Q How did the relationship with Birmingham Stage Company begin?
A Birmingham Stage Company contacted me. They were aware of the Tom Gates books and I was aware they had done shows such as Horrible Histories and David Walliams’ Gangster Granny and Awful Auntie. I met BSC actor/manager Neal Foster and designer Jackie Trousdale and they gave me a rough idea of how they worked and the ideas they had for the show – and I really liked their ideas.
Neal Foster & Liz Pichon
Q How has this progressed?
A Neal and I then worked together to create a brand-new storyline. It’s interesting because I’ve always wondered how Tom Gates would translate to the stage and then talking to Neal, who has so many great ideas, I saw how it would work.
Q Why did you decide to do a new story rather than using one of the current books?
A Not all of the books have a very, very strong plotline and the nature of the way I’ve written them is that you can very much dip in and out so you don’t have to read them in order. There are some things which happen in every book to do with the different characters and it felt like it would be great to be able to take some of the main themes and work them into a new story which would work better as a theatre show. This also allows us to do different things with the different characters which I might not always have had them doing in the books.
Take a quick peek.
Q How long have you been working on this process?
A We first spoke about it in 2017 and Neal gave me a clear idea of what he would like to happen in the storyline – what kinds of things could happen to Tom. I then took those away and developed them a bit further and then wrote the script. I wrote the first part of the script and then I added in more because I know the characters so can put more of them into it. And then it was working out what it was going to look like which was really exciting. And every time you moved it forward it changed a bit because as each stage happens such as the design or the dialogue being spoken by an actor it changes. That’s actually a lot like the books - as you move forward you’re changing them all the time.
Q What is it like working with someone else?
A I absolutely loved the process. It’s very much Neal and I sitting in a room and coming up with the plotlines and then pushing those boundaries – asking ‘what else can happen?’ Neal has immense knowledge of what works in the theatre and it’s really interesting to learn from him as I might suggest something but then he can explain why it might not work or suggest a way of making it more visual.
Q How do you replicate the visual nature of your books on stage?
A I’m really excited about that. Jackie, the designer, has so many great ideas – it’s very strong on visuals. Neal was keen to do something different and try and get the humour and the energy of the books into the show. There are also songs and music as I’ve always had music and song lyrics in the books. This was right from the very beginning and I’ve really developed that over the last few years so now when I go on tour for the books I can bring a band with me so there is a real musical element to the books and to the show.
Q Had you anticipated your books being staged or filmed?
A I think you always hope it will happen but I see my job as writing the very best book I can with the best drawings and that is the core of what I do. So I don’t think when you’re writing it you’re thinking beyond that. But I write a lot of dialogue in my books and they are very visual so I think bringing that part of it to life on stage works really well.
Listen to what the kids think.
Q Where did the idea for Tom Gates come from originally?
A I started working on it as a picture book because I did picture books before. I wrote one called My Big Brother Boris which won the Smarties Silver Award and in some ways that is similar to Tom Gates because it’s about a family and a teenager and a brother. So I started doing a book called All About Me and it was based on when children first go into reception at school and they have to write a little bit about themselves and do a picture, and write about their families and what they like and don’t like. It was a bit like a scrapbook and that went out to lots of different publishers and they all loved it but they all said there wasn’t enough of a story so I took the good bits and took that forward. One day I thought ‘I’m going to imagine I’m Tom’ and I wrote in an exercise book and I imagined that his teacher would also be writing in the exercise book with his comments, so he needed a different handwriting. And I started doing little doodles and drawings and then Tom writes a story about what he’s done during the summer holidays when he went camping so he writes a story called ‘Camping Sucks’. And so I imagined that he was writing in a book and that was the start of it really. I was really keen to put all the things into it that I knew I would have loved at that age.
Q When did you know Tom Gates was successful?
A When I won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize that really helped and then children started to discover the book and tell their friends and librarians discovered it and they started to use it to encourage children who were reluctant readers.
Q And now you’re on your 15th book?
A I actually can’t quite believe it! And, as long as I don’t start repeating myself or getting bored about it, I could keep writing Tom Gates books. I remember as a child that if you had something you really liked you can tell if they start to not be as good – maybe they don’t have as much content in them or the stories are not as satisfying. And I’ve always been careful to think that ‘if I was that age now and a Tom Gates fan what would I really love in this book?’
Q Which other children’s authors do you like?
A I absolutely love Roald Dahl, when my children were younger we were all thrilled by The Twits. I also loved poetry particularly Spike Milligan. Also a friend recommended these books by James Marshall called the Fox Books and they are really quirky, funny little stories and my children loved them.
Q What do you hope audiences will enjoy with the Tom Gates the stage show?
A I want them to have a really good time. I think one of the things that children like about the books is that they see themselves in there, they can recognize elements of what Tom’s about, and I hope this will also be the case with the stage show. I’d love to get children into the theatre who maybe wouldn’t have come to the theatre before to see something different. But they don’t need to know my books or Tom Gates at all beforehand. They will love the show anyway. I can’t wait for everyone to dip their toe into the world of Tom Gates. Making it a real world, and making it something completely different in the theatre, is so exciting – it gives it another element which I can’t do in the books.
Download some Tom Gates crafts:
Tom Gates Live is on stage at Eden Court from THU 18 to SAT 20.
Book online or call the Box Office on 01463 234 234.