WHENÂ actor, writer and comedian David Walliams was a boy he used to sit captivated at the knees of his two grandmas as they span him tales of their lives. The youngster was amazed at how dramatic and exciting their experiences of World War II had been.
Decades later, when the adult David was a successful author, he decided to return to those days of his childhood and recreate that specialond between children and their grandmothers.
His best-selling novel Gangsta Granny was the result. Published in 2011, it went straight to number one in the children’s book charts and has gone on to be the most successful of all his novels so far.Â
The hugely acclaimed Birmingham Stage Company recently launched the first theatrical version of the book, and this week it comes to Tunbridge Wells for a run of five nights, with two shows daily, starting from today [June 21].
If you’re not familiar with the story, then here’s a quick recap: Gangsta Granny opens with Ben having to visit his ‘boring old grandma’. Ben has to spend every Friday night with his gran while his parents go ballroom dancing – and it’s always an ordeal that involves bowls of cabbage soup and Scrabble.Â
Then one day he finds a tin filled with gems which leads to the amazing discovery that his granny was once an international jewel thief! Encouraged by Ben, she agrees to take on the biggest heist ever to steal the Crown Jewels – and the adventure of their lifetimes begins.
While David’s grannies were no mobsters, he admits that he did take a touch of inspiration from them.
“When I was a child, I would spend lots of time with my grandmas,” he reveals.Â
“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 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.”
Born in Surrey, David studied drama at Bristol University before joining with Matt Lucas to create the television show Little Britain. Initially a radio show, Little Britain became a television sensation, gaining a host of awards, including three BAFTAs, and has been screened in more
than 100 countries.
Now a well-known actor, David decided to try his hand at fiction. “Ten years ago I had an idea for a story,” he recalls. “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.”
His novels, including Ratburger, Demon Dentist, Mr Stink and Billionaire Boy, have all topped the charts, winning a host of awards. David now has more than six million book sales to his name, and has had his stories translated into 40 different languages.Â
Writing for children has proved to be a real passion for him.
‘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’
“The only limitation in a children’s book is your imagination,” he says. “You can take children on magical journeys in books that many adults would be reluctant to go on.Â
“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 frequently been compared to Roald Dahl, his own childhood writing hero.
“I think Dahl’s books always feel a little bit forbidden. He manages to balance the humour and scary elements in his stories perfectly.Â
“My favourite is The Twits, which is utterly hilarious, and I love that it is a children’s book with no child characters.”
Keen to ensure his own novels prove to be just as memorable for children, David believes his popularity is down to the fact they are laced with humour and never patronise youngsters.
“I deal with quite big topics – cross-dressing, homelessness, grief etc,” he says. “I know children are a lot smarter than most grown-ups think.”
Two years after it was published, the BBC made a film version of Gangsta Granny which was shown as part of its Christmas schedule. With Reece Buttery as Ben and Julia McKenzie as Granny, its star-studded cast also included Joanna Lumley, Rob Brydon, singer Robbie Williams, Miranda Hart as Ben’s mum and David Walliams as his dad.
After the success of the television film, it seemed only natural that Gangsta Granny should 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.
“It’s a huge thrill seeing Gangsta Granny have this whole new life on the stage,” says David. “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 I think it’s a fantastic show, so much better than the book!”
David also loved watching some of his characters take shape. “I especially like the characters of Ben’s mum and dad. They have an obsession with ballroom dancing which is very funny live on stage. The great thing about seeing Gangsta Granny in the theatre is the audience gets to share the fun together.”
David is hoping Birmingham Stage Company’s Gangsta Granny will be the perfect outing for families – and that a granny or two are in the audience. And, casting his mind back to his own childhood, he 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’,” he says. “In fact, they are likely to have had a much more interesting life than yours.Â
“Talk to old folk, listen to their stories. They are bound to be full of magic and wonder.”
Gangsta Granny runs from June 21-25. Tickets start at Â£16.50 per adult and Â£12.50 per child.
For more information on prices and performances, see www.assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk