Years ago, Sophie Thompson began scribbling down ideas for a children’s book about a boy called Vince who could talk to animals.
“I then put it away in a drawer and forgot about it,” she laughs. Life (she has two children of her own) and work intervened, bringing her acting roles in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Emma, among many others, and writing took a back seat.
But the story stuck in her mind and eventually resurfaced. It has now been published under the title Zoo Boy, with illustrations by Rebecca Ashdown, and its author is bringing it to Edinburgh for the Book Festival.
According to Faber commissioning editor Alice Swan, the funny, quirky story – about an eight-year-old boy who suddenly realises he can hear animals talk – caught her eye before she realised who the author was. Sophie, of course, belongs to one of Britain’s most famous acting dynasties. Her sister is Emma Thompson, her mother is Phyllida Law and her father was Eric Thompson, creator of The Magic Roundabout.
“Doing what I do, you get long periods of time when you need to find your creativity in another area,” she offers as an explanation of her desire to write. “My dad always supported me, and I was surrounded by brilliant writers like my mum and my sister.”
Her father, she adds, “was hopeless at reading to us. He used to read the shortest Beatrix Potter story he could find.” But she remembers lying on the floor listening to him as he watched reel-to-reel tapes of the original French version of The Magic Roundabout, making up his own hilarious and surreal narrative about what was going on. “He didn’t know the French story and he didn’t want to – he just wrote his own version.”
In Zoo Boy, Vince discovers he can talk to animals – but, to begin with, he isn’t all that thrilled about his gift. “He really does not like animals – and for good reason. His father is a zookeeper who spends all his time with the animals, and his mother is having an affair with a lion tamer. The zoo animals are very spoilt and pampered and have everything done for them.”
But Horace the badger, whom she describes as a mixture of her father and the Magic Roundabout’s Dougal and Brian, befriends Vince and changes his mind. The boy also has a tremendous ally in his sparkly, eccentric grandma, who wafts delightfully through the book in a series of extraordinary outfits. There are drawings, shopping lists, songs and poems and lots of private jokes between the author and her young readers. “Hopefully, it’s funny – I really wanted it to be funny,” she smiles.
Thompson, who won Celebrity Masterchef in 2014, has also written a cookbook, My Family Kitchen, inspired by her Scottish mother and grandmothers, and has already begun a sequel to Zoo Boy. Writing clearly suits her: “It’s amazing – I love having something I can do by myself. As an actress, I am beholden to others to give me a job. Now I can settle down to work without having to depend on other people.”
Words: Claire Smith
Picture: Matt Humphrey
Talking to Animals with Sophie Thompson, Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre, 20 August, 2pm