Television: Esio Trot’s perfectly pitched tortoise tale

Review: What’s not to like about Richard Curtis's adaptation of the Roald Dahl story, starring Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench?

Happy ever after: Dustin Hoffman as Mr Hoppy and Judi Dench as Mrs Silver

Happy ever after: Dustin Hoffman as Mr Hoppy and Judi Dench as Mrs Silver

 

There’s an uneasy moment in Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot (BBC One, Thursday) when Dustin Hoffman appears and you’re afraid that for the next 90 minutes you won’t be able to stop thinking, Hey, that’s Dustin Hoffman on the telly pretending to be an old man in a London tower block. And then the magic of this perfectly cast and executed fairy tale takes over.

Dahl’s story is adapted by Richard Curtis (and Paul Mayhew-Archer), so you know to expect a tug on the heart strings – and Hoffman easily shakes off Hollywood to fully become Mr Hoppy, a painfully shy American retiree, head to toe in beige, whose passions are his balcony garden and the ebullient, colourful widow Mrs Silver (Judi Dench), who lives downstairs.

The on-screen narrator, James Corden – who, as Charlie Brooker points out in his hilariously acerbic end-of-year round up, 2014 Wipe (BBC Two, Tuesday), is for reasons unknown a British “national treasure” – fills in the details of the story while travelling across an idyllic London. There’s a touch of Dick Van Dyke as he hops on and off buses, nods a cheery “wotcha” to happy-looking strangers, and all under a bright-blue sky.

As irritating as Corden is, it’s a perfect device that lets the two leads get on with the business of giving dazzling and touching performances of two lonely people making their way towards each other. After five years of secretly pining for Mrs Silver, Mr Hoppy hits on a trick to grant her biggest wish, which is to make her tortoise, Alfie, grow. He gives her “an old Bedouin chant”, a jumble of words spelled backwards, including esio trot – tortoise backwards, but you spotted that. He then lowers a series of ever larger replacement tortoises on to her balcony, and Alfie appears to grow. (The rest comically take over his bleak flat.)

In the great tradition of true-love yarns there are obstacles, including a boorish neighbour, Mr Pringle (a gem of a performance from Richard Cordery), who also fancies Mrs Silver, but whom she dismisses as “an arse-paralysing bore”. (Dench has some terrific lines.)

Esio Trot has a happy ending – and that’s not a spoiler. This charming, sweet confection, directed by Dearbhla Walsh, couldn’t end any other way. And, as with all Richard Curtis films, you come away humming a tune from the perfectly uplifting soundtrack, this time It’s Been a Long, Long Time by Louis Armstrong. What’s not to like as a kick-off for 2015 TV?

Every Dubliner of a certain age remembers the man on the bridge, the street photographer who every day for 50 years, Christmas Day included, stood on O’Connell Bridge with a camera around his neck, offering to take photos of passers-by.

By the time I was conscious of him, in the early 1980s, his camera was a Polaroid, and the octogenarian looked like an eccentric offering a service no one in the age of cheap cameras could need. So it is something of a revelation in Man on Bridge (RTÉ One, Sunday), a beautifully constructed, subtly emotional documentary, to discover that Arthur Fields – or Abraham Feldman, as he was born – was a Yiddish-speaking Dubliner with a long-suffering family in the suburbs who back in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s was as dapper as his impromptu photographic subjects.

For a long time O’Connell Street was a very glamorous place; the evidence is in Fields’s photographs, now gathered together for the Man on Bridge archive project. He worked one side of the bridge, his beloved brother David the other, and they made a good living.

Back home in Raheny, Fields’s wife, Doreen – the definition of devotion – developed the photographs in a darkroom under the stairs, then posted them to customers. We learn a lot about Fields from his three sons, who talk honestly about how complex and even downright odd he was. He didn’t photograph their weddings, because he didn’t go to them; he didn’t go to his wife’s funeral, either. He worked on the bridge – and that, not his family, was his life.

His snapshots capture slices of Dublin life over half a century: the clothes, the hairstyles, the buildings and cars in the background, all charting the changes in the city. He may unwittingly, as one contributor says, have “become one of the greatest archivists of social history in Ireland”, although he probably would have been horrified by such notions.

The personal stories behind some of the black-and-white images – not too many, as that would have been the easy option for the film-makers – are lovely, notably the 14-year-old Gresham Hotel bellboy captured in his pillbox uniform and now a grandad.

The programme’s director, Ciarán Deeney, captures the vitality of a changing Dublin and the strange obsession of the man who photographed it for half a century. And choosing Chris O’Dowd as a narrator gives the nostalgia-filled film a lightness – a counterpoint to the sadness that at times envelopes it.

In a week filled with repeats, a new three-part drama, Mapp and Lucia (BBC One, Tuesday-Thursday) is like a siren in the schedules. The series is based on the very English comic novels by EF Benson about social climbing and petty jealousy in a seaside village in the 1930s, where Elizabeth Mapp (Miranda Richardson) and Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas (Anna Chancellor), two fearsome snobs, battle it out over bridge parties, summer fetes and garden produce. Stuffed with familiar TV faces, it looks gorgeous – the hats alone are spectacular. And if this Mapp and Lucia – there have been many adaptations – doesn’t make you want to visit Rye, the stand-in location for Benson’s Tilling, nothing will.

But instead of relishing the waspish sly comedy of the novels about small-town one-upmanship, the drama sets itself on a rather camp and overwrought course. It’s not unlike the exaggerated dramatic style – which I can’t stand – of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and for good reason: Mapp and Lucia’s screenplay is by Steve Pemberton from that series, who also plays Lucia’s companion Georgie in a succession of bizarre costumes.

After three episodes Mapp and Lucia ends up being one of those TV dramas where the ensemble cast appears to be having a far better time arching their eyebrows and bigging up their already larger-than-life characters than any viewer possibly could have watching it.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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