David Wood's extraordinary career in children's literature and drama was recognised with the award of an OBE in 2004. Seven years on, he is still going strong. BWW met him on the eve of opening of his latest West End show, his adaptation of Judith Kerr's much loved The Tiger Who Came to Tea.
"I suppose it was meant to be," says David Of a life that has led to his being dubbed "The National Children's Dramatist" by The Times. He started early, peforming magic to kids not much younger than him - "What I learned was how children, en masse, react - which is very different from the way children in twos and threes react." It was in 44 years ago, working in rep at Worcester, when David was first able to broker that knowledge into drama, writing the Christmas show. Engaged in panto elsewhere, David never saw his first play, but it was good enough for him to be asked back to write the Christmas show for 1968. This time he was able to watch "The Owl and the Pussycat went to See" and to watch the kids in the house too. "The reaction from the audience was so extraordinary and I ended up thinking that this is what I should be doing. There was this extraordinary buzz in the theatre - a totally uncynical response. It was just the most magical thing."
After playing second lead to Malcolm McDowell in the iconic Sixties film "If" and getting plenty of work on stage and in television as a result, David, with a bit of money from here and there, got "The Owl..." to London, working with Susie Caulcutt, with whom he is still working today. "The Owl..." was David's launchpad into thirteen consecutive annual commissions for Christmas shows, a thorough apprenticeship. Of writing and directing for children, David says, "I'd realised that it's not an easy thing to do. People just assume that it's a doddle. In order to have a play that holds the attention, triggers the imagination and makes them care, my job is to rivet them to their seats, make whatever is going on up there on stage, more exciting than anything else. I feel certain ingredients are necessary in a children's play - but not all in every play. Children like animals - you will have an animal who can't speak and the children have to interpret what the animal says. Probably the animal will be in danger. You can be pretty certain that children will find that interesting. Children like colour and music, and it's not a good idea to have too many words."
"The communal aspect of theatre is a totally different experience to being in front of a screen, especially when characters come through the audience or demand some participation from the kids. If done right, it's an unforgettable experience. You can have a serious story, including death and occasionally you get criticism, usually from someone who has brought a child too young. In just the same way that children would be frightened thirty years ago by Doctor Who, but in safe environment in the company of adults, theatre can present a story in an honest and truthful way." Placing entertainment above any issue-led plotting does not mean that children cannot learn from David's plays. "Much of the stuff that I do is educational with a small e. It annoys me if a school makes them do great questionnaires - if they do a picture, the detail they remember is more accurate than an adult would remember." Recalling advice given by a publisher (actually, a publisher's eight-year-old daughter) many years ago on a Canadian chat show, David includes lots of "suddenlies" in his work. "I recognised exactly what she meant. Over the next few years, I translated that into theatrical terms and included it everything I write and direct. I'm looking for lots of suddenlies - musical, lighting, plotting. You almost dare children to look away from the stage, in case they miss something. "Now that's a suddenly", I say to actors and they know what I mean."
"It's a huge responsibility" says David Of working with much-loved children's authors. "I've been delighted that many (Dick King-Smith, Phillip Pullman, Phillipa Pearce, Eric Hill) who have seen my adaptations are happy with what I've done." Having been initially reluctant, David has adapted seven of Roald Dahl's stories (and is working on an eighth) with huge success on both sides of the Atlantic, but he confesses to considering himself lucky to have been applying the finishing touches of his first adaptation (The BFG), just as the news of Roald Dahl's death came through on the television, in a spookily Dahlesque coincidence, saving David the dubious benefit Dahl's opinion. On Dahl's approach, David says, "I think children are born with an innate sense of fairness. They understand this notion of justice - we root for Cinderella and want her to succeed. You identify with the underdog. Everybody has a similar sense of fairness and if you use that within my world, it's very very valuable because the audience enjoys being able to take sides. Dahl is morally very consistent and it doesn't matter that he's sending up establishment figures. All the things that teachers and librarians get worried about with Dahl, are totally immaterial - Good, and that's very often the child, wins through."