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LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 04: David Walliams attends the Harry’s Bar Mayfair 40th Anniversary celebration on October 4, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for The Birley Clubs)
The life and stories of David Walliams

The life and stories of David Walliams

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 04: David Walliams attends the Harry’s Bar Mayfair 40th Anniversary celebration on October 4, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for The Birley Clubs)

What should a publisher do with a star children’s author who can’t stop pushing the boundaries?

When the Telegraph newspaper revealed, in February 2023, that the most recent versions of Roald Dahl’s children’s stories had been stealthily modernised and edited, it prompted outrage around the world. 

Although still a commercial juggernaut, 30 years after his death, Dahl had come to present a problem for his publisher, Puffin. Both in his life – through his admitted anti-semitism – and his writing – through his use of stereotypes, misogyny and casual racism.

The changes to his stories, Puffin said, were “relatively small” and intended to bring the novels “up to date” for young readers. The author Salman Rushdie compared it to “censorship”.

But there was an elephant in the room when the Dahl story morphed into a scandal; a whisper circulating in the world of publishing. Could some of the charges levelled at Dahl’s stories – written in the second half of the 20th Century – be applied to one of the country’s current best-selling children’s authors, still publishing books in 2023? 

Would the editor’s red pen come for David Walliams next? 

Like Dahl, Walliams is a golden goose for his publisher. And like Dahl, he is a problem for HarperCollins to deal with: a literary phenomenon whose success is haunted by embarrassments on and off the page.

It raises uncomfortable questions for the publishing industry. Not least, what do you do with a star children’s author who can’t stop pushing the boundaries? 

Little Britain stars Matt Lucas and David Walliams as their characters Lou and Andy

By the end of the 2000s David Walliams was famed as one half of the comedy duo, alongside Matt Lucas, responsible for the globally successful sketch show Little Britain. It was consciously provocative – and to many, offensive. 

The show was a ratings hit but the comedians were forced to defend themselves against accusations of racism, homophobia, classism and misogyny. 

For many it came as a surprise, therefore, when Walliams signed a two-book deal with publisher HarperCollins and brought out a children’s book in 2008. 

The Boy In The Dress was a best-seller and drew immediate comparisons to Walliams’ literary hero, Roald Dahl. It wasn’t just the tone and content of the books: HarperCollins had commissioned frequent Dahl-collaborator Quentin Blake to illustrate the novel. 

Since then, Walliams has become one of the most successful children’s authors in a generation. He’s produced more than 30 novels, short story collections and picture books, and sold over 50 million books.

‘Like Dahl, Walliams is a golden goose for his publisher. And like Dahl, he is a problem for HarperCollins to deal with: a literary phenomenon whose success is haunted by embarrassments on and off the page’

Margins on book-sales are small: often publishers don’t even make back the advances – the money they pay to writers to complete the books. So the financial success of someone such as Walliams could, potentially, make up for built-in losses on other books. 

He’s the type of author who is crucial to a publisher’s bottom line. But all celebrity authors come with baggage, and David Walliams is no different. 

For HarperCollins it creates a problem: what do you do when one of your most lucrative and popular authors behaves in ways that could damage the brand?

In 2020, after Black Lives Matter protests prompted a renewed focus on racial equality, Little Britain was removed from all streaming services. Times “have changed”, the BBC explained. (The broadcaster uploaded an edited version of the show earlier this year, removing scenes where Walliams and Lucas wore black-face.)

After the announcement, Walliams apologised, and tweeted his “regret” over playing “characters of other races”. 

It was an apology that might have landed with more weight had Walliams not dressed up as Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, for Halloween, just three years prior – complete with exaggerated prosthetics around his eyes.

Between 2016 and 2018 David Walliams hosted the President’s Club charity dinner, a charity social event where hundreds of men from the worlds of business, finance and politics were waited on by around 130 specially chosen hostesses. 

In 2018 undercover reporting by the Financial Times revealed widespread sexual harassment of the women working at the event. The charity later disbanded following the reports.

No such allegations were directed against Walliams, and after the FT investigation was published, he said he was “appalled” – and that he hadn’t witnessed any of the behaviours alleged.  

During the evening, the opportunity to name a character in David Walliams’ next children’s book was auctioned, alongside a night at Soho’s Windmill strip club and plastic surgery to “add spice to your wife.”  

Walliams withdrew the prize offering shortly after the story broke. 

Tortoise understands that at least three other book-based lots were also auctioned by Walliams for the President’s Club, which were not withdrawn following the FT investigation. He raised £300,000 for the charity by writing three bespoke childrens books, a project that took him about a month to complete. 

HarperCollins did not confirm whether similar book-based lots had been auctioned at the President’s Club in previous years, or if any of the characters in the Walliams books were named after President’s Club attendees.

Then, last year, the Guardian newspaper published a transcript of leaked audio, recorded during a live audition for the family television show Britain’s Got Talent. Walliams, who had been a judge on the show since 2012, was recorded making sexually explicit and derogatory remarks about contestants while on-mic, including calling one pensioner the “c-word” three times. 

Of a female contestant he said: “she’s like the slightly boring girl you meet in the pub that thinks you want to fuck them, but you don’t.”

Walliams apologised and said it was a private conversation. A spokesperson for Thames, the production company that makes Britain’s Got Talent, told the Guardian it regarded the comments as private but called the language “inappropriate”. 

