This Christmas will see Sky One broadcast Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of The Curious Mouse on Christmas Eve, a one-off seasonal drama inspired by the apparently true story when the six year old Roald Dahl journeyed (uninvited) to his then favourite author’s house to see her.
‘Buzz off!’ Potter apparently told him in real life, but as Dahl obviously had a highly active imagination, who knows exactly what occurred?
Dahl was without doubt a complex character, and stories about his irascibility, rudeness, racism and philandering are legion.
Many, many years ago Dahl gave a talk to the comprehensive school where I was an eager young pupil. I don’t remember that much, other than he appeared affable enough and could obviously tell a good story. But a fellow former pupil, the rock critic/biographer Mark Blake recently recounted to me that Dahl digressed at the end of an unexceptional Q&A session with the question:
‘Does anyone know what a tappen is?’
Silence from the assembled teachers and students.
‘A tappen is a plug of twigs, mud and undigested food that a bear stuffs into his back passage to prevent invasive insects when hibernating’
Which was nice.
Although obviously best known for his children’s books and their various adaptations, Dahl had many other strings to his bow, including his ribald novel My Uncle Oswald and the macabre stories which were adapted for the long-running TV series Tales of the Unexpected.
Considering his unconventional looks, Dahl was rather flatteringly portrayed onscreen by Dirk Bogarde in The Patricia Neal Story (1981), which depicted the writer’s care for his actress second wife (of three) when she suffered a devasting stroke; Glenda Jackson played Neal.
Incidentally, by way of a Jack Reacher/Tom Cruise-style contrast, in height Bogarde was a petit 5’ 8 ½, compared to Dahl’s towering 6′ 6″.
February 2021 will see the release of To Olivia, a new take on the Dahl/Neal relationship, with the couple this time played by Hugh (Downton) Bonneville and Keeley (Durrells) Hawes, incidentally another Sky release.
In the meantime, here’s a selection of some of Dahl’s best work onscreen:
The Witches (2020 and 1990) Amazon Prime Rent/Rent or Buy
After the box office failure of Spielberg’s big budget The BFG (2016) there may have been trepidation from studios at the prospect of taking another stab at Dahl, and some would say that Robert Zemeckis’ remake of The Witches proved their point.
Not that it’s particularly bad, just unnecessary, although the picture retains the darker ending of the book. Anne Hathaway is fun as a Lady Gaga-esque Grand High Witch, but I still much prefer Anjelica Huston in Nic Roeg’s atypical 1990 movie.
The Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) – Amazon Prime
Wes Anderson’s charming stop motion take on the writer’s 1970 book combines a typically Dahlian blend of the bloodthirsty and heartfelt, as the Mr Fox of the movie’s title battles a trio of greedy farmers.
A great cast of vocal talent includes George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe Helen McCrory, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray – and Jarvis Cocker.
Charlie & The Chocolate Factory (2005)/ Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) – both Netflix
As with The Witches, to my mind another pretty pointless remake.
Less hummable tunes than the 1971 picture and a terribly affected performance from an indulged Johnny Depp spoil Tim Burton’s movie for me, although both James Fox and David Kelly (O’Reilly, the hopeless builder from Fawlty Towers) are good value.
Dahl thought Gene Wilder ‘too soft’ in the role of Wonka, but I disagree, as there’s plenty of edge if you watch him, especially when the spoilt kids get their deserved comeuppance. And of course, the 1971 movie boasted two memorable oft-covered Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley songs in the Pure Imagination and Candy Man.
James & The Giant Peach (1996) – Amazon Rent or Buy
Gifted animator Henry Selick followed the acclaimed Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) with an enjoyable version of Dahl’s especially bizarre 1961 kids’ novel.
The film combines live action and stop-motion animation, which appears to be the style most suited to Dahl’s creature fantasies.
Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes played James’s aunts in the live-action sequences, with Simon Callow, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, Jane Leeves, David Thewlis providing the voices.
Alternatively, from the same year you may wish to go for Danny DeVito’s fondly remembered adaptation of Matilda (Amazon Prime & Netflix).
Danny the Champion of the World (1989)
A perhaps overlooked entry in the Dahl onscreen canon, this 1989 Thames TV movie mirrors The Fantastic Mr Fox in pitting our heroes (Samuel Irons as Danny and real-life dad Jeremy as his father) against an unscrupulous businessman.
The movie was filmed in Oxfordshire, not far from where Irons abides.
Two Dahl stories from Tales of the Unexpected:
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) – Amazon Prime Buy
Dahl adapted Ian Fleming’s children’s story for the screen, with some of his acidic humour seeping through in the character of Robert Helpmann’s Child Catcher, who some would say was unfairly maligned. After all, he was given a job to do by the Vulgarian authorities and he did it to the best of his (considerable) abilities.
You Only Live Twice (1967) – Amazon Prime Rent or Buy
Dahl’s Bond script treated us to the first proper reveal of cat-stroking uber-villain Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) and the distinctly unconvincing sight of the late Sean Connery disguised as a Japanese fisherman.
The movie also boasted a great Nancy Sinatra theme tune and an innuendo-laden script – even more so than previous Bond offerings.
36 Hours (1964)
Based on Dahl’s 1944 short story “Beware of the Dog”, 36 Hours is an overlooked classic of the spy genre, with James Garner as an ‘amnesiac’ US intelligence officer who wakes up in a American military sanatorium in Bavaria five years after Hitler’s apparent defeat and the end of the war.
Rod Taylor, Eva Marie Saint, and stock German baddie Werner Peters (The Battle of the Bulge/The Counterfeit Traitor) round out the cast.
For those intrigued by the life and work of Roald Dahl, here’s a link to the critically acclaimed BBC2 2016 documentary on the author.