Charlie Mackesy’s illustrated book struck a chord with millions as the world shut down. Now it’s been adapted as an animated film
The story starts with being lost. “I’m lost,” said the boy to the mole. An unlikely inter-species friendship is formed and a journey begins. The star of this year’s Christmas schedules is the animated adaption of Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. After posting drawings alongside heartfelt and heartening messages on social media, a book following the adventures of the boy and the other animals he meets became a phenomenon.
Published in 2019, it spent 100 weeks in the Top 10 of the UK bestsellers list. The timing was serendipitous. Many of those 100 weeks spanned a period where a reminder of the essentials in life – love, kindness, fortitude, self-acceptance – was the comfort and consolation people in lockdown longed for.
“It really does feel like a lifetime ago,” Charlie Mackesy says, comparing pre- and post-pandemic eras. “The whole world is different. The ground is shaking beneath our feet on so many levels. We’re in strange times for sure.”
Times are getting stranger by the day, which is why the animated version of the story is perfectly scheduled to provide calm and solace, no matter how hectic your Christmas – or 2022 – has turned out.
Born in Northumberland, Mackesy was a cartoonist for The Spectator and an illustrator who has exhibited around the world, having collaborated on projects with Richard Curtis and Nelson Mandela. The self-described “grubby artist” explains how his most famous characters formed.
“I’ve always drawn animals and I’ve always drawn in that way. I remember having a chat with a friend about what courage looked like.”
That conversation led to a now famous drawing with these words. “‘What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?’ asked the boy. ‘Help,’ said the horse.”
“I put that up on social media and I was staggered by the reaction to it,” Mackesy says. “I just pursued the relationships between the four and kept writing things that matter to me. That’s how it all began. All four characters are different bits of me. The fox takes time to trust. Then the mole is the bit of me that eats all the cake to make himself feel better. The horse, probably the wisest. The boy is always asking questions.”
The boy, mole, fox and horse are universally relatable. The fact that so many people connect to them is still a shock for Mackesy.
“I didn’t set out to achieve this,” he says. “It’s hard for me to understand. All I feel is very grateful, surprised and moved by the responses from people all over the world.”
If someone had asked Mackesy to write a book about a boy and a mole, etc, he would have refused. Instead, he says, “It was an instinctual book that I made from somewhere deep within me. You’re not an artist to make money. You’re an artist because you feel you have something to say and it’s important for you to say it.”
The work is vital for millions of people. Look under any of Charlie Mackesy’s posts on Facebook or Instagram and there are hundreds of messages. A quick scan shows recent replies from grieving parents, cancer patients and many more thanking the artist for, as one puts it, “turning chaos into something manageable just through words and pictures”.
Softly spoken and sensitive, Mackesy has created a beacon of hope for many, but the light comes from a dark place.
“A lot of people do say to me, ‘Charlie, read your book’. I struggle, like anybody else,” he admits.
“Maybe in all the spinning and fear it reminds us what does matter. And what doesn’t. The importance of friendship, and connection and vulnerability.
“What’s helped me most is the response and my conversations with them. It’s so heartening. I’ve had so many emails in the last two and a half years. I’ve had a lot saying, ‘I’ve always been frightened of asking for help [because] that looked like weakness’. So that’s very moving to me, that a little thought could catalyse someone’s journey to a better life.
“I’ll find myself suddenly thinking about something that’s been said in the book, and I kind of go, ‘Oh, yeah, how we react to things is one of our greatest freedoms’. Yes, I do hear the voices in my head sometimes.
With the film adaptation, the characters that have been alive in his head have now really come to life. Seeing this happen over the two years it’s taken to make the film has been “quite surreal”.
As is fitting for the BBC’s highest profile Christmas serving, there’s a glittering cast. Alongside newcomer Jude Coward Nicoll as the Boy, and Gabriel Byrne as the Horse are Tom Hollander as the Mole and Idris Elba as the Fox. They both got involved because they are fans, and had learned from Mackesy’s work.
Hollander recalls one of the drawings: ‘What do you think is the biggest waste of time?’ ‘Comparing yourselves to others,’ said the Mole.
“That leapt out at me when I read it because I’ve personally found it to be a chronic problem in my life,” Hollander says. “People have tried to persuade me to stop doing that to myself because it’s the source of a lot of pointless unhappiness, so we must stop!”
Idris Elba says, “This definitely feels like a story for all ages. With adults it resonates on a deeper level. It reminds you about the important things in life, it’s like a level setting and a return to the core of what makes us human.”
While the original book is simply a collection of conversations, the film introduces a narrative.
“The film needed a reason, what are they actually doing?” Mackesy says. “So early on when the mole meets the boy, the boy says, ‘I’m lost’. Then the mole enters the journey to try to find the boy a home.
“Home is a big word. It’s so central to us as humans, and I think the boy’s realisation is that home isn’t necessarily a place – that it’s found within himself and with friendships.
“It is not having a place to lay your head or call home physically. He didn’t have that but he also didn’t have a home relationally either. He didn’t feel accepted within himself or by others.”
This is ultimately the way for people feeling lost to be found.
“If people really knew what we were like, if we all realise we all struggle with things, the most important thing is for us to communicate and accept each other and ourselves,” Mackesy says.
“Connection comes when we dare say the truth to ourselves and someone else goes, me too.”
On Christmas Eve The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is on BBC One at 4.55pm and a documentary, Charlie Mackesy: The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse and Me, is on BBC Two at 3.55pm. Both will also be on BBC iPlayer.
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