The Roald Dahl Museum – a trip into the timeless charm of the master storyteller

With the movie version of Roald Dahl's The BFG out this week, we visit the museum dedicated to the British author to find out why his stories endure.

The Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden. Photo by Amy Watters
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The queue for fizzle-crumpers stretches out the door of Cafe Twit and down the high street of a quaint English village. Children in the queue gaze up in awe at a huge mural of the Big Friendly Giant clutching his dream catcher.

A little girl slowly tries to read the text emblazoned across the entire wall of the building. “It is truly …” she stumbles over the word, “swizzfigglingly?” Her mother nods in encouragement. “Flushbunkingly gloriumptious.”

The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, where Cafe Twit is located, is absolutely glushbunkingly gloriumptious.

Set in the picture-perfect medieval village of Great Missenden — 60 kilometres from London — where the author of The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox lived and wrote for 36 years, it is not an all-encompassing commemoration of the brilliant novelist. There are no white-knuckle rides — this isn't Roald Dahl World — but its celebration of the pure, simple art of storytelling says everything about why Dahl's iconic tales have captured the imagination of generations of children.

I visit the museum ahead of the UAE debut this week of director Steven Spielberg's film version of The BFG (which was released in the United States last month). The venue is packed, though its director, Steve Gardam, says the busiest times are earlier in the year, when on a winter's day children can immerse themselves in stories of Willy Wonka and other beloved characters.

This seems to prove that in a writing career that began in earnest in 1961, with his first children's book James & The Giant Peach, Dahl rose above the vagaries of fashion or technology. Fifty-five years later, children are still as willing as ever to lose themselves in tales of wicked witches and Oompa Loompas.

"I think that's because Dahl's stories are basically timeless," says Gardam. "It doesn't really matter when The BFG is set, even though there are helicopters in it. The cars in Danny, The Champion of the World are what we might now call 'vintage', but that's not the point of the story — it's about the natural world, the relationship between a boy and his father, the illicit thrill of getting one over the evil local landlords."

It is interesting that Gardam should talk of the illicit thrills in Dahl's writing. It's why reading Dahl's books is so exciting as a child: it feels like he is directly appealing to the gleefully grotesque parts of a youngster's imagination, whether that be the BFG's "frobscottle" drink that gives Sophie remarkable flatulence or the tinned sardines stuck in Mr Twit's beard in The Twits.

“Dahl said his gift was that he could imagine what it felt like to be a child of six or seven years old,” says Gardam. “He never lost that ability and he joked that he felt like an underdeveloped adult because he loved crude humour and silly jokes.”

In fact, academics at Cardiff University found that the way children pick up language — through hyperbole and strong senses of contrast — is exactly how Dahl writes. But stories don’t stand the test of time simply by being rollickingly funny. Dahl also explores the fears and desires of children in his books.

At the start of The Witches, there is advice about how to recognise a witch (toeless feet, blue spit and large nostrils). It is amusing, but there is a deeper message about helping children survive in a confusing, difficult world.

Another recurring Dahl motif is a generations-spanning double act to ward against loneliness — whether a little boy and his Grandmamma in The Witches, Matilda and Miss Honey in Matilda, or Charlie and Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Certainly the relationship between Sophie and The BFG was key to Spielberg's decision to direct his film adaptation — he told The Guardian it was the "loneliest story I think I've ever told", but that "these two lonely people find a way to make a difference".

Gardam agrees that the relationship at the heart of The BFG is "right there in the movie", and he hopes the film will encourage people who haven't read Dahl's book to do so.

“A lot of people saw the Harry Potter films and then went to the books and that’s fine — they can coexist,” he says.

Speaking of Harry Potter, it is remarkable that Dahl's stories and associated films are so adored around the world yet aren't part of a single attention-­grabbing series or franchise. Though the character of The BFG first crops up in Danny, the Champion of the World, only Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has a direct sequel: Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

The list of Dahl's stand-alone hits is genuinely remarkable: Fantastic Mr Fox; The Twits; George's Marvellous Medicine; The Witches; Matilda and many more. Dahl had an admirable knack for originality and hard work.

"It's quite something to have so many iconic stories from one mind," says Gardam. "There's understandably a desire from some authors to have a story that is too big to tell in one book. Dahl's amazing because he manages to tell big stories in tiny books. The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me might only be 34 pages long, but there were more than 300 pages of working drafts — just because it was short doesn't mean it was easy. He worked so hard to get his stories right."

There are some lovely clues in the museum to how Dahl fostered such originality. Dotted around are countless notebooks full of ideas — the title Big Friendly Giant circled in the margins — and sheets of A4 with plans for "gobblefunk", the BFG's made-up language.

Dahl's writing hut has been recreated exactly as it was left after his death in 1990, the table stacked with curios that point towards what Gardam calls the "fleshy quality" of Dahl's work. The BFG's bone-crunching, meat-dripping giants did not come from nowhere — as he fashioned his stories, Dahl kept by his side his own hip bone, after an operation, and, somewhat oddly, shavings from his spine.

Children point at the hip bone in pure delight — and maybe this is Dahl’s real legacy, that stories don’t have to chronicle the latest fashions or compete with the latest technology. If they’re gleeful or gruesome or great enough, they will find their audience.

“There’s a general rule about children’s literature that if it’s good, you come back to it when you’ve got kids of your own,” says Gardam. “So Dahl’s legacy is his work, really. It just keeps entertaining and enthralling and it’s full of positive messages. And because of that, the energy in this museum comes from our visitors’ imaginations.”

And the fizzlecrumper at Cafe Twit? It is a delicious lemonade topped with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sprinkles. On a hot summer’s day it is, without doubt, swizzfigglingly gloriumptious.

The BFG will be in cinemas from Thursday (August 10)