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From horse to sheep, via angel

by
19 December 2014

Michael Morpurgo's children's book On Angel Wings has been animated for the small screen this Christmas. He talks to Olly Grant

the illuminated film company and Jerusalem productions

Peace on earth: Amos the shepherd boy, and the Angel Gabriel

Peace on earth: Amos the shepherd boy, and the Angel Gabriel

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 Gabriel. 

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 beautifully. 

Is this the first explicitly Christian story you've written?

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 nativity story?

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 story?

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 it.

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 with?

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 Mount.

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 suppose. 

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 write.

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 Morpurgo household?

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 with joy. 

Can we expect you to return to religious themes again?

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 £3.60).

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