Wednesday 16 October 2019

Miss Dahl writes her own story

As a curvaceous plus-size model, Sophie Dahl sparked endless debate about the female figure, as a writer, she could not escape the shadow of her grandfather Roald's genius. Now, as a TV chef exciting comparisons to Nigella Lawson, she appears to have all the right ingredients, says Emily Hourican

Emily Hourican

The world loved Sophie Dahl even before she properly inhabited it. As the little girl with the big eyes in grandfather Roald Dahl's BFG, she was a part of many childhoods, a captivating character in the vivid, hilarious, often disturbing, fantasy land he created. Then, as a plus-size model -- "I had enormous tits, an even bigger arse, and a perfectly round face with plump, smiling cheeks," is how she has described herself -- she became a focal point for the super-skinny debate and an unwitting, even unwilling, champion of the aspirations of women who didn't fit the skeletal fashion stereotype.

That famous ad for YSL Opium, in which Sophie sprawls, naked, on black satin, wearing nothing but a pair of gold shoes and jewellery, a glorious vision of abundant, abandoned, alabaster female flesh, was banned by the UK Advertising Standards Authority for being "degrading" and "offensive to women". In fact, it was simply too raunchy, too disturbingly erotic. In a fashion world where anodyne and androgynous are the normal representations of women, Sophie's poster stood right out, raunchy sexual fantasy rather than social aspiration. "I didn't know I was different," she has insisted. "It wasn't until the wave of commentary began that I thought: oh Christ, I am."

But as her weight dropped from a curvaceous size 14 to a more standard 10, Sophie's unique appeal diminished, and she gradually segued out of modelling into writing -- first a kind of grown-up fairytale, then a novel, followed by a cookery book -- and into her latest incarnation, The Delicious Miss Dahl, the title of her own BBC2 cookery programme about which the critics have been less than kind.

As a cook, she excites comparisons with Nigella Lawson, as a writer she couldn't escape the burden of family. Her mother, Tessa, is a writer, and although direct comparisons with grandfather Roald were generally tactfully avoided, his shadow inevitably hovered over her work. "It's something that I've had to have a sense of humour about," she has said. "Because if I was really to take that bait, I wouldn't do a thing. That legacy is so huge, and I will never pretend to be capable of that... I'm in as much awe of him as a writer as anyone else." Not only was Roald one of the greatest children's writers ever, he was also a dashing, memorable character -- handsome, clever, daring and not always kind.

A recent biography suggested that Dahl spent much of the Second World War as an RAF attache in the States, sleeping with society beauties and passing on whatever bits of intelligence he gleaned from pillow talk. His second wife, Felicity Crosland, when asked about the likelihood of these stories, described him as the "sexiest seducer in Washington" and opined that they were true. "He was wildly attractive and handsome, in his RAF uniform, speaking English, a fighter pilot -- completely seductive. And he was charming and intelligent. A lot of women fell for him."

But he could also be tough going. Sophie has described him as "a very difficult man -- very strong, very dominant... not unlike the father of the Mitford sisters sort of roaring round the house with these very loud opinions, banning certain types -- foppish boys, you know -- from coming round." Difficult is something of a euphemism here; "Roald the Rotten" was one of his nicknames, given for his occasional bouts of cruelty and intolerance.

In mitigation, there was plenty of tragedy as well as dash and glamour in his life. Although Sophie is the character in The BFG, the book is actually dedicated to Olivia, Roald's eldest daughter, who died of measles encephalitis when she was just seven. It was a death that tragically referenced that of his sister, Astri, who was also seven when she died of appendicitis. That death broke Roald's father, who himself passed away just a month later from pneumonia. Although Roald was only three at the time, those two deaths would make a huge impact on him, introducing the possibility of danger, even horror, into the magical world of childhood. A certain darkness was very much part of his vision, obvious in the ferocious cruelty of James Henry Trotter's sadistic aunts, Sponge and Spiker, in James and the Giant Peach, as well as in the resolutely not happy-ever-after ending of The Witches. Bad things, he knew, can happen, and children need to be prepared for them.

After his father died, Dahl was sent away to a series of boarding schools from the age of eight, at most of which he was miserable and homesick. His nickname as a child was Apple, because he was his mother's favourite, and he wrote to her every single day, but never told how lonely he felt, although some of the most distressing episodes from this period appeared in his autobiography Boy: Tales of Childhood. These are no worse than the rather brutal norm for the English public school system of the time, but may well be what inspired his innate respect for children and determination never to talk down to them. He never stood out as a particularly talented writer while at school; in fact, in one report his English teacher wrote: "I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended."

Roald, whose parents were Norwegian, married American actress Patricia Neal, winner of a best actress Oscar in 1963 for Hud. When she met Dahl, at a dinner party hosted by Lillian Hellman, Neal was recovering from a breakdown brought on by the end of her long affair with Gary Cooper. Although they were together for 30 years, Neal later confessed in her autobiography, As I Am, that she knew she didn't love Dahl from the moment they married in 1953 but she wanted to have "beautiful children" with him. They did indeed have five beautiful children, but disaster came coupled with delight.

Even before Olivia's sad death, baby Theo, just four months old, was hit by a taxi in New York and badly injured, suffering brain damage. Just a couple of years later, Patricia had a series of debilitating strokes while giving Tessa, her second daughter, a bath. She was left paralysed and unable to speak, and Dahl virtually forced her back to health, behaving in a way that was both heroic, and almost sadistic. He also continued to produce a formidable body of work, run the house and care for the children too.

