Entertainment & Arts

Never a Dahl moment: Dustin Hoffman and Dame Judi Dench find love in Esio Trot

Dustin Hoffman and Dame Judi Dench in Esio Trot
Image caption Dustin Hoffman and Dame Judi Dench play 'Mr Hoppy' and 'Mrs Silver' in Esio Trot

Tortoises, Roald Dahl and the man behind Love Actually are just three of the ingredients in Esio Trot, a romantic comedy for BBC One starring Dustin Hoffman and Dame Judi Dench.

Put together, 77-year-old Dustin Hoffman, 79-year-old Dame Judi Dench and Richard Curtis - a relative stripling at the age of 58 - have more than 214 years between them.

As Dame Judi says, though, age is just a number - especially in a new TV comedy drama that makes a point of proving one can still find love in the autumn of life.

Based on Roald Dahl's 1990 children's novel, Esio Trot tells of a lonely London bachelor whose head is turned by the flirtatious widow who lives directly below him.

Her passion for tortoises seems an insuperable hurdle to their chances of romance - until Mr Hoppy (Hoffman) finds an unusual way of getting Mrs Silver (Dench) to notice him.

The fact that Esio Trot is tortoise spelt backwards gives a clue as to what form Mr Hoppy's plan takes, for those who have yet to read Dahl's 1990 original for their own pleasure or their children's.

Suffice to say that reading sdrawkcab plays a pivotal role in a story that also features James Corden as the neighbour who serves as the story's guide and narrator.

Curtis, whose successes include Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and the Blackadder TV series, admits to being "a huge fan" of an author he likens to Charles Dickens.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Hoffman presented Dame Judi with a special Bafta award in Los Angeles in October

Adapting Esio Trot, though, proved particularly appealing as it allowed him to do "something about love between older people".

"I was writing all these films about people for whom, if it doesn't work out, they can try again," he told reporters in November. "But if you're older and lonely, the stakes are higher.

"I wanted to do something about people finding love who both presumed they wouldn't. I thought that would make it even more dramatic."

'Absolutely spare'

Curtis's enthusiasm for the project was matched by Dame Judi, who said she "wanted to play Mrs Silver unconditionally" even if the character is somewhat "stupid".

"After they said Dustin's name I would have come in to walk across the street," says the actress, who will be seen next year in the sequel to box office hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

That film, like Esio Trot, dealt with characters of a mature vintage that are relatively under-represented by an industry that tends to favour storylines aimed at a younger demographic.

It is not a state of affairs with which Dench is happy. "Age is a number that's imposed on you," she says robustly. "It's that thing that everyone says - 'you're as old as you feel'.

"It drives me absolutely spare when people say 'Are you going to retire?' or 'Don't you think it's time you put your feet up?'

Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Richard Curtis describes Roald Dahl as being 'like [Charles] Dickens for our kids'

"I don't want to be told I'm too old to do something," continues Dench, who won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love in 1999 and played the role of M in seven James Bond films. "I want to try it first.

"It's not to do with age; it's to do with the engine. As long as you keep it going, you won't fall over."

Falling over was a very real concern for Hoffman in a scene in Esio Trot in which he and Dame Judi dance to music by jazz great Louis Armstrong.

"I'm not a dancer, nowhere near it," concedes the veteran US star of The Graduate, Tootsie and many other classic films. "I thought after the first two lessons it wasn't going to work and I wasn't going to be ready.

'Great energy'

"But it wasn't a problem because [Mr Hoppy] wasn't supposed to know how to dance," he continued. "We were just naturally doing it."

Hoffman is full of praise for his latest screen partner, describing Dench as an "extraordinary" talent with "great energy" who "allows you right into her bone marrow".

Yet he is less enthusiastic about his other co-stars - the large creep of tortoises who help Mr Hoppy in his romantic quest.

"You've never smelled anything until you've smelled 60 tortoises," he sighs. "That tortoise poo was the real thing - there was no CGI for us.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption James Corden appears in Esio Trot as the narrator of Dahl's tortoise-heavy story

"I always get warm [on set] so I always want air conditioning," Hoffman goes on. "We brought in these big machines, but by the third day we weren't using them anymore.

"It was all because of the tortoises. If they get too cold, they won't act."

So did Hoffman and Dench get to spend any time together when they weren't filming Esio Trot in London earlier this year? "Judi wanted to socialise, but I was always too tired," says the former with a shrug.

"I don't socialise when I'm working," he goes on. "I don't socialise when I'm not working. Other than that, I love people!"

Esio Trot will be shown on BBC One on 1 January at 1830 GMT.

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