‘So are we thinking it’s a bit much?’ David Walliams asks mischievously, as he digs a silver spoon into a pink grapefruit over breakfast in one of London’s grandest hotels. ‘It does seem to be quite a lot, doesn’t it?’ The Little Britain star and bestselling children’s author isn’t referring to his breakfast platter but his festive takeover of Britain’s TVs, bookshops and theatres.
Two of his latest books are topping the children’s bestsellers lists (The Ice Monster and Geronimo), while two others (Billionaire Boy: The Musical and Awful Auntie) are being performed in theatres around the country. The BBC is screening another of his stories, The Midnight Gang, about a group of kids in a hospital who decide to go on an adventure, as one of its Christmas highlights, with Walliams starring as a wicked headmaster. He also appears in an adaptation of Sue Townsend’s The Queen And I, as the prime minister who forces the Royal Family out of Buckingham Palace and on to a Midlands council estate.
For all the subversive comedy of his early years and his rather messy coming to terms with celebrity that involved dates with TV blondes, pondering over his sexuality, a battle with depression and the end of his working relationship with Matt Lucas, David Walliams has, in his late 40s, become comfortable with who he is
David Walliams with his beloved border terrier, Bert. Walliams’s production company, King Bert, is named after him
So there really is no escaping him.
We are sitting in a corner of Claridge’s restaurant near a fireplace brimming with frosted fir branches and silver baubles. His preferred table is overlooked by vintage photographs of Princess Margaret and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, all in their way royal rebels, but nonetheless members of the Establishment. His choice of venue speaks volumes about him, as does his discreetly expensive tailored suit, white shirt and no tie. Walliams is all about tradition and quality and having a bit of fun. At 47, he’s become something of a Renaissance man, who’s come a long way from his award-winning comedy sketch shows Little Britain and Come Fly With Me. In 2011, he swam the length of the Thames to raise £2 million for charity; he joined Britain’s Got Talent in 2012; and he’s sold 26 million books since his debut novel, The Boy In The Dress, was published in 2008.
Far from bathing in all this success, he used to worry that he was a workaholic, but he now realises he’s happiest when he’s knee-deep in projects. In the past few years he’s performed Pinter and Shakespeare on stage, had a part in a Hollywood movie – Dinner For Schmucks – appeared in Doctor Who and Stephen Poliakoff’s Capturing Mary, and played Frankie Howerd in the critically acclaimed profile Rather You Than Me. When not performing, he writes for eight hours a day, and if he didn’t have his border terrier Bert (Walliams’s production company, King Bert, is named after him), he claims he wouldn’t leave his house for days on end. ‘But I have to walk him, so it forces me out into the real world – which is a good thing. I couldn’t be without him.’
David Walliams with his mother, Kathleen, earlier this year. Right: with his father, Peter
His friend and BGT co-host Simon Cowell, the butt of endless Walliams barbs, says he finds Bert ‘boring’. ‘Bert is extremely well behaved and properly trained. All Simon’s dogs are insane and run around barking, so he thinks that means Bert is dull.’
Walliams finds Cowell intriguing, for as much as he now clings to the normality of family life and work, Cowell revels in the insanity of fame. ‘I am completely fascinated by him,’ says Walliams. ‘I sit back and just watch the over-the-top way he does everything. He loves the whole stardom thing. I was at his house for a meeting the other day. You wait in an anteroom for him, and there are all these female assistants running around. Then he emerges in a white shirt, jeans and no socks. I give him an idea for a BGT Christmas special, he then calls in an assistant and tells them the idea as if it was his, even though I’m still standing there!’ he laughs.
‘Simon lives a different life and he loves it. He loves to turn up on the red carpet with his sunglasses and a huge crowd. I’ve stood there talking to him while he is having a vitamin drip put into one arm and he’s still smoking away. He’s constantly badgering me to write a book about him or have a character based on him.’ Has he done it? ‘No, I haven’t,’ he says drily.
