Judi Dench, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Curtis, Paul Mayhew-Archer, Hilary Bevan Jones and Dearbhla Walsh on Roald Dahl's Esio Trot
Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot - published in 1990 - tells the tale of shy Mr Hoppy, his neighbour Mrs Silver, and a tortoise called Alfie who brings them together. Roald Dahl’s principal illustrator Quentin Blake called it “a love story set in two rooms.” Alfie, Mrs Silver and Mr Hoppy are all set to make their television debut this coming New Years Day, 1 January 2015 on BBC One. Love and tortoises? What better way to kick off 2015.
The BBC One adaptation features Dustin Hoffman as Mr Hoppy and Judi Dench as Mrs Silver. Written by Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer, the film was produced by Endor Productions’ Hilary Bevan Jones and directed by Dearbhla Walsh. We caught up with the cast and creative team to find out how they went about turning this tortoise tale into a festive treat…
Esio Trot is unusual among Roald Dahl’s children's stories in that its principal characters are both adults. Mr Hoppy is retired and lives alone in the flat above Mrs Silver, who shares her home with Alfie - the focus of her attention. Mr Hoppy, who has been in love with Mrs Silver for years, devises an ingenious way to win Mrs Silver’s affection by helping her in her ambition for Alfie to “teg reggib, reggib” (that’s “get bigger, bigger” for those unfamiliar with the Esio Trot chant. And Esio Trot is short for tortoise, don’t you know.)
So it’s a story about love, and tortoises, and funny backwards chants, but it’s also one about loneliness - and it’s this that gives Esio Trot its dramatic heart. As writer Richard Curtis said, “being lonely when you’re older makes the stakes higher.”
For Dustin Hoffman, who plays Mr Hoppy, this makes him relatable. “It’s about, can you see yourself living alone? And I could,” he says of being asked to play the role. “I tried to become the person I would have been if I had not had the freak accident of becoming famous,” he continues.
I remember as a teenager being turned down to the Prom and not being able to finish dialling the number of the last girl I had a chance to ask out, so I feel like we all have a bit of Mr Hoppy in us.
- Dustin Hoffman
Mrs Silver is, as co-writer Paul Mayhew-Archer says, “the perfect woman to draw Mr Hoppy out of his shell; she’s selfless, generous and her love for life is what Mr Hoppy finds so attractive.”
And when Richard Curtis and producer Hilary Bevan Jones approached Judi Dench to play Mrs Silver, she jumped at the chance. “I wanted to play Mrs Silver unconditionally,” she says. Having read Roald Dahl’s stories to “many, many children,” she had also previously visited his Writing Hut, now housed in the Roald Dahl Museum. Of Roald’s writing, she says,
He had a marvellously original mind and knew how to tell wonderful stories that appealed to all ages.
- Judi Dench on Roald Dahl
“We heard back from Judi saying she wouldn’t let anyone else play Mrs Silver apart from her; the fact that she agreed still amazes me,” adds Richard Curtis.
The incredible Esio Trot cast also includes James Corden, who narrates the story. His character doesn't appear in Roald Dahl’s tale but, as Paul says, his appearance gave the team the chance to perform their own “tale of the unexpected.” And, according to Richard Curtis, James is “cheeky and chirpy,” in a way that chimes with Roald Dahl’s writing.
The other stars of the show are the 60 live tortoises and 40 models who play ‘Alfie’ throughout his transformation (we’re not giving much away, but you’ll see what we mean when you watch the film…)
“The tortoises were more difficult than Judi and Dustin,” director Dearbhla Walsh laughs. “Dustin had four days where he was just with those tortoises all day,” Paul reveals - to which Dustin adds, “… and the smell was horrible!”
It was also a learning experience for Dustin. As the owner of a tortoise called Seventy - a 70th birthday present - Tortoise Handler Mark Amey gave Dustin some tips on what to feed him. “I was excited to get home and see Seventy again and feed him strawberries, not just lettuce and bread,” Dustin says.
It was Judi who was the real tortoise whisperer on set though. "When I had to say the Esio Trot poem to Alfie, he went into a kind of stupor and yawned," she says. "And let me tell you, a tortoise yawning is all-encompassing."
Working with Judi was a treat for Dustin. “She is the most remarkable actor I have ever worked with; she has immense energy, warmth and joie de vivre,” he says. “She always wanted to go out to dinner, but I needed a nap…”
In the film, Mrs Silver enjoys her dancing - something that meant several days of choreography training for Dustin partly because, he says of Judi, "this one will dance your socks off."
Tune in to BBC One on New Year's Day 2015 at 6.30pm to see how Mr Hoppy and Mrs Silver choreograph this tale of love and loneliness - with a little help from James Corden and several Alfie the Tortoises.