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'I’m delighted to be involved with this arena tour': David Walliams talks ahead of Grandpa's Great Escape in Birmingham

By Andy Richardson | Birmingham | Theatre & Comedy | Published:

Grandpa’s Great Escape, by David Walliams, has already had an astonishing life. It has been a number one best-selling book and a hugely popular TV film.

Now, in a very exciting development, it is being transferred to the live arena in a spectacular new show that is touring the country this Christmas. So strap in for Grandpa’s Great Escape Live. It is going to be a thrilling ride.

David 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.”

He adds: “I’m delighted to be involved with this arena tour of Grandpa’s Great Escape Live, working with fantastic people like the director Sean Foley and Kevin Cecil, who’s written the script. I couldn’t be more excited about it.”

David 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 was published in September 2015 by HarperCollins Children’s Books. It has sold more than two million copies worldwide.

The book, which has been translated into 39 languages, was garlanded with praise on its publication. The Evening Standard described David as, “The new Roald Dahl”, while The Times called the story, “A beguilingly funny, original and thought-provoking tale… hilarious”.

This widely-loved 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.

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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. But unbeknownst 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 live show will be directed by Tony Award nominee Sean Foley (The Catherine Tate Show Live & The Painkiller).

Thanks to the splendid stage design for Grandpa’s Great Escape Live, arenas around the UK will be transformed into London and its landmarks.

These include Buckingham Palace and the River Thames, seen from thousands of feet in the sky, as Grandpa’s life-size Spitfire soars through the air. The set for this multi-million pound production has been created by Stufish Entertainment Architects (Cirque du Soleil, Beyonce & Jay Z, Madonna, The Rolling Stones).

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David is 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 of those elements and this story demands that scale. If people have already read the book, you have to give them something that is different and bigger and better.”

David Walliams

David, 48, continues that the bewitching nature of theatre helps the production conjure up the sheer scope of the story. “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.”

Hitting his rhetorical strike, David adds: “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.”

David, who has starred in such hit TV shows as Little Britain, Come Fly with Me, Big School and Walliams & Friend, adds: “It’s the same with the puppets in the play of War Horse. Audiences buy into that, even though they know they’re not real.

“Funnily enough, a lot of people find the play of 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.”

Grandpa’s Great Escape Live is the perfect show for all the family. David reflects: “My son is six. 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.”

The show is also ideal Yuletide fare. David says: “It’s great that we are on at Christmas. 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.”

Like The Simpsons or Toy Story, Grandpa’s Great Escape Live is a tale that will resonate with different age groups. David, whose grandfathers were both in the war, says: “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.”

Grandpa’s Great Escape Live is a very rich story, mixing comedy with tragedy. David says: “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.”

Nigel Planer

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. I felt those things could go together in Grandpa’s Great Escape.”

David, who has been inspired by the war films he loved as a boy, such as The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare and A Bridge Too Far, wraps up by underscoring what he hopes audiences will take away from Grandpa’s Great Escape Live. “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 a comedy show, 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 the mother and the baby elephant in the cartoon of Dumbo. I can see the characters aren’t real because they’re drawn, but it’s still so affecting.

“I want audiences at Grandpa’s Great Escape Live 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 at Grandpa’s Great Escape Live.”

Tickets for Grandpa’s Great Escape Live are available at www.grandpasgreatescapelive.co.uk and it reaches Birmingham’s Arena on December 23, 24 and 26.

Andy Richardson

By Andy Richardson
Feature Writer - @andyrichardson1

Feature writer and food critic Andy Richardson interviews celebrities, writes columns and hangs out with chefs for stories that appear across all group titles.

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