Christopher Toyne Interview by Rick Bleiweiss
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to present—in celebration of Winnie the Pooh Day—an exclusive interview with Emmy® Award recipient Christopher Toyne, the producer of the Complete Works of Winnie-the-Pooh. Christopher, also an actor and director, has appeared in multiple world premiere feature films, most recently in Cell Count and in several television shows, including TNT’s Leverage and The Real Roseanne Show with Roseanne Barr. As a voice actor, Christopher can be heard in spots for PBS, NPT, OPB, Microsoft, Adobe, Nike, Intel, and numerous others. Conducting the interview is Grammy-nominated producer Rick Bleiweiss. He is a former senior executive in the music and entertainment industry and is also a published writer. Rick is currently strategic advisor to Blackstone Audio as part of the senior management team. Blackstone Audio distributes the audio version of the Complete Works of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, read by Peter Dennis.
RICK BLEIWEISS: Welcome, Christopher. Thank you for joining us today.
CHRISTOPHER TOYNE: It’s a pleasure to talk with you again. We have a fairly long relationship in the music business.
RB: Yes we do, but now we’re not talking about the music business. We’re talking about Winnie-the-Pooh. January 18 is Winnie the Pooh Day. Do you know how that originated?
CT: I looked into this. The easy answer is that it is the birthday of Alan Alexander Milne, who was born on January 18, 1882, 131 years ago. I don’t know whether this was set up by Disney, which would be acceptable—the Walt Disney Company has many of the rights to the characters of Winnie the Pooh—or if it just transpired through history as the birthdate of Alan Alexander Milne. Nobody quite knows how it started.
RB: One of the reasons we’re talking is that you produced the Complete Works of Winnie-the-Pooh. What was that experience like?
CT: Serendipitous? Sheer good luck? There’s a rather charming backstory to all of this. Peter Dennis, who was an old friend of mine—an actor friend in London—had a little one-man show called Bother: The Works of Winnie-the-Pooh. Anna Strasberg, who was Lee Strasberg’s famous theater teacher, and who carried on running the Lee Strasberg Center after her husband died, invited Peter Dennis to showcase Bother. I went, and a few charming angels—theater angels in LA—came. It was so charming that I booked the Coronet Theater, got Peter his H1 Artist of Outstanding Merit visa, and we put on the show. Now, this is pre-Internet, so the only way you could advertise a show in those days was in the LA Times. It was very expensive and you were pretty much doomed the day you opened a small show, which was probably going to close fairly soon (laughs). About four weeks into the run, a guy called Doctor Don Richardson came in. He was doing a little series called Behind the Scenes on KCRW, and he did a half hour on Bother: The Complete Works of Winnie-the-Pooh. The following day, we were sold out. Every seat sold. The day after that, we were sold out. Third day, we were back to the twenty-two people who turned up. Almost the second to last day, a woman called Jacqueline [Deloria] came in. She said, “It’s so charming. Would you record these stories for KCRW, for National Public Radio?” I said, “Oh, I don’t think so. No. I think the Walt Disney Company owns all mechanical rights.” She said, “Oh, how sad.” But extraordinarily, my wife, Esther Ewert—you know her as Bunny—was working at Disney with a lawyer from England, Michael Brown, who was an attorney for the estates, the A.A. Milne, E. H. Shepard Estates. I happened to meet him at a dinner and I asked him, “By the way, Michael, is there any way we could record the words of Winnie-the-Pooh?” He said, “I don’t see why not.” I asked, “You sure that Disney doesn’t own them?” He said, “No. Disney never bought the stories. They only bought the right to the characters.” In fact, to this day, anything that Walt Disney Company does is a parallel to the twenty stories. They’re not allowed to use the twenty stories, which is why, in America, when you see the Walt Disney Company call it Winnie the Pooh, it’s written, “Winnie the Pooh,” but the real Winnie-the-Pooh is very proud of his hyphens. So Blackstone Audio and our recordings are allowed to use his original and real name, Winnie-hyphen-the-hyphen-Pooh. And that’s how it all started. We got the rights and we went into KCRW. Richard Branson—another bit of serendipity— was just beginning to fly Virgin Atlantic into Los Angeles that month that we were recording these, and he paid for the recording studio for us. And Ted Turner has a ranch with black bears, so I got hold of Ted and asked, “Hey, have you got any money to spare? Just a little project we’re doing at the studios of National Public Radio in LA. We’re going to record all the works of Winnie-the-Pooh.” He threw in enough money for them to build studios. So KCRW Drama Studio was built on the back of Winnie-hyphen-the-hyphen-Pooh.
