Between the lines

How a stint as "The Youngest Bingo-Caller on the South Coast" helped David Wood to become Britain's leading children's dramatist
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In the summer before I went to university, in the Sixties, I was an extra at the Chichester Festival. Laurence Olivier was the leading man. Meanwhile, I was leading a double life as "The Youngest Bingo-Caller on the South Coast", drawing balls at the Theatre Royal in Bognor Regis.

I'd do a half-hour variety show before the bingo started, performing the conjuring tricks that I'd spent my adolescence perfecting in front of Sunday-school parties. It was like a little, one-man Sunday Night at the London Palladium. The bingo players weren't a sophisticated audience, but I loved them for that. A normal adult theatre audience can be such a boring animal. People don't shout rubbish any more, they no longer throw oranges. The bingo players, however, were very straightforward. Some of them hated my warm-up. They'd loiter in the bar, refusing to come in before the bingo started. But the others - the ones who did sit through my act - entered so readily into the spirit of things.

Bognor taught me a lot about doing variety, and variety - with its emphasis on communicating directly with a potentially restive audience - has, I suspect, taught me a lot about writing and performing for children. My father, who organised concert parties during the war, was far more likely to take me to a variety show in Kingston than to the West End. When I first stepped on stage, aged 11, it was to play the ukulele with a group of dancing girls. So there has always been a side of me rooted in light entertainment. If I'm casting a children's production, I'll still look for actors who, without sending a play up, possess a little bit of music- hall bravado.

That said, variety can be a mixed blessing. At university, I went to see a pantomime at what's now the Oxford Apollo. The problem with pantos in those days was that they were just variety shows - had been since the earliest days of panto at Drury Lane. The narrative was used only as a linking device. The matinee I saw was no exception. Once the story had been perfunctorily disposed of, the star comedian (who will remain nameless) launched into his obligatory 30-minute closing spot, cracking a slightly off-colour joke. It passed the children by, but a few adults cackled, at which point the star walked to the footlights, smiled and said: "Let's get the kids out of here, then we can really get started." It was as if I'd received an electric shock. I spent the rest of the show feeling something was deeply wrong. Surely, I thought, children deserved better than this? When, in 1967, I was first asked to write a play specially for children, the memory of that afternoon came back to haunt me, as it does today.

n David Wood's latest play, `More Adventures of Noddy', is at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury (01227 787787) to 16 March, and then on tour; it is suitable for three- to eight-year-olds. His stage adaptation of Roald Dahl's `The Witches' will be revived this autumn

Interview by Adrian Turpin