When Mark Gatiss came to tea with Judith Kerr

Mark Gatiss visits childhood hero and author of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, to chat children's books, family and sci-fi

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I first met the extraordinary Judith Kerr about 15 years ago. I came to the house in Barnes she shared with her husband, the visionary writer Nigel Kneale (known as Tom to his family), whose work I had admired since childhood. It was an afternoon I’ll never forget.

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I quizzed my hero on all things Quatermass-related and his extraordinary oeuvre. In many ways Bernard Quatermass was Britain’s  first TV hero. Without him there would be no Doctor Who, no Sherlock. All the time, by Nigel’s side, was the kind, smiling presence of Judith, the author and illustrator of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and, of course, the Mog stories.

Born in Berlin in 1923, Judith  ed with her family from the Nazis a day before Hitler came to power. In the years since her husband’s death, she’s become much-loved and celebrated in her own right. And now I’m ready to conduct the RT Interview…

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Mark: Your desire to draw and paint, was that purely instinctive?

Judith: Always. I remember being about two years old and sitting on a kerb. Somebody had spilled some petrol and I was stirring it with a stick, making all the colours whirl, and I remember the other children shouting, “Come and play!” – and I considered this very seriously and decided it was more important to stir petrol! So I always drew. It just seemed normal.

Were your parents encouraging?

Yes, they were. My mother must have been very proud of my drawings, because when we had to leave Berlin in a great rush, she packed some of them. She came from a very wealthy family and was suddenly stuck with all this poverty when we left Germany. She tried a few times to commit suicide. But then she hated the idea of becoming old.

She didn’t want to be old. She was always being very young. She died in 1965 in the middle of a game of tennis and her last words were, “I’ve never felt like this before”.

When you look at those pictures now, do you see anything of the time in them? That what you were seeing as a child speaks of what was going on?

I never saw anything of what was going on. I was observant about how people’s legs went when they ran, things like that! An awful lot of the things that happened, I only heard about afterwards, for instance, that my father [the Jewish writer and critic Alfred Kerr] was on a sort of death list.

I knew my father was famous, because everybody always asked us about him. They stopped us in the street and said, “What’s your father doing now?” or “Why hasn’t he written anything?” Afterwards I did realise, and I got frightened sometimes, because the Nazis put a price on his head, dead or alive. Even though we’d left Germany, they did catch people, and I remember hearing about that and being very frightened.

Do you see echoes of your youth in what we’re going through now?

People of my generation, if you survived the Second World War, have lived in the most affluent, peaceful period of probably almost anywhere in history. I look around… it’s all so beautiful – but so fragile, isn’t it? I don’t know whether that’s my age, but… I love to draw. I mean, that’s really what matters to me. And I have sometimes thought that if I didn’t want to draw, I might have become… I don’t know, religious or something.

I think you need something outside yourself, something that you really love. Apart from yourself. And none of the other things matter, really. The only advice I could ever give would be: “I hope you  find some work you love,” because if you have work you love, you can survive anything.

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Tom wrote a very good play but it was never made, about a wave of suicides called The Big, Big Giggle. It was very real. Very prescient. And it’s the same as the Isis thing, isn’t it? Misguided people who want to make a statement. To matter. And to be in charge. To say, “I didn’t just drag on and then get carried off by some disease. I am going to do this.”