His fantastical tales have stood the test of time, and now, to mark what would have been Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday, a BBC documentary delves into the origins of one of literature’s best-loved imaginations
‘Those who don’t believe in magic, will never find it’, read the final lines in Roald Dahl’s last ever children’s book, The Minpins - and the literary legend certainly lived by his word.
Injecting a sparkle into all who encountered his work, the late author - known for whimsical tales such as Matilda and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - would have celebrated his 100th birthday this September, and a whole host of programmes and events have been scheduled to commemorate the anniversary - not to mention the imminent release of Steven Spielberg’s big-screen adaptation of The BFG.
On the small screen, BBC Two’s focal documentary The Marvellous World Of Roald Dahl is set to delve into the writer’s life. Here are some facts about the much-adored children’s writer...
1. Born on September 13, 1916, in Llandaff, Cardiff, to Norwegian parents Harald and Sofie, Dahl - named after the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen - grew up speaking Norwegian as his first language, along with his three sisters.
2. In 1920, when Dahl was three, he lost his seven-year-old sister and father to appendicitis and pneumonia respectively. At seven years old, he was sent to The Cathedral School, Llandaff, where he was caned for putting a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers at the now infamous Mrs Pratchett’s sweet shop.
3. He later attended Repton School in Derbyshire, where Dahl developed a fascination with chocolate (each term, the students would be sent a box of 12 Cadbury chocolate bars to test). It was this that inspired his delicious tale, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
4. Dahl famously criticised the 1971 movie adaptation of the book (Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory), in particular believing Gene Wilder’s version of Willy Wonka to be too ‘pretentious’ and ‘bouncy’, and not nearly eccentric enough.
5. After finishing school in 1934, Dahl worked for Shell, which saw him relocate to Africa, where he experienced encounters with the likes of black mambas and other wildlife. It’s these memories, illustrator Quentin Blake has said, that encouraged Dahl’s book The Enormous Crocodile.
6. In 1939, he enlisted in the RAF as a WWII aircraftman. In 1940, his plane crash-landed in the Libya desert and Dahl suffered life-changing injuries that saw him hospitalised for six months.
7. A year after being discharged in 1941, he was posted to the British Embassy in Washington D.C. as an assistant air attache. Here, he encountered his hero, writer C.S. Forester, which led to the publication of his first short story, Shot Down Over Libya (also known as A Piece Of Cake).
8. Dahl also supplied intelligence, working as a spy (although he preferred not to call it that) for Winston Churchill. It was in this role that he met Ian Fleming who went on to write the James Bond novels - hence Dahl penning the screenplay for You Only Live Twice in 1967.
9. His first children’s book (although its audience is disputed) was The Gremlins in 1943. Despite collaborating with Walt Disney to make it into a film, the production was never finished.
10. At 6ft 6ins tall and with striking looks, Dahl enjoyed dalliances with American models and actresses, including Ginger Rogers. He married Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal in 1953, and they went on to have five children - four daughters and one son - together. They eventually divorced in 1983 and Dahl remarried, to Felicity Crosland.
11. Dahl asserted the most important thing in life is to bring sparkle to your children’s lives. On occasion, he’d wake his children up in the middle of the night to go badger hunting.
12. Naturally, he also invented dinnertime stories - one being that cabbage was delivered by a Buckingham Palace footman, to get his children to eat their greens. Another was that Minpins delivered little eggs, and would put quails’ eggs inside fried bread for them.
13. In 1960, tragedy stuck when Dahl’s son Theo’s pram was hit by a taxi in New York, leaving him brain damaged. After five operations and numerous failed shunts, Dahl recruited his friend Stanley Wade to invent a device to alleviate his son’s hydrocephalus. Named the Wade-Dahl-Till, the design is still in use today.
14. The family suffered further heartache, when two years later, their daughter Olivia died of measles encephalitis at the age of seven. A heartbroken Dahl became a proponent of immunisation and later dedicated The BFG to her memory.
15. In 1965, his wife Patricia suffered a huge stroke. Three months pregnant with their youngest child Lucy, she had to relearn to walk, talk, read and write. A determined Dahl flew the family back to the UK and set up a rota of family and friends to aid in her rehabilitation.
16. Settling in the Buckinghamshire village of Great Missenden, where Dahl remained until he died, he cited his wife’s mixed up words as the reasoning behind the outlandish vocabulary - Gobblefunk - in The BFG.
17. Dahl loved the countryside, and credits it for inspiring one of his best-loved creations, Danny The Champion Of The World, which he wrote in a gypsy wagon in his back garden. Fantastic Mr Fox, also, was partly inspired by a tree that grew outside his home.
18. The birthplace of Dahl’s most loved work, however, was his humble writing hut (aka a shed at the bottom of his garden with his own hip bone for a door handle - he’d kept hold of it following hip replacement surgery). Here, he’d write on a green baize writing board across his lap and banned children from entering, telling them ferocious wolves were inside.
19. Many of Dahl’s famous characters were born during bedtime stories. The BFG was originally the star of a bedtime story told to Danny (Champion Of the World), and when he came to making the character the star in a book of his own, he named the little girl in the story after his first grandchild, Sophie (Dahl; the author and former model married to jazz singer Jamie Cullum).
20. A typical day for Dahl included two hours of writing, from 10am ‘til noon, followed by a bet on the horses, a nap, and a two-hour writing session in the afternoon - fuelled by sweets and chocolate. Today, his writing shed stands in the nearby Roald Dahl Museum.
21. The author’s last book was The Minpins - a fantastical tale of children being able to fly on the back of a bird. He also began work on his third Charlie Bucket novel, which to this day has never been completed.
22. Dahl died in 1990, aged 74. He is buried in Great Missenden with some of his favourite things, including HB pencils, chocolate and red wine.
n The Marvellous World Of Roald Dahl airs on BBC Two on Saturday, July 23.