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8 February 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 11:54am

A new dramatisation of Roald Dahl’s Boy reminds us of the author’s staggering talent

Roald Dahl was an industry of one for an extraordinary length of time. For decades, there was no Stones to his Beatles.

By Antonia Quirke

“And now here are your instructions: the day I have chosen for the visit is the first day in the month of February…” Willy Wonka’s words to the lucky winners of a Golden Ticket to tour his factory – and an excuse, at the start of dreaded Feb, to run a dramatisation of Roald Dahl’s beloved memoir Boy (3 February, 2.30pm). “An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life,” explains Patrick Malahide’s Dahl. “It is usually full of all sorts of boring details. This is not an autobiography.” He then proceeds to the daring Great Mouse Plot, the horrors of boarding school, and his time as a chocolate taster. Listening to the book clattering fiercely past (Malahide so sharp as the narrator, other actors bring certain scenes to full and wry life), I thought of the sheer length of time that Dahl was an industry of one. For decades there was no Stones to his Beatles. Like Lionel Messi or Michael Jordan, he was out on his own.

The programme dealt with one aspect of Boy quite brilliantly – the way Dahl told of his love, aged eight, of the local Welsh sweetshop, and especially of the liquorice bootlaces sold there, which he thought were made of rats’ blood (“I’ve got ratitis – help me!”). It is an anecdote that goes on with such beautiful continuousness, taking in school canings and parental explosions, via a folkloric trip to a fjord with shaggy long-haired goats and wild raspberries – and ending with the young Dahl effectively moving country.

I have never heard a story remotely like it in any other memoir. This amusing little tale about going to buy sherbert lemons turns into a whole life. It is staggering, the fluency and the interconnections. Which made me think of the early, pre-Quentin Blake illustrations of Dahl’s books, and Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s scratchy, tragic 1961 drawings for James and the Giant Peach. There was precisely such a tone to this programme. As a child, to find those incredible works of art inside a cheap paperback contributed to the lapidary sense of the thing. This adventure was etched in stone: the story could be taken at the level of myth. We talk, now, of JK Rowling especially, as though such primacy and supremacy in literature is somehow new. But it was Dahl. Always Dahl. 

Roald Dahl: Boy
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry