Meet bad Barry, author Rachel Bellman’s penguin detective

Barry The Penguin

Barry The Penguin - Credit: Archant

The West Hampstead novelist has adapted a musical into a children’s book with its creator Lesley Ross, finds Zoe Paskett.

Most teenagers are busy socialising with friends and dodging homework, but Rachel Bellman had completed her first novel by the age of 13 without even telling her parents.

“I was always writing. The first thing I wrote was a fantasy novel when I was 11. I tried to get it published but it was way too long: about 220,000 words.”

Sitting on her bed, writing a page a day on bits of paper, her parents didn’t get wind of her literary efforts until she asked them for envelopes.

“I wanted to send it to literary agents. I got a couple of replies from people who wanted to read a chapter, but they said ‘no’ when they’d read it. One of them told me to get back in touch when I was 18.”

Born and raised in West Hampstead, Bellman attended North London Collegiate School, which has produced such notable literary alumni as Gillian Cross (The Demon Headmaster) and Valerie Mendes (Girl in the Attic).

Now at 23, she has adapted a musical; Barry the Penguin’s Black and White Christmas (Matador £9.99)into a children’s book, in collaboration with its creator Lesley Ross.

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It tells the story of a penguin detective who enlists a Christmas-phobic little girl called Phoebe to rescue Father Christmas from the evil Bedbug Queen.

The book is based on an original stage musical written by Ross and John Victor for Perfect Pitch, a not-for-profit theatre company.

It is illustrated by Matt Rowe and accompanied by an audio CD narrated by Archway-based actor Christopher Ecclestone with a West End cast performing the music and characters.

Ecclestone says: “This book is great fun, a mad and humorous adaptation of an original new musical. It has been an absolute pleasure to be part of this unique project and I look forward to seeing it on the stage one day.”

Bellman became involved with Perfect Pitch while studying English at Oxford University. After doing work experience there, she started work on graduating in 2013. The opportunity to adapt Barry came earlier this year.

“We came up with the idea to write the book as a way to spread the word about it in the hope that it would create interest for producers to get it on stage.”

The musical had been in development at Perfect Pitch for a few years, but the company struggled to get it staged because most theatres preferred pantomimes to original stories.

No longer working with Perfect Pitch, she is nevertheless helping boost its profile with the help of her dad, a paediatrician at the Royal Free.

They’ve organised a reading of the book by Ross at the hospital with Barry himself arriving to greet children and have a sing-a-long on December 3.

Bellman is currently working on a musical of her own called Flower Cutters, a coming of age crime thriller about university students who get involved in the black market flower industry.

Is this story built on her own experience?

“Definitely not. I took a trip to Kew Gardens to investigate because I had heard that people try to steal flowers from there. I didn’t realise black market flower selling was really a thing until I came up with the idea and started researching it.”

Working on the side as a lyricist and with another novel in the pipeline, Bellman is certainly keeping busy.