‘Roald Dahl took me to his filthy shed and told me he hated Jews’

Renowned royal correspondent Angela Levin interviewed the children’s author in 1983


British children's author, short-story writer, playwright and versifier Roald Dahl (1916 - 1995), 11th December 1971. (Photo by Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Getty Images)

For many Jews, it’s a mystery as to why Roald Dahl’s Jew hate was for so long ignored. It took Dahl’s family until 2020 to apologise – in a statement buried within the author’s official website – “for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by” his antisemitic comments. And it took the Dahl Museum another three years to publicly acknowledge it in a panel on its door.

Even the 2021 film To Olivia about the loss of Dahl’s daughter “whitewashed” the racist views which the children’s author had himself aired in the Literary Review and the New Statesman in 1983.

Renowned royal journalist Angela Levin is one of those long-baffled Jews. Levin, who has interviewed countless celebrities, was “thrilled” to be given the assignment of interviewing the “brilliant writer” in 1983 for the Mail on Sunday. But Dahl took the young journalist into his freezing and filthy shed and told her “I don't like Jews.”

The journalist has shared details of her encounter as Mark Rosenblatt’s new drama Giant, about Dahl’s antisemitism, is announced for the Royal Court this September. The fact that this is the first play to cover the topic, she says, “shows in a rather unpleasant way that people didn't take much notice of it.”

She welcomes the play, which stars John Lithgow and is directed by Nicholas Hytner, for examining Dahl’s Jew hate. “It's a good idea that people do discover who antisemites were,” she says. “It is interesting to know what they were like, and some tried to cover it up and some tried to use it to  put people down.”

Levin’s encounter with Dahl began with the author asking almost straightaway if she was Jewish, before stating, “You know I don't like Jews.” The second question he posed was what her father did for a living – which she refused to answer. “It was incredibly rude, incredibly unpleasant,” she says.

Yet, because she was on a job and had to provide copy to her editor, she couldn't give Dahl what she wanted: a huge argument. “He wanted to draw me in. The name Levin is Jewish, so he obviously knew that. And I could see this was a game and I wanted to see if I could win.

“He had a very cunning way of winning, and he kept on asking me questions. He didn't want me to write about him being an antisemite, so he said, ‘I'm being extremely frank with you. But if I let any discretion, I trust you will use your discretion on how to print it.’ He put me in a very difficult position.”

She adds: “It was strange because he’d said about being antisemitic, and in a way it was to see my reaction rather than go into a rant.”

Levin was taken on a tour of Dahl’s “big, comfortable” house, but the author chose to do the interview in the “disgusting” little shed at the bottom of the garden where he liked to write his bestselling classics such as Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

“He he took me into this hideous, filthy, smelly, unkempt place where he likes to write because he wanted to be unpleasant,” recalls Levin. “It was absolutely the most revolting place I've ever been to. The walls were all yellow from nicotine; the floor hadn't been cleaned for years. I remember he said, ‘Isn't it revolting? Looks a bit like a toilet in a provincial railway station, don't you think? Be very careful where you put your hands.’”

She adds, “I thought immediately that he was trying to prove something and to put me off, to make it more difficult for me, make it colder, make it uncomfortable, and then he'd win. He'd win over me because I'm only a woman and so he could push me down.”

Freezing cold, the revolting shed was littered with cigarette stubs all over the floor; Dahl smoked the whole time that they talked. When she asked him about the strange yellow colour he'd painted on the wall, the author had replied, “Oh no, it's just because of all the smoke from my cigarettes.” 

“It was a sort of yellow, sickly horrible colour,” recalls Levin. “But you look at his nails and his hands: impeccable, beautifully kept. So I think he had to go into a strange place to be able to write what he wanted to write.”

As Levin surveyed the room, Dahl pointed to a yellow ball next to a silver one and, just as she went to pick it up, he told her, "That is my hip joint. And that's what it looks like when it's riddled with arthritis.”

Dahl was a very tall 6 feet 6 inches – a fact he pointed out to Levin, which she saw as self-justification for his spiteful nature. “He said to me. ‘When you're my size you have everything against you. It's very hard to get on with other people. You tend to give men an inferiority complex. If I've met quite a nice chap who's only 5 foot 8 inches and we're standing together, there is no way I can untower over him. I have to be extremely careful how I talk to him. Women of course love it.’ He was very ‘women are completely different and you don't have to bother with them very much.’”

At the end of their interview, Dahl said: “I've enjoyed it. I hope you realise that I have got just as much out of you, as you have out of me,” implying that should she write anything bad about him, he could follow it with something even worse about her.

“I think he's somebody who likes to be very spiteful. I couldn't think of anything I'd said that fell out of my mouth. But also he never did anything with it. He never wrote about me in any way.”

Despite her unpleasant encounter, Levin never “cancelled” Dahl – she continued to read his books to her children.

“I just thought he was trying very hard to be super clever in this ping-pong chat we were having. He was a character that was not exactly pleasing, but he was a brilliant mind.”

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