Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather

Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road, Tuesday, July 28, to Sunday, August 2

THIS year is a memorable one for fans of the Victorian foundling Hetty Feather.

Not only is her story on the stage, coming to Theatre Royal Brighton as part of a national tour, but the original novel by former Children’s Laureate Jacqueline Wilson has been turned into a BBC drama.

And there is more to come.

“The least I could do was write another novel,” she says.

While the fourth Hetty Feather novel told the story of acrobat Diamond, the new book Little Stars is once again from the point of view of Wilson's original hero.

“I asked my audience if I were to write another book in the series whether they would like it to be about Hetty or Diamond,” says Wilson.

“They were a bit divided, so I decided to tell it in Hetty’s voice but make sure there was a lot about Diamond in there.

“I think it might be the last Hetty Feather book, but then I said that about the third one. You never know. The funny thing I have learned over the years is don’t ever say ‘I would never do that’ – several times I have caught myself out and done exactly what I said I would never do!”

Wilson made her name with stories set in modern-day Britain touching on previously taboo subjects in children’s literature - including death, depression, divorce and living in care.

Her most famous creation is the corkscrew-haired orphan Tracy Beaker – the scourge of the children’s home she calls The Dumping Ground. Beaker’s story was turned into a successful television series, following the tomboy’s adventures and wild fantasies while not shying away from the reality of Beaker’s experiences and disappointments while in care.

Wilson freely admits Hetty Feather is her favourite creation – and it came about almost by accident.

“I did some work with the Foundling Museum in London doing something for [children’s charity] Coram,” she says.

“Jokingly the director of the museum said they would love me to write a children’s book about a foundling child. Normally I’m quite contrary and never do what people suggest, but I loved this idea. The image of a feisty red-haired girl managing against all the odds sprung into my mind. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed writing a book as much.”

Part of her love of the character may also have been because of the risk involved in publishing the book.

“I thought modern children wouldn’t care for an historical book,” she says. “I was known for writing modern stories with contemporary themes, but I loved the Victorian period. I was delighted with the reaction it got.”

Hetty’s story begins in 1876 when as a tiny baby she is left at the Foundling Hospital by her mother.

Living in the countryside with foster parents Peg and John Cotton she becomes obsessed with a travelling circus – in particular the flame-haired Madame Adelaine and her performing horses. The circus plays an integral part in the stage version with lead actor Phoebe Thomas showing off skills as part of the role. Hetty's life changes again though when she moves back to the harsh and strict world of the Foundling Hospital.

Throughout the novel Hetty tries to find her true home, as well as the identity of her real mother.

The first book was originally published in 2009, and was followed by the sequels Sapphire Battersea in 2011 - starting from Hetty’s first job in the real world as a maid - and 2012’s Emerald Star as she seeks out the identity of her father.

The Foundling Museum is still central to Wilson’s imagining of her character.

“The museum has a very large wooden staircase, which was there when it was a hospital,” says Wilson. “Every time I go up there I imagine Hetty creeping up and down the stairs, or sliding down the banisters.”

Giving her favourite character over to a theatre company must have been a wrench, but Wilson says she had “immense faith” in Novel Theatre who took the project on.

“I met Andrew Loudon a while ago when I saw another play of Carrie’s War,” says Wilson. “He came up and chatted. He was very sympathetic to that particular children’s book [by Nina Bawden]. I did think if I was ever lucky enough to get Hetty Feather staged he’s the one who would get things moving.”

And Wilson’s faith was proved right. The production, which launched at Kingston’s Rose Theatre last year, went for a short run at Vaudeville Theatre in London’s West End, and was nominated for the best entertainment and family Olivier Award earlier this year.

Immediately following next week’s Brighton run the show will transfer back to the West End for 40 performances at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, before continuing a nationwide tour.

The script was adapted by longtime Wilson collaborator Emma Reeves, who penned the RTS Award-winning Tracy Beaker for television, and is currently writing the follow-up series to her CBBC version of Hetty Feather.

“I had seen a first draft of the script which I loved,” says Wilson. “But I knew director Sally Cookson specialises in helping actors improvise and to do imaginative things, so she would be embellishing and reinventing it. On opening night it was as new to me as all the rest of the audience. I was a bit anxious, but two minutes in I just relaxed and thought how great it was.”

Wilson’s tales usually revolve around children in unusual situations – something which attracted her when she was a child reader.

“I loved reading books about children in cruel boarding schools or orphanages,” she says. “The children have to manage for themselves in hostile environments - there aren’t parents, grandparents or teachers to help. If children have to fight their own battles it’s much more interesting to read."

