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Happy 150th birthday, J M Barrie… and 10 more things you didn’t known about Peter Pan

May 10, 2010

Where you never have to grow up: Annie Leibowitz’s 2008 shoot of ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov as Peter Pan, supermodel Gisele Budchen as Wendy and comedian Tina Fey as Tinkerbell for Disney Parks’ ‘Year Of A Million Dreams’ promotion


If you were browsing on google yesterday, you may well have noticed this very image in place of the old trusty search engine’s usual logo…

What is it? And what was it doing there? Well, if you’d have passed your mouse over it – or if you’re particularly keen of mind – you’d have discovered/ realised it’s a neat, fun little picture inspired by Peter Pan, and had pride of place on google’s homepage owing to yesterday being the 150th anniversary of the birth of his creator, J M Barrie.

If you’re at all like me, you may well have a fond place in your heart for Peter Pan – and, in turn, J M Barrie. When I was a child, like many children, I suppose, I found the character, the Neverland fantasy world he inhabits and the truly marvellous idea he can transport ordinary children from our reality to his dream-like island paradise seductive to say the least. And, in many ways, my admiration for Barrie’s hero and the primary conceit behind it hasn’t diminished over the years; if anything, it’s grown. I find the whole Peter Pan thing fascinating, in its way.

Perhaps I should put this all into context, in addition to blogging about retro stuff from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, I’m also a budding (would be) childen’s author and, around the time I started writing my novel, I decided it might be a good idea to re-read a handful of children’s classics – The Wind In The Willows, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, The BFG and… Peter Pan. And upon picking up the latter classic as an adult, it struck me just how smart, acerbic and humorous Barrie’s prose was and just how genuinely the legendary tale on the page drips with pathos and sadness. This is the boy who never grows up – for all his childish abandon and liberation, remaining a child is a gig he’s stuck with for life. It’s a genius concept.

Anyway, to mark the great writer’s 150th, I felt it might be somewhat fitting to record a double-digit list of things you may not know about him and his creation…

Principal boy: Mary Martin as Neverland’s most famous son in the 1950s musical version of Barrie’s tale

~ Born in Kirriemuir, Scotland, Barrie went on to become a relatively unsuccessful author and dramatist in London, until one day he met the Llewelyn Davies boys (John, Michael, Peter and Nicholas) with their nanny in Kensington Gardens, while out walking his St Bernard dog Porthos. He later met their mother Sylvia and father Arthur. This encounter and his subsequent relationship with the family inspired him to write the hugely successful stage play Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.

~ This real-life story is told in the Oscar-nominated 2004 film Finding Neverland, starring Jonny Depp as Barrie and Kate Winslet as Sylvia. Liberties are taken with factual accuracy, however, such as Arthur dying before Barrie became acquainted with the family and the youngest boy Nicholas not included (presumably to neaten up the ‘casting’ of the three remaining boys as the three main boy protagonists in Barrie’s story – Sylvia then fits as Wendy and Porthos as ‘Nanny’ the dog).

~ The Peter Pan character was debuted by Barrie in his fairytale fantasy novel The Little White Bird, published in the UK in 1901. The section of the novel featuring Peter, dealing with his origins, was later published in 1906 as Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens. The stage play Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was first performed on 27 December 1904, and was developed by its author into the 1911 novel Peter And Wendy.

By hook or by crook: the hip poster for Spielberg’s 1991 sequel film Hook (left) and the ‘official’ 2006 sequel novel, in which Peter – erk! – takes on Hook’s mantle (right)

~ Barrie was friends and/ or acquaintances with many of the literary elite of his day, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, George Bernard Shaw, H G Wells, Thomas Hardy, P G Wodehouse, G K Chesterton, Jerome K Jerome and A A Milne – some of whom even played on a cricket team he set up. He also knew Robert Falcon Scott (‘Scott of the Antarctic’).

~ Another good friend was American theatre producer Charles Frohman, who, having got the Peter Pan play on to the stage, is supposed to have paraphrased a line from the work when turning down a lifeboat seat as RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat: “To die will be an awfully big adventure/ Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure in life”. He did indeed die in the incident.

~ The Peter Pan stage play, novels and films (including, of course, Disney’s much loved 1953 animated effort) popularised the name ‘Wendy’, which before their creation was merely a rare 19th Century name in the United States.

~ Before his death in 1937, Barrie gave the rights to his Peter Pan works and characters to the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London.

Garden feature: Peter playing his pipes in London’s Kensington Gardens

~ The iconic Peter Pan statue that stands in Kensington Gardens was produced by sculptor Sir George Frampton, who was also responsible for the lion figures outside The British Museum in London. Six further casts of the original Peter Pan statue can be found in Liverpool; Brussels; Toronto; Perth, Australia; Camden, New Jersey, USA; and St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.

~ In the early 1960s, Cuban children were sent to Miami to escape – for better or worse – the Castro regime in an initiative called ‘Operation Peter Pan’ and, in the 1980s, the term ‘Peter Pan syndrome’ began to become popular in describing male underdeveloped maturity 

~ And finally, a real retro fact… in 1954 a hugely successful musical version of Peter Pan was staged on Broadway. Running for 152 performances, its two stars Mary Martin (as Peter) and Cyril Ritchard (as Captain Hook/ Mr Darling) both won Tony awards. NBC broadcast the production as telecasts in 1955, 1956 and 1960. The musical was revived in 1979 and 1990 and won Tonys for Best Musical Revival on both occasions. Another revival was rumoured to be in the offing in 2007, but so far hasn’t appeared – however, like he does through Wendy’s bedroom window, you can be assured Peter Pan will always come back…

3 Comments leave one →
  1. The Never Fairy permalink
    May 11, 2010 7:21 am

    Cool. Thanks for posting so much about Barrie and Peter Pan. A word on those sequels – they have mistakes in them as compared to Barrie’s original stories. Yes, even the “official” one. (The prequels out there do, too.) Here are two books to add – a continuation based on Barrie’s own idea for more: Click! And a ‘what-if?’ adventure that charts another course: Click!

  2. May 11, 2010 12:49 pm

    A friend of mine worked on Pan the musical in Sydney. The production was in collaboration with Jim Henson’s workshop, so you can imagine it was quite spectacular. The creatures of Neverland and the dog Nana were all a part of the workshop’s contribution.

    I’ve never shared quite your passion for Pan, however, I must say that this production was fantastic.

  3. May 14, 2010 12:54 am

    Hmmm, interesting, Never Fairy – I’ll have to check out that book you linked to, sounds interesting. Glad you enjoyed my blog!

    And, dublo, I’m sure I would have enjoyed that production you mention – love Jim Henson’s Workshop. Need to get around to blogging about Henson and The Muppets etc one of these days… 😉

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