Roald Dahl 100: Dahl on Stage (part 2)

Have you ever thought about writing for children? Do you have a Fantastic Mr Fox, James and the Giant Peach or The Twits inside you? Join us for part two as David Wood takes us back inside a world of Whizzpoppers, Quogwinkles and Mugglewumps:

If you’ve just arrived on our blog, check out part one of Roald Dahl 100: Dahl on Stage first.

Are you ever influenced by Quentin Blake’s designs?

I’m really led by the text. When I began to adapt Dahls work, there were several books which Quentin Blake hadn’t yet illustrated, they’d been done by other people. But after Dahl died, his estate decided that Blake should do all of them and so they got rid of all the illustrations by other people which I think rather annoyed them. In my head there may have been occasional times when I pictured characters like Blake’s illustrations, but our designer, Susie Caulcutt didn’t use those illustrations apart from as a guide to the odd thing such as the sandals that the BFG wears which are actually the type of moccasins that Dahl used to wear. Dahl’s parents were Norwegian so there were occasional little references like that which could be used.

Quentin Blake first collaborated with Dahl on The Enormous Crocodile

Have you ever had any knock-backs?

Yes! Patrick Garland who was running Chichester at the time wrote to me and said “we’re seriously thinking about doing The BFG here in Chichester for Christmas”. So I wrote back and said I thought that was an interesting idea and as it was on tour, I gave him the date list and a few weeks later he wrote to me again: “Dear David, I went to see the BFG and I’m very very sorry but I really don’t feel I can do it at Chichester because I do feel that it’s a complete cop-out that you never see a real giant”. It was then I realised that he’d left at the Interval! I thought, well I can’t put him right, so I wrote back and said I was sorry!

After Dahl died, I actually thought the show might never be done. But it was. And luckily his widow, Liccy (Felicity) came to see The BFG about six months later and thank god she loved it. The real Sophie also liked it. And subsequently I came to be given another one to do, The Witches. That was my second Dahl adaptation, and I’ve adapted eight now.

What do you make of big budget adaptations like Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

Willy Wonka
Willy Wonka: A very different kettle of fish

It would be lovely to write a huge hit musical like that but the point is I probably couldn’t. Matilda is a show that I admire very much but I don’t feel that it’s written for children – it’s broader and more sophisticated. Stiles & Drewe and I worked on Matilda over 20 years ago – they wrote some lovely songs and I wrote a lot of scenes. We did a little showcase, just the three of us without actors – I read, George played and Ants sung, but everyone you can think of was applying for the rights and eventually Dahl’s estate gave them to the RSC.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a different kettle of fish. When Warner Brothers got the rights to do the original Willy Wonka film with Gene Wilder, they were given the stage as well as the film rights. Nothing happened stage-wise for quite a long time until Warner Brothers did the second film, the Johnny Depp version. The realisation that they had the stage rights and that Disney had done rather well with Lion King and Beauty and the Beast led to them agreeing to collaborate on a stage version.

Have a generation of Matilda's really changed so much?
Have a generation of Matilda’s really changed so much?

Have children’s shows changed dramatically over the years?

I’ve been writing children’s plays for 49 years now and when I started there was very little around specifically for children. At Christmas there might be Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland but it really was mainly Pantomime. Peter Pan was only ever really done in London – nobody was allowed to do it as a regional production. So my dream was to do work that children would respond to – particularly primary school children who don’t normally get the chance of going because their parents won’t take them. I had a belief that theatre was a trigger to the imagination and that every primary school child should be taken to the theatre for free at least once. Well we’re still not there yet but what has happened is that there has been an explosion in the work and now it’s looked upon as commercially viable which it never was before.

It intrigues me that if you look around now at the big musicals, Lion King, Shrek, Mary Poppins, Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they’re all based on children’s books. And what Producers realised, as the scales fell from their eyes is that if you took a children’s favourite classic title you had the widest common denominator as far as your audience was concerned.

Willy Wonka 2
Producers realised… you had the widest common denominator

What, for you, is the difference between a children’s show and a family show?

