Heroes and Villains

6th July 2018

Following on from the huge success of their stage production of ‘Gangsta Granny’, the Birmingham Stage Company is about to embark on a nationwide tour of an adaption of another of David Walliams’ much-loved children’s books: ‘Awful Auntie’. Al Gordon catches up with the popular author, actor and entertainer to find out more…

David Walliams, who has sold 12.5 million books and been translated into 46 languages to date, inspires the kind of love and devotion amongst today’s children that the older generation reserve for the likes of Enid Blyton, Roger Hargreaves and Roald Dahl. His characters are big, bold and fun, displaying the exaggerated moral traits of pantomime goodies and baddies.

'Gangsta Granny', his fourth novel (“inspired by my real-life granny,” David admits) was adapted for the theatre by the Birmingham Stage Company (BSC), receiving huge critical and popular acclaim. After a long-running nationwide tour, it’s set to transfer to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End next month. Eighteen months on, is David surprised at how successful 'Gangsta Granny' proved to be? “I feel it should now be on stage somewhere in the world until the end of time. Then I can retire! I am proud of the book, it seems to have really struck a chord with readers, so I am glad that more and more people can enjoy the story by seeing it on stage.”

And now David is set to work with the BSC once again – this time on the fabulous and scary 'Awful Auntie' – so it’s clearly a successful collaboration. “I think I share a sense of humour with Neal Foster who runs BSC and has written both adaptations, so it’s been very harmonious. Also the company are really successful, and have been making magnificent family shows for years, so I completely trust them.”

Writing is a solitary occupation, and it’s the job of an author to allow readers to bring characters to life inside their own heads; whereas watching a stage show is an experience shared with an audience. “When you read a book it’s normally on your own. You are likely to laugh more in an audience, so hopefully the stage show will be a hoot… You feel like a magician when, as an author, you see your book come to life. It’s a real thrill to hear audiences laughing, one that never leaves you even though I have been making comedy shows of my own for many years.”

If 'Gangsta Granny' was inspired by his colourful grandmother, it’s easy to suppose that 'Awful Auntie' is based on another less than savoury family member, but that’s an assumption that David loyally refutes. “I am lucky enough to have three nice aunties, so no, Alberta is not based on them. In writing the book I let my imagination run riot, which is normally the best way to go.”

In fact, the story is inspired in part by David’s obsession with the chilling adult film 'The Shining': “I wanted to create a horror story where a child was trapped in a house with a dangerous relative, cut off from the outside world. As for the character herself I had a lot of fun creating Aunt Alberta. Villains are always so much more fun than heroes. I wanted her to be funny as much as scary, which is something my literary hero Roald Dahl always did so brilliantly.”

It can be a challenge bringing books to the stage, and this is particularly true for 'Awful Auntie', bearing in mind the array of characters. “I think the world of 'Awful Auntie' is very heightened… for example, Aunt Alberta has a henchman who is actually an owl. So I think capturing the tone of the book and still making it believable will be the biggest challenge. Also, trying to balance the humour with the frightening moments is never easy, but I have every faith in the BSC.”

He particularly admires the way that the BSC have kept the heart of the story intact, but added lots of great new jokes too. “The cast are fantastically talented and all work off each other brilliantly. I couldn’t be happier with it,” he says.

There’s a strong moral thread running through David’s books: we root for the misunderstood young protagonists and boo the neglectful parents. Despite the outrageousness and eccentricity of many of the characters, children find they can still identify with the leads’ struggles. “Stella [the star of 'Awful Auntie'] is a pretty self-reliant heroine, and so I hope children will be inspired to find the strength within themselves to deal with bad situations,” explains David. “Also Stella is posh and even has the title ‘Lady’, but by the end of the story she realises none of that is important and that all people should be treated the same. I believe that too.”

David’s own favourite book is his second novel, 'Mr Stink', published in 2009. “I think it has a strong message about how we treat people less fortunate than ourselves,” he asserts. Although the message doesn’t always have to be quite so didactic: “The message in 'Awful Auntie' for adults is don’t lock your niece in a country house, or she may end up being killed by a giant snow-owl!”

The popularity of Walliams’ brand of escapist bedtime reading happily belies the claims of those who worry that our youngsters are too distracted by screens to read anymore. With so many technologies and activities vying for children’s attention, why does David think youngsters will still pick up a good book? “I think novels are so immersive that children do like being alone with them. I think we all have JK Rowling to thank for turning children onto books in their millions.”

The famous ‘old-school’ board game Tiddlywinks makes an appearance in 'Awful Auntie' too – does David has a secret for success at the game? “The greatest thing about Tiddlywinks is the name. It’s the best named game out there. I haven’t played it for years but I think speed is the key. Or feel free to cheat.”

And what makes a great story, does he think? “A good children’s book should be funny and exciting, and have a message that makes you think about it long after you have finished reading it.”

As well as hailing the universally adored Harry Potter author, David also admires fellow children’s writers Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo: “Dame Jacqueline Wilson is a genius. I read 'Tracy Beaker' and instantly thought I should give up… it’s so brilliant. Michael Morpurgo is an astonishingly good writer who has found an exciting way to teach children about history. He is an absolute gentleman too.” He also singles out Andy Stanton, whose books are “very funny,” and Julia Donaldson, whose books he reads with his son Alfred, five. (David is divorced from Alfred’s mum Lara Stone, an international model.)

“And let’s not forget Michael Bond who created 'Paddington'”, he concludes.

Having achieved such staggering success in writing, and on stage and screen – what’s next on the horizon for David: what lingering ambitions does he hold? “Well…”, he muses. “I would like to meet and hopefully marry [international pop-star-with-attitude] Rihanna…”

‘Awful Auntie’ is at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre from Wednesday 18 until Sun 22 July; to buy tickets visit: www.atgtickets.com/aylesbury. For full tour information visit www.birminghamstage.com

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