‘Tis the season for weather warnings, sherry and picture book adaptations. And in this festive spirit, Channel 4 celebrated Christmas Eve with Judith Kerr’s beloved Mog.
The last time she was on our screens was 2015’s Mog’s Christmas Calamity, a live action Sainsbury’s advert in which Mog inadvertently destroyed a house full of decorations while also setting it on fire. It was three minutes and twenty seconds of sheer feline panic. This new animation is a gentler affair, adapted from Kerr’s picture book of the same name, which was first published in 1976.
The pastels and line drawings speak pleasingly of the original, but with its world newly expanded, the small screen version of Mog’s Christmas is very retro indeed. Milk floats and Morris Minors trundle through London streets, and the shop windows display bulky televisions showing a mixture of static and Morecambe and Wise. This is nostalgia all dressed up in a kipper tie and cords. Well, it’s certainly different.
Picture books are by their very nature short, meant to be read to small children with even smaller attention spans, and so there is often not quite enough text to fill a full half hour. As with many of the recent picture book TV adaptations, Mog‘s makers faced a choice: expand the story, or stick with the original and take things slowly? But if that Sainsbury’s advert was, perhaps, excessively brisk, Channel 4’s adaptation verges upon saggy.
Adjoa Andoh’s narration gives exactly the right amount of seasonal sparkle to a script that borrows from other Mog books to round things out. Still, the plot, if it can be called that, is as simple as they come: Mog finds the Thomas family’s Christmas bustle strange and confusing and goes to hide on the roof.
With his insistence on getting a sensibly-sized tree and refrain of “Bother that cat”, Mr Thomas (Benedict Cumberbatch) veers quite close to being a baddie, and there’s a nice moment when Mrs Thomas (Claire Foy) looks wistfully at Mog’s snowy rooftop and says, “It’s rather nice up here, isn’t it? Peaceful”. But the supporting characters don’t stand up to scrutiny. The two aunts, voiced by Miriam Margolyes and Maggie Steed, are a bit mad, and the Jolly Uncle (Charlie Higson) has a weird balloon obsession.
Ultimately, it’s all about Mog, and she’s as worried and plumptious as Kerr originally envisaged, stepping delicately across the rooftops, and rather less delicately through Mrs Thomas’s cooking. Much of the action takes place from a cat’s eye view –pleasing for young viewers, with many shots looking up at the Thomas family from ankle height.
So very traditional is this adaptation that it does feel somewhat at odds with the world right now, and especially playing on a channel that’s famous for its alternative Christmas message. Do we really need another warm and happy family in a perfect little bubble?
But when Mog sleeps and dreams, Sophie Ellis-Bextor sings of belonging and of home. Is this a – veiled – reference to those out there who might not be quite so safe and content? It’s a stretch, yes, but then again, it’s worth remembering that Judith Kerr was also the author of the classic children’s book about the refugee experience, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.
But all’s well in the land of Mog; not just well, but lovely. While it isn’t exactly stirring or even especially memorable, this is a show for the very young, the very tired, for all those of us in need of something soothing and sweet. At this time of year, that is extremely welcome.