To Olivia: How I Made It – The heartbreaking true story behind Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal’s love and loss

Director John Hay takes us behind the scenes on To Olivia, a true story about Roald Dahl and actress Patricia Neal, which is coming to Sky Cinema on NOW.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 23 March 2021 - 10.37am
Hugh Bonneville and Keeley Hawes as Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal in To Olivia
Watch To Olivia, a Sky Original film, on Sky Cinema with NOW

“As a kid, I was quite lonely and loved reading and I just picked it up and it was so different to anything I had read before.”

Director John Hay is talking about the first time he read Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a children’s classic from 1964 that still feels just as magical over 50 years later.

Hay says that he used to carry a copy of Chocolate Factory around with him as a youngster, which meant making a film about Dahl’s life feel like a true privilege.

However, To Olivia is not a straight biopic of Dahl. In fact, Hay considers the story of a Dahl “a disguise” for getting to the film’s other protagonist, Patricia Neal, centre stage.

A Hollywood actress, who won an Oscar for her performance as worn-out housekeeper Alma Brown in Hud, Neal moved to Buckinghamshire with Dahl following an accident in New York City involving their baby son Theo that left him with brain damage.

To Olivia covers this period of Neal and Dahl’s life as they closed themselves off from the outside world and suffered the tragedy of losing their daughter, aged only 7, to measles encephalitis.

We caught up with Hay to find out why he wanted to tell this story and learn more about the making of the movie, which had to be finished in 2020 during lockdown.

Why pick this Roald and Patricia story?

"There are so many areas of Roald’s life you could look into, he’s such a fascinating character. But me and Dave Logan, my co-writer wanted to focus on one year in Roald and Patricia’s life and focus on grief.

"It is about Roald and Patricia, but it could be about anyone. We’ve all experienced grief in different ways and whether you’re a famous movie star or writer, it’s something we all go through. The film goes through the five stages of grief: anger, bargaining, depression, denial and finally acceptance.

"I found Stephen [Michael Shearer's biography about Neal titled An Unquiet Life] fascinating because it was written so close to Patricia’s death and by that point she had processed the death of Olivia.

"The whole thing had a quality of a memory and I loved that about it. I wanted to make the film have the same quality as the book, so it was like a memory rather than just the facts of what happened."

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Showing Roald Dahl, warts and all

"Roald Dahl probably wasn’t a very likable man. Lots of people said that when they met him, he had a grumpy side. But he had an amazing ability to relate to kids. I think adults he found quite difficult and he would often play practical jokes on the adults as the start of the film shows.

"It’s the polarity of that relationship with kids and adults was what I think allowed him to write children’s books in the way he did. It’s very much a warts and all portrait.

"In a way, this is Patricia Neal’s story. You start watching a story about Roald Dahl and then you see how he makes the death of his daughter into his grief and how Patricia has to subsume her grief. I think that was so true of women in that period, which really interested me."

The tremendous Keeley Hawes

Keeley Hawes as Patricia Neal in To Olivia

"Keeley was just brilliant. She was fantastic with the kids on the show. And we were just so pleased to get her and she managed to fit it in her schedule, because she was shooting It’s A Sin at the same time. It was just brilliant she managed to do it. She did so much preparation for the film with the accent and she just turned up on set and delivered a really tremendous performance.

"I thought she brought Patricia Neal to life not only as a movie star, but also as Roald Dahl’s wife, hemmed inside this suffocating world. I think that’s how Patricia Neal felt."

Geoffrey Palmer’s final screen performance

Geoffrey Palmer in To Olivia, his final movie

"I first worked with him on Stig of the Dump and I persuaded him to work on that on the basis that I had found the best places to go fishing in the Peak District. He said anyone who was audacious enough to do that deserved to get him.

"It was like working with a Swiss watch with Geoffrey. He knew everything. He knew his script, he knew everyone else’s script. He always had a weary eye on me and I think he thought I just about knew what I was doing. After Stig, every time I wrote something I always did a part for Geoffrey.

"He came out to the Himalayas to do a one-day shoot for me for the BBC and in the penultimate film we did Lost Christmas, he said, ‘Maybe I’ve got one more in me’ and we did. We did this and very, very sadly it was his last film.

"He knocked it out of the park on his day filming. He knew the lines better than anyone else, everyone had to up their game. He was just a delightful person and when I look across my desk now I have a photo of me and him together. It will remain their forever."

How do you make a film in lockdown?

"It was a real challenge and I can’t tell you how difficult it was. We had no idea what was coming. Everything after filming finished was done in lockdown. All the visual effects, the orchestra, we had to do all the score on Skype. We had to record the orchestra three metres apart in two blocks. So we had half the orchestra one day and half the next and then locked them together at a later date. Amazingly they managed to do it, I’ll never know musicians do that.

"We had to do most of the dubbing and ADR afterwards. Hugh did it from home. Keeley did go to London, but I wasn’t allowed in there. We had to work on Zoom and I’d never heard of Zoom before all of this and it’s become something I had to use every day.

"I still got the warmth and passion of working with a crew, even without having met anyone. I still haven’t met some of the people I worked in post-production with face-to-face."

What was the magic of Roald Dahl?

Darcey Ewart as Olivia in To Olivia

"I think he was always a child. He could always see the world from a child’s perspective. I think that’s what the magic realist element in the film shows, where you see him talking to his younger self. He was able to just jump into that mindset and a child’s point of view.

"You have to remember prior to Roald Dahl, big children’s writers were people like Enid Blyton. It was posh kids going off on adventures together and coming back to a home where their mummies and daddies still loved them.

"Roald was writing about Charlie, a boy who slept in the bed with the rest of his family and had no money, and he was on the cusp of big changes in society.

"There was so much darkness and light in Roald’s stories. With Enid Blyton, you always know what was going to happen. With Roald it’s really very dark and he can take you in any direction. In a way, I hope this film has a similar effect to Roald’s stories, taking you through the darkness and light."

Watch To Olivia, a Sky Original film, on Sky Cinema with the NOW Cinema Membership.

Images: © THING ONE LTD 2020. All Rights Reserved.

All the TV and sport you love in one place

Get BT TV and catch shows like Succession, Django and The Last of Us, plus the latest from Sky Sports with a NOW Membership.