RB: I wanted to relate a quote that Christopher Robin Milne said, and I quote: “Peter Dennis has made himself Pooh’s ambassador extraordinaire and no bear has ever had a more devoted friend. So if you want to meet the real Pooh, the bear I knew, the bear my father wrote about, listen to Peter. You will not be disappointed.” That’s quite the endorsement, Christopher.
CT: I can attest to its validity, because I was there when he said it. Christopher Milne was a dear friend of Peter’s long before I got to know him, and Peter had done a number of readings in England. He read at the London Zoo when a statue of the original Winnipeg, the black bear that Winnie-the-Pooh was named after, was inaugurated. Peter read some Winnie-the-Pooh, and Christopher Robin Milne was there. Christopher had said he’d never listened to anything ever recorded. He’d never watched anything that had been made of Winnie-the-Pooh in his life. He actually was rather … let me say challenged by this piece. It’s a complex story, but one worth telling. And I’ll come back to that wonderful quote. Alan Alexander Milne was one of those old Victorian fathers who believed that children should be seen and not heard, and only at bedtime. There was that very Victorian thing where A.A. Milne found it very difficult to relate with his young son. So he wrote these stories for his son, as really his ability to communicate—they are for the child in all of us. But because of this, Christopher Robin went to an English public school, which of course in those days were boarding schools and they were pretty—I mean, we talk about bullying today, wow—and of course it was, “Oh, here comes Christopher Robin, going to the palace to have tea with the queen.” Because his books had become an overnight success when we were very young—the first book of poetry and then the first ten stories of Winnie-the-Pooh—so poor Christopher was ridiculed at school. “Oh, here comes that little boy.” It scarred him, frankly. It scarred him because he didn’t really get on with his father very well, didn’t understand his father, and his father didn’t understand him. But he did through these extraordinary timeless stories. We jump forward now to this wonderful reading at the London Zoo, and Christopher Robin Milne said: “This is it. I can now at last listen to my father’s words.” And this is the first time he’d really heard them spoken unabridged. Because of this Christopher Robin’s daughter, Clare, finally heard these stories for the first time ever from our recordings. Peter went down to the country to visit Clare and to take these recordings, and Clare burst into tears and cried all day and had a set under her pillow at all times. Clare passed at the end of last year. She was fifty-six, I think. But in spite of being born with cerebral palsy and in a wheelchair her entire life, she had that extraordinary zest for life and adventure. Indeed, some of the royalties from her grandfather’s books and the Walt Disney royalty deal have been put into the Clare Milne Trust, providing care and housing for disabled wheelchair-bound people in Devon and Cornwall. This girl gave all of her energies and love to this invaluable charity. You can visit the Clare Milne Trust on the web. It’s all one word, Clare is spelled C-L-A-R-E. That’s why it was serendipitous. This one accident of a dinner party that the lawyer was at and discovering that Disney didn’t own the stories but only owned the characters—and I have to say Disney has been very gracious to us. Through Michael Brown and indeed Christopher Milne, they gave us one of their very few one-dollar licenses, whatever their rights might be. You may know this. There have been some very contentious lawsuits about who really owns Winnie-the-Pooh, but we’re the one recording that is not Disney that is fully accepted by Disney and written into the lexicon of all the rights.
