“We are the music makers... and we are the dreamers of dreams." - Willy Wonka
50 years ago Roald Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It is one of the great works of literature and remains as sharp, dark, twisted and funny as the day it was written. My children read it recently for the first time and were spellbound. They danced helplessly to the beat of this master storyteller’s drum.
So much is written about Roald Dahl. We know that he has the rare gift of understanding complicitly what makes a child tick. He is unafraid of telling the truth about the world we live in. He portrays the horrifying cruelty of humans, notably adult humans, with unflinching honesty. He neither patronises nor talks down to children; he talks to them as equals. But more than that, he understands how a story should unfold for maximum impact. To read a Roald Dahl book, especially reading it aloud to a child, is an absolute joy. His books are masterclasses in storytelling. We empathise, not sympathise, with his protagonists. We invest emotionally and accept that there may be deep unpleasantness about to unfold. Chapters are structured perfectly as cliffhangers and his story arcs are impeccable. Beneath the freewheeling anarchy of his imagination is a framework constructed by an architect of brilliance. These are stories that feel as if they are being made up on the spot by a brilliant grandparent.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory feels timeless. It is funny and is dazzlingly original. Like Hogwarts, the Factory itself is a marvellous creation. The moral complexity of the Oompa Loompas is oddly unsettling. The prose assaults the senses. I remember as a child being held rapt by the scene in which Violet eats the three course meal chewing gum. This idea is still as futuristic as it must have been half a century ago.
"'Oh, to blazes with that!' said Violet, and suddenly, before Mr Wonka could stop her, she shot out a fat hand and grabbed the stick of gum out of the little drawer and popped it into her mouth. At once, her huge, well-trained jaws started chewing away on it like a pair of tongs.
'Don't!' said Mr Wonka.
'Fabulous!' shouted Violet. 'It's tomato soup! It's hot and creamy and delicious! I can feel it running down my throat!'
'Stop!' said Mr Wonka. 'The gum isn't ready yet! It's not right!'
'Of course it's right!' said Violet. 'It's working beautifully! Oh my, what lovely soup this is!'
'Spit it out!' said Mr Wonka.
'It's changing!' shouted Violet, chewing and grinning both at the same time. 'The second course is coming up! It's roast beef! It's tender and juicy! Oh boy, what a flavour! The baked potato is marvellous, too! It's got a crispy skin and it's all filled with butter inside!'"
Violet’s punishment for gluttony is shocking. She inflates and then must be pressed. It is violent and uncompromising.
Everyone has a favourite Roald Dahl book. Danny, the Champion of the World is mine, but CATCF is the book I would read to a child who had not yet experienced a Dahl book. It feels so note perfect. It has so many characters, but every single one is three dimensional and necessary. Dialogue is simple, but very very funny. The pages fizz with devious wit.
Two of the great cultural influences on my childhood are Dahl related. Rik Mayall’s narration of George’s Marvellous Medicine on BBC’s Jackanory was, and still is, the finest example of oral storytelling that I have ever seen. It felt dangerous, punk even. Rik was a master musician, sensitively but imaginatively interpreting Dahl’s score. Utter perfection. The second great influence was Gene Wilder’s performance of Mr Wonka in the 1971 movie adaptation of the book. It is compelling in every way. Wilder’s Wonka is a psychological mess of complex contradictions. He is avuncular yet cold. He is utterly zen yet portrays a simmering potential for rage. Above all of that, he portrays the joy and wonder of creation and the sad knowledge that artistic perfection can come at an emotional, personal loss. Letting go of a creation is heartbreaking, but also a relief. His handover of the factory to Charlie Bucket is a wonderful, tender scene, tinged with melancholy.
I love Dahl because he makes children pick up books AND enjoy them. For that reason alone, he must be cherished. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a masterpiece of comic fiction and deserves to be celebrated. Happy Birthday.
Craig Green - Clickety Books author and creator
"CATCF 50 logo" from http://www.fcbg.org.uk/national-share-a-story-month/
"CATCF Violet Illustration" from http://www.roalddahl.com/roald-dahl/characters/children