David Wood started his career as an actor, appearing in many shows both regionally and in the West End. He turned his attention to playwriting due to a love of magic and a lack of quality children’s plays. He has now written over 70 stage plays for young people and was awarded an OBE in 2004.
His original plays include The Gingerbread Man, The Papertown Paperchase, Hijack Over Hygenia, Nutcracker Sweet, The Plotters of Cabbage Patch Corner, The See-Saw Tree and The Selfish Shellfish. He has also adapted many children’s books into plays, including several of Roald Dahl’s stories (The BFG, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches (which has been in the West End three times) and The Twits, as well as Tom’s Midnight Garden and Babe The Sheep-Pig, and stories from Noddy, Spot and Meg and Mog for toddlers.
Many of Wood’s plays have also been adapted for schools, and his work is performed professionally all over the UK as well as by amateur companies. His film screenplays include Swallows and Amazons and Back Home, which won a gold award at the New York Film and TV Festival 1991. Wood’s writing for television includes the series Chips’ Comic, Chish ‘N’ Fips, The Gingerbread Man and Tide Race, his filmed drama for Central Television and the European Broadcasting Union, which has won several international awards.
As well as being a playwright, Wood has also written many children’s books, and recently published a book about children’s theatre. His adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Twits opens for a Christmas season at north London’s Arts Depot next week.
Date & place of birth
Born 21 February 1944 in Surrey.
Lives now in
Wimbledon, south London.
What made you want to work in theatre?
Seeing Peter Pan when I was very young had a big impact. I started learning magic when I was very young too and I started doing magic at children’s parties when I was about 12. So it was inevitable really that I’d want to work in theatre. I knew from a very young age. I remember watching a variety show on television and thinking that was what I wanted to do. I never trained as such, but I went to Oxford to read English. Theatrically, I think I did more there than I would have done at drama school. I was there with people like Michael Palin and Terry Jones and Diana Quick. A lot of us turned professional - I was in the West End twice as a student.
First big break
When I was at Oxford, we did a show with the Experimental Theatre Club called Hang Down Your Head and Die and that transferred from the Oxford Playhouse to the West End. I look back on as a very important milestone.
I thoroughly enjoyed directing and writing at the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre this year with Babe, The Sheep Pig. And acting wise, A Voyage Round My Father in which I was the first ever person to play the son. That was on stage at Greenwich in the 1970s. I did it opposite Michael Redgrave in Canada a few years later and I loved that.
Lindsay Anderson who directed me in If… in 1968, which became a cult film. I also loved working with Jack Gold on Aces High and a TV play called Mad Jack about Siegfried Sassoon. I always remember him as a very clever director.
I admire Alan Ayckbourn very much and Stiles and Drew, who are friends of mine and who wrote the new songs for Mary Poppins. I find what they do very interesting because it combines child and adult appeal. They’re not regarded as children’s writers but their work comes from a child-orientated view.
What made you first decide to write for children?
This thing of doing magic at children’s parties started it off. When I went into rep at the Swan Theatre in Worcester in the mid-1960s, I went in as an actor/director. That was wonderful for me because I was only 23 or something. I would act in one play and then direct the next one. There were only two is us in that role, the other was Sam Walters. I also did Saturday morning children’s theatre where we did an entertainment show doing magic and things. As a result of that, a man called John Hole, who owned the theatre, asked me if I would write the Christmas play for that year, and that’s where it all started.
How do you select the books you adapt for the stage?
I suppose I’m looking for a story which is going to work on stage that I can make work theatrically. It’s not always the case that a very good book will make a very good play, it’s got to do with character, plot and situation. There are some stories that lend themselves more to the stage. These days people ring me up quite often and ask me to adapt their books, so it’s not always a question of me finding it. When I’ve found a book I think will work, the first thing I have do is look for the interval because the structure of a book is very different from a play and, particularly with a children’s play, you need a good ending for the first half that makes them want to come back. But you can’t expect there to be a cliff-hanger halfway through a book so finding the interval is a very important question as a way of pacing the story and making it work. It’s very easy to become distracted, bored, or whatever and kick the seat in front and talk to your friend or very often you want to go to the loo. Children can be very devious. They know how to manipulate adults. The best way of getting out of a show they’re bored of is to ask to go to the loo - it’s very unlikely that an adult is going to take the risk of a wet seat. So I’ve been saying recently that my job for 40 years has been to stop children from going to the loo!
Do you believe the old adage of “never work with children or animals”?
No! I’ve done it all my life. Certainly I’ve used animals in performances and also animal characters in plays are very useful for children because they seem to prefer them to humans. Very often in the most successful children’s stories, there’s a child protagonist so you’re seeing something through a child’s eyes and you’re sort of empowering them, so you need it to be all about the children and not let adults get in the way. If you want the child protagonists to do exciting things, you need to get rid of the parents by putting them in boarding school or they can go and visit a neglectful uncle or something like that so that the children can go off and be left to their own devices.
