In a few days’ time, actor Tam Dean Burn will embark on an epic journey around Scotland, cycling through towns and cities to deliver all 195 of Julia Donaldson’s stories, songs and plays to children and young people.
But when I call Burn at the pre-arranged time to ask about his venture, I’m told he’s out running. “Shouldn’t you be out cycling?” I enquire, on his return. “Well,” he says, “I found an outdoor gym in the park with a cycling bit, and that’s what distracted me.”
Fair enough; building up to such a mammoth task is an important part of the process. Yet at the age of 55, Burn is, he tells me, “in very good nick – I’m probably the fittest I’ve ever been in my life, which is incredible”.
Burn’s physical shape is due in part to running, cycling and spinning classes he’s been attending. But it’s also down to the effort required to keep up with a toddler – Burn’s three-year-old daughter, Morgan, who, in her own small way, also influenced his decision to take on the challenge.
“Reading stories has become part of my life because of Morgan,” he says. “And I remember reading to my son, who is now 27, and sending him homemade audio books that I would record when I was away working.”
Although a marked departure from Burn’s usual theatrical and TV output, both cycling and storytelling have featured in his career of late. The National Theatre of Scotland’s Last Polar Bear toured the country on bicycles, while his expressive tones were heard on a London radio station reading the entire works of William Blake, and have lulled many an audiobook listener into a state of fear through the works of Irvine Welsh.
There are few comparisons to be drawn between Trainspotting and The Gruffalo, however, prompting Burn to worry about how little ones might receive him. “I was a bit concerned that other children, beyond Morgan, might be a bit scared of me,” he laughs. “But it’s quite nice that I’ve got a slight edge, and I do tend to be able to get them to sit nicely and listen to me without any scolding.”
You only have to hear the warmth in his voice when he talks about taking stories to deprived areas to know that this is a true labour of love. “It definitely brings out the best in me,” he says. “I really do love it – just seeing the effect these types of stories have on children.”
Burn’s ability to hold the attention of a crowd of youngsters has been honed at the Children’s Wood in Glasgow’s West End – an area of community ground currently threatened with development. Donaldson, too, has been supportive of the Wood’s campaign, and it was there Burn discovered the enormity of the author’s back catalogue.
Loved by children across the world, Glasgow-based Donaldson is best known for her popular storybooks, The Gruffalo, Stick Man, Room on the Broom and several other best-selling titles. But she has also written phonic books to help children read; songs, plays and novels for teenagers, which Burn hopes to read to young people in hospital, en route.
Some of Donaldson’s books have made it on to the stage in full-scale productions, so to avoid treading on any toes, Burn can only do a straightforward reading of the books, without any staging. However, he will be accompanied by Del Amitri’s Andy Alston on accordion and flautist Emma Schad (Tam’s partner and mother to Morgan).
“I had to be careful on that score,” says Burn. “The agreement with the companies that tour Julia’s work is that I can’t theatricalise it. So that keeps it nice and simple, and by and large, they’ll be fairly intimate readings. I’m keen to do as many outdoor as possible – because that’s what I’m used to at the Children’s Wood, and it works so well.”
Burn’s journey around Scotland will follow the route of the Queen’s Baton Relay, stopping off at schools, village halls, shopping centres, parks, libraries and many more locations yet to be confirmed. The fact that all the sessions are free means they can pitch up just about anywhere and deliver a story.
But like the baton itself, which is being carried by runners in some places, languishing in the back of a van the rest of the time, Burn will also rely on motorised transport.
“I gave myself a slight get-out clause,” he says. “We’ll have a camper van, and Andy will join us in his car. I’ll be cycling as much as I can, but there will be big distances we’ll have to cover in the camper van.”
As for getting through all 195 of Donaldson’s works, well, that’s a well-intentioned hope, rather than a cast-iron guarantee. “It’s all an endeavour and it’s all a challenge,” says Burn. “If I don’t quite succeed, there you go. But I’ll do my best.”
• Tam Dean Burn’s Marathon Storytelling Cycle Challenge begins at the Children’s Wood, Glasgow, 13 June; Craigmillar Library and Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, 14 June, and many more venues. See www.booksonabike.com for daily updates.