Check under your floorboards! Boxing Day’s new version of The Borrowers rings so true you’ll believe they really do exist, says its star-studded cast
Cape Town, South Africa, and one of our finest actors, Christopher Eccleston, has just finished a day’s filming on his latest project.
Unfortunately, it didn’t involve pristine white beaches and vistas of Table Mountain, but eight hours plummeting out of a gigantic waste pipe into a pool of vile-smelling gloop. This is one of the sets for a magical modern TV update of The Borrowers, Mary Norton’s classic series of books about tiny people who live under the floorboards, ‘borrowing’ items from humans to survive.
‘We were shooting out of that drain all day just to film a one-minute scene, and I can tell you it wasn’t fun,’ says Chris. ‘It was freezing cold, even though we were wearing wetsuits under our costumes, and the slop smelled sickly sweet. Any pretensions I had to being a serious actor were destroyed there and then.’
Christmas highlight: Victoria Wood and Stephen Fry star in Boxing Day”s The Borrowers
He, Victoria Wood and Stephen Fry are among the all-star line-up in this radically reimagined version of the story, which is a highlight of BBC1’s Boxing Day schedule.
Chris plays Pod, the father of the tiny Clock family, who are discovered under the boards of the house owned by Victoria Wood’s character, Granny Driver.
She wants rid of them and calls in Stephen Fry’s Professor Mildeye, who is determined to capture some of the little people to prove they exist and thus resurrect his flagging scientific career. Pod must then lead his wife, Homily, and daughter, Arrietty, on a desperate dash for freedom, including the hurtling through drains.
Chris, who gave his Doctor Who plenty of zip in 2005, decided to reinvent Pod as an action hero. ‘I modelled him on Indiana Jones. I insisted on doing all my own stunts. Pod has to skydive from the humans’ furniture, so I had to jump 12ft on to a crash pad. I had to do a series of leaps from a bookcase, which for Pod would have been like jumping into the Grand Canyon.’
Under the floorboards: In the program, Robert Sheehan, Sharon Horgan, Christopher Eccleston and Aisling Loftus are The Borrowers
The production team went to incredible lengths to evoke what life would be like for these tiny folk. Director Tom Harper says, ‘The whole charm of the story is, “What if there really were little people under the floor”
So we wanted to make it as realistic as possible, using oversized props to give the actors the sense of their world. I loved the idea that the Borrowers should be dressed like action heroes too, and so the images and parables of the Toy Story films were an influence.’
Chris agrees. ‘Your work is done for you when you’re standing against a 12ft-high piece of skirting board that looks like the real thing. And despite the brilliant update, I don’t think this film is too far from the beating heart of Mary Norton.’
Some of the modern references – such as the Borrowers cinema that uses a laptop for a big screen – may puzzle devotees of the original quartet of books, which were published between 1952 and 1961, with a fifth novel in 1982, ten years before Mary Norton’s death.
Hideaways: One scene shops Loftus” Ariety, Horgan”s Homily and Eccleston”s Pod trying not to be found
But this adaptation takes the spirit of the books and relocates them to today, as well as grafting on a new adventure narrative, an expanded network of characters and, most thrillingly of all, ‘Borrower Town’. This outpost, built by the little people in an abandoned Underground station with cardboard boxes, baked bean tins and bits of Lego, is where Pod and Homily find refuge with Arrietty, who until then has spent her life in seclusion.
‘I wanted to tell the story of a young girl going out into the wide world for the first time and feeling the throes of passion when she meets another young Borrower,’ says writer Ben Vanstone. When headstrong Arrietty starts throwing adolescent strops, Pod, like any human dad, becomes over-protective.
The show is based on Mary Norton”s much-loved novel
‘It’s a film for the whole family,’ says Ben. ‘Parents will see their children in it, and children will recognise their parents.’
The producers managed to coax another of the stars, Victoria Wood, back onto TV over Christmas, when she has appeared so often in the past with her comedy specials. Her Granny Driver is in financial meltdown as she sees the little people running about the house. ‘She’s gone a bit potty with the stress of her life and starts trying to stab at the Borrowers with a screwdriver,’ says Victoria, who also admits to having a few run-ins with her character’s cat.
‘For a start, it had the biggest dressing room.
Also, it was supposed to sit on my lap and then go to sniff around the Christmas tree. But although the production staff fed it all day so it would be in a stupor, it wouldn’t stay still on me. So I had to sit there with this fat tabby squashed between my leg and the chair, and even then it kept looking round.
Then, when it was time for it to move, it refused to go. I don’t mind cats but you can’t make them act if they don’t want to.’
The Borrowers, BBC1, Boxing Day, 7.30pm.