Larne-based storyteller gives voice to timeless children's tales

Since moving to Northern Ireland Vicky McFarland has turned her lifelong love of books into a business of audio-sensory magic – listen to a recording from her recent collection

Indian legends and Greek myths, Grimm’s fairytales and tales from the Arabian Nights ... and many, many more from near and far. These are the tools of the trade of award-winning storyteller and writer Vicky McFarland, whose first collection of audio stories for children has just been released by her Tale Time label.

The contents of Rumpelstiltskin and Other Stories vividly illustrate a vast treasure trove of stories, dating back over the centuries, which inspire her work. The five tales chosen for this first collection come from all over the world; they have been reimagined and read by McFarland in an animated, humorous style, which demonstrates genuine empathy for a young modern day audience. They are accompanied by atmospheric music and sound effects supplied by her husband Lee, with colourful illustrations by artist Antony Wootten, who lives in a remote rural area of North Yorkshire.

The Monkey and the Crocodile is taken from the Panchantantra, the Indian book of animal tales; Theseus and the Minotaur is one of the best known myths of ancient Greece; The Stonecutter is based on an old tale set in a small village in China; The Three Princes has its roots in Middle Eastern folklore; Rumpelstiltskin is the Brothers Grimm’s famous story of the miller’s daughter who could spin gold.

'I’m a total magpie,' says McFarland, who, with her husband, moved to live in his home town of Larne, County Antrim almost three years ago. 'I pick up shiny stories and hoard them away. There are thousands of them in existence. Some may be variations on a common theme but, depending on their cultural roots, they may have different characters and settings, but always the same message.' Listen to a short excerpt below from Theseus and the Minotaur.

McFarland comes from Maidenhead in the English Home Counties and is a drama graduate of the University of Kent. In her third year of studies she took a study module in radio production, a skill which has stood her in good stead in this latest venture. An avid reader as a child, she has been telling, writing and recording stories for children for over 10 years. Like many of her generation, her introduction into the wonderful world of books was through the work of the master storyteller Roald Dahl.

'I was seven when I discovered Roald Dahl,' she recalls. 'We had a tape of The Magic Finger at home and I used to listen to it over and over again. It’s quite a nasty story, but I loved it. It’s about a family who are big into hunting. They think it’s great fun but the girl who lives next door to them thinks it’s horrible. They laugh at her when she tries to talk them out of it but then she gets angry and turns her uncontrollable magic finger on them. Soon they are definitely not laughing. 

'I adore Dahl’s playfulness and mischief. His characterisations are amazing and he always enjoys showing the grotesque in people. Miss Trunchbull in Matilda is one of the most appalling people you could ever meet. Some parents think that Dahl is unsuitable for small children because his stories are quite nasty and many of his characters are badly behaved and scary. That’s a big thing in the storytelling community at the moment. There’s a school of thought that thinks you should remove the scariness. But I think it’s a big mistake.  

'Life is not all pink and fluffy. That’s the reality. And children enjoy being scared, they love to hear bad words and watch disgusting things happening, as long as it’s in a safe environment. That’s one of the reasons to read stories like Dahl’s – to help a child to know what he or she would do in that situation. Having said that, I have to be very careful about how I tell some stories. The Grimms' Catskin is one which can affect a child’s sensibility. And the original version of Little Red Riding Hood is highly sexualised so I have dropped it from my repertoire.'

Vicky mcFarland

Image via @RedAppleAudio

After graduating, McFarland started writing kids’ stories. She became involved in a project with SOAS, the University of London’s world-leading institution for the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, for which she produced three half-hour stories to be read by professional actors. She was, at the time, employed by the BBC as a subtitler and spent many long hours in a recording studio. It gave her invaluable practical experience as well as an aspiration for the highest professional standards, which has, from the start, informed her own freelance work.  

She is an avid theatre fan of theatre and frequently used to travel from her home in Berkshire to the Soho Theatre in central London. As her ambition grew to develop and produce her own work, she enrolled on a training course at the theatre's famous Crick Crack Club, which has been described as '.. a wild haven of fairy tale, myth and epic in the heart of the West End'. The club gives a platform to established and new voice performance storytellers, and stages both fully developed and experimental work. The association with longtime professionals and young hopefuls like herself proved inspirational and gave McFarland the confidence to develop children's stories for an audio collection. Her first batch was built around reimagining and rewriting the evergreen popular favourite Cinderella as well as a series based around astrological science and ancient legend, entitled Greek Myths of the Zodiac.  

