As an actor I was lucky enough to star with Malcolm MacDowell in the film If..., with Shelley Winters on TV in The Vamp, and opposite Sir Michael Redgrave on stage in Voyage Round My Father. But children's theatre hijacked me after I wrote my first play for children in 1967. Since then, I have written another sixty and they are, I'm happy to say, performed all over the world. The Gingerbread Man is the most popular. I have also adapted six Roald Dahl books for the stage, plus Dick King-Smith's The Sheep-pig (as Babe), Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden and Philip Pullman's Clockwork. Writing books for children has been a very pleasant additional activity, mainly in association with Richard Fowler, the illustrator and paper engineer. For Walker Books, I wrote Sidney the Monster, which won the Nottingham Children's Book of the Year award.
I am not a full-time writer because producing and directing plays, performing in theatres and visiting schools takes up time. But when I write, I have to force myself to keep at it! I have a very nice office, but very rarely write in it! The kitchen table works better! Or my mother-in-law's house by the sea in Cornwall. Or room 208 of a south coast hotel, where I retreat when I have an urgent deadline! I write in longhand on the back of old scripts and letters - I never use new paper till the story or play is typed up. I can't use a typewriter or a computer keyboard because the book looks too finished too soon! But I do love using e-mail! Sidney the Monster was written during a sleepless night in which the line "Where there was once a monster called Sidney" came into my head and wouldn't go away. I delivered it to Walker Books at 9 am the same morning and they accepted it for publication at midday! Oh, if it was always that simple!
His original plays include The
Gingerbread Man, The Papertown Paperchase, Hijack Over
Hygenia, Nutcracker Sweet, The Plotters of Cabbage Patch
Corner, The See-Saw Tree and The Selfish Shellfish.
He has also adapted many children’s books into plays,
including several of Roald Dahl’s stories (The BFG, James
and the Giant Peach, The Witches (which has been in the
West End three times) and The Twits, as well as Tom’s Midnight Garden and Babe The Sheep-Pig,
and stories from Noddy, Spot and Meg and Mog for
Many of Wood’s plays have also been adapted for schools,
and his work is performed professionally all over the UK as
well as by amateur companies. His film screenplays include Swallows and Amazons and Back Home, which won a
gold award at the New York Film and TV Festival 1991. Wood’s
writing for television includes the series Chips’ Comic,
Chish ‘N’ Fips, The Gingerbread Man and Tide Race,
his filmed drama for Central Television and the European
Broadcasting Union, which has won several international
As well as being a playwright, Wood has also written many
children’s books, and recently published a book about
children’s theatre. His adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The
Twits opens for a Christmas season at north London’s
Arts Depot next week.
Date & place of birth
Born 21 February 1944
Lives now in
Wimbledon, south London.
What made you want to work in theatre?
Seeing Peter Pan when I was very young had a big impact. I
started learning magic when I was very young too and I started
doing magic at children’s parties when I was about 12. So it
was inevitable really that I’d want to work in theatre. I knew
from a very young age. I remember watching a variety show on
television and thinking that was what I wanted to do. I never
trained as such, but I went to Oxford to read English.
Theatrically, I think I did more there than I would have done
at drama school. I was there with people like Michael
Palin and Terry
Jones and Diana
Quick. A lot of us turned professional - I was in the West
End twice as a student.
First big break
When I was at Oxford, we did a
show with the Experimental Theatre Club called Hang Down
Your Head and Die and that transferred from the Oxford
Playhouse to the West End. I look back on as a very important
I thoroughly enjoyed
directing and writing at the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre
this year with Babe, The Sheep Pig. And acting wise, A Voyage Round My Father in which I was the first ever
person to play the son. That was on stage at Greenwich in the
1970s. I did it opposite Michael
Redgrave in Canada a few years later and I loved that.
Anderson who directed me in If… in 1968, which
became a cult film. I also loved working with Jack
Gold on Aces High and a TV play called Mad
Jack about Siegfried Sassoon. I always remember him as a
very clever director.
I admire Alan
Ayckbourn very much and Stiles and Drew, who are friends
of mine and who wrote the new songs for Mary Poppins. I
find what they do very interesting because it combines child
and adult appeal. They’re not regarded as children’s writers
but their work comes from a child-orientated view.
What made you first decide to write for
This thing of doing magic at children’s
parties started it off. When I went into rep at the Swan
Theatre in Worcester in the mid-1960s, I went in as an
actor/director. That was wonderful for me because I was only
23 or something. I would act in one play and then direct the
next one. There were only two is us in that role, the other
Walters. I also did Saturday morning children’s theatre
where we did an entertainment show doing magic and things. As
a result of that, a man called John Hole, who owned the
theatre, asked me if I would write the Christmas play for that
year, and that’s where it all started.
How do you select the books you adapt for the
I suppose I’m looking for a story which is going
to work on stage that I can make work theatrically. It’s not
always the case that a very good book will make a very good
play, it’s got to do with character, plot and situation. There
are some stories that lend themselves more to the stage. These
days people ring me up quite often and ask me to adapt their
books, so it’s not always a question of me finding it. When
I’ve found a book I think will work, the first thing I have do
is look for the interval because the structure of a book is
very different from a play and, particularly with a children’s
play, you need a good ending for the first half that makes
them want to come back. But you can’t expect there to be a
cliff-hanger halfway through a book so finding the interval is
a very important question as a way of pacing the story and
making it work. It’s very easy to become distracted, bored, or
whatever and kick the seat in front and talk to your friend or
very often you want to go to the loo. Children can be very
devious. They know how to manipulate adults. The best way of
getting out of a show they’re bored of is to ask to go to the
loo - it’s very unlikely that an adult is going to take the
risk of a wet seat. So I’ve been saying recently that my job
for 40 years has been to stop children from going to the loo!
