Nanny knows best Emma Thompson charms children in Hull
PUBLISHED: 08:31 27 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:26 20 February 2013
Oscar-winning actress and writer Emma Thompson casts a spell on the children of Hull. Jo Haywood joins in the fun
If the children were expecting a warty-faced old crone with a magic stick, a flying motorbike and a petulant jackdaw, they hid their disappointment well. In fact, they seemed just as thrilled to meet actress and writer Emma Thompson as they would her screen alter-ego Nanny McPhee.
She was the special guest at Hull Universitys first annual childrens writing showcase and had agreed to be grilled by schoolchildren from across the city about her work after a showing of her latest film Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang.
But before taking to the stage with young MCs Jack Stelloo, 13, and Amelia Grimes, 12, both from Sydney Smith School, she joined us in the universitys Dylan Room for a chat about her life, her influences and why she will never work with a donkey again.
The children in both films have been fantastic and most of the animals were adorable, but I really hated that donkey, she said, referring to an animal called on to do a jig in the first Nanny McPhee film. It was not a good actor and it moulted everywhere. If Im honest, it was a real donkey diva and I wanted to hurt it badly.
Thompson has done Shakespeare on stage and screen, won Oscars for film versions of classic literature and has taken on important roles in movies and TV series with a serious point rather than just a quick buck to make. But it is only now that shes feeling the full force of the publics gaze and its for playing an ugly, misshapen nanny who uses magic to tame naughty children.
But shes quick to point out that Nanny McPhee, inspired by Christianna Brands Nurse Matilda books, is not a childrens film.
I cant stand the way we divide people up into age groups, she said. The thing I liked best when I was little was watching a film that I knew my parents were enjoying too. Its much more difficult to be inclusive.
People can be lazy and cynical when they write for children. I write in a way thats very much an homage to my father. He believed that children are just people who havent lived as long as us. He didnt write specifically for them and neither do I.
She started writing the first Nanny McPhee film before her daughter, Gaia, now 10, was born and happily admits that her own child is not quite as enamoured with her creation as the rest of the cinema-going public.
Shes not terribly interested, just as I was not terribly interested in The Magic Roundabout, said Thompson. Children feel I now belong to them in some way and my daughters not keen on that.
She might have to get used to it though, as Nanny McPhee 3 and 4 are almost definitely going to hit the big screen in the next decade.
I had an idea that Id like the third film to be in space, said Thompson. But Universal want a modern one before they let me loose on that. The third will probably be set in New York Nanny McPhee & The Big Apple perhaps.
But wont she get bored of the warts and snaggle-tooth, pining instead for the frocks of a costume drama or the meaty issues of a political play?
Im certainly not fed up with Nanny McPhee yet, said Thompson, whos also working on a script for a new version of My Fair Lady starring Carey Mulligan. I love being allowed to be ugly and funny. I went to film Brideshead Revisited and the two children of the house (Merlin and Octavia Howard of Caste Howard) had been told Nanny McPhee was coming. When I arrived they were cowering under the table. The character is not particularly scary, its more that parents love terrorising their children. I think most children are actually quite pleased to see me though.
If she could only have one career, she would choose the more artistically fulfilling role as writer rather than actor, revelling in the layering process of producing a script.
It takes years to put a good script together, but I love the discipline, she said. The final script has to be protean, it has to stretch and move. You know its ready when you can remove any one element a character, a speech, a plot line and it still holds together.
And she doesnt just sit and wait for inspiration to strike when she is at her desk in either London or Scotland a point she was also keen to get across when talking to the children.
You can literally not have an idea in your head until you pull your chair up to the desk, she explained. A story will come out of anything. This room is full of stories. Inspiration is all very well, but nothing is ever going to happen until you pick up your pen.
It soon becomes clear that second best is simply not an option for Emma Thompson. Shes not the sort of writer, actor or person who ever thinks oh, thatll do.
Its important to me to give people especially young people the best I can, she said. What you are given when you are little in terms of books, films and entertainment is absolutely vital.
Excellence is hugely important. I was brought up on a diet of extremely good books and film and telly. I had The Clangers for goodness sake genius and Noggin the Nog. They were odd and off-kilter and completely delightful.
Much like Thompson herself.
A selection of some of the most intriguing questions posed by the children of Hull.
Q: Were the pigs really flying, dancing and swimming in Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang?
A: There are pigs that can swim in Thailand apparently, but they cant dance. The children are actually laughing in the scene because a member of the crew is pretending to drown me.
Q: How do you make Nanny McPhees warts disappear?
A: I often pull them off, but if it gets really hot they just slide off my face.
Q: Where is your favourite place?
A: Gosh, this is like being interviewed by Parky, or Jonathan Ross no, maybe not, hes too rude. Anyway, I love Scotland. I know I look pretty odd today, but I look even worse when Im in my Scottish hideaway. I only have one pair of trousers and a big orange Puffa jacket. I look like a giant satsuma.
Q: Whats your best childhood memory?
A: Watching westerns with my dad. Nanny McPhee is basically a western. Theres lots of conflict, a stranger comes to town to sort it out using unusual methods, then has to leave
or die. Basically this is me being Clint Eastwood.
Q: (from Emma Thompson to the audience) Do you have any ideas for the third film?
A: Yes, set it in Hull. We have a bad reputation for dropping our aitches and stuff you could show people were not like that.
In the spotlight
Emmas dad Eric was the creator and voice of the iconic childrens programme The Magic Roundabout; her mother Phyllida Law has numerous screen credits; her sister Sophie is a regular face on TV, most notably as a nutty child-torturer on EastEnders; and her husband Greg Wise, educated at St Peters in York, starred with her in Sense and Sensibility and has enjoyed numerous roles since.
She went to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she shared the Footlights stage with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry and was signed to an agent two years before graduation.
She joined Fry and Laurie for a TV sketch show called Alfresco in 1983 and made her first acclaimed stage appearance in Me and My Girl with Robert Lindsay in 1985.
Next came Tutti Fruitti with Robbie Coltrane and Fortunes of War, her first serious acting role with her husband-to-be Kenneth Branagh.
In 1992, Emma won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her role opposite Anthony Hopkins in Howards End. Three years later, she was back to claim another Oscar for her screenplay for Sense and Sensibility.
Emma and her second husband Greg became parents in 1999 with the welcome arrival of their daughter Gaia Romilly. They extended their family further in 2003 when they informally adopted Tindyebwa Agaba (fondly known as Tindy), whose family had been killed in the Rwandan genocide.
She has won acclaim for her roles in Love Actually, Primary Colours, Wit and Angels in America and, more recently, has captured the imaginations of children worldwide with her roles in Harry Potter and the wildly popular Nanny McPhee films.