Remembering Terry Pratchett… and looking towards the future

Terry Pratchett

© Rob Wilkins

Last night, the Barbican Theatre in London was filled with people for the Sir Terry Pratchett Memorial, gathering (obviously) to celebrate the life of Sir Terry Pratchett. The theatre holds over 1,000 people, and demand for the tickets outstripped supply by more than five times! I was one of the very lucky people to be selected for a ticket, and I can honestly say it was a great honour to be there.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the memorial of such a man as Sir Terry. It’s still a hugely sad thing that he’s gone, but with his amazing wit and constant poking fun at the reality (as well as the character) of death, it couldn’t be an entirely sombre affair, could it? Definitely not… the evening was a glorious mix of sadness and humour, alternating between moments that had me sitting with tears in my eyes and then laughing out loud.

Discworld statue

The Discworld Knight, by Paul Kidby

The memorial began with a montage of Sir Terry’s books passing through a life-timer, while chamber choir The Epiphoni Consort sang a beautiful rendition of Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis.

Sir Terry’s assistant, business manager, and friend Rob Wilkins took a leading role throughout the evening, sharing amusing anecdotes (often at his own expense) and touching stories from his time working with the man himself. It was very obvious at times that Rob didn’t just have a working relationship with Sir Terry, but a real friendship as well.

There were contributions from Sir Terry’s daughter, Rhianna, who read a eulogy she wrote in The Observer, and Neil Gaiman who read the introduction he had written for A Slip of the Keyboard. Again, both of these had us (I say “us” because they seemed to affect me and the group of people around me in much the same way) alternately smiling at some amusing recollection, then sniffling at the shared sense of loss. A big “lump in the throat” moment came when, at the end of Neil Gaiman’s contribution, Rob asked him to stay on stage for a moment and presented him with Terry’s hat! I’m serious when I say there were gasps, and even Neil looked a bit thunderstruck.

Larry Finlay, MD of Transworld Publishers, shared his experience of publishing Sir Terry’s books, including his reports on which bookshops did the best signings, and which hotels were the best to stay in. Apparently he had a star system of bookshops, ranging from those that had no idea how to stage a signing (1 star) up to those who did exceptionally well (4+ stars). No bookshop ever got 5 stars, although Neil Gaiman did reveal there was one that ended up with zero when the number of people wanting Sir Terry and Neil’s autographs far exceeded what they expected… and the staff locked themselves in the back of the shop in a panic!

Sir Tony Robinson, who I hadn’t realised was such a captivating speaker, read a lovely piece written by Sir Terry called “A little advice for life”. The advice can perhaps be summed up like this: Squeeze every little bit of goodness out of life while you can. Enjoy it. Discover your passion, and go for it.

Bernard Pearson, one of the founders of Clarecraft (remember those little Discworld figurines that were out during the ’90s?) and Dr Pat Harkin (lecturer in pathology at the University of Leeds) came onstage together to share a fun collection of memories of Sir Terry’s many phone calls… often to ask things like, “How much force would it take to pull a man’s head off?” or on matters of police procedure. There’s always a danger that things like this can become quite maudlin, but Bernard and Pat intertwined their memories of Sir Terry with stories about each other as fans of his work… and with a few jokes just for the sake of it.

Coming back to music for a moment, there were two spots by folk-rock band Steeleye Span, who played at one of Sir Terry’s birthday parties and produced an album based on the Wintersmith Discworld novel! They performed brilliantly, singing Thomas the Rhymer, The Making of a Man, and The Dark Morris. I had never heard them before then, although I had heard of them, and they really were fantastic. What made it extra special, though, was knowing the band had a genuine association with Terry… they weren’t just the entertainment, they were part of the tribute. It was particularly touching to learn that lead vocalist Maddy Prior had sung by Sir Terry’s bedside towards the end of his life.

Three of Sir Terry’s editors, Philippa Dickinson, Jennifer Brehl and Anne Hoppe gave us some small insight into what it was like trying to edit his work. Philippa told us that, when she suggested a change, there would be a pause… followed by a sigh… sometimes followed by, “Well, I suppose I could make things really clear for the hard of thinking”. In one case she suggested a change which Sir Terry was at first reluctant to do, and when he came round to her point of view she asked him, “So, does that mean I was right after all?” The reply? “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far”!

Anne Hoppe’s words really hit home when she spoke about how Sir Terry was pleased to know some people had been influenced by his writing to produce books of their own. It meant that, when the torch was finally dropped, someone else would pick it up and carry it forward into the future.

The Future

So, the future. There were some big announcements made! Firstly, the creation of the Order of the Honeybee… members of which were selected by Sir Terry and were those who had had a significant impact on his life. Each was to be presented with a custom-made piece of jewellery in the form of a honeybee and, of course the “queen bee” of the order is Sir Terry’s daughter, Rhianna.