She admits her own childhood in the 1950s was very different from that of the internet generation.

“I lived in a big block of flats,” she says. “In the summer our mums would let us disappear into Richmond Park all day. The rule was we had to stick with somebody and not go off by yourself, but it was still quite an extraordinary thing. If parents let children aged seven, eight or nine wander all day now they would be considered bad parents. Then the thinking was children needed fresh air.

"I understand that children are the most precious things you have – and you would feel terrible if something happened to them, but it must be odd for children to get to secondary school without spending much time by themselves.”

Wilson has embraced the internet age, with her own extremely interactive website – but she doesn’t always understand the fascination with the small screens.

“There’s no point wishing children were different from the way they are,” she says.

“A friend’s grand daughter was absorbed in her little tablet the other day, and I said to her to show me her favourite game. It was one where you made a cake by dragging the ingredients into a bowl, whisked them up and put it in the oven to see how it turned out.

“I did wonder wouldn’t it be more fun to make a real cake – then you could eat it!”

Wilson is a big believer in the power of words and literature to transport readers into other worlds and time periods.

“Reading is still the thing I like to do most,” she says. “I start every morning reading, and end every day reading. I get involved in any reading campaign I can.

“There’s a very good independent bookshop in Richmond near where I live, where I ease my guilt about coming out with armfuls of books by supporting a good bookshop.”

Mortality is something which does crop up occasionally when talking to the 69-year-old, partly because of her battles with chronic kidney disease, and partly because last year she published her 100th book Opal Plumstead.

“It was slightly disconcerting,” she says. “Children always ask me how many books I have written. I remember saying when I got to 80-something books: ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to get to 100 and then keel over’. When I started on the 100th book I thought ‘help – will I keel over now?’

“I wrote the 101st book very quickly, and Little Stars will be the 103rd.”

Her prolific workrate is partly down to a regular daily routine.

“I like to write quite early in the morning,” she says. “My cat will wake me up wanting to be fed, then the dog will want to be let out. I have breakfast in bed in my pyjamas, and then will open up the laptop and write for an hour. After that I will do any re-writing or catching up with emails, but I like to get that first hour of writing out of the way.

“I’m lucky in that I can write in most places.”

Her time as a journalist with Jackie Magazine gave her the discipline to write, but it was the birth of her daughter which really helped her focus.

“When my daughter was three she went to nursery in the morning,” she says. “I knew I had two hours at home to write before I had to set off to collect her. When there’s a lively three-year-old around you can’t write again until she goes to bed, so I didn’t mess around. I just sat and wrote and wrote.

“I can’t understand all these authors who say they keep office hours – are they really writing all that time? They must be writing thousands of words – or staring into space all the time. I would rather write in short sharp bursts.”

And with such an amazing back catalogue of books the results are there to see. Most recently she has retold some of the classic stories she loved as a child, including E Nesbit’s Five Children And It (as Four Children And It), and Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did.

“The Victorian message in What Katy Did is that if you have a terrible accident you have got to be good and patient and you will get to walk again,” says Wilson.

“Reading Katy to my daughter when she was six or seven it made me feel uncomfortable. We have such different ideas about disability and the way we react to it today.”

In her version the tomboyish Katy still disobeys her parents and is badly hurt when she plays on a dangerous swing.

But her 102nd book looks more at the effect of a spinal injury, the experience of being in hospital and adjusting to being in a wheelchair. Rather than being good and patient Wilson's Katy is determined and bloody minded.

“It’s a tragic thing if a child has such an awful accident,” she says. “I try to show children it’s a tough battle, but you can still have fun – you can still be considered cool and do what the boys do.”

She doesn’t write her books as polemics or to influence children, but she is pleased with the reactions they receive from her young readers.

Opal Plumstead, released in the year of the general election, focused on a young Suffragette. But it wasn’t necessarily the urge to vote which touched her female readers.

“At the end Opal, who never believed in romance, falls in love with somebody who gets killed in the First World War,” says Wilson.

“That took my readers by surprise – I think most girls have learned about the First World War, particularly during the centenary year, but it didn’t actually cross their minds that the death could be of the boy next door, or their brother or sweetheart. I didn’t leave it there. I needed to show life goes on. Opal doesn’t languish, she goes to art school. I want to show my girls it’s not like a fairytale waiting for the prince to come – sometimes the prince doesn’t come, so you have to have something else.”

Starts Tues 7pm, Wed to Sun 3pm, Thurs and Sat 11am, tickets from £13.50. Call 08448 717650.