Last Updated on 22nd February 2022
As a new stage adaptation of Private Peaceful embarks on a national tour, beloved children’s author Michael Morpurgo talks about the true events that inspired the story – and how War Horse was nearly a complete disaster…
It started with a letter. Twenty years ago, Michael Morpurgo, author of some of the most beloved children’s books of all time, including War Horse and Kensuke’s Kingdom, was visiting a museum dedicated to the First World War in Ypres, Belgium.
Just as he was leaving a framed letter caught his eye, flat against glass, its envelope addressed to a woman in Manchester.
“This typed letter was so stark,” Morpurgo remembers. “It said: ‘We regret to inform you that your son was shot at dawn on such-and-such a date. Yours sincerely.’ I looked at the envelope and I could see it had been ripped open – there was a huge tear along it. What that tear told me was the moment that this woman’s life had fallen apart. She opened it, and the rest of her life was grief and shame.”
He pauses briefly. The effect of that moment still holds power, even two decades later. When Morpurgo talked to the man who ran the museum, he explained that during the First World War around 300 British men had been executed at dawn for various acts including desertion, cowardice, even two who had been shot for falling asleep at their post.
They found some old files containing details of the trials. “One of them lasted less than 20 minutes,” says Morpurgo flatly. “Many were not represented by a lawyer. The vast majority were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or shell shock as it was called. They were unable to cope. There were far too many Irish people shot, far too many black people. I walked out of that building thinking this was a part of history people did not know enough about. This was not justice.”
Moved by that framed letter, Morpurgo started writing a story about two brothers, Tommo and Charlie, who are wrenched from their rural life to fight in the war, with the story of these executions playing a major part.
The story became Private Peaceful, published in 2003, and it was an instant success, winning the Red House Children’s Book Award and the Blue Peter Book Award, as well as being shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
It also caught the attention of writer and director Simon Reade, as Morpurgo explains: “I was doing a radio interview when the book came out, and my phone rang on the way home. It was a man called Simon, who was running Bristol Old Vic Theatre. He said ‘I’ve just heard you on the radio. Don’t give the rights for Private Peaceful to anyone else. I’m going to the bookshop to read it right now. I’ll call you back tomorrow.’”
Reade did exactly that. He was so moved by the book’s message of fraternity, rivalry, redemption, the horror of war that he told Morpurgo he would turn it into a play. But he wanted something small-scale for just one actor playing all the parts, and he wanted to change the ending.
Morpurgo agreed and the show opened in 2004. For more than 15 years it toured the world, from Edinburgh to New York, Australia, Scandinavia and many other places. Then in 2019 Reade decided to expand the play. He wanted a bigger cast, he wanted to reinstate the original ending. Everything was set for a premiere at Nottingham Playhouse in 2020.
“Then the theatres all shut down,” says Morpurgo. “I thought that by the time they could reopen they would be interested in other things.” In fact, during lockdown, Nottingham Playhouse and Jonathan Church Productions had been plotting. Now, the brand new version of Private Peaceful is about to embark on an extensive UK tour, and Morpurgo is delighted.
Of course, there are two words that have come to define the iconic author more than any others: War Horse. The 1982 novel has sold more than a million copies, the stage show has been seen by more than seven million people, and the film directed by Steven Spielberg was nominated for six Oscars.
But Morpurgo is certain that War Horse would never have happened without Private Peaceful.
There had been some stage adaptations of Morpurgo’s work before Reade decided to tackle Private Peaceful, but none had taken off in a big way. There have been flops in his career too. In 1989 he made a film with Helen Mirren, David Suchet and Paul Scofield. Morpurgo wrote the screenplay himself. “It was an incredible cast. And it was an awful film,” he laughs.
But some time after Private Peaceful had been playing at Bristol Old Vic, someone from the National Theatre got in touch with Morpurgo. “They had clearly seen Private Peaceful and thought, ‘I wonder what else this fellow has got.’ They asked if they could adapt War Horse for the stage.”
War Horse went into development for two years. Finally, two weeks before it was due to open, Morpurgo went to see a run-through of the show. “It was disappointing,” he recalls. “Things were all over the place. It was a crisis.”
The team had two weeks to fix it. During the countdown to opening night they reworked it, cut bits, shifted scenes, distilled it, desperately trying to get it right.
Opening night came. Morpurgo arrived at the National Theatre nervously, remembering the mess he had seen two weeks earlier. “I looked around me and every film director I’d ever known was sitting in the audience.” The curtain rose. It was an incredibly tense moment. Everyone watched as Joey sprang to life for the first time and, slowly, something strange began to happen.
“All these film directors, all these important people…I heard them crying. At the end there was a huge standing ovation. People were nodding at me – that was all they could bear, they didn’t need voices anymore.”
The rest, of course, is history. “But I owe a great deal of that to Private Peaceful,” says Morpurgo.
There are similarities between the two books, of course: not just the First World War setting, but also the way he confronts difficult themes unflinchingly.
For Morpurgo, that’s a necessary part of writing for young people. “My first profession was as a teacher,” he says. “I got used to explaining the world in a way that interested them but was not traumatic. You can tell them things at the right moment in the right way. That’s very important. But it’s also important that they have to know.”
“Besides,” he continues, “children grow up so much more savvy now than I did. We didn’t have television, smart phones. We knew nothing that wasn’t filtered either by our parents or by our teachers. We were presented with a sanitised world, there was a slowness and gentleness about growing up. But for a long time children have grown up knowing that there are these difficult things in the world. There are wars going on, there are terrible stories. Now children can get these stories on a phone in their bedroom. They can see the world at its cruellest broadcast directly to them. What you do not do is avoid talking about these things. It’s so important to know what happens when the world falls apart.”
And that’s what it has felt like for the last two years, with children suffering the effects of the pandemic.
“These have probably been the most difficult two years of their lives. They will have witnessed parents struggling, maybe the passing of grandparents, above all they’ve missed their friends. Will they want to go and have a giggle? Yes. Will they want to play football? Yes, yes, yes. But I do think that stories like Private Peaceful are more important than ever. They teach us about the hardness of living. They teach us how to live in a world that’s gone wrong, just as it has in the last two years.”
Morpurgo promises that Private Peaceful ends with a glimmer of hope. In 2006, more than three hundred British soldiers who were executed at dawn for desertion, cowardice and other acts were granted pardons by the UK Government. Private Peaceful, which was on stage just a few hundred metres down the road from the Houses of Parliament, contributed to that decision.
“You have to ease your way out of sadness,” Morpurgo says, offering his own hopeful note. “You learn about happiness when you’ve been through the darkness. And then there is a time when we can sing and laugh again.”