Preview: Danny
the Champion
of the World

A new production of a Roald Dahl classic shows he wasn't the "filthsome swatchscollop" some claimed him to be, says Sarah Hackett

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Famed for their unforgettable characters, outrageous adjectives and timeless narratives, Roald Dahl’s books have barely moved from the bestsellers list since his debut in 1943 The Gremlins.

Hyper on “frobscottle” and repulsed by “filthsome swatchscollop”. generations of children have devoured Dahl’s work, thumbing through their favourites with energetic intrigue, and most adults can cite their best-loved verses without a second’s thought.

It is only right, then, that in the run-up to the hundredth anniversary of his birth the nation is preparing to host a series of events to honour the vengefully funny and intrepid genius whose stories are etched in the hearts of so many.

As part of the celebrations, the Grassington Festival will host open-air theatre group Illyria as it performs Danny, the Champion of the World, adapted for the stage by playwright David Wood OBE.

“As a storyteller I feel I’ve learnt from Dahl, but he is part of a classical tradition,” says Wood. “He uses ingredients from the past and he modifies them. It’s old wine in new bottles – very clever. It is with huge respect that I feel part of the Dahl empire.”

Wood, hailed by The Times as the “national children’s dramatist”, has dedicated a large chunk of his working life to Dahl’s work, adapting eight of his stories for the stage throughout half of his 50-year career.

But despite his long relationship with Dahl’s work, Wood still speaks of the late author with admiration.

“Dahl’s books have theatricality within the stories and almost cry out to be put on stage,” he says. “Having done eight of them I respect him more and more.

“Dahl writes stories that children really get into and find appealing. And they find that their imaginations are triggered by the theatre experience in a different way from reading a book or seeing something on a screen, because theatre is a wonderfully immediate medium, which is a communal one as well.

“In Danny the audience becomes a major character within the play – that is something they won’t experience looking at a screen.”

“Dahl will have longevity and his books will be read for a long, long time.”

Since Wood first adapted The BFG in 1991 he has seen his adaptations used in productions all over the world. There are currently 20 productions of James and the Giant Peach licensed for performance in America alone.
And despite Dahl’s impending centenary, Wood believes his timeless tales won’t go out of fashion.

“Dahl will undoubtedly survive,” he says. “He will have longevity and his books will be read for a long, long time. And so I think they should be.

“It’s interesting that school teachers and parents were worried about Dahl some years ago. They thought he was a bit subversive and a bit anti-authority.

“In Danny he’s very anti the land owner, who you could say is the posh person, and Dahl is very much thinking of the working class person or the underdog. A lot of people thought he was influencing children in the wrong way, but I don’t think that at all.

“He is very popular and I have ridden on the back of that to a certain extent, but I do believe that the adaptations are faithful. I believe they reflect his books as well as is possible on the stage, and people come out feeling that they have seen the book. I hope I have been faithful to him, as he has been very good to me.”

An outdoor performance of Danny the Champion of the World is at Bolton Abbey Priory Grounds, Grassington on 1 July and is part of Grassington Festival. Big Issue North is proud media partner to Grassington Festival – 15 days of music and arts in the Yorkshire Dales, 17 June-2 July

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