Affectionately remembered as light nightmare fodder, Round the Twist is as deep-rooted in Australia's pop cultural landscape as they come. Ask your friends which episode they recall most vividly ("Scarecrow clown!" "Scale hands!" "Fish willy!") and you'll send them headlong into a state of childhood trauma, albeit steeped in mushy nostalgia.
The series, which debuted in 1989, centered on the eccentric exploits of the Twist family, who lived in a lighthouse where ghosts played trad-jazz in the attic. It peddled such vibrant motifs as defecation, urination, childbirth, death, toilet-ghosts, necromancy and then some—all in the after-school slot on Australia's national broadcaster.
We spoke to children's author Paul Jennings about Round the Twist's surprisingly personal origins, his own childhood fears, and why he set the series in a lighthouse when (apparently) you can't actually live in a lighthouse.
BROADLY: I have such vivid memories of watching Round the Twist, as most Australians my age do. Its legacy is so incredibly strong. Does it still touch your life?
Paul Jennings: Looking back over all these years, it was obviously really huge for me. About two years ago I was invited to do a panel session; I wasn't sure how many people we'd get or what would happen, but it's probably the most moving event that I've been to. It wasn't children who came to it. It was the people who were children that watched Round the Twist and read my books.
How did that feel?
It was such an incredibly warm, nostalgic feeling in the room. It was a feeling of love, really. So I am aware, and I'm very proud, that it did have an effect on so many people's lives.
I got a letter from a child psychiatrist once, going off at me.
Was it hard to get Round the Twist made?
Anything that's a bit different is very hard to get up. People don't like things that are different, and when you're putting a lot of money into a TV show or a book, people want it to be like what's already out there.
One of the things I wrote in the publicity material for Round the Twist was, "There's never been anything like this before!" They said, "Nah, nah, you can't say that! Nobody will put any money in." If you were trying to get it made today, it'd still be difficult.
What's distinctly Australian about Round the Twist?
It was very Aussie on purpose. Our country is worth writing stories about and making TV shows about. I still feel strongly about that.
We've got a particular sense of humor in Australia—irreverent, taking the Mickey out of people, nicknames. This ironic sense of humor, it's probably closer to English than American, but it does reflect our way of talking and laughing.
As a kid, I didn't understand that its Australian-ness was what I loved. But looking back, I see now how important it was to hear our accents and see our landscapes.
That is really important. Going back earlier, Skippy was very Australian and very popular. I remember watching it with my own children.
Originally I wanted Round the Twist to be set at The Twelve Apostles, which is not far from where I live in Victoria. It's magnificent scenery, internationally known, with rugged, wild coastline. They said, "No, you can't have it there. There's no lighthouse." I said, "We could build a fake one?" But they moved it closer to Melbourne. Still on the Great Ocean Road though.
How did the lighthouse setting come about?
I was living on the edge of a cliff by the ocean in a very old house. Originally I bought the house fifty miles inland on a farm and had it transported in three pieces on trucks, then set it up in a wild part of the coast down here.
The opening scene of Round the Twist was originally [inspired by] that house. I had planned for the characters to be sitting around the table having a meal, and a signpost goes by, then another sign-post goes by, and you realise the house is moving. But the director said to me, "It's too expensive to move a house for just one episode. Think of something else."
So I thought of a lighthouse. I thought: There haven't been many stories about people who live in a lighthouse. In fact, I did a bit of research and there are hardly any lighthouses that people have actually lived inside. [Author's note: Round the Twist definitely convinced me it's possible to live in a lighthouse.]
In some ways Linda's stronger than Pete, who's more emotionally vulnerable.
Now people visit that lighthouse on little Round the Twist pilgrimages.
People do go there especially. It's actually in a street with houses, but it was meant to be out in the wild, so they had to put bushes in front of the houses.
The magic of TV. I always loved the character Linda—what shaped her?
I've got a daughter, Linda, and I've got a stepson, Bronson. I don't have a Pete but he was sort of based on me as a kid. I like to think that the father was based on me, and that this little family was similar to us in its members and attitudes.
