And Interview with Michael Morpurgo

by Lynn on May 6, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse, will give an evening of words and music (with special guest Melanie Doane) on Sunday, May 13 at 7:00 pm at the Princess of Wales Theatre. Tickets can be bought on line from

Michael Morpurgo lived a quiet, ordered life in his Devon village, writing books for kids and young teens, when something shattered that quiet life resoundingly. That ‘something’ was the adaptation into a play of one of his books for the National Theatre in London. The book of course was War Horse. It’s the love story between a young teen named Albert and his horse named Joey, during WWI. The horse is sold to the cavalry to fight in France. Albert lies about his age and enlists in order to bring his horse home.

The resulting theatre production opened in 2007, played to sold-out houses for its entire run at the National; won many awards; and transferred to the West End where it continues to sell out. When the American production opened a year ago in New York at Lincoln Center Theater it too played and continues to play to rapturous audiences; became an award winning production, culminating with the Tony Award. In February the all Canadian production opened at the Princess of Wales Theatre, produced by Mirvish Productions. And Stephen Spielberg did the film version that opened at Christmas. Not bad for a book that didn’t start out as one of Morpurgo’s successes.

As with War Horse, Morpurgo writes of characters with back-bone and integrity, about lives in peril and the tenacity, resolve, loyalty, and courage to endure.

Besides gripping story-telling, there are recurring themes in his books; war is one; an absent or angry father is another. The father in War Horse is an angry, sad man but with cause. The father in Waiting for Anya had been away at war, as a prisoner for four years and comes back sick, angry, short tempered and jealous. Yet Morpurgo’s books aren’t full of anger. He treats his characters with compassion. When he deals with war, there are no enemies—just two sides fighting when they would rather not be.

Michael Morpurgo comes from a theatrical family. His parents were actors. His mother was pregnant with him when his father went off to fight for the British in WWII. He was born, in 1943 while his father was still away. During that time his mother met and fell in love with Jack Morpurgo and the marriage fell apart.

I interviewed Michael Morpurgo when he was in Toronto, doing publicity for the opening of War Horse. This is part of what he said.

(LS) With a family full of actors, an opera singer, writers poets etc. did you feel pressure to follow in the family business?

(MM) “My mother married again…. married my stepfather (Jack Morpurgo) who really did urge us (Morpurgo has an older brother, Pieter) to do more conventional things with our lives. I don’t think any of us were aspiring actors. My brother Pieter was, and I don’t think it pleased my stepfather at all because it was so like Dad on the stage and (Pieter) ended up as a wonderful director for the BBC for years and years and years, Pieter Morpurgo.

He (his step-father) was much more conventional in a sense. He was a professor of American Literature at Leeds University and the National Book League and he wrote lots of history books himself. He was a great academic. A great book man. Status was very important to him. He came to McGill in Canada for a bit….He was very public school and very British. And to some extent, in a way, I was drawn away from the acting roots of my family—I’m not blaming anyone, but I think that’s the circumstance– looking back I regret it. I regret the fact that I didn’t go into the theatre. I love the stage. I think at the time, it was the army and then it was teaching…these were relatively safe things. You were joining institutions. You were going to be embraced by them, by colleagues. I acted in school. I loved acting in school. I didn’t think I was much good at it.

Obviously at that time I was aware that my father was an actor. My mother used to talk about her acting days with great fun. I think I should have gone into acting earlier…as Marlon Brando says, “I could have been a contender.”

(LS) Was it a happy accident that you realized you were a great story-teller when you were a young school teacher?

(MM) “I think I was always a born liar, and certainly when I came to teaching I did realize that the power of that could be used usefully and educationally.

There was a book… of which I am immensely proud called It Never Rained.” It came out in 1974, a book of short stories….It’s your first book and there’s very little evidence of story-telling talent. What there was was someone who was very enthusiastic about telling a story. There are some good things in it but it’s a bit prosaic.

Way, way before that, I put together an anthology of poems by children, called Children’s Words, and this is when I was teaching. And I did it deliberately because I wanted a way to show to children how good their writing was. I selected poems from all over the country that were just written by kids. And I was looking at it the other day—it’s a tiny little volume—and there’s one there by Daniel Day Lewis, age 14. And it is lovely. And because he’s now in the next Spielberg film, I’m going to send a copy to him so he can see what he wrote like when he was 14…

“And bit by bit by bit the stories became slightly more complex and broadened out. And really what I do know about writing is that it’s so much about confidence. Having the confidence to stray a little further, to go into uncharted territory. I wrote about the territory I knew where you’re comfortable. Actually I discovered it with a book called Friend or Foe, which I wrote because my Auntie had been a head teacher in a school in London and evacuated her kids out to the country

“I was used to writing about my experience or the experience of family. I had done some research into evacuation and listening to other people’s stories, before I came to War Horse. War Horse was the first one I strayed very much from the domestic scene.”

He was nineteen when he married. Twenty when he became a teacher.

“Kids were all around me when I was growing up. And then I was teaching kids. So they became my world, very, very quickly. It was the world I understood. I found I could relate to children. And it seemed to work. I’m acting in the classroom.”

He never patronizes them. After one of his evenings of words and music in Toronto a few months ago he recalled:

“There was this little kid standing outside (the theatre) with his mother, he was about 6 ½.

I asked him “Did you read the book?” He was very direct.
“Yes I’ve read the book…I like your books a lot, but they make me sad and they shouldn’t make me sad. Why do your books make me sad?
(Morpurgo) “Which book are you talking about?”
(Boy) “War Horse. Topthorn dies. Why does Topthorn have to die?
(Morpurgo) “Well what would you have me do? Write a story about that war where everything ends happily every after?
(Boy) No…”
(Morpurgo) “Then you do accept that in war there has to be sadness?”
(Boy) “Yes.”
(Morpurgo) “Then there you are…”

“We really had a good conversation on the street. I love that. I love the directness of children. It think children are wonderful in responding to the best in them. I find children very aspirational. They know and understand all these various human qualities. Who want to find the best in other people.”

