Hold your noses for Mr Stink

By Nick Grant

The whole family will be in hysterics on Christmas Eve watching British comedian David Walliams' hilarious Mr Stink, writes Nick Grant

David Walliams is probably most familiar to New Zealand adults as the non-bald, non-pudgy half of the duo responsible for sketch show Little Britain, in which he played such characters as Carol "Computer says no" Beer, and mockumentary series Come Fly with Me. Kiwi kids aged 8 to 12, however, are much more likely to know him as one of their favourite authors.

Since 2008, he's written seven children's books, earning him both critical praise (last year's Ratburger won Children's Book of the Year) and commercial success - to date he's netted 13 million ($25 million) from the two million-plus copies sold.

Mr Stink - Walliams' second book and the one he says he's proudest of - has also been made into a festive season family telemovie that stars Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville and screens here on Christmas Eve.

Walliams had the idea for Mr Stink while touring a live version of Little Britain with comedy partner Matt Lucas (the bald, fat one).

"I noted so many kids really liked the show," he says, "and I thought it'd be great to do something purely for them with that Little Britain humour, but without some of the really rude stuff because kids were always telling me their parents wouldn't let them watch those bits."

Not that this meant writing a sanitised, saccharine story - far from it. In addition to not patronising one's readers and trying to see the world through their eyes, Walliams reckons a crucial element of kids' fiction is "a sense of the forbidden, so they think, 'Oh, Mum and Dad shouldn't catch me reading this'. Every child wants to read or watch something that's not quite meant for them. When I was a child all I wanted to do was watch the comedy programmes that were on after I had to go to bed, or videos that were R18, like Mad Max," he laughs.

Roald Dahl was the master of creating that necessary sense of danger, says Walliams, but in a way that's somehow safe.

"He was my favourite author growing up, so naturally he's influenced me. I've always tried to emulate the spirit of his work, especially the way he combines a sense of darkness with humour. For example, George's Marvellous Medicine is about this boy who tries to kill his grandma 'cos he hates her so much. Which, if you think about it, is the last thing you'd let your child read.

"You'd say, 'Oh no, that doesn't sound right!' he laughs.

"But Dahl puts the story together so brilliantly that not only do you not quite see it that way, it's actually one of the most celebrated and beloved children's books of all time."

David Walliams.
David Walliams.

Many reviewers have been quick to compare the work of the two authors - "Is David Walliams the new Roald Dahl?" asked the Guardian this year, a question the Telegraph answered two days later with the headline "Why David Walliams really is the new Roald Dahl" - but Walliams isn't buying into it.

"It's really flattering, but with any sort of praise I think it's fatal to start believing it, 'cos that's really the beginning of the end, isn't it? If I go around saying, 'Hi everyone, I'm the new Roald Dahl!', people would think I've lost my mind," he says, succumbing to helpless laugher at the very idea.

Mr Stink is about 12-year-old Chloe, who rejects her mother's prejudices by befriending the staggeringly smelly tramp of the title (played by Bonneville) and giving him shelter from the harsh winter weather. Comic hijinks duly ensue, and some positive messages are delivered, making for what Walliams somewhat reluctantly describes ("Oh, it's like I'm giving myself a review, isn't it!") as "a really nice, warm, funny Christmas story".

Walliams adapted his book for TV, embracing the opportunity afforded by the medium's collaborative nature to "change it and at certain points make it better. In the television adaptation, for example, Mr Stink's smell became like a magical power, which is something that didn't really occur to me when I was writing the book."

He also makes a cameo appearance as a smarmy, PR-driven British Prime Minister. Although he insists the character isn't based on anyone in particular, Walliams does laughingly acknowledge the book's illustrator - the legendary Quentin Blake, who also illustrated Dahl's books - "aimed to capture all the worst parts of Tony Blair and David Cameron".

Rather than make satirical points, though, Walliams' main aim with the screen version of Mr Stink is to unite children and parents in front of the telly this Christmas Eve.

"Some of my fondest memories are things we could share as a family, all watching together; I think that's wonderful," he says. "And, of course, I just really like making people laugh, so I do hope people find it funny, too."

What: Mr Stink, based on the book by David Walliams starring Hugh Bonneville
When and where: UKTV, Christmas Eve, 7pm

- TimeOut

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