The disclaimer at the beginning of Roald and Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse (Sky One) explained: “Based on some real events… and some other entirely made up ones too.” Perhaps Peter Morgan could borrow that for the next series of The Crown?
Some of the made-up bits were obvious: a talking fox, for example. But others, well, I wasn’t quite sure. Did a young Roald Dahl, grieving for a father and sister who died within weeks of each other, really make the journey to Beatrix Potter’s Lake District home because he wanted to meet the author of Jemima Puddleduck? According to the writer of this drama, various sources suggest so, although it seems peculiar that Dahl didn’t mention such a formative experience in his memoirs.
Roald was played, in a winning performance, by nine-year-old Harry Tayler. Potter was played by Dawn French. Now, French is not an actress who disappears into a role. She is always inescapably Dawn French, dressed up. Why bother with an accent when you can just play Beatrix Potter as a woman who talked exactly like Dawn French? It’s the Sean Bean school of acting.
It is said that Potter wasn’t the easiest character, and French portrayed her as grumpy and difficult, tired of being treated as a cash cow by her publishers and annoyed at her failing eyesight. Rob Brydon, meanwhile, was under-used as her husband, William.
The drama was inventive, mixing live action with lovely stop-motion animation, talking puppets and narration by John Hannah. It was a clever touch to have Roald encounter characters along the way who would one day feature in his stories: that fantastic fox, a nasty twit of man with a beard full of food, a larger-than-life fellow (Strictly winner Bill Bailey) with a BFG-esque command of language. And when Beatrix squinted out of the window and caught sight of Roald in her garden, didn’t he remind you of someone in his little blue jacket?
Yet somehow, it all felt a bit thin. There was warmth in the relationship between Roald and his mother, Sofie (Jessica Hynes, the best thing here), but the rest of it was chilly. It made the point that Potter didn’t shield children from the dark side of life, even if she dressed her animals in little bonnets, but I cringed at her publisher, played by Nina Sosanya, spouting some very 2020 drivel about the three blind mice having “an obvious disability”. All in all, a sweet tale but one that could have done with a bigger sprinkling of Christmas magic.