01 June 2021

Little Willie, Willie Won't Go Home

Willie the Squowse
Ted Allan
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977
57 pages

What I admire most about Ted Allan was his ability to take an idea and rework it repeatedly, in the process supporting himself, his wife, and his children. "Lies My Father Told Me," a very, very short story – 782 words – was written on the instant for a 1949 issue of The Canadian Jewish Congress Bulletin. It went on to become a radio drama, a television drama, a stage drama, and a feature film for which Allan earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

On March 29, 1976, the evening of the award gala, Allan joined Federico Fellini (Amarcord) and Robert Towne (Shampoo) in learning that he'd lost to Frank Pierson, who'd written the script for Dog Day Afternoon. The bad news came from Gore Vidal:

Allan's screenplay is brilliant and moving, but it was not original. I think he received the nomination because the story had been published in a monthly Canadian newspaper, and not, say, The New Yorker. I'm guessing that not too many people in Hollywood heard the adaptation he'd written for CBC Radio. I'll wager fewer still saw the hour-long European television production, in which Allan moved the setting from Montreal to Dublin. I've yet to meet anyone who remembers the play. From what I understand, it included musical numbers.

The very same year that "Lies My Father Told Me" appeared in The Canadian Jewish Congress Bulletin, Allan dashed off a pseudonymously published pulp novel, Love is a Long Shot, for News Stand Library, the paperback imprint of Export Publishing. Thirty-five years later, he rewrote the novel and managed to place it with McClelland & Stewart. It won the 1985 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. In between the two different versions, as "John Smith," Allan adapted the plot as a CBC movie titled Love on the Nose. As I understand, he later shopped another adaptation, this one titled Love is a Long Shot, around Hollywood. 

All this brings me to Willie the Squowse, which is by far the shortest and most enjoyable book I've read this year. It began as a story written for his children – unpublished, it would seem – which was bought by George Pal. It was reimagined by Hungarian expat László Vadnay as The Great Rupert. Look carefully, and you'll see Allan's name on the movie poster:

Sadly, Pal didn't direct the film, and Allan had nothing to do with its screen adaptation. According to son Norman Allan, Ted Allan hated the film.

In 1950, the year The Great Rupert was was released, the CBC broadcast Allan's radio adaptation. I find it charming. You can hear it through this link

Twenty-three years after that, Allan entered "Willie the Squowse" in the 1973 Times Children's Story Competition. It earned earned second place, was published in The Times Saturday Review, and was subsequently included in The Times Anthology of Children's Stories (London: Cape, 1974). I believe it's on that strength of this late notice that, at long last, "Willie the Squowse" appeared as a book on its own. Printed in Great Britain, all indications point to my McClelland & Stewart edition as a Cape co-publication; no effort has been made to alter the anglicisms.

The story takes place somewhere in England, in two houses – one well-kept, the other run-down – built back to back. Mr and Mrs Pickering live in the nicer place. They're supported by their son, Richard, who teaches at a university. An impoverished animal trainer named Joe lives in the lesser house. Willie, his most recent project, is a squowse – squirrel father/mouse mother – who swings on a trapeze, marches like a soldier, and can hum "Alouette." Seems pretty impressive, but theatrical agent Pete has a better understanding than I of the box office: "Sorry. The women would scream. There'd be panic in the theatre. No manager could risk it. An elephant act, a dog act, a seal act, even a cat act, but not a squowse act, Joe."

The failure to attract interest means Joe and Willie must leave their squalid lodgings the very next day. Joe falls asleep quite easily, but not Willie. The restless squowse paces about until he notices a small hole in the wall separating his home from the Pickerings'. While exploring, he's knocked out by a chunk of falling plaster. Because Joe can't find the squowse the next morning, he comes to the conclusion that pal Willie has left him. 

Money means nothing and everything in Willie the Squowse. Mr and Mrs Pickering are troubled by their reliance on Richard until they receive a fantastic letter stating that stock purchased long ago will now be paying off in weekly cheques of two hundred pounds. These they convert into ten pound notes which Mrs Pickering pushes through a hole she's made in the kitchen wall. "I want to know the money is near us," she explains to her husband. "I want to feel it around us." They never touch the money, nor do they tell Richard about their windfall, and so he continues to support his parents. 

Just the thought that the money is near brings the Pickerings peace of mind:
During their walks around the the park they noticed two trees they'd never noticed before. They heard music they had never heard before. And most of the neighbours seemed to be very neighbourly, which was something else they had never noticed before. They didn't worry when it rained and they didn't worry when the sun shine and sometimes they giggled thinking how silly they had been to worry so much.
What they don't know is that the money isn't there. For reasons I won't describe, Willie, who has taken up residence in the wall shared by the two houses, has begun pushing ten pound notes toward the new residents of his former home. 

Because Willie the Squowse is so short I'll say no more, except to recommend it. I'm even more keen on Allan's 1950 CBC radio adaptation. Ted Allan played Joe in that production. As I say, he really knew how to make money from his work.

Sadly, I'm nowhere near so savvy.

Object: A very slim hardcover with black boards. The jacket is, of course, by Quentin Blake. I count fifty Blake illustrations in the book itself. 

Access: Sadly, Willie the Squowse is no longer in print. Happily, used copies are plentiful online. The most common is the American edition, published in 1977 by Hastings House. The last edition was published in 1980 by Puffin.

Willie the Squowse
has been translated several times: French (Histoire d'un souricureuil), Spanish (Willie el ratiardilla), German (Willi die Eichmaus), Finnish (Ville Hiirava pankkiirina), and Chinese (松老鼠阿威).

The complete text to Willie the Squowse can be found here on Norman Allan's website. 


  1. The Great Rupert is on my Christmas movie list. I tried recording it this past holiday season, but it didn't record properly. Ugg. I had no idea it had a Canadian connection. Thanks for the great post. I'll listen to the radio adaptation.

    1. The Great Rupert can be found - colourized or not - on YouTube. A busy man, I haven't found the time to do more than dip in and out. What little I've seen doesn't use much from Allan's story.

      The radio play is wonderful!

  2. Although I've read your articles about Ted Allan, I knew practically nothing about him. I've just finished watching the fascinating documentary "Ted Allan: Minstrel Boy of the Twentieth Century" which showed up this evening on YouTube: https://youtu.be/R0GiwdTiYwA

    1. I hadn't seen that film until very recently, Tony. You're right that it's absolutely fascinating. What a remarkable life.

      I'm on an Allen kick right now, encouraged by the good folks at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, who will be showing Love on the Nose, Allen's 1978 made-for-TV adaptation of Love is a Long Shot.

      More to come...