Edinburgh Fringe: Explaining why I'll be on stage in Gruffalo show involves a 50-year love story – Malcolm Donaldson

If you come to see Julia Donaldson’s show at the Fringe, you may wonder why a consultant paediatrician is on stage dressed as a ringmaster.

For the answer, I need to take you back more than half a century ago to Bristol University when my roommate, Colin Sell, was providing the music for a play. The cast were acting as trees, and I noticed the soulful, dark-haired tree stage right. She was called Julia and was studying drama and French.

Later Colin suggested we joined Julia and their friend Maureen to sing and play in the pubs during rag week. The combination of two girls with short skirts and excellent voices, Colin’s piano and my guitar, strongly influenced by The Who, went down well. Julia and Maureen were sent to Paris as part of their course and I announced I would come out and join them busking.

In July 1969, in Paris and then Avignon, we sang Beatles numbers and songs from the musical Hair in the streets, collecting francs in a battered straw hat. We talked endlessly in cafés, mercilessly parodied the French, slept in fields, sang in the Avignon festival. I remained utterly unworldly. “Is there some grass in town?” asked an American tourist. “Yes, there’s a nice park round the corner,” I said helpfully.

Julia and I didn’t know it then, but we would be together for the rest of our lives. Quite subconsciously, I had fallen in love with her in France. Back in Bristol, we became even closer.

Whilst I was studying medicine, I loved to act. One evening in December, Julia was sitting with me during a break in rehearsals for Chekhov’s “The Bear”. As the boorish Smirnov, I kissed Elena Popova, acted by a mutual friend.

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“Would you like to hold me and give me a kiss like you just did with Jo?” asked Julia. It hit me then and there that we were both in love, nothing subconscious now. I was terrified.

Malcolm Donaldson, dressed as a ringmaster, in The Gruffalo, the Giant and the Mermaid (Picture: Paul Blakemore)

What if we got together, then broke up? The thought was unbearable. But when you’re only 20, the thought of spending the rest of your lives together is huge. It took me a few weeks to commit but after I did, there was no going back. We celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary this year.

We all had the feeling Julia would be famous one day as an actress. When she didn’t get into Bristol Old Vic school in 1970 and realised the itinerant life of an actor wouldn’t suit our partnership, we turned to more singing.

Julia started to write songs for occasions: dentists’ dinners, the Battersea Park Easter parade, the Crystal Palace children’s day. This prompted her to send a tape of songs to the BBC. By the time I was working as a casualty senior house officer in Brighton in 1973, she was writing to order for children’s programmes like Play School and Play Away.

I would stagger home after few hours’ sleep at the hospital and help a bit with the chords to songs Julia had written only hours before. We started performing in folk clubs, for which Julia wrote prolifically, songs about Guy Fawkes, urban foxes, tattooists, Action Man and Sindy Doll.

By 1978, the year our first son Hamish was born, I’d become a trainee paediatrician. Although I enjoyed general medicine and adored geriatrics, I felt I couldn’t live without the extraordinary range that child health offers, from care of newborns to young adults. As Julia put it, “Malcolm looks after their bodies and I feed their minds”.

When we moved to Glasgow in 1989, Julia was writing songs for educational programmes like “Thinkabout Science”. Within 72 hours of a request for a song about smelly socks or going to the moon, she would have written excellent lyrics and tune.

Surely now, I thought, the producers would realise they’d hit gold and things would snowball. But nothing seemed to happen; one thing didn’t lead to another, and by 1991-92, work was drying up. We could have wallpapered a room with letters of rejection of her pitches.

After the tears and rejections, Julia received a letter asking if a song she’d written called “Squash A and a Squeeze” could be made into a picture book. Providentially, the third choice of illustrator was a little-known German artist called Axel Scheffler. Julia now realised the songs, which were like fireworks, a quick blaze, then gone, could be channelled into picture books. It was also the beginning of an extraordinary partnership with Axel which continues to this day.

Julia and Axel’s ship came in with the publication of The Gruffalo in 1999. Within a couple of years, we were acting and singing in 500-seater tents at book festivals. I found that when families came to see me in the growth clinic, some wanted to talk more about Julia’s books than their health problems.

Some had difficulty with the mismatch between seeing me in clinic being reasonably serious, and watching me cavort about on stage acting Julia’s book characters, including a role that involved stripping to a string vest and spotty boxers. I wouldn’t do this item within 40 miles of Glasgow.

It's now ten years since I retired from the children’s hospital in Glasgow, but I am still active in research, writing and teaching. My journey with Julia as a fellow performer continues; we’re doing the Edinburgh Fringe again this year, a show called The Gruffalo, The Giant and The Mermaid.

The wider journey carries on too. Our life together is akin to walking along a road in all weathers, good and bad. We’ve lost Hamish to mental illness and suicide, been blessed with nine grandchildren. Julia has dealt uncomplainingly with slowly progressive hearing loss. We walk, identify flowers and fungi, lose our house keys, put our electronic car key card in the washing machine, take on too much, don’t manage the work/life balance that well.

We are blessed.

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