In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme for Roald Dahl day on Wednesday, Liccy Dahl said: “His first Charlie that he wrote about was a little black boy.”
Asked why it was changed, she replied: “I don’t know. It’s a great pity.”
Her husband’s biographer, Donald Sturrock, who was also being interviewed, said the change to a white character was driven by Dahl’s agent, who thought a black Charlie would not appeal to readers.
“I can tell you that it was his agent who thought it was a bad idea, when the book was first published, to have a black hero,” said Sturrock. “She said people would ask: ‘Why?’”
The revelation regarding Dahl’s original wish for Charlie may surprise those who accused the author of racism in relation to the book. The allegation stemmed from the fact that the Oompa Loompas in the original version were black pygmies from Africa.
The news in 1970 that there was to be a film of the book drew the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to the work and they said the importation of the Oompa Loompas to the factory had overtones of slavery.
Dahl insisted there was no racist intent behind the Oompa Loompas but also said he found himself sympathising with the NAACP. As a result, he rewrote them in time for the second US edition as white hippyish dwarves hailing from an invented place, “Loompaland”. The film, starring Gene Wilder, avoided the issue of race altogether, making them green-haired and orange-skinned.
In 2016, the Bookseller said Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was Dahl’s bestselling book across editions with almost 1m sales. It said the follow-up, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, had sold about 375,000 copies.