowling.
Bennett’s quest continues in Oxford — famously the setting of Philip Pullman’s landmark His Dark Materials trilogy — where he talks to Diane Purkiss, a fellow of Keble College, about why place is so important in the genre.
He then investigates how this fertile legacy is expanding commercially and becoming richer and more varied artistically.
Among those he chats to on his travels are Barnsley-born Joanne Harris, the author of Chocolat, the film adaptation of which was nominated for an Oscar.
Bennett also meets with Joe Abercrombie, the best-selling fantasy author in the UK, and the next name to watch.
Finally, the documentary looks at Keven Crossly Holland, who was mentored by the Belfast-born and Oxford-based CS Lewis, and has in turn played a role in shaping Bennett’s own writing.
So why is our sceptred isle such fertile soil for fantasy literature?
As Bennett, a regular speaker at worldwide conferences on fantasy literature, puts it: “Why does a nation of supposed boozers, bankers, tea-drinking, stately home-living, uptight apologists and football hooligans write the best-loved and most widely read fantasy in the world?”
To begin with, he says, our attitude to childhood — and children’s literature — may have something to do with it.
“Let’s face it, so much of the children’s market is popular with adults. So we revel in escapism, excel at stories about creatures that patently don’t exist.
“In fact, our special relationship with nature where animals are friends and equals, not something to be feared or eaten, is ingrained from an early age with children’s writers who create worlds of squirrels who wear Sunday best, scrupulously polite bears with wide circles of stuffed toy friends — from Toad to Tiggywinkle and Pooh to Paddington.”
The unique geography of our island home may also have a role to play, Bennett suggests. “Our 11,000-mile coastline, which left us vulnerable to endless incursions, has made Britain a cultural cooking pot — creating a secondary invasion of myths and legends.”
Which isn’t to neglect the enduring significance of a particularly archetypal “homegrown” legend.
“In all the discussions, one name keeps cropping up,” says Bennett. “The tales of King Arthur are embedded in the minds of the British people and woven into our geography from Carlisle to Cornwall.
“The figure of Arthur has come to represent British history and our personality in its entirety — the stories acting as a way of explaining how Britain has come to be, especially in reference to the relationship between the Saxons and the Celts.”
As the example of the late, great Buckinghamshire-born Sir Terry Pratchett seems to confirm, the British sense of humour is a vital component of the fantasy literature we so successfully export.
“Our ability to not take ourselves too seriously endears us to readers the world over,” says Bennett. “Let’s face it — we are funny. Where else could Monty Python and the Holy Grail have come from?”
Bennett’s own first book for young adults, Picus the Thief, won the Writers’ News Independent Book of the Year Award in 2012.
Iron Knights, a fantasy adventure for young adults, was shortlisted for the Wishing Shelf Awards, and The Hairy Hand was runner-up in The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition.
A preview of Fantastic Britain can be found online at www.youtube.com/
For the full film, visit www.wn.com/
16 January 2017
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