"I hope people cry watching my show"
David Walliams talks to James Rampton about his one-off New Year's Day drama
It must be a first for a football match. The crowd is actually cheering the referee. I am in the stand at Walton Casuals Football Club in Surrey to watch the filming of a climactic scene from BBC1's one-off family drama, The Boy in the Dress, and the dozens of extras beside us are whooping and hollering at the referee's every move. David Walliams, portraying said referee, is playing to the crowd and is clearly loving every second of it.
Adapted from the comedian's own bestselling debut children's novel, the script homes in on Dennis (Billy Kennedy), a 12-year-old misfit with an unhappy home life. After catching sight of a model by chance in a fashion magazine one day, he makes a bold decision: to go to school wearing a dress - and damn the consequences. The very first line of the book - "Dennis was different" - sets the tone.
Done up in a ridiculously bouffant wig and tight black shirt and shorts, 43-year-old Walliams is playing an exceedingly camp drama teacher who has been called up at the last minute to referee Dennis's school football match.
Skipping merrily into the middle of the pitch, the teacher admits that, "I don't know much about football, but I've seen a couple of games on the TV, and how hard can it be?" The referee proceeds to conduct the pre-match coin toss. "Heads! It's Elm Forest to serve. Ooo, exciting!"
In a break between takes, I compliment Walliams on his flamboyant tippy-toes run to the centre circle. "Thank you," he smiles. "I've spent the last 43 years perfecting it."
It was another, equally camp character who provided the inspiration for the original book. When, 11 years ago on Little Britain, Walliams started cavorting around in a dress as the rubbish transvestite Emily Howard and exclaiming in the most unconvincing manner, "I'm a lady!", little did the performer know that this over-the-top sketch-comedy character would spawn a children's literature phenomenon.
Plonking himself down in a seat next to me in the stand, Walliams takes up the story. "I was inspired to write The Boy in the Dress in 2008 by a real boy who went to school dressed as Emily Howard. He sent me a letter about it and then queued to meet me outside the Manchester Apollo after a Little Britain gig.
"He said to me, 'I don't know if you remember me, but I'm the boy who goes to school dressed as Emily Howard.' I replied, 'I do remember you, and I'm very glad you do that. It's really brave of you.'"
Walliams, whose big break came with Little Britain in 2003, continues: "That started me thinking, 'What if I wrote a story about a boy who feels different from everyone else and wants to express that by going to school in a dress? Wouldn't that make a really interesting children's book?'"
But for all his well-documented love of cross-dressing, Walliams is quick to point out that The Boy in the Dress is not autobiographical. "It's not about my own childhood. It's more a fantasy of how I would have liked my life to have been back then.
"All children feel like outsiders. Something in their head separates them from others. But I was lucky - I felt accepted. I was fortunate as I found something I loved, which was acting and making people laugh. That was my route to acceptance."
No doubt it is this positive message about celebrating individuality that has helped attract a top-notch cast to The Boy in the Dress, which is showing on New Year's Day. The company of actors also features Jennifer Saunders as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher, Tim McInnerny as his tyrannical headmaster, Steve Spiers as Dennis' dad, Meera Syal as a mum with a crush on Dennis's dad, and a certain Kate Moss as herself.
Dressed in Miss Windsor's curly blonde fright wig and frumpy turquoise top, Saunders says she was drawn to The Boy in the Dress because, "It has a really proper message. David makes it cool to be tolerant and to be different. He's always so different himself. He's saying, 'Be who you want to be and don't apologise for the rest of your life'."
It would be misguided, however, to think that Dennis's life is straightforward. He does, of course, risk general opprobrium when he resolves to go to school in a dress. Walliams, who has also starred in Come Fly With Me and Big School, underscores that, "Dennis doesn't just wear a dress for laughs. It's safe if you just do it for laughs - it's like dressing up as a woman for Rag Week with balloons up your shirt. But it's not like that for Dennis. His situation is difficult."
The novel, which has sold close to half a million copies since its publication in 2008, has had a major impact on its young readers. "Just yesterday," Walliams reveals, "I got a tweet from someone saying that the book had helped their child to understand a relative who is transvestite.
"If you can move people with your work, that's great. You don't get to do that as a comedian, where the effect is more uncomplicated. I love the fact that books can have a more emotional dimension. You can develop characters with an emotional life and take people on a bigger journey."
He continues that, "The Boy in the Dress is sad, yet ultimately uplifting, and I hope people will shed a few tears watching it. I often got emotional writing it. That's the weird effect that fiction can have on us."
- The Boy in the Dress is on BBC One, New Year's Day, 1.10pm