One of the latest Christmas TV traditions of the last couple of years has been an adaptation of one of David Walliams’ children’s books. In 2012, Walliams’ Mr Stink aired to great acclaim even garnering a BAFTA nomination along the way whilst last year’s Gangsta Granny was an equally joyous experience. This tradition continues tonight as Walliams has dramatised another of his books; The Boy in the Dress, which appears to be his most autobiographical to date. It’s also the first story in which the child protagonist takes centre stage and learns about how everybody is unique in their own special way.
The Boy in the Dress refers to young Dennis; a 12-year-old who lives in a normal house and goes to a normal school but somehow feels different. Early hints to Dennis’ love of fashion come when we see him admiring Lisa James who he describes as the coolest girl in school due to her constant breaking of the school uniform rules. Dennis’ home life is fairly stilted thanks to the fact that his mum ran off with a roofer leaving his lorry-driving father to care for Dennis and his brother. Dennis’ dad isn’t exactly a culinary genius and prefers barbecuing sausages than making nutritious meals for his sons. Dennis’ one memory of his mother is in the only photo that his father didn’t burn and this adaptation makes this memento feel extra special by bringing the picture to life. Dennis’ love of fashion is finally fully exposed when he buys a copy of Vogue from the local newsagent which is later spotted at school by Lisa.
Lisa encourages Dennis to explore this side to his character and reveals that she herself wants to be a fashion designer but is yet to find anyone to model her dresses. The title of the story then reveals what happens next as Dennis is able to fool almost everyone by appearing in one of Lisa’s original designs. Posing as French exchange student Denise, Dennis charms his fellow pupils with only his best friend Darvesh able to spot who the new girl really is. What I liked about the story was how Walliams never turned Dennis into a cliché because, as well as being interested in fashion, he was also the star player on the school’s football team. Despite this the football team’s captain always takes their penalties and loses them crucial goals in the process. However it’s the same football team who later comes to Dennis’ aid after he is expelled from school for wearing a dress.
After having watched all three of Walliams’ adaptations I do feel that his tales do share certain similarities to those of Roald Dahl. Like a great deal of Dahl’s books; The Boy in the Dress focuses on an extraordinary child living in an ordinary existence with a parent who doesn’t realise his true potential. The Boy in the Dress also feels like Walliams’ most personal adaptation to date as it deals with the themes of feeling like an outsider and the need to gain acceptance from those closest to him. Dennis’ dad finally accepting him was one of the piece’s standout moments and to me the father/son relationship was what The Boy in the Dress was truly about. I think that I enjoyed The Boy in the Dress because it is the most believable of Walliams’ adaptations and one that most can relate to in some way. That being said there were some enjoyable fantasy sequences most notably the ones in which Kate Moss spoke to Dennis from the cover of Vogue.
I’ve found that one of the biggest successes of both Gangsta Granny and Mr. Stink was in finding a child actor who perfectly conveyed the lead character’s woes. Thankfully The Boy in the Dress has found a similarly accomplished youngster in Billy Kennedy, who I found to be superb as Dennis. Through his performance, Kelly conveyed Dennis’ attempts to fit in at school and at home despite being incredibly different. He was equally at home wearing the dress and actually allowed the audience to believe why the pupils at the school were willing to believe in Denise the exchange student. As well as deftly handling Walliams’ dialogue, Kennedy’s expressive faced told Dennis’ story well especially in the scenes where he was visibly upset with the situation at home.
It’s come to be accepted that Walliams’ adaptations will draw a strong supporting cast of familiar faces and The Boy in the Dress is no exception. Jennifer Saunders was delightfully batty as Dennis’ French teacher whilst James Buckley was equally funny as the school’s football coach. Tim McInnerny and Felicity Montagu made a good team as the school’s headmaster Mr Hawthorn and his secretary Miss Price. McInnerny was particularly impressive in the final scenes in which Hawthorn was revealed to have more in common with Dennis than you’d think. Walliams himself also appeared briefly in the programme as a Drama Teacher who’d been drafted in to referee the football cup final. But I found the best adult performer to be Walliams’ Big School co-star Steve Spiers as Dennis’ dejected dad. Spiers appears to be the go-to actor to play slovenly male characters who are down on their luck and I felt his turn as Dennis’ Dad was dead on. Spiers perfectly plays his character’s inability to bond with his sons and he also makes Dennis’ dad’s acceptance of his son’s fondness for dresses into quite a moving moment.
For the third year in a row it appears as if Walliams has done it again and provided a Christmas family treat this time with the wonderful Boy in a Dress. Although I found the story to be quite slight; The Boy in the Dress excels thanks to beautifully drawn characters, laugh-out-loud moments and some great performances. At just over an hour in length, The Boy in the Dress never outstayed its welcome and I felt it was perfectly paced. I’m just hoping that we get yet another Walliams adaptation next year as they are fast becoming one of my Christmas TV highlights.
What did you think of The Boy in the Dress? Did you find it as enjoyable as I did?
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