When Roald met Beatrix
A real-life encounter between beloved authors Roald Dahl and Beatrix Potter serves as the inspiration for Sky’s Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse. Director David Kerr tells DQ about the magic behind this festive family film and discusses working with animals.
As authors, there doesn’t appear to be much in common between Roald Dahl and Beatrix Potter. One is famous for his fantastical adventures that often featured grotesque characters, while the other is renowned for her numerous children’s books about animals.
But a festive feature-length drama coming to the UK’s Sky1 dramatises the chance encounter they shared together and the effect that meeting would have on both of their lives.
Produced by Hartswood Films (Dracula, Sherlock), Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse sees Dawn French (The Vicar of Dibley) play Beatrix as she is coming to the end of her career. With her publisher (Nina Sosanya) hounding her for her next manuscript, Beatrix has lost her motivation to write children’s books and is trying to keep both her long-suffering husband William (Rob Brydon) and her disobedient farm animals in line.
Meanwhile, six-year-old Roald (Harry Tayler), grieving the loss of his father and sister, finds solace in his love of books. He is then encouraged by his mother Sophie (Jessica Hynes) to follow his dreams and visit his hero, Beatrix Potter.
“Human relationships are the core of it, really,” director David Kerr tells DQ. “You’ve got Beatrix effectively going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. She’s struggling to find a creative direction and her publishers just see her as a bit of a cash cow. But from the script stage, I loved the bickering relationship she has with William. It just felt very believable, and the way Rob and Dawn play is beautiful to watch.
“Similarly with Roald and his family, particularly his mum Sophie, there’s a mother basically nurturing the creative spirit of her child. It’s not a theme I’ve seen explored a lot. I was a big Beatrix Potter fan and then became a huge Roald Dahl fan. I devoured [Dahl’s] stories of The Twits, Fantastic Mr Fox and, of course, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. But if you look again at Beatrix Potter’s books – and we touch on this in the film – it’s not a syrupy, saccharine version of nature. It’s nature red in tooth and claw. There is always the threat of death hanging over these very beautiful, lively animal characters.
“That’s a lot less common now in children’s stories and yet Beatrix, as somebody who adored the countryside, was very comfortable with that idea that you could bring up animals and then kill them for your table. There’s a frankness and honesty alongside the kind of magical anthropomorphism and the fantastical aspect of talking creatures wearing clothes.”
Though Beatrix and Roald’s meeting is actually just a small part of the film, it ends up being a pivotal moment for both of them.
“Beatrix convinces him there is something special about the way you see the world as a child that perhaps you don’t want to lose sight of as you get older,” Kerr explains. “For Beatrix, it’s her understanding that children can cope with all sorts of tragedy, bereavement and difficulty and still have a love for life and a vivid imagination. That spurs her on to write the book she wants to write, regardless of what her publishers would like her to do. There’s a great sense of tectonic plates shifting and of destiny resetting for each of them and giving them a purpose in the future.”
Christmas specials are known for their short turnaround times, but when the coronavirus pandemic struck earlier this year, not even Kerr thought Roald & Beatrix would make it through production in time to air this year.
He was first sent the script in January and was gearing up for pre-production ahead of a provisional filming date in June. Then when the UK was put into lockdown in March, those plans were put on hold.
“We were not even sure if the film would happen at all. It wasn’t greenlit,” Kerr says. “I was just assuming that was the end of that and I’d better start thinking about other things.” Sky commissioning editor John Mountague had other ideas, however, and backed the project at a time when productions were struggling to find their feet amid new health and safety requirements and a lack of insurance cover.
“Sky had always conceived it as a Christmas treat, so the big question was, ‘Can we get this on for Christmas?’ It was not a straightforward shoot. It’s quite ambitious and there are elements like stop-frame animation, puppetry and quite a lot of visual effects. It was a case of literally counting the weeks and figuring out how much we needed for the score, the visual effects and all of the post-production and grading, and then working backwards.”
