The Lasting Legacy of JM Barrie and Peter Pan

18 Mar 2015
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When Scotsman James Matthew Barrie scratched the sentence: 'All children, except one, grow up', on to a piece of paper in his house at Bayswater Road, London, he could never have imagined the lasting impression his words would leave.

They form the opening line to Peter Pan: a tale of fairies and pirates which has enchanted children all over the world for more than a century.

First staged at the Duke of York Theatre, London, 27th December 1904, the popularity of Peter Pan sealed Kirriemuir-born Barrie's place in literary history forever.

150 years on from his birth, the world remains captivated, just as Peter stays eternally locked in the magic of childhood.

From Angus to America

When Barrie, son of an Angus weaver, died at the age of 77, he had critical acclaim, a baronetcy, an Order of Merit and an impressive list of works to his name. No single work would be remembered, however, like Peter Pan.

Inspired by the five sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, whom Barrie met while walking his giant St Bernard dog, Porthos, in Kensington Gardens, Peter Pan has been translated into almost 100 languages.

As his hometown of Kirriemuir honoured his anniversary in May with: 'A Celebration of Imagination' Peter Pan played to sell-out audiences in San Francisco, featuring the first ever 360 degree visual projection for live theatre.

A timeless dilemma

One of the reasons for the enduring, global, appeal of Peter Pan is its universal theme.

Whether or not we believe in mischievous flying fairies, canine nannies or ticking crocodiles, none of us except Peter can escape the reality of growing old.

Barrie knew the play's widespread appeal would make for enjoyable drama. He did not appreciate how deeply it would enter global consciousness.

Following the success of the stage drama and novel, Peter Pan became the subject of a silent movie. The 1924 film would be the first of many cinematic versions. At that time, it was rumoured Charlie Chaplin the king of silent cinema would play Peter.

When visiting his former home of London in 1921 from America, Chaplin was asked who he would most like to meet in England. He replied: JM Barrie. Chaplin was not the first to be snared by Barrie's work or his personal charm.

Amongst Barrie's friends were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells and theatre producer, George Frohman. He enjoyed a lengthy correspondence with Robert Louis Stevenson and was the neighbour of George Bernard Shaw. Barrie, too, was one of the last people Captain Robert Falcon Scott wrote to, before perishing on his return from the South Pole.

Peter becomes a Disney star

In his own lifetime, Barrie saw Peter Pan re-enacted in various forms on stage. The coming of the movie era, however, took it to a level almost incomprehensible.

The Walt Disney Animated Classic version of 1953 made over 87 million dollars in revenue. The 1991 Steven Spielberg movie Hook, starring Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams and Julia Roberts took 120 million dollars at the box office.

Script writers have continued to see potential in Barrie's story, and the complex narrative of his own life, beyond the century in which it was written.

The film, Return to Neverland (2002) was a favourite of the late Michael Jackson, inspiring the construction of the singer's Neverland ranch at Santa Barbara. A year later, Jeremy Sumpter won a Saturn award for his leading role in Peter Pan. Finding Neverland with Kate Winslett and Johnny Depp explored Barrie's relationships with the Davies family and won an Academy Award and six Oscar nominations.

Barrie's lasting gift

While Peter Pan the story has continued to delight youngsters the world over, it has also helped in the care of sick infants for over 80 years.

Barrie gifted the rights to Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London in 1929. It still receives royalties from all productions and publications.

"It was an inspired legacy, an amazing gift," admits Christine De Poortere, Peter Pan Director of Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity. "It has been successful, not just in terms of royalties, but as a symbol of the hospital itself."

A bright future for Peter

Today, Peter Pan still inspires new publications, comics, fairground rides and even Nintendo video games. Its adaptations include a live action musical for Belarussian TV. There are seven Peter Pan statues worldwide and three race horses have taken its name. The first phase of a 340,000 project to create a Neverland themed play area in Barrie's hometown of Kirriemuir is underway, ensuring the children of the Little Red Town continue to benefit from their favourite son.

Visitors to Barries hometown are expected to soar in this anniversary year. In Kirriemuir, you can visit the cottage at 9 Brechin Road where the author was born. The adjacent house contains an exhibition and the outside wash-house, supposedly Barries first theatre, still stands. Barrie is buried in Kirriemuir Cemetery and on the scenic Kirriemuir Hill, the pavilion and camera obscura gifted to the town by Barrie in 1930 stands proudly over the Angus countryside a reminder of his time there and his legacy.

Want to know more about JM Barrie?

VisitScotland: Barrie's Birthplace, Kirriemuir

Great Ormand Street Hospital: JM Barrie's legacy

VisitScotland: Things to do in Angus

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