Anna Turns talks to Michael Morpurgo about Iddesleigh and his new film Private Peaceful

PUBLISHED: 16:36 17 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:05 20 February 2013

George Mackay (Tommo Peaceful) with Jack O’Connell (Charlie Peaceful)

George Mackay (Tommo Peaceful) with Jack O’Connell (Charlie Peaceful)

Michael Morpurgo's new film tells a poignant story of love and war, inspired by life in the north Devon village of Iddesleigh

Anna Turns talks to Michael Morpurgo about Iddesleigh and his new film Private Peaceful

Michael Morpurgos new film tells a poignant story of love and war, inspired by life in the north Devon village of Iddesleigh

Village life is treasured by Michael Morpurgo, and the story of Private Peaceful emphasises how rural communities were impacted by the war just as much, if not more so, than cities. Generations of young men were wiped out in Devon towns and villages like Iddesleigh, where Michael lives, so Private Peaceful holds a special place in his heart.
In the film, set during the First World War, young Thomas Peaceful looks back over his childhood from the battlefields, reminiscing about life in deepest rural Devon with his brother Charlie and their close friend Molly. The clock is ticking towards 6am when Private Peaceful will be shot for cowardice, so Tommo resolves to stay awake all night and relive his precious 18 years.
With a screenplay by Simon Reade, who previously adapted Private Peaceful for radio and stage, the film took one year to make from preproduction to delivery. Simon really appreciated Michaels time and input, which included commenting on script drafts, but as executive producer of the film, Michaels involvement did not stop there. He made some casting suggestions and proposed Pat OConnor as director. I came from Warhorse, which was a 70 million blockbuster, explains Michael. Private Peaceful is a little independent English film with a budget of 2 million, with a number of Devon-based investors. Though we may not have the expensive, sweeping wide shots, we do have a terrific intensity of acting with a supremely good cast, and it is every bit as powerful as Warhorse.
Michael is pleased with how the film has turned out: It is just as I had imagined the story in my head, very moving and tender, and director Pat OConnor really understood how villages worked, so the village scenes are great.
Producer Guy de Beaujeu felt honoured to be given the licence to make this film. Working with Michael on Private Peaceful has been one of the great experiences of my professional life, he says. Mention Private Peaceful to anyone that has read it and everyone remembers what a stunning, moving and beautiful book it is, says Guy, who grew up near Exeter and comes from an army family. I believe we have stayed very true to the spirit of the book.

We do have a terrific intensity of acting with a supremely good cast, and it is every bit as powerful as Warhorse

A tight budget meant the production could not afford the time or money to build a new trench system in Devon, so the crew used a pre-built trench system in Suffolk. Guy admits the team tried to make it as Devonian as possible: The lads still join up with the Devons, the recruiting band play the march of the Devonshire Regiment, Weve Lived and Loved Together, and we spent a long time finding just the right cottage for the Peaceful family.
Michael was disappointed, too. People simply dont know how extraordinary the landscape of rural north Devon is, but well get it in there one day. Happily, BBC Radio 4s production of Private Peaceful was filmed on location in Iddesleighs church and school hall. I played the vicar, brilliantly, and we recorded it on location for radio with the sound of real church bells!
Both Michaels parents were actors and his books are very visual stories, easily translated to the stage or the big screen. He has always loved performing himself (he plays a villager in the market scene in Spielbergs Warhorse) but admits that by its nature film can be that much more detached from your imagination. A book and theatre performance are live in your head and I do miss the strength of the link with the book when a story is conveyed on screen.
The story of Private Peaceful is made all the more poignant by the fact that Michael found the name for the character on a gravestone in Ypres when he visited the In Flanders Fields Museum in Belgium. I checked that they didnt know of anyone from the Peaceful family who would be concerned if I used the name, says Michael. And years later, a nice lady from Bournemouth wrote to tell me that she was from the family of Private Peacefull with two ls but the name had been misspelt on the gravestone. She showed me a picture of the soldier and the family were pleased I had used his name.
Michael often bases his stories against a backdrop of historical events and he is fascinated by the cusp between truth and fiction. People often go along with the magic but I do make the distinction clear. In the latest edition, I explain that my Private Peaceful is fictional and the soldier buried in Ypres was not shot for cowardice.

During the First World War, 290 soldiers in the British Army were executed by firing squad for desertion and cowardice. Years later, it is thought these men were simply traumatised by shell shock. Until 2006, they had still not been granted posthumous pardons, despite pressure from their families. While writing this book, I felt very passionately about this and got involved by sending letters to people like Cherie Blair to highlight the issue. The story of Private Peaceful seemed to act as a catalyst, and when an official in charge saw it performed on stage, he was so deeply moved that he championed the pardon. It does mean you can make a little difference, whether you are writing a book or you are part of a protest group, says Michael.
War is a common theme in his books and Michael broaches subjects such as the Holocaust, Spanish Civil War and the forced emigrations of British orphans banished to Australia (his book Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea also resulted in a public apology from Gordon Brown to all the children sent to Australia). Michael admits he does not lay on the full horror of war, but he describes it without justifying it, without it becoming entertainment. Dont tie the reality up in a pink ribbon. Children might cry but if you explain it sensitively that is fine. He is used to communicating with children, teaching in schools or through his charity, Farms for City Children, and he understands that children dont want to be patronised. You have to talk to them straight. Small children need stories so they go to sleep happy. As they grow up, they like a bit of a tingle but the story always has a happy ending. Then older children start being aware of problems in the world and they dont want to be corralled.
Michaels stories relate directly to children, and there is always redemption. There should be a sense of hope. Even in Private Peaceful, which is the saddest of all my stories, one of the brothers survives. It also says he is marching off towards the Somme, so adults may realise what is implied but a child hopes it ends happily.

Private Peaceful on Screen:
3 October: Royal Premiere in London
12 October: General release
Private Peaceful on Stage:
Until 29 september7.30pm/2.30pm. 10-25. Theatre Royal Haymarket, London. 0207 930 8800

In the County:
Living in Iddesleigh, Michael is very grounded in this story historically, so the research he had to do was minimal. He knows people who went to the village school in the 1940s and rings the church bells himself. Michael also studied photos by James Ravilious to visualise life in rural Devon in 1914. Devon locations featured in the book Private Peaceful (Morpurgos 100th book, published 2003) include:

  • Exeter train station

  • Lunatic asylum in Exeter

  • Swimming in Okement pool

  • Iddesleigh St James church, The Duke of York pub, main estate

  • Hatherleigh market

  • Eggesford Junction train station

  • Dolton

Quickfire questions from two of Michaels young fans, Nathan and Elliot Fox:
Do you plan stories or are they instinctive? Both.
What drives you to finish a book? Because I said I would.
Do you know what is going to happen when you start a book? No I like the ending to be as open as possible because then it surprises me.
How do you feel when you read a draft proud or do you only see the imperfections? Imperfections.
What are your tips for young writers? Dont be in a hurry, dont do it because you want to be famous or rich, do it because you care about what you are writing about.
Is there a time in history you would have most liked to have lived? Now, because every morning I have a hot bath. Hundreds of years ago, even kings couldnt do that.

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