THEATRE INTERVIEW: Michael Morpurgo talks War Horse ahead of Joey’s run at The Liverpool Empire

War Horse is coming to Liverpool Empire Theatre until December 2

Think War Horse and several things spring to mind. Triumph over adversity; loyalty; love; bravery; the devastation brought about by war; the grim conditions of the trenches. All of these and more are elements which have thrilled schoolchildren and adults alike since Michael Morpurgo’s book was published in 1982.

Since its publication, the story of Joey and Albert has been turned into a major movie produced by Steven Spileberg and, also of course, a multi-award winning stage play produced by The National Theatre: a production which opens this week at The Liverpool Empire Theatre until Saturday December 2, before continuing its national tour of the UK and Ireland.

Here Michael Morpurgo tells of how the story came about, his near disbelief of as to how successful it has become and his gratitude to all of those involved in this stage production of his most famous and popular work.

The National Theatre Production of War Horse is at The Liverpool Empire, November 15 – December 2.

Click HERE for Ticket Information

“I was born in 1943 and grew up, as everyone in my generation did, very war-conscious. If you grow up with bomb sites all around you, and with adults who have lived through the trauma of six years of war, what you feel is a sense of grief and ruin all around you.  My heroes were not footballers or people who were famous, they were spitfire pilots.  These were the heroes that kids had at the time. That post-war thing was quite influential.  I was soaked in the war as a very small child.  I had an uncle who was killed in the war; and therefore, in my immediate family, there was this sense of loss and I knew that war had done that.”

“In my late twenties, I wrote a few stories – some of them touching on war.  I had an auntie, for instance, who was a teacher in London

Thomas Dennis as Albert
Thomas Dennis as Albert

and evacuated her school down to the West Country and she told me the story of that evacuation.  I then wrote a story called Friend or Foe, which was later made into a short film.  It was my first attempt to go back into a history that I didn’t really know but that I had felt as I was growing up.”

“I moved down to Devon to a small village called Iddesleigh (where we still live) to set up a project called Farms for City Children with my wife Claire.  The charity was Claire’s idea and and we’ve now been running Farms for City Children for thirty seven years with over 120,000 children having spent a week on the farm in Devon or one of our other farms in either Wales or Gloucestershire.”

“Iddesleigh has a population of only 80 and we love it.  It’s very beautiful; deeply rural and its history is in every hedgerow.  The Saxons built the hedgerows, and there’s a medieval church with a war memorial outside.”

“Many years ago, I was told that there were three men in the village who had been alive during the First World War, two of whom had actually fought in the conflict.  I had the opportunity to meet both of them.”

“One day, I walked into our local pub called the Duke of York.  Sitting in front of the fire was an old gentleman and, just making conversation, as you do at a bar, I said to him ‘I hear you went to the First World War as a young man’.   He said, ‘I was 17.  I was there with horses’ and he started talking about his time there.”

“I later learned from his wife that this is something he’d never talked about before and I have no idea why he opened up to a complete War Horse at The Liverpool Empirestranger in a pub, but he did.   One thing he told me, which touched me enormously and also resonated with something the other old soldier had told me, who had been in a cavalry regiment.  Both of them said that their best friend whilst they were on the front line was their horse because they could tell that horse stuff that they never dared talk about with their chums. Like their terror and horror of what they’d seen that day and their longing for home.”

“With your pals, they felt obligated to stay jolly to keep it all going.  What they didn’t want to do was to share your miseries with their comrades.  They could however, tell their horse everything.   So this old bloke said to me – ‘that horse listened’.  And I believed him.”

“It was confirmed a few days later at the farm.  There was this little boy called Billy who didn’t talk.  He had a stutter and he never talked at school.  I walked into the yard one evening to read the kids a story on a Thursday night – a dark, November night – and I found Billy outside in the rain in his slippers and I was about to shout out at him to get indoors and I saw him talking: the kid the teacher said who never talked.”

“He was talking to the horse and stroking the horse and telling the horse all the things he’d done that day so I stayed there in the shadows and listened to him.  I was extremely moved and I’d had these two conversations quite close together: the conversation with the boy and the horse, and the conversation in the pub with this old soldier and I began to think – in both cases, what I was being told about was the trust and the friendship between one sentient being and another.  And it wasn’t sentimental.  It was real.”

“And I was particularly interested in the horse and the First World War so I rang up the Imperial War Museum in London a couple of days later and I asked them if  they knew how many horses left these islands to go to the First World War?’  They said ‘we don’t know exactly but we think about a million’.”

“I then asked them if they knew how many came back and they knew because there are records –  65,000 came back.  I remember, on the phone, thinking hang on – that’s almost exactly the same number of men that died – horses and men – didn’t just die in the same numbers, they died in the same way.  I thought: : they died on the wire, they died in the mud, they were blown to bits, they were machine-gunned, they died of disease, they died of exhaustion, they probably died of stress.  They shared this thing, together.

