‘The Feeling of Childhood’: notes from our Roald Dahl retrospective

Last week, to celebrate 100 years since the birth of legendary (and sometimes controversial) children’s author Roald Dahl, we got together with writer Andy Griffiths, comedian Kate McLennan, broadcaster Jess McGuire, musician Tim Rogers and former politician Anna Burke for a revolting and ridiculous retrospective of Dahl’s work. Here are a few of the highlights (edited for clarity).

Dark Dahl

Michael Williams on Dahl’s extremes: ‘That's the spirit of Dahl isn’t it? That on the one hand you can have these bright colours and these incredible feats of imagination, and on the other hand you can have horrible things, frightening things.’

Jess McGuire on reading as a kid:I think you’re a lot more robust as a child when you're reading and watching stuff than maybe we give kids credit for, because I remember the dark stuff in the books – but it never bothered me.’

 

How kids see it

Andy Griffiths on childhood fear: ‘He evokes the feeling of childhood, where adults are big and scary and often gigantic. You feel small and the world is scary, and he touches those fears and lets us know what they are, and we see the characters dealing with it.’

Michael Williams on contagious phrasing: ‘The one that we unearthed in the office this week that I adore is, “I is only an eight year old little boy, but I is growing a splendid bushy beard and all the other boys is jealous”. There's something about that language that opens imaginative ideas about what kind of things a kid would dream about. It is incredibly contagious.’

Kate McLennan on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:What I love about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is that Grandpa Joe is just as much of a child as Charlie. He has led a life where maybe he didn't have a childhood either, so it's like what Charlie is experiencing as a child, Grandpa Joe is experiencing as an adult, but through the eyes of a child.’

Goodness and badness

Anna Burke on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s villainous children: ‘You actually do meet those characters. Let's not gloss over it. I'm not a great believer in political correctness, because I don't think there is such a thing. I think we just need to be nice to people, but occasionally there are people you just don’t like.’

Kate McLennan on reading Matilda: ‘She reads Dickens, she knows her times tables up the wazoo, she’s so intelligent but so calm … but then she has these moments of anger as well. You never saw girls being angry in books, and she was so frustrated and she had such a sense of justice. I felt like Matilda, and I feel like there would be lots of kids reading that book and [thinking] “Yeah, I'm Matilda”.’

Anna Burke on subtle messages: ‘In the midst of all this revolting stuff there are some really good messages. The BFG goes, “I can go out there, they won’t eat or hurt me unlike you human beings, who do hurt each other”. It’s quite poignant in the middle of a book that is all just fun and quirky.’

That language

Andy Griffiths on florid taboos: ‘There's a wonderful sentence you could never write nowadays. Look at this: “Mr Twit, who thought he had seen his ugly wife for the last time, was sitting in the garden celebrating with a mug of beer”. How many taboos can you break in one sentence? It’s wonderful.’

Anna Burke on reading Dahl aloud: ‘I am actually dyslexic; I kid you not. But it is about that sense of reading aloud, which I think is so magic. That’s what you do with these books. You actually want to say them aloud.’

What do you love about Dahl?

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