Big School: David Walliams on superstardom, finding happiness and why being an outsider is good

"People who really thrive at school don’t necessarily thrive at life... Creative imagination is formed when you’re on your own a lot and not out all day playing football and having fun with your friends"

David Walliams and I are sitting opposite one another on benches round a long table in a school refectory in north London. Behind him is a counter and a sign on the wall, “I ❤ TUCK SHOP”, where the T has been subtly altered to mean something quite different. Walliams swivels round to have a look and laughs, “Reality outstrips fiction. If we put that in our show, people would say it’s a bit too… obvious.”

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His new show is Big School – a sitcom set in fictional, secondary Greybridge School, with a terrific cast (Frances de la Tour as the headmistress, Philip Glenister as the randy PE teacher) and a story of unrequited love between the two megastars of British comedy. David Walliams plays the dorky chemistry teacher, Mr Church (with a completely mad hair-kink, think dog turd meets collapsed quiff), while Catherine Tate is Miss Postern, the most Francophile of French teachers, who has never actually been to France.

The starting point for the sitcom, he says – rather surprisingly – was watching The Remains of the Day, the film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning novel, set in the early 1930s, about a butler and housekeeper’s unexpressed feelings for one another. “I’ve always been obsessed by the film and the book and thought, ‘There must be a comedy version of The Remains of the Day,’ of unrequited love between two people who – because of the situation they’re in and because of the people they are – never declare themselves.”

I love the book, too, and mention the moment where the butler’s realisation, in one devastating line, leaves the reader in no doubt that he feels the immensity of his loss, and acknowledges that it had been in his power to be happy: “Oh yes, it’s brilliant,” Walliams says, with feeling. “He’s missed the opportunity of love for his whole life…”

Later, Walliams will strip down to a white vest and underpants (his idea) and muck around for the photoshoot with his former PE teacher, Martin Russell, from Reigate Grammar School – which was a fee-paying school by the time he joined it. His teacher’s memories of Walliams when he was called Williams (he changed the vowel because there’s another David Williams Equity member) suggest that, as a boy, the actor was a shy, unhappy outsider whose schooldays were turned around when he discovered he was good at swimming and comedy.

There’s still something unusual about Walliams. He’s part old codger, part awestruck schoolboy. He’s also cool in an uncool way. This is a guy whose show with Matt Lucas, Little Britain, was arguably the most successful comedy series of the Noughties, who had a reputation for attending glamorous parties with a long series of babes on his arm (until he met and married the Dutch-English gorgeously gap-toothed super-model, Lara Stone; the couple have recently had a new baby boy – more anon). He’s shown incredible guts and stamina with his swims across the Channel and down the Thames for Sport Relief, and is generally considered to be A Big Deal.

I saw him at some of those parties and thought he looked a bit unapproachable, also somewhat aloof and pleased with himself and yet, certainly in this encounter, he’s modest, almost bashful and comes across as a thoughful, kind person.

We talk about one of his awestruck moments in the world of celebrity. (He’s still a very good fan – “the people you loved as a kid, you’re always in awe of… it’s not necessarily about them being the most famous person in the world, it’s more about what they mean to you.”) This is about the time his parents took his sister to see The King and I, and she queued up to get Yul Brynner’s autograph.

Walliams loves the story of how the actor sat in his car, while the fans formed an orderly queue passing their programmes in through the window to be signed: “And I just thought, ‘That is… SUPERSTARDOM.’ The man from The Magnificent Seven! And he sat… in his car… signing his autographs after his show. In his limousine,” he tests the word out. “It was probably a Rolls-Royce. In those days, successful people were quite happy to drive around in Rolls-Royces. I don’t think people would want to do that now. They’d want a Smart Car. People being ostentatious has very much gone out of fashion.”

It’s striking how he keeps referring to famous people as “they”, as though he is not among them. I say that perhaps the recent Liberace film, Behind the Candelabra, will make ostentation fashionable again. He says it’s his favourite film of the year and that when he and Lucas were in Las Vegas they spent a day in the Liberace Museum: “It was the best thing I saw there because I must admit I didn’t like the place. I wanted it to be like old Vegas, people in dinner suits watching Frank Sinatra, but unfortunately it’s people in shorts buying buckets of beer. Anyway, I love all that glitz at the Liberace Museum and I’m glad someone lived their life like that because it’s fun to observe it while I wouldn’t want it to be my life.

“When you’ve been working for Comic Relief and done all those trips, you do think with people like Liberace, ‘Can I just take you somewhere like Ethiopia or Kenya and show you that, instead of that diamond-encrusted candelabra, you could build a school and it would give you such a greater feeling?’ Because I do think accumulation of wealth just for its own sake is quite pointless.”

