Round the Twist with Paul Jennings
It’s time for some nostalgia with much-loved, iconic Australian writer Paul Jennings taking us Round the Twist.
Thanks for speaking with Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords, Paul.
Round the Twist was originally a children’s TV series set in a lighthouse based on some of your short stories selected from your bestselling books Unreal!, Quirky Tales, Unbelievable!, Cabbage Patch Fib and Uncanny! It is currently screening on Netflix.
Round the Twist is a book as well (Puffin Books). It gives a very interesting and amusing insider’s perspective into how the stories were adapted for the screen.
It includes three stories in full (‘Second Copy’, ‘Lucky Lips’ and ‘Spaghetti Pig Out’) and a long story that runs throughout the whole book called ‘Danish Pastry’, in which you explain how you wrote the scripts (seven drafts of each episode!) and how the show was made. It also describes the stages in script writing, such as short and long storylines, screen breakdowns and storyboards.
When I asked one of my twin sons what he remembered about Round the Twist, he said he’s watching it again now as a thirty-year-old! He remembered ghosts and competitions – racing frogs and a big cane toad; a peeing competition up the wall and onto the ceiling; and described the series as “absurd and ambitious”.
My pleasure, Joy. Thank you for reviewing the book and also for your insightful questions and comments.
Paul, what was your reaction when you were invited to adapt your stories into screenplays for the children’s TV series, Round the Twist. How did you initially tackle it?
I was thrilled to know that my stories would be made into a television show. My first reaction was to say that I wanted to write the scripts. I was told that it would be impossible. Firstly, because I had never written scripts before and secondly that, ‘It would be cruel to ask one person to write thirteen episodes of television all on their own.’
Eventually they relented and told me that I could take one episode to first draft and if it was any good, they would let me write the subsequent drafts. I submitted my first effort and was told that it was not good enough. They said it was, ‘Not funny enough.’
I was mortified. A bit later they agreed to let my try again. I selected a different story and this time I put in gag after gag and revised it over and over. By the time I was finished I was exhausted. I sent this first draft in and waited nervously.
The answer finally came.
‘You can write the whole thirteen.’
How did the producers choose which stories to film?
I chose all the stories used in the first two series straight from my books. The only requirements made by the producers related to the actors – the youngest character (Bronson) had a limited number of hours he could work by law and I had to keep his involvement to a minumum. I was also requested to write both male and female leads (Linda and Pete) to keep a good gender balance.
I found it fascinating that you had to remove your directions to actors on how to say their lines because they are skilled in interpreting them and finding other dimensions themselves. (There’s a sample on page 32.)
What was your steepest learning curve as screenwriter?
I had to abandon the habit of writing dialogue in which my characters describe what they are seeing or doing. Book authors do this to carry the plot along in an interesting and varied way.
In an early draft of the script, I had Pete saying, ‘Look at that old sea chest washed up on the shore.’
My script editor (Esben Storm) crossed the whole sentence out. I said, ‘What’s wrong with that? What should he have said?’ He took the pen from my hand and wrote just one word – ‘look’.
I felt such a fool – the film editor would have cut straight to what we were looking at and there was no need for Pete to describe it.
Your books are known for humour but many of your stories across your body of work are underpinned with pathos. Why is this, or could you give an example please?
Long ago I wrote a picture book called The Fisherman and the Theefyspray (illustrated by Jane Tanner). The theme of this tale related to the separation of a parent and a child. This is possibly the strongest theme an author could use in a book for children. So strong in fact that I decided to feature an imaginary sea creature and its child.
I have unconsciously used this theme in many stories. Often I will finish a tale and then, after reading it, exclaim, ‘Oh, no I’ve done it again.’ My short story, Lennie Lighthouse is a tale where I unknowingly did this.
Which of your jokes or scenarios in Round the Twist still makes you laugh?
My favourite would definitely be the frog race in the episode, Wunderpants. I recently stood and watched a group of parents and children viewing this chaotic scene in an art gallery. After all these years this show was still able to get the viewers shrieking with laughter.
The hero frog did so many outrageous things that I was surprised we were allowed to do them. My original story had a mouse race. The director told me that he was unable to film it because the mice wouldn’t run. They just walked around sniffing each other.
‘Get them to run after a piece of cheese on the end of some string,’ I said.
‘We’ve tried that, it doesn’t work,’ he said.
I went away and re-wrote the scene as one of those competitions they have in Queensland featuring cane toads placed in the middle of a circle.
Our hero frog jumped so high that some passengers in a Jumbo Jet saw it pass by. A scene works well if you have something really funny. It is even better when you feature other people watching the funny event.
What was your funniest experience while involved with the TV series?
I remember once discussing a future episode where my character Pete would be hypnotised to think he was a chicken. At an editing session, I said to the episode director, Esben Storm, ‘I will make him eat a snail.’
Esben replied, ‘And I will put in crunching sound effects.’
We both fell about laughing at the silliness of it all.
Who was a funny person you admired as a boy and what aspect or influence did you adapt from them?
As a boy I loved reading Richmal Crompton’s short stories. William, her scruffy, indignant boy character was always getting himself into ridiculous scrapes. I loved him. I was amazed when I was told that the author was a woman. I thought, ‘How does she know what it is like to be me?’
Which comedian or author do you laugh at now, and why?
I am going to say that my lovely partner, Mary-Anne Fahey who was widely known as Kylie Mole in the Comedy Company TV shows is the funniest person I know. There isn’t a day go by when she doesn’t have me in stitches.
Why do you think Round the Twist is still loved by so many – the young and those who are watching it again as adults?
There were a lot of wonderful, talented people working on that show who really wanted to get Australian kids into Australian television. It was a risk and it paid off. I think the Aussie humour was the biggest attraction. We all laughed so much while we were making it. The first two series were based on my books and I think that it did help to have the plots and the gags already sitting there as a basis for each episode.
As well as being entertaining in its own right, the book Round the Twist is also a great resource for schools as it describes the book-to-screen process in a fun, informed way. Young readers will be inspired and guided to write their own scripts.
Thank you for speaking to Joy in Books, Paul and particularly for your legacy of hooking, and keeping, young people into reading.