Following are excerpts from the latest episode of the CNBC Conversation with Tania Bryer and David Walliams.
TB: David congratulations on your new book 'The Midnight Gang' which has just gone to number one in the UK, it's become a bestseller. What was the idea behind it?
DW: Well, when you become well-known through television and writing books you get invited a lot to visit children in hospital, and it's something I've done a few times over the years. And I thought it was a great setting somehow for a children's story, and to my knowledge it hadn't really been done before. The idea of the book is really that children; they're in their ward, they're bored and they're longing for excitement. And so they become part of this secret gang and they help each other live out their dreams. So it's a bit like that charity 'Make a Wish,' I don't know if you've come across that, but that often helps sick children with their dreams. That was the starting point, but often you've got a lot of ideas going around in your head. Like I have always loved the character of 'Quasi Modo' from the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I saw it when I was young, the film with Charles Laughton, and I always loved that character. I always wanted to do something about a character like that who was scary to look at but had a beautiful heart and I have a character like that in The Midnight Gang.
TB: Do you enjoy that process of coming up with all these characters and stories. How does that work, the writing side of it? Do you have to be in a particular time, particular room?
DW: I liken it to trying to remember a film you've never seen. So I try and imagine everything before I put it down and basically you need to be on your own. And the workload depends on how close you are to the deadline. When you're six months away, it's quite leisurely, make a few notes, (laughs), walk the dog, it's a wonderful process you go through, I love being a writer! Then it gets closer and closer to the time and suddenly its 3am, you're in tears in front of your laptop going 'I can't do this anymore'! So it can be a difficult process at times. I think it's a bit like, you're at the bottom of a mountain and you're looking up. And when you're at the very bottom you look up and you go 'oh I can't do this' but when you're halfway up it becomes a bit easier. And then you've got to the top, and the sense of achievement is fantastic. I think books are a bit like that.
TB: And what do you want the children reading 'The Midnight Gang' to take away from it, what's the, sort of, message?
DW: It's about teamwork really; it's about kids all working together to make other kids dreams come true. And so hopefully it's a positive message. I came from writing comedy sketches, and comedy sketches really tend to just be about trying to make people laugh and very little else. With books you're taking the reader on a journey and you've got to have a bit of a message I think. If you're going to want people to sit down and read this book night after night you know, some kids it might take a few months to read one of my books. So, at the end of it I feel like there's got to be something that they can really take away that's meaningful.
TB: And they have all become best sellers and the success is huge in this area for you David. Could you have imagined it that you would become a very successful children's author?
DW: Well, I never really wanted to be a writer. I really just wanted to be on television doing comedy, but when I was a child I realized that a lot of the comedians that I admired wrote their own material and I sort of understood that it was a big part of it. So I suppose I became a writer so I could be a comedian and then I started to realize that, for me, the writing seemed more creative than the performing. Because you're starting with a blank page and really the only limit is your imagination. Whereas when you're acting you're interpreting something, it's a little bit different. You've got to have some raw material or you won't know what to do. So I suppose I became a writer so I could be a comedian and then yeah, I fell in love with writing more. I never really thought I would be writing children's books, it was just something maybe in the back of my mind. I had an idea for a children's book, which was the boy in the dress. I just woke up one day and I thought; 'what would happen if a boy went to school dressed as a girl'. That was 10 years ago, and 10 years ago society was probably less sympathetic to that kind of idea. And the book was well received and it put me on the path to write more.
TB: And yourself, you read Roald Dahl, was he an inspiration, I mean, you've been compared to him, people make the comparison. Sir Quentin illustrated the first two of your books, so how does that make you feel?
DW: Well it's a thrill to be compared to someone who is your idol, for me, his book 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' was the first book that I read for pleasure. Often you're told to read a book by a teacher or maybe a parent, and it's a chore. But if you find a book yourself and we go to the local library every couple of weeks, me and my sister and mum and dad, we'd be able to choose a few books and I'd probably get one about the solar system. I would get the cassette tape of Queen's soundtrack to Flash Gordon, for some reason I always used to get that, and then I'd probably pick a novel and often I'd pick Roald Dahl. The illustrations are fantastic and exciting, and the story is always intriguing and always different. And when you find a book that you read purely for pleasure, that really puts you on a path to reading. You do meet lots of adults who don't read books, never read books and I think probably they didn't read any ones they enjoyed, so they just sort of gave it up, and it's a shame, because you miss out on so much.
