A gay, equine, military, epistolary romance for the ages
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People say writers are lazy but today I have not only discovered the greatest website known to man, woman, SirValiant Brown or Spartacus Bernstein, but also taken a photograph of the Birth of Warhorses. This is from my notebook, from June 2009:
I had the idea at Kilburn tube, setting off for a writing meeting with Marie. The platform was sunny. I sat straight down and wrote this letter, sitting on a bench. As tonight’s listeners will hear, it changed a bit, but stayed on the same planet.
(I have stolen the idea of notebook pictures from John Finnemore over there on the right.)
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.
It’s Warhorses of Letters transmission day! To celebrate, we wrote this blog for BBC Radio 4, which is, by amazing coincidence, the radio station which is transmitting Warhorses (at 11pm tonight, do join us, etc.) I’m particularly impressed that we wrote an entire blog about it without once mentioning what the project is. You can find the post at http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio4/2011/10/warhorses.html. There’s probably a way to embed that link. I do not know what that way is.*
* I know.
Warhorses is transmitted tomorrow. Don’t take our word for it. Here’s the listing from the Radio Times:
Only on Radio 4 would one find a gay, epistolary romance in which the letter writers are horses. Oh, and they are voiced by Stephen Fry and Daniel Rigby. And if you can’t quite place Rigby, he won a Bafta this year for his portrayal of Eric Morecambe in the BBC2 drama Eric and Ernie.
And did I mention that the gee-gees they’re playing belonged to Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington? Please park any disbelief at the door — it won’t be needed. This is Camp Comic Fantasy with capital letters.
Fry gets to use a preposterously exaggerated French accent as Marengo, the small (14.1 hands) but perfectly formed mount of Napoleon. “I’m technically a pony,” he explains in a letter to his admirer, the youthful war-horse-to-be Copenhagen, chunky steed of the Duke of Wellington, “but Napoleon and I are perfectly to scale.”
There are more double entendres about pounding, mounting and staying the distance, but it’s done with as much affection as lust. Being the older nag by a good ten years, Marengo is much more comfortable in his horseshoes and knows how to impress a colt. “Oh my horsey God, you’re amazing with words,” declares Copenhagen on receiving a written response from his idol.
And the horse is right! The language is amazing, florid and full of equine-linked sexual innuendos. It’s a triumph of the imagination, of historical fancy and saucy humour.
Oops. That’s the review by Jane Anderson and not the listing. Damn. I don’t know how to delete it. Damn, damn, damn. Anyway, the show is on at 11pm tomorrow.
People are always saying, ‘You do realise there is a big War Horse exhibition at the National Army Museum, right the same time as Warhorses of Letters is going to be broadcast?’ We say: ‘Not only do we realise it, but we have made one visit, for the posh launch, and we saw a locket containing some of Copenhagen’s hair, but we didn’t see Marengo’s skeleton because that was in a locked room, so we will see it when we go back soon.’
Then people say, ‘How come you were invited to the launch?’ There are two possible explanations: 1) We were invited because of the nice coincidence that we have written a warhorse-themed show. 2) One of the curators used to play hockey with Robbie.
It is, unsurprisingly given the quality of people Robbie plays hockey with, an excellent exhibition. There is a game of Horse Guess Who? and a leopardskin saddle. There is also a game of sort of pin the tail on the horse, which Marie won because she is by far the main team horse expert.
(Very eagle-eyed viewers might be able to spot the horse-themed element in half our wardrobes.)
We are Robert Hudson and Marie Phillips. About eighteen months ago we started uncovering some pretty extraordinary letters at the British Museum, among other places. We wondered if anyone would be interested in them. Boy, were they ever. BBC Radio 4 were so interested they have dramatised them with Stephen Fry, Daniel Rigby and Tamsin Greig.
We were at the recordings with Stephen and Daniel, who were incredibly nice as well as being incredibly good. We were not at the recording with Tamsin for reasons of That Is Life, but in homage to her we asked the BBC to use intro music composed by her great grandfather Edvard.