Don’t assume old people are boring says Gangsta Granny author David Walliams
- Credit: Archant
Gangsta Granny author David Walliams talks about the special bond he had with his grandmas and his passion for writing for children.
When actor, writer and comedian David Walliams was a boy, he’d sit captivated at the knees of his two grandmas as they spun tales of their lives. Decades later, when adult David was a successful author, he decided to return to those days of childhood and recreate that special bond.
His best-selling novel Gangsta Granny was the result. Published in 2011, it went straight to number one in the children’s book charts.
The acclaimed Birmingham Stage Company’s stage version recently visited Ipswich Regent. It stops by Southend’s Cliffs Pavilion from July 6-9 and Norwich Theatre Royal from July 13-15.
Ben has to spend every Friday night with his gran while his parents go ballroom dancing — and it’s always an ordeal of cabbage soup and Scrabble. One day he finds a tin filled with diamonds and gems, which leads to the amazing discovery his granny was once an international jewel thief. Persuaded by Ben, they take on the biggest heist ever: to steal the Crown Jewels.
David’s grannies were no mobsters, but he admits he did take a touch of inspiration from them. “When I was a child I would spend lots of time with my grandmas. Sometimes I would selfishly think spending time with them could be boring, but when I got them on a subject like living in London during the Second World War, when bombs were raining down, they would become very animated and I would be enthralled. I realised everyone has a story to tell.”
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He even added cheeky elements of their characters to his Gangsta Granny. “There was definitely a smell of cabbages in one of my grandmas’ houses,” David admits. “The other did break wind like a duck, quacking when she walked across the room.”
They were also greatly loved – just as there is a special bond between Ben and his gran.
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“I think grandparents love being grandparents because they get to give the children back to the parents. Children love spending time with their grandparents because they love hearing their stories and being allowed to stay up past their bedtime.”
David’s career as an author began 10 years. “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 eight children’s novels.” Those novels — including Ratburger, Demon Dentist, Mr Stink and Billionaire Boy — have all been hugely successful. David now has more than six million sales to his name.
Awful Auntie was the fastest-selling hardback of 2014 and went on to win the National Book Award for Children’s Book of the Year. “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,” he says.
“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.”
David has been compared to Roald Dahl, his own hero. “I think Dahl’s books always feel a little bit forbidden. He balances the humour and scary elements in his stories perfectly. My favourite is The Twits, which is utterly hilarious, and I love that it is a children’s book with no child characters. 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.”
David believes his own popularity is down to the fact his books are laced with humour and never patronise youngsters. “I deal with quite big topics: cross-dressing, homelessness, grief etc. I know children are a lot smarter than most grown-ups think.” Two years after it was published, the BBC made a star-studded TV film version of Gangsta Granny, shown as part of its Christmas schedule. It seemed only natural it should also become a stage show.
David was approached by the Birmingham Stage Company, whose string of Roald Dahl adaptations including James and the Giant Peach and George’s Marvellous Medicine made it an obvious contender. When he saw their West End production of Horrible Histories – Barmy Britain, the deal was sealed.
“I loved the humour and the interaction with the audience. Productions for children need to be fun and fast-paced... I think, from pantomimes, children like audience interaction too.
“It’s a huge thrill seeing Gangsta Granny have this whole new life on the stage. People seem to really like the story. In fact, Gangsta Granny is my best-selling book by far. There is lots of action in it, especially when they try to steal the Crown Jewels. The challenge was bringing those scenes to life. But having seen the production’s first night at Birmingham in 2015, I think it’s a fantastic show — so much better than the book.”
David says that in all the craziness of Gangsta Granny, at its heart is a very special relationship.
“The moral of the story is don’t assume old people are boring just because they are old. 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.”
Born in Surrey, David studied drama at Bristol University before joining Matt Lucas to create the television show Little Britain.
Initially a radio show, it became a TV sensation, gaining a host of awards including three BAFTAs and being screened in more than 100 countries.
The duo went on to tour with Little Britain Live, which was seen by more than a million people in the UK, Ireland and Australia.
David’s varied career has seen him appear in films like The Look of Love and Run Fatboy Run.
He played Frankie Howerd in the biopic Rather You Than Me, Agatha Christie detective Tommy in Partners in Crime, and has written and acted in the sitcom Big School and Walliams and Friend.
A trustee of BBC’s Comic Relief, he has undertaken a number of challenges for the charity, including swimming the English Channel and the River Thames.
In 2012 he became a judge on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent. Bearing in mind the obsession Ben’s parents in Gangsta Granny have for ballroom, has David ever considered crossing channels and donning his rhinestones for the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing?
“I can’t dance at all - as you might have seen in the TV adaptation of Gangsta Granny when I tried to dance with Miranda Hart. So I would say my chances are less than zero,” he laughs.