Our fine four-fendered friend
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang drove all the way to box office stardom 50 years ago. MARION McMULLEN looks at the enduring appeal of the family favourite
WHEN the creative talents behind British super spy 007 and chocolate factory Willy Wonka came together the result was a magical car with a mind of its own.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was based on the book by James Bond creator Ian Fleming and was adapted for the screen by children’s writer Roald Dahl.
Roald had previously worked as screenwriter for the 007 movie You Only Live Twice and he added his own distinctive twist to the script of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Ian Fleming’s original book was written for his son Caspar and was an adventure about the Potts family and their flying car coming to the rescue of a French sweet maker plagued by gangsters. Roald’s imagination came up with the kingdom of Vulgaria and heroine Truly Scrumptious.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opened in UK cinemas in 1968 just in time for Christmas and quickly proved a box office hit as it promised film lovers: “The most fantasmagorical musical entertainment in the history of everything!”
Mary Poppins actor Dick Van Dyke signed up to play struggling inventor and father-of-two Caractacus Potts with Sally
Ann Howes as the sweet factory owner’s daughter Truly Scrumptious.
Dick later said of the casting in a documentary: “They couldn’t have picked a better Truly Scumptious than Sally. They came up with Sally Ann and I heard her voice and it was the richest contralto.
“She auditioned with The Lovely Lonely Man and I thought ‘My God, this girl is great’ and then she was stunningly beautiful. She loved those kids and they loved her – which I think comes across on screen. They just thought a great deal of her and she spent a lot of time with them between shots telling stories and playing games during all those long waiting periods.”
Producer Albert R Broccoli also sang her praises and wrote: “We wanted a typical English beauty and, to me,
Sally Ann represents that ideal.” Truly Scrumptious Barbie dolls even came out following the movie’s release. The movie cast also included British actor Lionel Jeffries as Dick Van Dyke’s father Grandpa Potts – although he was actually six months younger than the American star – Bond villain Gert Fröbe as Baron Bomburst and comedian Benny Hill as the Toymaker. James Robertson Justice, who appeared as Lord Scrumptious, suffered a stroke after filming and later had to give up acting.
The musical number he featured in, Toots Sweets, took three weeks to film at Kempton Park Steam Museum in Middlesex and featured 100 dogs, 38 dancers and 40 singers. Scenes were also filmed in Bavaria, Saint Tropez and Pinewood Studios.
Child actors Heather Ripley and Adrian Hall played young brother and sister Jemima and Jeremy at the heart of the adventure.
Several different versions of Chitty were built for the movie and the music, written by the Sherman Brothers, Robert and Richard, earned them an Oscar nomination.
Their title track Chitty Chitty Bang Bang featured the lyrics: “You’re sleek as a thoroughbred/Your seats are a feather bed/You’ll turn everybody’s head today/Our fine four -fendered friend.”
Richard later said: “We write for Grandpa and the four-year-old and everyone in between.”
The creepy Childcatcher played by Australian-born ballet star Sir Robert Helpmann was the stuff of nightmares and is still regularly voted one of the scariest film characters.
But child star Heather later said: “Robert himself was the least scariest person I have ever met in my life. There was absolutely nothing about him that was scary. He was a sweet and charming gentleman, but the way he moved could be very scary.”
Helpmann had a lucky escape during filming when the horse-drawn carriage he was driving overturned. Dick Van Dyke said Helpmann, being a ballet dancer, was able to swing out of the carriage and literally skip across the crashing vehicle.
According to Van Dyke, Helpmann did this with incredible grace.
Dick attended the London premiere of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with his wife Margie and also appeared with the famous car at many public events.
He said he no longer attempted a British accent after his attempt at Cockney in Mary Poppins. “People from the UK love to tease me,” he said. “I invented a whole new dialect. I never could do a British accent... not even in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
He once admitted: “I will never live it down. They ask what part of England I was meant to be from. I say it was a little shire in the north were most of the people were from Ohio.”
Dick and Sally with the real star of the Film – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang itself – and, right, talking at the Dorchester Hotel the day before filming began
Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes with James Robertson Justice at the start of the Toots Sweets musical number
Sally with the Potts Children played by Adrian Hall and Heather Ripley – who got on in real life as well as they did on film