Too much festive fare in one go has a tendency to bring on a sugar rush, so it’s good to report that Dawn French brings a lip-smacking dash of vinegar to this sweet Christmas offering. French serves up children’s writer Beatrix Potter as a kind of 12-bird roast personality, in which rudeness is stuffed with impatience, which is stuffed with obstreperousness, then irritation, and so on until you find the kindness buried deep within.
While based on a true story, the meeting of the young Roald Dahl with the elderly creator of Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck can’t have played out quite as delightfully as writer Abigail Wilson imagines it. Six-year-old Dahl has just lost his father and sister, the former to an aneurysm, the latter to a burst appendix. He finds solace in the animal stories of his favourite writer, and worries about being sent away to boarding school, so much so that he decides to run away from Wales to the Lake District in order to meet his idol.
Meanwhile, in Cumberland, Beatrix Potter — Mrs Heelis, if you don’t mind — fears her inspiration has dried up. The arrival of her importunate publisher Anne Landy (Nina Sosanya) anchors her to the desk when she’d much rather be romping the fells with her beloved Herdwick sheep and swapping livestock tips with the local farmers. Beatrix’s life is filled with animal companions, including a sow called Sally who’s allowed to roam the house against the wishes of kindly Mr Heelis (Rob Brydon). Beatrix’s attempts to pass off the flatulence of the hidden pig as her own are pure Dahl.
Jessica Hynes is a revelation as Sofie, Roald’s gentle mother, who masks her own mourning in order to boost her son’s spirits with silly games and cheerful thoughts. Hynes nails the Welsh-Norwegian accent too. An all-star cast includes Nick Mohammed as an optician, Alison Steadman as a kindly tea-shop owner and Bill Bailey as a silver-tongued, Polari-speaking eccentric who may be a figment of the boy’s imagination. Adding spectacular magic to the gorgeous sets are the animated sequences and puppetry, bringing to life such characters as the Three Blind Mice and a talkative fox-fur collar (voiced by Kevin Bishop) who thoroughly objects to adorning the neck of an objectionable old lady.
Harry Tayler aged nine is an otherworldly Roald Dahl, outwardly polite and obedient but nursing a rich inner vein of mischief and rebellion. Tayler is utterly poised, whether acting alongside the stars or the animated characters, and the scene with his sister’s doll, who waits on her bed just in case she comes back, is heart-wrenching. Steam trains, snow, adorable animals — a Christmas classic is born.
On Sky One on December 24 at 8.15pm
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