Bedtime stories with my foster children have been one of the highlights of my lockdown. In what feels like a previous life I was too unreliable a commuter for that particular habit, but over the past nine months I have discovered that 7pm opens a window on all sorts of literary gems to share.
For most of the autumn my daughter and I have been laughing and crying together at Roald Dahl’s genius. We can hardly wait for bedtime each night to find out what happens next to Danny or Matilda or the BFG. And when our time is up, my daughter leaves another smile on my face by including Danny’s Dad in her prayers or thanking God that no giant swallowed Sophie when she was hiding inside a Snozzcumber. Sky’s brand-new Christmas drama about a young Roald Dahl couldn’t come at a better time for our family and, with its grounded message of hope at a time of crisis, it’s essential national viewing.
Dahl has hit headlines in recent days due to his well-documented antisemitic views. They rightly cast a shadow over the man; but it would be a shame if the necessary debate over his obviously reprehensible opinions caused audiences to bypass this uplifting drama or indeed to spurn Dahl’s books, whose adventures have delighted children for a generation.
Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse begins with young Roald mourning the deaths of his father and young sister. There was no coronavirus in the 1920s, but young Roald appears socially distanced anyway, unable to process his grief and afraid he will be sent away to boarding school. He may not be able to read his sister a Beatrix Potter story at bedtime any longer, but if only he can see the house where the author-illustrator lives, he believes he can find some remnant of hope in his tattered life. Off he goes on his odyssey, not knowing that Beatrix Potter is on a wild goose chase of her own.
Poor Potter (played by the inimitable Dawn French) is getting older and blinder and is left frustrated, negotiating the world through actual and metaphorical fog. She can’t finish her book, she can’t ward off the trespassing carol singers, and she can’t even catch the duck she wishes to turn into Christmas lunch.
Although Mr Potter (another brilliant casting in Rob Brydon) tries his best to assist and placate his wife, and Mrs Dahl bravely encourages her son’s imagination, it is when Roald and Beatrix finally get to meet each other that we are given a clue to the secret of resilience. Potter, in an argument with her publisher over whether or not three blind mice should be killed with a carving knife in a children’s book, asserts:
“The animals I write of may well look sweet… the world they encounter is all too real. Just like the children who read my books. We cannot shield children from the realities of life. Nor do I choose to. In my books rabbits get caught by farmers and get baked into pies. Hounds charge about and eat a duck’s beloved eggs. Rats sometimes even eat kittens or they certainly try to. And so far children have coped with all of this and more perfectly well.”
There is a lightness of touch to the drama, no heavy exposition, no mawkish sentimentality and no Christmas miracles. But there are wonderful scenes, literary in-jokes, fun animations, and set pieces that had all the children in my house laughing. We also meet some bonus characters on the way: a “Bona Fide Gentleman” with a wonderful way with words, a fantastic fox fur stole and a couple of twits to boot.
But the real takeaway from the production is the gentle reminder that children facing difficult situations need all the help they can get in processing them. Sharing regular bedtime stories is one helpful way families can do this together. It gives parents the opportunity to invest in children’s wonder, hope and imagination. It offers children a chance to explore and talk about their feelings in a safe time and space – before, of course, their dreams take them to places where there are cheeky talking rabbits and chocolate factories of their own.
Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse, will air on Sky One at 8.15pm on Christmas Eve and will be available on streaming service NOW TV
The show will also be available on demand so you can watch it straight away on Christmas Eve and all through the holiday period.