Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Brian the Lion (and friends) are making their comeback

The picture depicts the four members of the singing group Kool 4 Cats, rehearsing in a garden, pri

The picture depicts the four members of the singing group Kool 4 Cats, rehearsing in a garden, prior to a talent show auditio. Illustration by Hilary Lazell - Credit: Archant

There had been neither hide nor hair of him for three years. I wasn’t expecting to see him again and then, suddenly, last October he reappeared.

Brian had been living in woods near to my home since the turn of the millennium. His dwelling was deep inside the woods. Unless you’d known the place very well, you would probably have had no idea that he even existed. He spent most of his time foraging wood for his fire.

He lived very simply. Brian was often visited by his friend Matt, an outsider with musical ambitions but very little talent He was also visited by Clare, a former ballet teacher of Russian origin, who had a pilot’s licence, so she claimed.

This unconventional trio were occasionally joined by Morris Horse, an amiable character with an interest in buses bordering upon the Aspergic. Other visitors were seasonal, only joining Brian, Matt and Clare during winter months. I became very familiar with Brian and his strange friends. I saw him often for almost a decade.

Then, one year, he didn’t appear. What had happened? Brian the Lion wasn’t required any more. My daughter, my little Essex girl, had grown up. Some dads are good at more overtly daddish things; playing football, building tree-houses, driving you miles away to places of entertainment, taking you fishing, teaching you self-defence etc. My own dadding talents, however, resided in home-made stories, jokes and songs.

In early years, when my daughter was really young, I made the stories up as we went along. By the time she was six, however, Brian the Lion had become an established Saturday night serial, one which required plots, sub-plots, and incidental music played on a guitar or piano.

It was round about this time it dawned upon me that it might be a good idea to crystallise it – make her a CD of some of the best stories – for those times when I was working away from home. In addition, if it was her bedtime and I had my hands full in the kitchen on a Saturday night, a ready-made CD, was a handy sort of thing to have lying around.

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By the time she was seven years old, the scripts were taking me three days to write and half a day to edit. Since I was at that time, briefly without decent home-recording facilities, I had to book a friend’s studio in order to record them.

The reading and performing of the narrative, along with doing the various characters’ voices, took up much of the first day. Dubbing the incidental music and sound effects took the second. A third day was kept free for “track repairs” and mixing. That’s about seven working days, two of them with someone assisting me in production duties.

The end product was a feature-length audio-book, with a running time of about an hour. Why did I do it? Because it was something which I could do. I can’t build rocking horses, drive a car or pay for a trip to Santa’s Grotto in Lapland. But I can spin a yarn and I do know my way around a recording studio.

The Brian stories were never produced commercially, although a few copies did sometimes find their way to close friends’ children. Several attempts were made to persuade me to consider either mass-producing them or approaching the industry with the idea. I resisted. It just didn’t seem right somehow. It was a personal Christmas present. I believed, however loftily, that I shouldn’t cannibalise my entire life for commercial gain. And anyway, who knew whether or not they’d have been good enough?

When my daughter became a sophisticated pre-teenager, Brian the Lion left the woods. I didn’t expect to see him again. I missed him, actually.

Then, two years ago, I was informed by my youngest brother that the CDs which I’d copied for him, had been going down very well with his own young children. His little girl asked me whether there were any more. I confessed that I was afraid that there weren’t. That was a Grinch moment.

Thus did it come about last November, that having found myself with some spare time, after a three-year absence, Brian the Lion 9 went back into production. For the past two weeks, I’ve been working piecemeal on Brian 10. His friend Matt the Cat is also back, this time with an all-cat boy band.

Kool 4 Kats were formed rather too late to enter for Fame Acatemy, but they might just be in with a chance of winning Kittens Got Talent.

I’m not a children’s writer but this stuff is fun. It just seems to write itself. As for the recording of it, two years ago, having appointed myself Jingle-meister for Radio Wivenhoe, I had all the excuses I needed for building a domestic mini-studio.

One of the first things which I acquired was an ancient sound effects library. American in origin, it probably dates back to the 1950s. It’s full of animal noises, industrial machinery, boings, crashes and breaking glass.

I found it online. It cost me seven US dollars. It’s real boys’ stuff. The all-cat singing group effects, I have to make up myself; sitting there with cold tea and the light fading, overdubbing cat voices.

It’s an insane thing for a grown man to be doing but it’s a great way of cheering up these dark November days. It also still makes a pretty good home-made Christmas present.

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