David Walliams is one of Britain’s best-known comedians but a new show based on one of his best-selling children’s books is unafraid to tackle tragedy. James Rampton reports.
Grandpa’s Great Escape, by David Walliams, has already had an astonishing life. It has been both a number one best-selling book and a hugely popular TV film. Now it is being transferred to the live arena in a spectacular new show that is touring the country this Christmas, including a stop in Yorkshire at Sheffield Arena.
Chatting to me in the run-up to the tour, Walliams cannot contain his excitement about the show. “Grandpa’s Great Escape Live is an incredible new development for the book. We’re not just turning it into a live show, but into a spectacular live arena show for all the family this Christmas. Being in arenas means we can have a life-size Spitfire, a tank, the London landscape and a dramatic escape from the Imperial War Museum.
“I couldn’t be more excited about it.”
Walliams is one of the most successful children’s authors of all time. His books have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, and many have already been made into films and plays. Grandpa’s Great Escape is his eighth book and has sold more than two million copies across the world since being published in September 2015.
The book, translated into 39 languages, was garlanded with praise on its publication and Walliams was even described by The Evening Standard as “the new Roald Dahl”.
This story centres on Grandpa, played in the show by Nigel Planer from The Young Ones. Many years ago, he was a Second World War flying ace. But when he is dispatched to the grim old folk’s home Twilight Towers – run by the villainous Matron Swine – Grandpa and his grandson Jack have to plan an audacious escape. Unbeknown to them, the evil matron is on their tail.
Grandpa’s Great Escape Live follows the acclaimed television film, which aired on BBC One in December 2018.
The impressive set for the live show recreating London includes Buckingham Palace and the River Thames, seen from thousands of feet in the air as Grandpa’s life-size Spitfire soars across the sky.
Walliams is very pleased this production can give the story the scale it deserves. “I wanted this to be really spectacular. Some of my stories are more intimate than others but this felt like a big spectacular. It’s great because we can really go to town with all those elements and this story demands that scale.”
The 48-year-old Little Britain and Britain’s Got Talent star adds: “In the book, the plane drives through London before taking off. For budgetary reasons, we couldn’t do that in the TV version. But on stage, where you can suspend disbelief, you can bring to life all those dramatic parts of the book. It’s all thanks to the magic of theatre.
“There’s a real sense of magic in the theatre and I love that. I really like the creative ways theatre people solve problems. Look at the way they bring the animals to life on stage in The Lion King. You know they’re not real because you can see people operating the puppets but it doesn’t take away any of the magic.
“It’s the same with the puppets in the play War Horse. Audiences buy into that, even though they know they’re not real. Funnily enough, a lot of people find the play War Horse more moving than the film, even though the film uses a real horse. It is hard to explain but the magic of theatre suspends us all in the moment.
“My son is six and at the shows I take him to the spectacle is often more important than the story. Because younger children are sometimes not following the intricacies of the plot, they are sitting there in wonder at those elements. I really want to foreground that in Grandpa’s Great Escape Live and make sure it’s super spectacular.
“It’s a real cross-generational story. It is about the special relationship between a grandson and a grandfather. It’s a story that can be shared across the generations.”
Walliams, whose grandfathers were both in the war, adds: “Things aimed at children usually work just as well for adults. As a parent, you often choose to take your children to things that you want to see too.
“If it’s something super smart like a Pixar movie, you want to see it even more than your child. But if it is something very childish, you think, ‘God, this is going to be so tedious!’ I am trying to write in a very aspirational way. When I was a kid, the comedy shows I wanted to see were the ones I wasn’t allowed to watch, which were on later at night. I really want this to work for grown-ups as well as kids.”
The show contains tragedy as well as comedy. “The book is a good balance between adventure, humour and emotion. There is a very serious part of it in that Grandpa is losing his memory and thinks he’s back in the Second World War. A lot of people are affected by that issue of dementia. I also had the idea of old people escaping from a home and making it like The Great Escape, which is comic. I was trying to balance out those elements.
“At first, I was worried that they couldn’t coexist, but actually the comedy informs the tragedy. The fact that Grandpa thinks he’s trying to escape from a PoW camp rather than an old people’s home makes it natural that it would be a Second World War-style escape. It is absolutely the case that comedy and tragedy live side by side in real life. People laugh in the most extraordinary circumstances. When you visit people in hospital, you often laugh when something funny happens. It alleviates the tension. People want to divide comedy and tragedy but life isn’t like that.”
Walliams, who has been inspired by the war films he loved as a boy, such as Where Eagles Dare and A Bridge Too Far, adds: “I hope it will reinvigorate people’s interest in the Second World War and remind them of the special connection between grandparents and grandchildren.
“So many of my childhood memories are of being with my grandparents because they were so out of the ordinary. I did things with them that I never did with my parents, like going to the panto. There’s an emotional part of Grandpa’s Great Escape that I’m very proud of. I wasn’t known for that.
“My career was launched with Little Britain. So when you think you’ve pulled off something heartfelt and emotional, it’s an amazing feeling because it’s come purely out of your imagination.
“Human beings love stories and can buy into any story. I always cry at the relationship between mother and baby elephant in Dumbo. I can see the characters aren’t real because they’re drawn but it’s still so affecting. I want audiences to forget about their everyday lives and enter this fantasy world where a group of OAPs are escaping from an old people’s home. Above all, I want audiences to have fun. I think people will have a wonderful experience.”
Me, too. Grandpa’s Great Escape Live will be at the FlyDSA Arena on December 29. Visit www.grandpasgreatescapelive.co.uk