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Skallagrigg (1994)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Skallagrigg (1994)
For Screen Two, BBC, 9/3/1994
80 minutes, colour
DirectorRichard Spence
ProducerJohn Chapman
AdaptationNigel Williams
From the novel byWilliam Horwood
PhotographyChris Seager

Cast: Kerry Noble (Esther); Bernard Hill (John); Tom Tomalin (Raj); Karl Andrew Purden (Tom); Adam Walker (Young Arthur); Jamie Beddard (Arthur); Nabil Shaban (Alan); Billie Whitelaw (Margaret); Ian Dury (Rendell); John McArdle (Dilke); Nick Brimble (Frank)

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A girl and her friends embark on a quest to unravel the legend of the Skallagrig, a mysterious being that flits through lives and stories in the disabled community. On the journey they piece together the story of Arthur, a boy who was institutionalised in the 1930s.

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Skallagrigg (BBC, 1994), adapted from the novel by Bill Horwood, is an adventure story that explores issues around disability. Whereas a film like My Left Foot (d. Jim Sheridan, 1989) portrays the struggle of the disabled protagonist to prove himself in the world, Skallagrigg starts from the opposite premise, challenging the able-bodied anti-hero John - and the viewer - to enter into disabled culture and see the world from an alternative point of view.

The complex narrative structure - a story within a story revealed by different characters and moving backwards and forwards through time - is held together by a simple plot. The film begins with a description of Arthur, a young boy with cerebral palsy, who is removed from his loving family in the 1930s and incarcerated in an institution. It is a world deprived of daylight and affection, where sadistic wardens stalk the corridors and residents can never hope to escape. From this horrific beginning the film jumps to the present and a 'special school' for the disabled. Here, the disabled teenagers are rebellious, sarcastic and demanding, while their adult carers are well meaning but inept; that is, the ones who aren't downright ignorant, like Esther's grandmother. The juxtaposition underlies the strengths and ultimately the inherent problems of the drama. The film has two difficult and compelling stories to tell. However, simply piling on the contradictions and multiplying the perspectives tends to drive them further apart. While this can make for a richly layered novel, as screen drama the meaning becomes as enigmatic and mysterious as the story it is pursuing.

The story of Esther's relationship with her father - her coming of age and his coming to terms with the fact of her disability - is sensitively handled. Her awkward, teenage, bullish attitude is wonderfully expressed, and her father, John, exhibits the anxiety and wrong footedness of a parent suffering with guilt and love. Esther's journey confronts her with the big questions of life: What are you looking for? Where are you looking? It also explores her deepest fears and resentments. Arthur's pain is her pain, and both need Skallagrigg to reassure them that love and understanding is possible in the world.

Skallagrigg is provocative, challenging drama. It offers a unique perspective on the world, while addressing serious issues about the treatment of disabled people in the past as well as the present.

Ann Ogidi

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Video Clips
1. The Birthday party (3:43)
2. Arthurs arrival (4:00)
Briers, Richard (1934-2013)
Hill, Bernard (1944-)
Whately, Kevin (1951-)