Mem Fox on ACO's Wilfrid: 'I swallowed tears three times'
The Australian children's book author shares the real life story behind Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, and let's us in on why the Australian Chamber Orchestra adaptation of the popular book moved and surprised her unexpectedly.
"Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is my dad’s full name, but it was actually my grandfather, Wilfrid Partridge whose situation inspired this story."
Inspired by her own family's experiences, Australian author Mem Fox teamed up with illustrator Julie Vivas to write her beloved book Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge in 1984, and since then it has never been out of print. It's a timeless story, set in an old people's home, that explores intergenerational friendship and the nature of memory. And kindness.
In 2021, the Australian Chamber Orchestra adapted the story into a show for stage, with direction by Sandra Eldridge and original music by Paul Stanhope. We're performing the show again this year, for the July school holidays.
Mem describes being "both thrilled and puzzled" when we approached her to make the book to a musical production for children. "I couldn’t understand how the ACO could make it work, or how the children would react to such a different way of watching and listening to a performance."
"I was honoured, too," she hastens to add. "I mean: the ACO? Marvellous!"
Mem got to see the show when she attended this year's tour of the Wilfrid. "I was uplifted in an unexpected way," she says. "I know Wilfrid so well and had seen quite a few other performances and manifestations of the book, so I didn’t expect to be surprised or moved."
Not the case. "I swallowed tears three times. It is a heartbreakingly good rendition of my work and of the art by Julie Vivas. I absolutely adore it. The way in which the music adds to the pathos is brilliantly done. Huge congratulations, all round!"
Now that the national tour has concluded, we're thrilled to be bringing the show to the ACO's home at Pier 2/3 in Sydney's Walsh Bay Arts Precinct. And we can't wait for you to see it here.
"It is a heartbreakingly good rendition of my work and of the art by Julie Vivas. I absolutely adore it. The way in which the music adds to the pathos is brilliantly done."Mem Fox, author of Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge
For those not familiar with the story, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge tells the story of a small boy and his friendship with a neighbouring old people's home resident, Miss Nancy. Wilfrid visits the old people's home next to his house regularly, and befriends the residents, making the task of helping Miss Nancy find her lost memories his number one priority. What ensues is a tale of discovery, adventure and heart-warming kindness.
Speaking in more details about the inspiration for the story, Mem says: "I noticed that the people who visited the residents in the home were all pretty old themselves. I hardly ever saw children there.
"But I knew that children and old people like each other a lot, so I wrote a book in which a little boy did visit his old friends, every day. I hoped my book would encourage lots of happy encounters with the elderly, especially from child-care centres and primary schools. I think it worked."
So what is that magic that has made the Wilfrid story resonate with audiences, both young and old, for the past 39 years?
"I think it’s because Wilfrid is such a loving, kind, lively child," Mem says. "He doesn’t really understand at first that some old people lose their memories, but when he finds out that his special friend, Miss Nancy, has lost hers, he does his level best to help her find them again. Adults quietly weep over this sweetness and innocence in a little boy, and over the tragedy of Alzheimer’s. Children love it because a child around their own age turns out to be so nice and so clever."
Click here to book tickets to experience our ACO Families production of Mem Fox & Julie Vivas's Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, playing at ACO Pier 2/3, Sunday 9 - Saturday 15 July for the school holidays.