Why Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory infuriated Roald Dahl – and terrified its cast

Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory - Alamy

Was it really as scary as it looked in that tunnel with Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka? That’s something fans often ask the “Wonka kids” – the now grown-up golden ticket winners from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “Yes,” says Julie Dawn Cole, the film’s terribly spoiled madam and all-round bag egg, Veruca Salt. “It was scary.”

In the story, based on the novel by Roald Dahl, the kids win a trip to Wonka’s factory, an industrialised, indulgent paradise where all your scrummiest dreams come true, but where children are also sent to the furnace – presumably burned alive – or inflated like giant blueberries for brattish misdemeanours. And the kids are all rotters, all except the pure-hearted Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum).

Released in 1971 – and now getting the prequel treatment with Wonka, starring Timothée Chalamet as a young Willy Wonka – the original film is an off-kilter fairy tale, as personified by Wilder’s mercurial, whimsy peddling performance.

It tips fully into the arena of childhood trauma when Wonka takes the kids along the chocolate river and into that tunnel on his Oompa Loompa-steered boat, the SS Wonkatania. Wonka – like the ingredients of his marshmallow room – has a meltdown. Sickening images flash onto the tunnel walls while Wonka recites a verse – “There is no earthly way of knowing, which direction we are going” – that escalates into a blood (and chocolate) curdling screech, with a golden ticket-like glint of malice in his eyes. “We didn’t know he was going to deliver it like that,” recalls Julie Dawn Cole about filming the scene.

Indeed, there was a touch of real-life Wonka to both Gene Wilder and director Mel Stuart. During production – based in Munich – Stuart kept real surprises around every corner of the factory, while Wilder stunned his co-stars with unexpected outbursts and pratfalls. To create the boat sequence, the SS Wonkatania was hoisted up onto a scaffold. The actors sat in the boat for hours, not even allowed a toilet break, as the images were projected onto a cinema-sized screen: a millipede crawling over a man’s face, a giant eye, a chicken decapitated. Cole, writing in her memoir, I Want It Now, remembered even worse images that didn’t make the edit, including “one of a large-bore needle being injected into an arm”.

Afterwards, Denise Nickerson – playing habitual gum-chewer Violet Beauregarde – asked, “And they say this is a kids movie?” But – as Wonka himself might say – strike that, reverse it. Mel Stuart had an aversion to childish things. He made Willy Wonka for adults and believed that was the secret ingredient in the film’s longevity. “It’s my strong feeling that children are very bright,” he said. “They’re very smart, they’re very hip, and will get all the references in the picture.”

But Willy Wonka did not hit the sweet spot for everyone. It was a box office dud. Roald Dahl himself had a distaste for it. “A rather crummy film,” he said. Dahl wasn’t alone. The film’s song writing duo, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, Oscar-nominated for the song score, hated what Stuart did with their musical numbers, though the songs – particularly the Oompa Loompa song, Pure Imagination and I’ve Got a Golden Ticket – are cultural touchstones.

The idea for a Willy Wonka film first came from Mel Stuart’s 10-year-old daughter, Madeline, after she read Dahl’s 1964 novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Stuart took to it David L Wolper, a TV and documentary producer, who struck a deal with Quaker Oats to stump up a bitesize budget of $2.9 million. The film was essentially an oversized advert. Quaker planned to launch a tie-in chocolate bar – an actual Wonka Bar – but the chocolate never made it to shelves.

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka and Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka and Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket - Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Stuart took the production to Munich to give it a “storybook quality”. The Bavarian locale does give the effect of a contemporary Brothers Grimm tale – a timeless, not-quite-reality in which the chocolate factory looms over the town like a cursed, whispered-about castle. It’s fortuitous, however, that Charlie – too poor to afford a Scrumdiddlyumptious bar – lives down the road from the world-famous factory.

As for the mystery man himself – Mr Willy Wonka – Roald Dahl wanted Spike Milligan or Peter Sellers. Sellers apparently begged Dahl for the role.

Songwriter Leslie Bricusse later said that Fred Astaire – then 70 – also wanted to play Wonka. Astaire claimed that the filmmakers had turned him down. Bricusse admitted he was always “testy” about having missed a chance to work with Astaire on the film. But Mel Stuart denied that Astaire had been in the running. He wanted Gene Wilder from the moment Wilder walked through the door. At this point Wilder had appeared in Mel Brooks’s The Producers – released in 1967 and eventually a cult comedy favourite – but Brooks was on a run of box office failures.

Wilder was unsure and took the part on one condition. During Wonka’s first appearance at the factory gates – a full 45 minutes in – he wanted to limp out with a cane, then shock everyone by falling and forward-rolling up onto his feet. “From that time on, no one will know whether I’m lying or telling the truth,” Wilder said.

“That was the first scene I shot,” says Julie Dawn Cole, “We weren’t told he was going to do that. I thought, ‘Oh he’s limping, I hope that doesn’t hold up filming!’”

