Years before Harry Potter there was The Ancestral Trail, an epic tale of myths, magic and quite a lot of back breaking hard work. Ian Probert recalls his stint as editor and writer of the best-selling Marshall Cavendish partwork.
Do you want to know about pressure? Let me tell you all about it…
My first experience of pressure, the sort of pressure that turns you into a paranoid wreck, that causes you to lose sleep, that makes you snap at your friends if you have any left at all, was back in 1990 when I became editor of a short-lived boxing paper entitled Boxing Weekly. That’s another story if anyone is interested, but what I’d like to tell you about now is something called The Ancestral Trail.
There’s probably more than one reason why I’m writing about this long extinct and mostly forgotten about partwork. One is that it simply refuses to go away and two is that it’s about time that the full story of what happened was told by someone who was actually there. And three I’ll think of later.
For the vast multitude of people out there who have never heard of The Ancestral Trail I can tell you straight away that it is nothing to do with family trees. It was in fact a partwork published all over the world in 1992. Let me tell you how I got involved and ended up being the writer and editor of the second half of this silly little tale of myths and monsters.
Back in 1992 I’d just turned thirty and thought rather a lot more of myself than I do today. I had good reason to. In under five years I’d gone from a penniless squatter living in London to a newspaper and magazine journalist, I’d briefly been the agent of two boxers, I’d become friend and confidante of the (relatively) famous. I was looking for a new challenge.
I’m an obsessive creature and in the early-1990s one of my major obsessions was video games. The MegaDrive was the console of choice for me and I wasted far too many hours picking up rings and jumping on the top of Doctor Robotnic’s head. One day I had a brainwave: Why not create a partwork based on video gaming? With this in mind and overflowing with confidence I wrote a brilliant letter to the managing editor of Marshall Cavendish.
I suspect that the people who would have heard of Marshall Cavendish is a diminishing number. Back in 1992, however, MC was a lumbering beast that still had a few years left in it. In the 1970s the company had pioneered the concept of the partwork: a ‘collectible’ series that offered readers regular bite-sized chunks of a book with the promise of a gaudy free gift on the front of issue one. There was arguably no more immoral way of luring subscribers into buying hundreds of magazines at inflated prices and remains so today to a lesser degree.
The letter I wrote was very flashy and confident. I wish I hadn’t lost it in a computer crash many years ago. In essence, it quoted the enormous numbers involved in computer gaming and told MC in no uncertain terms that they could make a lot of money if they took up my idea. Thereupon things moved quickly: I met with the big wigs at MC, discussed my plans and was offered a job.
But things quickly turned sour. Upon arrival at MC I was given a computer to write on and a designer to work with. We were then left alone for months on end, seemingly forgotten about in a corner of one of the office floors. Nobody seemed interested in the idea of a computer games partwork anymore. I began to suspect that I had been employed by MC merely to stop me taking the idea to rivals. This situation went on for months on end until one day I was told that the notion of a computer games project had indeed been abandoned, and that instead they would like me to work on something else. That something else turned out to be The Ancestral Trail or as I like to call it ‘The Ancestral Trial’.
Up until that point my knowledge of The Ancestral Trail had been patchy to say the least. I knew that it was an unusual sort of partwork: it was a myths and magic collectible story that boasted some pretty good illustrations. I also knew that the project was run by two very nice women whom I chatted to occasionally, Brenda Marshall and Caroline Manyon. That was about all I knew really.
This is where I have to be careful: not wishing to potentially slander anyone, here is the story of the birth of The Ancestral Trail as it was told to me by Brenda all those years ago, memory permitting. Apparently MC had been approached by a South African writer named Frank Graves. He had written a book that was somewhat in the vein of Narnia; about a boy who travels to another world and meets lots of monsters. Rather surprisingly – because partworks with this type of concept had never been done before – MC took the bait. They duly negotiated a deal with Frank Graves and set about splitting his manuscript into partwork-sized pieces. I was never party to whatever the terms of that deal where. Illustrations where provided by one Julek Heller, a very talented artist hailing, if I remember correctly, from Poland. He had the lucrative but unenviable task of drawing and painting 12 double page A3 illustrations per fortnight, as well as a cover.
What happened next, however, is that when Frank Graves’ manuscript was looked at in detail it was judged unsuitable for the partwork format. It was impossible to split it into segments. For this reason a writer named Fergus Fleming was employed to rewrite the story using Graves’ characters. Fleming’s calibre was excellent: his uncle was reasonably well known, having written something about a secret agent named James, as well as a book about a flying car.
Although 26 issues of The Ancestral Trail had already been published to some success, the company, I was told, had other uses for Brenda and Caroline. They wanted me to take over the running of the next 26. This was commonly known as an extension to a project.
It was explained to me that the upcoming story would be set in something called the ‘Cyber Dimension’ and while Graves’ characters would still feature, a whole new set of baddies had to be created. This was fine by me. Having sat clicking my heels for more than six months I was more than ready to sink my teeth into a fresh challenge. For this reason, I was duly given a sub-editor and a designer to work with.