The successful middle-class grammar school boy from Reigate, whose values are those of his parents, has seen his talent rocket him into a glittering social stratosphere
For all the subversive comedy of his early years and his rather messy coming to terms with celebrity that involved dates with TV blondes, pondering over his sexuality, a battle with depression and the end of his working relationship with Matt Lucas, Walliams has, in his late 40s, become comfortable with who he is especially now he’s a father to Alfie, the product of a five-year marriage to model Lara Stone, which ended in 2015.
The successful middle-class grammar school boy from Reigate, whose values are those of his parents, has seen his talent rocket him into a glittering social stratosphere. But when he goes out these days, there is no model in tow – the only woman you see on his arm is his mother, Kathleen, a retired former lab technician. Walliams adores her: she is the first to read his books, the most regular fixture on his hugely successful Instagram account, the person he calls when he has good news and the woman who still, he says, ‘worries about me. She wants me to be happy. I am. But I know she still worries about me’.
A decade ago, Walliams became the man of the house when his father, Peter, a former London Transport engineer, died just before Christmas. ‘Before he died, he asked me to look after my mum,’ he says in explanation of his relationship with his mother. That Christmas, Walliams recalls ‘crying constantly and trying to get through it. It was unbelievably hard. Dad was always very supportive of me. He and my mum created this very close, loving environment for me and my sister. That’s the thing I am most grateful for’.
Walliams is more relaxed than on the previous occasions we’ve met. Three years ago, he was devastated by the end of his relationship with Stone. He is now single. I ask him if his mother has ever tried to set him up with a girl. ‘No – most of the ladies she knows are in their 70s. Then again…’ he says naughtily. ‘But Simon Cowell is always trying to get me to go out on a date with Sinitta!’
His mum had the audience in hysterics when she stood in for Cowell on BGT one week, when the host was running late; she’s hung out with Elton John and Liz Hurley, and has been beside her son twice when he’s met the Queen. Walliams and his mum are huge fans of the Queen and, unlike the militant socialist he plays in The Queen And I, Walliams would never want to see an end to the monarchy.
David Walliams, back row, centre, stars in the BBC’sThe Midnight Gang. ‘The Midnight Gang’ is on Boxing Day
With Samantha Bond in The Queen And I. The Queen And I appealed to him because ‘it seems even more timely now than ever before’
‘The second time they met, we were in a line-up with Rod Stewart, whom my mum also loves. The Queen was looking slightly confused when she saw my mum, who then piped up “Hello, we met ten years ago”, which made me laugh. I love the Queen. Who doesn’t? The country wouldn’t be the same without her. Meeting her trumps everything.’
Walliams also counts that legendary pop queen Elton John and his husband David Furnish as close friends. ‘Their sons asked me how I first met their daddy, Elton, and I told them, as a joke, we’d met because he auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent, which was taken very seriously. I was then asked all sorts of questions about his audition song.’
Children, he says, never fail to make him laugh. ‘I love it when I get asked the awkward questions like, “What’s the worst book you’ve written?” I’ll then say, “Which book do you think is the worst?” And I’ll get a long answer that I have to sit and take.’
While he has no shortage of celebrity anecdotes, Walliams has done his best to remain grounded, and the previous evening he’d been out to the theatre with one of his old school friends. He says he was never a rebel – ‘I didn’t do all that partying and going to clubs until I left home’. It is, however, impossible to ignore his famous friends. He was devastated by the death of George Michael two years ago. ‘I was very sad. I used to have dinner with him, but I hadn’t seen him for a few years before he died because he withdrew from a lot of people. He had terrible demons.’
He’ll spend Christmas Day not with his celebrity pals but with his mother, sister Julie, a primary school teacher, her husband and two sons, and his son Alfie. In the morning he’ll visit a local Children’s Trust. ‘I go on my own, with some books, say hello to everyone and spend an hour or so chatting.’ The rest of the day is spent ‘playing with my son and nephews, building Lego, having a laugh. I’m not brilliant in the cooking department so that is left to my brother-in-law.
‘As a kid I loved Christmas. Dad bought me and my sister a stocking each from Harrods, which we used every year. The big pleasure for me was eating Quality Street and watching a Bond movie at 11am. All the usual rules went out of the window. My grandads were a big part of it. They used to make me laugh, taking out their false teeth or picking me up and swinging me around. They died when I was quite young, so I really missed their presence. But Christmas was still this big family time.