TB: So what were you like then, what was the young David like because I've read that you were quite shy?
DW: I think I was shy, I was quite introverted and I wasn't sporty so I wasn't out playing football with the lads. I still don't do that. And so I spent quite a lot of time on my own in my bedroom and I would listen to comedy records because at the time this was before video recorders. You're a lot younger than me but (smiles) it's weird isn't it, because I think now I'm actually older. It's like when I was a kid there weren't like answering machines, there weren't mobile phones and actually there weren't even videos widely available, so I used to listen to comedy records; Monty Python records, Rowan Atkinson records, Tony Hancock records. I spent a lot of time learning the lines, writing down the lines, reciting them and trying to understand what this thing was: comedy. I'd been in a couple of school plays and got laughs, and I'd felt this great thrill, this great sense of power I suppose, in the fact that you know, there were a few hundred people laughing when I did a certain thing. So I really wanted to find out what this thing was. So I became a real student of comedy.
TB: Would you consider writing for adults? Would you like to do a kind of Fifty Shades of Grey?
DW: Fifty Shades of Grey? I'm not sure I'm the right person to do that. I've not read it. I often joke sometimes when I'm doing a Q&A with an audience, if I get a question from an adult, 'what's the book you're most proud of writing?' I sometimes say '50 Shades of Grey'. I suppose I could try and write a comic novel. It's just I really like the simplicity of children's literature. It's a challenge because often you've got quite complex ideas you've got to put into very simple terms. You realize there's so many words that you wouldn't want to use. For example, I've got a book called 'Grandpa's Great Escape' which is about a little boy and his Grandad who's got Alzheimer's and he thinks he's back in World War 2 when he was a fighter pilot. But I never use the word Alzheimer's in the book because I feel like it's a scary word. It's a medical definition that children wouldn't really understand even if they had a grandparent with that condition, they'd probably be told 'Your Grandad's confused or forgetful' or whatever. And so for me that is a real challenge. And I suppose I've got this fantastic career now as a children's author so it would be weird to start changing it all up. But, there are some comedians who have written really great novels. I used to read Stephen Fry's novels, he used to write quite a lot in the 80s and 90s. 'The Liar', I remember finding really, really funny. So maybe one day.
TB: You've got so many wonderful characters from your books. Is there a particular one that you would identify with, that's even your favourite?
DW: Well, 'The Boy in the Dress,' people thought that one was autobiographical because I'd become well-known for doing 'Little Britain' where we dressed up as women quite a lot, and my sister used to dress me up when I was younger. She's a couple years older and she used to dress me up and we had a dressing up box at home. We had a mauve bridesmaids dress and she used to put a handbag on my arm, a fur hat on my head and some sandals and she used to parade me up and down the street where I lived. The last time was about two or three years ago (laughs), I'm joking. It was when I was little, so that was always a part of my life. So I suppose the boy in the dress, about a boy called Dennis, that's probably the most autobiographical one.
TB: Did you mind your sister dressing you up and parading you around?
DW: I was so young, I don't think I realized. I was probably pre-school. And I know you've interviewed Tom Ford on the show who's a mutual friend of ours and he said that 'Really before you go to school', he said, 'you are really who you are, you're sort of a true version of yourself'. Because, when you start going to school people are imposing social norms on you, and before you go to school you're just very very free because no one's saying why are you doing that or what are you doing that for. So, I really wasn't thinking about it all. I thought it was quite funny. People thought it was quite sweet I suppose, and used to take pictures of us.
TB: And of course everyone recognized you as being very funny with 'Little Britain' and you teamed up with Matt Lucas in 'Come Fly with Me'; the breakthrough to everyone knowing you. How did that all come about?
DW: Well, Matt Lucas and I met in the National Youth Theatre, which is a thing you do in the summer holidays if you want to get in to acting and then eventually we did a show together at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival over 20 years ago in 1995. We were on at midnight, and I think the first night we'd sold one ticket. It was about a 100 seater, so then we gave out free tickets and we had a little bit of an audience. I mean that's the way most people start. The show was on at midnight in Edinburgh and as a joke on the poster we had free crèche. (laughs)…we thought, it's midnight! But this Scottish woman turned up - Where's the free crèche? I went, 'Oh, well it was a joke'. And she had a baby in a pushchair and it was like midnight and she was like, 'I only came because there was a free crèche'. And I was like 'I'm really sorry' (laughing). We had to give her her money back. So we started off doing that and then Matt had a lot of success with 'Shooting Stars' and it was a huge hit and he was a big part of the success of it. And then we started doing shows together on the radio. We did 'Little Britain' on the radio and Radio 4. It's a slow process, it starts off as a script and then the script gets commissioned, you make a pilot, then you make a series, then maybe you make another series, and then it gets developed for television. Then it immediately took off. In a really big way, far beyond our expectations! I likened it to…..We were in a car and someone had cut the breaks and we're just trying to sort of steer it and remain control but it's kind of going way out of our control.
