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Why Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Matters

1,397 words

Surely, Ian Fleming’s final book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, is also his finest work of fiction. Published 54 years ago this month, shortly after Fleming’s death, it is visibly superior to the James Bond books in so many ways.

For one thing, it has pictures. Fleming and his editors struggled long and hard to select the right illustrator. The drawings by the illustrator who was eventually selected, John Burningham, are note-perfect and meld perfectly with the text. They’re drawn in the sloppy-intuitive school popular among British illustrators of the era (see also Paul Hogarth, Ronald Searle, and Ralph Steadman), and are almost entirely in black-and-white, or rather black-and-greys.

They complement the text without dominating it, the way precise, overdrawn, four-color paintings in kiddie books always seem to be these days. The Burningham stylization makes the pictures somewhat reminiscent of Edward Gorey, although shading is mostly done by loose ink-wash rather than india-ink cross-hatching. As an example, see the below illustration, of two children with a baguette in a decrepit room.

I must emphasize, of course, that I am discussing only the Ian Fleming book here, and not the 1968 movie musical of the same name starring Dick Van Dyke. That film is a curious creation, too, but it has an almost completely different story, written by Roald Dahl. The film has a big, sentient motorcar that flies, but that’s pretty much it. The movie Chitty is set in a different era and landscape – part Edwardian England (à la Mary Poppins), part Brothers Grimm.

Dahl’s imagination had some parallels with Fleming’s, but was much crueler and more transgressive. For example, Fleming would never have come up with a horrifying figure like Dahl’s Child Catcher, who steals away Jeremy and Jemima and locks them in a mobile cage. In the Fleming version, the children are indeed kidnapped, but by stock movie villains out of a 1950s French gangster film, or maybe an Ealing comedy. And the gangsters give the children jam and baguettes for breakfast because (explains the author) that’s what you eat for breakfast when you are in Paris. Even though he’s writing about a flying car, Fleming keeps his tale recognizably rooted in Mother Earth.

Speaking of variant versions, if you want to read the real Chitty, be sure to hunt down an edition with those original John Burningham drawings, because it may not be available at your kiddie-book counter. Alternatively, take a glance at the “potted” version of the book featuring Burningham illustrations that Fleming’s nephew provided to the Guardian for Chitty’s fiftieth anniversary in 2014. Originally, Fleming wanted the political cartoonist Trog (Wally Fawkes), but Trog’s newspaper editor nixed the plan because Fleming’s work was usually serialized in a rival newspaper. This was an unexpected bit of luck. Nobody drew better than Trog, but Burningham’s ink-wash dreamscape was a far better choice for Chitty.

By all means shun any Chitty edition with some later dauber’s efforts – those overly colorful and hyper-detailed ones. And avoid like the plague those brummagem titles (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Race Against Time, e.g.) that were cranked out by later authors, in much the same way that every writer from Kingsley Amis on down had to take a crack at writing a James Bond thriller after Ian Fleming died. Chitty is not a franchise. As the imitation Bond books demonstrate all too well, the Fleming wit is not susceptible to replication.

I keep dwelling on those original Burningham illustrations because they not only match the Fleming text, but they capture the grey 1950s sensibility that you get in the British cinema of the era. Off the top of my head, I think of the film version of John Osborne’s The Entertainer (directed by Tony Richardson), and Basil Dearden’s excellent The League of Gentlemen. Both films were released in 1960, but are set a few years earlier, so are pretty much contemporary with Fleming’s Chitty. They depict a squashed-down, etiolated England (or “Britain”), still listless and crippled from the War and Austerity. Vestiges of Imperial and martial glory still abound, but they are dusty and repellent, like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.

The atmosphere is all very much Angry Young Men stuff, like Lindsay Anderson’s famous 1957 essay where he says, “Let’s face it; coming back to Britain is always something of an ordeal . . . And you don’t have to be a snob to feel it. It isn’t just the food, the sauce bottles on the café tables, and the chips with everything.”

In the Dearden movie, Jack Hawkins – that matchless cinematic colonel – gathers together a clutch of former officers and gentlemen (Bryan Forbes, Richard Attenborough, Richard Livesey, et al.) who did very well in the War, but not at all well since. One is a cuckold in an old-school tie who runs illicit gambling parties; one is a homosexual ex-Blackshirt who now works as a physical trainer; another is a fake clergyman with a string of sex scandals. The Jack Hawkins colonel treats them to a lunch in an upstairs suite at the Café Royal (it looks more like a catering room in Torquay), and reveals his master plan for a great bank robbery. Later, they are rehearsing the robbery plot in a script-reading room when a theatrical queen (a young, camp Oliver Reed) flounces in, looking for Babes in the Wood rehearsals. “No, we’re rehearsing Journey’s End,” Hawkins replies. Journey’s End, indeed; their country has let them down, and now Hawkins & Co. are going to get their own back, through esprit and ingenuity.

And this is the background theme to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Commander Caractacus Pott (Royal Navy, like intelligence officer Ian Fleming) is a brilliant man and inventor, but has not done well for himself and his family. His inventions don’t catch on. The Potts are poor; they don’t even have a car. Then Commander Pott accidentally creates a candy that makes him a tiny fortune. They shop for a car. But the eccentric Potts doesn’t want to be like the other people they see, clogging up the motorway in their little black beetles. They must have a vehicle that is somehow special.

