50 years of Flem­ing’s fic­tion

With Ian Flem­ing’s words and John Burn­ing­ham’s il­lus­tra­tions, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is still magic, writes Eleanor Doughty

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Cover Story -

A“jolly good read” is how artist John Burn­ing­ham would de­scribe Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a book that he was com­mis­sioned to il­lus­trate in 1963. It was quite the project, for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s cre­ator was none other than Ian Flem­ing, the most suc­cess­ful au­thor in the coun­try. The first vol­ume of three was pub­lished the next year. The story is still well known, both on ac­count of be­ing the Bond cre­ator’s only chil­dren’s book, and due to its fa­mous ap­pear­ance on the sil­ver screen. The 1968 film adap­ta­tion of the book saw the bed­time story writ­ten for Cas­par, Flem­ing’s son, find its place on Christ­mas tele­vi­sion sched­ules and Chan­nel Five re­peat lists ad in­fini­tum. How­ever, with a screen­play writ­ten by Roald Dahl, the film that starred Dick van Dyke and Lionel Jef­fries sold a world so dif­fer­ent from the book’s that it is far more a work of Dahl than his friend Flem­ing. The Child Catcher and the cu­ri­ous windup dolls are Dahlian clas­sics that con­tinue to un­leash fear into the minds of chil­dren try­ing to sleep. But the book con­tains no such nightmares. The world of the mad in­ven­tor Car­ac­ta­cus Potts, his wife, Mim­sie, and their chil­dren – the “black-haired boy” Jeremy, and “golden- haired girl” Jemima – imag­ined by Flem­ing, is in­no­cent and sweet. It was while Flem­ing was in hos­pi­tal re­cov­er­ing from a heart at­tack that Chitty came alive on pa­per. Mo­ti­va­tion came from an un­likely source: a vis­it­ing friend gave him a copy of Beatrix Pot­ter’s Squir­rel Nutkin. “He thought it was so bad, so appalling, that he thought somebody had to be able to do some­thing bet­ter than that,” ex­plains Fergus Flem­ing, the au­thor’s nephew, who, in keep­ing woith the fam­ily’s link to pub­lish­ing, is one of the direc­tors at Queen Anne Press, the spe­cial­ist im­print ac­quired by the Ian Flem­ing es­tate in 2007. The fi­nal vol­ume of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was pub­lished in 1965, mak­ing this year her half-cen­te­nary. To cel­e­brate, the book is be­ing re-re­leased in the orig­i­nal three­vol­ume for­mat. One spe­cial edi­tion, with a limited print run of 50 and a price tag of £600, in­cludes signed copies of Burn­ing­ham’s orig­i­nal il­lus­tra­tions, tightly bound in glo­ri­ous rac­ing green. Burn­ing­ham was a young grad­u­ate of the Cen­tral School of Art when he was asked to il­lus­trate the book. Lit­tle guid­ance was of­fered. “I was given a sort of coloured pic­ture of a rac­ing car of some sort,” he ex­plains. “I re­ally de­signed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from read­ing the text and think­ing, how do you make a car fly? What is it likely to do? I made a model which I strung up on a sort of fish­ing line, and got somebody to pho­to­graph it. That’s how I started, think­ing about how it would work.” Flem­ing did not dole out the praise for Burn­ing­ham ini­tially. “It has taken me 50 years to find out that he ac­tu­ally liked the books,” the il­lus­tra­tor con­fides in the base­ment of his Hamp­stead house. Fergus Flem­ing ex­plains: “He was writ­ing to Leonard Rus­sell at The Sun­day Times, the lit­er­ary ed­i­tor, who wanted to se­ri­alise Chitty. Ian said he didn’t think this was likely to work.” This was, in part, due to the bril­liance of Burn­ing­ham’s il­lus­tra­tions. The story that the car-mad Flem­ing wrote for his son has sus­tained its pop­u­lar­ity for the last 50 years. But why? “Flem­ing did cap­ture child­hood dreams re­ally well,” his nephew says. “It’s just got all the in­gre­di­ents.” Burn­ing­ham agrees: “Be­ing cap­tured by the bad guy, es­cap­ing and just about get­ting away.” “The mad in­ven­tor, too,” Fergus Flem­ing adds. But of course, the il­lus­tra­tions bring the words to life. Be­fore his death, Ian Flem­ing only re­quested a cou­ple of changes be made to Burn­ing­ham’s il­lus­tra­tions. “One was, I think, to a petrol pump, a sign on the petrol pump,” the artist re­calls. “He [also] wanted a Tabac sign put in the Paris land­scape. I didn’t see him again, and he was dead months later.” It is agreed, in a sketch-walled room in Burn­ing­ham’s house, that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a Flem­ing clas­sic. “It’s got a lot of hall­marks, a lot of the en­thu­si­asm, the love of cars, and ad­ven­ture,” Fergus says. But most of all, Ian Flem­ing re­ally be­lieved in it. “It’s done with great con­vic­tion that it’s a proper story, and that’s what kids like,” Burn­ing­ham says. That is why, after 50 years, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is still one of the great chil­dren’s books of our time. And long may it con­tinue. The three vol­ume set, with a limited run of 100, is avail­able for £125 from queenan­nepress.com

Car­toon ca­per: the first vol­ume of Ian Flem­ing’s book was pub­lished in 1964

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