As a small boy and teenager, Walliams was a keen autograph-hunter and hung around the stage doors to meet his heroes, one of whom was Rowan Atkinson. The schoolboy asked him: “What advice can you give to an aspiring comedian?” and the comedian replied, “Don’t do it.” “I was really crushed,” he recalls. “He meant it as a joke but I was thinking, ‘Wow! I’m meeting Rowan Atkinson – he’s going to give me the secret of comedy.

“I got Frankie Howerd’s autograph outside the Secombe Centre in Sutton and then I ended up playing him. It’s quite weird how life can be so circular. I mean, it’s just odd to be a real fan of someone and then 20 years later to be playing them.”

Because he was (is) such a fan, himself, Walliams doesn’t take umbrage when approached for autographs or photographs by the public. I can confirm this, as it happens. A week or so before we were due to meet, I was walking along the Brighton seafront, when one of the endless parade of couples pushing their baby in a stroller was stopped directly in front of me. The father posed for a photo with some young blokes and then resumed his walk and I realised, bizarrely enough, that it was Walliams.

I say that I assumed it was his wife and baby and he says, in a slightly tight voice (he doesn’t like talking about his family): “Well, I’d hope it would be my wife and baby.” Anyway, I was relieved he was gracious about being stopped by fans, given our impending interview. “Well, I should hope I was,” he laughs. “Why would you be anything but? When you’re well known and on television, it’s part of your life that you’re recognised. It’s a very fortunate position you’re in.”

It’s not all that surprising that he’s been asked about his sexuality in the past. We only know because he told us that as a boy he used to waft around his home in a silk kimono, prompting his father to call him Davina. At school, he was always up for playing the laydees – Laydee Macbeth being one of his most memorable roles, according to his school report.

Now, when I ask him about it, he says: “I think it’s all about falling in love with the person and that is overlooked, really. I hate it when people ‘confess’ or ‘reveal’ their sexuality and also things can change for people over the years. So it is about the person but I also think it goes beyond that. You don’t just fall in love with someone’s body, do you? You fall in love with someone’s soul and heart and brain.”

What was he like, I wonder, as a small boy? “I was quite shy. I didn’t even like having my picture taken.” Do you now? “Not really. [A big laugh.] Because I don’t like looking at the pictures afterwards.” Don’t you like the way you look? “Um, no. Not especially. But that’s OK. I’m not going to have plastic surgery or anything.” I say I think he looks pretty presentable in some photographs; stylish, even, and suave. “Well, occasionally you see a picture of me looking all right because my head’s turned a certain angle and I think, ‘Oh, I don’t look so fat now.’ ”

He doesn’t suffer so much, these days, he says, from the self-loathing that used to afflict him. (He has spoken out about his depressive episodes and suicide attempts.) “It’s not something I think about every day and my life’s in a different place.” You’re happier? “I’d say so, definitely, yeah. It comes from overthinking everything sometimes – having an overactive mind, and your mind racing when you should be sleeping or whatever.

“So it’s quite easy to turn in on yourself and be very self-critical. And obviously you want to have an active mind because I want to be able to write scripts and books but at the same time, it’s hard to switch that off and that’s why a lot of people who are creative sometimes have problems with their drinking or taking drugs because their minds won’t stop.”

Walliams is being called to the gym to join his old teacher whom he remembers as being “fair… and kind”. Thinking about PE reminds him of the cross country runs he would have to endure once a year: “And I would always come last or second to last. By the time I got in, all the other kids would have got changed and be waiting for me. They would applaud the fat boys crossing the finish line in a slightly sarcastic way.” He does a slow hand clap.

What would you say to that boy now? “I’d say, ‘Try and run a bit faster!’” he giggles. “No, seriously, I’d say, ‘Don’t worry too much.’ Because actually sometimes I think that people who really thrive at school don’t necessarily thrive at life. I think that being a little bit of an outsider is actually quite helpful. Creative imagination is formed when you’re on your own a lot and not so much if you’re out all day playing football and having fun with your friends.

“So I think those formative experiences are good and also I don’t think you can expect them all to be happy. Life is full of pain and as a child you feel it because you are powerless and so you feel those things very intensely. You feel trapped because so many things are decided for you.”

And when you were that powerless schoolboy did you ever, in your wildest dreams, imagine you’d fulfil your teenage fantasy and become what you are now? “Well, my teenage fantasy was Sam Fox!” Walliams laughs and repairs to the boys locker room to change into his PE kit.

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Big School starts tonight at 9pm on BBC1