About 30 years ago author Michael Morpurgo was on holiday in the Isles of Scilly. The former children’s laureate was also trying to write a book, but lacking peace and quiet he asked a friend to take him to Samson, one of the uninhabited outlying islands.
When he arrived he found himself alone save for derelict houses, gulls and rabbits. It began to rain so he took shelter in one of the ruined houses and tried to think about what to write. However, he began to hear noises and wondered if he really was alone.
Indeed, Michael tells me he felt so uneasy he felt “spooked” and when his friend picked him up later he told him what had happened.
The friend told him about the ghosts many people said were on the island and then relayed a story about a great tragedy that had befallen the community way back in the 1800s. It transpired that many fishermen from the island drowned after they hit a rock whilst travelling in a boat to Plymouth. The tragedy led to the island becoming deserted and the story of a curse.
It was this experience and his friend’s story that led to Michael researching and writing his children’s book Why The Whales Came.
Set during the First World War it tells the story of 10-year-old Gracie and her friend Daniel. They live on Bryher, one of the islands in the Scillies. Their parents warn then to keep away from the Birdman, an elderly gentleman who lives alone in a cottage on the southern side of the island.
The islanders tell stories about the Birdman and Samson, the island he used to live on and which it is said he put a curse on. They tell the children not to set foot on Samson otherwise the curse will fall on them.
However one day whilst out playing, they find themselves near the Birdman’s cottage. It is the beginning of the biggest adventure of their lives which culminates in helping a stranded narwhal whale.
It is a story full of mystery, intrigue and excitement as well as one that teaches about compassion, kindness and friendship and over the years has been adapted for stage and radio. It has now been turned into a stage show by Dani Parr and Danyah Miller and is is currently on at the Ovalhouse Theatre as part of a small tour which also takes in the Southbank Centre in February.
Danyah Miller enacts the story in the hour long show and Michael tells me she’s the perfect person to do so.
“Danyah’s amazing and is one of the great storytellers in this country and I’m certain she has done a fantastic job with this,” he says warmly.
“She approached me to do the adaptation and as I’m very keen on theatre and as she brings stories to life in the most enchanting way I knew she would do a great job and tell it brilliantly.
“There is something about the simplicity of one person telling stories in a theatre and the audience being able to use their imaginations - it’s the purest form of storytelling.
“She’s terribly engaging and it’s ingenious the way she brings in props and aids to tell the tale.
“Children don’t have huge concentration spans so it’s a real skill to keep their attention for an hour and get them to lose themselves in the story but Danyah is fantastic at it.
“I’m really excited about the fact that she has chosen Why The Whales Came,” he adds. “It is one I wrote a long time ago about an isolated community on the island of Bryher.
“It features a strange man who lives on the island and the children who were told to keep away from him because people think he’s mad and has put a curse on the neighbouring island of Samson which now is full only of empty houses.
“However, two children don’t keep away from him and they find out that instead of being mad, he’s actually an extremely sweet natured old man who lives in harmony with nature around him. He lives simply and keeps himself to himself.
“So it’s a story about why the Birdman lives there, how he became different, how he’s managed to live amongst the creatures around him and how we all need each other.”
Michael says it was his experience whilst on holiday in the Scilly Isles all those years ago that prompted him to find out more about the story of what happened to the islanders and which led to the book. It is this approach, bringing in an element of a true story into his own, that is characteristic of many of his books.
“I always like to bring an element of historical fact to my stories and when I heard the story about the men who drowned and the curse of the island of Samson I felt it was so powerful that I wanted to investigate it,” he says.
“I did a lot of research and visited the island again as I needed to find out more about what happened to these men, where they dropped their lobster pots and what life was like at the beginning of the First World War on the islands. It was fascinating and I realised it had the basis of a great story - which turned out to be Why The Whales Came.”
The book is the latest of Michael’s many stories that has been adapted for the stage - the most famous of course being War Horse - and he’s delighted that it is coming to Ovalhouse.
“It’s an intimate space which suits the story so I’m delighted it will be shown there,” he says. “Danyah is an extraordinary lady and I’m sure this production will be amazing.”
Why The Whales Came is on at the Ovalhouse Theatre, until January 31 and then on tour including the Lyric Hammersmith on January 28 and The Southbank Centre on February 17. Tickets cost £11. Visit http://www.wizardpresents.co.uk/production/why-the-whales-came/ or call the box office on 020 7582 7680 for full listings.