WHEN actor, humorist, author, talent-show judge, Channel swimmer and activist David Walliams was a child he spent time aplenty with his grandmas.
So began his odyssey to writing Gangsta Granny, his book for children that has since transferred to the stage in Birmingham Stage Company’s touring production, whose latest itinerary takes in the Grand Opera House from February 3 to 6, having first played the York theatre in September 2016.
“Sometimes I would selfishly think spending time with my grannies could be boring,” he says. “But when I got them on a subject like living in London during World War II, when bombs were raining down, they would become very animated and I would be enthralled. I realised everyone has a story to tell.”
In Walliams’s tale, Friday night means only one thing for Ben: staying with Granny, where he must put up with cabbage soup, cabbage pie and cabbage cake. Ben knows one thing for sure – it will be so, so boring – but what Ben doesn’t know is that Granny has a secret.
Soon Friday nights will be more exciting than he could ever imagine, as he embarks on the adventure of a lifetime with his very own Gangsta Granny.
“There was definitely a smell of cabbages in one of my grandmas’ houses,” recalls Walliams, giving an insight into his inspiration for Gangsta Granny. “The other did break wind like a duck quacking when she walked across the room.”
Walliams acknowledges the special bond between children and their grandparents. “I think grandparents love being grandparents because they get to give the children back to the parents!” says the 50-year-old Little Britain and Partners In Crime television star.
“Children love spending time with their grandparents because they love hearing their stories and being allowed to stay up past their bedtime.”
He is delighted that Gangsta Granny has become a stage show. “It’s a huge thrill seeing Gangsta Granny have this whole new life on the stage. It’s already been a TV film. People seem to really like the story,” says Walliams. “In fact Gangsta Granny is my best-selling book by far, and the stage show is brilliant – better than the book.”
Assessing the potential challenges or difficulties in staging Gangsta Granny, he says: “There is lots of action, especially when they try to steal the Crown Jewels. It’s quite a challenge for Birmingham Stage Company to bring those scenes to life but they do it so well,” he says. “Shows for children need to be fun and fast paced, which Gangsta Granny certainly is.”
He particularly likes how the characters of Ben’s mum and dad work on stage. “Their obsession with ballroom dancing is very funny, brought to life in the play,” says Walliams, who first saw the Birmingham company in one of their Horrible Histories shows, which made him keen to work with them. “I loved the humour and the interaction with the audience, so I look forward to seeing more of that.
“The great thing about seeing Gangsta Granny on stage is you will get to share it with an audience. So hopefully you will laugh and cry along with everyone else. That’s what makes theatre so special.”
What does Walliams hope children will take away from watching Gangsta Granny in York next month? “The moral of the story is, ‘don’t assume old people are boring just because they are old’,” he advises. “In fact, they are likely to have had a much more interesting life than yours. Talk to old folk, listen to their stories. They are bound to be full of magic and wonder.”
Wise words indeed from Walliams, who took up writing children’s fiction 15 years ago. “I had an idea for a story: what if a boy went to school dressed as a girl? I thought it would be a thought-provoking children’s book. That became The Boy In The Dress, my first of many children’s novels,” he says.
“The only limitation in a children’s book is your imagination. You can take children on magical journeys in books that many adults would be reluctant to go on.”
Walliams highlights the challenges presented by writing for children? “Children love to be scared but it can’t be too horrifying. Children love to laugh but it can’t be too rude. You always have to be the right side of the line,” he says.
He admires the work of Roald Dahl, arguably the 20th century doyen of children’s authors. “I think Dahl’s books always feel a little bit forbidden. He manages to balance the humour and scary elements in his stories perfectly,” says Walliams, who picks The Twits as his favourite Dahl story. “It’s utterly hilarious and I love that it’s a children’s book with no child characters.”
He recalls enjoying other writers, such as Dr Seuss, in his childhood days. “I loved Dr Seuss books as a child, especially Green Eggs And Ham. His books are like nightmares come to life. They are rich and strange and utterly unlike anybody else’s work,” says Walliams.
David Walliams has become popular in his own right as a children’s author and ticket sales for Gangsta Granny testify to that popularity. “I imagine children like the humour and that I don’t patronise them,” he says, summing up his appeal as a storyteller. “I deal with quite big topics, cross-dressing, homelessness, grief. I know children are a lot smarter than most grown-ups think.”
Premiered in 2015, Gangsta Granny has become a West End hit twice over, prompting stage adaptations of Walliams’s books Awful Auntie and Billionaire Boy too. Now Birmingham Stage Company actor-manager Neal Foster’s adaptation returns to York for a second Grand Opera House run, full of Walliams’s humorous home truths wrapped inside family relationships.
Birmingham Stage Company in Gangsta Granny, Grand Opera House, York, February 3 to 6; Thursday to Saturday, 2.30pm and 7pm, Sunday, 11am and 3pm. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/york. Suitable for age 5+.
Did you know?
Since the 2008 publication of his first novel, The Boy In The Dress, David Walliams’s books have sold 44 million copies worldwide and been translated into 55 languages.