The surprise literary success story - Ladybird books for grown-ups
Two unassuming 40-something friends are dominating book sales with their reimagined classics. Our reporter meets the lads behind Ladybird
Published 27/10/2016 | 02:30
In an unassuming pub off the Strand in London, two blokes sit drinking pints of ale. They are casual, a little bit scruffy, slightly unshaven. One is clutching an e-cigarette in his hands, the other explaining that the pub serves a mean black pudding sandwich. Just a couple of childhood friends enjoying some beer between meetings, then, except for the fact that they've sold two-and-a-half million books between them.
Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris are the authors of the hugely popular Ladybird books for grown-ups, which marry archive art from the 60s through to the 80s with modern-day social observation. The Ladybird book of the 'Hipster', the 'Hangover' and the 'Mid-Life Crisis' have all flown off the shelves. Their tome on mindfulness can be found next to the tills of every gift shop from Longford to East London.
They know of vicars handing out 'The Husband' and 'The Wife' to couples they have just married; then there is the Ladybird book of 'The Shed', the Ladybird Book of 'Dating' and the 'How it Works' guides to the mum, the dad and the student, which pretty much covers present bases for almost everyone in your life.
Hazeley and Morris are among their home nation's biggest-selling writers - only JK Rowling, Julia Donaldson and David Walliams sold more last year. Their almost complete dominance of the best-sellers list irks many writers (myself included) who have been told by their publishers that their book "would have made the top 10 a year ago before the Ladybird books started taking up positions one through to nine".
And it is only set to get worse with the release this week of eight new titles: 'The Ladybird book of the Zombie Apocalypse'; 'The Ladybird Book of the Sickie'; 'The Ladybird Book of Red Tape'; 'The Ladybird book of the Meeting'; 'The Ladybird Book of The People Next Door'; plus 'how it works' guides on dogs, cats and grandparents.
"I hate you," I sort of joke, having spent much of my day weeping with laughter at the new books.
"I know, I know!" says Hazeley. "When we went to Penguin with the 'Hipster' idea, we thought it might sell 60,000 tops." As it so happens, the 'Hipster' is the least successful of the franchise, which pleases Morris because "the most hipsterish thing for it to do is to not be a sellout."
Anyway, the duo tell me that the satirist Charlie Brooker told them "I'm physically angry that you've come up with an idea this good." Morris told Brooker he liked that joke. "And then we were talking to a friend who had been round his for dinner and they said, 'no, he really is cross with you!'"
Hazeley and Morris, who are 45 and 46 respectively, met at sixth form in Cheltenham. "We were banished from the playing fields because we both ran away from balls," says Hazeley. "We were frightened of them. And they banished us to an ancient and honourable institution called the computer room, where they produced the school newsletter. It was our job to take all these notes from the teachers and the PTA and type them into a big document and then a newsletter would come out with the right font and the school crest at the top.
"But what you should never do is give two 17-year-old comedy fans access to the means of production because what happens is that within a fortnight there is a pastiche newsletter going round under the desks full of absolute nonsense."
"And we've been doing that ever since," smiles Morris.
The two sold their first sketch to Russ Abbott when they were just 18. They have worked together on and off ever since - both had brief spells in the music industry - and have written for comedians including Brooker, Miranda Hart, Paul O'Grady, Alan Carr, Mitchell and Webb and Armstrong and Miller. They were part of the team of writers on 'Paddington' (they have also done the sequel, which has just started shooting) and have written for the children's channel CBBC.
"Having worked on 'Paddington' there was a sense of 'you give us a children's national treasure, we won't smash it into the wall'", says Morris. "They [the books] are a pastiche, not a parody. They are meant to celebrate Ladybird, not to make it seem stupid. Because Ladybird wasn't stupid. It was brilliant."
They say their idea for the books was a "simple" one, but it was born out of a life-long passion for the brand. Both Hazeley and Morris are obsessed with what they call 'vintage commercial art' and had long been avid fans of the Ladybird books, particularly their illustrations, collecting prints to hang at home (both bought an original piece of work when the books hit one million sales).
When they discovered there was a huge archive of Ladybird artwork sitting in a factory somewhere unused, they made their pitch to Penguin, who they had been working with on what they call 'toilet humour' books for 16 years. "These were the first books that they said yes to in about a decade," says Hazeley. "We were having two or three lunches a year with our publishers and we always got a 'meh'."
They have made a pretty penny for Penguin - some figures say €8.3 million - but they say they are hardly millionaires. "Only half the book is our work and then we have to split that half," says Hazeley. "And it's half the price of all the other hardbacks."
"I bought a new bin," says Morris. "And I got a flash new suitcase."
It's not really about the money for them anyway. They show me the cover of one of their new books, which features a painting of a kettle. "Look at that!" exclaims Hazeley. "Gerald Whitcomb painted that. How the f**k do you paint that? How. Do. You. Do. It? I can't understand how you can paint the light dancing off a piece of steel like that. It's magic, isn't it, surely?"
This passion is at the heart of their success, though they modestly protest that it's because nobody knows how to buy gifts for men.
"We knew that if they were going to work they had to be in the same key as Ladybird," continues Hazeley. "There were so many Ladybird pastiches on the internet that were basically: childish image, swear words. And we knew it couldn't be that. There's a richness of language when you have to tiptoe around things, when you can't swear. It's so old-fashioned. You can almost smell the baco-lite."
It's been suggested to them that they do books on Brexit and Trump. "Our answer to that is 'no, because they're not funny'," says Morris. "People say we should do one about the teacher and that seems like a good idea until you think of all the poor teachers on the last day of term receiving 20 copies of it as a present. That's not… charming."
They're definitely going to do one on nerds, pointing out that they have taken over the world (that they have, I joke). "We'll continue doing it as long as we're having fun," says Hazeley. "When you sell lots of books part of you wants it to be this astonishing novel that's from your soul," smiles Morris, "but then I look at the 'Mid-Life Crisis' and think 'that's the most autobiographical book I will ever write'."
"I think these books are our mid-life crisis," laughs Hazeley.
"But life is quite serious at the moment," continues Morris. "To see these books produce an actual physical reaction of joy… well that's just great, isn't it?" © Telegraph
Eight new Ladybird Books for Grownups published by Penguin are out now, priced €9.99