Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Still Skipping

Memorable tellings are never forgotten. Next week on Wednesday will be the 14th anniversary of such a telling of a story by Eleanor Farjeon, Elsie Piddock Skips In Her Sleep. The telling was by Eileen Colwell.

Among other things, Eileen Colwell was:

  • founder of the first children’s library in the UK
  • first patron of the Society for Storytelling
  • an oral storyteller par excellence

Eileen was also a storytelling inspiration to me and huge numbers of others. I was thinking about her this week on two separate occasions, once in connection with the TV series on storytelling, By Word of Mouth, which I originated and devised back in 1989. The series was shown on Channel 4 in 1990 and I’ve just had some DVD transfers of it made from the videos of it that I possess. Eileen Colwell figures prominently in the third programme in the series. She comes across as vividly as she did in real life, sparkly-eyed, lively and wise as she was.

My second reason for remembering Eileen was the talk I went to on Tuesday night. It was a Children’s Book Circle occasion and I was there as the guest of my friend, Valerie Grove, who was there to introduce and talk to Anne Harvey, a great expert on Eleanor Farjeon and the administrator of her estate. Anne is just bringing out a new selection of Eleanor Farjeon’s poems under the unusual title, Like Sorrow or a Tune. Afterwards I shared with her a delightful Eleanor Farjeon anecdote that Eileen Colwell had told me.

The occasion of the anecdote was Eileen’s decision as a young librarian that she would very much like to try and tell Eleanor Farjeon’s story, Elsie Piddock Skips In Her Sleep. But she also decided that before she told it in public, she must seek permission from its author. First she wrote to Eleanor Farjeon. Then she was asked to visit in person. When Eileen turned up at the appointed time and knocked at Eleanor Farjeon’s door, she felt extremely nervous, especially when the door was opened and Eleanor Farjeon stood there and said, ‘Don’t say anything my dear, I just want to look at you.’ After peering intently into Eileen’s face, the great lady stood back and pronounced her verdict. ‘Yes, you are Elsie Piddock. You may tell the story.’

Elsie Piddock Skips In Her Sleep thereafter became the story with which Eileen was most strongly associated. Her tellings of it greatly influenced audiences abroad, for instance in Canada and Japan, as well as audiences here in Britain. I guess the last time she told it was on 8 May 1999 at the Society for Storytelling gathering in Loughborough which was arranged to celebrate her 95th birthday. Next week will be the 14th anniversary of that occasion. I for one will never forget it. Tellings like that live on.

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2 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Still Skipping”

  1. john turner Says:

    Our children,and now grand children,love the told “Elsie Piddock” story. Increasingly I have found it better with the under 5-s to tell it without reading directly, but looking at the audience to hold their attention. Can you tell me whether Eileen Colewll read this verbatim from the book,or whether she would improvise, adapt or shorten it, for example for for younger listeners?

  2. Mary Medlicott Says:

    John, what a lovely thing it is to know how a story can continue to provide pleasure over the generations. I’m replying to your question in my Blog posting, Pure Pleasure, on Saturday, 13.09.14. That’s today, the Saturday after your Comment arrived. I hope you’ll get to check the answer out. In brief, it is that, although I think Eileen did absorb some written stories word for word, she always told them, and always wonderfully well.

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