Roald Dahl 100: Dahl on Stage (part 1)

Could you sell 250 million books worldwide? Do you have a Fantastic Mr Fox, James and the Giant Peach or The Twits up your sleeve? There’s no other writer more adept at bringing the works of Road Dahl to life on the stage than David Wood OBE – and he’s shared his experiences with us.Described by The Times as the National Children’s Dramatist, Wood is also an actor and accomplished author with an exceptional gift for adapting children’s literature. On the 100th anniversary of Dahl’s birth, we asked David to take us into a world of Whizzpoppers, Quogwinkles and Mugglewumps…

Hello David. Your show, The Go-Between, is in the West End, you’ve won an Olivier Award, you’ve acted on stage and screen, and you’re a successful author, an OBE…how would you describe yourself to people?

It’s funny – if people asked me to describe myself I would say I’m a children’s entertainer in the widest possible sense because one of the best things I do is actually to perform for children. That’s really how I started. I was doing magic at children’s parties from the age of about 12 and what I learned from that is how children en masse react which is very different from how one or two children in a room react.

I often work in schools and use many of my own books, but I also use my adaptations and it’s amazing how, from the age of about 8, children all know Roald Dahl. He’s more popular now than ever. For a while Harry Potter took over, but Dahl came back and this year is the centenary of his birth which is good because my adaptations are used quite a lot – the Polka theatre have just done James and the Giant Peach for the third time.

James and the Giant Peach
James and the Giant Peach

Did you come from a Theatrical family?

Not really. My father had a light entertainment bent but was a personnel manager at an aircraft factory, Redwing. Part of his job was to entertain employees and so a concert party was set up. He used to tell jokes and sing songs like Love is the Sweetest Thing. At home he used to play the piano and I would stand behind and sing and that was from really quite a young age and of course I did end up writing songs. My father took me to the theatre, but only to variety shows. I remember going to see the ventriloquist, Peter Brough and Archie Andrews at Kingston Empire. My mother and father used to say every Christmas, “What do you want to go and see?” and every year I wanted to see Peter Pan because that’s the first thing I had been taken to. Children are very conservative creatures – they know what they like and they don’t want to experiment unless they have to, so I used to go and see Peter Pan every year. When I was ten I had a puppet theatre made out of an old orange box and I used to put on puppet plays for the local children who paid a couple of pennies which used to go to charity, and not long ago I found the first little plays I ever wrote which are now with my archive, part of which is in Seven Stories in Newcastle.

How did you get started writing for the stage?

When I left Oxford, I got into rep in Worcester, into a brand new company in a brand new theatre. The man who ran it John Hole, who I owe a tremendous amount to, knew about my children’s entertaining and asked would I like to do a Saturday morning children’s show where members of the rep company would tell stories and I could do magic and compere. So that’s what we did, and it got to be very popular, so in 1967 he asked if I would write the Christmas play. He wanted a play for children, not a pantomime. Looking back that was a very far-sighted thing and affected me very much. When people say can I broaden it out I find it very hard because I’m loathe to do anything that a child won’t understand, because why do that? Why go over the heads of your audience?

I never even saw that first show, The Tinderbox, because I was playing Wishee Washee in Aladdin at the Watford Palace with Amanda Barrie as Aladdin and Maureen Lipman as the Genie.

Watford Palace Theatre
Watford Palace Theatre

Are you quite a disciplined writer, or do you work best when you have a deadline?

People laugh when I say it, but I’m not a dedicated writer in the sense that I have to write my 10,000 words a day. I will write when I have to and I write very quickly. Over the years I’ve written about 70 plays for children and I have never ever – and I say this without showing off – written a play without knowing that it was going to be put on. I’ve been incredibly lucky, because I don’t think I would have done it otherwise. I don’t really enjoy the process of writing although I love it when it’s finished but while I’m writing I sit there with a feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m nervous about it, I don’t trust myself, and then I’ll put it off, make a cup of tea, all those things that writers do.

