Dame Jacqueline Wilson on heading to the theatre, a life in books and her Kingston home

Dame Jacqueline Wilson, by Gary S Weekes

Dame Jacqueline Wilson, by Gary S Weekes - Credit: Archant

Having conquered the book world, Dame Jacqueline Wilson set her sights on theatre-land. Here, the celebrated children’s author talks to Angela Wintle about her show, her Kingston childhood and what compels her to write...

Dame Jacqueline Wilson fans may get an extra treat if they book tickets for the gala night of Hetty Feather, the first stage adaptation of her much-loved children’s book of the same name, which opens at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, this month.

Because there in the front row, no doubt sporting her trademark chunky Gothic rings, will be Jacqueline herself, proudly cheering on the cast. “I’ve had long associations with the theatre from its earliest days,” says the 68-year-old, “so it’s lovely to see the huge success it’s enjoying now.”

She has similar high hopes for her play, which follows Hetty’s attempts to escape from the cruel Foundling Hospital in London and her subsequent adventures on the city’s scary streets, where she goes in search of her real mother and a family of her own. Theatregoers will tremble as Hetty faces Matron Stinking Bottomly, thrill as she discovers the squirrel house and Tanglefields Travelling Circus, and gasp as she endures a night locked in an attic.

“This is the first time the book has been adapted for the stage and I can’t wait to see it,” says Jacqueline. “The lead actress, Phoebe Thomas, has marvellous red hair and looks absolutely perfect for the part, while scriptwriter Emma Reeves and director Sally Cookson have picked up on the circus element, so the actors have been trained to do real circus skills – even trapeze acts!

“I’ll be going to the Rose several times. Not only do I want to be there for gala night, but countless friends, who have children or grandchildren, have asked me to come along with them too. Mind you, that won’t be too difficult – a ten-minute stroll from home and I’ll be there!”


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Tales of Tracy Beaker

One of the country’s most successful children’s authors, Jacqueline has sold more than 30 million books in the UK alone, but her success was hard won. She wrote some 40 children’s books, with mixed success, before Tracy Beaker, the heroine of her breakthrough novel, burst onto the pre-teen consciousness in 1991, making her a household name.

Beaker, a bolshie teenager who spends most of her life in a children’s home seeking a family, seemed an unlikely subject for a best-selling range of children’s books, but she spawned a successful TV series and made Jacqueline rich beyond her wildest dreams.

Recognition quickly followed. In 2002, she was awarded the OBE for services to literacy in schools, and she was Children’s Laureate from 2005 until 2007. She also ended the 17-year reign of Catherine Cookson as the most borrowed author in British libraries – a distinction she held for four years until she was ousted by thriller writer James Patterson.

Then there has been her success on the small screen, with the hugely popular adaptation of Tracy Beaker on CBBC, and she is currently in negotiations with the BBC about a TV adaptation of Hetty Feather, which may air next year.

“I was initially nervous about letting my books be made into a TV show, but it has brought me a whole new readership, including boys,” she says. “As a writer, you sometimes get recognised, but the TV series have taken it to a different level. Now people come up to me in the supermarket and say: ‘Oh, it’s Jacqueline Wilson’ or shout ‘Tracy Beaker!’ in the street. I must admit, I like it. It makes me smile.”

Her childhood, however, wasn’t the most auspicious start for a best-selling children’s writer. The celebrated author was born in Bath, but moved, aged one, to her grandparents’ cramped semi in Fassett Road, Kingston, when her parents were forced to make economies. Later, they moved to Lewisham, but returned when she was six to Cumberland House, in what were then new council flats on Kingston Hill.

In her autobiography, Jacky Daydream, Jacqueline describes the Kingston of her childhood, including visits to the department store Hides, trips to the local markets and regular treats at Peggy Brown’s cake shop in Surbiton.