Julie Dawn Cole as Veruca Salt
Julie Dawn Cole as Veruca Salt - Allstar Picture Library Limited. / Alamy Stock Photo

Cole remembers Wilder as “lovely, kind, and fun to be around… not zany”. He’d regale them with theatrical stories while song-and-dance man Jack Albertson, playing Charlie’s Grandpa Joe, entertained them with old vaudeville tricks. “We’d sit on their laps and have story time,” says Cole.

Some of the film’s smartest moments come before Wonka’s big entrance, as the world is gripped by a mania over the golden tickets: the woman who won’t give up her Wonka Bars to pay her kidnapped husband’s ransom, and an auction for the last case of Wonka Bars in the UK, which attracts an unlikely bidder (“Your Majesty!”) In another gag that sums up the film’s darker, mischievous streak, a photo of a fraudster who claims to have found a golden ticket is actually Martin Bormann, the personal secretary of Adolf Hitler.

Mel Stuart’s son, Peter Stuart, remembers going for a picnic in a Munich park with his father and Gene Wilder. Stuart and Wilder, both Jewish, would play a jokey game of “spot the Nazi” with the local Germans – then just 25 years after the Second World War. “I remember it being hysterical,” says Peter. “They’d point out people and go, ‘Oh, he’s definitely one!’”

Roald Dahl was less amused by the filmmaking experience. He’d sold the book rights on the condition that he could write the screenplay himself. But Dahl – always too precious and curmudgeonly when working in movies – wanted to film his novel as it was. Mel Stuart recalled Dahl turning in a draft that would have come to two-and-a-half hours. David Seltzer, a ghost writer on the film, told it slightly differently: that Dahl had arrived on set with just 14 pages on script, with notes to refer to the book. “He fell out famously with Mel Stuart and David Wolper,” says Julie Dawn Cole. “He just walked off production.”

The casting of the Oompa Loompas was highly controversial
The casting of the Oompa Loompas was highly controversial - Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Stuart and Wolper hired Seltzer for rewrites, giving him a start in movies, but also on a condition: Seltzer wouldn’t be credited at all. Having Roald Dahl’s name attached as screenwriter was too much of a coup for the filmmakers. Seltzer’s rewrites included welcome additions, particularly a subplot in which a rival sweet maker, Slugworth, who wants the kids to steal the formula for Wonka’s industry-changing Everlasting Gobstopper – a moral dilemma for the morally indifferent brats.

According to Mel Stuart’s book – the aptly named Pure Imagination – Dahl got word that Seltzer was changing his script and summoned Stuart to his home Great Missenden. Dahl read the revised script and agreed with the changes. Stuart may have been diplomatic in his retelling. Dahl biographer Donald Sturrock wrote that Dahl “loathed” Stuart. “Dahl had resentment towards anybody changing his story,” says Stuart’s son, Peter Stuart. “But Seltzer was a nobody. You can imagine – Dahl writes the book and first draft and some 25-year-old comes in and changes his lines.”

One change from page-to-screen was absolutely necessary – the Oompa Loompas. In the original novel, Wonka’s workforce were black pygmies – imported from the African jungle and paid in cocoa beans. When production was announced, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) complained to the filmmakers. Dahl was stunned by the accusations of racism;  interestingly, Dahl had originally intended to make the character of Charlie Bucket black too.

The book became – as described by Donald Sturrock – “something of a cause célèbre”. Dahl changed the Oompa Loompas’ skin to “rosy-white” in subsequent printings, while Mel Stuart had the idea to make them orange dwarves with green hair in the movie. Finding actors to play Oompa Loompas was difficult. Stuart’s son, Peter, then 10 years old, had to fill in. “Sometimes they’d be short on Oompa Loompas and paint my face orange and put me in a scene,” he says. What were the Oompa Loompas like? “I was 10. I think I was intimidated by them,” he says.

Off-kilter: Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka and the Oompa Loompas
Off-kilter: Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka and the Oompa Loompas - Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Peter appears in other scenes (“A Scrumdiddlyumptious bar? How does he do it?”) and spent afternoons playing around the Chocolate Room set. The Chocolate Room is very much the sweet centre of the film: a factory floor-cum-meadow with a chocolate river and waterfall, where giant gummy bears hang from trees, lollipops sprout from the ground, and everything is edible – even the daffodils. “It was fantastical, just magical,” says Peter. Overgrown kids who grew up on the film can likely taste it: tangible textures, long-imagined flavours on the tip of the tongue.

The Chocolate Room was the work of production designer Harper Goff. Mel Stuart wanted to capture the kids’ real surprise so held back the reveal of the Chocolate Room until the moment they shot the scene. Though the set was off limits, Julie Dawn Cole had got a sneak peek when she’d visited the studio to record her musical number, I Want It Now (the true banger of the Willy Wonka soundtrack).

Getting to see the Chocolate Room first is a very Veruca Salt thing to do. Veruca is the most delightfully odious of all the golden ticket winners, stomping around and demanding she gets everything she wants – and gets it before anyone else – as her permanently-exasperated, about-to-blow-a-gasket father (Roy Kinnear) trundles behind. Cole didn’t confess to Stuart that she’d seen the Chocolate Room until a 35th anniversary reunion. He responded with “colourful expletives”.