Under the supervision of a Covid advisor, shooting began in August and was completed across five weeks in Wales, with the Vale of Glamorgan doubling for Potter’s home in the Lake District. Roald’s house was shot in Penarth, while interior scenes were filmed at Seren Studios in Cardiff.
Though the drama is not one filled with car chases or action sequences, Kerr and the creative team were tasked with changing certain scenes to ensure social distancing and other safety measures could be followed.
“There was a scene set in a funeral, which would have needed maybe 50 extras, which we ended up turning into a scene at the wake in the Dahl house, and actually it’s probably a more poignant and intimate scene by relocating it to the house and scaling it down,” Kerr says. “In some ways, it forced us to be a bit more inventive. It also allowed me to shoot with a single camera, which I tend to love to do anyway because you get much more control over each frame. The big Covid message was basically reducing the number of people on set.
“The other big decision was that we ended up building a lot of sets for our interiors. But there was a creative payoff because it meant I had complete control over the dimensions, the layout and the colour palette.”
Covid guidelines meant anyone in contact with the cast – and the actors themselves – was tested weekly, while temperature checks were daily for everyone on set. Cast and crew were also encouraged to limit their social activity during production, while Kerr was prevented from travelling to set in the same car as his first AD and the director of photography to ensure they wouldn’t all have to isolate if one became ill or had been in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.
It wasn’t just human performances Kerr had to consider, however, as Abi Wilson’s script also called for stop-frame animation, puppetry and visual effects to bring the magical elements of the film to life. John Hannah’s narration also adds a storybook quality to the drama, which is distributed by NBCUniversal Global Distribution.
“The challenge was trying to find a way of designing the animation so it felt charming and handmade, and had a bit of life to it and didn’t feel too clinical,” says Kerr, who worked alongside stop-motion animator Thomas Harnett O’Meara (The Wind in the Willows) to bring some characterful mice to life. “We worked through storyboards together and designed the action. Then he oversaw all of the sequences. What I didn’t want was for it to feel as if we just switched channel and suddenly we’re watching this kids’ animation and then we’re back in a drama. It was very important the animation should feel integrated.”
Puppeteers were also involved in scenes involving a talking doll and a wise-cracking fox stole that speaks to Roald while it is draped around a woman’s neck.
“It just felt so rich to be able to present plausible human relationships, but also to dial up the magic with some really wonderful heightened effects, stop-frame animation and puppetry,” the director says. “They helped everything feel real and not cold.”
Working with numerous animals on set further complicated the shoot, with a dog, guinea pig, rabbit and duck all on the call sheet. But while the behaviour of Sago the runner duck was exemplary, less can be said for Sally the pig, according to the director.
“We’d had conversations with the animal handler [about working with a pig], but cut to us on the set and we’re watching this pig refusing to move,” he recalls. “We ended up taking some pastry and pulling it on a piece of string and thankfully the pig moved, but it moved at a glacial pace. There was never a sense of breaking speed limits.
“If you’re smart with animals, you have to be thinking, ‘What is the minimum I can get away with?’ Then on the day, you do your best to get at least what you need, because ultimately you are in the hands of the pig or the dog or whatever it is. If they’re not playing ball, it’s tough. You can’t get on the phone to their agent, so you’re very much at the mercy of the menagerie. That was probably the toughest thing about the show, frankly.”
Drawn to the emotionally rich story that would prove challenging to realise visually, Kerr says he was keen to instil a sense of wonder in Roald & Beatrix, which balances complex human relationships with magical, sometimes grotesque qualities of the characters who inhabit this world. It all adds up to perfect festive family viewing that throws in plenty of laughs for good measure.
“There are some really good, funny moments but there’s also an emotional depth to it that really embraces you and makes you value the relationships you have, whether it’s your close family or people you come into contact with,” notes Kerr, who is represented by Casarotto Ramsay.
“I’m really hopeful there’s something in this for everybody, particularly after the year we’ve had where so many of us have had to worry about threats to our health or deal with bereavement. So much of this story is about coming to terms with loss, but it’s about finding a way forward and finding the wonder in the world. That’s just a wonderful message for all of us at Christmas.”