Parents and children worldwide will recognise the opening of The Tiger Who Came To Tea.
Since it was released in 1968, the children’s picture book – written by the late Judith Kerr, who died aged 95 in May – has sold more than five million copies, enchanting generations with its tale of a little girl whose afternoon is interrupted by a big, unannounced, furry, tea-guzzling tiger.
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Now, over half a century later, this timeless classic is gearing up to take on a new form in the shape of Channel 4’s hand-drawn animated special. Produced by Lupus Films and HarperCollins – the makers of the hugely popular We’re Going On A Bear Hunt – the half-hour film will charm families over the festive period with its take on the irresistible story.
But, with such a beloved piece comes pressure, says producer and Lupus Films co-founder Ruth Fielding. “It’s a privilege [but] that burden of responsibility is huge,” she admits.
“Though we had Judith; she was involved in the script, she saw the design, she was involved in choosing the cast, the lyrics of the song, so we weren’t worried that we’d do a bad job because we had her help and she was across the whole process. She knew what she wanted, there was no doubt about that.”
Before Kerr’s death, the German-born British writer and illustrator - also known for the hit 17-book Mog series - was entirely on board with the page-to-screen reworking.
“Judith was very clear; she [originally] wrote it when she was at home looking after a four-year-old little girl [her daughter, Tacy] and you have to use all your power of imagination to entertain a young child,” says Fielding.
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“It’s about – to coin a phrase – turning lemons into lemonade; it’s about taking a situation and making the best of it and being a happy, entertained little girl and imagining what might happen if a tiger came to tea.”
The talent casted to tell the tale includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Tamsin Greig, David Oyelowo, David Walliams and Paul Whitehouse, who will voice the familiar characters of Daddy, Mummy, Tiger, Narrator and Milkman. Seven-year-old newcomer Clara Ross makes her TV debut as Sophie.
“They all loved the book and read it to their kids, so they all said yes straightaway,” recalls Fielding. “We aimed high and got the best, and we were so impressed with the level of talent we got. It was an absolute joy to work with them all.”
“Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to play the iconic tiger from The Tiger Who Came To Tea?” asked Selma star Oyelowo, when it was announced he’d play the eponymous feline. He’s a big cat of few words because he’s too busy eating, but I relished all of the growling, chomping and slurping, which called on me to find my inner cat!”
“I knew Judith well and I really adored her,” chimes narrator Walliams. “I’m so proud to be associated with it because it’s a stone cold classic. Just like the book has been around for over 50 years, hopefully the animation will have this incredible longevity too.”
The animated special will also feature a brand-new track, Hey Tiger!, which was penned by composer David Arnold and Oscar-winning lyricist Don Black, and sung by Robbie Williams.
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So why, after 51 years, did Kerr finally want to adapt this book? “She wanted to reach more children around the world,” Fielding answers simply. “And one sure way of doing that is to make a film, as it’s more likely to reach more countries. It’s enduring appeal is it makes you feel so happy; it makes you smile when you read it and when you watch the film.”
“The things that are in there that are most important are timeless,” adds director Robin Shaw. “There’s nothing that we can’t relate to, no matter what age we are.”
The Tiger Who Came to Tea will air on Channel 4 over the Christmas week.