The man, the book, and the film phenomenon

Charlie Mackesy’s charming illustrated book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse has been animated for the screen and promises to be one of the highlights of Christmas, says Flora Watkins

‘Be kind’ – two little words that have become a mantra for our troubled times. That they have gained common currency is in no small part down to a a twinkly, slightly shambolic figure who is no stranger to life’s vicissitudes himself.

Charlie Mackesy has never had an art lesson, dropped out of university – twice – fled his public school, Radley, aged 16 and suffered a bereavement when his best friend was killed in a car crash.

Yet despite, or perhaps because of, what he has endured, Mackesy has created a book and a philosophy that resonates with everyone from eight to 80.

It’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t come across a copy of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the HorseThe book came out in late 2019 after publishers took note of the following his charming, whimsical drawings were inspiring on the social media platform Instagram. It quickly became a phenomenon.

The tale of four unlikely friends navigating the unknown, sharing a series of heartfelt and profound conversations was an instant hit. With its tender take on life, friendship and universal truths, passages like the following touched the hearts of many.

‘What do you think success is?’ asked the boy.
‘To love,’ said the mole.
‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’
‘Kind,’ said the boy.’

Saved from being saccharine by its simplicity and, of course, by Mackesy’s exquisite, fluid drawings, the book, which had an initial print run of just 10,000 copies, immediately shot to the top of The Sunday Times best-seller list.

Mackesy has said he can ‘see myself’ in all four characters. ‘The boy is lonely... full of questions, and the mole is greedy for cake. The fox is mainly silent and wary because he’s been hurt by life. The horse is the biggest thing they’ve ever encountered and also the gentlest. They’re all different, like us, and each has their own weaknesses.’

Their creator has been open and honest about his own struggles. After his friend was killed at the age of 19, he has said that he picked up a pencil ‘and began drawing, like Forrest Gump’, referring to the hapless hero of the 1994 film. Mackesy recalls drawing on a pavement in London at a time when he was living in a friend’s coal shed. A passer-by told her children: ‘That’s what will happen to you if you don’t do your homework.’

Mackesy shares with his readers, ‘The truth is, I’m not very good at reading books and I need pictures. They’re like islands – places to get to in a sea of words. So for me it was important to make a book with mostly pictures
that you could read front to back, back to front or even start in the middle – which is what I usually do.’

Within the original book, one of the most poignant moments is when the boy, sitting astride the horse with the mole, with the fox trotting alongside, asks: ‘What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever said?’

‘Help,’ said the horse.

It has been used by the British Army to help soldiers struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mackesy continues to receive emails from grateful therapists, teachers and healthcare professionals, telling him that they have the illustration on their walls. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse was a hit before the covid pandemic struck in 2020. When our baby daughter was christened in February 2020 she was given no fewer than three copies by friends.

A month later, everything changed when the first lockdown was announced. Suddenly, the book’s gentle, simple words of profound wisdom assumed an even greater significance, providing reassurance and hope as we grappled with, variously, fear, anxiety, loneliness and feelings of being overwhelmed.

Once it was permitted, Mackesy relocated from his studio in Brixton, south London, to be near his elderly mother on the Suffolk coast. But he never stopped drawing, documenting the human condition as we felt our way in this strange new world.

His drawing of the Queen sitting alone and masked at Prince Philip’s funeral in 2021, an angel swooping to comfort her, was almost unbearably poignant.

The then Duchess of Cornwall chose the book for her Royal Reading Room. In America, it was picked up by a different kind of royalty, Oprah Winfrey, who read it aloud for the Chicago Public Library, doing different voices for the characters. ‘That killed me, blew me away!’ says Mackesy.

He is, he says, continually surprised and humbled by the book’s success. It is a privilege, he stresses, to be able to help people. The book has now sold more than eight million copies worldwide and holds the record for the most consecutive weeks on The Sunday Times non-fiction chart across all formats at 152 weeks. It is the longest running Sunday Times non-fiction number one of all time.

This Christmas, his characters will wander into our homes in what promises to be one of the stand-out programmes of the season – an animated film of the book on BBC One and iPlayer in the UK.

An illustrious list of A-listers play the protagonists: Tom Hollander is the mole, Idris Elba the fox and Gabriel Byrne plays the horse. Newcomer Jude Coward Nicoll takes the role of the boy.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse: The Animated Story was published on 22 November, and is a beautifully made hardback celebrating the work of over 100 animators across two years of production – with Charlie’s distinctive illustrations brought to life in full colour with hand-drawn traditional animation and accompanying hand-written script.

‘Feeling emotional,’ Mackesy posted from a screening in LA last month to his 1.5 million Instagram followers.

Success, according to the mole, is simply ‘to love’ but now Mackesy is experiencing the most extraordinary material and professional success. However, one senses from his gentle, modest musings that he may not have grasped the extent of it yet.

There is an exhibition of his work at Sotheby’s this Christmas, which he’s ‘in a continued state of shock about’.The success of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse has introduced Mackesy to a huge global audience. But he has been renowned in his field, if not a household name, for some time. Since those early days scribbling away on the pavement, he has worked as a cartoonist for The Spectator and as a children’s illustrator. His work has been the subject of several solo and group exhibitions, and has been bought by the likes of Sting and Whoopi Goldberg.

He created drawings on the set of the film Love Actually in 2003 (directed by his friend Richard Curtis) to raise money for Comic Relief, and he was one of just a handful of contemporary artists chosen to collaborate on a series of lithographs with Nelson Mandela in 2006.

Many people may have seen his work without realising. One of his most notable bronze sculptures, The Return of the Prodigal Son, stands outside Holy Trinity Brompton in west London.

Mackesy is a popular speaker. His delivery, like his persona – a little dishevelled, honest, authentic – is unorthodox and endearing. A talk Mackesy did for TEDx titled Abandon the Idea of Being Good and Just Try (you can watch it on YouTube) starts with him encouraging his old dog Dill (the book is dedicated to her, along with his mother) onto the stage with croissant crumbs. He starts by apologising: ‘I’m late, I’m stressed… I haven’t really written anything down, I apologise for that.’ It’s both charming and disarming.

Fame and fortune, you get the impression, mean very little to Charlie Mackesy. He’ll continue doing his thing: drawing, talking, quietly encouraging kindness and empathy.

‘I’m an ordinary person who struggles with the same things as everyone else,’ he says. ‘I’m not on this side of the river saying “This is how you get across”, I’m on your side of the river going, “Woah, that’s a big river – how are we going to do this?”’

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is on BBC One at Christmas. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse: The Animated Story by Charlie Mackesy is published by Ebury Press, price £20