That attitude has affected him greatly, and that attitude is certainly in his books.

“ I’m very influenced by my wife’s philosophy of life. She’s a Quaker…

I’m an instinctive story writer. I try not to force it. I did find when I started I tried to force stories to happen. The more I learnt about story telling, the more I knew that you have got to allow other influences and other colours and shades to come in and to give the time for that to happen.”

He struggled to make a living from his writing for the first twenty years. But he was a paid teacher for many years. Then he set up a charity with his wife, to bring underprivileged city kids to the country to live and work on the farm he bought for that purpose, for which he received a teachers salary so that’s how they survived.

“And then bit by bit the books began to sell. Just a little bit more. One got made into a film—not a good experience—but it made a bit of money. It gave publishers confidence to keep publishing me. You only need little successes—you win the odd prize and when that happens the more they feel good about publishing you….it’s been a very, very, very slow burn. And it’s only really in the last 10 years that I’ve made a proper living.

War Horse came out in 1982 and didn’t really sell very well- perhaps about maximum sales of 2000 copies a year. Shortlisted for the Whitbread prize. Didn’t win it. So it never really sold, but the minute they announced that Spielberg was going to make a film of it sales skyrocketed (500,000 at one count) …It’s now translated into 32 languages. Interestingly the play boosted it hugely but only in England… but then the reputation of the play boosted it in Scotland and Ireland and now Canada. And the US has gone potty.”

Morpurgo had trepidation about the National Theatre doing War Horse with puppets so he asked Phillip Pullman (author of His Dark Materials) to check it out—he trusts him.

“I’m always slightly suspicious of puppets used in an ancillary way…sometimes I think it’s lazy drama, “oh just do it with a puppet.” And I was a bit worried about that. But then I saw this video of the giraffe that Handspring Puppets made for some other production…and I was completely bowled over, and from then on I knew it was possible…” (Handspring Puppets is the brilliant South African company that produced the puppets in War Horse).

There is a Canadian connection regarding Morpurgo’s father. When his father realized that the marriage had failed he severed ties with the family because the boys were so young and didn’t know him. He went to Canada first to be a long-time member of the Stratford Festival and then as a beloved member of the Shaw Festival. His name? Tony van Bridge.

Michael Morpurgo’s mother never talked about her first husband to her children and they asked often. But one day, when Michael was 19, he, his brother, and mother were watching a televised CBC drama of Great Expectations and when the character of Magwich appeared, their mother said, “that’s your father.” It was Tony van Bridge in the part.

As for his father, “We didn’t know him at all until I saw him on Canadian Television in Great Expectations.

“When we tried to ask anything about him to my mother just didn’t want to go there…She was a deeply serious woman, my mother. She was a Christian Socialist and she’d gone against all her principles and her family’s principles by divorcing. So she had to make the second marriage work. My step-father was quite chauvinistic and didn’t like her acting…She couldn’t in her head go back to this other man…so I think the way that she dealt with it was simply by removing him (from her field of vision.)…the older she got the more sad she got?” They were ideally suited my mother and my father…both actors…” During the war, 1947-48, the divorce rate went up four times. The war destroyed so much that people don’t know about.”

(LS) What’s affected you more in your writing, war or an absent father?

(MM) “An absent father. I’m very close to my older brother…it’s always a difficulty. It’s one that is reflected very often in the fathers you find in my books. It’s something that stays with you….he (Tony van Bridge) was sweet when I met him….he’d done this wonderful thing of doing his best to minimize the effect…what he did was when my mother decided in 1945, that she was going to leave him and marry someone else…he came back to try (save the marriage)—was given compassionate leave—and it didn’t work so there was a decision that there would be a divorce. So Tony said: ‘Well here’s the thing, I don’t know these boys. I’ve been away for all their lives except for two weeks, they don’t know me…there’s no point in my hanging around and getting in the way, so I’ll absent myself and let you carry on with them with this new family…”

But he did want them to have part of his name, so ‘Bridge’ was added. His mother married and the boys were adopted by Jack Morpurgo. Tony van Bridge left for Canada in 1947 for Stratford.

….”In a sense he did right by me because I wasn’t torn by one father to a step-father…There were things I didn’t care for about my step-father, but we were one unit. And to be fair to him, I think he did the best by us. We’re not talking about a nasty man. He wasn’t a vicious man.”

Morpurgo did finally meet and get to know his father when he was himself a father. Tony Van Bridge wrote a memoir entitled Also in the Cast in which his family is slightly mentioned, but Morpurgo knows as many details as he can find out. He wanted to know what theatres his father played in, in Toronto. He seemed very pleased that he was going to have a tiny part in one performance of War Horse in New York, which is playing at a theatre (The Vivian Beaumont) in which his father acted. Following in his father’s footsteps.

Morpurgo’s books are full characters who show great resolve, compassion, understanding, sensitivity, are not judgemental. who in the face of adversity, act with decency. Much like the author himself. All this and he is a wonderful, wonderful story-teller.

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1 cindy preston May 18, 2012 at 4:17 pm

I look forward to seeing the show in Toronto sometime in the summer. My friend’s future daughter in-law in one of the puppeteers for the horse. I’ve seen different interviews and pictures during the Easter season with the horse next to the Mounted Police in Toronto and found this horse amazing. When you see it move you forget it is just a puppet. The puppeteers are very good at what they do to work three people together to make this horse live. Can’t wait to see it myself. Congratulations to Mr. Morpurgo on the success of this story.