'To Olivia' star Hugh Bonneville: Roald Dahl has an 'incredible legacy' (exclusive)

Tom Beasley
·Contributor
·9 min read

Watch: Hugh Bonneville on his introduction to Roald Dahl and the author's legacy

Hugh Bonneville said the 'timeless' work of Roald Dahl keeps people coming back and ensures that his stories will be adapted forever.

The 57-year-old Downton Abbey star, who plays Dahl in new movie To Olivia, told Yahoo Entertainment UK: "What he created in that hut with the yellow door was remarkable."

Read more: Warner Bros pressing ahead with Wonka prequel

The movie, directed by John Hay, depicts Dahl and his wife — Hollywood star Patricia Neal (Keeley Hawes) — in the aftermath of the death of their daughter Olivia, who passed away aged seven in 1962 due to encephalitis caused by measles.

It follows the grief-stricken couple as they try to deal with the tragedy, with Dahl focusing on writing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory while Neal takes on what would become an Oscar-winning role alongside Paul Newman in Hud.

Hugh Bonneville portrays beloved author Roald Dahl in 'To Olivia'. (Credit: Thing One Ltd/Sky Cinema)
Hugh Bonneville portrays beloved author Roald Dahl in To Olivia. (Thing One Ltd/Sky Cinema)

"I didn't read Dahl as much as a child as I did other books," admitted Bonneville.

"But I do remember as a teenager latching on to some of his short stories and finding them wonderfully twisted and dark and going into areas I hadn't come across with other authors pitching at that age group."

Read more: Which Roald Dahl movie is the most beloved?

He added: "This sense of the macabre and the danger lurking in the background, which is present of course even in the books aimed at younger readers, I think is really what sets him apart and makes him — impish is too soft a word — this devilish author.

"You underestimate children's readers at your peril. They're much more sophisticated and enjoy the darker areas of the imagination much more than sanitised editors might think."

'To Olivia'. (Credit: Thing One Ltd/Sky Cinema)
To Olivia. (Thing One Ltd/Sky Cinema)

Bonneville said that the raft of new Dahl-related content, including last year's adaptation of The Witches and the upcoming big screen take on the Matilda musical are testament to the author's enduring appeal.

"I think the stories and the characters he creates are timeless. They invite the adult in us to become young again," he said.

Read more: Why Roald Dahl hated Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie

"He was able to become childlike, never patronised his younger audience and he really latched on to the fact children like to laugh at grown-ups a lot. They also, as I said earlier, like to explore the darker crannies of story-making.

"It's an incredible legacy that he's left and it's great that these new media are able to keep those stories going in yet new ways."

Read the full interview with Hugh Bonneville in which he discusses the criticism of Roald Dahl's views and the unexpected resonance of To Olivia during the COVID-19 pandemic...

Yahoo Entertainment UK: Obviously, Roald Dahl is such a significant figure for so many people. Was there a trepidation about taking on the challenge of playing him?

Hugh Bonneville: I suppose so, yes. When you know an author or a character you're playing is known and respected by millions of people, there's a little bit of a responsibility there. But ultimately you're doing a fiction.

I didn't know anything about Roald Dahl's family life or his background at all. So it was a quick dive into that world which I am delighted that I did because I hadn't read either Boy, which is his memoir about childhood, or Going Solo, about when he was in the RAF in the war. That was a really enjoyable exploration of his autobiography and then obviously the biographies. The one on which the film is based, which is a biography of Patricia Neal, was particularly illuminating. You realise that there's an awful lot about the character that I never would've guessed by reading the stories and the books. It was a great education for me.

You mentioned not having read the memoirs, but has Dahl been significant to you? Do you have a favourite Dahl story?

Well I wouldn't pretend to be an aficionado at all. I didn't read Dahl as much as a child as I did other books. But I do remember as a teenager latching on to some of his short stories and finding them wonderfully twisted and dark and going into areas I hadn't come across with other authors pitching at that age group. In fact, they were more adult short stories.

Then I migrated into Tales of the Unexpected and things like that. So this sense of the macabre and the danger lurking in the background, which is present of course even in the books aimed at younger readers, I think is really what sets him apart and makes him — impish is too soft a word — this devilish author. You underestimate children's readers at your peril. They're much more sophisticated and enjoy the darker areas of the imagination much more than sanitised editors might think.

Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal in 1968. (Photo by David Farrell/Getty Images)
Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal in 1968. (Getty Images)

It's interesting because, of course, Dahl has that twisted element which is discussed in the film. But there's also the side of Dahl in which he has been criticised in recent years for some of his views and some ideas that have aged less well than others. Were those elements something you were thinking of while playing him?

To be honest, I hadn't read the article which was so inflammatory and indeed the comments Dahl made later in life. That article, I think, was written 20 years after the events of this film and to be perfectly honest I was focusing on the 1960s. That's not to in any way apologise for him. Those views are despicable, if held true, and no one can condone them.

I think this is interesting. There is a huge conversation going on more nationally about culture and tone and history and views that are held, which are unpalatable. How does one hold in balance the views of an author or an artist or a creator of culture, versus what they produce? Do we have to cancel one out, etc? I'm not in a position or qualified to speak about that necessarily. I just feel that part of my job is to show a character as warts and all as possible and as honestly as possible, so that's what we aimed to do in the film.

It wasn't even a discussion we had because, to be honest, it was not relevant to the journey of grief, which is what this film is about. And I certainly wouldn't go as far as saying one shouldn't make a film about that journey of grief because of something the author said 20 years later.

Hugh Bonneville as Roald Dahl in 'To Olivia'. (Credit: Sky Cinema)
Hugh Bonneville as Roald Dahl in To Olivia. (Sky Cinema)

Well that's an element of this film that I found fascinating, given the times that we're in. This is a film essentially about creativity in the midst of immense grief, which is something people in this and other industries are dealing with during the times we're in now - having to try to remain creative at a time of immense grief.

It's interesting, isn't it? You never expect a film to resonate in a particular way when it comes out. When we made the film, which was pre-lockdown and pre-pandemic, we obviously knew the underlying themes of it but we didn't think that they'd land in the way that they are.

The two really big resonances for me are that we as a nation and as a world are going through immense pain and have been bereft, either physically and literally by having lost people who have been taken before their time, or indeed for our own lives. We have been robbed of our own lives, of our normal lives, for over a year now. We feel we're inching towards the light but we don't know that yet.

That is exactly the trajectory of this film. A couple who go through the worst pain imaginable — the loss of a child — and you sort of feel for them because you feel they're never going to be able to get out of this. Actually, it does chart the progress of that — and it is progress and there is light at the end of that tunnel and there is, in their case, this great creative energy. Obviously, we have inevitably played with the timeline of things, but the sense of it is that out of this did come the great gifts of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and, around this time also, the great gifts of Patricia's career being crowned with an Oscar.

Hugh Bonneville and Keeley Hawes as Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal in To Olivia (Sky Cinema)
Hugh Bonneville and Keeley Hawes as Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal in To Olivia. (Sky Cinema)

I have no doubt whatsoever that, through this great loss that we are all experiencing, when the time is right and when it's appropriate and safe, there will be a massive energy explosion in the creative arts and in all sorts of life and the economy, please God. I think the energy that is pent up and the need to resuscitate and explore all of those areas of culture and imagination which have been locked up for so long will burst forth.

You can think back to Shakespeare's time and the Plague, when the theatres were shut and then they burst open again with great new plays. I think the same energy is going to be with us very soon.

To look overall at Dahl, I wanted to ask. We have this film, there was a version of The Witches last year, the Matilda musical is going great guns when theatres are back open, it's getting a movie of its own, there's loads of stuff coming on Netflix. What keeps people coming back to Dahl and keeps his stuff going and going?

Oh I think the stories and the characters he creates are timeless. They invite the adult in us to become young again. That was his greatest skill I think. He was able to become childlike, never patronised his younger audience and he really latched on to the fact children like to laugh at grown-ups a lot. They also, as I said earlier, like to explore the darker crannies of story-making.

What he created in that hut with the yellow door was remarkable. It's an incredible legacy that he's left and it's great that these new media are able to keep those stories going in yet new ways.

To Olivia, a Sky Original film, airs on Sky Cinema and NOW TV from 19 February.