“Later in my research, I discovered that at the end of the war – when it was all over – having lived and suffered with the men, they only brought back home what I call ‘the smart horses’: the officers’ horses. Because there were so many of these horses, they didn’t think it was worthwhile to bring them all back. It wasn’t cost effective so they decided – and it’s quite interesting and relevant now – to sell them off to French butchers.”

“So these horses, which had gone through all that… the soldiers had to watch them being taken away and shot for meat.  So I thought there’s an extraordinary story here and, although there were lots of stories about the First World War, all of them from one side or the other – so All Quiet on the Western Front and those from the German side and British Poets on our side – there was nothing… no one seemed to have told the story from a neutral position so I thought the horse could tell the story.”

“If I could write it well, maybe if I could make it persuasive enough quickly – before people started laughing – you could do it.  And because I’d seen this boy and this horse, it gave me the courage to think that there is integrity there; this is not sentimental stuff. DO IT,  DO IT, DO IT!”

“And I wrote it very quickly. The only part of the story which is not in the first person or which is not, if you like, told by the horse, is the introduction which sets it all up – the picture on the wall in the village hall and describes that, and the date and Captain Nicholls and you go into the story of Joey, told by himself.”

“Having done it, I was sort of quite pleased and sent it off and it was accepted relatively quickly.  My wife, Clare, loved it but then she would because she loves horses and she liked the place it was set in because it was set, essentially, in Iddesleigh.  Everything is connected to that particular place.”

“I know every field, every hedgerow that Joey looked out over as a young cub; I know the market where he was bought and it was all in my head.  The bit I didn’t know of course was the bit at the Western Front and I went over to do some research.  In a sense, there’s sort of no point in going because it’s so unlike it was then and if there are any trench systems left and there are – they are faked – and it looks like a film set. So I wouldn’t say it helped going out there at all. What did help was reading more around it.

“Anyway, the book was out and it had a very disappointing start. They produced a lovely cover, by a wonderful artist called Victor Ambrose in hard back and I don’t suppose it reached a 1000 copies to start with and they didn’t sell very well.  I had people trying to tell me it’s because it’s about the First World War and you don’t want to read a story about the First World War to a child.”

“It got shortlisted for the Whitbread prize – and my publishers were quite hopeful. They thought it was an unusual book and there wasn’t a book like this at all on the list and they thought it could win.  But it didn’t win – it was runner up. The chairman of the judges was the author Roald Dahl and he called me over afterwards and he said ‘it’s a good book but children don’t like history’.  I disagree with him, hugely.  They do like history.  It depends how you write about it.”

“Anyway, he implied – and he was right about this –  that it wasn’t the right moment for such a story.  People didn’t want to go back into history – especially the first or second world wars at the beginning of the nineteen eighties and which was, in a way, still during the Cold War.  We’d all put war on hold during the Cold War and people wanted to step away from it and War Horse wasn’t going to be popular or appreciated.

“I was very depressed because it was the first time I’d been shortlisted for anything and my friend, Ted Hughes, had been watching Channel 4 News on the night when this ‘not winning the Whitbread Award’ came up and he rang me up the next day and he said, ‘Michael, do you want to come out for the day?’ and we went fishing.”

“We ended up in this little Teashop and he said, ‘I read the book… it’s really good. You shouldn’t worry about prizes; it’s all nonsense. If you win it, it’s no good for you; if you don’t win it, it’s no good for you. It’s a fine book and you’ll write a finer one.’  And I suppose that’s just about the best thing you can say to any writer.”

“Anyway, heartened by that but discouraged by everything else, the sales trickled on.  It sold a couple of translations – it went to America and was out of print within 18 months. It never sold more than about 1500 copies in a year and I put it on my backlist.”

I made a film with a really good friend of mine, called Simon Channing Williams of another book of mine called While the Whales Came and we enjoyed it so much, we thought we’d do another one and he said, ‘let’s do War Horse’.  I’d written the script and worked on it with him for about five or six years and we both decided we weren’t getting anywhere with it so we gave up and it went to sleep again.”

“Then, I get a phone call from Tom Morris at the National Theatre, who said: ‘After Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Corum

Peter Becker as Friedrich in War Horse

Boy, which we’ve successfully produced at the National for family audiences, we’re really looking for a project involving a wonderful puppet company called Handspring and we’re interested in War Horse.’”

‘Puppets?’ I said.

‘Puppets. But puppets like you’ve never seen before.’

“So I went to London and I remember sitting at the National Theatre and Tom showed me a video: a giraffe – made by these amazing people – walking across a workshop floor and I remember being immediately convinced that this was a giraffe.  I thought it was utterly extraordinary.  The breathing, the way it became a live creature – in a way, more live than live because you knew the men were in there.  You knew they were making this and there was something so moving about their sensitivity, that I was completely convinced that this could work.”

