You’ve made this amazing leap from television and sketch comedy to writing children’s books; was something that you’d been thinking about for a long time, or something that came out of the blue?
It came just as an idea, really. The first book I wrote, which was called The Boy in the Dress, I thought, what would happen if a boy went to school dressed as a girl, it could be a funny story that could also have a good message for kids, you know, about being different. Having toured Little Britain around the UK and Australia and meeting the audiences, we saw how many kids liked the show, and we talked to them afterwards and we’d say, “Are you allowed to watch it?” and they’d say, “My mum doesn’t let me watch all of it because some of it’s too rude.” And I thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was something especially for them, with hopefully the same spirit as the Little Britain humour with larger-than-life characters, something a bit rude and a bit dangerous, but ultimately free of the things that would make it not child-friendly. Then I got more into writing these books and Mr Stink was the second one and I found myself really loving it.
The daunting thing was trying to bring in the emotion. The comedy we made in Little Britain, it didn’t have that aspect to it very much – very occasionally maybe with Daffyd we’d have a little sad scene or Lou and Andy maybe, but it was very broad strokes because we had to do it in such a short amount of time. With this, you want the audience to laugh and you want them to cry too, and I didn’t know whether I’d be able to do that professionally, because just the background I’ve come from and I think comedians generally can be quite cynical people, looking at life from a bit of a distance, poking fun at things, you don’t often associate them with things that are heartfelt.
Did you have other children’s authors who were inspirational?
Well, Roald Dahl was the first author that turned me on to reading. We’d go to the library every couple of weeks and take out books, but I wasn’t a voracious reader, but I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and that really turned me on to reading, I read that for my own pleasure, and it’s such a brilliant book and it’s still a book that I imagine is the first book of choice for a lot of kids. And then I read all Roald Dahl’s books.
And now you’re being illustrated by the marvellous Quentin Blake …
Yeah, I couldn’t even believe that I met him, let alone that he illustrated my books. I had a million questions for him because there he was in the thick of it with Roald Dahl, so it was just amazing hearing all those stories first-hand and it was actually very moving when I saw his illustrations for the first time of my characters, I wanted to well up. I thought, my god, he’s made them feel plastic. He’s got this wonderful quality where he makes the kids like everymen, where every child reading the book can identify with the lead character, be it Charlie or Matilda or Danny or George, he has a wonderful way of giving the child just enough character and leaving a few blanks so you that can fill it in with your imagination, that’s an amazing skill. Also, he does really funny illustrations, so I was thrilled. I think it made people take my books a bit more seriously because they thought that if Quentin Blake is illustrating them then they must be really good. It also meant immediately I was compared to Roald Dahl, which was a bit daft.
For Mr Stink, did Hugh Bonneville enjoy playing a part where he didn’t have a stick up his bum?
I think it came to him at just the right time, where he’s like world famous because of Downton Abbey and what an actor always wants to do is something totally different, so he’s gone all the way from Downton Abbey to playing a tramp. I think it really appealed to him and we were very, very lucky to get him because he’s such a great actor and also because he’s become so wildly popular because of Downton Abbey, and I thought he brought real tenderness and emotion to role as well. When you do an adaptation of a book, you want it to be better than the book or at least different or richer and I think a lot of that was to do with how brilliant he was in that role.
You get the messages across in a very gentle way.
Yeah, I think it’s important for kids, you want to slip it in, you don’t want it to be signposted, you want it to come out of the story, but I think over a book you really do need to have a message, which you don’t need to have when you’re doing a comedy sketch – Little Britain doesn’t really have a message, it’s just there to try and make you laugh – but this is about how you treat people, you know, vulnerable people and I think hopefully it will maybe provoke debate in families about what would we do if Mr Stink turned up on our doorstep.
Any plans to adapt any more of the books for television?
Actually, I’m doing Gangster Granny at the moment, we’ve got a great cast, we’ve got Joanna Lumley, Miranda Hart, Rob Brydon, Julia McKenzie, who plays Miss Marple. We’re filming that at the moment, and a couple of the other books are also with film companies now and I’m going to some stage adaptations, so I’m really thrilled.
Are you involved with adapting them as well?
To some lesser or greater extent, depending on what people want. I think if I was doing a movie, I’d like to work with a really experienced screenwriter, because I think that is quite different, you know, there’s a real art to writing a 90-minute/ two-hour movie that I haven’t mastered, so I would love to collaborate with an experienced screenwriter, we’re trying to get that together at the moment.
There doesn’t seem to be anything you can’t turn your hand to.
Um, cake decorating, very bad at cake decorating. Of course, pole vaulting as well, but they’re the only two things I can’t do, so it’s not too bad.