Still flying high: Skellig comes to the small screen

I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon,” is the opening sentence of David Almond’s Skellig, an opening gambit destined to sit in the collective memory along with the first lines of Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit. The line, Almond says, just popped into his head one day as he walked down the street. “As I began to write it down,” he said, “it almost seemed to write itself.”

I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon,” is the opening sentence of David Almond’s Skellig, an opening gambit destined to sit in the collective memory along with the first lines of Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit. The line, Almond says, just popped into his head one day as he walked down the street. “As I began to write it down,” he said, “it almost seemed to write itself.”

Since its publication in 1988, the book (Almond’s first) has taken on an almost mystical shimmer and glow. Early reviews were ecstatic: “Touched with a visionary intensity, this strange, hugely readable and life-affirming tale exercises every muscle of the imagination,” said The Guardian. “Almond treads with delicate certainty, and the result is something genuine and true,” cried Philip Pullman. “It manages to address the unlikely theme of spirituality with beguiling delicacy,” breathed The Irish Times. It won the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year. Since then it’s been adapted for radio by BBC Radio 4, and staged at the Young Vic by Trevor Nunn, after Nunn and his family listened to an audiotape of the novel in their car, and, when they reached their destination, could not bear to move until they’d heard the last line. On Easter Sunday, a new film version will be screened on Sky1 television. It’s directed by AJ Jankel, and the starry cast includes John Simm, Kelly MacDonald, Bill Milner (one of the leads in Son of Rambow) and Tim Roth as the mysterious figure in the garage.

The garage in question is dilapidated, as is the rest of the house which Michael’s parents have just bought. Their concern over renovating their ramshackle new home is compounded by their concern over Michael’s new baby sister: unnamed and scarcely alive, she was born prematurely and has a dicky heart. Michael explores the wilderness around his new home and, among tea chests and crumbling timbers, spiders’ webs and assorted garbage, he discovers what seems to be a man:

“I thought he was dead. He was sitting with his legs stretched out, and his head tipped back against the wall. He was covered in dust and webs like everything else and his face was thin and pale. Dead bluebottles were scattered on his hair and shoulders…”

Michael visits the moribund apparition again and again, and discovers his liking for Chinese takeaway food, Anadin and brown ale. Skellig seems human, but feral; he talks but he lives on insects and rodents; he appears to be terminally weary, resigned to die shortly.

Michael discovers a pair of matted, disused wings behind the man’s back. Does that make him an angel? Or an ex-angel? (Or an atheist angel, who’s weary of miracles and virtue, as Tim Roth ingeniously suggests.) Michael allows a girl neighbour called Mina to share his secret and, together, they haul the stricken birdman to a safe house. He becomes visibly stronger and younger. Meanwhile, Michael’s parents fret and weep as his baby sister, her pathetic body covered in tubes, is readied for a major heart operation…

It’s a brilliantly readable story, of considerable tension, as we long to find out the truth about Skellig’s nature, and to see if he can save the baby by exercising some seraphic power. And everywhere there are hints that a numinous world is being conjured before our eyes. Quotations from the poetry of William Blake (who regularly saw angels sitting in trees or flying in the sun) jostle with allusions to Darwin, and the suggestion that men may have been bred from angels or may yet evolve into them. Questions of illness and “miracle cures” take on a greater urgency, as Michael visits a hospital and worries about Skellig’s arthritic decrepitude as well as his baby sister. Mina, Michael’s new friend, a precocious, home-schooled prodigy, has a mysterious dimension inside her dark, penetrating eyes. Her favourite word is “extraordinary”.

Once you start looking for echoes and clues in Almond’s book, it’s hard to stop. There’s a touch of ET about the curious alien-in-the-garage set-up, a soupcon of City of Angels, which was, of course, a remake of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, not to mention Dennis Potter’s 1970 TV play, Angels Are So Few… But the work remains Almond’s own small masterpiece: tender, magical, redemptive and tear-jerking, it deals potently in matters of belief and wonder without ever preaching or poking religion into the reader’s ear.

And who or what exactly is Skellig? “It’s just like he says in the book,” says David Almond, laughing. ‘Something like you, something like a beast, something like a bird, something like an angel.’ Just a multi-faceted mystery, I guess.”

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