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By: Tahni Beattie

Despite having well and truly reached the threshold of ‘adulting’, my fondness for stories, particularly those by Roald Dahl, has only intensified. Which is why I jumped at the chance to sit in on a live recording of the ABC podcast Short & Curly at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, titled “How to deal with nasty, horrible, terrible people (with a little help from Roald Dahl).” Hosts Carl Smith and Dr Matt Beard graced the stage, one wearing a purple sequined coat and the other a grand top-hat, to discuss the question: How much can made-up stories teach us about bad people in real life? The answer, it seems, is a lot. Those familiar with the podcast will know that Carl and Matt aim to teach children all about ethics.


Dahl’s books such as The Twits, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, and The Witches provide no shortage of horrible, vile characters, ripe for ethical examination. And children can be the harshest critics. When asked to decide the worst of all Dahl’s villains, it seemed to be a toss between Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull and The Grand High Witch from The Witches. But when the audience was asked to vote on the worst villain by “booing” loudly, The Grand High Witch was definitely the worst for wanting to eradicate all children everywhere.

Little did the kids know, they got an entertaining and surprisingly thought-provoking run-down of my tertiary level, introduction to ethics course. The Grand High Witch is bad, Matt explained, because she made bad choices, she broke the rules and she hurt a lot of people. Hello Aristotle, Kant and Mill. This is unsurprising, considering Australian children’s author Andy Griffith’s perspective on Dahl’s writings, “Dahl was extremely moralistic and you see it to the max in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Then, Matt posed the question: “Can you tell if someone is bad by the way they look?” This question divided the young audience. It was this point that Carl began to change into a “villainous” outfit; a black pointy helmet and a black cape with pointed collar. When Matt told Carl that he looked like a baddie, Carl began to act like one. Hello labelling theory.

All in all, the show managed to compact the basics of ethics into a performance which was more than entertaining for the little ones who laughed hysterically when villainous Carl was hit in the face with a cream pie, as well as their parents, who had a chuckle over the kids trying to explain ethics. Ethics are tricky, but as the hosts of Short & Curly say, “Sometimes it is hard to make good choices, but it is always possible.”

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