Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

My poetry’s not pants: Purple Ronnie creator

The Eton-educated creator of irreverent Purple Ronnie talks to Hannah Stephenson

Bottom burps, smelly feet and pants may not be the obvious subject matter for a future Poet Laureate — but Purple Ronnie creator Giles Andreae hasn’t given up hope.

The 43-year-old Eton and Oxford-educated poet and children’s author believes there should be more poetic justice for the stick man character he created 21 years ago.

While more than 80 million greeting cards have been sold bearing Purple Ronnie’s cheeky verse, along with a wide series of books — the latest of which, The World’s Best Dad, is targeted for Father’s Day — Andreae doesn’t feel his brand of rhyme is truly appreciated within poetry circles.

Poetry in general is perceived as stuffy and inaccessible to non-literary types, he argues — and he has long been trying to buck the trend.

“Purple Ronnie’s verse is very playful and some of it’s a bit naughty, and it appears on mass market media. I can see why the Poetry Society might not think that it was appropriate for laureate-ship,” he reflects.

“The other side of it is, what I do I’m very serious about. What Purple Ronnie does at its best is to communicate often quite deep, sentimental truths between people.

“You can do that with a poem about willies as much as you can with a poem about love. It’s confirming friendship, and humour is a way of doing that.

“Do I think that Purple Ronnie one day could be the Poet Laureate? Yeah, I don’t see why not.”

Andreae, who shares offices in London’s Notting Hill with celebrated writer Richard Curtis and TV presenter Mariella Frostrup, and counts Tory leader David Cameron among his close friends, had always enjoyed writing silly poems.

Purple Ronnie began as a live poetry stage act at Oxford University.

“I’d put on a floppy beret and a flowery shirt and perform odd poems to bemused, drunken students. But I figured that it might work on greetings cards,” he recalls.

When his cards were launched in the mid-1980s, greeting cards were quite staid and there wasn’t much for teenagers or people in their 20s.

Purple Ronnie, with illustrations initially done by a university pal, was initially rejected by about 15 publishers, so Andreae took the business into his own hands.

“We went round on our bicycles selling them literally one at a time to local newsagents.

“Then they started to sell. It was very iconoclastic back in the late 80s, kind of alternative comedy on greetings cards,” he says.

Each short poem takes him around half an hour to compose, and he’s written more than 1,000 over the years.

Today, Purple Ronnie has become a massive brand, featuring everything from mugs and T-shirts to ’funky pants’ face towels, air freshener and ’willie wash’ shower gel.

More recently the brand has been adapted to mobile-phone greetings and there will soon be an iPod application and a revamped website.

Originally, the black-and-white cartoons were much-favoured by the lads’s mags generation of the ’90s, but the brand is now more mainstream, less niche.

Two years ago, Andreae sold the rights to the brand to Coolabi in a £4.8m deal and is pleased that the company — which develops children’s and family entertainment concepts — is now sponsoring live poetry events. There will be a Purple Ronnie tent at the Edinburgh Festival this year.

Andreae will soon be moving to the Oxfordshire countryside from London with his wife, Boden marketing director Victoria, and their four children — Flinn, twins Freya and Nat, and Jackson, aged between 11 and three.

Children have long formed a major part of his life. His first children’s book, Rumble In The Jungle, was an instant hit, followed by several bestselling sequels, including Commotion In The Ocean and Dinosaurs Galore.

Others followed including Pants in 2003, while Giraffes Can’t Dance has become established as an international children’s classic. He’s now working on a sequel to Captain Flinn And The Pirate Dinosaurs, due for publication in June.

“I grew up in a big family — my father had seven sisters — and we all lived in a little colony together in the summer at the seaside in Dorset. Every summer I was surrounded by up to 100 family members, aunties, uncles, grannies and grandpas,” Andreae says.

“I’ve always engaged with children, and writing children’s books was a natural extension of that.”

His dreams of having his own family were almost shattered when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease - cancer of the lymph glands — when he was 21.

He postponed chemotherapy when the doctor told him the treatment was likely to leave him infertile.

“I always loved family life. I’d had a very happy childhood and I couldn’t imagine a life without children,” Andreae says.

“IVF at the time was an embryonic science, no pun intended. I literally had the needle in my hand. The doctor was about to administer the first dose of chemotherapy and told me it was likely to leave me infertile.

“I said, ’Isn’t there anything we can do?’ I’d heard of test-tube babies and frozen sperm. Two days later he rang me saying he’d found an agricultural facility in Bristol used for storing prized bull semen. I figured if it’s good enough for bulls, it’s good enough for me.

“At the time I was told that if it did work, it (the sperm) wasn’t likely to last much more than three years. I was 21 at the time. It was pretty scary.”

He needn’t have worried. Victoria conceived their first child through IVF some 10 years later and they have since had three further children through IVF.

For now, Andreae is content to continue writing his quirky poetry and children’s books, and has no desire to veer into adult fiction.

“My mother used to say, ’When are you going to write a proper book?’ God bless her. But the messages in my children’s books are quite deep,” he says.

“You can cover very serious subjects with a very light touch.”

Watch out Poet Laureate, Purple Ronnie’s on your case.

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