Thursday, November 15, 2012

GEN 11

I'm pretty sure I must have read (or had read to me) Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when I was a young 'un, but all of my memories of this story are that of the fairly execrable 1968 movie with Dick Van Dyke, including the theme song -- the chorus of which I could probably sing in its entirety.  I liked listening to this knowing about James Bond (who I didn't know about in 1968), and really understanding how Fleming's imagination created both. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang includes Bond-ish villains, a Q-like leading man, and a very large explosion.

Inventor Caractacus Potts, retired from the Royal Navy, lives in genteel poverty with his wife (Mimsie) and twins Jeremy and Jemima. The family experiences an unexpected windfall when Commander Potts invents a candy called Toot Sweets and sells it to a local candy magnate named Lord Skrumshus. With some of their money, Potts purchases a junker, a dilapidated old heap called a Paragon Panther. Jeremy and Jemima are intrigued by the car's license plate, GEN 11. For several weeks, Commander Potts tinkers away at the car, and on the day it's fully repaired, the Potts decide to go on an outing to the beach. As the car starts up, it makes a unique sound -- "chitty chitty" as the starter turns over followed by a loud "bang bang" from the tailpipe and as the family motors off, the twins officially christen the car (cue the orchestra).

Alas, every other family has decided that they are going to the beach as well, and the Potts soon find themselves in a huge traffic jam (and this was 1964).  But when a knob on the dashboard lights up saying "pull this, stupid" [I think I'm remembering it correctly], and Commander Potts obeys ... well, you know what happens.

The child-snatching in the novel isn't nearly as creepy as that of the movie which makes it more all-ages, I think.  I liked that a novelistic circle is closed when the denouement takes place in a candy shop (albeit a French one). I liked that the book never comes out and tells us that GEN 11 = genie. I liked that that is all there is ... 110 pages, two hours twenty minutes.  I liked learning that the original illustrations were from John Burningham (Mr. Helen Oxenbury).  I found it quite touching that it was -- in a way -- Fleming's final gift to his young son.  And I loved listening to it read by someone clearly channeling a rambunctious bachelor uncle entertaining his nieces and nephews.

Regular readers here know my fondness for British drama (in movies, television and books), but I'm not at all keen on British sitcoms. So, I'd never heard of Andrew Sachs, the narrator, who found fame in a television program that I found not teddibly funny at all, Fawlty Towers. Sachs reads the novel beautifully. He has a warm speaking voice, and he reads the story quickly; but he never forgets that he's telling an immensely ridiculous story, so the narrator's asides are all perfectly timed. There's plenty of opportunity for over-the-top character studies in the novel, and Sachs goes to town with confident Caractacus, dense yet menacing mobsters, a sad sack used-car dealer, timid Mimsie, adventurous twins, and M. Bon-Bon.  But he is, in fact, most perfect as the car -- his wheezy "chitty chitty" followed by the pop of the "bang bang" will forever replace the lyrics of that song.

The opening credits of the audiobook declare that it is published by Imagination Studio, which evidently is an imprint of Listening Library (and this audiobook was published long enough ago that Jim Dale provides that audiobooks-are-great pitch he used to do at the end). It has the best use of generic music I have heard in a while (the last time was this, which I also enjoyed) -- with a short sprightly, kind-of circus-like clip between chapters, each one slightly different.

I've never been much of a Bond fan, but the Ian Fleming website tells me that there are new audiobooks of all of the Bond stories, each read by a different actor. Alas, these are not the editions available at my library, which are read by the prolific Simon Vance. I'm sure Vance is very good, but Dan Stevens, Bill Nighy, Damien Lewis!

[This image is one of John Burningham's from the original 1964 edition, subtitled The Magical Car. Could it be true that my library still owns four copies of this nearly 50-year-old book (I'm not at a place where I can check this)?]

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming
Narrated by Andrew Sachs
Imagination Studio (Listening Library), 2003.  2:19


la bolilla said...

Do you know where I can find thus version of Chitty Chitty...? We bought it on cassette about 10 years ago but I need a new copy. Even audio download will do.

leecat said...

Audible has a copy: