Garry Lyons On ... Writing The Secret GardenDate: 8 December 2009
Garry Lyons is the new adaptor of The Secret Garden, West Yorkshire Playhouse’s big Christmas musical show for 2009.
His past work for theatre includes Wicked, Yaar! at the National Theatre and Frankie and Tommy (Edinburgh Festival; Lyric, Hammersmith).
He has written extensively for television, including ITV children’s drama The Worst Witch, and he recently won a Royal Television Society Award for Leah’s Trials, part of the Decisions trilogy he wrote and produced for Channel 4.
He is Lecturer at the School of Performance and Cultural Industries at University of Leeds. Previously he has run the Theatre in the Mill at Bradford University, and worked at the National Theatre’s Education Department, and the Northern Film School.
Despite being in the pipeline for nearly five years, The Secret Garden took a heck of a short time to come together. Garry Lyons, the writer responsible for adapting Frances Hodges Burnett’s childhood novel, is “exhausted” after the process, he says. And it’s no surprise. He’s been writing West Yorkshire Playhouse’s big Christmas show, he reveals, “since March, which is really not long at all. Fortunately the script and the music came together quite quickly.” It sounds like a giddy whirlwind of excitement, starting with “a very encouraging workshop down in London at the end of April, after the first draft had been written, and after Tim Sutton, the composer, had written a number of the songs. We got together a professional cast for a read-through and a sing-through of the songs to that point, and everyone was so encouraged by what we’d done that they were very happy, very confident at that stage that we had something that would be presentable... which was just as well, because it had already been advertised at that point!” At this point, Garry’s deep chuckle bursts out in full force.
Oscillating between Jedi-like calm and good-natured throes of humour, Garry is a man of measure, evenness, and intent. No doubt the reason why he’s been chosen to write this new adaptation, along with Tim Sutton, and the choice of story itself was almost fated. “The one title that kept coming up time and time again, when Ian Brown (WYP’s Artistic Director) and I spoke, was Secret Garden. One reason is that it’s set in Yorkshire, so in that sense it’s a gift. But also it’s such a magical story.” The “tricky” part, he says, in what the Playhouse do at Christmas, “is to try and put on a show for kids that also appeals to adults.”
Focusing on the adventures of Mary Lennox, a little girl who is orphaned in India and travels to live with her uncle in Yorkshire, Secret Garden didn’t initially provide that. Which is why Garry made “one of the first big decisions with the story. That we’d try and reflect the story from the point of view of the Yorkshire servants, who are looking in on this dysfunctional family. That allows us to bring a certain humour and warmth to the way the story is told, and a certain irony in places which might not be there otherwise.”
It is a powerful story, unfolding as Mary discovers a secret garden in the grounds of her uncle, Archibald Craven’s house, as she enlists the help of local boy Dickon to help her tend the neglected flowers and plants. As Mary begins to change and flourish along with the roses, so does young Colin Craven, her cousin, whom she has befriended despite his reclusive habits, and encouraged to come outside to enjoy the garden’s special qualities. As Garry says, “the reason why it’s endured, is that what starts off looking like a nineteenth century novel, turns about two thirds of the way through into something more akin to a children’s fairytale.” This is why it is able to sidestep any censure it may receive in its depiction of disability, which as Garry explains, has been an issue for the novel in the past:
“The Secret Garden was a novel which came under a lot of criticism in the sixties and seventies from disability groups, who were concerned about the way disability was being treated in the novel. In fact, it’s not an issue about disability at all, because the character we’re talking about, Colin Craven, isn’t physically impaired, he’s been mentally abused by the way he’s been treated by his father. So we’re not talking about a miraculous recovery from disability here at all, we’re actually seeing a little boy who emerges from this depression that in a way has been created by his father. The physical transformation which comes is a metaphorical expression of that. It’s a wonderful thing in the story.”
Garry has a lot of experience writing for children’s productions: his work on the BBC series The Worst Witch, with its central character of young Mildred Hubble, has definitely helped him when approaching The Secret Garden, and in portraying the emotions of Mary Lennox:
“I don’t know where I might have got a lot of facility for writing that sort of character! I do remember a key conversation that I had... with Jill [Murphy, author of The Worst Witch novels] when I discovered that it was about her experiences in a convent school when she was eleven; so for witches read nuns. Once I knew that, I realised there was a level of reality beneath the magic, which gave me a lot to go on in terms of psychologically developing Mildred as a character. Now, my own daughter was a similar age when I was writing it, which also helped enormously.”
Working on Secret Garden has been an exhilarating process for Garry, particularly because of his close relationship with its setting, Yorkshire: “One of the things that excited me about the commission in the first place was the chance to finally have a big show on in Leeds. I’ve lived in Leeds for twenty-eight years or so, and have always worked in the city, and to do the Christmas show in the city that you live in is fantastic. I genuinely do think that the show will benefit from the fact that it’s home-grown in every sense. It ought to benefit from the fact that we have an intimate knowledge of the audience that we’ve made the show for.”
Home-grown show as it is, with its combination of bustling, “‘upstairs, downstairs’ sense of a Victorian household”, “big emotional songs”, and the fun, irreverent contributions of the Yorkshire narrators, Secret Garden is sure to enchant children this Christmas, and transform even the most seasonal depressives amongst us older audience members into merrymakers.
- Garry Lyons was speaking to Vicky Ellis
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