Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flies again

Frank Cottrell Boyce found writing a sequel to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang required a leap of faith, but she was ready to fly once more

I can remember everything about my first trip to the cinema. We went with Aunty Pat and my cousin Tricia. We took a Tupperware bucket full of pick'n'mix and cartons of Kia-Ora. The film was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Howls of anguish shook the building when the car drove off the edge of a cliff, followed by roars of frustration when the image froze mid-plummet and the word "Intermission" blazed across the screen. The innocent part of me was swamped with pity for that lovely Edwardian family plunging to its doom. The writer in me was already thinking: "OK. This had better be good."

And of course it was good. Like a duenna snapping open her fan – the car snapped open a pair of elegant wings and soared off into Adventure. To this day, whenever there's an unexpected but perfect twist in a tale – or in life – I think of it as a Chitty Flies Off The Cliff moment. I had one of those moments a year or so ago when the Fleming family got in touch and asked if I would consider writing the sequel. It was as if they'd offered me the loan of a 1920s Paragon Panther – yes obviously I'd love to drive it but do I really want that responsibility? Wouldn't it be better to leave it safely parked on the gravel in a motor museum? In the event, the decision was made for me. As soon as I mentioned the notion at the dinner table it became clear that there would be no discussion about this. I was doing it.

Not that I needed persuading. One of the most important choices you make as a writer is who are you doing it for? I've always been clear about this in my head. Reading is usually seen as a solitary pleasure but I first learned to love books when people – teachers, parents, Bernard Cribbins on Jackanory – read them out to me. My ideal reader is a grown-up sharing the story with the children in their care. I'm always looking for ways to make the story a genuine pleasure to both ages. Writing a new Chitty Chitty Bang Bang book gave me the chance to harness a potent pleasure that I couldn't generate myself: nostalgia. It worked for Russell T Davis when he took on Doctor Who and for Steven Moffat when he set Sherlock in the present day. Obviously it would work for me. Except . . . the book was written by Ian Fleming and the film by Roald Dahl. These are two fairly tough acts to follow. Two men with an expertise in violence and revenge – who had both worked as spies in the war. These are not the type of ghosts you want to upset. I didn't want to step into giant shoes. I wanted to stand on giant shoulders.

My salvation turned out to be the car. Because Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a real car – a series of four real carsin fact – built by Count Louis Zborowski for racing at Brooklands and for land speed records. Their monstrous engines were so loud a bylaw was passed banning them from Canterbury city centre. The fourth Chitty was ceremonially buried on Pendine Sands after being wrecked in a land speed record. Somehow knowing the car was real and that Fleming's brilliant invention was just one episode in its life, freed me to play with the whole of its history, real and imaginary. I came up with a modern-day family who find the engine in a scrapyard and use it to soup up their camper van, not knowing that this is an engine with a mind – and an agenda – of its own. It felt strange at first – it felt like cheating – picking up someone else's idea and running off with it. But in the end, isn't it what we always do when we write stories. As Italo Calvino said: "The tale isn't beautiful until you add to it." We find an old tale abandoned in a scrapyard and we give it something of ourselves in the hope that it will fly again. And the only way to find out if it will fly is to push it off the cliff.


Frank Cottrell Boyce

The GuardianTramp

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