They have become the go-to gift for almost any occasion. They are the modern classics you will find in discerning loos the length and breadth of the land. Nostalgic yet bang up to date, every line is shot through with both irony and affection – and, above all, is laugh-aloud funny.
I am referring, of course, to the born-again Ladybird books for adults, in which original artwork and hilariously deadpan social observation have combined to create a bestselling phenomenon. Over the past two years, more than five million books have been snapped up, in languages including Dutch, Estonian and Mandarin, to a value of £35 million. Last year only J K Rowling, Julia Donaldson and David Walliams outsold them.
The first volume, published in October 2015, was entitled The Ladybird Book of the Hipster, followed by The Ladybird Book of Dating. Then came How it Works: The Mum and The Husband. An instant success, by the following year there were 20 books in total – because, frankly, who among us does not need a copy of The Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis or The Zombie Apocalypse? I’ve certainly received half a dozen titles as gifts, including a mysterious copy of The Ladybird Book of the People Next Door, which was recently left on my front doormat. I can’t for the life of me imagine who it could be from.
I can, however, imagine who Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley, the comedy writing team behind every book, might be. I have a feeling I will like them, not least because inside the back cover of every volume there is a gracious tribute that reads: ‘The authors would like to thank the illustrators whose work they have so mercilessly ribbed and whose glorious craftsmanship was the set-dressing of their childhood. The inspiration they sparked has never faded.’
And so, just as 11 new titles including The Ladybird Book of the Ex and How it Works: The Baby shrewdly hit the shops in time for Christmas, I am meeting Joel and Jason, whose television credits include Miranda Hart, Mitchell and Webb, Charlie Brooker and Armstrong and Miller. They also worked on the Paddington film script and have recently finished writing for the sequel (more of which later). But today they are sitting in their new office, looking slightly dazed to have a proper workspace after a career spent scribbling in coffee shops. It’s a sparse room, but every titivation is well chosen and obviously meaningful: a huge poster of a sausage and some gay floral bunting that spells out ‘competent’.
The first surprise is that these two are not whippersnappers at all. Joel is 46 (little beard, cuddly) and is married with an eight-year-old. Jason, 45 (achingly cool sideburns, gym-honed), has a partner and two children aged 12 and eight. They first met in the sixth form of King Edward VI Grammar in Chelmsford, Essex, have been firm friends ever since and are proof that growing older is not the same as growing up.
‘We were banned from the playing field for running away from balls and banished to the computer room,’ says Joel. ‘We were tasked with typing up and laying out the school newsletter, which we did. But then because we were in possession of the means of production, we wrote a spoof newsletter and circulated it round the school, where it was passed under desks.’
That early affirmation led them to start writing gags for television and radio. They sold their first to Russ Abbot when they were just 19, but after a few years of flogging one-liners to radio shows, they went their separate professional ways for a decade to pursue dreams of becoming full-time musicians.
They played and recorded albums with their respective bands but the big time – even the moderately big time – eluded them. Writing drew them back. ‘We got together and decided to publish something on the internet based on a spoof local newspaper we used to print, called The Framley Examiner,’ says Jason. ‘We posted it anonymously in 2001 and in a couple of hours friends were asking us whether we’d seen this really funny site. Within two weeks we had two book deals.’
Neither of the pair is in the least bit snobbish about writing what are essentially loo books. ‘Who doesn’t love a good Lou Reed?’ asks Joel rhetorically. ‘You find it in your stocking and unwrap it on Christmas Day, have a chuckle, pass it on and the next person chuckles. That’s a perfectly worthwhile, legitimate literary ambition. Our books aren’t controversial, just the opposite. They’re small things to make people smile. That’s why we wouldn’t cover subjects such as Brexit or Trump in the Ladybird series because they are divisive and make people angry.’
The success of The Framley Examiner led Joel and Jason back to comedy writing and their next effort, Bollocks to Alton Towers: Uncommonly British Days Out, a travel book published in 2005, became a bestseller. ‘It sold a really impressive 60,000 copies,’ says Jason ruefully. ‘At least, we thought it was impressive back then, but the numbers of Ladybird books are a bit mind-boggling.’ To a large extent those early books were a sideline to fill the summer months, a notoriously fallow period for television commissions. The two considered risqué writing for shows such as Charlie Brooker’s 2016 Wipe – which won a Bafta – to be their real day job.
And then, in 2015, came their literary epiphany. Jason was at an airport waiting to catch a flight to New York when Joel, who was getting his car fixed, phoned him for a chat that led them to joking about what sort of pastiche they should write next. Jason wisecracked about a slim volume of impossibly elegiac poetry for Faber.
Joel mused aloud that he’d love to write a Ladybird book – both men were brought up on the series and were huge admirers of the meticulously rendered artwork. They riffed on the subject and established they would only do it if they could have access to the original illustrations. ‘We thought, “Why don’t we pretend that Ladybird has grown up with its core readership and is still offering the same comforting tone to explain the modern world?”’ remembers Jason.
Once Joel had established that Ladybird was owned by Penguin Random House, their publishers, he made a few calls. By the time Jason had landed at JFK, they had a resounding ‘yes’ and the proverbial keys to the Ladybird archive, containing some 13,000 illustrations.
‘It was incredibly exciting,’ says Joel. ‘We started with The Hipster because hipsters are very funny anyway and they love everything retro, so it was a great fit with the pictures that dated from the 1960s and 70s. It was a joy to write and everything in that book is first draft.’ They were asked to write eight books in total and suggest a further seven titles, so they deliberately set themselves a challenge.
