7 Questions with… Julia Donaldson and Rob Brydon: The enduring magic of The Snail and the Whale

BT TV speak to the cast and creator of this year's Christmas Day must-watch for families across the country.

Published: 28 November 2019 - 12.33pm
BBC/Magic Light Pictures Rob Brydon voicing The Snail and the Whale

Saving Christmas all over again for a nation of stressed-out parents comes Julia Donaldson's annual Christmas Day film on BBC One.

This year's book, lovingly recreated on the small screen by the aptly named Magic Light Pictures, is The Snail and the Whale.

One of Donaldson's most popular books, it was originally published in 2003, and follows the joyous adventure of a snail and a whale, celebrating the wonderful richness and diversity of our natural world and the power of voices that often go unheard.

Just like previous smash hits from the BBC and Donaldson such as Zog, Stick Man, Room on the Broom and The Gruffalo, the Snail and the Whale looks destined to be watched again and again by families over the holidays and beyond.

The short film features a voice cast including Magic Light Pictures regular Rob Brydon as the whale, Sally Hawkins as the snail, Dame Diana Rigg as the narrator and Cariad Lloyd as the teacher.

BT TV heard from Rob Brydon and Julia Donalson at the films launch to find out why this year's film is a little bit extra special...

1. Can you remember what inspired you writing this story Julia?

The Snail and the Whale BBC/Magic Light Pictures

Julia: Gosh. It was a long time ago, it was probably 15 to 20 years ago. Actually, you're probably not going to be very impressed by this - it wasn't written from a great desire to save the world or anything. In fact, I'd been asked, a few years before by an educational publisher to write some phonics stories starting with ‘Ai’ sounding words, so I thought of ‘paint,’ ‘snail’, ‘trail’. Then this publisher decided they weren't going to do those types of books and they abandoned the whole series.

I still had this idea for a story about a snail painting in it. Plus, I was writing a novel at the time called The Giants and the Joneses, who are a little bit like The Borrowers. We'd already done the Smartest Giant in Town, and that was also about big and small. I just had to have someone small helping someone big, like one of Aesop's Fables. It just all came together. Plus one other influence, a very strong influence is The Jumblies by Edward Lear.

It's taps into a lot of basic things, isn't it, that the yearning to travel, the yearning to see the world, the size, the scale, the way of the big and small coming together.

It's a fable saying that little can help big. Little in a superficially unassuming way can help someone very obviously big and powerful.

Another element of the story, it seems like a folly of the snail, the desire for adventure and to escape conformity. You know when everyone's saying don't do that, that's a ridiculous thing to do. My favourite bits of the story is actually the ending when all the snails go off with the whale.

2. Rob, which Julia Donaldson film has been your favourite?

The Snail and the Whale BBC/Magic Light Pictures

Rob: One of my favourites, I loved, was when I narrated the Highway Rat. I loved doing that. And I did like being the Snake in the Gruffalo and the Gruffalo’s Child. He has a bit of a Welsh feel. We don't have many snakes in Wales, but I thought that was a lovely one to do. I'm just thrilled to be a part of it.

I was hoping that they would do the Snail and the Whale. It's a beautiful book. I've got five children, so over the years, I've clocked up a lot of reading time of children's stories. And the very good ones do make it look easy, make it look effortless and its only when you read a bad one and it just clunks along the page. As you're reading it, it's almost painful to read and you can't wait for your child to sleep. ‘Good God, go to sleep so I can stop reading this’.

But truly this just flows so beautifully in the economy of words. As a comedian I’m a big fan of economy all the time and not using too many words. And Julia’s a maestro of that.

3. Are there any Julia Donaldson characters left you would love to voice?

The Snail and the Whale BBC/Magic Light Pictures

Rob:  Well, I think the Giant could be for me if they ever did it [The Smartest Giant In Town]. I'd be very happy, Julia. Very happy. Very happy. I never thought that I'd end up being in every one of them. Each year I would sort of wonder if they would get in touch again this year. Is it going to happen? And then it started to become this regular thing.

The quality of the project from start to finish, from the source material from the writing, from Axel's illustrations. And then the animation is sublime. It is just beautiful. I mean what I do is a very, very small part of it.”

4. You said that you didn’t write this with a political message in mind – are you surprised how much the book does feel very relevant to 2019?

The Snail and the Whale BBC/Magic Light Pictures

Julia: When I said there was no message at the time of writing it, I guess I meant that it wasn't the primary intention. There is a message. There's a difference between what gives you the idea and starts you off and how it ends up. And of course, I wasn't just writing a story that was a string of sounding out words – phonic codes. There is definitely a message.

I feel that children that I know are all terribly aware. Partly thanks to the David Attenborough programmes, the plastic crisis and particularly global warming, so perhaps there is a hint of it here.

The school children this year going on strike and feeling that they can do something to help and all that is in the film. It's not just about the snail, but what the snail represents - a child and the children in the school actually doing something for the environment.

I think the message that we should marvel at the beauty of the world has grown since the book was published. It's even more important now that children should know that this world is threatened in a big way and that we should all marvel at the beauty and try to keep it for as long as possible.

5. What's the question you get asked most by children Julia?

The Snail and the Whale BBC/Magic Light Pictures

Julia: Many children come up to me and say, can we have a book bringing in all your characters together. But I just say 'no, you can't!'

6. Rob - are there any characters in Julia's films that you would like to bring back or give them their own story?

Rob: No, I think they're all kind of perfect as they are. And I wouldn't assume to suggest that.  But… Did you see the horse in the Highway Rat? I felt I felt there were hidden depths there. He had a look in his eye that suggested he had an opinion on everything. So I thought that was a lovely. That was a lovely character, actually. The Horse in the Highway Rat!

7. Next year the films is going to be Zog and the Flying Doctors – will you be in it again Rob?  

The Snail and the Whale BBC/Magic Light Pictures

Rob:  Am I allowed to say? I don't know if it's supposed to be a secret. Maybe that gives away the answer! These things are very secret. Can I say?  Yes, I am. Yes, I can say. Yes. Thumbs up. 

The Snail and The Whale airs on BBC One on Christmas Day.