Linda, my real daughter, is feisty, politically correct, against racism and misogyny. I based Linda very much on her, and I wanted her to be a strong character in her own right. In some ways she's stronger than Pete, who's more emotionally vulnerable. That's where Linda came from. My kids have always appeared in disguise in my books.
So that's why the Twists are a single-parent family, with the dad raising the kids?
I was a single parent, living on the edge of a cliff by the ocean in a very old house, alone with my kids for a couple of years. Tony Twist is a nice man. He's a bit different—a sculptor. He's panicky but wise, in a way.
My daughters came round the other day. They're all in their forties now. They were having a go at me and I said, "Do you think I'm odd?" and they said, "Come on! Of course you are." I made Tony a bit odd, but his kids loved him and he loved them.
I didn't sit down and think, "I'll write something where a parent's died." I actually do it unconsciously and it's probably related to some childhood things.
I wanted to ask how you maintain a child's headspace to speak to them in your writing, but now I think that's inaccurate. Maybe the key to your work is that you don't underestimate what kids can appreciate?
Do you think my stories treat children as if they're more perceptive than what most people would?
Yeah, more perceptive, and more receptive to themes we shelter kids from. Round the Twist didn't shelter kids. 'Grandad's Gifts' was my favourite episode because it was confronting but touching.
It's interesting to think about that. Children do feel things; they do worry their parents are going to die.
What were you scared of as a child?
I was terrified of the notion of 'mad' people. I remember walking home from Cubs one night—I would have been about seven or eight—with an older boy. He said to me, "There's such a thing as Full Moon Murderers." I'd always felt fairly safe from being murdered: I'm only a kid. Who'd want to murder me? I haven't got any money.
He said, "Full Moon Murderers, they just go mad and murder people." I looked up and said, "It's only half a moon." He said, "There's Half Moon Murderers too," then walked up the driveway of his house. And I had to walk home on my own.
Did that kind of thing influence your writing?
When you write for children, you don't want to terrify them. But at the same time, if they're feeling something, maybe we can address that. I got a letter from a child psychiatrist once, going off at me because I wrote a story called Without A Shirt—the episode that became 'Without My Pants'—which was set in a cemetery. He said, "I was reading your story about the boy who looks out onto the cemetery."
Well, it's based on the cemetery in Warrnambool, which you can drive past every day, and see every single gravestone from the road. I wrote back to him and said, "What sort of psychiatrist are you? You're gonna pretend people don't die?"
So I address those themes in a funny way. Almost to say, "It's alright."
How has your writing evolved over time?
Well, originally I wrote a lot of short stories. About 80 percent of them were funny, but amongst them I always put a couple of serious stories in. Some people liked those better. The more serious stories always touched me, like Grandad's Gifts [which became S2E8].
I have an evolving view about where stories come from; I've been thinking and reading about the role of the unconscious mind. I think that's why I keep writing these single parents, and the separation of the parent and the child.
Jung said there are "psychological" books, where the person sets out to teach a lesson, and there are... I think he said 'intuitive' books, which come from individual and collective unconscious. Where you're tapping into something quite deep. That's the direction I'm going in now.
Have you ever seen a ghost?
I've never been asked that before. I suppose one way the answer is "Yes", and the other way, the answer is "No."
I can think of two experiences that people might think was a ghost: Once, three nights in a row, I woke up and saw this spectre next to my bed. I had my eyes open. The first night, it was a really scary, horrible face. The second night, it was the same thing, but not quite as scary. The third night, it was this pathetic, skinny, weak presence. I said, "Buzz off!" and it went [deflating noise] "Wuuuuuh," and disappeared.
I told a psychologist about this and he said, "It was probably a projection of your own mind," which is probably the answer for that.
The other time I've had anything like that was when I went back to England, and went for the first time to Great Yarmouth, where my mother was born and lived. She'd been dead for a long, long time. One of her relatives, who I'd never met before, put me up in his house, in a room up the top. I was in bed, and I woke up and heard this voice like my mother's saying, "I love you."
If you asked me, "Was that a real voice?" I'd say "Yes". But once again, maybe it's some sort of projection.
I am very interested in the unconscious mind, and what comes to our attention through dreams and other ways. Things that we don't know about but we should.