I first met Roald Dahl in a television studio in 1980. He was already very famous, though perhaps not quite as mega-famous as he is today.
He’d written James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny the Champion of the World. But now he had a new book out. And so did I. We were both appearing in the same TV programme because someone thought that we were writing similar kinds of stories. To tell the truth, I was quite excited. I was going to meet a writer whose books millions of children loved. But there was someone else with me who was even more excited than I was. This was my son Joe, who was about five years old.
In TV studios, there’s often a little room away from all the cameras, where you wait until it’s your turn to be filmed. It’s called the green room – even though it’s not usually green. Joe and I sat on one side of this particular green room and Roald Dahl was on the other. I noticed that he didn’t really look at me even though I looked at him and tried to say hello. Instead, everynow and then, Roald Dahl looked across at Joe. This went on for some time.
After a bit, Roald caught Joe’s attention and said to him in quite a stern way, ‘Come here.’ Joe looked at me and I nodded. So he went over and stood in front of Roald Dahl. And, as everyone will tell you, Roald was very big – even when he was sitting down. Big legs, big body, even a big head. For a little boy, he must have seemed huge. A real giant.
Then, in a big, booming voice, Roald Dahl said to Joe, ‘What’s that growing on your father’s face?’ Joe looked across the room at me and then back at Roald Dahl. In a small voice, he said, ‘A beard?’
‘Exactly!’ said Roald Dahl. ‘And it’s disgusting!’
Joe looked unsure. Was this a joke or was it serious? He smiled, but only a little.
Roald Dahl went on, ‘It’s probably got this morning’s breakfast in it. And last night’s dinner. And old bits of rubbish, any old stuff that he’s come across. You might even find a bicycle wheel in it.’
Joe looked back again at me and my beard. I could see on his face that there was a part of him that believed what he had just heard. After all, Roald Dahl hadn’t asked Joe what he thought might be in my beard. He’d just told him in that firm, very sure voice what was actually, really and very definitely in my beard.
And that’s what Roald Dahl was like. When he spoke, he did sound very, very certain – even if whathe was saying was extraordinary, amazing, weird, fantastical or downright crazy. Soon after that, Roald and I were called into the studio – me to talk about my book about a giant flea that lived in the London Underground and Roald Dahl to talk about . . . can you guess? The Twits, of course. It’s all a long time ago now, but I seem to remember that the interviewer asked us what we thought were the ‘ingredients’ of a good story for children. ‘Above all,’ Roald Dahl told the interviewer, ‘it must be FUNNY.’
Afterwards, we returned to the green room, picked up our coats and went home. I think he said goodbye to me. He certainly said goodbye to little Joe, and had a few words of wisdom for him too. He leaned towards my son and said, ‘And don’t forget what I said about your father’s beard.’
Fantastic Mr Dahl by Michael Rosen, out now, is published by Puffin. To celebrate Roald Dahl Day, Michael Rosen will be taking part in a live interactive webcast on Mon 24th Sept in conversation with Quentin Blake. Register at www.puffinvirtuallylive.co.uk.