Behind War Horse is the story of an old man, a young boy – and an animal that listened.
And if it hadn’t been for the three of them, Michael Morpurgo wouldn’t have penned his best-selling book, and the most successful production in the National Theatre’s history would never have existed.
Morpurgo’s heartfelt First World War tale starts in rural Devon, and that’s exactly where the author first had his idea for the book, more than three decades ago, after striking up a conversation with an old man in his village pub.
“He was called Wilf Ellis,” the 74-year-old recalls. “And I thought, I have to make conversation. I didn’t know him that well, so I said ‘Wilf, they tell me you went to the First World War’. “Yes”. They don’t talk much in Devon! I said: ‘So what regiment were you in?’. He said: “I was in the Devon Yeomanry. Horses.”
“I thought that was that. And then this man started talking. And talking and talking. His wife said later he’d never ever talked about his time in the First World War in the trenches.
“He just opened up for an hour-and-a-half. And I listened, and I listened. I was crying inside, trying not to cry openly because a lot of it was dreadfully difficult to bear.
“His experiences would not have been unlike anyone else’s. He was gassed, he was wounded, and he had time in the trenches, out of the trenches, time on leave. And he’d killed people and witnessed the killing of people. People being blown apart.
“I walked out of that pub and I thought - I really want to tell a story about that. And I knew immediately how I was going to do it. I didn’t want to tell a story that was one side or another, I didn’t want a British story or a German story or a French story, I wanted a story from no one’s point of view. A neutral character.
“And I knew the horse was the vehicle to do it.”
There was a problem, however. Morpurgo, who himself had lost his Uncle Pieter in the Second World War (another uncle was a famous member of the SOE), liked the idea but couldn’t see a way to achieve it without the story appearing ‘ridiculous’ and sentimental.
It wasn’t until a chance encounter in a stable yard sometime later that he changed his mind.
Morpurgo and his wife had moved to Devon to start a project, farms for city children.
And one evening when he arrived at the farmhouse they had transformed, preparing to read the youngsters a story, he spotted one lad, Billy, out in the yard in his pyjamas and slippers.
The author says: “Billy was a child who the teacher told me, right at the beginning, was very nervous, had a speech problem, so much so that he did not speak.
“But there he was, his hand on the side of the horse’s face, talking 19 to the dozen, not a hesitation in his voice. It was the most remarkable thing, I was very moved. I knew why, instantly, that that horse was not threatening, was not going to laugh. There was love, trust, whatever, between these two sentient creatures. There was this feeling they were all right together.
“There was something even more miraculous to me – and that was this. The horse was listening. Absolutely listening. Staying there. That horse knew, and you could tell from the body language, that it was important that she stay.
“And I knew at that point you could write a story from the inside of a horse’s head. It does not have to be sentimental.”
War Horse the book wasn’t the success Morpurgo had hoped. But that all changed when he got a call out of the blue from director Tom Morris – albeit some 25 years later.
War Horse - images by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
“He said: ‘My mother told me I should read a book by you called War Horse, because it has a horse and a heart. And I want to make a play with these people called Handspring Puppets’.”
The play turned out to be a sensation, and 10 years on War Horse has been seen by more than seven million people worldwide and won 25 awards, including a Tony for best play on Broadway. And the book has sold a few more copies too!
Now the National Theatre production is heading for Liverpool for the first time, opening at the Empire on November 15.
And it’s an apt city in which to tell the tale; hundreds of thousands of ‘war horses’ were brought in through the Liverpool docks in the Great War, being trained just up the road at Lathom Park.
Morpurgo says: “I’m so pleased this (tour) is happening; that many more people will have the chance to enjoy this unique theatrical event.”
War Horse is at the Liverpool Empire until December 2. Tickets from the website HERE.