When you think of the biggest children’s authors to come out of the UK, Beatrix Potter and Roald Dahl tend to spring to mind, with the pair having entertained multiple generations with their wacky characters, sentient animals and surprisingly dark twists for over a century combined.
From children suffering permanent disfigurements in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to Squirrel Nutkin narrowly escaping a live skinning, neither of the literary giants shied away from shockingly gruesome turns in their texts – and yet that didn’t stop kids from cherishing their books (in fact, it was part of the reason they were so beloved).
The similarities between the pair is one of the main themes in Roald and Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse – Sky One’s Christmas special, which tells the true story of a meeting between the very young Dahl and an ageing Potter through a mixture of real-life scenes, animation sequences and puppetry.
The 90-minute film opens with Potter, portrayed as an animal-loving curmudgeon by Dawn French, as she stares out onto her snowy Cumbrian farm whilst struggling with writer’s block. Frustrated by her failing eyesight and disillusioned with her writing, the established author would rather be tending to her various pigs, sheep and ducks outside than finishing her next novel despite steady encouragement from her long-suffering husband William Heelis (Rob Brydon).
Meanwhile in Wales, we meet a six-year-old Roald Dahl (played by nine-year-old actor Harry Tayler) who despite his young age, has already experienced a series of losses – with his older sister and father dying within a few weeks of one another. Whilst dealing with bereavement and the prospect of his mother sending him away to boarding school, Dahl sets out on a mission to meet his favourite author – Beatrix Potter.
Written by Trollied’s Abi Wilson, this festive feel-good flick is an exposition-heavy slow-burner, with Potter and Dahl only meeting in the last 10 minutes of the special. However, the stellar Roald and Beatrix cast more than make-up for the few scenes between Roald and Beatrix in Roald & Beatrix.
Jessica Hynes’ portrayal of Sofie, Roald’s grief-stricken pregnant mother, is both heartbreaking and hilarious, with the BAFTA-winning actress conveying Sofie’s intense emotional pain which she’s buried deep under a superficial layer of strength and humour for Roald’s sake. Hats off to Hynes also for her incredibly detailed accent, which sounds like a perfect Norwegian-Welsh hybrid. Similarly, young actor Harry Tayler shines as a six-year-old Roald Dahl.
However, one particular standout performance comes from Nina Sosanya, who is an absolute hoot as Potter’s unbearable literary agent Anne Landy. An over-confident, boot-licking city woman unfamiliar with farm-life, Landy clashes with Potter over the inclusion of three blind mice in her upcoming novel, claiming that they’re too frightening for children to read about. “Not just one mouse – three. And they’re all blind,” Sosanya exclaims whilst gesticulating in an over-dramatic manner. “Think of it, it’s utterly terrifying!”
The rest of the cast is just as impressive, with Nick Mohammed playing a star-struck optometrist, Alison Steadman as a tea leaf-reading cafe owner and Bill Bailey making a cameo as a ‘Bona Fide Gent’ – a shabbily-dressed eccentric character who resembles a Quentin Blake illustration in human form.
In fact, the special is full of nods to both Potter and Dahl’s works, from Roald’s coat resembling that of Peter Rabbit’s and references to legendary characters such as Jemima Puddle-Duck and Tom Kitten, to a Fantastic Mr. Fox-type puppet who appears in the form of a lady’s scarf before chatting to Roald. Fans of both authors’ beloved tales will enjoy spotting the various pointers to well-known characters, which is one of the reasons Roald & Beatrix makes for great Christmas Eve watching – fans of all ages will recognise elements of their childhood within the special.
While the titular characters don’t meet until the very end of the special, the touching scene is worth the wait and hammers home the underlying message of both authors’ books, that you “cannot shield children from the reality of life” by avoiding gruesome topics – a fitting message in light of the upsetting year many have endured.
Both uplifting and affecting, Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse is a heart-warming Christmas special with elements of the authors’ stories woven throughout. While it could easily be cut down by 20 minutes, the touching dramatisation is still a soothing tonic that’s perfect for the frantic festive season.
Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse airs on Sky One on Christmas Eve at 8.15pm, and will be available to stream on NOW TV. Check out our guide to the best Christmas TV, see what else is on with our TV Guide, or take a look at our new TV shows 2020 page to find out what’s airing this autumn and beyond.