Roald Dahl was a storyteller unlike any other. His book sales – more than 200 million to date – give his success a tangible value.
But the Dahl effect runs deeper, inspiring the imaginations of children and adults, and prompting an array of films, stage shows, merchandise and chocolate bars.
Mention Dahl and his characters dominate the discussion. Willy Wonka, the BFG, Matilda. But what of the man who concocted the literary worlds that provided so much pleasure to generations of children and their parents?
As the world marks the centenary of his birth in 2016, there will be a considerable effort to promote Wales’ role in nurturing Roald Dahl.
While he was born in Cardiff, his Norwegian heritage and an adult life spent mostly in England meant Wales had not always made the most of its fundamental claim.
“I think he is probably quite under-leveraged in Cardiff as a cultural icon. It’s a chance to re-claim him as one of our own”, said Graeme Farrow, the artistic director of Wales Millennium Centre, who has pushed for a big Welsh birthday celebration to mark Dahl’s centenary.
“Roald Dahl is a son of Cardiff, and he’s particularly associated with the Bay. His father worked in the Coal Exchange, the area outside our building is named Roald Dahl Plas and the Norwegian church is around the corner.
“So I just thought, how could we not celebrate the centenary of one of Cardiff’s most famous sons?”
ROALD DAHL’S CARDIFF CONNECTION
- Born during World War One on 13 September 1916 in Llandaff. His Norwegian father Harald was a ship broker and he was named after polar explorer Roald Amundsen
- The family moved to live in Radyr – a house called Ty Mynydd – in 1918
- He went to school in Llandaff until 1925, before being sent out of Wales to boarding school
- A blue plaque now marks the former sweet shop in Llandaff, where Roald and his friends played a trick on the miserable owner Mrs Pratchett, by putting a mouse in a jar of gobstoppers
- Despite travelling and living and working away from Wales he always had a great love for his home city
Like the Dylan Thomas centenary in 2014, the events marking 100 years since Roald Dahl’s birth will span the arts, schools and tourist trails in Wales.
But Dahl’s birthday in September is when Cardiff plans to host the biggest celebration of his life and work, with an unprecedented performance on the city’s streets and in its best-known buildings.
City of the Unexpected is being staged by Wales Millennium Centre and National Theatre Wales and directed by Nigel Jamieson, an Australian theatre director with an international profile.
His previous commissions include the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony and the celebrations that started Liverpool’s year as European City of Culture.
He is promising “three amazing days” when Cardiff becomes the centre of Roald Dahl’s centenary celebrations.
A cast of thousands of actors, singers, dancers and ordinary members of the public will be involved in an event inspired by Dahl’s incredible imagination.
“There’ll be lots of Dahl characters, but the rhythm of the city and the laws of physics will also give way to the laws of Dahl’s imagination. It will become a city of the unexpected, and reality will be full of surprises”, Mr Jamieson said.
The director does not want to reveal too much about what he has planned, but the characters and creations from Roald Dahl’s books will play a central part.
He is hoping to recruit “enthusiasts” from other walks of life to be part of the show, with “a huge range of people’s skills and fascinations” on display.
Classic car clubs, sports teams, and animal handlers are thought to be among his wish-list of participants.
The planning is advanced, and Jamieson’s experience of working with large groups of performers means he is fairly relaxed about bringing thousands of people together in Cardiff.
“People are wonderful to work with, the bigger the event and the occasion the more they rise up to the challenges of it”, he said.
‘One of ours’
City of the Unexpected will happen over the weekend of the 15-17 September.
Wales Millennium Centre will host an exhibition, The Wondercrump World of Roald Dahl, in the second half of 2016 which will feature artefacts from Dahl’s personal life.
It is also working with the Aloud charity to stage Land of Song, which will see school children across Wales learn songs inspired by Roald Dahl ahead of a series of performances in Cardiff Bay in June 2016.
Literature Wales, which promotes reading, is distributing money to organisations hoping to stage their own events.
Its chief executive, Lleucu Siencyn, said she was looking for events that focus on the “makers of mischief, masters of invention and champions of good”.
“The challenge is to bring Dahl back to Wales. He’s one of ours but not many people realise that. So let’s make sure we bring Dahl back to Wales and we make it a year to remember,” she said.
Roald Dahl clung to his Cardiff connections long after leaving Wales. In 2016 the land of his birth hopes to repay his loyalty with an extraordinary year of celebrations.