Four years ago, as a newbie to journalism – and Radio Times – I nervously caught the tube down to Great Portland Street to interview the judges of Radio 2’s 500 Words competition. Back then the judging took place in a meeting room at Radio 2 as the panel – headed up by Breakfast Show host Chris Evans – hashed out their opinions on a shortlist pulled from almost 75,000 entries. The winners were to be announced live from Hay Festival later that year.
I was terrified. But as I sat, mentally trotting through my questions, I found myself hauled into towering worlds conjured from the imagination of children aged just 13 years and under. I was transfixed by the tension, pathos and humour they expertly conveyed. Needless to say, the butterflies stopped whizzing around my tummy.
Fast-forward to 2016, the number of entries have nearly doubled and the competition has morphed into something altogether bigger. 123,436 stories have been submitted, HRH Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, gives the panel some regal heft, and the ‘big reveal’ fittingly takes place at The Globe – home to Shakespeare, this country’s most celebrated wordsmith.
Camilla joined Higson, Malorie Blackman, Francesca Simon and Frank Cottrell Boyce on the panel and the six winning entries were read out this morning by the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Julie Walters, Warwick Davis and Nick Jonas, live on Radio 2 in front of an audience packed into the theatre. 500 Words has become a star-studded, glitzy affair – one of BBC radio’s crown jewels.
But amid all the fanfare, there’s something really important at play here. Four years on, I’d forgotten some of the magic that had left me so captivated in that room in Fitzrovia. But sat in the audience of the Globe this morning, I was once again sucked into a world of grannies rocketing to the moon, wrecking balls swung at cookie jars, pigs getting their revenge on butchers and e-courtrooms where life and death decisions are made on Twitter.
If you were listening to Evans’s Breakfast Show this morning, you’ll know what I’m talking about but if not, I urge you to read this year’s entries (you can find them right here!). Newspaper headlines may inform you our youth are less engaged than ever, eschewing books and writing in favour of social media and video games.
But 500 Words is cold hard proof that the creativity we mourn is alive and well. The stories I heard this morning were packed with inventiveness, charisma, confidence, atmosphere, tears, laughter and joy. They brought lumps to my throat and sent shivers down my spine – and, somewhat ironically, left me stumped. What skill with words do I have, if any, compared with these titanic imaginations? My ability to wield them doesn’t feel a patch on these youngsters.
Speaking at a special reception after the broadcast, actor Warwick Davis hit the nail on the head. “As an adult, you have more inhibitions so your creative writing is a lot more stilted – you have to tap into the child in you and scream out your conscious creativity to write a good story and I don’t think we can do that as adults quite so easily. We’re stifling ourselves all the time.”
That’s why a competition like this is so important. There are kids up and down the country with ideas. They need a platform. Some may already write in their spare time but how many would be prompted to put pen to paper without something like 500 Words?
“I think it’s a wonderful thing for children to be encouraged to write stories,” Tom Hiddleston told me backstage earlier today. “It’s empowering for young people to find their own voice in a creative way and to share their perspective on the world. It’s a very cool and exciting platform.”
“It’s very important to encourage imagination because it’s imagination that moves things forward,” added Julie Walters. “You’ve got to be stimulated.”
So let’s make sure we stimulate our budding Roald Dahls, JK Rowlings and Jacqueline Wilsons. The winners (below) inspired me this morning with their 500 words. Yes, funding is short and our arts are under scrutiny – but let’s make sure there remain plenty of opportunities to inspire them in return.