The cost-of-living crisis, political turmoil, oppression and conflict abroad. These are revolting times. We should be revolting. Fortunately, everything we need to know about harnessing our rebellious spirit can be learned from Matilda the Musical. If life’s not fair, only we can put it right.
British-born, Aussie-raised Tim Minchin turned Roald Dahl’s classic into a stage musical for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010 and after years of award-winning acclaim, a big screen adaptation bursts into cinemas this week.
The film stars Emma Thompson as demonic Miss Trunchbull, Lashana Lynch as sweet Miss Honey and Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough as Matilda’s slimy parents Mr and Mrs Wormwood, with Matilda played with endearing smarts by newcomer Alisha Weir.
But the real star is the music, with whirlwind rhymes packed with humour and heart delivering a timely message about standing up for yourself and others. Matilda may have magic in her fingertips, but her real power comes from her intellect, determination and courage.
Maestro of mischief Minchin joins The Big Issue from his home in Australia. He’s just come from the gym and is glistening. I’m feeling similarly empowered, I say, as I was listening to the Matilda soundtrack on the way to the office.
“It’s probably burnt just as many calories trying to hear all those lyrics,” Minchin says.
The film opened the London Film Festival and the reception was euphoric. “I’m absolutely stoked that the press was good. I really hope it is appreciated and watched for generations,” Minchin says. “The movie is so beautiful. I’m really proud of the people who made it. I just sat over here in Australia and heard the horror stories of filming in Covid with 300 kids.”
Matilda certainly chimes with the times. Her school, Crunchem Hall, is run with an iron fist by Miss Trunchbull, whose philosophy is to squeeze her students into submission instead of nurturing and raising them up. When all of us are feeling a little squeezed and our leaders are focused on protecting their voter base rather than those most in need of protection, Matilda gives us permission to be a little bit naughty.
Like many of the most important voices in popular culture, Minchin first made his name at the Edinburgh Fringe. He won the Best Newcomer Award in 2005, and embarked on bigger and bolder tours until he reached a key moment in any comedian’s career.
“I noticed that you either go do a sitcom, in which case you’re a sitcom guy, or you go get a panel show, in which case you’re a panel show guy.” Minchin didn’t want to be so easily defined, and the Matilda commission offered more interesting opportunities. It’s a musical for families that doesn’t talk down to children. There are real, deep, raw emotions and big themes: family, friendship, isolation, hope and triumph over tyranny.
Stephen Graham, veteran of countless tortured dramas, was surprised to be asked to star in a family film. “When I heard Matthew [Warchus, the director] wanted me to play the part I was like, ‘I do gritty social realism, what does he want me for?’” Graham says. “Then Matthew went, it is also gritty social realism. It’s about home and it’s about finding someone out there who you resonate with.”
Emma Thompson, who has an absolutely indecent amount of fun as the Trunchbull was delighted to play a villain. “It’s got to be frightening, but you’ve got to be able to contain it and get thrilled by it,” she says. “When we’re little, we can feel and see everything, and we know that there’s darkness out there. I think making work for children is the most sacred work we ever have, and it has to be our best work. Then they’ll take that as they grow older.”
While Matilda was being made, Minchin, the self-described love child of Liberace and Edward Scissorhands, was on a pandemic-straddling tour. His show, Back, also screens in cinemas this week, showcasing his unique brand of logical philosophy lectures disguised as cabaret shows. Since the world changed vastly between legs of the tour, the show evolved over its run.
“I had a song that started ‘Fuck America, Fuck its Teflon self-esteem, Will someone wake me from the nightmare of their American fucking dream.’ It was really a song about the self-loathing you feel when you’re on Twitter. Then Covid hit and I wanted to be more positive. So when I came back, I tried to be more heartfelt.
“I’ve never self-identified as a stand-up. Sometimes my stand-up is stand-up-y and sometimes it’s just political polemic. I know it’s quibbling over terms, but I always thought my shows were concerts with good talk. And given that I had won Olivier Awards and shit, I didn’t feel obliged for my songs to have punchlines.”
