Viral humour: spoof Peter and Jane make sense of the pandemic

The artist behind the Ladybird-style series on how her absurdly surreal new book is her answer to coping with coronavirus

The artist who created a smash hit series of spoof Ladybird Peter and Jane books has turned her attention to the Covid lockdown, creating a new edition in the series that is set to top the Christmas bestseller lists.

In We Do Lockdown, Miriam Elia, a visual artist, has her characters Mummy, John and Susan swamping their garden in bleach, taping off Granny’s house with hazardous material tape and growing highly sceptical of scientific advice.

“I created the book because I’m an artist and I respond to whatever’s happening around me and this is such a traumatic thing to happen that it just felt the natural thing,” Elia says. “Also, I’ve been stuck at home and needed to occupy myself. I’ve always had this theory that if you’re restricted in some way it can be a very creative process because when you can’t do things, you have to be more imaginative.”

Cover of book showing Mother is mask barring boy from entering taped up front door.
We do Lockdown is published on 5 November. Photograph: Dung Beetle Books

The book finds humour and hypocrisy in the current situation and is more than a light spoof of the Peter and Jane books. There’s a fair amount of political dart-throwing. Mummy is also having a surreptitious lockdown-infringing affair with the government’s chief epidemiologist (“New words: Sexy. Rule. Breaking.”) and the homeless are ignored because they can’t take contactless payments.

Waterstones has ordered 8,000 copies for its stores, indicating that the chain expects We Do Lockdown to be one of its biggest sellers in the run up to Christmas.

Such timing knits with some of the book’s sharp content. “One of my favourite spreads is where Mummy says, ‘Oh no, we can’t see Grandma,’ and Peter points out that they haven’t seen her since last Christmas anyway,” says Elia.

The book is published on 5 November (the day that lockdown is reintroduced in England) by Elia’s own imprint, Dung Beetle Books. The 1950s style of the illustrations and the characters who inhabit that world add to the surrealist absurdity of the book. Elia creates the works by making a collage and then adding watercolour, to mimic the original aesthetic of the books.

“The 50s styling is very important to the effect because the 50s and 60s were this time of tremendous optimism and modernity postwar,” she says. “You had the welfare state, the pill for women – a real sense of change. Humour comes when you contrast two worlds very clearly together, so I’ve taken that postwar optimism and contrasting it with this brutal nihilism that we have now. And also, on an aesthetic level, I absolutely adore that era, so it’s just a pleasure for me.

“It also works because the characters have this conformity to them – the boy always wears the same jumper and Mummy looks like Queen Elizabeth. And we all have to conform right now: wear a mask, do this. You can’t meet grandma but you can meet your mates in the pub or go out for a day’s foxhunting. It didn’t make any sense.”

In 2014 Elia was embroiled in a legal dispute with Penguin, which owns the Ladybird imprint, over her first book in the series. Elia said it was art, Penguin said it was breach of copyright. The dispute was eventually settled and Penguin later published its own Ladybird spoofs that have proved immensely popular.

Elia has also just finished making a short film with Vic Reeves, in which Elia is chased through London by a giant Covid virus and Reeves is a lockdown policeman attempting to intervene. The virus is “played” by a spiky yoga ball on a fishing line. It has been produced by Reeves’s son, the film-maker Louis Moir.


Gareth Rubin

The GuardianTramp

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