David Walliams: Snapshot In Time
Published: Wed 22 May 2013
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David Walliams: Snapshot In Time
“I actually think it does take other people to unlock it in you when you’re a child, and encourage you. I don’t think you can take it for granted. There must be loads of brilliantly funny people out there who didn’t quite get a chance, and then the moment passes. Whereas for me, I had this lightning bolt moment, aged 11, and that really set me on this path.” David Walliams
On 23 March 1983, an 11-year-old David Walliams stood on the stage at his Surrey grammar school and made people laugh for the first time. It was the night that was to change the course of his life and a moment that was captured on camera in a much-treasured photograph. Now, 30 years later, David wants to travel back to that day and recapture an experience that changed his life.
Now an award-winning comedy actor, multi-million-pound charity fundraiser and Britain’s Got Talent’s most anarchic judge, David regards the photograph of his stage debut as Queen Henrietta Maria in the school production of All The King’s Men, and credits it as capturing a defining moment in his life.
In this one-off documentary, he sets out to find the classmates who were pictured alongside him, playing his ladies in waiting, and to discover what has happened to them in the 30 years since it was taken. His journey takes him into his childhood past, to his home and his old school as he attempts to reunite his school friends, hear their stories and recreate the image in the present.
David says of the photo: “That’s the first moment I was on stage. It was such an incredible high, hearing the laughter and the applause. It was the first moment where I felt, ‘Oh, this is something I’m good at.”
“All I had to do was play this queen and come on and fan myself, while these other boys, who were playing my ladies in waiting, were singing to me. For me, it was a real eureka moment. Quite unexpectedly, I got laughs. I suddenly felt that I was on some kind of road then, that I wasn’t aware of before, but I was definitely thinking, ‘Oh, right, that’s what I wanna do. I wanna experience that again. I wanna get on the stage again. I wanna get laughs again.’”
David returns to Reigate Grammar School and meets up with his English and Music teachers, Keith Shipton and Robert Marsh, who introduced him to the stage. David didn’t audition for the role but was asked to play it by Mr Shipton.
Keith Shipton says: “As I can remember, looking at this little boy and seeing the eyes which I’m seeing in front of me now, they’re eyes of somebody who wants to laugh and make people laugh.”
With the help of the school’s alumni team, David begins to identify the other five boys in the photograph with him, who played his ladies in waiting, in the hope of reuniting with them and recreating the image that captured the moment his career began. He starts by hitting the phone to make contact in the hope of using his persuasive talents to secure a reunion.
David visits his mum, Kathleen Williams, who still lives in the house he grew up in. David contemplates his childhood bedroom, where he would play Rowan Atkinson and Monty Python records on his record player.
Kathleen recalls the school play: “We’d never really seen you do anything like that before. You were quite shy in lots of ways. You weren’t the outgoing person that you are now, I don’t remember. In fact, when I’ve talked to people about you, they said, ‘Oh, yeah. I remember him being quite shy boy.’ But I think that’s probably why you like doing what you do. Because when you’re on stage, you’re not yourself, are you? You’re somebody else. So you found a way of coming out of yourself.”
“I don’t know how you feel about this, but I feel that you wouldn’t probably be doing what you are doing today if it hadn’t been for school. I mean, because your father and I knew nothing about sort of acting.”
David’s father has sadly since passed away, but David recalls his upbringing in the early 1980s: “I remember my mum and dad coming back from shopping on a Saturday morning saying to me, ‘Guess what we saw in the High Street today?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ So mum went, ‘Guess.’ I went, ‘I dunno.’ She went, ‘A black man.’ I said, ‘Oh, what was he doing?’ ‘Oh, he was just walking along the street. Must have been shopping.’ So that was, I mean, that would be a major event, you know, in the time we’re talking, you know, early 1980s, a black man walking down the street.”
David’s sister Julie also had a flair for the stage, and David believed she was the one with the talent. But Julie didn’t end up in the entertainment industry and is now a primary school teacher.
Julie recalls the school play with David: “I’m pretty sure that we were in the front row, and I can remember laughing and laughing so much that I was practically crying. Because we had no idea that you were… well, I didn’t have any idea that you were going to look like that. There was a lot of fanning and a lot of really playing to the audience as the play went on. And I think you became much, much more confident, the more adulation that you got from people, if you like. And the more fanning and the more camp you became.”
Julie and David hit the internet together to try and trace one of the boys who moved schools and as a result lost touch. The search takes David to another school to meet its archivist and eventually to an address in East London, with little success.
Struggling to trace all his classmates, David meets up with his best friend from school, Robin Dashwood, who also displayed an acting talent. Robin now works as a director for the BBC and together they discuss the impact their school days had on their future career paths.
David says: “I take part in this performance, and I get these laughs, it was completely unexpected. And also, like, my mum, my dad and my sister in the audience, and they all laugh and they all kind of reacted to me afterwards in a slightly different way than they would normally, you know, in the car home. I felt like I was special. But also, I think, it’s interesting here that, like, the first time I get laughs, I’m also wearing a dress. So even if it’s a subconscious thing, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, that’s what’s funny about me. What’s funny about me is if I’m camping it up, as if I’m wearing a dress, if I’m acting in an effeminate way,’ and, you know, quite amazingly I’ve managed to make a career out of that… it was the only time when I really felt validated was when I was on stage and people were laughing… I definitely felt like I needed that again as quickly as I could.”
It transpires that David’s ladies in waiting are now living in all corners of the globe, having pursued lives and careers overseas. Can David track them down and convince them to fly back to the UK to put on lookalike dresses and re-join him on their school stage?