Arts, OldVenue

Roald Dahl at 100

I’d like to take you back in time. The year is 2003; you’re about seven or eight and you find yourself in a primary school classroom, sat on the scratchy carpet ready for afternoon registration. Your form tutor hobbles in after a hard hour of screaming at small children to form orderly lunch queues. She’s wearing a criminal amount of beaded necklaces and a murderous face that would put Medusa to shame. She heaves herself into the desk chair and after kicking off her shoes, begins to take the register. You look down at her feet. Not only do they smell like a dead cat, those toes are definitely square. Everything makes sense: the hatred of children, the square toes, and the general aura of terror that surrounds her. She’s definitely a witch. I blame Roald Dahl entirely for this hypothesis.

This year marks one hundred years since Roald Dahl’s birth. He died in 1990, aged 74, leaving behind a legacy of some of the most vivid and wildly imaginative literature ever written for children. After an eventful career in the RAF, which culminated in a mysterious crash in the Libyan Desert, Dahl led a difficult life. His four month old child was hit by a taxi whilst in his pram, suffering from brain damage for a while afterwards. Two years later, his daughter Olivia died after a vicious bout of measles, and his wife suffered a cerebral aneurysm whilst pregnant with their fifth child. Yet throughout all of this despair, his prevailing sense of mischief and fun kept him and his loved ones afloat.

His writing is often a victim of the times he lived in, and this has led to a great deal of controversy surrounding the author, sparking accusations of racism. The most famous example of this is his description of the Oompa-Loompas in the first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where they are portrayed as a group of around three thousand “black pygmies” brought over by Willy Wonka from “the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had been before.” These aren’t the Oompa-Loompas that I remember reading about, owing to the re-write in 1972 after a mass of complaints as the book gained popularity in the US. Following a public apology in which Dahl insisted he never intended the book to appear racist, he changed their appearance to their current “rosy-white”, dwarfish, hippy aesthetic. Critics are mostly united in their belief that Dahl was simply a victim of his own era, in which colonialism was rife and such language was deemed acceptable. Dahl certainly had no hesitation in making the changes, and was able to adapt to the political correctness of the following era with ease.

A huge number of people have asked why there are so few Roald Dahl films from when he was alive, a fact that doesn’t correlate with the popularity of his books (translated into fifty eight different languages, which have sold over two hundred million copies worldwide). The dramatic reason for this is purely the cinematic wreck/trippy masterpiece that is the 1971 Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Dahl wrote the screenplay for Paramount Pictures, who then promptly had it heavily edited by David Seltzer. The edits caused Dahl to totally disown the film, infuriated by the inclusion of the ‘Fizzy Lifting Drinks’ scene and the heavy focus on Willy Wonka, not his protagonist Charlie Bucket. He is also rumoured to have asked for Spike Milligan to be cast as the charismatic Wonka, and was upset that this never came to be. The whole affair caused Dahl to be thoroughly protective of any of his works being made into films; this was the main reason there was never a sequel. He did however write some of our favourite classic films, such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the James Bond gem that is You Only Live Twice. Since his death, we’ve had the delight of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, Tim Burton’s (properly titled, up yours Paramount) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and most excitingly, a Steven Spielberg adaptation of The BFG being released in July later this year. The fact that such famous directors have flocked to Dahl’s books like a pack of Snozzwangers is testament to his genius; there aren’t many authors who can boast such a hoard of award-winning films adopted from their work. Go Dahl.

I’m going to take you back to that primary school classroom, with that form tutor who was definitely a witch, with the foulest smelling coffee breath ever exhaled from a human mouth. My belief that this woman was a witch is a testament to the fantastic writing of Roald Dahl. He has ensnared millions of minds with his writing, and they are some of the scariest things you’ll probably read as a child. Dream-stealing giants, child-eating witches and a troupe of giant insects hitching a ride in a peach, not to mention a school where there’s a very real threat of being locked in a room filled with large nails and broken glass by the murderous headmistress, are all bound to leave you feeling a little on edge. So go home, pick up that book you read as a small child and read it again with older eyes. You might be pleasantly surprised to discover that Roald Dahl’s writing lives on.


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April 2021
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