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The whizzpopping world of Roald Dahl

A new exhibition about his life and stories at the Southbank Centre reminds its visitors – young and old – why childhood is such fun 

Charlie McCann | February 15th 2016

When Roald Dahl was 14, one of his school reports called him “a persistent muddler, writing and saying the opposite of what he means.” Out of a class of 22, he came in 19th. Dahl, who always scorned authority, might have laughed this off with a volley of “whizzpoppers” and other rude noises. His imagination was too full, too unpredictable, to be boxed in by dull teachers. As a new exhibition puts it, he had “a storyteller’s mind in an overgrown, cluttered forest, where wild, winding vines wrap around invention.” This interactive “experience” at the Southbank Centre takes young children and their grown-ups on a journey through Dahl’s topsy-turvy mind, farts and all. 

The BFG's bottled dreams hovering outside of Sophie's window

In his work Dahl recreated the child’s point of view, and that’s exactly what this delightful exhibition does too. The first few rooms evoke scenes from his early life – the recalcitrant schoolboy and dashing RAF pilot. The rest conjure scenes from his stories, including the Inventing Room, where Willy Wonka confected his scrumptious sweets, and the attic where Sophie first caught sight of the BFG. It’s like stepping into the pages of his books. 

Take the room called the Forest. You walk in to a darkened space, a guide leading the way. There is a thick, peaty smell; you feel mulch squelching underfoot; branches catch your jumper. You’ve walked into a thicket. All the while, a voice has been narrating your journey. “Crawl through tangles of brambles that amble,” he purrs. “Cobwebs glitter like stars and turned leaves like sideways smiles, the shooting roots, twinkling under the slice of silver-spooned moon, secrets and stories hide.” You see mushrooms clustering around the base of a tree, and even glimpse a pheasant or two. A light flashes. There! You’ve spotted the elusive Fantastic Mr Fox. 

This exhibition isn’t just about the things Dahl wrote. It’s also about how he wrote them – in his hut in the back of the garden, on yellow legal pads with freshly sharpened pencils – and the sometimes painfully slow process by which he breathed life into his characters. The guide points to a page of blue typescript, in an illuminated nook in a nearby tree trunk: “The writing always goes slowly. I stop a lot and stare at the wall… I change pencils. I pour more coffee. But I know I have to keep at it, and very gradually the page gets filled up with words.” The narrator, voiced with honeyed menace by the actor Peter Serafinowicz, resumes. “Feeding the hungry head, sneaky seeds plant themselves into the deepest of places…blooming and blossoming, the most scrumptious, delumptious, squifflingly good fruits.” And then, through the silver leaves, you see something glowing at the end of the trail: a giant peach. 

The part of the narrator was written by the children’s author Laura Dockrill. She has captured Dahl’s voice: warm and sinister, magisterial and crude – a disembodied Willy Wonka keen to show his charges, and their parental hangers-on, a phizz-wizzing time. He addresses himself only to the children, and puts them in charge: “Take your grown-up!” “Follow your human!” Adults are tolerated here, but only just. The tree branches in the forest threaten to scratch the face of anyone over five-foot tall. It’s no wonder the parents hang back, at least at first, assuming their natural roles as walking, talking coat stands. As the tour progresses, though, they loosen up and begin to participate. In Matilda’s Library, they all join in as we use the power of our minds – activated by placing fingers to temples and humming – to make the books jostle in their shelves. Dahl thought growing up a nasty business, and he often referred to himself in later years as a “geriatric child”. This exhibition lets grown-ups grow down. 

Delightful whizzpops: the wall of Whoopee cushions

The tour takes just one wrong turn. The final room is the Inventing Room, where visitors get to play with words themselves. There’s a “Tantalising Title Mixer” wall covered in massive fridge-magnet words, a “Craft a Character” station where you try on different costumes, and the “Whizzpopping Laughter Lounge”, a wall of inflated Whoopee cushions. The guide beckons us over to a counter full of vials and beakers, Willy Wonka’s laboratory. One of our number found a crumpled piece of yellow paper at the beginning of the tour; it is now time to divine its secrets. The guide stuffs it through some nozzles and – hey presto! – a message appears. “Somewhere inside of us is the power to change the world.” For all Dahl’s flights of fancy, he was never sentimental. A child lets out a Whoopee-cushion fart. Wondercrump.

The Wondercrump World of Roald Dahl Southbank Centre, London, until July 3rd

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