She also enjoyed walks with her grandmother, and it was on one of these jaunts that she fell in love with the house she calls home. “Every day, my grandma and I would walk along this road to the shops, and she would pause outside this house, which we thought was ultra-posh, and say, ‘I’d really like to live there.’ It meant the whole world to me when I was eventually able to buy it.”

At 17, Jacqueline left Kingston to work as a magazine journalist in Dundee, but returned after her marriage, settling in Albany Park Road. When her daughter started school in the area, she settled in Kingston for good.

“I’ve lived in various parts of town and like it very much,” she says. “I particularly love the fact that we have so many wonderful parks, where I go for walks. My favourite is Home Park because no cars are allowed in, apart from the ones going to the golf club, so it’s like a little bit of the countryside. The shopping is very good in Kingston too, though I do miss Borders and all the secondhand bookshops that have disappeared.”

Jacqueline, who attended Coombe Girls’ Secondary in Kingston, was always a bookworm. “Even before I could read, I loved looking at books and was always making up stories. It was inevitable that I should want to write my own, though it seemed a fantasy ambition – like little girls wanting to be dancers or pop stars. I do feel very blessed to have achieved my childhood dream.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that she preferred the world of her imagination because her childhood wasn’t entirely happy. Her mother (now aged 90) was a book-keeper, who only found her métier as an antiques dealer late in life; her father, a draughtsman turned civil servant, was prone to frightening rages. “Biddy and Harry couldn’t stand each other,” she wrote candidly in the first volume of her autobiography for children, My Secret Diary.


Real life issues

Jacqueline has been equally uncompromising in her children’s books, addressing everything from estranged dads to evil stepmothers, bullying best friends to acrimonious divorces. Some feel her gritty subject matter is inappropriate for young readers, but she is quietly defensive of her fiction. It’s impossible, she claims, to protect children from the realities of life – “you only have to eavesdrop on a junior school playground to know that children know precisely what’s going on.”

Sadly, Jacqueline knows all too well about the harsh realities of life. Five years ago, she was fitted with a heart defibrillator and then, last year, revealed she is also suffering from kidney failure and spends 12 hours each week hooked up to a dialysis machine. She needs a transplant, but although several friends have volunteered to donate an organ, doctors have yet to find a suitable match.

“Life is a bit of a struggle, but I’m lucky because I have a career to concentrate on and lots of kind people who care about me, so I don’t go round thinking, ‘Oh goodness, I’m a semi-invalid.’ I’m on a long waiting list, but the way to cope is not to think about it. If they find a match, that will be wonderful. And if they don’t, well, tough.”

Despite her health worries, Jacqueline remains as productive as ever. “I’ve just brought out a children’s anthology about cats and dogs called Paws and Whiskers, and I’m currently completing a long Edwardian story called Opal Plumstead, which is due out in October. I’ve also got ideas for two books next year. Children always ask if I’m ever going to run out of ideas, and I cross my fingers and say, ‘Well, not yet. There are still plenty bubbling away.’

She smiles: “I’m not just saying this in a Pollyanna moment, but I really feel, in spite of ill health, that I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”



My Favourite Surrey...

Restaurant: My local pub, The Coconut, in Mill Street, Kingston, which is run by a lovely Thai family. In the evening, it’s quite glamorous – with candlelight and waitress service. And you can have a delicious three-course meal very economically.

Shop: The Open Book in King Street, Richmond. It’s a small shop, but every time I read a review of a book that interests me, the owner, Helena Caletta, not only knows it, but stocks it. It’s magical.

View: From the top of Box Hill. I first struggled up its little chalk paths with my dad when I was five. Those days are now gone and a friend drives me there, but it’s still a thrill to reach the top.

Place to relax: Home Park in Kingston, sitting beside the Long Water where there are fountains and lots of lovely swans. In the summer, it’s delightful there.

Place to visit: The Watts Gallery in Compton. As well as regular exhibitions, they have an excellent café and bookshop, with fascinating books on the Victorians and their art.