‘Because the books are for children there are no pictures of two adults enjoying time together so we counterintuitively chose The Ladybird Book of Dating,’ he adds. ‘We were aware it would be a tall order to get pictures to fit, and we also knew that if we could overcome that hurdle by careful selection and cropping of images, we could write about anything.’
There is, of course, nothing new in borrowing artwork from the past. Step into a branch of Scribbler or Paperchase and you will see superannuated 60s knitting pattern covers and Ladybird-style illustrations transformed into greetings cards. But invariably the text will be rude, crude and intended to shock. Joel and Jason deliberately went down a less vulgar path. ‘Ladybird books are national treasures and from the get-go we understood what a privileged position we were in,’ says Jason.
‘As comedy writers we know that swearing and references to sex or drugs always get a laugh, but we wanted to keep to the spirit of the originals and to produce something that a child could pick up; they might not grasp the irony but they wouldn’t be shocked by the text. We choose the language carefully and really pore over all 1,200 words in every book so that each page reads a bit like a short poem or haiku.’
Every book takes three weeks to write. Tackling them two at a time, Joel works on one title while Jason writes the other; then they swap over and, where necessary, polish and refine each other’s efforts. Sometimes the pictures come first, sometimes it is the subject. Female readers (myself included) are often struck by their insights into everything from school-gate competitiveness to wine o’clock.
This, it transpires, is the result of thorough fact-finding. ‘We research subjects really well,’ says Joel. ‘We read books on cat and dog psychology before we wrote How it Works: The Cat and The Dog and we went on Mumsnet an awful lot to get a woman’s perspective. The internet is great; it’s eavesdropping on conversations like you might do on a bus, which is the meat and potatoes of comedy writing.’
Having written How it Works: The Wife, they felt they might have been a bit too offensive, so they sent the first draft to two ‘feminist’ female friends, one of whom is the upfront comedy actress Katy Brand. ‘We told them to take off the gloves and really rip the book apart if they felt it was too hard-hitting,’ adds Jason. ‘They got back in touch and both said the same thing, which was, “Be nastier! You haven’t gone far enough.”’
But nobody could seriously interpret the Ladybird books as nasty. Bleakly perceptive and unflinchingly honest maybe, but hardly disturbing. Jason and Joel aren’t quite so sure; it seems this new tranche of books enters uncharted waters.
‘We are covering How it Works: The Brother and The Sister, which were quite difficult to write because there’s a rich tradition of jokes about in-laws and parents and children, but very little about siblings, because those relationships can be quite dark,’ says Joel. ‘We draw on our own experience a lot and with the siblings material it did get a bit near the knuckle, so we had to wind it back in again – but it’s still quite edgy.’
On one page of The Brother there’s a drawing of a boy hiding in a cupboard. The text opposite reads: ‘Christian is sitting in the cupboard under the stairs with a paper bag on his head waiting for anyone to notice. Middle children are different.’ It’s apparently a reference to Joel’s brother, the middle child of three. Another of their new offerings, a simple picture book for little children, follows the original format of a drawing, accompanied by a word and a succinct explanation, but instead of ‘bird’ and ‘postman’, this grown-up version presents concepts such as ‘cholesterol’ and ‘vasectomy’.
‘The vasectomy reference relates to me,’ offers Jason. ‘I was going off to have the snip and my daughter, who was six at the time, asked if I would come home wearing a big plastic cone on my head, like her cousin’s dog did when he was neutered. That’s gone straight in the book.’ The Ladybird Book of the Ex is all about revenge and anger, but handled so adroitly that you laugh first before the subtext sinks in. It opens with an image of an empty room: ‘Ah well, thinks Martin. At least she left me a packet of cigarettes and a little bicycle made of pipe cleaners.’
Amid the pre-publication excitement, the two were grafting away on the script of the Paddington sequel. Here again they were mindful of the responsibility of tinkering with something so central to our collective childhood. ‘When Michael Bond was discussing the first Paddington movie before he died, he said handing his creation over to a film production company was like putting his beloved bear into a car with a complete stranger and hoping for the best,’ says Joel. I think we can agree that Paddington is in the safest of hands and look forward to his next big-screen adventure.
Despite the dizzying sales figures for the Ladybird series, neither of the men is a millionaire: only half the book is their work and then they have to halve that amount again. But they are doing well enough from it – and, more importantly, they are having a blast.
‘We haven’t been able to read most of the translations but we do know The Ladybird Book of the Hipster’s Chinese title is How to Pretend to be a Non-Mainstream Pursuit Member, which strikes us as very funny. Of the translations we can understand, the French ones, done by Séverine Weiss, are magnificent. She translated a joke about a man who has only one suit whom we described as looking “like a burglar in court” as “comme Tin Tin au Le Touquet”, which is basically like saying “Tin Tin in Skegness”.’
It’s reassuring to know grown-ups all over the world are enjoying the nostalgia trip (whether they understand the references or not). ‘We both think that part of being a modern adult is feeling as though you’ve missed being given the instruction manual for things,’ says Jason. ‘We hope our books give readers a small insight into life’s harsher realities. And that they laugh.’
Joel concurs: ‘There’s something surreal and fabulous about knowing our books are little sources of joy being read while the nation is sitting on the loo.’
By Judith Woods
-Jason and Joel’s new Ladybird books are available now, penguin.co.uk