THE RED CHOCOLATE BOX
Sophie Dahl, aged three.
I called him Mold, because when I was a toddler my baby tongue couldn’t get to grips with the Norwegian pronunciation of his name, ‘Roo-al’ (regal, long stretchedRoo, al like the end of mall, silent D), and instead Mold he was, ever after.
At his table, I was raised on a steady diet of good food and enchantment. A meal was never just a meal; it was a recipe from a prince in Dar es Salaam, rescued from the jaws of a hungry python at the crucial moment by my grandfather. In this story, and its variants, Mold was always the blue-eyed interloper, diverting the disasters he stumbled upon. So grateful was the fictitious prince, he gave the lanky Englishman his treasured recipe for crab-stuffed baked potatoes. (Or toast with bacon and marmalade, or whatever else happened to be on the menu in rainy Buckinghamshire that day.)
He had many accoutrements of magic, Mold, like a proper magician should: amaretto biscuits whose wrapping paper you lit, which shot up into the sky like titchy hot-air balloons, falling back to earth in a wispy question mark of ash; a miniature steam train that huffed and puffed round the dining room table; a house dotted with Witch Balls, ancient, mirrored spheres that hung from a window, confronting any witch so bold as to come knocking with her own hideous reflection so she’d flee. Mold was famous among his children, and later on me, for writing our names in the grass with weed killer, while we slept.
‘The fairies have been,’ he’d say over breakfast, in a voice that crackled and sparked, like the beginnings of a bonfire.
There was nothing more magical, though, than the Red Tupperware Box that appeared at the end of a meal, heralding the most important and longed-for bit.
The Red Tupperware was a medium-sized, rectangular box of function. The box itself was almost irrelevant, and it could have been blue, green or see-through. Its postbox redness, though, lent an air of jaunty dissolution to the proceedings and ultimately became part of its own myth.
If you had been good at lunch or dinner, not too much of a bore, eaten things proffered without a fuss, you could collect the fabled box from its home in the kitchen and bring it to the table, while the grown-ups were having their coffee.
The Red Box contained chocolate. Lots of chocolate, in child-sized appealing bars, nothing fancy, but always compelling. And it was here, over this staunch bit of plastic, that Mold and I did a great deal of communing.
We both LOVED chocolate. Our taste in the stuff was similar. Cadbury’s Flake, Aero, Curly Wurly, Crunchie, KitKat and the Dime bar, a Scandinavian crunchy concoction that Mold delivered to me with great ceremony after a book tour in Sweden. Maltesers, Rolo, Fruit and Nut; a mutual horror of the Creme Egg. We were partners in a quest for the ultimate bite (light, airy, possibly featuring almonds). His knowledge of chocolate was encyclopedic. He could recall specific dates and years of invention with the glee of a patriotic child recalling the kings and queens of his country. Even his Jack Russell, Chopper, ate chocolate (four Smarties, served after lunch and dinner, daily).
Mold grew up fatherless in Wales, in an era before chocolate was readily available. Sweet shops peppered his boyhood and boyhood writing: lemon sherbets, bootlaces, gobstoppers and toffees, hard-boiled sweets served by boot-faced proprietors. Chocolate was later: the stuff of dreams, exotic and faraway.
And so, for the grown-up Mold, Willy Wonka and his factory were to embody the chocolate dream, Charlie Bucket to play the moral compass beating at its heart.Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was written fifty years ago, but it remains utterly timeless and infused with a child-like magic that only a landscape of chocolate rivers and everlasting gobstoppers can conjure. For each and every one of us, there remains a powerful, Proustian memory of that first-ever something sweet, and, for so many of us, that was made flesh by the story of Charlie Bucket and his Golden Ticket.
A journalist asked Mold before he died, how he liked his chocolate. He answered thus: ‘For the record, I am not overly fond of chocolate-flavoured foods such as chocolate cake and chocolate ice cream. I prefer my chocolate straight.’
So do I.
Happy 50th Birthday, Charlie.
It’s not quite the first time I’ve had reason to be thankful for my parents’, um . . . well, let’s call them ‘eccentricities’ regarding my upbringing, but I have not felt quite such a fervent gratitude before.