“I spent the next two years coming to the National Theatre, sitting around the table listening to what Rae Smith (the designer) had to say, looking at what the co-directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris had for ideas and Paule’s ideas for lighting.  Anyway, to me, it seemed very complex and difficult. They were very sweet to invite me and they’d send me the scripts and I’d give my input into the scripts and sometimes they’d listen to me, sometimes they wouldn’t listen to me and that’s fine. They were really kind and engaged me as much as possible.”

“They came down to Devon. They came to watch a horse ploughing and that was really wonderful. I was really encouraged by what I saw – really thrilled when I saw the pieces coming together on stage and I thought this is going to be great.  I came to the first preview and it was terrible.  I was looking around at the people’s faces – people who really knew what they were talking about – and you could see this terrific tension building up and all the bits were they and they were wonderful but it was like a jigsaw puzzle that didn’t seem to fit.”

“It was too long by 20 minutes and so I didn’t sleep for two nights afterwards and I’m sure they didn’t either but instead of lying around moping, which is what I did, they clearly got their act together.  They worked their socks off for a week and shook this thing into shape so by the time the first night came along it was amazing.  I had the director Sir Peter Hall behind me and the writer and director Mike Leigh in front of me and I knew this was the test. They know theatre, these people.”

“Afterwards, one of them couldn’t speak and the other had tears running down his face and I knew something wonderful had happened but I didn’t know it would do so well.”

I was so pleased when I got the phone call to say that it would go on to do another season at the National. Apart from anything else, I wanted to believe that the great National Theatre was doing theatre for families – that was really important – and the kids were coming to the theatre in droves, with their mums and their dads and their grandparents to come and see the show. And every time I came you could see them so engaged – everyone – from the young to the very old.”

“I was so surprised that it had managed to come off so well and there were all sorts of changes – interesting changes – to reshaping and rewriting and it got sharper and sharper all the time.  But I honestly thought, well that’s a lovely show – that doesn’t happen to writers often.  Then I suddenly got this, ‘we’re going to the West End’ and then I suddenly got a call to say, ‘oh we’re going to Broadway’ and then ‘we’re going to Toronto’ and then we’re on a tour of Australia, then the UK and Ireland.”

Each time I kept thinking ‘no..?’  Funnily enough – and I don’t think Nick Hytner will mind me saying this – I went specifically to the National Theatre when I knew we were doing the second year and said to him, ‘Nick, I really would love it if somehow you could get this show to Berlin’    He was sceptical and said that German culture was much different to ours.

But now we are going to Berlin.  For me it’s not a dream come true, as I never dreamed it could be true.    I think it’s wonderful. I also think it’s wonderful that it may go to other capitals in Europe because that War was a World War and a totally European War and this play is going worldwide and Europe-wide.  And I think there’s no such thing as a non-political play and although this is a play about war, it’s more about the longing for peace; hopeful reconciliation.”

Jo Castleton as Rose in War Horse

“The notion that it’s going to Berlin 100 years after German soldiers marched down towards the Western Front and British Soldiers were leaving these shores and French soldiers were leaving Paris and they were all going to this front and dying in huge numbers in this cauldron of hate and destruction.  Now you have this production in London, on tour in the UK and Ireland, in Berlin and possibly other European cities.  The play is about reconciliation and it took two World Wars to get this to happen but at least we got there now and we all understand that this was the most terrible, terrible thing.”

“They said after the First World War that it was a war to end all wars.  And it turned out of course that it wasn’t because the peace that was created was too humiliating for the Germans and the Nazis grew out of that poverty and that humiliation, that starvation and all the rest of it.  And it is wonderful now that the circle has been turned and we have at least an opportunity now around us to have a peaceful Europe.  This play kind of fits that moment perfectly.   I guess what seems to have happened is that history has caught up with the story and The National Theatre took it on at the right moment.”

“I must say I really don’t know another play which has transformed puppetry and theatre so radically.   The innovation is quite extraordinary, and it has transformed what is after all a children’s book into a story for everyone.  Not just everyone in this country but for everyone all over the world.”

“And of course the film came along and I would love to say the film came about because of the book but I know perfectly well the wonderful lady who started it, Kathy Kennedy, Spielberg’s producer, just happened to be walking by the New London Theatre and thought it would be great to go and see with her daughter who loves horses.  So she goes in and gets the last couple of tickets and sits down and comes out of the theatre, phones Spielberg immediately and within a year they are shooting it.  I mean it is unheard of really.”

“And that of course has meant that the play is better known wherever it goes.  Interestingly, when it comes to the book, there are now 47 translations of War Horse in different languages: between them, the play and the film can be said to have relaunched the book.”

 The National Theatre Production of War Horse is at The Liverpool Empire Theatre November 15 – December 2.

Click HERE for Ticket Information