TB: Did your life become out of control do you think David. How did that kind of success change you?
DW: Well, it's curious. Obviously people start behaving in a different way to you. That is curious. I remember seeing some of my family, not my immediate family, but cousins I remember them immediately being really different with me when they'd known me my whole life. And suddenly I'd become this different thing in their eyes. It was curious. It takes a little bit of getting used to having people recognize you, and it's a nice thing mainly I mean, I think if people recognize you they tend to like what you do. I was really young-ish; well I mean I was early 30s, and so I wasn't settled down as I didn't have a wife and kids or anything. So, I think my head was quite turned by it all, you know it was a bit like Wonderland. You start meeting all these people you're really admire. You get invited to things and you think, 'oh am I meant to go to this', you know is this an amazing thing. 'Am I meant to go to this film premiere, is that going to be interesting, am I going to meet someone well known, is something going to come of that?' But yeah it was, a heady time.
TB: What's the biggest challenge you think David - just having everyone wanting to know your business?
DW: I don't know what the biggest challenge was. I think when you first start getting written about in papers, that's a bit disorientating because you feel a slight helplessness and you also think 'oh everyone believing this thing, this sort of half true or maybe not true at all'. And so you start to just get anxious about it. But I think the biggest change really just sort of suddenly wanting a bit more privacy I think, and being a bit more protective and being less trusting of people. Because you do meet people who go, you know, they ask me lots of questions and you think... You suddenly become a bit unnerved because you think, where is this…. what are you going to do with this information. I mean I'm sure they are just being friendly but I was glad to have a lot of friends who had been my friends for a long time; you know old school friends and things. So I always felt confident that people don't like me just for the reason that I am well known. Because there is a certain excitement to be with someone well known, that even I've experienced. You know it's quite exciting to be amongst well-known people isn't it. So yes there's a little bit of adjustment there.
TB: And you're talking about trusting people and the infringement on private life and of course you know there's always been speculation when you came out in the spotlight about you and you know, ambiguity and you talk of course about 'The boy in the dress', and playing up the 'campness' that's all about you. Did you mind that people wanted to know what your sexuality was? I mean that's quite a private thing. Did that bother you?
DW: Not really. I played up to it… 'Little Britain' was a very camp show. And Matt, who is gay, is actually quite blokeish and he likes things like going to watch Arsenal. And he's quite in the way he dresses. Whereas, I am quite camp and much more, sort of wanting to go out to the ballet and things like that. So, I mean we're talking in quite stereotypical terms that is probably not that helpful because everyone's different aren't they. People assume certain things if people are effeminate. But I didn't mind too much. I mean, I sort of played up to it I suppose to some extent playing these camp characters on screen. And then I was I linked to some glamorous women so there was a kind of, 'Oh hang on, how is this man who wears a dress, you know, being seen out with these glamorous women' and so it confused people. Then The Sun created this thing called a 'gay-ometer' - Which way is Dave swinging in their showbiz page. So, if I was doing something camp I would go into the blue and then I'd go into the pink or something. I mean, it was all quite silly and it doesn't bother me too much. Actually, you know it amazes me that in this era people are still interested in that and ask questions about it. I read an interview with Alan Delong, the iconic French actor, and he was being asked about his sexuality and he said, 'what does it matter', I thought what does it matter? (laughs) It doesn't affect me, who Alan Delong has had sex with is no concern of mine. I mean good luck to him! So yeah, I don't know why, I think it's in Britain. I think we're quite prudish and prurient, so we sort of want to know all the salacious details but with the, 'Oh we'd never do that'; there's a sort of odd tension there. And I suppose because I wasn't settled down and everything, I was somebody who was speculated about.
TB: In 2012 of course you joined 'Britain's Got Talent' the judging panel. How do you enjoy that? Are you going to come back for the next season?
