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Jim's Spectacular Christmas

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So began a correspondence that continued over the years with requests to Scheffler to design letterheads for both Thompson and her actor mother, Phyllida Law. Though they never actually met in person, they exchanged gifts on the birth of their first children; hers to him was a food hamper; his to her was a picture of a pig wheeling a pram. A pig? Yes, she explains, a pig is her letterhead emblem. When she later became a dame he drew her a picture of a pig wearing a dame badge. “So, without ever meeting, Axel has been part of the illustration of my la-i-ife.” She draws the vowel out into a camp diphthong as part of a running joke with Scheffler as to which of them will seem most exciting to the children for whom their new book is intended: the actor who starred as Nanny McPhee and now as Mrs Trunchbull in the film of Matilda the Musical or the illustrator of the mega-selling Gruffalo books.

verifyErrors }}{{ message }}{{ /verifyErrors }}{{ Axel Scheffler was an unknown illustrator, working largely for Good Housekeeping magazine, when he received a letter in response to a small exhibition of his work. It was from Emma Thompson, a young actor who had begun to attract attention with TV series such as Fortunes of War and Tutti Frutti. Neatly written in fountain pen, it inquired whether he would accept a commission. “Ken Branagh, my chap, runs his own theatre company,” it explained. He was playing Hamlet to her sister Sophie’s Ophelia and she wanted something to commemorate a moment in time. “I have a vague notion of what you charge for your work, which doesn’t seem to me to be enough,” it went on. “I enclose a picture of Ken and Sophie in case it’s of use.”

Emma Thompson reads Jim’s Spectacular Christmas to schoolchildren at the V&A Museum. Photograph: James Watkins/Puffin A gamey whiff’ and ‘a rheumy eye’: Jim the dog. Illustration: Axel Scheffler/Puffin in collaboration with the V&A/PA

The question is not if, but when, Thompson and Scheffler will collaborate again – they circle around the idea during the interview as if neither can quite believe that the other would actually stoop to it. When time’s up we’re ushered out along the corridors to a staircase that museum staff have identified as the exact one that Scheffler has depicted, where an excited gaggle of east London schoolchildren awaits. It was Thompson who brought Scheffler in on Jim’s Spectacular Christmas, having already written the story, complete with character sketches, and folded them up into a little book. Though an award-winning screenwriter, she had no ambition to diversify into picture books, she says. But she agreed to this one because it was pitched to her as an invitation from Henry Cole himself, just as the three Peter Rabbit books she has previously written were pitched as invitations from Peter: “There’s still a little bit of me that thinks it was Peter Rabbit himself who asked me,” she says. “I love writing for children. I think it’s perhaps a legacy from dad.” Her sister, Sophie, also now writes books for children. Their father, Eric Thompson, presented the children’s TV programme Play School and went on to create and narrate The Magic Roundabout.Thompson writes like she talks: irreverent, refreshingly un-grand and with a comic timing that is accentuated in the book by Scheffler’s deployment of mini-tableaux Settling herself on the steps in their midst, beside a large cardboard cut-out of Jim, Thompson asks who has heard of the Gruffalo and a rafter-rattling cheer goes up. Scheffler lurks in the shadows as she starts to read from the book. “Now what,” she asks, “do you think ‘a gamey whiff’ means?”

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