Why War Horse owes its existence to Desert Island Discs

It is the entertainment success story of recent years: the children's book that became a stage hit and now a film by Steven Spielberg. 


But as the Hollywod production of War Horse receives its royal premiere, few realise that the phenomenon owes its existence to Rosemary Morris, a retired doctor from Essex, and an episode of Desert Island Discs.
Author Michael Morpurgo was a castaway on the Radio 4 programme one Sunday in 2004. Dr Morris had never heard of him but was so enthralled by his life story that she went out to buy his books.
One was War Horse, a modest-selling children’s story that had been published 22 years previously and was fading into obscurity.
Dr Morris’s son, Tom, was then associate director of the National Theatre. And when he mentioned that he was looking for an animal story to turn into a stage production, Dr Morris knew just the thing.
Speaking for the first time about her role in the War Horse journey, the modest Dr Morris, 76, said: “So much of it is down to chance — if I hadn’t listened to Desert Island Discs, if Tom hadn’t been looking for something with animals, if Michael Morpurgo hadn’t written the book – that it’s really not something I can take any credit for.
“Tom was the one with the vision. But he does like to say it was found by me.”
Speaking from the family home near Manningtree, Essex, Dr Morris added: “I had never heard of Michael Morpurgo because I didn’t have grandchildren at the time and my children were grown up.
"But his life story was quite amazing. I thought, 'Golly, this is so interesting', and I thought I should get his books. So I went to my wonderful local bookshop, Red Lion Books in Colchester, and bought four or five.”
She went on: “Tom came down for the weekend and I knew he had been looking for something for the Handspring Puppet Company to do. I don’t remember actually saying, 'What about War Horse?’ although that’s what has gone down in history and Tom says I did.
"And that was the very beginning of a long process – workshops and rehearsals and a huge effort. I don’t think anybody knew until the first night how well it would do.”
The show opened at the National in 2007, with Handspring’s life-sized horse puppets, and was an instant hit.
Dr Morris also has a family link to Morpurgo’s story: her grandfather requisitioned horses for the First World War effort, the fate that befalls Joey in War Horse.
Reflecting on the success of the play, Dr Morris said: “The really important thing about it is that so many people have been to the theatre who would never have been otherwise. It showed you don’t have to have the perfect proscenium to make good theatre – you can just use your imagination.
"It also demonstrates the importance of subsidised theatre because they would never have been able to spend so much time developing it if it hadn't been subsidised."
Morpurgo, the former Children’s Laureate, said: “I can’t really claim any of the credit for the theatre adaptation of War Horse. It was Tom Morris’s mother who originally discovered my book.”
In his Desert Island Discs interview, Morpurgo recounted his unusual life story. He was a toddler when his father, the Canadian actor Tony van Bridge, left the family home. Morpurgo did not see him again until, aged 19, he saw Magwitch in a BBC serialisation of Great Expectations.
The author said: “Up from behind this gravestone reared this terrible figure and my mother grasped me by the arm and said, 'Oh my God, that’s your father'.
"The first time I saw my father was as a convict in Great Expectations. It was traumatic, really."