Meet the producer of BBC One festive treat, The Highway Rat!

Meet the producer of BBC One festive treat, The Highway Rat!

Francine Wolfisz speaks to Michael Rose about turning Julia Donaldson’s story into a sumptuous £2m animation

From plucky chickens escaping their cages, to a vegetable-munching beast, a stick man who has lost his way home and a terrifying, forest-lurking monster, there’s not much producer Michael Rose doesn’t know about enthralling audiences, whatever their age.

Now Rose, who runs Magic Light Pictures with Martin Pope, is set to entertain again with his latest animated treat – an adaptation of Julia Donaldson’s The Highway Rat – which airs on BBC One on Christmas Day.

Doctor Who star David Tennant leads the cast as the eponymous rat bandit, who strikes upon innocent travellers to steal their “pastries and puddings, chocolate and cake”, because as he tells them: “I am the Rat of the Highway, and whatever I want I take!”

The sumptuous £2million animation from Belgian director Jeroen Jaspaert also includes Rob Brydon, Tom Hollander, Nina Sosanya and Frances de le Tour.

For Rose and Pope, this will be the fifth adaptation of a book by Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler, following on from The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child, Room On A Broom and Stick Man.

The latter scored 9.3million viewers, with a massive 41% share of the audience, while all of Magic Light’s productions to date have received huge critical acclaim, including the Bafta Children’s Award for Room On A Broom.

Michael Rose and Martin Pope’s Magic Light Pictures has adapted The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler into a sumptuous £2million animation

Like its forerunners, The Highway Rat uses the latest computer animation techniques, “with a model-animation feel” and took a 130-strong crew over 18 months to create from a studio based in Cape Town, South Africa.

While the married father-of-one from north London is certainly proud of the accolades his company has picked up, he also reveals for him it’s all about “creating magic”.

“In this fragmented media age, with so many outlets competing for viewers, there is still something magical when the whole family can sit down to watch together,” he tells me. “That’s what really drives us. It may seem a touch old-fashioned, but there’s a need for it. Families still like that feeling of being together.”

Understanding his audience is a skill that Rose has honed over the years, having started out in programming at art house cinemas in Plymouth and Bristol. In the late 1980s, he was involved in helping stage the British Animation Festival and took an interest in this growing medium.

“I’d always loved movies, I’d always loved visual arts, and I realised that with animation you can actually combine the two.”

The Highway Rat enjoys a reign of terror over fellow travellers, including Squirrel

He went on to work with Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park at Aardman Animations as a producer on A Close Shave, before heading up the company’s feature film division.  During his time there, he was executive producer of Chicken Run, as well as the Oscar and Bafta-winning The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

By 2003, Rose had ambitions to set up his own company, and decided to join forces with his friend, drama producer Martin Pope.

“We started the company with the view that we both love telling stories,” he recalls. “He had worked in live action, I had worked in animation. We just wanted to entertain.”

They scored an Oscar nomination in 2011 for Chico & Rita, a feature animation for adults, but the pair had long harboured plans to produce a children’s story.

“Right from when we started out, I had been reading The Gruffalo to my young daughter, night after night. I thought, here’s a character that we could turn into a beautiful half hour film, but also develop into a children’s brand. We were very fortunate to get the rights and that started this whole world of working on the books of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.”

Of Donaldson, Rose is swift to admit that he is a huge fan. “She’s an outstanding writer. Parents love reading her rhythm and rhyme, the words flow and the characters come through the words, but she also comes up with these unique worlds, which have drama and character to them.”

While remaining faithful to Donaldson’s text, Magic Light equally takes inspiration from Scheffler’s drawings.

“They are very much at the heart of our animations. He is unique among children’s illustrators and he might be a complete genius because of his ability to create stories through drawings.”

Martin Rose formerly worked at Aardman Animations alongside Nick Park

Almost 10 million people watched The Gruffalo when it aired on Christmas Day, 2009 and its popularity has rarely waned since. Magic Light has continued growing The Gruffalo as a consumer brand, with 400 products being sold around the globe by 40 licensees.

Earlier this year, a Gruffalo theme park ride opened at Chessington, while Magic Light has also teamed up with Forestry Commission England to create 27 free trails around the country  for youngsters to explore.

Speaking of The Gruffalo, viewers will get a chance to see it and all of Magic Light’s seven animations, including an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, on this year’s BBC One schedule.

“We are dealing with something very precious and we love it. We want it to be around in 50 years’ time, to become as classic as Winnie The Pooh or Beatrix Potter.”

The Highway Rat will air on Christmas Day at 4.45pm on BBC1.

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