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The Tiger Who Came to Tea is coming to Bishop's Stortford

The Tiger who came to tea. Picture by Robert Day. (7938973)
The Tiger who came to tea. Picture by Robert Day. (7938973)

The Tiger Who Came to Tea, a story beloved by children for half a century, has been adapted into a musical play and is coming to Rhodes...

Ever since she was a little girl growing up in Germany, Judith Kerr had dreamed of becoming a famous writer. But she only started writing and illustrating books after she became a mother.

Her first book, published in 1968, tells the story of a young girl named Sophie, her mother and a friendly tiger who interrupts their afternoon tea, eats all their food and drinks all their tea.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea, which took a year to write and illustrate, has since become one of the best-selling children's books of all time.

Now 95, Judith recalled: "It was a bedtime story for my three-year-old daughter. I put in all the things that she liked and she seems to have had normal tastes.

"I’d made up other stories for her, but this was the one my daughter liked best, about a tiger who came to tea. She used to say 'Talk the tiger!' and so I told it so many times.

"I was very pleasantly surprised when they said they’d publish it. I certainly had no idea that it would be the success it has become."

Judith spent her early years in Berlin just before the start of the Third Reich; her father was on a death list because of his opposition to the Nazis.

Fellow children's author Michael Rosen claims the tiger could have been based on her memory of the past threat.

"Judith knows about dangerous people who come to your house and take people away," he said. "She was told as a young child that her father could be grabbed at any moment by either the Gestapo or the SS – he was in great danger. So I don't know whether Judith did it consciously or not – I wouldn't want to go there – but the point is he's a jokey tiger, but he is a tiger."

However, Judith has said that the tiger had nothing to do with the Nazis. She invented the story after visiting a zoo with her daughter.

"Quite often we went to the zoo," she said. "In those days, before David Attenborough, it was the only way you could see animals. We found the tigers just so incredibly beautiful."

The success of The Tiger Who Came to Tea paved the way for Judith's popular Mog series, which starred a loveable, forgetful cat named Mog, her owners, Mr and Mrs Thomas, and theirchildren, Nicky and Debbie.

The two children in the series were given the middle names of Judith's own son and daughter, Matthew and Tacy, and she based her illustrations of the Thomas family home on her own house in Barnes, south-west London.

Illustrating novels is her favourite part of her creative process.

"I always wanted to draw from a young age and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to," she said. "Even now, I try to draw every day if I can. My visual memory holds on to things – how people move and walk on the street, how their trousers hang. Those things stay with you."

Judith has an inherent instinct for what sparks a child's imagination and puts this down to learning from her own children.

"I suppose it was from watching my own children when they were small and working out what they liked," she said. "I wasn’t able to work before my children stayed for lunch at school. I think I must have a good memory as I remember such a lot of my own childhood and especially the time leaving Germany and coming to Paris and London."

In 1933, shortly before Hitler came to power, Judith, her brother Michael and their parents, Alfred and Julia, left Germany. The family were fearful because Alfred Kerr, a theatre critic, had openly criticised the Nazis.

The Kerr family first travelled to Switzerland, then France, before finally settling in Britain, where Judith has remained ever since.

The Olivier Award-nominated musical adaptation of her cherished debut story has been running for more than a decade. Its director, David Wood, is responsible for the adaptation, and Judith credits him for having "a brilliant imagination and years of remarkable expertise".

* The Tiger Who Came to Tea will be performed at Rhodes Arts Complex on Wednesday, April 10, at 1.30pm and 4pm, and Thursday, April 11 at 11am and 2pm. Tickets cost £14.50 each, £51 for a family of four. Running time approx 55 minutes. Suitable for children aged 3+. To book, visit www.rhodesartscomplex.co.uk or call 01279 710200.

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