Playwright David Wood on challenges of adapting Roald Dahl’s rather nasty children’s tale

His version of George’s Marvellous Medicine comes to Dubai, and the writer says audiences can expect a faithful adaptation of the original 2009 stage production

Actor and playwright David Wood may have just successfully dismissed one of the longest-running urban myths in British cinematic history. Back in 1968, Wood starred as Johnny, one of the three main protaganists alongside Malcolm McDowell's Mick and Richard Warwick's Wallace, in Lindsay Anderson's classic political satire about a revolution in an English boarding school if…. The film won the Palme d'Or and is regularly listed as one of the best British films ever made.

Perhaps more famous than the scenes of violence, however, is the long running rumour that Anderson ran out of money while making the film, hence he had to switch to black and white film for the final scenes. Wood has a memoir of his time on set, titled Filming if…. and featuring a foreword by McDowell, due for publication next year to celebrate the film's 50th anniversary. He tells me the claims are false:

“The question comes up every few days in conversation,” says Wood. “For many years I was recognised, not so much now, I’m 50 years older, but for years. Once even in Canada on a train. People always ask about it, the black and white question, and no, it’s not true.”

Wood says: "The fact is one of the first sequences we shot was the black and white scene in the chapel, not one of the last ones when we'd run out of money. Lindsay filmed it in both black and white and colour, and when he watched the rushes back he said that it looked too false in colour, it looked like a film set rather than the real thing, whereas it looked more 'documentary' in black and white, so he used that version. It was nothing to do with money, just a case of horses for courses."

Despite Wood's early career in the adult world of if…. he is now better known as a children's playwright, in particular for his 1976 kids' classic The Gingerbread Man, which has been staged all over the world, and for his stage adaptations of the works of much-loved childrens' writers, most famously his many adaptations of the novels of Roald Dahl. The Times newspaper even described him as "the national children's dramatist".

This week, Wood's version of Dahl's George's Marvellous Medicine comes to Dubai, and the writer says audiences can expect a faithful adaptation of the original 2009 stage production performed once again by the Birmingham Stage Company.

“I originally worked on it in 2009, and it’s still the same director, Phil Clark, who I did the original production with,” he says. “We worked very closely together on it and I was there in the original rehearsals. It’s done three or four UK tours, and it’s been abroad too. Now it’s being revived to come to Dubai.”

Wood has now adapted eight of Dahl's novels for the stage, although he admits George's Marvellous Medicine, which was his "fifth or sixth", is one of the more controversial ones. The 1981 novel tells the story of George Kranky, whose life is made a misery by his overbearing, bullying grandmother who shares the family home. To punish her for her nasty ways, George replaces her medicine with a home-made version featuring anti-freeze, shampoo, engine oil and more, with fantastical results.

“It’s an interesting one to do because a lot of parents and teachers object to it as a sort of manual on ‘how to kill your grandma’,” Wood admits.

“What Dahl’s actually saying is that George’s grandma is a very nasty person. You have to remember with Dahl that he knows his audience are children, and he sees everything from a child’s eye view. George is frustrated and annoyed, and the whole idea of the medicine is that he wants to make her better, he wants to make her a nicer person, so he concocts this medicine which brings the magic in.”

Dahl has always had a darker side – this is, after all, an author who juxtaposed his children's books with the spooky UK TV series Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988) – and Wood admits he has made some concessions to make the stage version more palatable. "When I adapted it I put in a back story to make absolutely sure that the audience were on George's side," he explains. "I didn't want any possibility that they could go against George because he's being nasty to an old lady, so I take it back before the book and have grandma arriving to stay with them to convalesce."

Wood says in his version, Grandma has arrived on the Krankys’ farm from the city, and hates everything about the countryside. George is forced to give up his room to accommodate her, and his parents have their own issues with the cantankerous new arrival.

“In many ways it’s quite a sophisticated family situation that’s quite true to life,” he says. “Everybody’s on edge because she’s arrived, whereas in the book they started out as a functional family already. I found that by doing this the audience are completely on George’s side so when he asks them to help make the medicine they join in with great abandon and the audience participation is key to what makes this such a fun play for all ages.” 

George’s Marvellous Medicine is at Ductac on Friday, at 11am and 3pm (