“Talk the tiger,” Judith Kerr’s two-year-old daughter Tacy used to instruct her at bedtime. She was demanding more of the story her mother, who had trained as an artist but was then working as a television screenwriter, had started inventing for her after a visit to the zoo.
Talk the tiger Kerr did, and then over the course of a year she started writing it down and illustrating it. A friend recommended that she use bright indelible inks rather than her usual watercolours. The tiger sprang vividly to life and rapidly into homes up and down the land when his encounter with a little girl called Sophie was published as The Tiger Who Came to Tea in 1968. It was an immediate success and has remained in print ever since. Kerr, of course, became a prolific, highly respected and hugely loved children’s author over the subsequent half century, notably for the domestic adventures of another – albeit slightly smaller – cat, Mog, who was rightly felt to merit her own obituary in this paper when she alas ate her very last egg for breakfast. Kerr died in May at the age of 95.
Now the tiger has come to television, via a screenplay by Joanna Harrison and animation by Lupus Films, the team behind previous hit festive offerings We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and The Snowman and the Snowdog. And again, they have captured and honoured the look and the feel of what is now a beloved children’s classic. It expands Sophie and her mother’s world very slightly by opening with us following a cat – ginger, of course, for foreshadowing purposes, but I like to think it is some distant relative of our much-mourned, egg-loving tabby – down that Platonic ideal of a local high street with which the book closes. Past the florist and butcher, with a hint of a romance blossoming there, into the fishmonger to nab a treat, past the bobby in his domed helmet and on to Sophie’s door.
Sophie (Clara Ross) and her mother (Tamsin Greig) were planning to go the park but are thwarted by rain and make cakes and biscuits for a tea party instead. After a couple of teases, the tiger (David Oyelowo) arrives and proceeds, with vital fidelity to the book – plus a few additional flourishes like Sophie taking him up to the bathroom to clean his teeth and sticky fur and a small musical number performed with rare restraint by Robbie Williams – to eat all the sandwiches, all the cakes and all the biscuits. And then, my friends, to drink all the tea, all the orange juice and – the best, most mind-blowing part of all to me on my first and every reading thereafter, including reading the book now to my next generation – all the water in the taps. Imagine!
And then he says goodbye and leaves. When Daddy (Benedict Cumberbatch) comes home to a victuals-free house, he takes them all out for sausage and chips instead. Wherein lies my only complaint about this charming, faithful-yet-unslavish adaptation: those portions were nugatory where they should have been lavish. Cold-looking, thin, hotdog-type sausages and a smattering of skinny fries when all should have been fat, lush and steaming. We need Platonic ideals all the way in this kind of venture, OK?
Kerr herself always denied that her story was about anything other than a tiger coming to tea. But she was Jewish, and she and her family fled Berlin in 1933 when her father was put on a death list. Many have read into the book a reflection of her early experience of the safety of home as something that might be disrupted at any time. Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that – like most enduring books, for children or adults – there is something in her tale that resonates in all its readers down the generations. Kerr herself was always someone who saw the good in everything and the best in life. Perhaps this new adaptation should encourage us, in a pessimistic age, to embrace her attitude. The tiger comes to tea and is welcomed. He adds life and colour and excitement to a rainy day, and there are still sausages and chips thereafter. All is well.
• The Tiger Who Came to Tea is on Channel 4 on Christmas Eve at 7.30pm