There’s a certain jolly character, beloved of children everywhere, who we’re going to be seeing an awful lot of this Christmas. No, not him – we’re talking about David Walliams: comedian, actor, reality TV judge and one-man publishing phenomenon.
His latest book, The Beast of Buckingham Palace, came out last week. On TV, he’ll be giving us his Prince Charming in Sky One’s festive family comedy Cinderella: After Ever After. A touring production of his novel Billionaire Boy is spending Christmas at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre, while a musical version of his literary debut, The Boy in the Dress, is being staged at Stratford by the Royal Shakespeare Company, no less. And to top it all, his 2015 bestseller Grandpa’s Great Escape has been supersized into a multi-million pound arena spectacular created by the ‘entertainment architects’ behind Cirque du Soleil and Madonna, The Rolling Stones, Beyonce and Jay Z’s live shows.
‘Me and Jay-Z, we do like to share our personnel,’ chuckles Walliams when Weekend catches up with him during a brief lull in his hectic schedule. ‘It’s the scale that really excites me about it,’ he adds. ‘It’s a story about a confused grandfather who thinks he’s back in World War II, when he was a fighter pilot, and he wants to steal a Spitfire from the Imperial War Museum and take it to the sky. So we’ve got a real-life plane, and a real-life tank… I think it’s going to be really memorable. You’ve got to remember that a lot of people don’t get to see live things very often, and if they are lucky enough to go, as a Christmas treat, it’s got to be great. Especially with kids, going to the theatre – if you bore them, early on, they’re never going to go back.’
Like most of Walliams’ books, Grandpa’s Great Escape is a funny and thrilling romp – but it’s also poignant and moving, particularly in its depiction of the tender relationship between 12-year-old Jack and his grandfather.
‘I basically had two different ideas,’ he recalls. ‘I wanted to write something about dementia, because I know it affects a lot of kids whose grandparents have it. And I read a story about an old soldier who escaped from an old people’s home, so he could go and join his old comrades in Normandy.’ This was 89-year-old war veteran Bernard Jordan, who slipped out of a nursing home in Hove in 2014 to attend the 70th anniversary of D-Day commemorations in France. ‘It got my mind whirring. I thought: what if the old people’s home was like a prisoner of war camp, and it was like The Great Escape?’
Walliams’ own grandfather had served in the RAF during the war. ‘The book is like a fantasy version, in a way, of my relationship with him,’ he says.
Back on terra firma, his first book, The Boy in the Dress, is getting the full all-singing, all-dancing RSC treatment. So does that mean he’s officially as good a writer as Shakespeare now?
‘Erm… they do lots of other things, besides Shakespeare,’ he points out. ‘ So I don’t think that’s a fair observation. But they obviously do great work. I’m very, very excited about it. The songs, by Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers, are really catchy, and the story really rattles along. It’s fun but, again, hopefully quite moving for people. Because there’s something quite tender at the heart of it – about a boy who wants to be different. He feels different, and by the end of the book, the world feels different. He’s touched the lives of all the people around him.
‘It was my first children’s book, and sometimes when you don’t know what you’re doing, you create your best work, because you’re just working completely on instinct. You’re not trying to please anyone but yourself. Because I had no sense at that point that anyone would ever read anything I wrote.’
But read it did they did – and then some, with Walliams’ books having racked up more than 30 million sales. ‘And that’s just today,’ he laughs. ‘It’s amazing, isn’t it? You’re very lucky to have any success in life, so to have success in different fields is pretty extraordinary. I don’t take it for granted.’
How does he feel about being regularly dubbed ‘the new Roald Dahl’? Does he accept the compliment? ‘It’s probably best not to,’ he says. ‘It might be give me a big head, but it also makes quite a lot of other people angry. It certainly isn’t something I’d say about myself. He was obviously a big influence, but I think he’s just in another universe of talent to, I think, anybody who’s working now.’
His own childhood in Surrey – back when he was plain old David Williams – was often unhappy, and he found it hard to make friends (though he was, and remains, close to his mum Kathleen). Is part of the appeal of being a children’s writer, perhaps, partly his way of addressing those difficult early years?
‘I suppose you are thinking about your own childhood,’ he muses. ‘I definitely thought back to what life was like when I was 12. When I wrote the first book, Harry Potter was the biggest thing in the world, and much as I love Harry Potter, I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want kids who were really empowered with magic and things like that. I wanted to do something that was a bit more about what life is really like when you’re a kid. Because actually you feel a bit powerless, and you feel sad, and you have difficult relationships with your parents – all that sort of thing.
‘I think most people who are writers are quite solitary people. You have to be, if you’re going to spend most of your life on your own, with your thoughts. And that’s probably how you were as a child. You go into a world of imagination. So yeah, I think it is connected to my childhood.’
Walliams says he and son Alfred, 6, from his five-year marriage to Dutch model Lara Stone, sometimes read his books together. ‘But not every night. I don’t like the idea of pushing my books onto him. When he’s an adult, I don’t want him saying “All we read were my dad’s books”. Also, I just want to be Dad, not “the author”.’
Weekend wonders how having a legion of young fans impacts on his work as a comedian. Does he still feel he has the freedom to be edgy?
‘I think I have the freedom to do anything, really,’ he says. ‘You don’t want to upset people, but at the same time, humour sometimes strays into areas that offends. That’s just the way it is. To make some people laugh, you sometimes have to make other people not happy. Morecambe and Wise never upset anybody, but you wouldn’t want all comedy to be like Morecambe and Wise.’
Walliams’ own double act with Matt Lucas – a friend since their days at the National Youth Theatre – gave rise to the Bafta-winning comedy phenomenon that was Little Britain. In recent years, the show has come in for some criticism over its cartoon depictions of everyone from working class single mums to transvestites and ethnic minorities. Lucas recently admitted that there were characters, such as transsexual Thai bride Ting Tong, that he wouldn’t play now. Walliams bristles a little at this suggestion (‘What actual quote have you got from him?’), but he admits the show – which recently returned for a one-off ‘Little Brexit’ Radio 4 special – would be unlikely to have been commissioned in the same format today.
‘Culture changes quite quickly. You watch an old James Bond film, and it’s got things in it that you think, well they wouldn’t do **that** now. Some things have become more taboo, perhaps. But I think ultimately you’ve got to be able to have jokes about everything and everybody, otherwise there’s no point having humour. I think it’s about how you do it.
‘So yeah, we’d probably approach it a bit differently if we were doing it again. But I think that’s probably the same for everybody. We started working on Little Britain about 20 years ago, so it would be kind of odd if it was completely of this moment. It was right for that moment.’
From crafting warm and witty fables about family and friendship to goofing about as Simon Cowell’s more likeable foil on Britain’s Got Talent – not to mention raising millions of pounds during his epic Sports Relief challenges like swimming the Channel and the length of the Thames – Walliams is an ebullient, positive presence in our national life. But in the past he’s spoken candidly about his battles with depression, including several suicide attempts (the first when he was just 12). At 48, though, he’s in a good place.
‘I’m pretty happy,’ he says. ‘I think fatherhood changes you a lot. You stop thinking about your own issues when another person becomes the centre of your world. There are times when you’re stressed, certainly, and you get approached by a child for a picture or something, and you have to pretend you’re not stressed. You want to give someone a good experience of you, because it might be the only time they ever meet you.’
Perhaps his philosophy is best summed up by a comment he’d made earlier, during our discussion of Grandpa’s Great Escape: ‘People always wants to separate things off, put things in a box: funny things there, sad things there,’ he’d said. ‘But I think life can be funny and sad at the same time.’
An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend, 28 November, 2019
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