While I was adapting The BFG, I was in a hotel in Hastings, which I’d never been to before and I had to write it quickly. I’d done a certain amount of work on the synopsis so it was all alright, but I play games with myself sometimes. And one of the games is I’m not allowed to watch television until I’ve got to a certain bit or finished it. It was going quite well and then I got to the helicopter section of The BFG which is quite near the end, and I thought “I’m going to have a treat – I’m going to turn on the telly”. It was about a quarter past six in the evening and it would have been November, so it was dark. I turned on the telly – one which took time to warm up – and suddenly the voice of the newscaster came on and the first thing I heard was him announce that Roald Dahl had died earlier that day. I sat there in the gloom of this room and it was sobering, because I’d never met him and I thought, “now I never will”. I also wondered if my adaptation would now not happen. Fortunately it did.

Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl: I’d never met him and I thought “now I never will”.

Whether you are writing or adapting, do you always consider how particular scenes can be staged, or can that be for the designer and director to figure out?

I actually turned down Roald Dahl’s BFG twice because I just couldn’t think of a way of doing it that wouldn’t disappoint children. They know the book so well and they would be expecting to see a 24 foot tall giant and a little girl – but I finally found a way of doing it. Looking back it was a miracle because I thought of it on the morning that I was going to see the producers to say “no I don’t think I can do this” – for the third time!

But at breakfast I suddenly had an idea – I had to write it down…I was in Bristol because I had a show at the Bristol Hippodrome and I asked the waiter if he had something to write with – a pencil, anything…and he hadn’t! So I borrowed a pen from Reception and made notes on the back of a publicity leaflet I found in the lobby. Then I had to catch a train to Bath Theatre Royal where two producers were waiting to meet me, and I just had time for a cup of tea before the meeting so I bought an exercise book because I wanted to make it look as if I’d really been thinking hard! I made more notes, I went in and said yes, I’ve decided to do it. And that was in early November – the play opened at the end of the following January so it was incredibly tight, but thank God I did because The BFG has been huge for me. It’s just done a 10 month tour in America for Dallas Children’s Theatre.

The BFG: Sophie surrounded by giants
The BFG: Sophie surrounded by giants

So how DID you get around the staging issues for The BFG?

It was a coup de theatre: we set the first half in a child’s bedroom where the child was having a birthday party. When the entertainer fails to appear because he’s got a sore throat, the little girl, whose favourite book is The BFG says “let’s act out the story of the BFG instead”. What was pleasing about it was that the mother could be the Queen, the father could be the BFG and all the other children could be the other parts you see – so that’s what we did! Her room had various things in it that they could use as props and dressing up things, including some giant heads which to be honest no child would really have in their bedroom but which did work rather well!

In the first half, all the giants were played by real sized human beings and the little girl was played by a puppet. The idea is that the little girl is played by an actress dressed the same as the puppet. She manipulates the puppet and speaks for the puppet – I believed the children would understand that, and they did.

Vince Pellegrino as the BFG
Vince Pellegrino as the BFG: One of Dahl’s more flatulent inventions

In the second half of the book, when they go to London to Buckingham Palace, everything is reversed because you have one giant, the BFG, and you have a lot of human beings, the Queen and Sophie. Sophie drops the puppet and she becomes herself, and the Queen and all the rest are played by human being sized actors. The one giant was played by an enormous puppet which people used to think was animatronic – but it wasn’t. It was fourteen feet high and it was the BFG sitting on the grand piano as he does in Quentin Blake’s illustration in the book, and there’s a ping pong table supported by four grandfather clocks where he eats with the Queen. I managed to work it so that was the only time we saw him in that scale.

Several productions have been done since which don’t use the same framing device, for example there’s a Seattle version. Seattle wanted me to remove the framing device of the child’ss party, the story of The BFG becoming a play within a play, which I felt was the whole point of what I’d done. But it did work, and so we decided to offer the Seattle version to anyone who wanted to use it and that’s the version that was used at the Polka Theatre.

So audiences didn’t see a real giant until the second half when he looks through the window at the Queen. The huge eye looking into the room was fun as was the huge puppet that entered the ballroom and I felt that I hadn’t disappointed the children because at least they saw a proper giant!

Continue to part two of Roald Dahl 100: Dahl on Stage where we discuss Matilda, Snozzcumbers and the all-important “Loo Count”…

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