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Michael Morpurgo on writing words for famous festive picture story The Snowman

Still from the film 'The Snowman''
The Snowman, by Raymond Briggs.

CELEBRATED children’s writer Michael Morpurgo is singing Christmas carols again – and could not be happier to be back on song.

The War Horse creator revealed in May he had undergone radiotherapy treatment for cancer of the larynx, which threatened his speech.

But the writer has revealed he is making a steady recovery.

He said: “My voice is finding new strength after the treatment last year.

“I have been singing lots of Christmas carols recently and that can’t be a bad thing!”

Michael is not the only one with a renewed voice. His new adaption of the Christmas favourite, The Snowman, features the title character talking for the first time.

The 75-year-old author has written a novelisation based on the festive classic to mark the original book’s 40th anniversary.

It was in 1978 that Raymond Briggs created the picture story that has become an essential part of Christmas.

And as families settle down over the next couple of days with Briggs’ much-loved picture book or to watch the film adaptation, Michael revealed he was nervous about putting words to the tale.

“It was of great importance to me that Raymond was happy with it and I am so pleased he was,” said Michael.

“I was very concerned he would be the first person to read the text and I was relieved he liked it. He even called it a ‘revelation’. In some ways, this book was a collaboration between the two of us.”

The Snowman means a lot to Michael and his family – and he thinks he knows why it is adored in millions of homes.

“I was delighted to be asked to tell my version of the story, as it has been an important part of Christmas for me and my family,” the dad-of-three continued.

“Perhaps because both the original book and film are wordless there is a great amount of scope for each of us to tell the story behind the pictures or the animation and this gives people a huge sense of ownership of The Snowman.

“For many families reading the book and watching the film have become Christmas traditions – as much as hanging the stocking or decorating the tree.”

The Snowman

Michael was mindful of balancing the elements that make the original so adored with his own touches.

“Before I started writing, I re-read Raymond’s wonderful picture book and watched the film again.

“There are moments in both that obviously had to stay, such as building the snowman and James’ flight through the air.

“But I also thought about where I live, on a farm in north Devon, and that influenced where I set my story.

“I thought of what it would be like to be a boy on that farm, and I thought about his family, and that led to new characters and new themes which give a different dimension to Raymond’s original tale.”

Among those new elements is giving James a stutter, which has affected his school life.

Just like Raymond Briggs, Michael has never shied away from serious subjects in his children’s novels – especially when it comes to war.

The on-going success of War Horse’s stage version, which comes to Glasgow next month, led Michael to being involved in Armistice events in the autumn.

“It has been a huge honour to have been involved in a small way with the Armistice centenary and commemorations over the past four years.

“There have been some hugely memorable moments but I wouldn’t really call it an honour to write about war. It’s something that has been part of my life and therefore has influenced my work.

“I was a war baby, born in 1943. As I grew up, I soon learned how war had torn my world apart.

“I lived next to a bomb-site, played in it because we weren’t supposed to and because it was the best adventure playground imaginable.

“But I soon learned much more than buildings were destroyed by war.

“My parents had split up because of it and my uncle Pieter, my mother’s beloved brother, was killed in the war.

“War continues to divide people, to change them forever, and I write about it because I want people to understand the absolute futility of war but also because to tell the story is the only way we have left to remember – and the only way to pass it on.”

Something else Michael has in common with Briggs is the enduring popularity of their books and he believes he has worked out what gives a story its longevity.

He said: “It might have something to do with the fact that when I’m writing well, I’m deep inside the story, living it as I write and I honestly don’t know what will happen. I want my characters to develop and work it out in their own voice.

“This is when the story really begins to work.”

The Snowman is just the latest classic Michael has put a new spin on, with previous retellings including The Pied Piper and Robin Hood.

He explained: “I try to find a way of telling it in my own voice, as if the listener of today was right in front of me.

“I use language that will be readily understood, but I try to echo the tone and rhythm of the original text, if there is one.

“When I’m writing a retelling, I do feel in some ways like an actor – the story is not mine but I am the one living it and interpreting it.

“I really enjoy this feeling.”

The Snowman has now sold 5.5 million copies in 21 countries.

The story of a young boy who builds a snowman that comes to life and befriends him was written by Raymond Briggs immediately after he finished writing another favourite, Fungus The Bogeyman.

“The Snowman was a reaction to the bogeyman – I wanted to do something different, lighter, less laborious,” explained Raymond, now 84. “It was different for the sake of a change.

“People I have never met before come up to me and say they loved The Snowman and they bought it for their children and now they buy it for their grandchildren.

“It could go on forever like Beatrix Potter or something.”

Raymond was speaking in a new BBC2 documentary, Snowmen, Bogeymen & Milkmen, which will be shown on Hogmanay.

It spends time with the author as he whiles away his days in his late partner’s home, travelling daily to his own house only to uplift pints of milk from the doorstep.

He also chats about some of his other revered books, like When The Wind Blows and Ethel And Ernest.