'The Greeks are my passion,' she declares. 'There is so much wonder and beauty in their world and there is tremendous depth to the characters. One of my particular favourites is Heracles, who was the son of Zeus and Alcmene and half-brother of Perseus. He was the greatest of the Greek heroes and a massive symbol of masculinity. No wonder I adore him! Last year, I received a SIAP (Support for the Individual Artist) grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, which enabled me to turn the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale The Queen Bee into a sensory story and to begin to develop Heracles as a play for adults. I worked on the script with the dramaturg Hanna Slattne and two fantastic actors, Shaun Blaney and Roisin Gallagher. It is still very much a work in progress but I am hopeful that it will eventually come to full production.

'During that year, I was mentored by Replay Productions, a long established company producing theatre for young audiences. They do amazing work with young people who have profound and multiple learning difficulties. In fact, everything they do is of an incredibly high professional standard. They got me started on developing sensory stories and it is a specialist branch of my work that I really enjoy. The skill is to let the story dissolve and to build up the experience through the senses. In The Queen Bee, I let the children feel and stroke the petals of the flowers, taste the honey, enjoy the sounds and smells of bees in the garden and relax to the soft, sweet music that Lee has composed.


Vicky bring tales to life through sensory storytelling

'The next one is The Mermaid’s Tale, originally written by Sam Henry, a folklorist from the Glens of Antrim. It works its magic through the smell and taste of the sea. That was a bit tricky. Tasting something salty and fishy would not be pleasant, so we use prawn cocktail crisps, which go down really well! To communicate the story, we create an underwater world by using brightly coloured ribbons, bubbles, vibrant material and fabrics that can be touched and smoothed.'

McFarland is an inveterate traveller who thrives on being exposed to other cultures in faraway lands. She regularly works for One Billion, a non-profit company which develops apps and builds scalable solutions for underprivileged children across the world. Her current project has a particular emphasis on Africa.

'I write bedtime stories for a global audience of children, who may not be familiar with the source tales but have as much a right to them as everybody else. Many are based on childhood classics, which have stood the test of time. Many are universal stories, which work wherever they are told and heard. For instance, what child will not understand the concept of the boy who cried wolf? I have chosen tales from all over the world; they can’t all be western-based. But it’s important to keep reshaping them, updating them, making them relevant, while retaining the wisdom and understanding that are at their heart.'

McFarland met her husband when they were travelling in Thailand. They have since travelled thousands of miles together, many in the Far East and Asia, the birthplace of a number of her favourite legends. He is a talented guitarist but when they met he was caught in a steady job, which gave him no creative stimulus. Now they work together as a team, bouncing ideas off each other, each responding to the story or the music the other produces. Three years ago, they took the decision to leave England and settle in north Antrim, a move which has given her not a single regret. When their son Dylan was born 18 months ago, family life took an exciting new turn.

Tale Time

'Having a toddler and working for myself is certainly hectic', she says. 'But having Dylan has given me a new perspective. There is a tremendous responsibility in writing and telling stories for children. Some of the early fairy tales came out of the aural tradition and are quite dark. You have to be mindful of keeping the magic while protecting the child’s imagination. I’m especially conscious of that now that I am a mum myself.

'Settling in Northern Ireland has been a wonderful adventure and has offered the two of us opportunities that we definitely would not have had if we had stayed in England. There is an incredibly rich cultural life here and people are encouraged to wear a variety of different hats, which I love. Sometimes, I have to pinch myself to believe that I am living in such a beautiful place, with a gorgeous little boy, my own publishing label and a career doing the things I love best - working with children and adults, telling stories, writing and producing my own work. It’s all I ever wanted to do. The same with Lee. He works as a guitar tutor and songwriter and is very much involved in The Music Yard in Larne, which offers tuition in all kinds of music. I see him standing so much taller and straighter than when we first met all those years ago. We have grown and blossomed, as individual artists and as a couple. I have much to thank Northern Ireland for.'

Tale Time’s Rumpelstiltskin and Other Stories is available to buy from all major digital music distributors as well as direct from the Tale Time website. You can find links by going to:

This article has been published as part of Creativity Month 2018, themed around 'careers in the creative industries'. To see this year's programme of events running throughout March, click here.