I wasn’t allowed many sweets or chocolate as a child. I could take a decorous few at parties, or one chocolate digestive or a sucky-sweet after dinner when I got older, and my beloved grandma gave me a Cadbury’s Buttons egg at Easter. I used to make it last for weeks – buttons first, then shell. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory spoke to me as no other book before or since has done. I knew that feeling of watching other children cramming chocolate down their throats in front of me (yes, it was indeed pure torture) and the unspeakable elation of occasionally getting my own hands on the stuff and letting the creamy sweetness flood my mouth and fill my senses.
The book transported me with other delights. The sense of recklessness, of adventure, of dreams tethered just close enough to reality to allow you to think that they might honestly one day come true. It was, I think, the first ‘proper’ book I ever read – mostly words, not pictures (likeWhere the Wild Things Are), and telling just one story (not like Teddy Robinson, who had lots of little ones) that gathered you up, whizzed you along at a glorious, dizzying pace and tipped you out, dazed, breathless but – crucially – not confused at the end. At which point, all you had to do was turn back to the first page and start again, this time with the joy of anticipation infusing it all with an extra, even more mouth-watering savour.
This book is written for all those who loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when they were young, and those who love it now. It’s for anyone who wants to know a bit more about how it came to be, how it managed to permeate readers’ worlds and the world at large, and how it has endured so happily for fifty years – and counting.
It’s been a whipple-scrumptious fudgemallow delight to do. I hope you have half as much fun reading it as I did writing it.
Welcome to the factory.
Roald Dahl and his dog Chopper getting his daily treat (1988). (Illustrations by Quentin Blake.)
Photograph of Roald’s jar of wine gums, and his slippers illustrated by Quentin Blake.
In 1960 Roald Dahl was living in America with his wife, the film star Patricia Neal, their two daughters, Olivia and Tessa, and their newborn son, Theo. To entertain the children, Roald Dahl would make up stories. One of them was about a lonely boy who lived in a town that was also home to an extraordinary chocolate factory. ‘Having read my children all the available books and come across some really crummy ones,’ he said later, ‘I thought – why not try to write a children’s book?’
So began the gestation of the story that would lead to one of Roald Dahl’s best-known, bestselling, best-loved creations,Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Most of us, when we read as children, imagine vaguely (if we imagine the author at all) that he or she simply sat down one day and wrote seamlessly, line after line, page after page, exactly the book we were reading – as if transcribing something already fully realized in his or her head. Today’s children in English schools – well versed in the national-curriculum directive to plan, draft and edit their writing – are probably less naive, but it’s still tempting to imagine that, to the best writers, stories all come easily.
Romanian edition (Editura Arthur, 2012).
Of course, with very rare exceptions, the creative process isn’t that kind. It is almost never a matter of simply putting thoughts on to paper, typing it up and handing it in. Writers draft and redraft, paring down parts of their original version, building up others, adding and subtracting characters, plotlines, chapters, paragraphs and generally doing whatever is necessary to narrow the distance between what exists in the mind’s eye and what turns up on the page.
For all its casual, effortless-looking brilliance, Roald Dahl took his writing seriously and worked hard at it. The plot of a short story – which was the form of writing that first made him famous – could take him weeks to perfect. His first book for children,James and the Giant Peach(published in 1961), took two years to write. Charlie, however, took even longer to bring to fruition because during its writing Roald suffered two of the greatest blows of his life.
The first came on 5 December 1960, a few months after Roald had sent a first draft of the story, then titled ‘Charlie’s Chocolate Boy’, to his US literary agent, Mike Watkins.
Ukrainian edition (A-Ba-Ba-Ha-La-Ma-Ha Publishers, 2005).
