One of the most hotly-anticipated TV events this Christmas is a new adaptation of the beloved Watership Down.
Richard Adams’ tale of a band of rabbits seeking safety away from the destruction of their home by humans is a sobfest that has been a favourite for generations.
Brace yourself for the number of actors voicing roles in the animated series – this is probably the longest cast list we’ve ever seen.
Hazel – James McAvoy
Main character Hazel is the popular leader of Sandleford Warren because of his loyalty to the other rabbits. No one gets left behind under Hazel’s watch, and he’s guided in his search for a new warren by his brother Fiver.
He’s voiced by James McAvoy, known for his roles in Atonement, Filth, X-Men, and Shameless.
What made you want to be a part of Watership Down?
From the deep love and terror that watching the 1978 animation put inside my bones, and then from reading the novel later in life when it blew me away all over again. I was excited by the opportunity to try to bring Watership Down to a new generation, on such a huge scale as has never been done before. I think it’s a story you can relive in any decade.
Tell us about your character.
Hazel is quite ordinary when we first meet him. He’s quite middle of the road, but he has this exceptional brother, Fiver, who is incredible and highly sensitive, to the extent he has visions of the future. When Fiver says he has a really bad feeling about something and that they’re not safe to stay at their warren anymore, Hazel trusts his brother implicitly. They then set off on this adventure to find a new home, which Hazel is at the forefront of.
Is there a moment you’re really looking forward to seeing on screen?
I’m really looking forward to seeing Cowslip’s warren in episode one, with all the melancholy, poetic, fatalistic rabbits. I just love that idea, and am excited about Hazel getting into that macabre warren.
Fiver – Nicholas Hoult
Hazel’s younger brother may be the runt of the litter, but he is a seer with strong visions, fiercely intelligent, and the other rabbits often turn to him for advice. His dreams about the fate of Sandleford are behind their decision to leave.
Nicholas Hoult, who plays him, is an X-Men mate of James McAvoy’s and has also starred in Mad Max: Fury Road and About a Boy.
Tell us about your character…
I play Fiver. He has visions - so he can see into the future, but he can’t always interpret what it means. At the start of Watership Down he discovers in a vision that Sandleford Warren - where his group of rabbits live - is going to be destroyed by humans building. Fiver tries to encourage all the rabbits in the warren to move - some take that leap of faith and believe in Fiver enough to follow him, but some don’t.
What first attracted you to this project?
I read the book a long time ago, and what I think is very cool about this version of Watership Down is that it is an adaptation of the book as opposed to a remake of the film. And as this is a mini-series, we have longer to tell the story.
I actually heard this was being made through James McAvoy, who told me about it when we were working together on X-Men. I was so excited by it, that he explained to the producers that we’re really good friends and have almost a brotherly relationship. James was playing Hazel, so it made sense for me to play Fiver, his younger brother.
How do you prepare for an animated role like this?
I lived in a hutch for five weeks to prepare for this role. I’ve only been eating carrots - I can see in the dark very well. I have big ears and a little tail that I put on when I’m at home. It’s rather like living in the playboy mansion, but it’s just me.
General Woundwort – Sir Ben Kingsley
The tyrannical chief of Efrafa warren is feared by his own rabbits as well as the other warrens that he attacks. He’s a sworn enemy of Hazel and Bigwig.
Sir Ben Kinglsey voices him and is best known for his work on Ghandi, Schindler’s List, and Iron Man.
Bigwig - John Boyega
Bigwig is an ex-officer of Owsla, the warren’s military group. He is brave and cunning, and a huge asset to Hazel.
He’s voiced by John Boyega, who starred in the new Star Wars films, Half of a Yellow Sun, and TV series Being Human.
Who do you play?
I'm playing Bigwig. A rabbit with a dark past - a lot of wars fought, a lot of scars to show for it. A rabbit who is tough, stern and has a really deep sense of family. He’s a great character to play and, for me, the strongest and the coolest of the bunch.