RB: Winnie-the-Pooh was originally published in 1926, which means it’s been in print for about eighty-seven years. What is the fan response like after nearly a century?
CT: What is interesting is the fans tend to be fans of the Walt Disney Company “Winnie the Pooh,” and when they came to Peter’s live shows or listened to our recordings on radio initially and then on CD from Blackstone Audio, they were expecting the Disney Pooh, of a bear stuck up a fir tree in middle America, and they got this very, very charming and beautifully thought out, languid English countryside scene. And I think we’ve really turned people to understanding the original Pooh, verses the modern theme park Pooh. I’m not disparaging that at all because I think if anything, the Walt Disney Company has kept the animals alive in a sense that they’re a known commodity and then they discover our recordings. What’s very exciting to me is the power now for digital download. We’re distributing just a few CDs now, but thousands upon thousands of digital downloads all around the world, and that’s terribly exciting. In fact, we had a letter from a Japanese girl who said she’d learned her English from our Winnie-the-Pooh tapes. I’m very interested to hear her English. (laughs) “Oh, bother.”
RB: Well, Christopher, that leads me to a question then. So, in addition to an interesting way to learn English, in what other ways do you think the audiobooks have complemented Milne’s work and Pooh?
CT: What was very important to us was that we put in every comma, every full stop, even the preface to the books. So you’re hearing … literally pick up an original House at Pooh Corner, Winnie-the-Pooh, When We Were Very Young, Now We’re Six, and hear every single word completely unabridged. So over the years a lot of people have taken these and used them as read-alongs, so that they can hear Peter’s wonderful different voices for the animals, and for Peter, and Christopher Robin—and parents can use them as read-alongs, and they’re hearing this wonderful language exactly as it’s written on the page.
RB: Christopher, I want to talk about you a little bit. You come from a long line of established theatrical and literary families. And if I can recall correctly, your extended family was even depicted in the film Finding Neverland, which focused on the genesis of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Did your family connection and background play a role in your involvement with the Winnie-the-Pooh and its literary history?
CT: It didn’t influence Winnie-the-Pooh in the sense that it was sheer good luck that we were able to get the rights to record them, but certainly my first cousin was Daphne du Maurier, once removed, therefore her father was my great uncle, Sir Gerald du Maurier, who was the great theater actor and impresario and it was he who first produced Peter Pan, and he basically wrote Peter Pan because he watched the Lost Boys, which were the children of his sister. So, yes, that was all part of my upbringing, but I think it came more from my parents. My mother was a very successful stage actress in London, and my father was a brilliant sword master, ran small theaters, rectory companies, was an actor, very much loved by the theater, especially his sword work. So I think the whole background of a literary theater was probably where this came from.
RB: What is your favorite part about working in the entertainment business? What’s it like being behind the scenes as a producer?
CT: Well, I would say first regarding my family, they all deserved far more success than they got and they all died rather early in life, largely because of things like the Second World War and—my father was a prisoner of war on the Burma Railroad, bridge over River Kwai—so I am trying to emulate the success they should have had. Probably the most fun, wonderful project that I’ve ever done in music came via you, good sir, and that is George Winston’s Seasons in Concert. That was still to me the most wonderful voyage on a musical program I’ve ever had. I’ve done quite a lot of big live music, mostly oddball stuff, some high symphony, and the Emmy that myself and my partner, Robert Swope, got was the gala opening of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center and all of national royalty was there in their white ties and it came to the final note of the resurrection—and it was total silence, and we thought “Ah, no, we failed.” You know it was this awful, stunned silence for ten seconds, and then the entire orchestra all stood up as one and threw their top hats in the air. It was an extraordinary evening.
RB: Christopher, let me ask you one other question about Pooh. I know there are many fan-based Winnie the Pooh websites out there devoted to the bear and his friends. Have you been involved with them at all and do you have a relationship with fans? Tell me about your interaction with the public, if you will, regarding Pooh.
