David Walliams recalls happy Chichester childhood memories as city welcomes world premiere
Little Britain star David Walliams is thrilled to see the new stage adaptation of his book The Midnight Gang premiere in Chichester, a place full of happy memories for him.
The show, adapted by Bryony Lavery and with music and lyrics by Joe Stilgoe, runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until November 3.
And all because Chichester asked him.
“They approached me! I have got 11 novels now, and there has been a very successful touring production of Gangsta Granny. The RSC are developing The Boy in the Dress. They are doing lots of brilliant things, but for this one, Chichester just asked me.
“I used to go to the theatre in Chichester a lot as a child. We lived in Surrey, and my parents used to take me. The theatre has got a very good reputation. My parents saw Alec Guinness there. I didn’t, but I did see Frankie Howerd there in A Funny Thing Happened To Me on the Way to the Forum. It was an epiphany moment! I wanted to be Frankie Howerd!
“But I just loved the theatre in Chichester. I saw the Alan Bennett production last year because Richard Wilson is a friend of mine, and it brought back such happy memories of going there. I saw Ian McKellen at Chichester. I have seen quite a lot over the years, and it has got such an amazing reputation.
“And now I am super-excited that they are doing my book there and that they are turning it into a musical which was very new territory for me. I am not musical in any way. I can’t sing. I can’t play an instrument. I can’t dance. So the whole thing is super magical to have songs in the mouths of my characters.”
An inventive tale of fun, friendship and the importance of kindness, the show has been adapted from David’s biggest selling children’s book of 2016.
A bang on the head during a cricket match at his boarding school has landed twelve-year-old Tom in the children’s ward of the spooky Lord Funt Hospital.
Luckily, he’s not on his own with the child-hating Matron and the scary-looking Porter. George, Amber, Robin and Sally are in there too, and they’re not taking things lying down. When the lights go out and the clock strikes twelve, they’re off. But will they let new boy Tom join their forbidden midnight adventures through the hospital’s labyrinthine realm?
“I have been to rehearsals,” David says, “but I try not to be precious about it. I come from a writing for TV background and TV writing is very collaborative. I am used to compromising. If I am standing over their shoulders saying ‘I want you to do this’, it would be very inhibiting. I suppose if there were massive, massive changes, I might question it, but they have followed the book and really I just have to hand the book to them. It is for other people to mould it and shape it into the musical. It is sensible to stand back otherwise you would just be incredibly precious… and it is a super-talented team.”
The hospital setting is significant: “Because of the success of things I have done on TV, I have been invited to meet kids in hospitals quite a lot, and the reality is that as much as they are being looked after and their families are there, they can feel quite isolated. There is something they are not doing. They are missing school, and you might think ‘Oh great, missing school!’ but some of these children can be there for weeks and months, and it can get incredibly boring and frustrating.”
And from that thought came the idea for the midnight gang who get together each night to make a dream come true for one of the children…
The book was a massive hit a couple of years ago, the latest in David’s increasingly-long line of massive hits. As he says, he wasn’t always going to turn to novel-writing, but it is definitely a natural progression.
“When I was younger, obviously I had aspirations to be a comedian, and I realised that comedians write their own material. You can’t always have someone brilliant doing it for you. You have got to write you own stuff, and I suppose I became so focused on writing the comedy that I didn’t think about writing a novel.
“The first one just happened by chance. I was touring the Little Britain live show and afterwards we used to meet members of the audience. This boy came up to me and Matt and said ‘Do you remember getting my letter?’ When you get lots of letters, you don’t always remember them, but this boy had sent me a picture of him going into school dressed as Emily Howard, the ‘I am a lady’ character from Little Britain. I thought that was quite cool and quite brave, and it got me thinking. I thought what if a boy did it not for comedy but because he wanted to do it. I got the idea for the book, and I thought if I could capture some of the Little Britain sense of humour but in a book, there was a chance that I could turn it into something.”
The Boy in the Dress was published in November 2008.
As he says, David became a children’s writer because it was a story about children: “I thought it might make a good children’s book. I have always loved children’s books even as a grown-up. As an adult you think you know Peter Pan, but you realise you haven’t ever actually read it, and I had never read Alice in Wonderland before, and also I had missed quite a few of the Roald Dahls because I was a teenager by then.
“And I just thought there is something about children’s books that is so special, the way that they take you on a journey with them.”
And the secret to the success?
“I think you have just got to write with your instinct. If you write too much thinking about what your audience would like, you get it wrong. If you write comedy, you are not thinking ‘What would make people laugh?’ You are thinking ‘What would make me laugh?’ You are just wanting to take people on a journey, and I think with children’s books, you make a mistake if you write too consciously a children’s book. You become twee. You have got to think what you would have liked at the age of 12.”
And there is no doubting Roald Dahl remains an influence. People have made much of David being his heir: “I am the Poundland Roald Dahl! Roald Dahl is very special. I don’t think there is anyone in his class. He is the gold standard. I don’t think I can try to be him, but people make comparisons, but I have always talked about how much I love Roald Dahl.”