Do you believe the old adage of “never work with
children or animals”?
No! I’ve done it all my life.
Certainly I’ve used animals in performances and also animal
characters in plays are very useful for children because they
seem to prefer them to humans. Very often in the most
successful children’s stories, there’s a child protagonist so
you’re seeing something through a child’s eyes and you’re sort
of empowering them, so you need it to be all about the
children and not let adults get in the way. If you want the
child protagonists to do exciting things, you need to get rid
of the parents by putting them in boarding school or they can
go and visit a neglectful uncle or something like that so that
the children can go off and be left to their own devices.
People often say children are the most critical members
of an audience. Do you think this is the case?
the most difficult audience, but at the same time they’re the
most rewarding audience because they’re the most giving. If
you get it right, the response they give you is a far more
honest and exciting gut reaction than adults will give you.
The challenge never gets easier, but you have to give them a
good time and to educate and entertain and trigger their
imaginations and make them laugh and cry and all these things.
The fact is they are far more willing to enter into the spirit
of things than adults, but they are more difficult to hold the
Do you prefer writing for the stage or screen?
haven’t done enough screen writing to really say, but my heart
lies in theatre.
What was the last stage production that had a big impact
on you? And the first?
Apart from a little show at
school, it was Peter Pan, which I was enchanted by. I
saw a preview of The
Sound of Music, and I was very impressed. I think the
whole thing was very cleverly done in the sense that it was
not as sugary as sometimes you tend to think it is, but at the
same time it was charming and had a muscularity about it.
What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t
become involved with theatre?
I was going to say magic,
but I suppose that’s theatrical too. I suppose I would
probably have been a teacher.
What advice would you give the government – or the
industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
chair of Action for Children’s Arts and we’re in the process
of putting together what we’d like to call a Children’s Arts
Manifesto because there are certain entitlements children
should have on top of the ones we take for granted like heath
and general education, to do with triggering imagination and
in order to do that there should be enough funding in theatre
which allows every child the right to “suck it and see” and to
go to the theatre at least once if not twice in their primary
school lives. That sounds quite easy, but of course it’s not
because I would want them to go free and have free transport
as well. It also means they’ve got to fund enough companies to
do the work so there are enough things for the children to go
If you could swap places with one person (living or
dead) for a day, who would it be?
I’m fascinated by JM
Barrie, so probably him. The other would be the first owner of
my Edwardian house because I’ve always been interested to see
what it was like back in the Edwardian days.
I suppose when I was small Enid
Blyton got me reading. I do tend to read quite a lot of
children’s books still because that’s partly my job and there
are some very good ones around. I particularly like Michelle
Magorian who wrote Goodnight Mr Tom.
Favourite holiday destinations
Menorca. We use to
go there as a family a lot and my wife and I still go for the
occasional week or two. I also enjoy America. Children’s
writing here is not regarded as very important academically,
but over in America I feel more at home because you can do a
degree in it there and somehow people seem to respect it more.
Why did you think The
Twits would make a good play?
Unusually in The
Twits, there isn’t in fact a child protagonist. It’s
about a very nasty couple who do very nasty things to each
other and to birds and monkeys – so back to animals again and
defenceless creatures - who they treat rather cruelly by
trying to make them into a circus act. Children love it
because it’s the subversive side of Dahl and it’s grotesque
and it’s a very moral story because they are defeated in the
end. I could see it working in many ways, but physically Mr
and Mrs Twit are very unpleasant to each other. In order to do
that up on stage, I thought it would have to be done as a form
of clowning theatrically, which also led me to one line in the
book that says they worked in a circus in the past, so it gave
me the idea to set the whole thing in a circus. The circus
idea seems to have worked very well. It’s very different to
the others in that way.
What do you think makes the show appeal to children
Dahl is unusual in that when you do a
Dahl adaptation you can put it on at 7pm and know that you’ll
get an audience that will be a mixture of families and adults
coming on their own. Very few writers have that mass appeal.
Most children’s plays just wouldn’t get an audience in the
evening, but with Dahl they do. I remember when The
Witches was on one year, I saw a whole party of young
ladies in their 20s. I couldn’t understand why they were there
all there together - it was their office party and they’d
chosen to go to that rather than something else because of the
nostalgia of seeing one of your favourite childhood books on
Have you always been a fan of Roald
Dahl, particularly having adapted several of his books
into stage plays?
He has so many of the classic
ingredients. The stories are very moral and they’re also
subversive. They use taboo subjects which sometimes adults
would prefer their children not to be getting to know or
talking about, and they pull the rug from under adults so in
those ways they empower the children who then feel in charge.
Also he wrote wonderful baddies that you really love to hate
and the child protagonist is important. He knew about what I
like to call old wine in new bottles, he knew what the classic
ingredients are and he slightly changed them so you have
giants and witches – which have been in stories going back as
far as anyone can think - but he brought them into his books
in quite an original way. His witches are not the traditional
witches with pointy hats, they look like ordinary women. To a
certain extent, I use those principals in my own original
plays. I suppose my best known original play is The
Gingerbread Man, and that has the classic theme of
intolerance and acceptance of a newcomer.
What are your plans for the future?
Champion of the World is on tour at the moment and James and the Giant Peach is on at the Octagon in
Bolton so I’ve got a Roald
Dahl hat-trick going on, which is exciting. I am also
writing another play, but I can’t really talk about that yet.
Wood was speaking to Caroline Ansdell