David Walliams, Simon Cowell, Anthony McPartlin, Alesha Dixon, Amanda Holden and Declan Donnelly launch Britain’s Got Talent 2020 at London Palladium

I’ve spoken to dozens of people in the publishing industry while working on this story  – including senior figures with inside knowledge of HarperCollins. Many would only talk on condition of anonymity, given Walliams’ position in the industry. 

He is one of the most gossiped-about men in publishing, and there are stories about how flirtatious he is. One source told me that he had offered to put her in touch with his publisher numerous times, and that he was persistent in contacting her. 

As his publisher, HarperCollins seems set on ignoring Walliams’ list of PR embarrassments – and to distinguish between Walliams’ provocative comedy, his personal behaviour, and his position as a much-admired children’s author.

But the behaviours he has been criticised for since the 00s – the stereotyping, the casual racism, the misogyny – are evident in the books, too. 

In 2021 HarperCollins pulled a short story – “Brian Wong Who Was Never, Ever Wrong” – from future editions of a Walliams short story collection, after a widespread online campaign accused it of casual racism.   

It’s not the first time the books have been updated or altered. 

In Billionaire Boy, from 2010, the protagonist’s father – who has a gold-digging teenage girlfriend, whose only GCSE is in make-up – was particularly interested in Page-3 girls. By 2016 this was updated to “wildly unsuitable ladies”. 

A HarperCollins spokesperson said: “All HarperCollins’s authors and books go through the editorial process and as part of that process changes are sometimes made to books post-publication in consultation with the author.”

Several senior publishing figures told me that they did not want, or would not let, their kids read Walliams’ books – including one who said they felt some elements of the books were racist, and questioned the editorial process which allowed them to be published. 

The character of Raj, a South Asian newsagent who appears in most of the books, has been widely criticised. Although a fan-favourite, the character is a lazy stereotype: he speaks in non-standard English; is famous for trying to oversell his customers or sell them out of date food.  

Following a TV adaptation of one book in 2018, Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of Muslim rights group the Ramadhan Foundation called the character “deeply unacceptable” and “distasteful”.

Much of the humour comes from accents or the way characters talk. There’s a repeated joke in the Demon Dentist about how the character Winne – a “flamboyantly” dressed and “jolly” Black social worker – pronounces words such as “teeth” as “teet”. 

At best, a reliance on such out-dated tropes feels like a failure of imagination by the author. 

‘Several senior publishing figures told me that they did not want, or would not let, their kids read Walliams’ books’

There are also elements that feel irresponsible. An extended joke between characters about “who is the fattiest” [sic] in Billionaire Boy is clearly intended to make children laugh, but the section includes the specific weights of the children:

“‘I’m seven stone’, said Joe, lying. ‘No way you’re seven stone.’ said Bob angrily, ‘I’m 12 stone and you are much fatter than me’.” 

BEAT, the eating disorder charity, advises authors and publishers not to include weights in books, particularly not weights associated with a sense of shame or embarrassment, and particularly not books for children. 

It’s a reminder that these books are the product of an extensive, lucrative corporate publishing machine beyond just Walliams – an army of people who all bear responsibility for what is printed. 

David Walliams promoting “Gangsta Granny Live” at Tower of London, 2015

There’s no easy answer for how publishers should deal with complicated authors such as Walliams or Dahl. 

Helen Gould, a sensitivity reader, doesn’t believe that retrospectively editing books is a useful endeavour. She says there’s a risk that it hides the reality of the era in which they were written, or the reality of the author’s beliefs. 

A better option, she says, is to frame the book with an explanation, although that requires a publisher to acknowledge, in writing, their authors’ “problems”.  It was only in 2020 that the Roald Dahl Story Company – run by the author’s family – apologised for Dahl’s anti-semitism. 

Authors such as Philip Pullman and Frank Cottrell-Boyce have suggested that, instead of editing outdated or offensive books, readers look elsewhere and allow such authors to fade into irrelevance. 

While it might make sense for the readers, it’s likely not in the interest of large corporations dedicated to keeping a brand going – such as Puffin or The Roald Dahl Story Company. In 2021, the year after the edits were initiated, the Company was sold to streaming giant Netflix for a reported £500m. 

It’s tempting to see a link between the two events – to reconsider the edits as an attempt to sanitise Dahl’s reputation ahead of the sale. The Company said: “There was no discussion with any potential parties about a sale when the decision was taken to make the changes to the books.”

As for Walliams, HarperCollins seems keen to continue to engage with the issue at all. 

When they cut the “Brian Wong” story in 2021, the publisher said: “The update will be scheduled at the next reprint as part of an ongoing commitment to regularly reviewing content.” It made no mention of racism or the reason for pulling the book and Walliams made no comment at the time.  

It’s a weak response – an organisation devoted to the meaning and beauty of words reduced to relying on corporate doublespeak. 

When Tortoise asked about Walliams’s life on and off the page – from the outburst on Britain’s Got Talent to the President’s Club, the accusations of casual racism within the books and the use of stereotypes – HarperCollins said: 

“David Walliams is one of Britain’s best-loved authors and his storytelling has inspired many children to pick up a book for the first time, improving literacy amongst hard-to-reach audiences.”

Walliams is, clearly, an individual responsible for his own behaviour; a comedian known for his provocative behaviour and comedy. He was approached for comment. 

But HarperCollins, his publisher, is ultimately responsible for his books. They seem more committed to protecting their “golden goose” than engaging with concerns about his behaviour and his writing. 

It feels short-sighted. As Puffin and The Roald Dahl Company found out, sometimes it’s best to be upfront – particularly when the proof is there, in black and white, for everyone to read. 

Photographs Getty Images