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Dahl was a Big Friendly Genius

12:00am | & News

Today sees the launch in British cinemas of what is widely predicted to be the biggest family movie of the year, "The BFG" (Big Friendly Giant).

Directed by Steven Spielberg, it is based on the 1982 book of the same name by British author Roald Dahl. Although renowned and remembered for his series of bestselling children's books, this was only one aspect of the author's quite remarkable life.

Born to Norwegian parents in Llandaff, North Wales, in 1916, he was named after Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Throughout his life he would experience his share of loss and grief, which began early when his elder sister Astri died from appendicitis when he was just three. Only weeks later his father died of pneumonia, aged just 57.

His mother decided to remain in England with Roald and his two remaining sisters as her husband had wanted their children educated in British schools, which he believed were the best in the world. Sadly, young Roald's experience of life at a public school was not always positive, with corporal punishment, bullying and beatings by older boys shaping some of his later writing.

However he excelled at sports, had a passion for literature and also developed a lifelong love of chocolate! Cadburys would occasionally send boxes of new chocolates to the schools for the pupils to test, and young Roald dreamed of inventing a new chocolate bar that would win the praise of Mr Cadbury himself. The likely origins of perhaps his best-known book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, are only too clear.

After school he joined the Shell Petroleum Company, spending time in Africa before joining the RAF in 1939 at the outbreak of World War Two. Accepted for pilot training, he learned to fly in Africa, but only narrowly survived an emergency landing in his Gloster Gladiator, the last biplane used by the RAF. With a fractured skull and smashed nose which left him temporarily blind, he managed to drag himself away from the burning wreckage before passing out.

After a long recovery, he went on to fly Hawker Hurricanes in the Greek Campaign, experiencing his first aerial combat in April 1941. That same month he took part in and survived the Battle of Athens, which saw 22 German and five Allied aircraft shot down. When his squadron was relocated to Israel he flew daily sorties, but began to experience severe headaches which caused him to black out, possibly linked to his earlier injury.

Invalided home to Britain, he began training as a pilot instructor, but a chance meeting saw him appointed assistant air attaché at the British Embassy in Washington DC. He found the new posting tedious and too detached from the real business of the war, but it was at this time that he met noted novelist C. S. Forester, author of the Hornblower novels, who encouraged Dahl in his writing. Forester's work with the British Information Service also introduced Dahl to the shady world of espionage, becoming friendly with Canadian spymaster William Stephenson and working briefly with Ian Fleming, who later wrote the James Bond novels.

By the time he left the RAF in 1946, Dahl held the rank of Squadron Leader and his five confirmed aerial victories qualified him as a "flying ace", though it is likely he shot down closer to 20 enemy aircraft in total.

After the war he met and married American actress Patricia Neal and the couple had five children together. Sadly, in 1962 seven-year-old Olivia died of measles encephalitis, which left Dahl in despair and caused him to abandon his faith in God.

In 1965 his wife Patricia suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms while pregnant with their fifth child, Lucy. Dahl took control of her long rehabilitation as she learned to walk and talk again, eventually even resuming her acting career. This period was dramatised in the feature film "The Patricial Neal Story", starring Dirk Bogarde and Glenda Jackson as the couple.

Following their divorce in 1983, Dahl married Felicity "Liccy" Crosland, who moved into Gipsy House in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire – Dahl's home since 1954. It was here that he wrote a significant body of work, not just his celebrated children's books but a wide range of adult fiction. Many of his short stories were adapted for the TV series "Tales of the Unexpected".

During the 1960s he also wrote a number of screenplays, including the Bond film "You Only Live Twice" and the family film "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", both adapted from books by his wartime acquaintance Ian Fleming. However, he disowned the Hollywood adaptation of his own book, filmed as "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory", because it deviated from his original story and put too much emphasis on Wonka and not enough on Charlie.

Roald Dahl died in November 1990 at the age of 74 and was buried in the cemetery of St Peter and St Paul's Church in Great Missenden. Today, children enchanted by his marvellous stories continue to leave toys, flowers and copies of his books by his grave.

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