Tuesday 13 September 2016

Centenary of the Birth of Roald Dahl (1916-1990)

Roald Dahl (1982)
By Hans van Dijk / Anefo
(Derived from Nationaal Archief)
[CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Roald Dahl, authors of novels, short stories, screenplays that have appealed to audiences worldwide and across generations.

Born in Wales, to Norwegian parents (he was named after the polar explorer, Roald Amundsen and not, as has been suggested, out of some kind of conceit not to be knows as 'Ronald'!), Dahl grew up in a household where Norwegian was the spoken language and English therefore, was effectively a second language for him.

He enjoyed/suffered the benefits of an English public school education, where he excelled at sports, being exceptionally tall (as an adult, he stood a towering 6" 6') and also honed a love of literature during these years. The stature that he would attain as a literary figure was only hinted at during his school years however. One of his English teachers observed in a school report, "I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended."

The Second World War would see him serve as a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force (RAF). He married twice - to actress, Patricia Neal, with whom he had five children and later, to Felicity "Liccy" Crosland, who remained with him until his death in 1990.

Dahl's literary output adapted quite well to the media of TV and cinema and it is these adaptation that have probably had most to do with making him a household name. Even people who have barely so much as picked up a book are likely to be familiar with his work in some form. His short story collection, Tales of the Unexpected, published in 1979, was adapted to a successful TV series of the same name, which ran during the 1980s - with Dahl even presenting some of the early episodes.

It is as a writer of children's fiction (including works such as James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The BFG) that Dahl most excelled, demonstrating a keen sense of childhood mischief. He is regarded by many as one of the greatest in this genre. His storytelling exhibits an "unsentimental, macabre, often darkly comic mood, featuring villainous adult enemies of the child characters. His books champion the kind-hearted, and feature an underlying warm sentiment." (Source: Wikipedia).

The centenary of Roald Dahl's birth comes a matter of weeks after the death of actor, Gene Wilder, who portrayed one of Dahl's most enduring characters in the eponymously titled, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (a 1971 film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Dahl, however, was reportedly unhappy with the film adaptation of the script that he provided. This would lead him to 'disown' the film. Reasons suggested for this have been ascribed to a view that "it placed too much emphasis on Willy Wonka and not enough on Charlie" and also, the casting of Gene Wilder instead of Spike Milligan, who was Dahl's choice to take the role. (Source: BBC website - Willy Wonka's everlasting film plot).

It was Wilder, apparently, who came up with the idea for the titular character's dramatic entrance - pretending to be a frail old man, hobbling on a stick until making a forward somersault to the acclaim of worried but relieved onlookers. "I knew that from then on, the audience wouldn't know if I was lying or telling the truth," Wilder said many years later. There is proof, perhaps, in this anecdote, that while great minds don't always think alike, it is still no reason why can't entertain and each be masters of their respective trades.

Road Dahl was born on 13 September 1916. He died 23 November 1990 but his work truly lives on. Over 250 million copies of his books have sold worldwide.

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