[LISTENED TO: March 2013] Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang
I knew of this movie (although I haven’t seen it in decades) but I didn’t know it was based on a book. And I had no idea the book was by Ian Fleming! The creator of James Bond! Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang is his only children’s novel and it was released posthumous;y (he died a few months before it came out). I’ve never read any James Bond and I don’t love the films all that much so I can’t really compare this to his more famous works. But it seemed like it was written by a guy who knew from spies and scary villains (I actually guessed that he had written this before the Bond books and it was a kind of lead in).
So the story starts off simply enough. We meet the Pott family: Caractacus, the father, a former Navy commander and now an inventory of slightly wacky things–known in town as Crack Pott (ha); Mimsie, the mom, sweet and good natured and up for adventure, and the eight year old twins: Jeremy and Jemima. Most of Crack Pott’s inventions aren’t very good but he eventually makes up a candy that is also a whistle and sells them to Lord Skrumshus and his candy company for a tidy sum (and Fleming goes into the details of the money saying how it’s a small sum up front but since Lord Skrumshus sells billions of candies it’s good deal–Fleming is full of grown up ideas like that in the book and is clearly trying to impart some wisdom to his audience).
Since they live near the motorway, they decide to buy a car. But they don’t want one of those black beetles that you see everywhere. He wrote this book in 1961 so I’m not entirely sure about what kind of car he was talking about there. The family decides to buy a one of a kind old car from an old man in a garage. The man raves about the car and wishes he could keep her, but he has to sell it for scrap. Pott offers him a few quid (everyone loves the car and its license plate read GEN 11 (like Genii)) to have the car delivered to his garage. He spends the next several months fixing her up. And when she starts, the noises she makes gives her the name Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Their first test drive is a marvel and they get her up to 100 miles per hour!
WHAT?? 100MPH? In Rural England?? Wow. And who knew they used miles and not kilometers (it’s pointed out much later in the book that they use kilometers on the continent) in the 60s? (It became mandatory there in 1978). The car is marvel! She even has all kinds of buttons that Pott hadn’t figured out what they do yet. And on their next venture they decide to go to the seaside on a warm day. But so do 20,000 other cars, so there is a massive traffic jam. Chitty Chitty shows what she can do and takes over the controls–she grows wings and a propeller (which all come naturally from the car parts) and she flies over the traffic!
When they fly to the beach it is crowded so Chitty flies the to an island in the middle of the English Channel. And they have a lovely picnic together and take a nap. Until the tide starts to come in. Chitty escapes and they take off. But they head away from London and towards France!
And here’s where the story turns into a wild Bondian adventure rather than a cute family story about a magical car.
They find a cave near Calais. It is booby trapped and dangerous. And I love that Pott is all stiff upper lip, “what ho” “off we go” “adventures are fun!”. They eventually get into the heart of the cave and find a ton of explosives and guns and a note that this is all for Joe the Monster–the notorious gangster. Well, the family decides to have some fun and blow up all the explosives (!!!!!!). This is exactly what Clark said he would suggest too. A jolly big bang it will be!
So they do and whoo-hoo isn’t it fun. There’s a very funny segment about mothers being worried and protective–but usually right in the end. As they leave the cave, they run into the very Joe the Monster who is understandably quite angry with them. He comes after them but they narrowly escape.
But being carefree as the Pott family is, they stop for dinner and a hotel not far from where they were. And since they are in a crazy contraption of a car, they are spotted soon enough. So, Joe and his gang climb a ladder and steal the twins from their room (!). But Chitty hears and she uses her radar to track them (it’s like early GPS). Then she wakes everyone up with her claxon horn and the chase is on.
The story ends more or less in a French candy shop of Monsieur Bon-Bon where Joe has the kids to buy him a box of candy (with some devilish trick underneath it no doubt). But the kids are smart and they try to figure out a way to let Monsieur Bon-Bon know what’s going on. Will they escape and will their parents find them? Will Chitty Chitty help? Who would have every guessed the story would have murderous gangsters in it?
The audio book was read by Andrew Sachs and he was wonderful. He seemed to add his own dramatic pauses (since I don’t have the book I cant be sure they’re not written that way. But in several chapters we got: “But……..But………………..BUT!” (Tabitha like to repeat But…But… and a again but). And he really got into all of the characters Especially Joe the Monster, where he put on a huge heavy thug accent (I wonder if it was written that way?) with what sounded like a mouth full of spit and bile–an incredibly thug-like way of talking. He was a little scary and I thought the kids might have a hard time understanding him, but they didn’t. He also pulled 0ff a very good French (when they are in Monsieur Bon-Bon).
Sachs played Manuel on Fawlty Towers which is crazy given how English he is. I guess no one objected to an Englishman playing a Spanish man back then. Although Sachs who was born in Germany and says he had a hard time learning that Barcelona accent. Nevertheless, since that’s the only thing I’d ever heard from him I was quite blown away by his wonderfully clear English voice in this recording.
So this proved to be quite an exciting audio book and I wish there was more (there are sequels, just not written by Fleming) although I have no idea if they are any good. There was a lot of wonder in the book (even for 21st century kids) and while the teacherly tone he takes in the book comes across as a little pedantic at times, I thought it was also quite informative and instructional. The very end of the audio book explains that Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang is based on a real car. While it obviously couldn’t fly, there was a one of a kind car like this made in the 1920s that broke all records and reached over 100MPH in a race!