The great switcheroo

Roald Dahl's career as a children's author is well known, and his phizz-whizzing heroes and demonic villains continue to delight and enchant new generations of readers.

But Dahl also had a lesser-known side, one that included military service, medical invention, adult-oriented novels and macabre short stories, and some of the darkest dramas ever to hit TV screens...

1942

Shot Down Over Libya

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Roald Dahl and Ernest Hemingway

Roald Dahl and fellow writer Ernest Hemingway during WW2.

Roald Dahl’s first writing commission, Shot Down Over Libya, was published anonymously in 1942 in The Saturday Evening Post. He was 26 years old.

In 1940, as a wartime pilot officer, Dahl had crash landed his biplane in the Libyan desert, sustaining injuries including a fractured skull. He was invalided home to Britain, and later sent to America. In Washington, DC he was encouraged by novelist CS Forester to recount his wartime experiences. The resulting piece, for which he was paid £1,000, was originally titled A Piece Of Cake, but when published was given a more dramatic title – even though Dahl had never been actually shot down.

Discover more about Roald Dahl's first short story

1946

Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying

Over To You by Roald Dahl

Over To You was Roald Dahl’s first short story collection.

A Piece Of Cake also appeared in Over To You, Dahl’s first collection of short stories. First published in 1946, it featured 10 stories about flying.

The tales in Over To You were based on Dahl's wartime experiences in the RAF, but were more fantasy than biography. He touched upon subjects including off-duty exploits, the pain of waiting for a lover to return from battle and, in They Shall Not Grow Old, the afterlife of pilots. Dahl was still finding his feet as a writer, and Over To You lacks the characterisation and suspense of his later works, but still showed elements of the dark fantasy he would later explore further.

Cilian Murphy reads an extract from the story Katina

1948

Some Time Never: A Fable for Supermen

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A US Navy ship poster from WW2 highlighted the dangers of so-called Gremlins.

Roald Dahl's first novel was a commercial and critical flop upon its publication. It was the first book about nuclear war to be published in the US.

The book, also known as Sometime Never, tells the story of Gremlins who had previously ruled the world but were forced underground by humans. Awaiting their chance to take over the world, they decide to wait until humans have self-destructed without their involvement. The book, a critique of atomic warfare, was never reprinted after its initial run in the US and UK, and Dahl later disowned it, describing it as a "ghastly book" and "not worth reading".

Dahl first wrote about Gremlins in 1943

Many years ago gremlins were the rulers of the world but were forced underground by humans, emerging only during the Battle of Britain...

Extract from Some Time Never

1953

Someone Like You

Someone Like You cover artwork (detail)

Detail from the first edition of Someone Like You.

Roald Dahl's 1953 short story collection Someone Like You explored his taste for the macabre, and showed his mastery of the plot twist ending.

Nine of the 18 stories, including Lamb To The Slaughter and Man From The South, were reprinted in his later collection Tales of the Unexpected, and some were dramatised in the television series of the same name. These are tales of murder, gambling, poison, surveillance and – in The Great Automatic Grammatizator – machines taking over. Dahl doesn't get much darker than this.

Richard E Grant reads an extract from Taste

1958-1961

Alfred Hitchcock Presents

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Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired on CBS and NBC between 1955 and 1965.

Between 1958 and 1961 Dahl adapted six of his stories for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a US television series featuring horror, suspense and terror.

Four of the six episodes were directed by Hitchcock himself. The most celebrated is perhaps Lamb To The Slaughter, in which a woman murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, later feeding it to the investigating police officers. The story was subsequently remade in the UK for Tales Of The Unexpected, and remains one of Dahl's best known works of adult fiction.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents at the IMDB

1960

Kiss Kiss

Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl

Kiss Kiss was first published in 1960 by Alfred A Knopf.

Eleven of Dahl's adult stories – four of which had previously been published by The New Yorker magazine – were brought together in 1960's Kiss Kiss.

The stories often use implication and suggestion instead of direct descriptions of horrific events, and contain the plot twists which had by now become Dahl's hallmark – including William And Mary, in which a dead man's brain and eye continue to operate in a laboratory after his death. The collection ends with The Champion of the World – later reworked as Dahl's 1977 children's book Danny the Champion of the World, which itself contained an early version of The BFG.

Read synopses of the stories in Kiss Kiss

He must live, Alois. He must, he must... Oh God, be merciful unto him now...

Klara prays for her ailing baby son Adolf, in Genesis and Catastrophe

1960

The Dahl-Wade-Till valve

Roald Dahl with inventor Stanley Wade

Roald Dahl and Stanley Wade look at their invention.

Dahl met Patricia Neal in 1951. They married two years after in New York, and had five children together: Olivia, Tessa, Theo, Ophelia and Lucy.

In December 1960, a pram containing Dahl's baby son Theo was hit by a taxi in New York City. He sustained serious head injuries, spent weeks in hospital and developed hydrocephalus - 'water on the brain'. Undeterred, Dahl enlisted a friend, toymaker and hydraulic engineer Stanley Wade, to help develop a valve to release the pressure on Theo's brain. Working with paediatric neurosurgeon Kenneth Till, they developed the Dahl-Wade-Till, which helped thousands of children worldwide.

Roald Dahl and the Curious Shunt

1961

Way Out

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Roald Dahl filming Way Out

Dahl (back) in Central Park, New York City, for an episode of Way Out, March 1961.

Dahl returned to US TV in 1961, after producer David Susskind asked him to front the sci-fi/horror anthology series Way Out.