It’s in the Chocolate Room that Wonka sings the film’s finest song, the nostalgia-tinkling Pure Imagination (reprised in the new film by Timothée Chalamet). The notes somehow float in the ether, capable of carrying you back to childhood. Peter Stuart credits the orchestration by composer Walter Scharf. It would take a Slugworth-like heart of darkness to not be illuminated by Pure Imagination, though songwriters Bricusse and Newley hated what Stuart did with it. “They were invited to go to an early screening – they hated it,” says Garth Bardsley, author of the Anthony Newley biography, Stop the World. They particularly hated how Stuart broke up Pure Imagination, with Wilder moseying around the Chocolate Room between the verses and chomps on edible flowers.

Squalid: the chocolate river in the Chocolate Room
Squalid: the chocolate river in the Chocolate Room - Allstar Picture Library Limited. / Alamy Stock Photo

“They thought Pure Imagination was going to be the big hit,” says Bardsley, also a lyricist and songwriter. “They thought they’d written the most beautiful song. And it is – exquisite and clever and childish. It just transports you. It didn’t work out like that. What pissed them off is that the song didn’t get sung. Gene Wilder – in his wobbly, non-singing, not-terribly beautiful-voice – would do a trick and the song would pick up again. The song never got an outing in the movie. That kind of stymied it.”

Newley and Bricusse were also irritated by the performance of The Candy Man, sung by actor Aubrey Woods. “Bless his heart, they had nothing good to say about him!” says Bardsley.  “Newley offered to come in and sing it for free in that scene, but the filmmakers thought it would unbalance the movie.” But the song became a number one hit for Sammy Davis Jr in 1972.

Not everything can be to everyone’s tastes, of course. Julie Dawn Cole recalls having to crack open a watermelon and scoop out the chocolatey centre. “It was filled with a horrible chocolate blancmange thing,” Cole laughs. “It was cold, wet, and slimy.” Most obviously unappetising is Wonka’s chocolate river – thin and dirty looking. It was concocted with 150,000 gallons of water and a powder used to make chocolate ice cream. But it stunk up the soundstage and further chemicals had to be added.

“In real life it was disgusting,” confirms Peter Stuart. That doesn’t stop the porkiest of the kids, Augustus Gloop, from scooping the chocolate into his mouth – at which point he falls into the river and gets guzzled up into a pipe. “The suspense is terrible,” says Wonka, watching Augustus stuck. “I hope it’ll last.” The boy is rocketed to the fudge room – possibly melted in a vat.

Unlike in Dahl’s book, the fates of the children are never revealed. The suggestion, bubbling beneath the chocolate, is that the kids’ accidents – dropping off the tour one-by-one – are not accidents at all, but carefully planned punishments. “Stop, don’t, come back,” says Wonka, droll and totally unbothered, as the irritating Mike Teevee willingly jumps in front of a miniaturising laser gun. Indeed, Wonka is razor sharp. “What is this, Wonka, some kind of fun house?” asks Mr Salt at one point. “Why?” he replies. “Having fun?”

It’s easy to label Gene Wilder’s performance dark, but that’s like boiling down a Scrumdiddlyumptious to the most basic ingredient. It’s a performance that – like Wonka himself – operates on different planes of reality: a pied piper who lures the kids not just with the promise of sweeties, but off-beat asides and literary quotes – many of which came from Wilder himself. “We are the music makers,” he says, quoting Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode. “And we are the dreamers of dreams.” With his golden tickets, Wonka promises to pull back the curtain but doesn’t – not until the end, at least, when he reveals to Charlie that it was all a ruse – a plan to find a child with enough heart to take over the factory when Wonka retires.

Stuart still needed a final line for the film. By that point, David Seltzer had left production and was going fishing when a payphone rang. Stuart was on the other end from Germany and demanded a final line. Seltzer gave him the first thing that came to mind. “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he ever wanted,” Wonka tells Charlie. “He lived happily ever after.”

Day dream believer: Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum and Gene Wilder
Day dream believer: Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum and Gene Wilder - Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Released on June 30, 1971, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory made just $4 million. “There was a review that said ‘Mel Stuart clearly doesn’t like chocolate and doesn’t understand sweetness,’” recalls Peter. “Nothing hurt him more. He was a chocolate maniac.”

“I’m not sure I even spoke about the film again until the late 1980s when the cult status started to grow,” says Cole.

In 2005, Tim Burton directed his own version, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – an empty, heartless film with Johnny Depp as Wonka. Gene Wilder thought it was “an insult”. Burton – for all his Gothic style – can’t touch the more sinister edge of the original.

The film’s status grew enough that Stuart would compete with his cousin, the Marvel Comics head honcho Stan Lee. “They used to have monthly lunches and one time they started arguing who was more famous – Spider-Man or Willy Wonka,” laughs Peter, “They went around the restaurant asking people.”

Certainly, Stuart understood the film’s power to put you back to being a kid. “He used to call himself Mr Wonka,” says Peter. “He’d say to people, ‘I bet I made your favourite movie…’”

Wonka is in cinemas from December 8