We all have those books that changed us, those authors who inspired us to the path we may not have taken. For me, Roald Dahl is the most influential author in my life. Discovering his stories led me to a world of fun, excitement and possibility. They made me want to write my own stories and I attribute my love of imagination and storytelling to him. So, the fact that this year marks the centenary of Dahl has allowed me to enjoy the events going on throughout the country and by reading some of my favourite childhood books, to relive my own experiences of Dahl from an adult perspective.
In April I enjoyed a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory inspired afternoon tea in the beautiful grounds of Llety Cynin hotel and restaurant, situated in St Clears in the West Wales countryside. The homemade food included finger sandwiches with fillings such as ham, egg mayonnaise and tuna; mini toad in the hole; blue berry pies; toffee apple cake pops; chocolate cups and a blue fizzy soda capped with whipped cream. Unlimited tea was also served in floral china teacups. Afterwards we took to the James and the Giant Peach trail (probably meant for children – we were two grown adults) which on entrance through the hand painted doors, took us on a tour of the local woodland where we came across several clues in the form of colourful props. Collecting pieces of a jigsaw as we went, at the end of the trail we were awarded with a prize and complimentary drink which we enjoyed in the late afternoon sunshine.
Last week I went to see Spielberg’s adaptation of The BFG. One of my favourite books, after Matilda, I was excited to see what the famous Director had done with this wonderful tale of one child’s discovery of a Big friendly Giant; a strange talking man who captures peoples’ dreams while they sleep and uses them for good. Named after his granddaughter (the now famous model and writer in her own right, Sophie Dahl) Sophie is an orphan who lives in London. Curious about the world and unable to sleep one night, she comes face to face with the ‘boogie man’ of the children’s nightmares and panicked he takes her away to Giant country. From the first moments of a Victorian looking London at night, to scenes of lush meadows of Giant country, then the starlit, reflective dream world the film cinematography is beautiful. Mark Ryland is astonishing as the BFG. With a warm west country accent, lumbering gait and Dahlian dialogue he is immediately lifelike.
Spielberg’s creation is part CGI, and this adds to the surreal element of Sophie’s discovery. With the help of CGI Ryland’s BFG is an eye smiler, something Dahl talks about in Danny the Champion of the World. ‘He did it all with his eyes…His eyes would flash and if you looked carefully, you would actually see a tiny little golden spark dancing in the middle of each eye. It meant he never gave a fake smile because it’s impossible to make your eyes twinkle if you’re not feeling twinkly yourself.’ Danny is talking about his Father of course, who in a way is his own BFG. Moments later his father tells him a bedtime story about the BFG and his dream catching.
Ryland brings Dahl’s character to life with humour, emotion and humanity. Rebecca Hall is the newcomer as book loving orphan Sophie and she is a brilliant co-star. Her reaction to her surroundings is a mixture of fear, curiosity and uncertainty. She soon comes attached to the BFG and tries to help him in his dream work and standing up to the bullies of Giant country, whilst putting herself in constant danger. The bond between them is a common theme of Dahl’s stories, along with humour, danger and excitement in the surreal. Penelope Wilton is great fun as Queen Elizabeth, interacting with Sophie and the BFG as they attempt to rid the world of the Unfriendly giants. There are some nice nostalgic touches, setting the story firmly in the 1980’s, including the Queen speaking to President Reagan. Spielberg’s triumph which has been praised by critics, belongs in the archive of classic films and is a tribute to the wonderful storyteller who is loved by so many generations.
To continue my re-discovery of Dahl, I have been re-reading some of his children’s books. My first choice was Danny the Champion of the World. I chose this lesser known book because I am going to see an outdoor Theatre production at Cardigan Castle in Ceredigionshire. Most of Dahl’s stories, besides Matilda, I remember only vaguely. Bits here and there of eccentric characters or astonishing events, key things that Dahl is known for. Some I even confuse from one book to another, as his stories can be read as a continuous exploration of a world, with characters and ideas breathing life into each other.
It was the same with Danny. I did worry that the childhood excitement and awe at first reading would have disappeared with the 20 odd years in which i’d grown up. I was delighted to find the same joy on beginning the story which only increased as I turned the pages and the characters of Danny and his Father, the evil Mr Hazell and others came to life. Suddenly I was 12 again. I was Danny, living with my father in a Gipsy caravan, just like the one in the garden of Dahl’s own Buckinghamshire home. And I was excited, exhilarated to live the story again. In discovering this, that what I hoped might be true, I gained a new-found respect for Dahl, an admiration for someone who can create something which endures, not just from child to adult, but through generations and decades. I keep thinking back to those moments in the cinema, goose bumps prickling my arms. Sat beside two 7 years olds, who wriggled with anticipation, I too felt their excitement, the magic of it all. I realised, in that moment, that Dahl is a creator, a magician, a hypnotist, who can captivate an audience, and whatever age, he can bring out the child in them and make them feel that anything is possible. It’s so refreshing to realise that something you loved as a child, does not have to be forgotten as an adult. Something that hasn’t changed when you return to it, although you may have changed a great deal. To find that in literature, I feel, is a very rare thing. For that, Dahl will always hold a special place in my thoughts.