What was your initial reaction when you were approached about the idea of Mr Stink live on stage?
I was very flattered. It’s really exciting to think that a book you’ve written will have another life. What could be better?
Have you enjoyed working with the show’s co-producing venues, Curve in Leicester, Nottingham Playhouse and the Hackney Empire?
Absolutely. But I’ve largely left them to get on with it. If you’re close to a project, you have to let it go. I didn’t want to be looking over the producers’ shoulders the whole time. I know it would be really annoying if they had the author there saying “No, I had a comma in that sentence.” It would not be helpful, and they’d all start hating me!
It’s their baby now. I might advise, but I don’t want to dictate. I trust them completely, and I’m very pleased with the script. It’s very faithful to my book. It hasn’t suddenly been set in outer space!
Why do you think this story translates so well to the stage?
Like a lot of children’s books, it contains very vivid characters. They are ripe for the theatre because they’re so bold. They leap off the page. They’re almost like cartoon characters who really suit being on stage – unlike more subtle characters who might get lost in the theatre.
When Matt Lucas and I worked in the theatre on Little Britain Live, the characters almost worked better there than they did on television because they were so over the top. In the same way, this story feels instantly dramatic.
Are you looking forward to seeing how children react to Mr Stink on stage?
Yes. When I started writing children’s books, I was aware that loads of kids loved Little Britain, but a lot of it was quite rude for them. So it’s great to do something specifically for children where parents don’t have to worry that it might be too rude or be embarrassed to watch with their children. It’s lovely to have a show that the whole family can enjoy together.
Do you think that Mr Stink works well in this musical treatment?
Absolutely. As soon as I heard it was going to be a musical production, I thought that it was a great idea!’ It lends itself very well to that sort of treatment. In musicals, the characters are forever articulating their emotions.
Mr Stink is a book about relationships changing and people growing emotionally, so it’s very well suited to a musical treatment. Sometimes people feel things so strongly that saying the words is not enough – they have to break into song. That’s a great way of understanding musical productions.
Can you please tell us about the fact that it will be a scratch‘n’sniff production?
It is actually the world’s first ever scratch‘n’sniff theatre production! That was my idea. I felt it would be terrific fun to create this interactive element. I thought that if I were a kid, I’d love to go to this show, and be told:c"Sratch and sniff Number Two, and get this disgusting smell from it.”
Children are restless. They don’t want to sit in complete silence for the entire show. They want to be involved, to be frightened and to have a laugh. They want to feel part of the show. Even if you’ve read the book, scratch’n’sniff offers something a bit different. It’s a great way of getting children involved. They can rest assured, all the smells will be horrible!
Why has this work – known as the smelliest book of all time – struck such a chord with children?
I put a child at the centre of the story, and I try to reflect what it is really like to be that age. A lot of children’s books are about wish fulfilment – children as superheroes and spies. But I show children as powerless – as you are as a child.
When you’re very young, you don’t get to choose many things – your house, say, or your school. You’re in that situation, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. In this story, the central character Chloe transforms her family through her friendship with a tramp. In that way, the most powerless person in her family becomes the most powerful.
Mr Stink is also a classic children’s story about an outsider, isn’t it?
Exactly. I’ve always been drawn to outsiders. A lot of the characters in Little Britain were outsiders who triumph. People misread it and thought we were talking down to our characters, but actually we were showing that ultimately they’re winners.
Someone like Andy (the apparently wheelchair bound man who runs rings around his able-bodied carer Lou) always wins. Comedy is also often about the outsider observing events. It is the traditional role of the outsider to question things.
Is it also a story about tolerance?
Definitely. I hope children learn to accept people who are different and learn that everyone has a story to tell. It’s quite a simple message – that we should not judge people by how they look or, in this case, smell.
Does it also contain a message about understanding the homeless?
Yes. When you live in London, it’s very easy to see someone on the street and think “Oh, there’s another homeless person”, and to forget that everyone has a unique story to tell about why they’re there. Some people have been abused, others have run away from home. You can get desensitised because you see so many homeless people, and one way of dealing with it is just to walk on by.
But Chloe doesn’t just walk on by, does she?
No. The book is ultimately about Chloe’s courage to stop and talk to this homeless person. I hope children will relate to that. In the end, Mr Stink encourages her to fulfil her dreams. It’s the story of a very unlikely friendship.
Have you been pleased with the response to Mr Stink?
Oh yes. It’s different from television, where the reaction is very immediate. With a book, it’s slower – children might only read a few pages every night for a month. But what’s really pleasing is that I will be in a supermarket and parents will stop me and say: “Thank you. My son couldn’t get into reading until he started reading your books.”
I know that if you’re ten, there are so many amazing computer games you can play for ten hours a day and it can take a lot for some kids to get into reading. So to be thanked by parents for turning their children onto books is just amazing. I couldn’t ask for more!
Mr Stink is at the Lowry from 2 - 14 August