AS the touring production gears up to gallop into Sunderland next week, the author of the original book, Michael Morpurgo, tells us about his inspiration for penning the novel:
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 and evacuated her school down to the West Country and she told me the story of that evacuation.
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.
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 stranger 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 while 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.
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. And I thought, they shared this thing, together.
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. 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 1,000 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.
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 1,500 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 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.
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. 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.
•War Horse is at Sunderland Empire from Wednesday until May 17. Tickets are £17.90–£48.90 from the box office, Tel. 0844 871 3022 or online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.