Folk musician John Tams on bringing ‘War Horse: The Concert’ to Derby

PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 October 2016

Michael Morpurgo, John Tams and Barry Coope  Photo: Graham Whitmore

Michael Morpurgo, John Tams and Barry Coope Photo: Graham Whitmore

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Folk musician and resident of Nether Heage, John Tams talks about bringing his concert version of the resounding literary, theatrical and film success to Derby

John TamsJohn Tams

WAR Horse holds a special place in the heart of multi-award-winning Derbyshire folk musician John Tams. This simple story of a boy, his horse and a terrible war has touched readers, theatre-goers and film fans alike and John has played a big part in War Horse’s incredible journey.

He crafted the songs for the National Theatre stage production that has toured the world; along with his wife Sally he adapted the original tale by Michael Morpurgo for a BBC Radio 2 version featuring Timothy Spall, Bob Hoskins and Brenda Blethyn; he advised Steven Spielberg and worked alongside composer John Williams when the story was turned into a big budget film and he can be seen in Derby performing a concert version of War Horse, alongside Michael Morpurgo and Barry Coope in November.

John and War Horse have come a long way together since the National Theatre production made its debut in October 2007.

He says: ‘I’m very proud of it. I have been a musician for 50 years, have worked in the theatre for more than 40 years, and it stands out as one of the most important things I have done. I’m so glad to be associated with it.’

John and Sally Tams at home in Heage  Photo: Ashley FranklinJohn and Sally Tams at home in Heage Photo: Ashley Franklin

The concert version with Michael’s storytelling accentuated by music from John and Barry has also been hugely popular and can be seen at Derby Theatre on 10th November.

John says: ‘It was a couple of years after the play had started running that Michael asked me to do an adaptation for radio. When it was originally broadcast Michael fell in love with it and asked if we could do it as a concert performance with the music Barry Coope and myself had put into the radio show – and that’s how it started. We have now done it at various theatres, minsters, churches and festivals and it has always gone down well.

‘It is a joy to do, especially as Michael is such a wonderful storyteller. Michael’s father was an actor and he has some of that DNA and he has a colourful way of storytelling, conjuring all these different characters.’

It’s just one of the many directions War Horse has taken John’s career over the last decade.

War Horse: The ConcertWar Horse: The Concert

He says: ‘I have been to Broadway with the play, Sydney, Berlin, Amsterdam and it’s currently playing in China and due to return at the end of next year to tour the UK – including the Theatre Royal Nottingham.

‘A lot of people have seen it, some a dozen times, but it’s constantly evolving. Every time you change the cast you change the balance and the chemistry on stage.

‘I’m one of the executives and so I am involved each time we change the cast – there have been eight or nine of those so far. I help select the appropriate singers and actors and then I spend time working with them. I also try to catch up with it when it’s on the road. I have been very actively involved in it and it has taken me all around the world.

‘The first time it was performed not in the English language was in Germany and there’s still a certain sensitivity about the Great War there so that was a test. It’s also been translated into Mandarin and that was the hardest one, as culturally it’s very, very different in China. I always work very closely with the translators to make sure we are successfully crossing all the cultural barriers and do not upset people unnecessarily.’

Wherever it has played, War Horse has picked up a string of awards.

John says: ‘It started with a clutch of Olivier Awards when it first opened and it has carried on ever since. It helps the play keep resonating. It’s nice to be recognised but really awards are just the by-product of getting it right for the audience.’

The incredible sculpted horse puppets have been a big part of the show’s success and John fell in love with them instantly.

He says: ‘They are truly amazing. What I think happens is that the puppet masters become invisible, which requires the audience to use their imagination and then they become actively involved in the show. The horses become real to the audiences and that’s why they are so vital and vibrant. It’s always a great asset to any show when you engage the audience so vitally.

‘With the centenary of the First World War there has been a lot of commemorative events and War Horse has had an important role in telling people about the Great War as well.’

Underlying it all is the story by Michael Morpurgo which was first published in 1982.

John says: ‘Michael doesn’t patronise his readership, whether they are adults or children. He deals with the inevitability of life and death and doesn’t shy away from issues whether they are current or historic. He has more than 100 books to his name and most deal with life and death in different contexts.’

Despite the book’s popularity it was a bold decision to create the stage show with its innovative, large-scale puppetry. So how hard was it to create the right musical backdrop for War Horse?

John says: ‘I have had 50 years in music, particularly involved in folk music. I carry around in my head, and have in my dusty office, a whole library of songs, so when we were rehearsing the play I had a few options that I wanted to test against the actions the actors and puppeteers were making before me. So it wasn’t that difficult because of this encyclopaedia of options I had at my disposal.’

The great film composer John Williams crafted the score for Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated movie adaptation and John was delighted to be involved but after investing so much into the stage show that’s where his heart lies.

He says: ‘The film is the same whether you see it on a Monday or a Tuesday. The stage show is different every night because it’s real and live. Cinema fixes things.

‘I spoke to Michael about it and I think we both think that you just have to let it go and let the movie be the movie.

‘For me, a live performance will always beat a film. Movies are extraordinary with all the things you can do with CGI but the theatre is right there before you and changes every moment. I like film in a different way and I’m a patron at QUAD in Derby and I fully support the terrific work they do there. I’m very proud to be associated with them.

‘I also think Steven Spielberg is a remarkable and talented man but he probably tried a bit too hard with the movie. But I enjoyed our time together and the chance to work alongside John Williams – a lovely man who is in his 80s and doesn’t get around so much these days. He was a joy to spend time with on the lap top and on the phone. We had many happy calls together and I’m very proud of having been associated with him for those few weeks.’

With the play back on tour in the UK in autumn 2017, the War Horse journey is set to continue for John.

He says: ‘The box office will determine how long it stays on the road and whether it goes back into the West End. As far as Barry, myself and Michael performing it is concerned, that will go on as long as anyone wants to invite us.’

Meanwhile, John’s latest project is about Bess of Hardwick, which he’s creating with Kevin Fegan, and which he aims to take to Edinburgh in 2017.

It’s all part of his diverse musical life.

John says: ‘I have been very lucky to have had a career spanning half a century thanks to music, tradition and British heritage.’


John Tams has worked extensively in theatre and folk music.

He has won numerous awards including the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

At the National Theatre, he has worked as actor and musical director/composer on more than 30 productions.

He has also worked at the Old Vic, the RSC, Shakespeare’s Globe and Sheffield Crucible.

He co-wrote the score for the hugely successful TV Series Sharpe and also played Rifleman Daniel Hagman in the show.

He has made over 80 albums as singer, writer, musician or producer. He was part of the Derbyshire folk band Muckram Wakes and the celebrated Albion Band and Home Service as well as performing and recording as a solo artist.

He holds an Honorary Doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University and Doctor of Letters at the University of Derby.

He can be seen locally performing with Barry Coope at the Lichfield Folk Festival on 15th October and at Alstonefield Village Hall on 19th November.

John says: ‘Barry and I enjoy singing and sharing the stage together and I’m patron of the Lichfield Folk Festival as well. Our show borrows a little from War Horse but goes off at other tangents.’ Go to


Thursday, 10th November, Derby Theatre

A reading by the author, Michael Morpurgo, with songs from BBC Radio 2 Folk Award Winners, John Tams and Barry Coope.

A powerful story, through the eyes of a horse, which moves from life on a farm in peaceful Devon to survival on the Western Front in the First World War. This is the epic story of the horse who didn’t have the human frailty of taking sides.

Suitable for children aged 10 years and above. Tickets £18 (concessions £16). Go to

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