The Dahls’ nanny was pushing their baby, Theo, in his pram through New York City as she brought three-year-old Tessa home from her nursery school for lunch. As they crossed the road at the corner of 85th Street and Madison Avenue, a taxi hit the pram. The pram was thrown into the side of a bus and crushed. Theo was terribly, terribly injured and at first it looked to the doctors as if he would not survive. He did, but developed hydrocephalus (when spinal fluid accumulates around the brain, putting damaging pressure on it) and had to undergo repeated operations to insert a shunt into his head to drain the fluid away. It had to be done again and again because the shunt’s valve kept clogging, causing Theo to develop a fever and become temporarily blind each time. Shortly after the family returned to England in May 1961, Theo suffered another relapse.
While the doctors were doing everything they could for Theo, Roald set himself to investigating whether there was any better shunt available. When he found there wasn’t – many children with Theo’s type of injuries were having to undergo the same multiple surgeries – Roald began discussing the matter with Theo’s neurosurgeon, Kenneth Till, mining every ounce of Till’s expert understanding of the problem. Roald then took the problem to his friend Stanley Wade. Wade was an engineer whose hobby was making miniature engines for toy aeroplanes and who ran a factory in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, which produced precision hydraulic pumps.
The Dahl family in the garden of Gipsy House, in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire (1961).From left to right: Olivia, Patricia, Theo, Tessa, Roald.
Together, and almost unbelievably, the three men invented and produced a new and better valve. In June 1962 the first Wade–Dahl–Till valve was inserted into the head of a patient in Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London. It worked beautifully. Eighteen months later, it was on the market, and at less than a third of the cost of its rival. It happened so swiftly and cost so little because the three men had agreed from the beginning never to accept any profit from it. It was exported all over the world and – although Theo was well enough not to need it by the time his father’s invention was ready – it was used to treat thousands of children before it was superseded by newer technology.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT:
Greek edition (Psichogios Publications, 2013).
Vietnamese edition (Kim Dong Publishing House, 2008).
Chinese edition (Global Kids Books, 2011).
Roald Dahl dedicated Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to his son. ‘I don’t remember when I first opened the book and saw my name in it,’ says Theo, who now lives in Florida with his wife and daughter. ‘But I always found Charlie unwrapping his Golden Ticket the best part. I love the book. It was a beautiful book to have dedicated to me.’
• • •
In January 1962, Sheila St Lawrence, who’d worked with Mike Watkins, wrote to Roald Dahl, evidently in response to a letter from him saying that he was suffering from writer’s block: ‘It is wonderful news that Theo is doing so well. I suppose that Pat and you rarely have a calm and unworried moment. “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy” will just have to come along in his own good time when you’re in the mood for him.’
By the autumn of 1962, relief and happiness at Theo’s recovery seemed to have freed Roald enough to produce a second draft of ‘Charlie’s Chocolate Boy’ –now renamed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – in which he had enough confidence to send it to his publisher, Knopf.He had just received an enthusiastic letter about it from Virginie Fowler, Knopf’s editor of children’s books, when a second and even crueller blow struck the family.
Olivia and Tessa arrived home from school with a note warning parents about a measles outbreak. Wholesale vaccination against the disease did not exist then – trials were being held, and it would be introduced in the US just a year later and in the UK in 1968 – and while a special dose was obtained for the still terribly fragile Theo, it could not be made available for anyone else.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT:
Lithuanian edition (Garnelis, 2008).
Japanese edition (Hyoron-Sha, 2005).
Hebrew edition (Kinneret, 2005).
Seven-year-old Olivia caught the bug and was put to bed. She slept for twenty-four hours and her mother called the doctor, who came and went without notable alarm. Roald tried to entertain her by making little animals out of coloured pipe cleaners, but she remained drowsy and eventually fell asleep again. When the doctor returned, he realized she had slipped into a coma and called an ambulance. Olivia was taken to hospital and died there that night.
It is perhaps both impossible and unwise to try to describe the depths of anyone’s grief at losing a child. Recalling it twenty years later in her autobiography, Patricia Neal still struggled to articulate her own grief, and says simply of her husband that he ‘all but lost his mind’.
Writing is a solitary and inward-looking profession, which was unhelpful in such a situation as Roald’s at that time. In a letter to his publishers six months later Roald wrote, ‘I feel right now as though I’ll never in my life do any more! I simply cannot seem to get started again.’
