The very first film I saw in the cinema was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I remember two things about the occasion – one was that we were taken to the pick ’n’ mix in Woolies and actually allowed to choose our own sweets (I went for Cherry Lips). The other was the moment when Chitty drove off the edge of the cliff and the whole building rang with howls, first of fear and then frustration as the image froze and the word ‘Intermission’ blazed across the screen. I sat through the next ten minutes not even looking at the sweets I’d so carefully picked and mixed, just waiting for the film to start up again.
It was the day I discovered that a story could be even better than Cherry Lips!
Even now, whenever I come across a really heart-stopping moment in a script or a story I always think of it as a ‘Chitty falls off the cliff’.
Because I didn’t want the film to be over, I followed the car’s smoky trail to the library and found Ian Fleming’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car, which he’d written for his son, Caspar, in 1964. I thought that if I read it I would see the whole film again inside my head. I was taken aback to discover that the book was very, very different from the film. The mum isn’t dead. There’s a different villain. There’s a recipe for fudge! I suppose this must have been the moment I learned that films and books – even when they’re telling the same story – each have a different kind of enchantment. And that there might be more than one – or more than a hundred – ways to tell the same story. As the old Tuscan proverb says, ‘The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added.’ Which obviously brings us to the idea of a sequel.
I have no idea what made the Flemings think of asking me to write the sequel. I haven’t asked them in case it’s all a case of mistaken identity. I wasn’t sure whether to say yes at first, but when I mentioned it at supper in my house, any doubts I might have had about whether the book actually needed a sequel were shouted down. Everyone wanted me to do this. So I went back to the book for the first time since I was a boy and was delighted to discover that, first of all, it’s really good and, secondly, it’s crying out for a sequel. The original book ends with the car heading off into the sunset with the family on board. They were surely going to have more adventures. But Fleming sadly died before he could say what those adventures might be.
It’s also one of the very few stories in which the whole family goes off on the adventure – usually children have to be sent away to school or evacuated or bereaved or fall through a time vortex before an adventure can start. I liked the challenge of creating a children’s story with proper adult characters and relationships in it.
Finally I was absolutely thrilled to discover that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a real car, built by Count Zborowski in an attempt to break the world land-speed record in 1921. I’ve had a lot of fun – and am planning to have a lot more – just kicking this story up and down the pitch, with history at one end and fantasy at the other, mixing up the real history of aristocratic motor racing with the details of motor mechanics and the silly magic of a flying car. Somewhere in amongst all the fun, though, I found it strangely emotional to go and revisit that boy with the bag of Cherry Lips and ask if he could help me restore an old-fashioned contraption and make it fly again.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again publishes in hardback and on ebook on 4 November 2011