DW: Its fun and I mean I actually really enjoyed watching the show and I met Simon quite a few years ago. Before I did the show and he said, 'our show is the real life version of your show.' As in he meant you know it was the real life 'Little Britain'. And I said 'I love it, I'm addicted to watching it. I love all the characters you have on the show, all the eccentric characters.' And I said, 'Me and Matt often watch it to get inspired' as we did the X Factor and all those kinds of shows because in the early stages of those shows you get loads of very eccentric people with bizarre acts and they are often comedy gold. So I wasn't expecting to ever be asked to be on it. Simon Cowell said 'This is a very curious thing to me', he said, 'I don't like comedy, I don't find comedians funny but I find you funny.' And I was like, 'That's kind of unnerving. You're basically saying you have no sense of humour but you think I'm funny. That's weird. I'm not sure that I want to hear that.' I think I was very unsure how I was going to be on it, but on the first day I just kind of got into it. I buzzed the first person; I got over that because I thought I'm not going to be able to buzz anybody. I was winding him up and the audience were loving it and I thought, 'Okay this is fine, I can do this!' It's slightly strange because you're judging people on things you can't do. I can't sing, I can't dance. And yet I'm sort of sitting there passing judgment on people who can. But at least my role is the court jester I suppose, so I don't have to take the whole thing too seriously. It's quite a silly show, where a dancing dog can win you know, it's not a matter of life and death for anybody is it so…
TB: Does everyone always ask you what Simon is really like?
DW: Yes, they do. Actually you were talking about sexuality and that's the biggest question people get asked about him. I think he's the kind of person who has his life exactly how he wants it. If he doesn't want to get up until four in the afternoon, he won't. If he wants to have sausages and chips every night for his dinner, he will. You know he's one of those people who has his life exactly how he wants it. He's also, I rather like that he celebrates his success. Like most stars are now quite coy about showing their wealth, not him. He arrives in a half a million pound Rolls Royce Phantom you know, designer clothes, shades, long coat and everything - he plays up to being a star. It's actually quite refreshing because if you go back in time to a more glamorous age, maybe the 70s and 80s, you see Joan Collins walking through an airport in sort of dark glasses and a fur coat. Exciting wasn't it? But now everyone's like, 'Oh I'm just wearing my tracksuit and I've got a beanie on' and it's kind of boring. You want stars to be stars, and he is! He is a star even though he has no discernible talent of his own (laughs). Which is the weirdest thing isn't it? Well, he's got a talent for spotting talent. Yes.
TB: And the serious side of you David, you've raised millions for Sport Relief and you're trustee of comic relief. You've swum the channel, the River Thames; I mean quite extraordinary challenges to take on?
DW: Well, particularly for somebody who was famous for saying, 'I'm a lady', on television and then having to strip down to their speedos, yes. Well, it came about. I was on a trip to Ethiopia with Matt, it was with Comic Relief and we were just leaving on our way to the airport. We're in the back of the van and Kevin Cahill who was the CEO of Comic Relief says, 'Is there anything you've ever fancied doing that's sporty David?' And I'm really not sporty, like I'm not coordinated, I can't really kick a football or anything. And I said, 'Well I've always fancied swimming the channel.' And he said, 'You can do it next year for Sport Relief!' I was like what? I thought he'd forget about it, I'd come back to London it would be a distant memory and all of a sudden the process started! I was having a meeting with the chairman of the Channel Swimming Association. Then I was meeting a man who was a professor of sports science and had trained Olympians, and I was suddenly having all these tests. Suddenly I was on the process to do it and I kept on thinking at some point someone's going to say stop. I actually had to have this heart test to see if my heart was okay to take on a challenge, and I was actually praying there was something wrong with me and I couldn't do it. But no, and I got on with it and it was a really magic achievement.
TB: You do so much David; you've got your charity work, you write your books, you're a presenter, an actor, what's next? You even dressed up recently I think as Donald Trump for Halloween!
DW: Yes, I did. And the nightmare became true, which is extraordinary because it was all a big joke wasn't it, and suddenly it's not funny anymore. It's serious. Yes, I did dress as Donald Trump. What's next? I've got more and more books. More television shows. I actually really like working. I mean I am a very busy person, and I often work every day of the week, but I do really enjoy it. And I love the thrill of being creative. So as long as I can keep on doing that, I'll be happy.
TB: David it's been such a pleasure to talk to you today. Thank you so much for all your time.
DW: Thank you. It's been fantastic. Thank you.