A card life

July 13, 2008

A card life

Anwar Brett talks to the man behind Purple Ronnie, Giles Andreae

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Above: Giles Andreae

There can’t be many people who haven’t received a Purple Ronnie greeting card over the years. Or one of those handy-size gift books that convey, with a peculiarly English type of humour, universal truths and useful advice for life’s little complications.
Yet there’s one Notting Hill resident whose mantelpiece is conspicuously bereft of the musings of that ever cheerful chap. And he’s the man who invented him, poet and author Giles Andreae.
When he first dreamt up the character soon after graduating from Oxford, he never imagined that it would be more popular than ever 20 years on, published in the UK and US by Hallmark and recently sold for a respectable figure to media rights group Coolabi.
“When it began it was very niche,” explains the self-effacing Andreae. “The whole style was very different to what greeting cards were at the time. It started off quite trendy, boutiquey, and in time it’s gone all the way to the high street and now much more mass market.
“In fact, it began as a kind of antidote to what you might imagine Hallmark cards to be like, and now it’s come full circle to become a mainstay of their humour stable. But there have always been two sides to Purple Ronnie. There’s the more naughty, schoolboyish humour, but there’s also been quite a tender, sentimental quality about him too.”
The slow burn success of the character has seen his gentle evolution from iconoclast to icon, gradual developments that have mirrored changes in Andreae’s own life. He is, after all, a family man, husband to Victoria – a successful designer in her own right at Mini-Boden – and proud father of four, not the high living student he once was.
“Well yes,” he says. “I’ve got older and I’ve grown with it. As it goes into different market places and gets used on different products, you get used to the kind of writing that will work in certain areas. Selling shower gel to men is a very different thing to selling friendship cards to women, for example.”
The larger-than-life little figure might be the thing for which 41 year-old Andreae is best known, but it’s only one part of his prodigious output. Type his name into Amazon and scores of titles appear, for he is a prolific children’s author with titles such as Pants, There’s A House Inside My Mummy and Giraffes Can’t Dance.
And then there’s another literary alter ego, Edward Monkton, through whom he shares further thoughts on life in books such as The Pig of Happiness and The Shoes of Salvation, all drawn from Andreae’s fertile and gently irreverent imagination. Most of these are written in the offices he shares with Richard Curtis, Mariella Frostrup and others in Notting Hill, a haven of creativity away from the distractions of a bustling and hectic family life.
“I need to be in an office to be able to write,” he nods, “and it’s nice being around other creative people because you get feedback of the sort that other people know is useful.” Sometimes it is the short stroll to work that sets the creative process in motion. “I’m usually saying hello to people walking from home to the studio,” he smiles. “I don’t know whether it’s unusual for other areas of London. It’s certainly not like where I used to live in West Kensington. There are people trading out on the street, which makes a big difference. That’s my favourite part. I think the one really significant thing that’s survived there is the fruit and veg market. In my walk to and from the studio it’s an amazing splash of colour and life.”
Notting Hill is, Andreae feels, a particularly nice place to bring up a young family.  “It’s just so eclectic,” he says,
“and it does still feel – cliché of clichés – reasonably villagey.”
He seems a very likeable laid-back fellow, though he insists he is a born worrier. But if everything seems to have gone his way that is to ignore the effort he has put into his work. And indeed the discovery as a student that he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a potentially life-threatening cancer of the lymph glands.
“I got it when I was 20 or 21,” he recalls, “in my final year at university. I had my first load of chemotherapy, a second that didn’t quite work, then I had radiotherapy. It was a long and intensive course of treatment.” One side effect, he learned, was that it was likely to rule out the chance of him ever having children. “I was actually in the hospital with a needle in my vein for the first course of chemotherapy,” he recalls, “and it was literally only then that they said this would probably make me infertile. I asked if there was anything we could do, and the doctor said not really. He wouldn’t advise anything anyway as they’d got the whole thing so late that every day put me in more danger. It sounds so melodramatic, but this was absolutely the case. I was vaguely aware of Louise Brown, the first test tube baby, so I asked if we could do some of that test tube stuff and they said they didn’t know. They had never been asked that before, which
I find astonishing. The guy came back a couple of days later, and said they’d found somewhere where I could store my sperm: an agricultural facility just outside Bristol which they principally used for storing prized bulls’ semen. So off I trotted every couple of days for two weeks.”
He can afford a wry smile about it all now, as the sound of his kids playing in the garden attest to the success of this unorthodox – for the time – plan.  And it did, inevitably, change him in other ways too. “It does make you think that you’ve got to get on with stuff a bit,” he says quietly, “and that you’re lucky to be alive.”