In a land of literary giants, Roald Dahl remains a towering presence. Few would argue with that, least of all comedy actorturned- author David Walliams. He has successfully penned four books for children himself, so knows something of the challenges and pitfalls.
“Children’s books are often seen as the poor relation of literature. But children are just as demanding as adult readers, if not more so. I want to understand where Dahl’s magic touch came from.”
Walliams unravels the story of Dahl’s life – and some of the absurdities of his literary creations – in the final instalment of ITV’s series, Perspectives. It’s a revealing journey that takes him from Dahl’s Cardiff birthplace to the home in Buckinghamshire where his widow still lives.
The film reminds us of the tragedy that was never far from Dahl’s life – both his sister and father died when he was just three years old, and his own daughter, Olivia, died at the age of seven – and the enduring influence of his mother Sophia, who read him dark stories of Norwegian trolls and witches.
The magical words that the adult Dahl produced enchanted the young Walliams. “When I was a child, I devoured every book I could get my hands on, and my absolute favourite was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It was one of the first books I collected at the library. I loved the title, and it seems to me to be the ultimate children’s story, ever.
“It is a completely different story to anything else around at the time. It took two years to write. It’s a children’s book, but no less effort has gone into it than if it was an adult book. Also, all the books are very different – Dahl’s always moving and never repeating himself, and it is touching how much humanity is in them.”
Walliams explores the origins of some of Dahl’s most memorable characters; Matilda’s hateful head Miss Trunchbull, for instance, is based on the woman who owned the neighbourhood sweetshop in the Cardiff of his childhood. And he attempts to explain the author’s popularity.
“I think he shows how you can shine a light on some dark things, but present them in a way that is not unpalatable. I think also it took a while for the world to catch up with him – librarians wouldn’t stock Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example. It took that time for people to realise he was a great talent.
“Children love his darkness, and exploring all the cruelty. They love it. But there is something refreshingly honest in his writing, too.”