Lucy Mangan, Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory, book review: Sweet nothings on Dahl is a missed opportunity

Roald Dahl: Poked fun at the old, fat and ugly

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The Independent Culture

Although Puffin Books’ greatest editor, Kaye Webb, disliked Dahl’s children’s stories, she prudently chose to stick to an author who quickly became her firm’s main money-spinner.

Now, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Penguin has produced a sumptuous volume subtitled “The complete story of Willy Wonka, the Gold Ticket and Roald Dahl’s most famous creation”. Written with a light touch by Lucy Mangan and with every page brightly illustrated, this should have been a book to savour. Unfortunately it ends up more like one of those glossy souvenir programmes sold at popular musicals, stuffed with celebrity non-stories and scores of colour photographs.

Dahl was a contradictory character, courageous, generous and hard-working but also crotchety and domineering. One of his less endearing habits in his stories was to poke fun at the old, the fat and the ugly. This tendency was later considerably masked by the softening touch of Quentin Blake, his last and most successful illustrator. Reproduced here, an earlier drawing by Faith Jaques of Augustus Gloop, the first of the young victims to be expelled from the Chocolate Factory tour, shows a sad-faced obese child, seated as if waiting for the next taunt from his creator. But Blake comes up instead with a caricature whose comic exaggerations safely distance readers from guilty feelings about mocking someone so like an actual, already put-upon person.

Mangan never really grapples with the points made by Dahl’s critics, which is a pity as she has the wit to produce a far more nuanced, less hagiographical account. She also takes his continuing popularity for granted, despite the majority of 300,000 children questioned in a survey last year making no mention of Dahl in their lists of Top 10 favourite books. He still remained the most-read author, but is beginning to sound dated. Literary invective against “nits”, “clots” and “stinkers” loses force  when these terms are no longer in use. Willy Wonka’s “My goodness me!” now sounds as archaic as the “By Jove” found in C S Lewis’s fantasy novels. 

Dahl was unquestionably something of a genius in this and his other writing for children. Yet the central tenet of his most famous title, celebrated here, is looking increasingly strained. In today’s age of juvenile obesity, visions of an unlimited supply of sweets and chocolate, far from being an unattainable fantasy, sound alarmingly close to reality for some children.

Other details have also come to seem more questionable. Living near a chocolate factory would not provide the olfactory pleasure described in his pages. The idea of a chocolate river, always a problem when staging this story, has distinctly uncomfortable moments as dispensable characters disappear into its sickly depths.

For many years Dahl was the Pied Piper of children’s literature. But Mangan could have said more about the nature of the particular tune he played and how it sounds 50 years on.

Inside charlie’s Chocolate Factory by Lucy Mangan (penguin £20)