In a junkyard, an early 1920s racing car seems to call out to them, with the portentous license plate GEN II. This, of course, is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang herself (based on a bizarre, but very real racing car, Chitty Bang Bang, that young Ian Fleming recalled from the early 1920s). The old car was about to be sold for scrap. But Commander Pott buys her and, with a little bit of tinkering, gets her on the road. The family decides to go to the beach on a fine day, but they find the road clogged with thousands of the despicable black beetles. So Chitty spreads out her wings and soars above the lesser folk, landing on a lone beach available only at low tide. Then, Chitty and the Pott family “swim” the English Channel and end up in France, where adventures and gangsters await.

Ian Fleming wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the spring of 1961, and did it very quickly, because it was just a series of stories about a “magical car” that he had made up as bedtime tales for his son. Its publication in late 1964 coincided with the release of the Disney movie Mary Poppins. What curious antipodes of juvenile entertainment! Fleming’s subtle and inadvertent Angry Young Man critique of 1950s British society, coming up against a fanciful picture of a pre-1914 England, when everyone had a nanny, and the most visible revolutionary movement was Glynis Johns and her suffragettes.

But there was one beneficiary to this cultural collision. Fleming’s successor as kiddie-bestseller author was his friend Roald Dahl, whose entrée into children’s books, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, came out at almost the same time as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Accordingly, Dahl was the obvious, immediate choice to write the Chitty movie script. And so Dahl wrote his mad and perverse – albeit commercially successful – film of Chitty. It had little to do with the original book, but it carved out for him a whole new career as a children’s author (James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, etc., etc.).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been filmed twice. Surely it’s time for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to get the film it deserves. Black-and-white. No songs. In the 1960 directorial style of Basil Dearden.

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5 Comments

  1. nineofclubs
    Posted October 23, 2018 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    You had my attention with the mention of Ronald Searle.

    A brilliant illustrator, whose Molesworth series (authored by Geoffrey Willans) also neatly captures the dour, austerity feel of 1950’s England.

    Nigel Molesworth’s dialogue is great, but – as any fule kno – without Searle’s illustration the series wouldn’t convey the pretentious tawdriness of St Custards to the same extent.

    .

  2. James O'Meara
    Posted October 23, 2018 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Interesting that the illustrations would be redolent of post-war crumminess, since my understanding, perhaps from Kingsley Amis, is that all the Bond folderol about high living and brand names (the key to what Amis called “the Fleming Effect”) was part of the wish-fulfillment function of the books, which began in the mid-50s. Bond was not about eating baguettes in dreary French rooms.

    Waugh, in a postwar edition of Brideshead, apologizes for the Epicurean excesses, such as the vast dinner Charles makes Rex provide him in Paris, as a function of wartime privations.

    “Privation” of course is in the eye of the beholder. I heard it argued that the British diet was at its healthiest under rationing, when they were “forced” to grow and eat vegetables, rather than gorging themselves on tinned meat from Australia and sticky toffee, washed down with endless cups of sugary tea. Orwell in the 30s mocked the British idea that something was “nicer” if it came in a tin from the colonies; thanks to this kind of conspicuous consumption, he claimed some Brits even preferred the taste of tinned vegetables to the real thing.

    Michael Palin’s A Private Affair deals with the lengths local government in 1947 would go to in order to have pork at a celebration of the royal wedding. I see that a musical version [!] ran in 2011 starring Reece Shearsmith (of The League of Gentlemen fame), although that would be the TV series not the film.

  3. Gnome Chompsky
    Posted October 23, 2018 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Be careful what you wish for!

    I enjoyed both the Fleming book and the Dahl-written movie (in reverse order).

    Any remake right now would have to be atrocious, for obvious reasons, unless very small-scale, nobody wanting to get the rights to make a small-scale faithful version would be able to, even though the original is (or should be) in the public domain.

    Tolkien wanted to make substantial revisions to The Hobbit as he was developing LotR.

    The publishers said No!, but then when the copyright was about to expire, allowed small revisions to fit the plot of LotR, then re-published it. As a small child I read the version where Gollum gives Bilbo the ring as a result of Bilbo solving the riddle, which should be in the public domain now.

    I only saw the movie Chitty Chitty a little before I started reading Fleming’s Bond books (would it be legal for a 7 or 8-y.o. to read them now?).

    Not that I had much of an idea of what he was talking about re. booze and sex, except observing the effects of the former on adults.

    Read the original Chitty Chitty around that time, very moving. It is, in a smaller way, like Tolkien in that it makes one feel a regret (at least when very young) for loving the magical reality that is depicted, but having to know it is not real.

    In any case, thanks for the reminder of the book.

    • Bond James Bond
      Posted October 23, 2018 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      A remake of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” will likely feature negro children (or a negro boy and blonde girl) in the lead roles.

    • Hollywicker Man
      Posted October 23, 2018 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      Dahl would be sour on Spielberg’s mega-flop Disney adaption of ‘The BFG,’ in which the titular goof was rendered as a blatant Jewish merchant c/o actor Mark Rylance (the Communist Jew in ‘Bridge of Spies’), making its nocturnal visitations with child seem inappropriate, possibly even a Spielbergian jest of “blood libel.” With polite, telling disdain, critics tip-toed around this observation. To me, Spielberg used the project as a coup de grace on Dahl’s alleged antisemitism, just to power flex.

      Rather than a live-action CGI redo of ‘Chitty,’ I’d prefer a traditional animation version, Don Bluth could have made a transportive, respectful classic.

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