Although Patricia recovered, the marriage didn't survive. He began an affair with Felicity Crosland, a divorced set designer with three young children, that lasted 11 years, until they got married, and then another seven until his death. To Patricia's fury, their children mostly knew of and condoned the affair. Ophelia Dahl, who was 14 when her parents divorced in 1983, later said "all of us realised that he had found the love of his life with Liccy (Felicity) and there's always a sense of relief when that happens".

Dahl's children undoubtedly suffered from the swift series of fateful blows that fell upon the family, though arguably more so from Dahl's irascible temperament. He was both protective and manipulative, controlling and kind; a tough combination for any child to crack.

Tessa, next eldest after Olivia (with whom she was frequently compared and found wanting by her adored father), and mother of Sophie, certainly played out the classic trajectory of attention-seeking wild child; "in our family you got attention only if you were brain damaged or dead, or terribly ill. There was no reward for being normal," she once said. And so Tessa turned her back on normal.

She, like her mother, like her daughter, was a great beauty, and became a gossip column fixture while still very young for dating Peter Sellers and Brian de Palma, among others. She developed a hard drug habit and struggled with manic depression, to the point that, though undoubtedly talented as a writer, she has so far only produced one adult novel, Working for Love; although a second is apparently on the way and she has been sober for several years now.

Sophie is her eldest daughter, from a short affair with actor Julian Holloway when Tessa was 19, and was a child-appendage to a chaotic, often sad life, lived in the frantic pursuit of happiness, or at least peace, in many different places. Tessa married twice, both short-lived, and has three other children. In 1997 she attempted suicide with a bottle of vodka and her last gram of cocaine, but fell into a coma instead and was found, although it took her nearly two years to recover physically.

As a child, Sophie was sent to 10 different schools and lived in 17 homes (including in London, New York, and an ashram in India) as her mother searched for meaning and love. Tessa's moods were ungovernable, and for a long time she was too fragile to care for her children, who mercifully had a fixed point in their nanny Maureen Noble.

The passing of a generation will often transmute family relationships, smoothing and easing them, and so another fixed point was grandfather Roald, who provided stability and comfort as an antidote to the forlorn wanderings of Sophie's daily life. He had an old gypsy caravan in his garden, which Sophie and her friends used as a playhouse. "It was brutally uncomfortable and really cold, but I would stay in there with my friends and so we'd have midnight feasts of chocolate in bed. Then in the morning we'd appear in the house and he'd make us all breakfast." Unsurprisingly, Sophie describes him in this guise as "wonderful. Really wonderful."

There was a slightly disturbing degree of romantic cross-over between mother and daughter. Men whom Tessa had dated would ring the family home to ask Sophie out, while Tessa once had an affair with a friend of Sophie's. There was clearly a spark of competition between them, and yet Sophie has no time for bitterness or recriminations. Although she has spoken of how she longed for stability as a child, Sophie has only kind things to say about her mother.

"I have a great deal of admiration for my mum. I think she's incredibly strong and she's coped with a great, great deal, and she's managed to have a huge sense of humour and compassion. She's made her depression public, so I'm not telling tales out of school, but she's had a very hard time of it."

And she can appreciate the magic of her unconventional childhood, that there was plenty of love amidst the chaos. Despite teenage bouts of anorexia and depression, as well as the constant moving, she recalls her young years as happy and fulfilled.

It was a row with her mother that led to Sophie's modelling career. Having failed her A-levels ("I didn't really go to school very much"), her parents refused to let her study art history in Florence, insisting she do a secretarial course and get a job to prove her worth instead. So Sophie stood in the streets, crying, and was rescued by the eccentric visionary Isabella Blow, who hopped out of a taxi, wearing "a Philip Treacy hat and a McQueen corset", and opened the door to Sophie's future.

Within weeks she had been signed to Storm and embarked on the career that was to make her instantly famous. Her name helped, her association with the much-loved children's book too, as did a number of romantic interests and her high-profile dates with Mick Jagger, when she was in her early 20s and he in his late 50s -- but, ultimately, Sophie's considerable charm is all her own. That she didn't crack under the extreme pressure of public scrutiny is proof of her strength of character, and that she has successfully extended her shelf-life beyond what's usual for a model by changing career, testimony to her imagination and tenacity. In fact, she insists that writing is what she always wanted to do, and that modelling was more of an aberration than an ambition.

The public may be fascinated, but the press are not always kind about Sophie Dahl. Maybe it's her flawless beauty; her poshness and appearance of entitlement; the way she was, in the first interviews she gave when she was 18 and new to the scene, almost gushingly open, and now, having learned the hard way, she has become really quite cagey. Whatever the reason, she seems to attract more than her fair share of barbs.

When she started dating jazz singer Jamie Cullum, whom she married last year, the pair were slagged for the height difference; she is 6ft, he just 5ft6in, which of course is a gap the size of Everest when the taller partner is a woman.

Her bid to make a career as a TV home chef hasn't been entirely successful either. She gets slated for being too like Nigella, for being insufficiently handy in the kitchen, for not being in her own kitchen but instead an expensive London show house currently on the market, for her choice of recipes and snatches of literary quotation. And yes, the show is badly produced and packaged -- way too much of a cookie-cutter lifestyle programme -- but the critics are missing the point.

Beyond all those retro-chic interiors and cream-coloured four-door Agas, Sophie herself is actually very good. She is natural, sweet-natured and even funny, with an appealing self-awareness. Beyond her difficult, brilliant grandfather and her compelling, tragic mother, Sophie is now perfectly ready to be herself.

Sunday Independent

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