MICHAEL MORPURGO has written more than 100 books, many of which,
like War Horse, have been successfully reshod for stage,
screen, and radio.
The latest, On Angel Wings, is a short, animated
version of his tale about the shepherds in St Luke's Gospel. Voiced
by Michael Gambon and Juliet Stevenson, it focuses on a boy who is
left behind to look after the sheep when his colleagues are called
to Bethlehem - only to have a remarkable encounter with the angel
Had you always felt that On Angel Wings was
ripe for adaptation?
Not particularly. I never have visions of anything, really. I
just tell the story, and then, luckily, things happen sometimes.
Someone rings you up, and sometimes you think: "Why would they want
to adapt that?" But, in this case, it was already a highly
illustrated book by Quentin Blake; so I'd seen it visually for some
time. So it seemed to me something that could be done very
Is this the first explicitly Christian story you've
I think it's the first one explicitly taken from the Bible text.
But belief, or doubt, have come into many of my stories.
Private Peaceful, for example, is about the last night of
a soldier's life, as he reflects on going to church as a little
boy, what is happening to him all these years later, and why God
has let it happen. He's 18, and full of the same questions that I'm
still full of.
When did you first start thinking about this part of the
I go to a tiny little church, St James's, Iddesleigh. It's a
wonderful 15th-century church, like so many in deepest Devon. About
20 years ago, they kindly asked me to read one of the nine lessons
in the carol service, and asked which one I would like to read. I
said I'd love to read the story of the angels coming down to the
shepherds. So every Christmas, that's what I do. I go up to the
lectern, and read those words from the King James Bible that take
me back to my childhood.
What prompted you to turn the passage into a short
Very often, I found that I would get concerned about not making
mistakes as I read. But, one night, about eight years ago, I said
to myself: "Stop worrying about the congregation. Stop worrying
whether you're reading this well, or not. Just tell it like a
story. Use the words in the Bible, but tell it as if you're seeing
it now." So I did, and for the first time I really listened to that
story as I was reading. And I found something that was wrong with
What was the problem?
Agricultural context. I have lived and worked on a farm with
many different creatures - among them sheep. And I'm here to tell
the Church Times - in case some of your readers don't know
it - that there is no way in a million years that the shepherds
would have left their sheep in the darkness and gone off.
You cannot drive sheep in the dark. It's impossible. That's when
I came up with the idea of a little shepherd boy who's left to look
after them, and is fed up to the back teeth about it.
There is a serious side to all this, of course, and it's this:
the nativity story is retold and enacted all the time, and we are
in danger of thinking of it as a cliché. I felt that this was a way
of looking at it again, enjoying it again, and knowing the meaning
of it again. If I had a reason behind writing it, that was it.
Do you think we are in danger of losing touch with it? A
recent survey found that three in ten children do not know that the
nativity is a Bible story.
I think children should know these stories. They're part of who
we are, and we live in a country which has been Christian for
hundreds of years. You don't have to say to children: "Thou shalt
believe all this. . . ." You let them make up their minds. But if
you don't know the story, you can't make up your mind.
Did you grow up a Christian?
My grandparents were great Christian Socialists. And, in fact,
I'm a distant but direct relative of John Wesley. My immediate
family wasn't so Christian; but I went to a Church of England
school in Canterbury, and sang in the choir at Canterbury
Cathedral. I had that glorious music and architecture around me. So
I've been imbued by it.
Are there any aspects of faith that you struggle
I struggle with almost everything except the words, and the
life, of the man himself. What he told us was to love one another,
and he showed us wonderful examples of that, like the Sermon on the
I have never thought it necessary to wrap that extraordinary man
in miracles. I also find it hard to imagine that the God of the Old
Testament could be the father of Jesus, because he seemed to be an
eminently ruthless god, sometimes. So I struggle with the book, I
Yet the miraculous often pops up in your work; why do
you find it hard in the biblical context?
It does pop up, yes. I think I consider it a trick. I want to
believe in this man - this Son of God, whatever we want to call him
-because of who he was, and what he said. I don't want to be
persuaded just because he created some miracle, and made someone
walk. I've never understood what all that was about. I don't like
the reliance on it, that's the problem.
War is another theme that recurs frequently in your
work. Why is that?
Because I'm a war baby. My parents [actors Tony Van Bridge, and
Kippe Cammaerts] split up because of the war. I lost an uncle in
the war. I played in bomb sites, and saw wounded men sitting in the
streets with no legs and little caps by them to put money in. These
are images that stay in your head. When I started writing, I was
concerned always to write about what I cared about. And what
matters to me is peace, which is why you will find some way forward
towards peace and reconciliation in all the books about war that I
Do you have more, or less, reason to feel hopeful now,
seven decades on?
More, no question. I've lived 71 years of my life in Europe, and
we have, by and large - though not completely - stopped fighting
one another. We are much more inclined towards peace. But I think
what's wonderful about the centenary of the First World War, and
wonderful about Christmas, is that it reminds us what a gift peace
is. You don't take it for granted. It has to be worked at. To me,
that's what Christmas is all about.
What did you make of Sainsbury's First World
War-inspired Christmas ad: moving or misjudged?
I should have preferred it if they had simply made the film, and
then said that it had been made by Sainbury's in the credits. I
think [using it for] selling chocolate is . . . I don't know. There
were moments that were unnecessary. But I liked the whole idea of
the story being out there.
How do you feel about Christmas generally? Are you a fan
or a Scrooge?
I adore Christmas. I almost have a serious problem with it,
actually, because there's such a terrific comedown afterwards. I
always found it difficult to cope with that as a child. It's easier
now, because there isn't such a build-up. And I'm a grown-up. But I
still love it.
Are there any inviolable Christmas traditions in the
We have a little Christmas tree, which we renew every year. We
stick it in the garden every January; it gets a little bigger, then
we bring it back in, and stick a lopsided angel on top, which was
handed down to me by my parents. Underneath it, there are a lot of
traditional cardboardy things that are always there, which we never
throw out. Then there are little iconic things during the day.
Every Christmas, I listen to carols from King's, and to my dear
friends [the a cappella group] Voices at the Door: I've
got them on CD, and they blare out all over the house and fill me
Can we expect you to return to religious themes
I'm sure I will. It seems to me that belief, faith, and doubt
are central to our existence. In fact, the story I'm writing at the
present moment is called The Right Thing. It's about doing
the right thing, and discovering much later in life that when you
did the right thing, as you thought, it was the wrong thing. I
think that that moral dilemma is at the heart of who we are.
On Angel Wings will be screened on Christmas Eve at 4.15
p.m. on BBC1.
On Angel Wings by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Quentin
Blake, is published by Egmont at £4 (Church Times Bookshop