Remembering the imagination of Roald Dahl

Lucy Dahl talks about her father, Roald – parent, writer and secret agent

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Lucy Dahl has many precious memories of her father, Roald. The beloved children’s author, who was born 100 years ago this September, believed “boredom was a curse”. To get his children to eat their greens, he would claim that cabbage had been delivered by a Buckingham Palace footman. In the mornings, he would drive them to school still wearing his nightshirt and cap. Sometimes he would wake them up in the middle of the night to go on the hunt for badgers. 

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“He always liked children more than adults,” Lucy recalls. “He used to say, ‘I have the same sense of humour.’”

It was this capacity for thinking on their wavelength that made Roald Dahl one of the world’s best-loved children’s authors. The life of the dark comic genius behind classics such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG and Matilda is to be celebrated in a season of programmes kicking off on Radio 4 this Saturday with Roald Dahl – Boy, dramatised tales from the writer’s own childhood. A BBC2 documentary at the end of July will form the centrepiece.

Perhaps Lucy’s most lasting image of her father is not of the fantastical storyteller, admiration for whom she shared with the world, but an intimate memory of him as a much older man, lying in a hospital bed at the age of 74, suffering from a blood disease that would prove to be fatal.

“I had two young children at the time,” Lucy recalls when we meet in a central London private members’ club. “My youngest, Chloë, was two months old. I was in Dad’s room and said, ‘I have to go and feed the baby,’ and he said, ‘All right.’ I gave him a kiss, walked to the door and he said, ‘Lucy.’ I turned around and he said, ‘Take care of your children.’”

They were the last words he would ever say to her. She wells up at the memory. He died 26 years ago, but she still speaks to him “all the time. I can always find him when I need him. More so than when he was alive. I meditate every day, ask him for guidance and ask him questions.”

And does he have the answers?

She smiles. “Yes.”

At 50, Lucy Dahl is the youngest of her father’s five children with the late American actress Patricia Neal. She is tall, willowy and beautiful, wearing rings on every one of her fingers. In person, she bears a striking physical resemblance to her father and has followed him into a writing career.

She is currently a screenwriter living in Los Angeles and the mother of two daughters – Chloë is now a restaurateur and Phoebe, a fashion designer – and aunt to the model and author Sophie, who is married to the jazz musician Jamie Cullum. They’re quite an impressive bunch, the Dahls. Does she think her father would be proud of them all?

“I know he’s proud. I think he’s very pleased of the woman I’ve grown to become.”

When she got married for the first time, at the age of 22, it was to a windsurfing instructor she’d met on holiday at Club Med. Lucy had been a troublesome teenager and was expelled from school at 15. Getting married so young was a further act of rebellion. Her father didn’t approve and yet she never once doubted that he was on her side.

In the back of the Rolls-Royce on the way to the church, Lucy remembers Dahl saying, “I’ll make a deal with you… If you stay in the car and let me walk into the church and announce, ‘She’s changed her mind. She’s not coming in. You can all go home,’ I will give you what this wedding has cost in cash.”

Lucy turned him down. The marriage lasted six years. (She later remarried: when we meet, she is going through her second divorce.) Still, Dahl never said, “I told you so”. He simply wasn’t that kind of man.

His defining characteristic, Lucy says, was “a belief in magic”. He used this to create extraordinary imagined worlds in his bestselling books – from the oversized peach that took to the skies, to the dream-catching friendly giant and the square-footed witches who couldn’t abide the smell of children – but he applied it to his family life, too.

“He was able to walk a very fine line between tragedy and humour,” says Lucy. “He used to say, ‘If you tell a child a story about a man walking down the street and he steps on a banana and slips, they will roar with laughter. But the minute they realise he’s actually broken his back, they stop laughing and it’s not funny any more.”

Dahl always teetered on the right side of the line. The humour in his books was only ever heightened by the possibility of unexpected horror. His real life, too, was punctuated by tragedy – but it was the sort of tragedy he refused to be defined by.

In 1960, his son Theo was severely injured when his pram was struck by a taxi in New York, leaving him brain damaged. Dahl’s response was to help invent a device to alleviate hydrocephalus, which became known as the Wade-Dahl-Till and is still in use today. (Theo, meanwhile, is living in Florida with his wife and 12-year-old daughter.)

