With Easter weekend upon us, The Baron’s thoughts have turned to chocolate. He has little time for eggs and rabbits, but will happily employ the holiday as excuse to indulge his addiction to chocolate truffles. And in this, he shares a vice with that most chocolate-infused of children’s authors, Roald Dahl, whose legacy is making Easter in London particularly sweet this year. It is, you see, the 50th anniversary of one of the great children’s books, and greatest of all children’s chocolate books, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
First published in the USA in 1964, by Alfred A. Knopf, and in 1967 in the UK by George Allen & Unwin, the classic novel is listed by J. K. Rowling among her top ten must-read books for children. And this Easter Weekend sees the culmination of events celebrating the book’s anniversary at Kew Gardens’ Charlie’s Chocolate Adventure, a mere 20-minute bicycle ride from 20 The Barons. Visitors are invited to create their own chocolate bar in the teepees next door to Climbers and Creepers; listen to storytellers from the Roald Dahl Museum recite Revolting Rhymes and Oompa-Loompa songs in the Princess of Wales Conservatory; discover, in the Secluded Garden House, cacao and other plants used to make confectionery; and climb aboard the Kew Explorer land-train to discover the history of chocolate.
The novel is well worth celebrating, mixing a mischievous morality tale with magical inventions and horrifying humour that children find as irresistible as Easter eggs. It tells how penniless Charlie Bucket wins one of five Golden Tickets to visit Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where he discovers the Oompa Loompas responsible for making the magical sweets. The other ticket winners, spoilt and indulged, meet their just desserts. The gluttonous and glutinous Augustus Gloop falls into the chocolate river; gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde is turned into a blueberry by experimental gum; spoilt Veronica Salt is attacked in the Nut Room by squirrels; and television-obsessed Mike Teavee is shrunk to the size of a screen character. Charlie is left to win the prize, the factory itself.
Dahl’s books have sold over 100 million copies worldwide, and Willy Wonka has expanded his factory into a one-man entertainment industry. The novel was first adapted for the 1971 movie Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, with Gene Wilder splendidly surreal in the title role. Dahl had begun the screenplay – having also worked on scripts for You Only Live Twice (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) (both based on novels written by Dahl’s friend and fellow spy Ian Fleming, with Dahl inventing the notorious Child Catcher for the movie) – but David Seltzer wrote the final version and Dahl disowned the movie. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1985), starring Johnny Depp as Wonka, was a much bigger hit, grossing $470 million.
The sweet smell of the novel’s success can be sampled all over London this Easter, and The Baron has planned a suitable treasure hunt. From Kew, the Dahl devotee should head to Waterstones, Piccadilly, where a replica of Wonka’s factory measuring over six metres has been built by the Biscuiteers from 100 kg of dough and 200 kg of Tate & Lyle sugar. A smaller version is to be seen closer to 20 The Barons in Waterstones’ Richmond branch. Also in Piccadilly is Prestat, Roald Dahl’s favourite chocolate emporium. Established in 1902, its famed cocoa-dusted truffles were employed in his novel My Uncle Oswald to seduce the famous men of Europe by their concealment of a powerful aphrodisiac.
From Prestat, it is a short walk to a choice of Roald Dahl musicals in the West End. At the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Musical, directed by Sam Mendes and featuring a chocolate garden and an army of squirrels, has taken over £21 million at the box office. Alternatively, the nearby Cambridge Theatre is staging the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda, The Musical. Written by Dennis Kelly and with original songs by Tim Minchin, Matilda in 2012 scooped a record-breaking seven Olivier awards. And Dahl’s plot does of course cook up its fair share of chocolate, with Bruce Bogtrotter forced to consume a giant chocolate cake in front of the school as punishment for stealing cake (described by Quentin Letts as like watching a goose being force-fed for foie gras).
As we devour our celebratory chocolate, perhaps we should leave the last word to the children’s author behind these sweet confections. In his autobiography Boy (1984), Roald Dahl recalls how the inspiration for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came originally from his schooldays, when Cadbury’s would send boxes of newly invented chocolate bars for the schoolchildren to test:
“I began to realize that the large chocolate companies actually did possess inventing rooms and they took their inventing very seriously. I used to picture a long white room like a laboratory with pots of chocolate and fudge and all sorts of other delicious fillings bubbling away on the stoves, while men and women in white coats moved between the bubbling pots, tasting and mixing and concocting their wonderful new inventions. I used to imagine myself working in one of these labs and suddenly I would come up with something so absolutely unbearably delicious that I would grab it in my hand and go rushing out of the lab and along the corridor and right into the office of the great Mr Cadbury himself. ‘I’ve got it, sir!’ I would shout, putting the chocolate in front of him. ‘It’s fantastic! It’s fabulous! It’s marvellous! It’s irresistible!’”