The writer was well-known for his dark fantasies, and his slightly sinister demeanour made him a natural choice to provide a drily witty monologue to introduce each 25-minute episode – a role he reprised in Tales Of The Unexpected. Way Out began with one of his stories, William And Mary. The show was a hit among city viewers but proved less popular across middle America, and was cancelled by CBS after 14 episodes.

Inside the Dahl House of Horror

There was a hell of a rush. And there was always a rush subsequently. The whole thing was done at a hectic pace.

Roald Dahl on Way Out

1962

Tragedy

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Roald Dahl with his family, 1962

Roald Dahl, his wife Patricia, and their children Theo, Tessa and Olivia, 1962.

In November 1962, Dahl's eldest daughter Olivia contracted measles. The family was living once again in England, where no vaccine was available.

As the illness took its course, she complained of headaches and tiredness. Her mother alerted a doctor after Olivia suffered convulsions, and an ambulance was called. The unconscious child was rushed to nearby Stoke Mandeville Hospital, but the illness had developed into measles encephalitis, for which no cure exists. Olivia died the same day, 17 November. James and the Giant Peach and The BFG were both dedicated to the seven-year-old, and a photograph of her adorned a wall of his writing hut.

November 1962: Death of Olivia

I went in. Olivia lying quietly. Still unconscious. She has an even chance, doctor said. They had tapped her spine. Not meningitis. It’s encephalitis.

Roald Dahl, writing about visiting Olivia in hospital

1967-68

Screenplays

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Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka

The late Gene Wilder (left, with Peter Ostrum) in the film adaptation of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

1967 saw the author explore other forms of fiction writing – most notably in screenplays for motion pictures.

Writing for the silver screen saw Dahl adapt the James Bond novel You Only Live Twice – written by his fellow novelist and wartime friend Ian Fleming. The film was a box office success and would see Dahl adapt another Fleming novel for the big screen – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In 1971, Dahl penned two more films – The Night Digger and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The latter was based on Dahl’s own book, starred the late Gene Wilder and became a cult classic.

Gene Wilder: Star of Willy Wonka dies aged 83

1974

Switch Bitch

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Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal

Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal in 1974, the year Switch Bitch was published.

First published in Playboy magazine in 1965, Dahl’s stories of seduction and suspense later appeared in 1974 as a collection titled Switch Bitch.

The four stories – The Visitor, The Great Switcheroo, The Last Act, and Bitch – were intended for the author’s adult fanbase, and covered themes of desire, pleasure, sex and deception. Two of the stories in the collection feature one of the author’s most well-known characters – Uncle Oswald. In the story Bitch, Oswald transforms into a 7ft long penis that floats into space – very noticeably different from Dahl's children's fiction.

Roald Dahl's twisted, overlooked stories for adults

The rumours were so splendid and the hearsay so exotic that Oswald had long since become a shining hero and a legend to us all.

Extract from The Visitor

1979

My Uncle Oswald

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl

The character Uncle Oswald had previously appeared in Dahl's short stories The Visitor and Bitch.

One of Dahl’s most memorable characters, and again strictly for adult readers, was Uncle Oswald – making his third appearance in 1979.

Described by one critic as a “festival of bad taste” and “thoroughly juvenile fun”, My Uncle Oswald tells the story of Oswald Hendrycks Cornelius – a man Dahl describes as “the greatest fornicator of his time” – and his plan to steal the semen of some of the most powerful and richest men on the planet, and to sell it to women who desperately want a child. The author would later describe the book as “the longest and dirtiest story” he had ever written.

Read more about My Uncle Oswald

1979

Tales Of The Unexpected

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Roald Dahl

Tales Of The Unexpected ran for 112 episodes, until May 1988.

In 1979, British TV viewers got a taste of Dahl's dark side in Tales Of The Unexpected, for which he co-wrote a number of screenplays.

The long-running show aired from 1979 to 1988, although with decreasing involvement from Dahl. All nine episodes of series one, eight from series two and one from series three were based on his short stories. Dahl filmed introductory monologues for the first two series in which he explained his inspirations. A book of the same name, containing 16 of Dahl's stories, was also published in 1979; each had previously appeared in magazines, and in the collections Someone Like You and Kiss Kiss.

Tales Of The Unexpected on IMBD

I ought to warn you, if you haven’t read any of my stories, that you may be a little disturbed by some of the things that happen in them.

From Dahl’s introduction to Man From The South

1986

Two Fables

Two fables 01

Two Fables was published by Penguin in London, and Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in the USA.

To mark Roald Dahl's 70th birthday, the book Two Fables was released. It was the last collection of adult short stories published in his lifetime.

The two stories, written by Dahl especially for the collection, and illustrated in black and white by Graham Dean, were The Princess and the Poacher and Princess Mammalia. Existing only as a limited run, the book is now out of print and the two stories have never been printed anywhere else.

Completing Dahl: Two Fables

2016

The Roald Dahl rose

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Roald Dahl rose

The peach-coloured bloom debuted at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May 2016.

As part of the celebrations to mark 100 years since the author’s birth, a new rose was developed and called the Roald Dahl (Ausowlish).

The rose was selected by Liccy Dahl after she suggested naming a rose after her late husband to gardening expert Alan Titchmarsh. She said: “I focused on what Roald’s passions were, and gardening of course was one. It was a natural next step to name a rose after him as it has universal resonance around the world just like the man himself.” Helping in its selection was its peach colouring, as it matches that of Dahl’s first success as a children’s novelist – James and the Giant Peach.

The gloriumptious Roald Dahl Rose