You must have been excited to join the project?
I was excited because I had no clue as to what the production team were going to do with this. When I first heard about it through my agent I didn’t know it was going to be CG, and I didn’t know that it would have this amazing British cast attached. Actors like James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, and Daniel Kaluuya - all great actors who are doing really well at the moment and, for me, it was a great opportunity to join them. I was also curious as to how they were going to do this, because the 1978 film was in 2D and it was devastating. I was devastated, I can’t lie. It was too much - it was bloody and looked a bit strange and as a kid taking that in was very scary. But this version, whilst still animation, looks a lot more real now, and it’s so interesting to take that approach. With CG you can add a sense of reality, which increases the emotional stakes for those watching it.
How do you prepare for a role like this?
You have to have a deeper sense of imagination when performing, because you’re in a booth - you're not there on a set, and you’re not able to react off anything. And in Watership Down the characters are consistently constantly moving, so you have to imagine whether at any one point you're running through a lake or crossing a road when a big car comes by, for example.
For me, it’s playing. There are certain types of roles in which you can just play, and for me this is one of those roles. You just use your imagination. So I’m pretending to choke in a snare, or if there’s a scene where Bigwig’s eating I'll get a bowl of grapes and do the scene with lots of grapes in my mouth. I try as much as possible to re-enact what the character’s going through.
And on top of that, it all happens with the animators. They do all the magic, and our voices breathe life into the magic they do.
Clover – Gemma Arterton
When Hazel and co set up a new home at Watership Down, they’re missing one vital part of their group – female rabbits to ensure the warren’s future. Clover is one of the hutch rabbits that they bring to Watership Down, causing a row with General Woundwort.
Gemma Arterton voices Clover and has featured in Quantum of Solace, Their Finest, and Tamara Drewe.
Who do you play?
I’m playing Clover. She's a hutch rabbit, so she’s not like the other rabbits who all live in the wild. Clover’s quite different - even visually she looks quite different to the other rabbits. She’s cute and fluffy. She’s never been out into the wild. She meets Fiver and Hazel when they free her so she can join them on their expedition. Clover's quite naïve at first, as she’s been very protected all of her life, but she has a desire to escape and see the world. She’s definitely got a fighter’s spirit - she’s quite a rebel. She ends up falling in love, too.
What first attracted you to the project?
Watership Down is such a classic story in British literature. I remember seeing the 1978 animation when I was very young - and being petrified by it. Having revisited the story as an adult, it’s so pertinent, especially for these days and these times. Also the team behind this are people that I’ve known and people that I’ve worked with so, although it’s a huge project, it felt like a family. I thought it would be brilliant to be involved in the new, contemporary take on Watership Down and bring it to a younger audience.
How do you prepare for an animated role like this?
This is the first real animation I’ve done where my voice is recorded first and then they animate around it. It’s bizarre to be working on something which hasn’t been visually realised yet, but it’s great because you get to be really creative with it. Noam the director wanted everyone’s essences to really be present in the characters. You’d think you’d have to do a special rabbit voice but he told me to just use my accent and voice. The book and the script inform your performance, and although the characters are rabbits the main thing was to bring out the humanity of them.
Blackberry – Miles Jupp
Clever Blackberry is one of Hazel’s most trusted advisors and can understand complex issues that the rest of the warren struggle with.
He’ll be voiced by Miles Jupp, who viewers will know from TV series Bad Move and Howards End.
Captain Holly – Freddie Fox
Holly was a captain of the Sandleford Owsla, but suffers badly from the devastation caused by humans claiming the land. He eventually makes it to Watership Down, where he becomes a close advisor for Hazel.
Freddie Fox, who voices him, has appeared in TV series Parade’s End, Banana, and Cucumber.
Strawberry – Olivia Colman
Strong, sleek Strawberry is not as hardy as the other rabbits, but gets on well with the rest of the warren and is chosen to represent them on a mission to Efrafa.
