Imaginative Storytelling Experiences


The stories were like a huge mirror... 
like reflections on a lake
                                                         - Sir Tony Robinson

Excerpt: Notes from the Imaginative Storytelling Experiences Film and Research Project
Producer and Writer 
Faye Miller, PhD

Imaginative Storytelling Experiences is a documentary short film which aims to reveal the shared experiences of a well-respected British writer and performer of imaginative stories and a group of his audience members located across the United Kingdom and Australia, who fondly remember watching his television series as part of their childhood. The programme ‘Tales from Fat Tulip’s Garden’ which originally aired in the 1980s, was highly innovative in its method of stimulating imaginations through semi-improvised imaginary (invisible) characters, and random often whimsical events conjured in viewers’ minds through a surrealist mix of words, sound, camera angles, gestures and a sense of ironic humour.

Interviews and observations made throughout the entire film production process provided insights into how human imaginations are fostered in childhood and beyond, particularly how five elements of this form of storytelling - personas, dreamscapes, relating, improvising, and counter-cultures - are experienced and shared between storyteller and audiences. Identifying these experiences can act as a catalyst to further explore implications for educators, parents, storytellers and researchers.

The concept for the Imaginative Storytelling Experiences project emerged from several interconnected streams of conversation revolving around themes of:

  • Lifelong imagination and creativity development;
  • Absurdist/surrealist satirical creative performing arts; 
  • Finding new ways of communicating science, social science and humanities research for increasing audience impact and engagement with various issues.

These conversations were (and continue to be!) occurring between myself, my family, friends and kindred spirits I have met along my journey of becoming a writer, researcher, educator, performer and film producer.

A significant personal motivation for exploring these themes is to begin to understand how both storytellers and their audiences experience storytelling throughout the human lifespan; stories that are presented in particularly vivid and inspiring ways that not only leave nostalgic imprints on the mind, but also act as a springboard to sustaining creative and investigative prowess beyond natural childhood imaginations.
The Programme: Tales from Fat Tulip’s Garden

The British children’s television show ‘Tales from Fat Tulip’s Garden’ could be described as a curious hidden gem from the mid-1980s. Fat Tulip was first broadcast on the Central Independent Television station in 1985 and ran for two series until late 1987. The programme attracted an enigmatic cult following of both primary school aged children and some parents who watched the show with their children, as well as young adults, film/drama students and educators who were amused and inspired by the programme’s unusuality. The show was conceptualised by drama teacher and writer, Deborah Gates who invited her friend from drama school, Tony Robinson to collaborate with her as the show’s co-writer and sole presenter of the stories.

The show was unusual at the time (and remains unique by today’s standards) as each of the many characters featured in these stories, such as Fat Tulip, Dorian the Dog, Inspector Challenor, Lewis Collins, Jim Morrison, Ernie and Sylv the Frogs, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Fred the Baddy, were energetically and comically portrayed by Robinson himself and thus were not ‘visible’ on screen. This method of audio-visual storytelling, unlike many children’s programmes where characters were either animated, puppet-based or clearly visible in other ways, encouraged the viewer to imagine the characters and their adventures / misadventures based on Robinson’s semi-improvised delivery, choice of wording and lively gestures, added sound effects and quirky music. 

Series one stories were mainly set in and around 'Little Monkhams' and Epping Forest in London, combining the indoor/outdoor settings of an English Tudor-style cottage house (now a 400+ year old heritage house) encircled by a charming, overgrown garden constrasting with the murky woods across the road. Series two saw the characters venturing beyond their usual home to locations such as the muddy seashelled beach at Brighton Pier, England and the town’s public swimming pool.

The show’s innovative style of provoking imaginations was recognised with an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival for most innovative children’s programme. Fat Tulip was also broadcast between 1986-1988 on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) as an after-school children’s programme gaining high ratings in Australia with subsequent reruns throughout the 1990s. Today, the original viewers of the programme are either adults in their 30s, or parents of the original child audience and performing arts students or educators during the 1980s.

Setting: Blending the Physical and Virtual Location

It is important to the note that the overall context of this filmmaking project spanned across both physical and virtual landscapes. The main physical site where interviews and observations took place was Knighton Wood, within Epping Forest in London, England. Knighton Wood was chosen as it was a memorable setting for a number of episodes of the TV programme, as well as a public space that could be easily accessible for filming. Adjacent sites were the remains of ‘Little Monkhams’, where the heritage house and garden featured in the original programme once stood, and Toby Carvery in Buckhurst Hill, where participants met for a debrief over lunch following their interviews. 

The entire production was courageously orchestrated by the Producer based in Australia, with on-site Director, Claire Stevens and the crew/interviewees (based in Cornwall and London, England) across two countries in opposite hemispheres between June 2015-July 2016. This gave the project a virtual dimension of participant interaction with various online touch points such as participant blogs, emails, Skype video calls, pre-recorded videos, online editing software, Google Earth and social media such as Twitter and Facebook.