Whilst sitting in the pouring rain, looking horribly like a smelly old tramp and trying not to laugh at the Umbrella-Wars developing between parents whose kids wanted to see the show and who were too tiny to see beyond the brollies, I got to wondering just *why* Danny The Champion Of The World has always been – by far – my favourite Roald Dahl book. And why I was grateful to the Grassington Festival for bringing David Wood’s adaptation to Yorkshire.
I first read it when I was 6 or 7. I’d read all of his other kiddy books before this one and I fell hook, line and sinker for Danny and his Pops. Why? At the time (the 70’s) it was rather unusual to hear the story of a little lad being brought up by a single parent. And even more rare for the parent to be a dad. A working class dad too – who loved his boy beyond belief, who fed him the most fantastic life as they lived in a gypsy caravan and existed on a diet of stories and experiments with nature and science.
So as a child, the one thing that I wanted to remember for the rest of my life after first reading the book, is this particular truism of Roald’s/ Danny’s; “what a child wants and deserves is a parent who is sparky.“ NOT dear reader, “a stodgy parent.” And I also learned to beware those grown ups who smile with their mouths ‘but not with their eyes.’
But whilst pondering my soggy bottom and wondering why-oh-why had I signed myself up to review an open air theatre performance in the middle of so-called British ‘summer’, it finally dawned on me WHY I’ve always reckoned that this is by far the best book by Dahl. It’s because of its sheer, subversive nature. Kids in the 1970’s – and now even more so – are nailed into their classroom seats, told what to do, what not to do, where to go and when and how and … generally speaking – are tiny, confused little cogs in a huge machinery that is called ‘The Adult World.’
The thread behind the story of Danny is one of a continuous tale of insurrectionary behaviour. When Danny stumbles across his dad’s big secret – Dad is a Poacher – at first he experiences fear and shock. Dad could get arrested! Dad is breaking the law! And then we learn his father’s views. The main reason behind why his dad poaches on Victor Hazell’s land is because he totally, utterly, truly hates fat-cat landowners who blam-blam-blam the poor pheasants out of the skies (I mean, where’s the art-form in THAT?); who treat poorer local people like scum and who are angling to buy up the rest of the surrounding property and lord it over everyone else with their posh parties. Plus it’s thrilling isn’t it? To be breaking a law… and also believing that you are doing this in order to comply with a higher code of morality.
And yes, the fact that this little performance of Danny The Champion of the World was being held on the lands belong to the Duke of Devonshire which happens to be riddled with pheasants and come the autumn lots of shooting parties… didn’t entirely go over my head. But then that’s me for you. I like a bit of politics.
The children watching the show however, were probably less interested in the socio-economic message than I was. They were held spellbound – despite the on-off pummeling of the rain. My 8 year old lad wanted to conduct a review of Illyria’s fine production for me and as the kid is easily bored by too much dialogue, I was surprised that such a wordy-based production completely kept his attention. For him, the gypsy caravan, the quality of the acting and the nasty Victor Hazell (the kid led the booing – and actually rather embarrassed me – by shouting out above all voices “you’re an evil old murdering nincompoop!” at the actor) accurately represented the Danny tale.
I was incredibly impressed that the actors just carried on, regardless of the on-off downpours; their voices lifting far above the sound of the rain (“Why didn’t they have microphones, Mum?” the little lad asked me, “Or a loudspeaker thing. They’ll be so poorly with yelling tomorrow that they won’t be able to shout at their own kids. Actually, Mum – maybe you should become an open-air actor.”) We both loved the wonderful wee pedal cars that played a key part in the action of Danny grasping the mettle as he hopped into the family car and goes to rescue his dad (another childhood fantasy or all of ours, eh?) My son even managed to forgive the fact that his hero was played by an actual grown up, “rather than a kid like me. But it was okay in the end because the guy that played him was just dead excited and giddy about his ideas like I always am. So I could believe that he was a boy.”
All in all, you have to be a pretty special little theatre company to have adapted one of the best stories ever written, to deliver it to an audience ranging from 0 to 80 years, to do it in the middle of the driving rain and not to be fretting that one of the Duke’s henchmen would truck up in the middle of it and chuck you off his land for insurrectionary and not-so-subliminal messages. And Illyria more than pulled it off.
The final verdict comes from the kid himself who was chuckling away throughout the performance; “I’d tell anyone that I know to go and see it. You’ll wet your pants!”
And hopefully when you go to see it, this won’t be because of the rain.