How David Walliams conquered Christmas

The unlikely rise of the bestselling children’s author. 

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Just over a decade ago, when Little Britain specials were still watched by millions in a prime-time slot on Christmas Day, it would have been hard to imagine the naughty, flirtatious comedian David Walliams as the face of child-friendly festivities. But over the past decade, Walliams has conquered the end-of-year book charts.

“Every child now looks forward to the new David Walliams book at Christmas,” his publisher at HarperCollins, Ann-Janine Murtagh, declared when two new titles, The Ice Monster and Geronimo, were released in November. Unlike most, Walliams’s promotional team have the data to support this claim. Walliams is set to secure his third Christmas No 1 in a row, defeating competitors such as Jamie Oliver and Michelle Obama. The 47-year-old is the only children’s author other than JK Rowling to achieve an overall Christmas No 1, and the only author other than Oliver to secure the top spot for three consecutive years.

Added to this, a TV adaptation of Walliams’s novel The Midnight Gang (in which he stars as a malevolent headmaster) enjoys top billing on BBC One this Christmas, while Walliams also features as prime minister in Sky One’s children’s Christmas drama The Queen & I.

Walliams, who was born in Merton, south-west London, and grew up in Banstead, Surrey, began his publishing career ten years ago with The Boy in the Dress (2008). The story, Walliams’s most personal, follows schoolboy Dennis and the tension between his two passions: football and women’s fashion. Having secured a two-book publishing deal with HarperCollins at the end of 2007, Walliams wrote the book on flights between London and LA while working on a US remake of Little Britain. At the time, coverage of the deal was sceptical: Walliams was regarded as the latest in a procession of ropy celebrity authors, from Ricky Gervais (Flanimals) to Katie Price (Perfect Ponies).

An encouraging sign, however, was the recruitment of illustrator Quentin Blake, who deemed The Boy in the Dress to be “funny” and “surprisingly” sensitive. Reviewers wrote of the book’s “genuine appeal” for children. Success, however, was not immediate.

“Maybe people were scared that I had come from doing a very adult comedy show or perhaps parents were worried about the theme,” Walliams suggested. But thanks to the effusive responses of his young readers, and Walliams diligently releasing a new novel each autumn, his reputation among 8- to 12-year-olds grew steadily.

 A turning point was the publication of Gangsta Granny in 2011. Perhaps his most irresistible premise (the cover features a sweet-looking grandmother dressed in a robber’s mask, swag bag slung over her shoulder), it was Walliams’s first book to secure the No 1 spot in children’s fiction. When the paperback was published the following spring, it spent 22 weeks at the top. Gangsta Granny remains Walliams’s most successful book, having sold more than 1.2 million copies in the UK.

“That’s when everything went a bit crazy,” Kiera O’Brien, the Bookseller’s charts and data editor, told me. Sales of Walliams’s back catalogue increased by 520 per cent and BBC TV dramas were swiftly commissioned (with one released every Christmas for the past four years). According to Nielsen BookScan, Walliams has sold a total of 14.4 million books – with revenues of £82.6m – in the UK. Globally, more than 23 million copies have been sold and his work translated into 53 languages.

It’s still strange to think of the writer of Little Britain – a sketch show that often mocked disabled, gay and cross-dressing characters – as the author of award-winning, touching children’s books. Outside his publishing career, Walliams may seem an unlikely family-friendly figure. Earlier this year, Walliams found himself on the fringes of a #MeToo scandal thanks to his involvement in the controversial Presidents Club Charity Dinner (he compèred the event and invited guests to bid for the chance to name a character in one of his books). The following month, the Daily Mail reported that Walliams was “secretly” dating 20-year-old glamour model Chloe Ayling, having contacted her via Instagram after her kidnapping in Milan in 2017.

But children, who know nothing of the rest of his career, except perhaps his judging stints on Britain’s Got Talent, adore his books. Combining puerile jokes about bottom burps, oozing warts and dirty beards, vivid illustrations of colourful villains and playful text with sophisticated plots and thoughtfully drawn characters, their appeal is obvious.

Walliams was Britain’s biggest-selling author of 2017. “Short of JK Rowling announcing a ninth Harry Potter book, he’ll easily be 2018’s bestselling author as well,” O’Brien said. For Murtagh, these are “the classic children’s books of the future”. Such is Walliams’s conquest of Christmas, she could be right.

Update: This article was updated on 06 December to remove the incorrect assertion that David Walliams was forced to apologise for his involvement in the President’s Club Charity Dinner. He did not apologise.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article appears in the 05 December 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special