Eventually, however, the need – both financial and personal – to work reasserted itself and another draft ofCharlie took shape. And another. And another.
Manuscript page from the earliest existing draft of ‘Charlie’s Chocolate Boy’ (c. 1961).
Altogether, there are five drafts of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in existence. An earlier one is lost, but according to Roald, recalling it years later:
The very first time I did it, I got everything wrong. I wrote a story about a little boy who was going round a chocolate factory and he accidentally fell into a big tub of melted chocolate and got sucked unto the machine that made chocolate figures and he couldn’t get out. It was a splendid big chocolate figure, a chocolate boy the same size as him. And it was Easter time, and the figure was put in a shop window, and at the end a lady came in and bought it as an Easter present for her little girl and carried it home. On Easter Day, the little girl opened the box with her present in it and took it out, and then she decided to eat some of it. She would start with the head, she thought. So she broke off the nose and when she saw a real human nose sticking out underneath and two bright human eyes staring at her through the eye-holes in the chocolate she got a nasty shock. And so it went on.
The only other thing we can surmise about that very first version – thanks to one uncorrected hangover in the subsequent draft – is that Willy Wonka originally went by the slightly less memorable title of Mr Ritchie. This following draft still exists in all its glory. It is made up of typed pages from the now-lost first version, with some typed sections taped on to handwritten pages. However, a substantial amount is written in longhand, using – as Roald did for the drafts of all his books – a Dixon Ticonderoga pencil on yellow legal pads. They were both commonplace in the US, where he had first found fame as a writer and where he was living when he began writingCharlie, but when he returned to live in England a few years later he had to have them sent over specially.
It was this second draft, neatly typed by his secretary, that had arrived on Mike Watkins’s desk in 1960 just before Theo suffered his accident. ‘Charlie’s Chocolate Boy’ told the story of an eccentric (though not nearly as eccentric as he was to become) chocolate-maker called Willy Wonka who, having been forced to abandon his open-door policy for visitors to his factory because of the riots caused by thousands of people struggling to get in every day, sends out ten Golden Tickets hidden in his chocolate bars every week. Charlie Bucket is a poor, malnourished child (thanks to what was at this stage a potato-only rather than cabbage diet) who in this version doesn’t even get a birthday bar of chocolate every year but becomes one of that week’s lucky ten when he finds a coin in the gutter, buys a Wonka Whipped Cream Marshmallow Delight and discovers a Golden Ticket inside.
His nine companions are: Augustus Pottle and Miranda Grope (who both end up in the chocolate river and, shortly thereafter, get sucked up two glass pipes to the Chocolate Caramel and Peanut Brittle Rooms respectively); Wilbur Rice and Tommy Troutbeck (who end up in the Pounding and Cutting Room after playing havoc with mining operations on the vanilla-fudge mountain); Violet Strabismus (née Glockenberry, before Roald hit upon the medical term for a squint, who turns purple after chowing down on the three-course gum that is still in the experimental phase of development); Clarence Crump, Bertie Upside, Trevor Roper (who all overheat after ingesting an unwise number of Warming Candies); and finally Elvira Entwhistle, brat of brats, who gets pitched down the rubbish chute by – yes! – the trained squirrels in the Nut Room.
After that, Charlie is treated to a look at the Easter Egg room, which contains chocolate eggs ‘the size of automobiles’, life-sized chocolate animals and row upon row of chocolate men, women, boys, girls and babies. Charlie cannot resist trying one of the boy-moulds for size and – before you can say ‘Hang on, this is nothing like the book!’ – he is encased in a thick, unbreakable shell of chocolate and sent to Mr Wonka’s house as an Easter present for his son.
While Charlie’s there, he manages to foil a robbery, and as a reward Mr Wonka gives him his own chocolate shop, nine storeys high. The tale ends with Charlie taking his friends there after school: ‘“It’s my shop,” he tells them. “Just help yourselves.” And they do.’
The first page from the earliest existing draft of ‘Charlie’s Chocolate Boy’, with handwritten notes by Roald Dahl (c. 1961). In the top right corner, you can just make out the words ‘2nd draft’.