As a New Year’s Day treat for all the family, Esio Trot (BBC1) seemed to be taking no chances. It was based on a book by Roald Dahl, had a script by Richard Curtis and his Vicar of Dibley co-writer Paul Mayhew-Archer, and starred Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman. So.
The appeal of the original story to Richard Curtis isn’t difficult to fathom. Not only is it one of Dahl’s late works with, according to his biographer Jeremy Treglown, ‘a new kindly tone’, but it also features a male protagonist who’s both lovelorn and tongue-tied. From the balcony of his London flat, Mr Hoppy (Hoffman) could gaze down on the unexpectedly vivid décolletage displayed by Dame Judi as the widowed Mrs Silver on the balcony below. He could chat with her every day. He could not, however, bring himself to declare his love.
But then came his big chance. Mrs S. became weirdly obsessed with her tortoise Alfie’s failure to grow, and announced she could never be happy until he was larger. And with that, Mr Hoppy snapped into action. First, he encouraged her regularly to recite what was supposedly a Bedouin tortoise-growing spell, even though it consisted of English read backwards. (Hence its opening words, ‘Esio trot’.) Second, he bought 50 tortoises of varying sizes and secretly replaced Alfie with a different, slightly bigger specimen every few days.
It might sound a bit literal-minded to point out what a rubbish plan this was — or the difficulty of believing that Mrs Silver never noticed her beloved Alfie’s shell-colouring changing along with his size. After all, nobody objects to the story of Goldilocks on the grounds that bears can’t talk or cook porridge. Unfortunately, though, Esio Trot wasn’t played as a fairy tale. Instead, it seemed to consider itself a proper romance set in a world recognisably our own.
Why else, for example, would the whole thing have been framed by James Corden as the narrator, who was seen travelling around a determinedly modern London as he commented on the action and repeatedly explained how great love is? We later discovered that his insider knowledge of the tortoise plan had come from Mr Hoppy himself — but never what his sections were meant to add. At times they appeared to be there only to supply a series of somewhat nervous assurances from the authors that, contrary to appearances, the story we were watching was an epic tale of love, ‘full of passion and surprises’.
Meanwhile, of course, the central narrative question wasn’t so much ‘Will they, won’t they?’ as ‘How shamelessly could the programme postpone the moment until they did?’ — and the answer was very shamelessly indeed. As a result, poor Richard Cordery had to play Mr Pringle as both a comically excruciating bore and a serious rival for Mrs Silver’s affections, who only had to ask her out to dinner for Mr Hoppy to become convinced that he’d lost her for ever — a feeling confirmed when, thanks to Mr Pringle, she finally rumbled the trick with the tortoises. And that, Corden told us sadly, ‘is the end of the story… Not the ending you were expecting’.
But nor, needless to say, was it the ending we got. At this stage, there were still 15 minutes to go — easily enough time in a Richard Curtis drama (wildly unnecessary spoiler alert) for Mrs Silver to forgive Mr Hoppy for deceiving her, reveal that she’d been in love with him all along and accept his proposal of marriage.
Admittedly, there was some surprise in how quickly this happened —but only because up to then the pace had apparently taken its cue from all those tortoises. The plodding even extended to such scenes of flat-out farce as Mr Hoppy’s dinner for Mrs Silver and Mr Pringle, where he had to cook and serve the food without giving away the presence of 50 tortoises in his kitchen. (Think Fawlty Towers played at roughly quarter speed.)
In the circumstances, you might have expected the two leads at least partly to save the day. Yet, if anything, Dustin Hoffman underplayed so assiduously as to drain still more vitality from proceedings. And, given her character’s essential and sometimes embarrassing childishness, even some industrial-grade twinkling from Judi Dench wasn’t enough to make Mrs Silver remotely match Mr Hoppy’s description of her as ‘the most delightful, exotic woman in the world’.
At his best, Richard Curtis serves up the kind of world-conquering entertainment that’s far easier to sneer at than it is to resist. At other times, his work can be an awkward combination of the implausible and the entirely foreseeable. Even with a New Year hangover, it wasn’t hard to see which category Esio Trot fell into.