Michael Morpurgo's happy Chichester memories

Michael Morpurgo CREDIT Richard Cannon
Michael Morpurgo CREDIT Richard Cannon

Chichester is a place rich in memories and associations for Michael Morpurgo, whose Butterfly Lion comes to the Festival Theatre this month in a new stage adaptation.

It was in Chichester that Michael failed his driving test, and it was close by that Michael had his first job, teaching at Great Ballard School. He remembers fondly – test passed – driving from his home at Rogate across Goodwood to get to work.

He is thrilled now to see The Butterfly Lion taking shape in the city where the stage adaptation of his Running Wild enjoyed such huge success a few years ago.

In a new adaptation by Anna Ledwich, The Butterfly Lion runs in The Minerva from October 5-November 15 – a story which Michael recalls all began “wonderfully accidentally, as these things do.”

“I went to the Hay Festival to do a talk and was doing that usual thing of hanging around the town waiting for the time. The place was full of bookshops. We were walking past a window and there was a book in the window called The White Lions of Timbavati.

“I looked at what looked like a picture book with a beautiful picture on the front and I thought to myself I never knew that there were such creatures as white lions. I went in and asked to look at the book.”

It turned out it was a study of a pride of white lions 100 miles from Johannesburg.

“I paid £4 and it was the best £4 I have ever spent. It was quite a scientific book but I was fascinated to read about this subspecies I never knew about.

“I took the book home and there was just a moment where I thought this might be the germ of a book for me.

“I was coming back on the train from Paddington to Exeter and the train stopped. I was reading the book and I looked up out of the window at a place called Westbury, and there was a white horse carved out of the chalk. I looked down at my book about white lions, and here was a white horse on the hill. I knew that that was the beginning of a book.

“But it didn’t get anywhere for a while. Nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened until by pure accident I was in a lift in Dublin and met this wonderful lady that I knew from when I was a boy, and I had been in love with her when I was about nine or ten.

“The lift went up and up and up and I suddenly remembered her name and that she was an actress called Virginia McKenna. I managed to stumble out some awful thing, saying, I think, something about thinking that her Born Free Foundation was wonderful.

“She was very, very good about it, but I was furious with myself for having been so awkward, and I really didn’t want to leave it at that. I had a little book of mine with me, The Dancing Bear, and so I signed it for her, and I thought it would never hear anything again.”

But her response was another of the pieces falling into place for the book which became The Butterfly Lion: “She told me that if I ever wanted to write a book about lions, she would help. And that’s the way it all started to come together.”

The next piece in the story came along at a dinner party “when an old boy was saying that his grandfather had been a second lieutenant in the trenches in World War One.

““After two weeks in the trenches, a shell landed near him. He had a bad wound and went back to hospital behind the lines.

“As part of the mending, he was dispatched to walk into the local village, and one day he heard shooting. There was this circus drawn up in the square, and the old Frenchman was going around shooting all the animals.

“The old man couldn’t feed them, couldn’t look after them anymore. And there was just one animal left, the old circus lion.”

The soldier’s response was to step in and save its life…

Tickets from the CFT.

Review: Macbeth at Chichester Festival Theatre

Coming up at Chichester Festival Theatre this winter

Big names line up for 2019 Petworth Literary Week

Find out who's coming to Chichester Festival Theatre this winter

Chichester's newest cabaret, music and theatre venue set to launch