When he is not filming, writing or working with King Bert, Walliams spends much time visiting schools and hospitals and talking to children about reading
‘That hasn’t changed – we still do Christmas as a family. There’s a lot of eating, and at midnight we end up at my cousin’s house, where I always eat my body weight in Stilton. I’ll have the telly on, and if one of my shows is on then it will be the first time my son has seen me in anything.
‘But when he’s with my nephews, the thing they always ask to see is the video of their granny on Britain’s Got Talent. She’s the star as far as they are concerned. I’m the guy building the Lego.’
One of his favourite things on December 25 is to see photos sent to his Twitter and Instagram accounts of pyjama-clad kids holding aloft his books. ‘That’s the real buzz, the thing that means the most,’ he says. ‘You have people who want a selfie just because you are on the telly, but when kids read your books, you are making a connection.’
At ho-ho-home with the Walliams: David’s perfect Christmas
What would be in your Queen’s Speech if you could be HM for the day?
A few more gags. I’d probably start by saying I was cancelling Christmas. But I don’t envy her. It’s her duty to sum up what has been an unbelievably difficult year for the country, from Brexit to whether Theresa May is going to stay Prime Minister or not. Her speech is always incredibly coded.
Most extravagant gift you’ve ever given?
My parents are massive fans of the artist William Russell Flint, and I bought them a painting which is now in the living room.
When did you stop believing in Santa Claus?
What do you mean? I do believe in Santa! I don’t necessarily think he’s the guy dressed up in red with slightly scruffy black boots on, but I do think there’s a spirit of Father Christmas. I’ve never stopped believing in that.
What time do you have your first snifter on Christmas Day?
I don’t drink. It doesn’t suit me, because alcohol just makes me feel tired. I’ll occasionally sip on a Buck’s Fizz.
Favourite Christmas song/movie/TV show/board game?
Wham!’s Last Christmas, which now has that mix of melancholy but also makes you happy to realise what a talent George Michael had. That song has really proved the test of time. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I met George Lazenby once and got him to sign his autograph with ‘We have all the time in the world’. Morecambe and Wise are the gold standard of TV Christmas comedy. The humour isn’t dated – it still makes me laugh every time. More Lego than board games in our house.
Are there any other David Walliams Christmas Day traditions?
Eating cheese and watching a Carry On movie late at night. It has to be done.
Real or fake tree?
Who are you kissing under the mistletoe?
My mum, on the cheek.
What’s on your Christmas dinner menu and who’s doing the cooking?
My brother-in-law and just all the traditional stuff, turkey and Christmas pudding. My favourite things are the sausages wrapped in bacon.
What’s your favourite Christmas carol?
Once In Royal David’s City – not because of my name but because of the solo at the beginning which makes you cry.
When he is not filming, writing or working with King Bert, he spends much time visiting schools and hospitals and talking to children about reading. His books have now taken over from J K Rowling as the most popular stories for children, having spent more than 120 weeks at No 1 in the children’s chart. He is now in the same league as his heroes Roald Dahl and Sue Townsend. He corresponded with Townsend in the years before her death in 2014 after she wrote a piece in praise of his books.
The Queen And I appealed to him because ‘it seems even more timely now than ever before. Politically, no one knows what is going to happen in this country. We have a very serious Left Labour leader in Jeremy Corbyn. If he became the prime minister, I’m sure he wouldn’t depose the monarchy, but it’s all in the air’.
David Walliams’s books have now taken over from J K Rowling as the most popular stories for children, having spent more than 120 weeks at No 1 in the children’s chart
He says that on Christmas Day he’ll spend hours putting batteries in toys, constructing train sets and telling jokes. Asked if his wish would be one day to have more children, he says: ‘That would be very nice if it happened, but what I have now is good enough. I’m very happy. It’s going to be a good Christmas.’
‘The Queen And I’ is on Christmas Eve on Sky One and Now TV. ‘The Midnight Gang’ is on Boxing Day on BBC1, 7.25pm. Walliams’s new books ‘The Ice Monster’ and ‘Geronimo’ are out now on HarperCollins Children’s Books