We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say-and to feel- ‘Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.’ You’re not as alone as you thought. (John Steinbeck)


I  listened to an interview with Allan Ahlberg on reaching 70 a few days before I took my favourite 5 year old to see a musical interpretation of his ‘Burglar Bill’. 

Despite the rather ramshackle production she thoroughly enjoyed the show and I thoroughly enjoyed her company. How we loved informing on Bill to PC Good (I kid you not) when required; how we cheered when Bill became Bakery Bill; how we swooned when reformed Burglar Betty appeared in sumptuous bridal gown!

We were happy to accept the moral message that deception does not pay (oh, how the stolen ventriloquist doll baby wept) and one of us at least accepted that the police officer was, well, completely good.

We did baulk, however, at other injunctions to sing-along-a -Mrs-Clean as we felt manipulated by the ‘I love cleaning my teeth, teeth, teeth’ song.  

No we don’t.

Ahlberg certainly did not include any heavy-handed moral message in his wonderfully spare prose. Why, oh why do adaptors of classic texts for children think it’s okay to patronise and manipulate?

The purpose of the formula, Once Upon a Time …, whether the storyteller uses it explicitly or not, (it could be the curtains opening, the cinema darkening, the first page turning), is to take us out of our present time and place into that imaginary realm where the story is to unfold, and to introduce us to the central figure with whom we are to identify. Then something happens. There is a beginning then a muddle – some event or encounter which precipitates the story’s action, giving it a focus.

Finally, The End: ‘the most important single thing to be observed about stories. Around that one fact, and around what is necessary to bring a story to one type of ending or the other, revolves the whole of their extraordinary significance in our lives’. (Christopher Booker: ‘The Seven Basic Plots’)


On the face of it, ‘the imagination is so limitless and the world of story so boundless that we might think that anything could happen’. But, there are certain continually recurring shapes to stories which Booker describes as:

  • Overcoming the Monster,
  • Rags to Riches,
  • The Quest,
  • Voyage and Return,
  • Comedy,
  • Tragedy,
  •  Rebirth.

 I think ‘Burglar Bill’ could be an Overcoming the Monster tale (the monster within – the urge to steal) but it is also a comedy and there is re-birth. It’s hard to categorise –and of course there is no necessity so to do. Interesting though.

 Later I saw another classic tale transposed to stage in a tiny 42-seat theatre where the 2 actors unnervingly held one’s gaze, drawing you into their story. ‘Beast’ told the unfolding of a relationship between a beautiful young woman and a much older man (a muse and an artist), much of it told in lyrical, lilting verse. I, like the reviewer,fell in love with the language and its power, and was left, as so often with love itself, bereft’.

 It was truly uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time.

This play, though most definitely for adults,  also took the theme of Overcoming the Monster, though the telling and the strands were more multi layered in the latter. But in the end (one happy, the other infinitely tragic), both Bill and the elderly artist were redeemed by love.