People often say children are the most critical members of an audience. Do you think this is the case?
They are the most difficult audience, but at the same time they’re the most rewarding audience because they’re the most giving. If you get it right, the response they give you is a far more honest and exciting gut reaction than adults will give you. The challenge never gets easier, but you have to give them a good time and to educate and entertain and trigger their imaginations and make them laugh and cry and all these things. The fact is they are far more willing to enter into the spirit of things than adults, but they are more difficult to hold the attention of.
Do you prefer writing for the stage or screen?
I haven’t done enough screen writing to really say, but my heart lies in theatre.
What was the last stage production that had a big impact on you? And the first?
Apart from a little show at school, it was Peter Pan, which I was enchanted by. I saw a preview of The Sound of Music, and I was very impressed. I think the whole thing was very cleverly done in the sense that it was not as sugary as sometimes you tend to think it is, but at the same time it was charming and had a muscularity about it.
What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become involved with theatre?
I was going to say magic, but I suppose that’s theatrical too. I suppose I would probably have been a teacher.
What advice would you give the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
I’m chair of Action for Children’s Arts and we’re in the process of putting together what we’d like to call a Children’s Arts Manifesto because there are certain entitlements children should have on top of the ones we take for granted like heath and general education, to do with triggering imagination and in order to do that there should be enough funding in theatre which allows every child the right to “suck it and see” and to go to the theatre at least once if not twice in their primary school lives. That sounds quite easy, but of course it’s not because I would want them to go free and have free transport as well. It also means they’ve got to fund enough companies to do the work so there are enough things for the children to go and see.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I’m fascinated by JM Barrie, so probably him. The other would be the first owner of my Edwardian house because I’ve always been interested to see what it was like back in the Edwardian days.
I suppose when I was small Enid Blyton got me reading. I do tend to read quite a lot of children’s books still because that’s partly my job and there are some very good ones around. I particularly like Michelle Magorian who wrote Goodnight Mr Tom.
Favourite holiday destinations
Menorca. We use to go there as a family a lot and my wife and I still go for the occasional week or two. I also enjoy America. Children’s writing here is not regarded as very important academically, but over in America I feel more at home because you can do a degree in it there and somehow people seem to respect it more.
Why did you think The Twits would make a good play?
Unusually in The Twits, there isn’t in fact a child protagonist. It’s about a very nasty couple who do very nasty things to each other and to birds and monkeys – so back to animals again and defenceless creatures - who they treat rather cruelly by trying to make them into a circus act. Children love it because it’s the subversive side of Dahl and it’s grotesque and it’s a very moral story because they are defeated in the end. I could see it working in many ways, but physically Mr and Mrs Twit are very unpleasant to each other. In order to do that up on stage, I thought it would have to be done as a form of clowning theatrically, which also led me to one line in the book that says they worked in a circus in the past, so it gave me the idea to set the whole thing in a circus. The circus idea seems to have worked very well. It’s very different to the others in that way.
What do you think makes the show appeal to children (& adults)?
Dahl is unusual in that when you do a Dahl adaptation you can put it on at 7pm and know that you’ll get an audience that will be a mixture of families and adults coming on their own. Very few writers have that mass appeal. Most children’s plays just wouldn’t get an audience in the evening, but with Dahl they do. I remember when The Witches was on one year, I saw a whole party of young ladies in their 20s. I couldn’t understand why they were there all there together - it was their office party and they’d chosen to go to that rather than something else because of the nostalgia of seeing one of your favourite childhood books on stage.
Have you always been a fan of Roald Dahl, particularly having adapted several of his books into stage plays?
He has so many of the classic ingredients. The stories are very moral and they’re also subversive. They use taboo subjects which sometimes adults would prefer their children not to be getting to know or talking about, and they pull the rug from under adults so in those ways they empower the children who then feel in charge. Also he wrote wonderful baddies that you really love to hate and the child protagonist is important. He knew about what I like to call old wine in new bottles, he knew what the classic ingredients are and he slightly changed them so you have giants and witches – which have been in stories going back as far as anyone can think - but he brought them into his books in quite an original way. His witches are not the traditional witches with pointy hats, they look like ordinary women. To a certain extent, I use those principals in my own original plays. I suppose my best known original play is The Gingerbread Man, and that has the classic theme of intolerance and acceptance of a newcomer.
What are your plans for the future?
Danny Champion of the World is on tour at the moment and James and the Giant Peach is on at the Octagon in Bolton so I’ve got a Roald Dahl hat-trick going on, which is exciting. I am also writing another play, but I can’t really talk about that yet.
David Wood was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
The Twits is at the Arts Depot, Barnet, from 28 November 2006 to 7 January 2007.