CT: Well, we do run a website. It’s called www.PoohCorner.com, and it lists wonderful biographies of Alan Alexander Milne, Ernest Shepard, and the whole story of Winnie-the-Pooh, and we have thousands of hits. We don’t get a lot of fans because what we’ve done is we’ve given the basic history, and all we’ve really done is just lay down the true story of how in that terrible war to end all wars, Princess Pat’s Light Infantry troops, as a Canadian regiment, went off to the Second Battle of the Somme, leaving their mascot regimental bear behind at London Zoo. Princess Pat’s brigade was wiped out to a man and nobody ever came back for the bear to take it back to Canada as their mascot. This was the black bear that Christopher Robin fell in love with when he was taken to the zoo at the age of six. From that sad beginning of almost an orphaned regimental mascot bear being beloved and hugged by a little boy—and you can see that photograph on our website—is the beginning of probably the most famous character in literary history outside of Shakespeare. It’s so exciting for me that whereas there are these modern interpretations by the Walt Disney Company and these wonderful rides at the parks, that the traditional Winnie-the-Pooh written by a man who was born 131 years ago should still hold this fascination in our hearts, because the morals to the stories haven’t changed. They’re about growing up. They’re about losing childhood friends and going out to the big bad world. And that’s what the whole thing is. All the animals say Christopher Robin isn’t around any longer. You don’t see him anymore. This whole giving up of childhood because you’ve gone to school and you’re having to learn how to live in the real world. That hasn’t changed. Yes, things have changed—the Internet is probably changing more dramatically than anything that’s ever happened in history—but there’s still this yearning to have family and to have those family bonds. There’s still a yearning for young people to have real friends in life—not just texting, not just iMessaging, but real face-to-face friends—and I think especially The House at Pooh Corner, which is a very much more adult and thoughtful set of ten stories, depicts as much of our life and our yearnings now as it did when he wrote it in 1928. There’s a slight addendum, which I think is fascinating—again you can read about this on www.PoohCorner.com—and that is that A.A. Milne was a very successful playwright and he was writing in the swinging ’20s these very intricate thrillers and police mysteries. And in fact, there was one year in the West End, which is the London equivalent of New York’s Broadway, where he had more plays playing at once than William Shakespeare. He had five plays in the London West End in 1925. So even though he’s most famous for these four books, these seventy-nine poems and twenty stories, the reality of it is that some of his plays—they’re worth going to a library and taking them out. They’re terrific observations of the 1920s as his books that he wrote to Christopher Robin, to his son, are an observation on childhood and growing up and taking on responsibility and learning how to spell. (laughs) “S-p-e-l,” I would say.
RB: So Christopher, jumping ahead to 2013, any early ideas about what your next project might be or what’s next for Winnie-the-Pooh?
