How Roald Dahl helped his wife Patricia Neal stop talking like The BFG

All set for Steven Spielberg’s The BFG this weekend? Be warned, the Big Friendly Giant talks funny, very funny:

The first titchy bobsticle you meet and you begin shouting you is biffsquiggled.

And the nine evil giants he’s up against are hilarious too:

‘I is flushbunkled!’ roared the Fleshlumpeater.
‘I is splitzwiggled!’ yelled the Childchewer.
‘I is swogswalloped!’ bellowed the Bonecruncher.
‘I is goosegruggled!’ howled the Manhugger.
‘I is gunzleswiped!’ shouted the Meatdripper.
‘I is fluckgungled!’ screamed the Maidmasher.
‘I is slopgroggled!’ squawked the Gizzardgulper.
‘I is crodsquinkled!’ yowled the Bloodbottler.
‘I is bopmuggered!’ screeched the Butcher Boy.

Although Roald Dahl published The BFG in 1982, he had confronted BFG-speak at home years earlier. On February 17, 1965, Dahl’s wife, American actress Patricia Neal, had three brain haemorrhages (ruptured aneurysm). She survived, but for a long time she had difficulty seeing, moving her right arm and leg, and speaking.

“At the end of the third week, words were beginning to come. Not many of them meant very much, and few of them were in the dictionary, but they were words nonetheless,” says a piece by Dahl in the September 22, 1965 issue of Australian Women’s Weekly. “When she can’t find the ones she wants, she invents others…I have been noting them down very carefully.”

A chat over an evening drink could go like this:

Pat: “Listen, will someone get me another…another sooty swatch.”
“A what?”
Pat: “Oh, you know — a soapdriver.”
“You want a big soapdriver or a small one?”
Pat: “Oh, come on! You know quite well what I want.”
“What?”
Pat: “A red hairdryer.”
“You want another drink, don’t you?”
Pat: “That’s right! A drink! A drink!”
“Why didn’t you say so?”
Pat: “You make me skitch, that’s what you do. You give me the sinkers.”
And then later —
Pat: “I want a…a…I want an oblogon.”
“Somebody get Pat an oblogon.”
Pat: “Now stop it! I don’t mean an oblogon. I mean a…a…a crooked steeple. I’ll go crazy if I don’t have one. I’ll jake my dioddles.”
So we give her a cigarette.

Patricia repeated the conversation in an article published in the September 27, 1978 issue of the same magazine, so there’s reason to believe it wasn’t a child of Dahl’s Big Fertile Imagination.

“I was not only seeing double but talking double as well. Instead of saying, ‘tell me once more.’ I would say, ‘inject me again’,” Patricia wrote.

That’s when Dahl decided to take matters in hand.

“Oh, what a mess I was. I wanted to give up. I was tired. I felt certain I was as good as I would ever be. But Roald, that slave-driving husband of mine, said no. And today I cannot thank him enough,” she wrote.

Dahl roped in family and friends who lived nearby in their Great Missenden village to help. “He made me a schedule — each person in for a period each day, and he worked out lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic. This went on every day from 9am to 6pm, except Sundays. Thank God for the Sundays.”

Dahl’s own account of her ‘schooling’:

“At 9.15, one of my sisters, or sometimes a friend arrives to give her reading and writing. At 10.25, she is driven to the large Royal Air Force Hospital in the next village for an hour’s physical therapy. At noon, she has lunch, then rests until 3pm. From 3.15 until 4.30, my mother’s housekeeper comes to give her more reading, writing, and perhaps a game of checkers or dominoes until 5.30. But this is not all. At 6pm, a professional speech therapist drops in and works with her for another 45 minutes…The momentum must never slacken.”

It took three years, but Patricia Neal made a full recovery and returned to films with The Subject Was Roses.

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