Meet Gaspard the Fox creators Zeb Soanes and James Mayhew

Gaspard the Fox on stage at an orchestra concert at Hyde Park.

When newsreader Zeb Soanes came home from work one day, to his surprise, he met a handsome fox on his doorstep and made friends with him. Zeb gave him the name Gaspard. And before long, Gaspard had inspired the broadcaster to write a series of lovely books about the fox and his adventures in London.

Gaspard’s latest adventure, Gaspard’s Foxtrot, is now a piece for orchestra and will be performed by the Philharmonia with Zeb Soanes narrating. Before the concert, we spoke to Zeb and James Mayhew, illustrator of the Gaspard the Fox books, about their first musical experiences and what character of the books they relate to most.

What’s your job?

Zeb: It would probably have to be ‘Storyteller’. I trained as an actor; I’m a newsreader and presenter; I narrate concerts and write children’s books – all forms of storytelling.

James: I’m an illustrator and author of children’s books. I also work with orchestras sometimes, painting to music. I’m lucky to be the illustrator of the Gaspard the Fox books.

Did you hope to do this job when you were a child, or something else?

Zeb: When I was small I wanted to do any job that involved climbing ladders. At primary school I was always writing stories and poems, then plays. At secondary school I had an inspirational drama teacher called Lesley Halley, who encouraged me to pursue a career in which I could create and perform.

James: More or less this job – I always wanted to be an artist of some kind.

How did you learn to do this job?

Zeb: I went to university to study drama, which exposed me to new ideas and gave me the time and space to try things out but, like James, I have really learned to do my professional work on-the-job, working with experienced colleagues who have generously shared their knowledge and expertise.

James: I went to art college, but I think I learnt most of the skills by actually making books, working with publishers, editors, designers and so on. I draw and write ideas all the time. I don’t think you ever stop learning.

What’s the best thing about it?

Zeb: Writing stories and creating a world of characters is incredibly exciting – but the real reward is when a line or a character makes someone laugh. It’s the best feeling.

James: Bringing words and characters to life in pictures. It’s always a thrill when they take shape on paper. I also really like working from home.

Are there parts of it you don’t like, or find difficult?

Zeb: Coming up with (hopefully original) ideas and weaving them into a story is hard work and takes many months. I fear staring at a blank page with no ideas, so have always been one book ahead with the Gaspard stories. Gaspard’s Christmas will be out later this year, so I’m currently working on the story after that.

James: In Gaspard’s Foxtrot I had to illustrate Piccadilly Circus and a whole orchestra, and that was pretty difficult! Every book has challenges because some things are harder to draw. Sometimes the illustrations go wrong, and that’s frustrating. But that can also be a positive thing as it helps you develop and, hopefully, get better.

Zeb Soanes in DJ smiling.

How do you feel just before coming on stage for a performance?

Zeb: I’m hugely looking forward to these performances of Gaspard’s Foxtrot at the Southbank Centre. Long ago I made the helpful mental leap that nerves have a very similar quality to excitement, so I choose to feel excited. The most important thing is to be ready.

Where did you grow up?

Zeb: In the Suffolk town of Lowestoft. James and I went to the same secondary school, ten years apart, but only met each other decades later when collaborating on the first Gaspard book.

James: In Suffolk, near the sea.

Illustrator James Mayhew painting on a canvas.

What was your favourite song or piece of music as a child and how about now?

James: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. That was the piece that made me really fall in love with music. I loved the idea that music could tell a story. And now it’s the same! I never tire of Scheherazade.

What do you remember about the first concert you ever went to?

Zeb: Probably the first full orchestra I saw was at the Sparrow’s Nest Theatre in my hometown. It seemed they could play anything, with the conductor like a sorcerer waving his wand.

James: There were no concert halls near me where I grew up, so I was 18 when I first went to a real live concert. It was at the Royal Albert Hall, and it was to hear Scheherazade (of course). It was so wonderful I felt like I was flying on a magic carpet!

Which character in this afternoon’s concert is most like you?

Zeb: The character that looks most like me is The Kind Man with the Bicycle, as James based his illustrations of him on me. But the character I love writing the most is Peter the Cat; his dialogue practically writes itself, so I suspect that makes him most like me – only I hope I’m a little more tolerant!

James: I think I’m like Gaspard – quite gentle and inquisitive, always kind, perhaps a bit shy and nervous, but generally up for an adventure!

The Philharmonia performs Gaspard’s Foxtrot on Wednesday 16 February at 1pm and 3pm. There still a few tickets left.