A film featuring the horse world’s popular Thelwell characters is in the works and casting agents are looking for the perfect pony for the starring role.
Merrylegs: The Movie will be based on the characters drawn by famous British countryside artist Norman Thelwell. First created in the 1950s and published extensively since, Thelwell’s pony cartoons are easily recognisable. The ponies are naughty, with large stomachs and short legs, and riders struggling to stay in control.
Thelwell published his first pony cartoon in 1953, and quite by accident, his name became synonymous with these kinds of images. “The response was instantaneous,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Suddenly I had fan mail …I dreamed up some more horsey ideas and people went into raptures.”
Thelwell drew the endearing characters Penelope and her mischievous pony Kipper in hundreds of humorous scenarios, from ungainly jumps and gallops to the destruction of country fairs.
The “Thelwell pony” soon became the most often referenced source of horse humour the world over. In 1957, Thelwell’s first collection of pony cartoons, Angels on Horseback, was published, followed by A Leg at Each Corner in 1961, and Riding Academy in 1963.
The movie will be set in Snowdonia, Wales, with filming expected to begin later this year. Merrylegs: The Movie is scheduled for release in 2023, the centenary of Norman Thelwell’s birth.
Welsh ponies and Shetlands were Thelwell’s favourite breeds, and Blenheim Films is seeking a pony to fill the role of Merrylegs, as well as a youngster to play his rider, Penelope. Director Candida Bray said it was important to get the right pony. “Thelwell ponies are loaded with character. It’s a sparkle, a cheeky sparkle that we would like. And also a big fat stomach, slightly cropped legs and slightly unkempt hair.”
Born in Birkenhead, Thelwell spent World War II in the East Yorkshire Regiment, having signed up at the age of 18 in 1941, and was art editor of an army magazine in New Delhi, India.
His first published cartoon, in the London Opinion, was an Indian subject.
In 1944, he took evening classes in art at Nottingham Art School, then took a degree at Liverpool College of Art. In 1950, he took up a post teaching design and illustration at Wolverhampton College of Art, but gave this up to work freelance in 1956.
He became a contributor to the satirical magazine Punch, who first published his work in 1952, beginning a 25-year relationship that resulted in more than 1500 cartoons, of which 60 were used as front covers. He also worked as a political cartoonist for the News Chronicle from 1956 until the paper closed in 1960.
In the 70s, Thelwell illustrated the front covers of the first six James Herriot books.