Then were was a number of quick-fire announcements about projects that are upcoming. There may not be any new Discworld stories, but the franchise is far from dead. So what’s to come?

  • The creation of a Sir Terry Pratchett Scholarship between the University of South Australia and Trinity College Dublin, to run in perpetuity.
  • A biography of Sir Terry, written by Rob Wilkins. Rob suggested the title could be “The Write Fantastic”, although he did say that was just a mockup and a bit of a joke for the evening. Still, it has a nice ring to it!
  • The Discworld Encyclopaedia – again, we were shown a mocked up cover for this that suggested the first volume would be titled “Death”, but it sounds like it could be a while coming. Rob told us, “When will you get to see this? Well, we don’t know, because we don’t know when we’re going to start it!” You’ll understand why he might have trouble scheduling it in when you see the rest of this list!
  • The Discworld Colouring Book, featuring the art of Paul Kidby and adapted by the artist himself for colouring in.
  • Wee Free Men will be adapted for screen by Rhianna Pratchett! This is a great story, and I’m looking forward to finding out more about this. There were no details of whether it will be a movie or a TV release, but more details will be revealed at the San Diego Comic-Con.
  • Mort! The first Discworld book I ever read! It’s going to be adapted for the big screen by none other than Terry Rossio! Who? He’s only the 2nd highest grossing screenplay writer in the world after George Lucas. Seriously, look him up on IMDB and you’ll be sure to have seen his work.
  • The Troll-Bridge fan film is still in production (actually post-production) and from the shots we saw looks like it’s going to be amazing.
  • A brief glimpse of an Anhk-Morpork City Watch helmet on screen was the jumping off point for information that the rumoured police procedural The Watch is still in the pipeline, which I’m very excited about.
  • There will be a BBC documentary (the 4th in the trilogy of Living with Alzheimers, Choosing to Die, and Facing Extinction… yes, they really did say it was the 4th in the trilogy) about Sir Terry’s last days, including conversations with Rob Wilkins and at least some footage from last night’s memorial. We saw some of the conversational footage, and I found it quite difficult to watch. You could see Sir Terry was starting to struggle a bit, but his character did shine through.
  • Right, this one is huge, and I’m going to write a bit about this. The screen showed Good Omens… everybody cheered. Rob said he had asked Neil Gaiman to write the screenplay, to which Neil said (and Neil said this bit himself), “Absolutely not”. Cue a slight slump in the audience. Rob makes a show of trying to convince Neil there and then, to which Neil replies that he can’t because he and Sir Terry had an agreement that Good Omens was an entirely joint affair. Everything they did was to be done together, even down to producing little bookmarks. So, for that reason, the answer is “No”. You know what? I could respect that. I would be sad about it, but I could respect it. Then Rob tells us that’s not the end of the story; that Sir Terry had in fact prepared a letter to Neil asking him to adapt Good Omens for screen in his absence! Long story short, Good Omens will be adapted for screen by Neil Gaiman! Details were a bit short beyond that. I’m not sure if he was serious or not, but Neil did say, “Can we tell them it’s a 6 part TV adaptation?” Time will tell if that was a red herring or not, but YAY! [I have left this story as originally reported, but it seems I (and others) picked it up wrongly – please see this post for clarification]
  • The last announcement was a little bittersweet, but actually quite comforting. It was this: There will be no more Discworld novels. Sir Terry didn’t want there to be more after he had died, and his family and business colleagues feel the same way. There are, in fact, up to ten unfinished novels… and these will be locked away and left alone. Why is that comforting? Well, because I don’t think another author could do them justice, and simply because it’s nice to see the Disc is in the hands of people who will respect Sir Terry’s wishes.

Terry Pratchett Memorial goody bag Last thing… I promise. If you’ve read this far, well done! There was a goody bag on every seat in the theatre; a lovely black tote bag which contained a packet of hankies (because tears were more than possible!), a bottle of “Ankh Water”, a box of Dried Frog Pills (boy am I glad they didn’t look in that bag when I came through airport security on the way home), an envelope of postcards, a beautiful lilac ribbon/badge, and a commemorative book containing Rhianna, Neil, and Sir Tony’s contributions, as well as an introduction from Rob and some of Terry’s own pieces. They are really nice mementos, and I can tell you they will be treasured.

And here we are; nearing the end. I didn’t intend to write so much, but there was so much to process. The evening was something of an emotional rollercoaster… sadness, laughter, meeting people of like-mind. I am very glad, honoured even, that I was given the opportunity to be there.

OK… last thing. Yes, I said that earlier, but I mean it this time. We ended with a video message from Eric Idle, the voice of Rincewind in the first Discworld video game, who started us off in a mass-singalong supported again by The Epiphoni Consort:

…always look on the bright side of life…

Thanks for all the fun Terry, and the thoughtful moments. You’re sorely missed.

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