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Exclusive: The return of Goodnight Mister Tom

Published December 29, 2015

As Michelle Magorian’s much-loved children’s story Goodnight Mister Tom prepares to celebrates its 35th anniversary, David Wood’s Olivier Award-winning stage adaptation is back on the stage winning audiences with its heart-warming tale and stunning staging. To mark this incredible milestone for one the UK’s best loved stories, Wood agreed to look back at the show’s history and reveal exactly how he came to bring this Second World War drama to vivid life,  including one or two amazing serendipitous magical moments…

When it was announced that my adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s classic novel Goodnight Mister Tom was returning to the West End, I was delighted, and even more delighted to discover that we would be at the Duke of York’s Theatre, where Peter Pan played its first ever performances in 1904. Peter Pan was the first play I ever saw, it sowed the seeds of my love of theatre and my career as an actor and playwright.

It took a long time to secure the rights to adapt Michelle’s book, which I had read and hugely admired soon after it was published almost 35 years ago. What really hooked me about this World War II story was the way in which two damaged people, an elderly recluse and an abused child, are brought together by chance and, after an awkward start eventually heal each other in the most moving and heartwarming way. Such a story never dates. The book and the television play version are still as popular as ever.

In 1989 I had adapted Michelle’s second book, Back Home, for a television film starring Hayley Mills. This was another evacuee story and I loved working on it; but Goodnight Mister Tom as a stage play was still what I really wanted to write. I felt sure that it would appeal to a wide age range, from children through to their grandparents, many of whom might have lived through the war and perhaps experienced evacuation. At last the opportunity arose, the rights were granted, and Chichester Festival Theatre commissioned the play and produced it, featuring the brilliant Oliver Ford Davies as Mister Tom. The Children’s Touring Partnership toured the play all over the UK, then, with Fiery Angel and ATG, brought it to the West End. We opened at the Phoenix in November 2012 and, to the delight of the whole team, next year we won an Olivier Award.  

As Angus Jackson, the director, and I stepped onto the stage of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to accept the award, several happy connections buzzed around my grateful brain …..

1)  About 20 years earlier, I had received a letter from a theatre-mad teenager, who wanted advice about working in the theatre. We met in the Monmouth Street Coffee House – I was directing for Unicorn at the nearby Arts Theatre – and I tried to put him off a theatrical career, unless he was absolutely sure and passionate enough. Angus – for it was he! – ended up, like me, going to Oxford University and directing lots of plays, then turning professional. When Chichester commissioned Goodnight Mister Tom, Angus was the Associate Director. I suggested to Jonathan Church that Angus might direct my play. Jonathan said yes, and now here we were, like a double act, making our thank you speeches for our very first Olivier!

2)  Chichester Festival Theatre is my favourite theatre, partly because I was at school in Chichester and watched the laying of the theatre’s foundation stone, and partly because I have been fortunate enough to work there as an actor, director, playwright and, first – in 1963 – as an extra. As I collected the Olivier I realised it was almost exactly 50 years to the day since I had first trod the Chichester boards as a soldier in Saint Joan.

3)  At that time, Sir Laurence Olivier was Chichester Festival Theatre’s Artistic Director. He even occasionally wished me good morning. Now I was getting an award with his name on it. Sitting in the Oliviers’ audience that evening was Dame Joan Plowright, Lady Olivier, who had starred as Joan in that 1963 production. It felt as though a wheel had somehow turned full circle!

Now, as the show returns to the West End for another run, I’m excited that Mister Tom is being played this time by David Troughton, the excellent actor I first worked with in 1974 when we were both in a BBC classic serial about the Pre-Raphaelites called The Love School. What I love about being in this business is how, if you hang around long enough, paths cross again and friendships pick up once more exactly where they left off!

David Wood

P.S I have just adapted the aforementioned Back Home from page to stage, and hope it might be produced soon!

Goodnight Mister Tom continues its run at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 20 February. You can book tickets for us here, or for performances from 1 January to 13 February you can book through our new year ticket promotion Get Into London Theatre.