James meets James in preparation for James and the Giant Peach

Posted on 5 June 2013

Tom Gillies touches the yellow notepaper almost with reverence. He leans in to read the handwritten text and turns the page gently. As well he might because Tom is handling something very precious. He is reading the first draft of handwritten notes by Roald Dahl of the book which was to go on to become a worldwide success – James and the Giant Peach.

And reading this first draft is all the more special to Tom as he has come to know James well over the past few months – because he plays the role of the youngster in the Birmingham Stage Company (BSC) show which comes to the Belgrade from Tues 11 to Sat 15 June.

Tom has been given special access to these historic papers which are held in safe keeping at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.

Thanks to a request from BSC, the museum’s collections manager and archivist Rachel White has picked out some papers which she thinks Tom would like to see.
And he is fascinated. First he is introduced to the archives themselves – shelf upon shelf of Dahl’s letters, his manuscripts and his jottings. The archives also contain a hotchpotch collection of objects from Dahl’s famous writing shed – from sharpened down pencils to a box of matches.

Dahl, whose children’s books went on to include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox, Danny the Champion of the World, Matilda and George’s Marvellous Medicine, was an archivist’s dream come true. “Dahl kept everything,” says Rachel. “Everything in these boxes came from his house, he never threw anything away. So we have his letters, his books, his drafts.

“And what all this archive shows is how much work he put into everything. Dahl never settled for second best. He would draft something then redraft it, then redraft it. So you can see how a story started as an idea and then was gradually crafted into the final story. And we have the correspondence between Dahl and his editors and publishers so you can see how a book would develop after discussions with these people.”

Much of the archive has been donated by Dahl’s family and it is an incredible collection. Tom can hardly believe his eyes as Rachel takes him through a box of items relating to James and the Giant Peach.

As well as this first draft, she shows Tom one of Dahl’s ‘ideas’ books in which he collected stories, thoughts and memories – sometimes keeping them in there for years before they would reappear, slightly altered, in one of his novels.

“He reused ideas a lot,” Rachel says. “When you read his ‘ideas’ books you see all these weird and surreal ideas and then you can see how they appear, often in a slightly less weird or surreal way, in his stories. In some ways it is a random jumble but this gave him material to work with. For example we know that James, the BFG, Danny and the Charlie stories began as bedtime stories that he would tell to his own children. They were then in his head and with a bit of prodding and shaping they were turned into his books.

“With James he actually started with the idea of it being a cherry rather than a peach. It was a cherry which just kept on growing and growing but then when he developed the ideas he decided to replace it with a peach as he was looking for something large, juicy, soft and with a stone in the middle.

“When you read his first ideas for James they are actually quite eerie but this was his first book for children and it was getting that macabre balance right. So in this first draft it is a lot darker than the final version. For example when the old man gives James the bag he says he wants something in return. When James asks what he wants he shows James his hands and they are child’s hands and he says he took them off a child. What he wants from James is James’ legs. But none of that made it into the final version for children.”

Tom is also shown a speech in which Dahl describes his writing methods and some of the drawings for the first US edition of James which were created in great detail by Nancy Ekholm Burkett – well before the partnership with artist Quentin Blake whose drawings now grace most of Dahl’s books.

It is a real treasure trove and is followed by a tour round the museum in which Tom has the chance to see a recreation of Dahl’s writing hut, can dress up as Charlie, and is able to sit in a replica writing hut.

It is the first time 27-year-old Tom, who hails from Glasgow, has been to the museum and he is quick to say that it has given him a much greater understanding of Dahl and his thought process.

Tom has been playing James in the show since November but says that evolving a character is an on-going process. “There is always so much to discover along the way. One of the great things about being an actor is that you can throw yourself into research – it helps you live vicariously in a way through your character,” he says.

“It was a real privilege to actually hold the first manuscript of James and I got a lot of insight into Roald Dahl’s working methods at the museum. It really does help. I will certainly suggest that everyone involved in the show comes and sees the museum – not just the cast but everyone. I have got a lot of pictures and memories which I will go away and mull over and I am sure it will help me with my performance because things keep evolving.”

In some ways Tom saw Dahl in a different light. “I would say what surprised me was Roald Dahl’s avoidance to kick things off. I was surprised that someone who wrote so much would procrastinate so much and put off the actual writing. He was talking about sharpening his pencils and then, when you are not using the sharpener itself, sharpening the implement used to sharpen the sharpener! All those little kind of distractions that I am kind of guilty of myself. But then when the ball does start rolling and he gets going it is a kind of unstoppable force. It is surprising that someone who is renowned as such a hard worker did actually struggle to get started.

“Also it was interesting to see the more macabre elements to some of the works. Seeing those very first drafts and seeing quite how far Dahl took it before it was preened back is really interesting. For example that bit where the old man wants James’ legs in the first draft did surprise me a bit but I suppose if he hadn’t written specifically for children before then it was a case of having to rethink the stories.”

Tom was a fan of Roald Dahl well before he agreed to take on the role of James. “James is my sister’s favourite book. I did re-read it before doing the show but I was familiar with it anyway. I did come to Roald Dahl quite late, in senior school. I knew the Gene Wilder Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film – in fact I think I wore that video out. But then the first book we did at school was Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator and it took me a while to get used to the language. It is very eccentric in a very different way from the way it is portrayed on the screen. I love how unpatronising Dahl’s writing is. I really like the macabre elements and I think it strikes just the right balance. For me, it struck just the right kind of chord.”

Dahl’s work has been successfully adapted for screen and stage many times – not least by Birmingham Stage Company who have adapted a host of his works including The BFG, The Witches, Fantastic Mr Fox, Danny and George’s Marvellous Medicine, many of which have played at the Belgrade.

“Very often people ask me how I would go about staging his work and when you read it, it seems like a Herculean task,” says Tom. “Then in the weeks and months leading up to our performances of James and the Giant Peach when we had our meeting and saw the first designs I could just see how it was going to work.

“A lot of the set has been influenced by Heath Robinson and his illustrations of complicated machines. The director Nikolai Foster and the designer Colin Richmond have taken elements of that and adapted it to this story. And it has the right feel to it. It is very organic the way that set works. In this production we find that silence is golden. If children are bored you know about it very quickly. We hear them before we go on stage and you think they won’t settle down but as soon as the story starts they do and you see them listening so intently.

“They are right there when we want audience participation but they really concentrate on the scenes. That shows it works.”

By Diane Parks.

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