CT: I think Winnie-the-Pooh is exactly where Winnie-the-Pooh should be now. I think because of the new media of digital download and our relationship with Blackstone Audio that’s got this worldwide is to me very exciting, and I see that people are still downloading these stories. And that to me is magical. Peter Dennis has sadly passed. Although I would say, he did record—I believe that Blackstone carries them—wonderful Christopher Milne’s autobiographies called Beyond the World of Pooh and these Peter recorded just before he passed. These are utterly charming books and I believe that Blackstone has them. They’re called Beyond the World of Pooh, so you can learn more about Christopher Milne’s life after Winnie-the-Pooh, after being Christopher Robin, and after being teased to death at school, where he made a real life for himself as an author, as an antiquarian bookstore owner. He really held his head very high. One has to honor A.A. Milne and now of course his widow, Lesley, and his daughter, Clare. They understood from where A.A. Milne came, and it was Peter Dennis’s recordings that gave them, I think, some closure frankly, which is really why we’re really proud of these recordings. And I have to thank Richard Branson and Ted Turner and indeed Jacqueline [Deloria] and Ruth Hirschman at KCRW. Having done them at KCRW, another wonderful turn of the story was that there was a wonderful spoken radio, which doesn’t exist any longer, called NPR Playhouse, which was a very adult operation and mostly use to go out at 11:00 at night, and they approached me and said, “Could we use Winnie-the-Pooh on NPR Playhouse?” I said, “Of course. And you’ve understood that they are really adult stories or for adults’ the child within.” They said, “Absolutely, we do.” We ran the eighteen half hours that we basically edited poems of the story together—they were all unabridged, but we sort of mixed them all up—and we ran those four times in the ’90s. And then NPR Playhouse closed in 2002, and by public vote—asking about fans—it was voted that the Complete Works of Winnie-the-Pooh should be the last broadcast of this forty-year-old series called NPR Playhouse. So it went out in its eighteen half hours in 2002 as NPR Playhouse. And then two other lovely spoken-word shows, both collapsed through financing and the stations had their slots open and nothing to put in them so we offered up Winnie-the-Pooh. So it filled in for Rabbit Ears and I can’t remember the name of the other show. It had a wonderful life, these recordings that we’d done and I hope this will go on forever. As far as I’m concerned, oh, I’m just a jobbing actor. I’ve had a bit of success in a horror film that’s called Cell Count that’s gone viral worldwide in the genre field and we’re about to start shooting Cell Count 2, and my lifelong dream is to play Churchill and, fingers crossed, I may be playing Churchill in a feature film shooting in California in the next couple months.
RB: Well, Christopher it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you today. Any last thoughts you want to impart to our listeners?
CT: I hope I didn’t come over at any time as disparaging of the Walt Disney Company. I think that they have done a very interesting job and indeed I knew the nine old men of animation—I met a few of them, including the two that were fired off the first Disney-animated Winnie the Pooh film, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, because they said, “How can we take this work of E. H. Shepard and improve on it? I mean these are the most beautiful, moving illustrations we’ve ever seen.” And Uncle Walt immediately fired them off the project, and Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were very excited to tell me that story. Disney’s done a great job in keeping Winnie the Pooh alive in a modern genre, but it’s doubly exciting that they first of all accepted our traditional offering and were very supportive of it and they continue to renew everything we ever need. So I’m excited that we can give both sides of the coin if you like: modern animation is doing one thing, but we can give people the original meaning that A.A. Milne wrote, as you say, eighty-seven years ago.
RB: Christopher, thank you so much for the insight and you’re always fascinating and fabulous to speak with, and I look forward to whenever the next time we speak and meet is.
CT: I do hope for that and thank you very much, Rick. This has been a very exciting half hour, and I’m thrilled that some people might get a different insight into A.A. Milne and the Winnie the Pooh World Day.
GROVER GARDNER: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com exclusive interview of Christopher Toyne by Rick Bleiweiss. You can find Winnie-the-Pooh and other A.A. Milne and Christopher Milne titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in January 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Blackstone Audiobooks presents, from the unabridged collection “A. A. Milne’s Pooh Classics,” the ten stories of Winnie-the-Pooh performed by Peter Dennis.
Come with us to an enchanted place, a forest where Winnie-the-Pooh lived with Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Eeyore, Kanga, and Little Roo. The stories are about Christopher Robin and these good companions having wonderful times getting in and out of trouble. It is all very exciting and, really, quite thrilling no matter how young or old you may be.
This reading has earned the prestigious Audie Award, Parents’ Choice Gold Award, Ohio State Award of Merit, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Silver Award.
This is the only reading of these immortal stories authorized by A. A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, who wrote, “Peter Dennis has made himself Pooh’s Ambassador Extraordinary and no bear has ever had a more devoted friend. So if you want to meet the real Pooh, the bear I knew, the bear my father wrote about, listen to Peter.”