'It's real life; but just not quite' | David Walliams on Big School

'It's real life; but just not quite'

David Walliams on Big School

David Walliams’s new sitcom Big School – which he both stars in and co-wrote with The Dawson Brothers – starts on BBC One next month, with an ensemble cast including Catherine Tate, Philip Glenister, Frances de la Tour, Joanna Scanlan and Daniel Rigby. Here he talks about writing and performing the show:

My storyline is that I’ve fallen in love with Catherine Tate’s character Miss Postern on first sight. I’m thinking about leaving the school, I see her and I decide to stay.

I wanted to do something a bit like Remains Of The Day - the story of these two servants who were in love with each other but they can’t quite express it. I was thinking what could be the modern take on that?

I thought, well a school’s quite a good environment because you don’t get any privacy at school. There’s always corridors teaming with kids, staff rooms, dining rooms, whatever. So I thought that could be a rather good setting and I thought it’s a universal experience that 99 per cent of us went to school, or have got kids at school.

So I thought it was relatable, and I wanted to do a big ensemble piece. I wanted there to be lots and lots of parts for everybody so it’s ideal, because of course in any school there are loads and loads of teachers.

Some of the characters are partly inspired by experiences either I had or [co-writers] The Dawson Brothers had at school. I mean I certainly had teachers like this. I’m meant to be in my forties, unmarried, probably never had a girlfriend, a bit dysfunctional and set in my ways. I certainly had lots of teachers like that at my school.

And most people have experienced at some stage in their lives a sadistic PE teacher which is what Philip Glenister is. A head teacher who doesn’t really seem to care that much about anything that happens in the school, so they’re more like archetypes. Rather than saying ‘this is exactly based on this specific teacher’. it’s more about trying to find types. I’m a chemistry teacher, Mr Church, so it’s right he would be rather scientific and rather repressed. The world of romance is very alien to him.

II feel the engine of the comedy of this piece is the fact that Miss Postern and Mr Church do like each other but they can never really express it because in their own ways they’re both quite repressed characters. Miss Postern thinks about herself as a very urbane person who’s experienced so much in life, but she’s a French teacher who’s never been to France. She’s never really had any big experiences in life, so a lot of it is about that they can’t quite communicate with each other which I feel is often the stuff of comedy.

We’ve got real kids [in the show]. We’ve been on location at a real school in Uxbridge. It’s just fun getting their take on something. And of course we wanted as writers, me and the Dawson Brothers, to get the kids and their dialogue as accurate as possible.

I went to school in the Seventies and Eighties so it’s a long time since I’ve been at school and it’s very important that we get their way of speaking. So we listen very carefully to the things they’re saying and tinker with the scripts. It’s just funny as well because they know us from off the TV so it’s fun seeing their responses to us.

They’ve all been really, really sweet. I thought ‘this is going to be a horror’ because they’d be all badly behaved but they were all very well drilled.

We really wanted each episode to be as distinct as possible and have a set piece in it. There’s an episode, for example, around a school play, a school trip, a talent show, one around exams, so we always wanted to feel like we wanted to build towards something big. The talent show episode is a lot of fun and I get to play the oboe as Catherine Tate sings. It felt, as we were doing it, like a lovely moment and I hope that will come across on screen.

Gavin And Stacey was the programme I was thinking of in terms of the tone because it’s a heightened reality. It’s real life but just not quite. I wanted there to be jokes in this series, I wanted the characters to be quite big but I didn’t feel it could be done in front of a studio audience. It just wouldn’t be convincing in terms of assembly scenes, a classroom scene. You just wouldn’t be able to get the scale of a school.

I also wanted to bring out the emotional life of the characters so I felt that really needs to be something worked on, on locations more than something you’d do on a night in front of an audience. When you do that it becomes a filmed performance.

I really enjoyed playing one character for an entire series. I’m used to doing sketch shows with Matt [Lucas] and then we’d play four characters a day. This character has got to be a lot realer because you’re going to spend a lot more time with them, so I’ve really enjoyed that journey.

I hope that people find it funny but enjoy that it’s a slightly subtler thing from me, as opposed to having big gags served up. It’s more about the relationships between the characters and the way we relate to each other.

Published: 26 Jul 2013

What do you think?

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.