To compound matters, the extension to The Ancestral Trail would be produced in a new way. It was doing to be created entirely digitally. One of the first magazines to do so, I believe. Julek Heller’s illustrations would be scanned in the UK before being sent to the repro house in Thailand. To take away some of the burden from Julek, who was struggling to keep up with the unremitting workload, another illustrator was hired. His name was Mehau Kulyk and he specialised in creating digital artwork.
So I took over the running of the projects and was immediately beset with problems. The first was the text: I took a look at the Fergus Fleming’s text for issue 26 and was not impressed. Therefore for issue 27 I wrote the text myself and essentially sacked Fergus Fleming. Let me qualify this: at the time Fergus, who I’d only ever spoken to on the phone, was obviously unhappy that this had happened. And I can tell you that if it was the me of today who was running The Ancestral Trail I would not have done it. The best action would have been to have taken Fergus to the pub and had a constructive discussion about the way the story was going. But I was a lot more arrogant in those days and decided that I could do better myself. If you ever get to read this Fergus, the me of today is very sorry that the me of yesterday did that to you.
The next problem was one of storage. When Julek’s illustrations were scanned it was discovered that there was no digital storage medium available of sufficient size capable of accommodating them. Don’t forget that we’re talking pre-internet days here. There was no email, and computers did not come with built in CD or DVD burners like they used to up until a couple of years ago. The largest storage media around in those days was something called a Zip Drive, which was a paltry 100 megabytes in size. When scanned, Julek’s illustrations came in at something like a gigabyte apiece, an gargantuan unheard of size back then.
Our eventual solution was to scan the illustrations in at 200 dpi not 300 dpi which is still the industry norm. In other words, the illustrations were printed at a very low resolution. We spent a great deal of time worrying about the repercussions of doing this. Surprisingly, none of our readers noticed.
Teething troubles over, what came next was the daily grind. The pressure that I spoke about at the beginning of this piece. Because arrogant old me, in sacking Fergus, had failed to realise that I had just placed a heavy burden on my own shoulders. As well as running the magazine, liaising with designers, illustrators, productions departments, marketing, etc. I was now its author. As such I was forced to learn on my feet. An issue of the Ancestral Trail essentially consisted of several strands:
1/ The conclusion of last issue’s cliffhanger. Rather like Saturday morning Flash Gordon or Doctor Who, I had to ensure that our heroes survived the seemingly impossible predicament that they were placed in at the end the previous issue.
2/ Introduce a new environment. Each issue of the ‘Cyber Dimension’ version of The Ancestral Trail was set in a new exotic land. I had to think of this, describe its components and give it an exotic sounding name.
3/ Introduce a new villain. On the cover of every issue of the magazine was a new baddie. Again, rather like Doctor Who writer, I had to describe the new baddie’s appearance, his or her special powers and write suitably creepy dialogue.
4/ End with a cliffhanger. Every issue our heroes had to be placed in mortal danger at the end of the mag so that readers would be compelled to purchase the next issue (although in partworks this is not so much of an issue).
This probably may not sound like much to you. But doing this week after week for a whole year while endeavouring to keep things as fresh as possible was a demanding task. It was one of the toughest things I have ever had to do. That is why mistakes sometimes crept in. In my very first issue in charge, for example, I was appalled to discover that some of the ‘giveaway’ Top Trumps cards that came bundled with the mag (a typical partwork retention device) had been reprinted from the last issue. As editor I was entirely to blame for this. And this error did not turn out to be an isolated incident.
By the time that the series came to end I was a relieved and not quite so cocky young man. Except that the series didn’t ever really come to an end. When the internet appeared The Ancestral Trail began to gather something of a cult following. And to this day there are still fans of the magazine who contact me on Facebook and on Twitter. On Wikipedia you will find a somewhat loose interpretation of the evolution of the magazine; and it still irks me that I am credited with ‘writing up’ the second part of the series. It was more than ‘writing up’ I can tell you that for nothing.
To some The Ancestral Trail is seen as an obviously less successful precursor to Harry Potter, although the partwork did actually sell in the millions. The story of a boy with secret powers who is ‘The Chosen One’ has a lot in common with J K Rowling’s series. We will never know what would have happened if The Ancestral Trail had been published in book form a the time.
Except we sort of do. Because Frank Graves began republishing the story himself, not the partwork story, but his original story a year or so ago. I don’t have a lot to say about this other than if you search Amazon you will find it. Likewise if you search eBay you will still find copies of the magazine for sale. I have a few myself in a downstairs cupboard and like most all of the things I write, I can’t bear to look at them.
PS There are quite a few links out there to people who have scanned in some of the mags. Here’s a couple for starters:
PPS I’ve nicked a few images from various sites. Let me know if you object and I’ll take them down.