Julie Dawn Cole, the original Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, talks to Jennie Carr from Silver Travel Advisor about her travel experiences, including her inspirational charity rides with Fern Britton.
Can you remember your first flight? Julie Dawn told me about hers, which was to Munich in 1971, on the way to filming ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’. She was 13 and had been cast as Veruca Salt in this now iconic movie. She recalled the mini salt and peppers sets, and the Marvel milk. This was swiftly followed by the discovery of duvets, rather than sheets and blankets. When I asked about Gene Wilder, she said he was kind and patient, with plenty of time for the young stars. Julie Dawn’s early starring role was just the first of many travels around the world for work. Last year was the 40th anniversary of the film, and Julie Dawn visited Chicago for the celebrations. It was an extraordinary experience she said, four shows a day for four days, totally sold out, attended sometimes by three generations of the same family, all word perfect throughout the movie. She’s back to Texas this spring to commemorate the film and publicise her book, I Want it Now! A Memoir of Life on the Set of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And wait for this, Julie Dawn doesn’t really like chocolate!
I was fascinated by her stories of the British Airways Playhouse, a touring company headed up by the marvellous Derek Nimmo. The company existed to bring quality theatre to ex-pats abroad, Julie Dawn did two seasons (1983 & 1986) with the company, playing, on occasion Nimmo’s daughter on stage, visiting Jordan, Thailand and Guam, to name but a few. The plays were always staged in a large hotel, maybe the local Hilton or InterContinental. I have a vision of the fading empire existing through such plays, a kind of Margo and Jerry in warm climes. There must’ve been a very special magic in playing Private Lives in Singapore, where Noel Coward wrote it. Julie Dawn remembers Nimmo as being really passionate about travel, he would go anywhere and do anything, attributes she has undoubtedly picked up.
And travel is the thing, not so much holidays or tourism. We talked about getting under the skin of a place, something which Julie Dawn has had real experience of in China, travelling there in 2006 and 2010. The first trip was working as the fitness instructor with This Morning, mentoring three unfit viewers to ultimately complete the London Marathon. Part of their preparation was a half-marathon, partly along The Great Wall, and through traditional, rural villages. I asked about food, very important, and was told it is absolutely nothing like Chinese take-away in the UK, apparently they eat everything and anything, all quite beyond the traveller’s imagination. Not so very scrumdidilyumptious. During the charity bike ride in 2010 with Fern Britton (she popped up a few times), Julie Dawn was fascinated by the hard, harsh landscape and climate, with an equally tough way of life in the countryside. She finally mastered the Mandarin for ‘freezing cold legs’ but not much more. Slightly more bizarrely, I heard about the Panda Girls, the cycling group of 7, who all wore locally bought panda hoods on The Great Wall. I wonder what the Mandarin for ‘weird English ladies who wear shorts and panda hoods’ is? Fashionistas beware!
Julie Dawn and Fern have cycled in Egypt, India and Cuba too. After the Cuban bike ride, the girls took a tour of all the bars Hemmingway was reputed to have frequented in Havana. Maybe more than one or two I suspect! They hired a 1952 white Oldsmobile convertible and driver, and had what Julie Dawn described as the wildest party ever. Not a panda hood in sight, instead glorious Cuban music to dance to.
5* hotel or tent I asked, Julie Dawn was quick to reply, either is fine. What doesn’t work is a grim 2*, where the bottled water isn’t clean, which is sadly what happened in Jakarta. And Dehli wasn’t great either. Romantic anticipation has ruined a few trips to Paris, I think many of us know that feeling, although we both admitted the city is wonderful.
Would you visit a place that was first seen on a screensaver? Especially if it involved flying to Singapore, taking the train up country, a taxi to the jetty and finally a ferry to a tiny island, in Malaysia. Actually, you know, I might! Julie Dawn told me the name of her secret location, never to be divulged, it does look incredible. And to think she first travelled there with her children nearly ten years ago, quite a mission by any reckoning. Needless to say, they have been back a few times. It was here, diving, Julie Dawn and her daughter saw an all time wonder, a shoal of 25 or so bump head parrot fish (4’6” long, weighing about 6 stones, not beauty queens, hermaphrodite) chomping their way through the coral reef. Like a small cow, without legs, crossed with Bugs Bunny on steroids, she told me, munching away so loudly you could hear it. She was totally awe struck. And it is these coral munchers that actually produce the beautiful, pristine white sand we long to lie upon. Fish poo by any other name.
We chatted for ages. I wanted to know where Julie Dawn has on her ‘I’ve never been, let’s do it’ list, Venice for starters, up the Amazon, Machu Picchu (no good for bikes) and Kerala in India. So despite buying Jimmy Choos in New York, kayaking in Alaska, training swimmers in the Virgin Islands and getting very close to great white sharks in South Africa, this globe-trotting mother of two, who was once Veruca Salt, still has places to go!