David Walliams and The Boy in the Dress

This year we are opening our brand new musical of David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress. He talks about the novel, writing and literary inspiration.

The Boy In the Dress was David’s first children’s book. Since it was first published in 2008 he has sold more than 32 million books, and his work has been translated into more than 53 languages.

David sold 1.91 million books in the UK in 2018 alone, ending the year as the UK’s biggest selling author, and his titles collectively held the Number 1 spot of the children’s chart for a staggering 26 weeks of the year.

Writing The Boy in the Dress

When he wrote The Boy in the Dress, David had already established himself as a successful actor and comedian.

He explains how the book came about: “It was over 10 years ago that I wrote The Boy in the Dress, and I was writing blindly really; I didn’t have any real, I don’t know, game-plan. I wasn’t thinking ‘oh, this is a new career for me as a children’s author’, I just thought: oh, I’ve got an idea for a story, it’s a story about a child, may be this would make an interesting children’s book. So I’m delighted that the book is still popular ten years on, and is going to have, hopefully, a whole new lease of life on the stage.”

The story of 12-year-old Dennis, who loves football and dresses was illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake and won the hearts of children everywhere. It was published in hardback by HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2008 and in paperback the following year. It has also been made into an audiobook, read by David and Matt Lucas, and was made into a film by BBC One which aired on Boxing Day 2014, with David playing the Referee.

David Walliams holding up the RSC artwork for The Boy in the Dress
David Walliams with the artwork for The Boy in the Dress
Photo by Sara Beaumont © RSC Browse and license our images

The Story of The Boy in the Dress

Dennis is 12 years old and his school football team’s star striker. But when Mum leaves home, life is tough. The only reminder Dennis has of Mum is a photo of her in a beautiful yellow dress. A dress rather like the one on the cover of Vogue on sale at Raj’s newsagents. And also a bit like the one that Lisa James, the coolest girl in the school, is sketching in her note book. What do you do if you like both football and dresses?

David explains: “The theme of the story is really difference, it’s about celebrating difference. There’s a boy called Dennis, who’s 12 years old and he wants to wear a dress, he wants to wear it to school. And I’m kind of using that really as a metaphor, for difference, in all kinds of ways. And it’s about it being boring if we were all the same, and difference being something we should celebrate.

“I think it’s a good message for kids, because I think schools can be quite conservative environments, where everyone wants to conform, and actually, you know, the people you kind of remember from your school days, and sometimes the people who do well, are the people who kind of dare to be different. That’s what it’s really about.”

David Walliams’ career

David found celebrity with comedy partner Matt Lucas through their comedy sketch show Little Britain, which began as a BBC Radio 4 series and became a multi-award winning TV show. Since then roles have included including writing and starring in the BBC One sitcom Big School, playing chemistry teacher Keith Church. David is also a judge on ITV’s Britain's Got Talent.

He has written 21 books for children, including Mr Stink, Billionaire Boy, Gangsta Granny, Ratburger and The World’s Worst Children books. He latest book, The World’s Worst Teachers was published in June 2019. So far the books have been turned into two musicals, three plays and seven TV adaptations. 

He became as well known for his fundraising efforts as his comedy and writing. He swam the English Channel in July 2006 to raise money for Sport Relief. Then in September 2011 he swam the length of the River Thames (140 miles), raising more than £2m for Sport Relief and cementing his place in his fans’ hearts by rescuing a Labrador from drowning on the way. He has personally raised £8.5 million.

Literary inspiration and musicals

David has often been described as a ‘modern day Roald Dahl’, and is a big fan of Dahl’s work – he has said it was Dahl that got him “hooked” on reading, and given the BFG as his favourite Dahl character. Sir Quentin Blake, who famously illustrated Dahl’s novels, has also provided the illustrations for the first two of David's books, The Boy in The Dress and Mr Stink.

David is a big fan of Matilda The Musical – he’s now seen the show three times, and he worked with Matilda’s music and lyrics writer Tim Minchin on an ITV documentary about Dahl (The Genius of Dahl). He says: “I love musicals, but I have no musical ability myself. I can’t sing, I can’t play a musical instrument.”

Talking about the plans to adapt The Boy in the Dress he said: “A musical somehow lifts it in a way that just a straight stage adaptation, turning it into a play, wouldn’t.”

“Often when something like this happens, people say ‘well who would you like to write the songs’ and you think: well, obviously I’d like these people to write the songs, but obviously they’re never going to say yes, and I was amazed that Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers were interested. Then I thought – well, they’re interested but they’re too busy, it’s never going to happen – and then I went to a workshop and there were like 27 brilliant songs.”

Working with the RSC

The Boy in the Dress will mark David’s RSC debut. He talks about his experiences of coming to Stratford as a teenager, which had a big impact on him.

He says: “One of my first experiences of going to the theatre was watching Macbeth at Stratford, when I was about 14 or 15, because we were studying it for O level. I saw Jonathan Pryce, Sinead Cusack and David Troughton, as the Porter, and because it’s one of the first things I’ve ever seen, it’s absolutely etched in my memory, you know, in a much, much clearer way than something I saw last week, so it’s always been a really special place to me.”

He adds: “I hope audiences are amused, because I do like making people laugh, but I hope that they feel touched and emotional too.

“The weird thing is, that I wrote this book and created these characters, and sometimes when I’ve seen it on television or seen the workshops and rehearsals for the show, I end up in tears, even though I know for sure that it’s not real because it came out of my head.

“I think it’s quite a moving story, and the moving parts are often in quite surprising places: Dennis’ dad saying he’s proud of him, the camaraderie of the boys on his team all playing football in dresses. So, I think hopefully it’s going to have a real emotional impact.”