The difference between those big family musicals and what I do, is very simple. A children’s show is a show to which children are taken, whereas a family show you would have no hesitation about going to on your own as an adult. And you can tell very often too by the performance times – a children’s show you would normally expect to be a matinee show. My Dahls actually do go on at seven o’clock because Dahl does have a wide appeal and sometimes adults do come on their own. There’s a sort of crossover there.

How important is it that theatre is entertaining for children?

I am aware that every audience will contain first-timers and I want to keep those first-timers. If I bore the pants off them, or do something which they won’t understand, they’re going to turn off. I call it “The Loo Count”. If any child leaves to go to the loo then I’ve failed! They’re devious creatures, children – they know if they say “I want a wee” most adults won’t risk a wet seat and will take them out! Everything I do is about wanting them to want to stay to know what happens next, it’s the equivalent of the page turning quality of a book. And it’s the same with an interval – if I’m adapting a book, what’s the first thing I look for in that book? It may sound flippant, but I look for the interval. Because I’ve got to have a good moment where you can stop, leaving people wanting to come back. Otherwise they might just say “well, that’s it then” and leave – which would be terrible.

I always look for the interval
I always look for the interval first.

What are the key elements in a show, or a book, for children – and why does Dahl get it so right?

Amongst all things that children like, for example food, animals, magic and music, one of the things they like most is justice. They are very hot on justice, children, and one of the first things they learn to say is “it’s not fair” – if you give a child one piece of chocolate and another two pieces, “it’s not fair”. And this is why so many of the classic stories, Cinderella being an absolutely perfect example, are to do with unfairness. We root for Cinderella because she’s being unfairly treated and we want her to win through. It’s not rags to riches so much, it’s her getting her happiness because she’s a good person. So in many of my plays a similar theme comes up whereby one character is being unfairly treated by another. I know that will trigger something in the mind of a child just as it would in an adult.

What Roald Dahl does so brilliantly is look at things from the child’s point of view, which is what Roald Dahl does so brilliantly. He understands how children’s minds work. And it’s very significant that a lot of children are the protagonists in his stories: Sophie in The BFG, James and the Giant Peach, Danny the Champion of the World, the boy in The Witches who isn’t named in the book, and George’s Marvellous Medicine – children are the main characters. And why does Dahl do that? Because he knows that the reader is going to identify with them. It’s very basic and very clever – he used every ingredient that I could ever have thought up – they’re all there. He uses food a lot – James and the Giant Peach, and in The BFG there’s Frobscottle the drink and Snozzcumbers which the giants don’t like eating.

He uses magic and fantasy in the books, and animals like the Mugglewumps in The Twits. I think that when he decided to write for children, which wasn’t an automatic decision for him at all, Dahl genuinely drew on classic themes – the Giant Peach is like the Beanstalk, Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge – they’re the Ugly Sisters and the whole idea of the giant in The BFG – giants are very classical. And there’s nothing wrong in that – they are all ingredients and they work with children because they will emotionally involve them. A lot of people criticised Dahl early on and didn’t want their children to read his books because they were dark and subversive. The heads of the Army and the Airforce in The BFG are mercilessly satirised. You could question whether The BFG and the Whizzpop – the whole idea of farting being a thing that you celebrate – is something we want for our children? Well he enters those taboo areas but at the same time, nobody could say that those books are proclaiming immorality or badness because every single time, evil is overcome.

I'll stop when
I’ll go on doing this until I stop getting a buzz…

Do you think you’ll ever stop writing and just put your feet up?

I’ve always said I will go on doing this until I stop getting a buzz from being at the back of the theatre when the children are really enjoying themselves, because that, to me, is such a challenge and such a difficult thing to do. There are so many actors who wouldn’t survive if you put them on at ten o’clock in the morning in front of a thousand children!

Missed part one? Our interview with David Wood starts here.

David Wood wrote Book & Lyrics for The Go-Between which is currently playing at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue. You can read our Go-Between interview here.

Mad about Roald Dahl?

You can still buy tickets for Matilda The Musical here and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tickets are also on sale – the show ends on January 7th 2017 so don’t miss out!