“I’m so looking forward to coming to Blackpool!” he says, passion oozing down the line. “I’ve never been in my life, so I’ve got this huge image of the place: of tram rides and wonderful sculptures on the beach and everything else…” He trails off, as if lost in a reverie. “The whole history of the place is right there in my head, so it’ll be a really interesting trip for me.”
Some 40 years after War Horse was first published in 1982, Sir Michael is gearing up to perform War Horse: The Concert at Blackpool Winter Gardens on October 7th. Part of a 40th anniversary celebration, the show sees him read an abridged version of the book on stage to music and songs from the award-winning play. Naturally, it has captured imaginations.
“To be so involved with the reading is lovely,” says Sir Michael, 79. “When I’m on stage, because I know the story so well, I lose myself in it completely. And, while I’m not a proper actor with all that bravura and performance, I learned as a teacher that you have to mean it for people to believe you, so I tell the story with considerable passion and commitment.
“It’s a writer’s performance,” he adds of the show, which sees him joined on stage by folk singer Ben Murray, who played the role of ‘The Songman’ in the National Theatre’s production of War Horse. “I’m there to weave my tale around Ben’s songs and it’s always brought a lot of joy to a lot of people.”
What’s it like seeing his story brought to life and being part of such an organic process?
“There’s a lot of pride involved,” Sir Michael answers. “But I’m always quite fearful before I go out because you don’t know the audience and the audience doesn’t know you, which makes walking out on stage a big risk. But all my nerves go when I open my mouth. I love it – it gives me more pleasure than anything else.
“My mum was an actress and daddy was an actor too so, in a way when I was young, I always thought I’d be an actor as well,” he adds. “I always liked telling stories, so to be finding myself at the age of 79 – 79, for goodness’ sake! – up there on stage is what my parents would’ve wanted, but it does make me think ‘you’re far too old to be doing this!’”
War Horse is one of Morpurgo’s most beloved books. Not only a bestselling novel, but an award-winning theatre production and a Hollywood film directed by Steven Spielberg, it’s set in 1914 and is told from the perspective of young farm horse Joey. After being sold to the British Army from under the nose of his owner Albert, we follow Joey to the Western Front.
The tale stirs people like few other narratives, as evidenced by its emergence as one of the most stunning plays ever written and performed, with the storyline and the emotive use of lifelike puppets making it a global tour de force.
“To this day, seeing War Horse come to life on stage is wonderful,” says Sir Michael. “It’s one of those things you just never expect: I wrote the book and hoped people would like it, but never expected people to like it so much that it gets made into an iconic play by the National Theatre and a film directed by Steven Spielberg! It’s life-changing.
“A producer called Tom Morris had been looking for a new storyline,” he adds. “Tom had gotten to know South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company and had an idea to make a big production where the puppets were centre stage. His mother read War Horse and so she rang him up and said ‘I’ve just read the book you should base the play on.’
“Tom read it too and loved it, but I’ll be honest, when he initially told me about the puppets, it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to hear,” continues Sir Michael. “The only horse I’d seen on stage was a pantomime horse and it’s laughable – you couldn’t do that with the First World War. But he invited me to London to have a look at the puppets and so I went along.
“When I got there, I saw a life-sized giraffe walking across the stage with visible puppeteers inside and the most extraordinary thing came across me. I had tears in my eyes. These extraordinary puppeteers became the life of the giraffe. It was just so moving – I thought that, if they could do that with a giraffe, they could certainly do it with a horse.”
For the next two years, the National Theatre worked diligently, bringing together what Sir Michael call’s ‘ the best folk singers, composers, script writers, and actors’ as part of a huge 65-person show. Then opening night came around and no one could quite have predicted what could come next: the show became the biggest hit imaginable.
With he stunning life-sized horse puppets created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company bringing living, breathing, galloping, charging horses to thrilling life on stage, War Horse took the world by storm, quickly becoming the National Theatre’s biggest ever production, playing to more than eight million people in 11 countries worldwide.
The production has even played in Germany to German audiences, with the traditional English folk songs translated into German and performed in the only theatre which survived the bombing of the Second World War below boxes where the Kaiser and Hitler once sat. Transcending boundaries like little else, it has also enraptured royals, too.
“Three years in, it moved to the West End,” Sir Michael says of the play. “One day, the theatre got a call from Buckingham Palace explaining the Queen wanted to come along, what with her being so connected to history and having a love for horses. No one knew she was coming – there were no tiaras or big dresses – but, by half time, word had got around.
“Afterwards, she was saying how much she’d loved it and the next day’s papers were full of news about the Queen going to War Horse,” he adds. “Ticket sales went through the roof! Then the National Theatre got an invitation to take Joey to Windsor to meet the Queen, so he became the first horse puppet to be formally invited to an audience with the Queen!”
I ask Sir Michael why he thinks War Horse chimes with so many people from such variegated backgrounds.
“Everyone takes to it for a different reason, but what’s sadly universal is war: everywhere the play has been seen, people have in the last 100 years been involved in war, so it echoes,” he explains. “But the story is about peace and reconciliation, hope and determination. In the middle of the maelstrom of horror that is war, there’s a young man who loves his horse.
“At its heart, the story is about the longing for a boy and his horse to be reunited. I grew up post-war, so I know what war does to people, houses, flesh, and societies, and War Horse is not a story about war,” Sir Michael says. “War Horse is a story about humanity.”