This Christmas, the BBC is going to treat viewers to The Highway Rat, a delightful 30-minute animation of the popular children’s story by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler.
Playing the villainous rat – whom former children’s laureate Donaldson describes as one of her wickedest characters to date – is former Doctor Who star David Tennant.
The rat is a self-centred little fellow, mischievous but with such a cruel streak that he robs from all the animals in his world – the squirrel with her nuts, a rabbit’s flowers, and even the leaves which a colony of ants are patiently transporting.
Or as he puts in in one of Donaldson’s classic couplets: “Give me your pastries and puddings! Give me your chocolate and cake! For I am the Rat of the Highway, and whatever I want I take!”
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, the upcoming festive animation sees Tennant delivering the voice in his natural Scottish accent.
The reason, it turns out, is that the character is always performed with that accent by Donaldson and her husband Malcolm Donaldson when they act it out around the world.
“When my husband Malcolm and I act The Highway Rat, because we lived in Glasgow for 25 years Malcolm always does a very Glaswegian Rat," says Donaldson. "Maybe that’s why they cast David Tennant.”
Tennant is joined by Rob Brydon (as the narrator), The Night Manager’s Tom Hollander (Squirrel), Love Actually’s Nina Sosanya (Duck), and Harry Potter’s Frances de le Tour (Rabbit) in the animation.
“He’s one of my worst baddies,” said Donaldson at a screening for the BBC animation, adding that she was inspired to write the story because of her love for Alfred Noyes’ 1906 poem The Highwayman with its famous refrain:
Added Donaldson: “I must have though early on that he could love sweets and chocolates which gave me a soft spot for him. But he's one of my worst baddies. It’s a story about tyranny. He is a tyrant so I think I am a bit mixed up about the Highway Rat. These animals are tyrannised by him almost like a dictator but the chocolates and sweets thing – I am sneakily fond of him.”
The one-off animation is produced by Magic Light Pictures, the same people who produced Stick Man – adapted from another Donaldson/Scheffler book – for the 2015 Christmas schedules.
The Highway Rat is due to air on BBC1 this Christmas