THE little girl who stamped her feet as Veruca Salt in classic kids’ film Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory is now 52. But Julie Dawn Cole, from Surrey, is about to revisit the role in a new stage show… which began as the fantasy of an obsessed Aussie comedian. Here she talks to Jessica McCullough from ‘The News Of The World’
You’re heading to the Edinburgh Festival next month to perform Willy Wonka Explained with the Australian comic Matthew Hardy. But it was all a bit unexpected wasn’t it?
Yes. He sent an e-mail to my agent out of the blue saying he wanted to interview me about the film. I couldn’t quite work out his angle. It turned out he’d been obsessed with Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory since he was five. It was the first film he ever saw.
But it was more than an idle fixation wasn’t it? His last four girlfriends all DUMPED him because of his fascination for the film… and you.
There were several moments before I met him when I was a bit worried. I thought the worst that could happen is that he might be a bit weird. But Matthew’s a very successful comedian in Australia so I’d a feeling it’d all be fine. He is totally obsessed though. He knows the script better than I do.
You weren’t originally supposed to be in the show. What happened?
Matthew’s interviews with me were the basis of something he was planning to do at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. He wanted me to go out to Australia to help promote that show, but I figured if I was going to go all that way, I might as well be written into it. The rest is history.
It was a huge hit in Melbourne. There were queues around the block. Were you surprised?
Yes. I’d no idea the film was so popular out there. It was incredible, but very surreal. Before each show we’d play a clip of the film and I’d be backstage listening to the reaction of 300 Australians watching something I’d done when I was 12 years old. It’ll be 40 years next year since its release, so now it’s not just two generations of fans it attracts, but three. That feels very strange.
It’s still one of the most magical movies ever made so maybe it’s understandable that Matthew is so smitten. Going back to 1971, how did you land the role of Veruca Salt in the first place?
I had only been at stage school in London for three months so I was only just starting my career. I’d had one West End role before I got the job, which was a Christmas run of Peter Pan. Shortly after that I was asked to audition for the part of Veruca and got it.
It must have been the ultimate childhood fantasy to find yourself on a sprawling film set in Bavaria amid a magical world full of edible rooms and Oompa Loompas…
It was an extraordinary experience because my background was very humble. I was brought up by my mum, a single mum, living on a council estate in Surrey and suddenly there I was, being driven about in chauffeur driven cars. It was mind-blowing really.
Was it all as scrumdidilyumptious as it looked? What was your favourite part of the factory?
It was fantastic. The main area, the Imagination Room, was obviously one of the biggest things to construct, and it was largely constructed in secret because they wanted to keep it a big surprise for us children. We’d see things being taken in or peek in the workshops and see bright colourful things being built and we’d be like, ‘Wow!’ The whole thing was just so pretty. It became like my back garden. I’d take my packed lunch in there and go and sit by the chocolate river. It was my picnic spot. That had to be my favourite. But we also loved the Inventing Room as well, where they made the Everlasting Gobstoppers, because there were so many weird and wonderful things in there that you could explore. It was terrific fun.
So was the river really made of chocolate?
I have no idea what it was, but there was some kind of chocolate powder involved. If we’d had a break from filming over a weekend, say, and the weather had been quite warm it got really smelly. They’d have to drain it all and refill it. One time they mixed it up and it was a decidedly different colour – distinctly red – so they had to do it all again to get that perfect chocolate consistency! It was a nightmare for the continuity people. But for the actors, it was great as we got a day off.
You’re not a chocaholic are you?
Not at all. Maybe that’s what swung the part for me – cheaper on the budget! As a child I didn’t like the stuff at all. There was a scene in the Imagination Room where I had to smash open a watermelon and eat the chocolate inside. I hated it. The director kept saying, ‘Look like you’re enjoying it.’ And I’d yell back, ‘But I’m NOT!’.
Had you read the original Roald Dahl book before you started filming?
There was no script at the point I was going through the audition process so my agent said, ‘You better get a copy of the book and read it overnight’. So I did. I still have that original copy of the book and I got it signed by everybody.
Did you get to meet Roald? He wrote the screenplay for the film after all…
He wasn’t out in Germany much – I think there was a bit of a falling out between him and the director – but I did meet him on several occasions and I did have dinner with him once. I remember him being incredibly tall. My overriding memory was looking up and up and up at him – he was like the BFG.
What was it like to appear alongside the great Gene Wilder who played Willy Wonka so well?
He was brilliant with us kids. Film sets are tiring and there’s a lot of hanging around, but he, poor man, had five kids clambering all over him ALL the time. But he never, ever got cross. There was never any, ‘Oh, leave Mr Wilder alone’ or any of that. He’d sit there and we’d be going, ‘Right, my turn next, you sat next to him last time. Tell me this story, tell me that story’. He was really, really sweet and patient with us.
It sounds like incredible fun…
We were a really, really happy cast, a happy family and Jack Albertson who played Grandpa Joe was great and used to do all these old vaudeville routines to keep us entertained. Roy Kinnear who played Veruca’s long suffering father would recite this little poem, I’m not sure where it came from, in a wonderful Scots accent. I adored it. I’d make him do it again and again.
Spending three months with four other youngsters in such incredible circumstances must have left you with some favourite memories…
Well, we were all 12 or 13, so it was also the time for romance and there was only Charlie Bucket fo focus our affections on. Denise Nickerson, who played Violet Beauregarde, and I took it in turns. There was a lot of, ‘You sit next to him one week, I’ll sit next to him the next’ going on. We all got stuck in the boat on the chocolate river one day, because the boat was on tracks under the surface and for some reason it just ground to a halt. That was quite fun. One day Paris Themmen – who played Mike Teevee – let the lid off a jar of bees in the Inventing Room. He denies it to this day, but he was the one who got stung…
Veruca really was a dreadful brat – was it difficult to throw all those tantrums?
I was quite well brought up so it did take a bit of encouraging. I was a bit like, ‘You mean I can be really horrible and get away with it?’. It was fun.
Have your children Holly and Barnaby grown up to love the film as much as the rest of us?
Holly got very confused when I said to her, “That’s mummy as a little girl’. She thought it was my real life story. She told her teachers, ‘When mummy was five or six she was very spoiled and got everything she wanted’. That made for some awkward parents’ evenings.
What do you think it is about Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory that makes it so popular?
I think it appeals to the child in all of us. It’s the equivalent of winning the lottery really. It’s a moral tale too. It’s a reminder that there’s a bit of Veruca Salt, a bit of Mike Teevee, a bit of Violet Beauregarde and a bit of Augustus Gloop in us all – but we’d like to think we were Charlie really.
And you’ve still got your Golden Ticket?
Yes. I’d NEVER part with that.
WILLY Wonka Explained is at the Pleasance Beneath, Edinburgh, from August 5-29. Tickets are available from 0131 556 6550 or http://www.pleasance.co.uk.