When, two years later, their daughter Olivia died of measles encephalitis at the age of seven, he became a forthright proponent of immunisation and later dedicated The BFG to her memory. 

Then, in 1965, his wife, Patricia, suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms while pregnant with Lucy. She was left unable to read, write or talk and had to relearn key motor skills. The neurosurgeon offered her daily two-hour rehabilitation sessions. Dahl, recalls Lucy, “refused to accept this. He said: ‘We’re going to get her back.’”

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He brought his wife home and organised a rota with all her friends from the village of Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, so that she would be occupied from nine in the morning till six in the evening. It meant that Lucy was learning to walk and talk at the same time as her mother.

“They would teach her how to say ‘A’ and she would go ‘uh’,” Lucy says. “She would try to feed herself and miss her mouth. She’d try to put lipstick on and it would go down her face. And as she began to learn to sit up and feed herself and walk and talk, so did I.”

When Dahl discovered that his wife found it easier to sing than speak, he devised family ditties to be sung in the car on road trips. Lucy remembers the same thing being done to help her learn her times-tables.

“That was magic happening,” she says now. “That was him making the impossible possible.”

Although Neal did eventually make a good recovery, it meant that Dahl was in the position of being both primary carer and breadwinner. He stuck to a strict routine: making the children’s breakfast (“He used to tell us the Minpins had delivered us little tiny eggs and then he’d put quails’ eggs inside fried bread”), taking them to school, then settling down at his typewriter for an hour’s correspondence. He would be in his writer’s hut from 10am until midday to work on the latest novel or screenplay: during this period, he bashed out scripts for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Bond film You Only Live Twice.

After lunch, “He’d have a nap and usually a little bet – the bookies’ number was taped to the side of his bed.” By late afternoon, he was “back in Dad mode” and often picked up the children from school. He always wanted to know “what the naughtiest thing someone had done that day was”, and these tales later fed into his 1988 novel Matilda.

At home, Dahl would create another outlandish meal for supper before telling them bedtime stories. It was from these stories that many of his fictional characters were created, including the BFG. The soon-to-be-released film adaptation of The BFG, starring Mark Rylance, is, Lucy says, “wonderful”.

I wonder, given the emphasis he placed on acts of imagination, what Roald Dahl would make of today’s children and their reliance for entertainment on smartphones and iPads?

“I don’t think he’d like it,” Lucy says. “It replaces the parents in a way. It certainly replaces the time a child spends with a parent. If we had had them when I was a child, I wouldn’t have had all these lovely stories… Now, in the car, the first thing that happens is the screen comes down and on comes the TV show, and parents don’t sing songs about times tables.”

Although Dahl’s marriage to Neal failed and he later married Felicity Crosland, a family friend, Lucy says her mother always believed “she had him at his best”.

Curiously, Lucy and her siblings always felt they knew her father so intimately – and yet, in recent years, they’ve made some startling discoveries. Donald Sturrock’s acclaimed 2010 biography of Dahl revealed that he had, in fact, been a spy during the Second World War – and seduced a bevy of women along the way.

Lucy whoops with delight when I bring it up. “Yes, he was a spy! I was shocked that he was able to keep that secret, because he wasn’t a good secret-keeper. He was a terrible gossip, and the fact that he kept it secret was the biggest surprise of all.”

But then Roald Dahl was always a master storyteller – a man who, 100 years after his birth, still has the capacity to delight us with a marvellously unexpected twist in the tale.


Roald Dahl – Boy is on Radio 4 on Saturday at 2:30pm

Lucy Dahl will talk about her father in the documentary The Marvellous World of Roald Dahl, to be shown on BBC2 at the end of July as part of the BBC’s campaign to celebrate the pleasure of reading. Other Radio 4 highlights this week include: 

Archive on 4 – Roald Dahl In His Own Words – Saturday at 8pm

Roald Dahl: Served With a Twist – Monday – Friday at 10:45am/7:45pm

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Roald Dahl: A Gremlin in the Works – Thursday at 11:30am