I am in awe of fabulously creative writers. I’m talking about Robert Hudson and Marie Phillips — the kind of people who can write a radio comedy series about a love affair conducted by letter between two warhorses, or as they describe it, “A gay, equine, military, epistolary romance for the ages”. Not only have the three series of ‘Warhorses of Letters’ been hilarious, but the very last episode that I listened to last week (and again this morning) was so utterly moving that I was astonished to find myself with big fat tears rolling down my face. To make listeners1 care so much about the fictional relationship between two real 19th Century warhorses that they sit at the breakfast table making their toast soggy with their tears, and trying (unsuccessfully) to pretend that they have something in their eyes, strikes me as incredible.
‘Warhorses of Letters’ is composed of a series of letters between Copenhagen (former racehorse, and the Duke of Wellington’s warhorse, played by Daniel Rigby) and Marengo (Napoleon’s warhorse, played by Stephen Fry), in which their love for each other, and their petty squabbles and jealousies, are played out. Each episode is framed by the narrator (Tamsin Greig), as a historian who has just uncovered another packet of letters in some unlikely circumstance2. The characters of the horses are beautifully drawn. Copenhagen — younger than Marengo — is a passionate but slightly flighty horse with dreadful arithmetic skills. When Marengo tells him he has written a letter to Copenhagen every day for 10 years, Copenhagen writes back to say “Every day for 10 years - that must be nearly a hundred letters!”. He is also prone to exclamations of “Oh My Horsey God!”, and signs off his letters with “Kiss Kiss Hoofprint”. Copenhagen is comically blind to the subtext of Marengo’s letters, even when the subtext is practically just text. Marengo is older and much more intellectual, but prone to Gallic grumpiness, jealousy and intellectual snobbery. Despite all this, they are deeply in love.
The story expertly weaves together real historical events from their lives, surreal fictional elements, and comment on the brutality of war. At points, it even sneaks in contemporary culture. For example, Copenhagen accidentally becomes a best-selling author when he writes a story about an existing (in this universe) literary character, Horse Poirot, in which Horse Poirot is miserable and Horse Captain Hastings cheers him up “in a sexy way”. Does that sound familiar? The writers are brilliant, but I think the BBC should also be congratulated on recognising the genius of this idea when pitched with “A gay, equine, military, epistolary romance for the ages.” I just wish they (the BBC) would make all three series available to buy, so that I could listen to them all again3.
I think what really broke me up in the last episode (apart from the beautiful, tender last letters between Copenhagen and Marengo) was the historical detail about what happened to both after their deaths, related by the narrator. Both had one of their hooves made into trinkets: Copenhagen’s became an ink-stand, while Marengo’s hoof was made into a snuff box. Marengo’s skeleton is displayed at the National Army Museum in Chelsea (minus the snuff box hoof, of course). The Duke of Wellington was apparently asked to disinter Copenhagen’s skeleton so that he could be displayed alongside Marengo, but he refused. Suddenly this dry, slightly quirky, historical detail becomes unbearably moving because the writers have woven such a convincing real relationship between the two horses that it completely changes the way you see the historical facts. That’s as close to magic as you can get in reality.