Gallop from page to stage
Devon author Michael Morpurgo, 69, has written more than 100 books, mainly for children and young adults. He is most famous for his First World War novel War Horse, which became a multi-award-winning stage show around the world and a Hollywood blockbuster. As the National Theatre production begins a UK and Ireland tour in Plymouth, Michael reflects on how the story began in his local pub in Iddesleigh, Mid Devon, 31 years ago.
How does it feel to have War Horse on the stage in Plymouth?
It feels like it has come home. It's wonderful to see Joey (the horse of the title) on his home theatre in Plymouth. He has galloped all around the world and now he is back where he came from.
Many of your books have been adapted for stage and screen. Did you think that War Horse would be so successful when it came out in 1982?
I never thought the book would develop into anything like this. It didn't sell very well, only 1,000 or 2,000 a year. It was a slow-burner and it did not succeed in America but the publishers kept it in print which was wonderful. The Cold War was still going on. People did not want to be reminded about a terrible war from the past. But then the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came along and people started seeing coffins coming home draped in flags. Attitudes changed.
What did you think when the National Theatre took on the story and wanted to use puppets to portray the horses?
I thought it was absurd. I thought that puppets were fine for children, but to have one centre-stage for a play for adults? I couldn't believe it. I didn't know about the genius of (puppet company) Handspring. The National worked on it for a couple of years – that's the wonderful thing about subsidied theatre, that investment of time and money – and the result was a miracle. It wasn't a play, really; not a musical; not a spectacle; it was an event.
How did you feel when Hollywood showed an interest?
When I heard that Steven Spielberg wanted to make a film version my jaw dropped. I could not believe it. That sort of thing happens to other people not me. One of his producers happened to see War Horse in London and told him he had to come over straight away and see it. I had no doubts that War Horse would be in good hands. He was wonderful. He invited my wife Clare and I on to the set when it was filmed on Dartmoor and gave me a part.
Are you just as pleased with the other adaptations of your books?
I have not been as happy with some. I won't say which ones. You sit there squirming.
How does it feel to give up control of your own work? Is there a secret to getting an adaptation right?
I think as you get older your judgment gets better. If somebody wants to make a play or a film it is incumbent on you to find out if they are any good at what they do and whether you like what they have done with other books, and then you have to decide. If you decide to take the money you must not grumble if sometimes it does not work very well.
Now that the last of the First World War veterans who you spoke to before writing War Horse has died, has that changed how it is read and viewed?
The stories live on. These are their stories not mine. I think it is wonderful that as we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of the conflict, a production of War Horse is opening in Berlin. It will be on in Germany and Britain at the same time with a message of peace and reconciliation. This all started with some remarkable people telling me their stories in the Duke of York in Iddesleigh. I thought they ought to be published because a few children might read them.
What are you working on at the moment?
Its working title is Lucy Lost and it is set in the Isles of Scilly, my fifth book set out there. It will be out next year some time but I can't tell you any more about the story in case it all falls apart.
What are you reading currently?
Lots of books about the history of submarines in the Western Approaches in the First World War. I read lots of documentary accounts.
War Horse opened at the Theatre Royal Plymouth last night and continues until Saturday, October 12. The complete run is sold out. Michael will read an abridged version of the book in War Horse: Only Remembered in The Lyric, the Theatre Royal's main space, on October 13. That show includes songs written by John Tams for the stage version of War Horse and performed by him and Barry Coope.