SevenStreets loves hearing about local success stories, and the latest one that pinged onto our radar comes in the form of Wirral-based author, modelmaker and illustrator Daisy Dawes. She was recently snapped up by Maverick Children’s Books to publish debut book Get Ahead Fred: a warmly funny insight into the mind of Fred Milliner, an eccentric hat collector who gets into a bit of bother when the Queen comes to visit.

What makes Get Ahead Fred feel fresh and exciting is its familiar retro vibe – having more in common with the likes of opposable charmers Bagpuss or The Clangers than any polished computer rendered characters. An accomplished creative, having worked on Pingu and Harry Potter, with Get Ahead Fred we think Daisy’s managed to produce something impressively, delightfully unique. We tracked her down for a bit of a chat.

What was it like publishing your first book? Was it as stressful as we always hear it is?

I love creating and making characters, as well as the worlds they live in. I’ve always enjoyed what I do so it wasn’t stressful at all – quite the opposite.

Children’s books like this often get made into TV shows or films. Is that something you’ve thought about?

A lot of my inspiration comes from TV programmes I enjoyed as a child, the likes of The Magic Roundabout, Bagpuss and Morph. Stop motion has magical appeal. It’s charming. I do appreciate the role of CGI, it can be an extremely effective storytelling medium, but I’m the first to admit I have one foot – some would say both feet – rooted firmly in the past when it comes to animation. I worked with animator Rob Birchall to create some short films for Fred (above and below). Fred loves the limelight, so I’m sure he’d be delighted to be on TV.

Daisy Dawes, Fred Milliner
You’ve got a pretty strong background in animation and modelmaking, haven’t you?

I graduated in animation, where I specialised in model making. During my third year I worked at Aardman Animation in Bristol, home of Wallace and Gromit. The studio was an incredible workplace filled with very talented people, a place where imagination knew no bounds, where anything was possible as long as you had enough balsa wood and plaster. I made props for children’s TV show Pingu, which was made just down the road at Hot Animation in Altrincham.

I was hired by Warner Bros to work on the set of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Every day I would travel into work, past the animal actors enclosure giving a nod to Hedwig up the long drive to Leavesden Studios which was teeming with witches and wizards. My long days were spent inside and around the scale model of the school, which filled an aircraft hangar, teetering on scaffolding fitting tiny stained-glass windows.

Working on my own projects brings a great sense of satisfaction – seeing something that I have created from scratch on the shelf of my local library is incredible.

Fred Milliner, Get Ahead Fred
Was a children’s book a natural progression for you? Which came first, the storyline or Fred?

My stories aren’t intended specifically for children – like a lot of film and animation they’re intended to appeal to all ages. Over the years I’ve written quite a few rhyming stories with the intention of turning them into animated films.

Sadly there seems to be a decline in stop-motion animation in the UK – maybe due to a rise in CGI -and studios began to close their doors. I’m a great believer in the magic of stop-motion and one day I had my eureka moment – why not combine my two passions for storytelling and model making? I decided to illustrate one of my rhyming stories with models – like a cast of mini poseable actors. Then Fred was born!

Fred’s a rather cool little chap. How long did it take you to create him?

The actual model of Fred was designed and made within a couple of weeks. I always knew in my head what he would look like – thin, dapper, slightly vacant. Just joking, Fred! I had committed some designs to paper and set about making the model using traditional stop-motion puppet making techniques. Making the hats was great fun – the trickiest ones were the trilby and the turban. His crowning glory was a fetching pancake hat complete with cascades of maple syrup.

In your book, Fred’s a bit of a hat collector. Now the summer’s arrived, what do you think Fred would approve of?

A bit of a hat collector is putting it mildly. Since his run-in with the Queen he has been quietly building up his collection again, and his hatstand is groaning. Due to the hot weather he recently acquired an Egyptian self-cooling hat, which employs irrigation methods of the ancient pharaohs to combat heat fatigue. Very handy on the allotment.

Where do you feel most inspired?

When I’m not in the studio I like to take inspiration from the sea and the river. I’m lucky enough to live by both, so I like to walk along the prom, sit in the park or on the beach with my sketchbooks. In town I usually choose somewhere like the Everyman Bistro – it has a good atmosphere whether you’re meeting people or working alone.

Any plans for a sequel, or are you leaving Fred behind on your next book?

I’ve some really exciting projects on the go – journeys under the sea, to outer space, filled with music, dance, light and shade… and some very unusual yet wonderful characters. Watch this space!

Get Ahead Fred, published by Maverick Children’s Books, is available in all good bookshops and online.

Fred Milliner is also on Facebook.

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