Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Birthday Centenary: Roald Dahl

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“Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world is a few hours, and nothing is fabulous any more.”

Roald Dahl (1916-1990)
Novelist, poet, screenwriter, soldier

Born in Wales to Norwegian parents, Dahl was educated in private schools; one of his headmasters later because Archbishop of Canterbury and caused Dahl a crisis of faith by telling him- after Dahl’s daughter died in 1962- that while she was in heaven, her beloved dog was not.

After graduating in 1934, Dahl joined Shell Oil, moving to East Africa in 1936. In 1939,despite his height- he was 6’6”- he joined the RAF, seeing action in the Mediterranean and shooting down five German planes. Health problems from a crash led to his being sent home; a lucky meeting with Lord Balfour led to Dahl’s assignment as air attache’ to the UK embassy in Washington. The job was mostly to boost American support for the European war; in between speeches, Dahl played tennis with the ambassador, Lord Halifax, socialized with wealthy Americans, and complained of boredom.  He fell in with other Brits in DC, including C.S. Forester and Ian Fleming’ in 1942 Forester helped Dahl pull notes on his combat experiences into an article he sold The Saturday Evening Post for $1000.

Dahl also became a friend of MI6’s William Stephenson, to whom he fed information on German sympathizers he met on what he called the American prewar cocktail circuit. After getting sent home for misbehaving, Dahl was sent straight back by Stephenson- with a military promotion. He left the service in 1946 and pursued his writing career; in 1953 he married the American actress Patricia Neal.

During the Fifties Dahl’s and Neal’s careers soared; the 1960s handed them one tragedy after another. A fourth month old son was severely injured in a 1960 hit and run in New York. He suffered hydrocephalus for some time; his father pulled in pediatric surgeons and an engineer friend to develop the Wade/Dahl/Till Valve to ease the draining of fluid in treatment.

One of Dahl’s daughters died in 1962; in 1965, Patricia Neal- pregnant with their fifth child, suffered three cerebral aneurysms. Dahl nursed her through a long convalescence, during which she was able to regain the  to walk and speak, and return to acting.

Dahl divorced Neal in 1983 and married his mistress. He declined an OBE from the Queen, holding out for a knighthood. His career flourished; he wrote macabre tales for adults and piles of successful children’s books- Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, James and The Giant Peach, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, to name but three. His success as a children’s writer came from writing as if he was a kid, too, and all the adults, usually fat and vulgar, were their common enemies.

A dozen of his works were made into films; he wrote the screenplays for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and what became Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, though- in the latter case- he was late with the script and the produced hired it out to someone else. Dahl was so displeased with the end product he refused any other adaptations in his lifetime.

Dahl also wrote the screenplay for You Only Live Twice, one of his friend Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels; a dozen episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; two dozen of a popular 1970s BBC radio series for Vincent Price, The Price of Fear. That series continues in reruns on BBC Radio 4 Extra. From 1979 to 1988 Dahl wrote and hosted a TV series, Tales of the Unexpected.

Dahl’s popularity seems only to grow 25 years after his death. His book sales have exceeded 100 million copies, and have been translated into fifty languages. His charitable foundation supports medical research on children’s diseases, and a museum celebrates his work in the village of Great Missenden.

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