Thursday, 27 October 2011

Does Chitty Chitty Bang Bang take off?

It must have been a challenge for Frank Cottrell Boyce to write a sequel. After all, there are two Chitty Chitty Bang Bangs. There's the film incarnation, which appeared on screens in 1968 and starred in a magical musical adventure. Then there's Ian Fleming's original Chitty, which began life as a children's book in 1964. Less well known than the film version, the story takes Chitty and the Pott family on adventures in England and France, where they foil a gang of burglars and villains. Boyce's solution is to embrace both Chitties, and the result – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flies again – is a wonderful testament to the book's cinematic and literary ancestry.

In his latest adventure, Frank Cottrell Boyce introduces us to the Tootings. Dad, an inventive engineer, loses his job, but ever the optimist, sees it as an opportunity to explore and visit new places. Excited at the prospect, Mum acquires a rusty VW camper van, much to the embarrassment of children Lucy, Jem and Little Harry. Jem soon changes his mind, though, when given the chance to restore the van with Dad.

A visit to a scrapyard brings more excitement as they encounter an old engine – once the power behind the racing car of Count Zborowski. That's when the magic begins. The Tootings quickly find out that it's the van, not them, who's driving, as it takes them from England to France, then to Egypt for reasons that slowly become clear. On the way, they encounter a glamorous nanny, and the mysterious Tiny Jack, who has his own interest in the flying van.

The story is imbued with the spirit of Ian Fleming. The author gives the Tootings the same 'never say no to adventure' philosophy shown by the original Potts, and skilfully weaves in interesting facts, just as Fleming did. The name Jem, short for Jeremy, and an allusion to the original children, Jeremy and Jemima, is a nice touch too. The illustrations, by Joe Berger, recall the art of Fleming's illustrator, John Burningham. The film is not forgotten either. There is more than a hint of the childcatcher, and fantastic toys are an important feature of the book, just as they are in the film, while descriptions of Tiny Jack's hideaway could come from the drawing board of Ken Adam. There's even a cameo role for James Bond's most famous car.

At the end of the book, the author acknowledges that there are questions concerning some of the plot details that remain unanswered. But then again, the bigger question of how a car came to fly at all is one that even Fleming never addressed. Neither book, old and new, is the worse for this – we accept the magic, which papers over all the holes. Despite the nods to the past, readers of the latest adventure don't need to be familiar with earlier incarnations to enjoy the book. It stands on its own four wheels, and serves as the perfect introduction to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the next generation.

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