Warhorses of Letters

A gay, equine, military, epistolary romance for the ages

Hello! Marie here. I just wrote a long post about Warhorses over at my blog and it occurred to me that it might be of interest here too. So voila. Or do I mean voici? I should know this. My mother is French.

At the end of 2009, I was severely ill, and ended up spending a month in hospital. I emerged in January 2010 skinny, frail and exhausted. The novel I’d been working on throughout 2009 seemed an impossible task. I didn’t have the stamina or the emotional strength to work on it, and in any case just looking at it was too painful a reminder of the time I’d spent sick. (I never did finish that book.) I felt like a failure. The future looked bleak. I couldn’t imagine ever writing anything again.

Around that time, my friend Robert Hudson set up a bi-monthly comedy storytelling night, Tall Tales, at the Good Ship in Kilburn. Robbie and I had written a sketch show together before I got ill, and we’d submitted a few of those sketches to Gareth Edwards at Radio 4. He didn’t buy any of them, but he did invite us to a particularly great meeting at which he let slip that he had a weakness for comedy involving talking animals. Right, we said. Talking animals. At some point after that, Robbie dreamed up the notion of a story in which Copenhagen, the Duke of Wellington’s horse, exchanged love letters with Marengo, Napoleon’s horse, but neither of us could figure out what to do with it.

When Robbie set up Tall Tales, he suggested that it might be a good place for me to start writing again, just short pieces which wouldn’t be as intimidating as attempting a novel. I remembered the story about the warhorses. Why don’t we do it as a series, I suggested.

There then followed the most fun and surprising period of writing in my life. Every other month Robbie and I would get together and plot out an episode of Warhorses of Letters, choosing a stretch of the history of the Napoleonic wars and dividing up the storytelling between the two horses. We’d also figure out which direction the equine romance would take. And then off we’d go, and a few days later an email would pop into my mailbox from “Copenhagen”, which I would reply to as “Marengo”. At the end of the two months, we’d meet up again, edit the letters together, and then Robbie and John Finnemore would perform that episode at Tall Tales, always with at least one extra joke that Robbie would put in just for me.

I still remember how nervous I was the first time we brought Warhorses of Letters to Tall Tales. I knew that Robbie and I found it funny – we’d frequently reduce ourselves to tears of laughter (at each others jokes) when we were writing it – but come on: it was letters between two horses. Two gay horses. During the Napoleonic wars. It was a bit of an odd topic to say the least. I had visions of the audience sitting in embarrassed silence, wondering what the hell this thing was. And my confidence as a writer was rock bottom. But the audience loved it, so much so that there was a loud collective sigh at the end when we broke off the correspondence, with a cliffhanger of course. We had a hit on our hands, in Kilburn at any rate.

After we’d written a couple of episodes, Robbie sent them off to Gareth Edwards, and about forty-five seconds later he replied with enthusiasm, saying he’d submit them for consideration to the commissioners at Radio 4. Months passed. We carried on writing and performing Warhorses, and I started to believe that I could actually be a writer again. When finally the commissioners gave the series the thumbs up, Gareth sent us an email titled ‘Hip Hip Hoofay!’ We love Gareth, basically.

The casting of Stephen Fry and Daniel Rigby as Marengo and Copenhagen, with Tamsin Greig as the narrator, was better than anything we could have dreamed of. On the day we recorded, Daniel and Stephen sat in the studio behind a glass wall, with Robbie and me, Steven Canny our brilliant director (Gareth alas had a long-standing prior commitment), and our production team Jill Abram, Toby Tilling and Lucy Meggeson on the other side. Steven assures me that recording radio can take forever, with take after take needed to get it right. Stephen and Daniel nailed it first time. In fact they were almost disappointingly good, as we had no excuse to do loads of retakes and so it was finished well ahead of schedule. I could have sat and listened to them for weeks.

And tonight it’s going to be broadcast. So much has changed for me in the last two years, not only Warhorses of Letters but the film of Gods Behaving Badly, a new novel I have tentatively started and a screenplay I’m developing with a friend. I often do short pieces at Tall Tales too, and Robbie and I have started plotting another talking animals-based series. And there’s going to be a book of Warhorses of Letters – have a look over here for details. Less than two years ago I would never have thought any of this was possible.

In a very real way, Warhorses of Letters saved my life, as did Robbie, not that I have ever thanked him, we wouldn’t want him getting big-headed. I hope you enjoy listening to it tonight and over the next four weeks.


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