Minchin is one of the smartest songwriters working today. He made his name as a pull-no-punches political polemicist with razor-sharp and righteous satirical masterpieces like Prejudice and Thank You God, plus epic beat poems like Storm. But times have changed. Subtlety isn’t going to save the world.
“I actually have changed because, since Twitter, everyone’s a polemicist,” Minchin says. “I used to at least try and make it rhyme. We suddenly had a platform that was just a portal of outrage, where there was no pressure to be artistic or witty or thorough. And as we now know, the algorithm needed your outrage, it feeds off the outrage.
“What I’ve always hated is doctrine, belief held without self-examination. Which isn’t to say I’m better than anyone else. In fact, I hope it’s very clear that it’s very much a note to self.
“In everything I’ve done, including in the lyrics of Matilda, there is an appeal to rationality. Mrs Wormwood says, ‘What you know matters less than the volume with which what you don’t know’s expressed’. There’s a deep stab at anti-intellectualism in Matilda.”
But Minchin knows the anti-intellectuals aren’t listening. He’s arrived at a new conclusion where he’s willing to risk upsetting his own fans.
“I think the biggest problem in the world is tribalism,” he explains. “All this self-righteous performance of pain and identity and outrage. If I think the problem is tribalism, then I have to address tribalism in my own tribe. All we do is yell at the other side. What I’ve been thinking is we’ve all got to fix ourselves. Everyone. The right, the left, everyone. And given that I play to crowds of 2,000 bookish intellectuals, I don’t see what the point is any more in ranting against the religious right. They’re not hearing me. I need to rant against the illogical left.
“We’re getting further and further apart so there’s only two ways you can change things. One is conversation and the other is violence. So if we’re going to avoid war, we have to return to conversation.”
Is this then how we can revolt against the wrongs in the world? “What Matilda shows is the way you revolt well is by doing it with a fuckload of intelligence behind you. Matilda’s message is of moral clarity. Actually, 10 years post-Matilda, we grown-ups all have moral clarity in spades. We’re all absolutely sure that not only are we right, but we’re more righteous, especially on the left. I mean, the absolute absence of understanding of class in the progressive left… the fact that people talk as if everyone in the world understands post-critical race theory, or why pronouns are important. It’s a complete blindness to class and its correlation with education.”
Minchin continues his lesson.
“I think we all need to get better at examining our own ideas. We’re all very good on the educated left at spotting where the far right is susceptible to confirmation bias and information silos and algorithmic editing. Is our hypothesis that those psychological, neurological and algorithmic effects only work on those people? If we understand that it works on everyone, our job is to examine where it’s working on us. That’s what we should all be doing.”
Would Roald Dahl have approved?
There was no bigger critic of Roald Dahl film adaptations than Dahl himself, who wasn’t shy to share his reviews – good or bad
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Now considered a classic, the film “infuriated” Dahl who thought it placed too much emphasis on Willy Wonka rather than Charlie – the title confirming the shift in focus from Charlie to Willy. Dahl allegedly called songs like Candyman and Pure Imagination “saccharine, sappy and sentimental”.
Danny, the Champion of the World (1989)
Starring Jeremy Irons, his son Sam and the late, great Robbie Coltrane as a delicious villain, Dahl said: “Even in my own age, and I’m not easily thrilled these days, I am quite thrilled by the cast… for what is basically a small-ish film.”
The BFG (1989)
This animated version drew a standing ovation from the author when he first saw it. Director Brian Cosgrove said, “He could be quite vocal, Dahl, if he didn’t like something. So it was a real relief that he liked our film.”
The Witches (1990)
Released not long before his death in 1990, the film was described by Dahl as “utterly appalling” – he threatened to launch a campaign against it due to its tacked-on happy ending. He reportedly was only persuaded not to by Jim Henson – this was also the last film the Muppets master worked on before his death.
Matilda the Musical (2010)
On seeing Minchin’s show on stage, Dahl’s daughter Lucy said: “It’s the best adaptation of my father’s work that I have ever seen. It’s equally good as the book… if not a little better.”
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is released on November 25;Back is in cinemas for ‘one night only’ on November 23. Tickets are available here: timminchincinema.com
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