Olivia Colman voices Strawberry and is known for starring in Broadchurch, Peep Show, and The Night Manager. She can be seen in forthcoming series of Les Miserables and The Crown.
Hyzenthlay – Anne-Marie Duff
A doe from Efrafa, Hyzenthlay helps lead a secret uprising to escape the warren and join Watership Down. She becomes Hazel’s mate once she leaves the controlling reign of General Woundwort.
She is voiced by Anne-Marie Duff, who starred in Nowhere Boy, Shameless, Parade’s End and Suffragette.
Bluebell – Daniel Kaluuya
Bluebell manages to escape the destroyed Sandleford Warren at the same time as Holly, and keeps spirits up with his great sense of humour.
He’s played by Daniel Kaluuya, who starred in Babylon, Black Panther, and horror film Get Out.
The Black Rabbit of Inle – Rosamund Pike
The Black Rabbit is a ghost servant of the rabbit god Frith, who appears in visions and makes sure that all rabbits die at their predestined time.
Rosamund Pike, who starred in Gone Girl, State of the Union, and A United Kingdom, will voice the character.
Kehaar – Peter Capaldi
One of the few non-rabbit characters, seagull Kehaar joins Watership Down while he is recovering from an injured wing.
Viewers will recognise the voice of Peter Capaldi, whose most famous work includes Doctor Who and The Thick of It.
El-Ahrairah – Taron Egerton
A mythical rabbit of folklore, the hero character usually features in any stories told by a rabbit as he’s everything that they want to be.
El-Ahrairah is voiced by Taron Egerton, who starred in Kingsman, Eddie the Eagle, and Testament of Youth.
Hawkbit – Mackenzie Crook
He may be described as being a bit stupid, but Hawkbit is still popular with Hazel.
The character is voiced by The Office and Detectorists star Mackenzie Crook.
Captain Orchis – Jason Watkins
The Owsla captain is one of General Woundwort’s minions and lives at the Efrara Warren.
He is voiced by Jason Watkins, who starred in The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, W1A, Trollied, and Line of Duty.
Cowslip – Rory Kinnear
Cowslip comes from another warren that lives under the control of a farmer who leaves vegetables out to trap rabbits. He plays Watership Down and Efrara off against each other for his own gain and won’t help Bigwig out of a trap.
Rory Kinnear, known for The Imitation Game, Skyfall, and Penny Dreadful, voices Cowslip.
Sainfoin – Craig Parkinson
Sainfoin is another rabbit from the Efrafa Warren and an enemy of Watership Down. He is part of the warren’s Owsla.
He is voiced by Craig Parkinson, best known for his starring role as dodgy copper Cottan in Line of Duty.
Blackavar – Henry Goodman
Blackavar tried to escape Efrafa when he was stopped from joining the Owsla, but was captured by General Woundwort and had his ears torn to shreds. Bigwig helps him to break free, but Blackavar’s troubles with the controlling leader are far from over.
Henry Goodman, who plays him, has appeared in The Damned United and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Threarah – Tom Wilkinson
The original chief rabbit of Sandleford Warren pays a heavy price for dismissing Fiver’s visions about the destruction coming their way, and fatally decides to stay behind.
Tom Wilkinson, who has starred in Selma, The Kennedys, and Michael Clayton, takes on the role of Threarah.
Captain Campion – Lee Ingleby
Owsla senior captain Campion may be one of the key players in Efrafa, but he is a much fairer leader that General Woundwort and becomes a beloved chief of his warren later in the story.
He is voiced by Lee Ingleby, who viewers will know from The A Word, Inspector George Gently, and Line of Duty.
Dandelion – Daniel Rigby
Speedy runner Dandelion is also known for his storytelling skills. He is key in helping to defend Watership Down when the warren finds itself under attack.
Dandelion is played by Sick Note, Flowers and Big School star Daniel Rigby.
Watership Down will begin on Saturday, December 22 at 7pm on BBC One.
Never miss an episode with BT TV – catch up via the BBC iPlayer app.