Serendipity [ser-uh n-dip-i-tee] an aptitude or faculty for making desirable discoveries by accident
Serendipity indeed. The word has been quoted to me so many times that I’ve started to take note. The serendipit in question connects me to a rather large, bald man with massive moustaches called Arthur Ransome.
In March 1973 my father was sent a letter, completely out of the blue:
We are at present casting for a film version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS which Mr Whatham is going to direct. We were wondering if you would be interested in your daughter being considered for one of the parts in this film. Amazing!
To gain a part I had to be able to swim well. I think this was to do with ensuring I was unlikely to drown. As it happened I could row, sail and swim. My parents had taught me but I can’t remember Claude Whatham asking me about this when he interviewed me. He wanted to know what my favourite Television programme was.
‘Because they show you how to do things.’
It was exactly what Mr Whatham wanted to hear. Why? Because that is what Arthur Ransome does in his books. He doesn’t tell. He shows his readers how to sail. And how to camp. By the age of twelve I had already read about seven books in the series and loved the stories. What I didn’t know then was the effect they would have on the rest of my life.
By May 1973 I was on my way up to the Lake District to play Titty Walker in the feature film being produced by Theatre Projects and distributed by EMI. I didn’t think I was right as Titty at all. In real life Titty had been Anglo-Armenian and grew up in Syria. The illustrations show her with dark hair, cut in a bob. And I thought of myself as far more like the practical Susan, Titty’s older sister. However I was assured that I could play Titty and I did. Able seaman Titty, crew of the Swallow. Thankfully they cut my straggly blonde hair and I sang out the dialogue that I already knew off by heart from reading the book, ‘I expect someone hid on the island hundreds and hundreds of years ago.’
How the real parrot arrived on my shoulder I can’t quite remember but within months of returning from Coniston Water I had a green and yellow parrot of my own. I think he had outlived his owner and was given to us to keep. He was good company and very chatty. I adored him and could take him anywhere. When I was asked to be in Animal Magic to talk about the film he sat on my shoulder while I was rowing a boat, and I think did most of the talking.What I didn’t realise was how themes from Arthur Ransome’s life would follow me through the rest of my life.
When the time came for me to matriculate I went to Collingwood College at the University of Durham. The name resonated later when I discovered that W.D. Collingwood’s grandchildren were the real Swallows. W.D. Collingwood was an archaeologist living above Coniston Water, where the books are set, and had excavated Peel Island– or Wild Cat Island– finding the remains of a Viking settlement there. Some one had hidden there hundred of years ago. WD Collingwood Titty’s grandfather studied at the Slade, as did my own grandfather, HW Neville. He may have been there at the same time as Titty’s mother Dora Collingwood.
Arthur Ransome won a Kitchener Scholarship. Years later these rare awards have been won by both my niece and my nephew. When Arthur Ransome first lived in London, he had digs in Hollywood Road. When I moved to London I shared flats with friends, first in Tregunter Road, then Harcourt Terrance, which ware merely extensions of Hollywood Road, which is off the Fulham Road in West Brompton. I had gained a graduate traineeship at the BBC. The first drama series that I worked on was Swallows and Amazons Forever! an adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads, Coot Club and The Big Six. It was not a chance thing, I contacted the Producer and asked if I could work on the series, but the fact that I’d heard about it was unusual, and amazing really that it was made that year when I was available to join the production team. I had first worked with Rosemary Leach, who played The Admiral – Mrs Barrable, when she starred, not as Missee Lee, but as Mrs Lee in Cider with Rosie. I later found myself working with William the Pug dog on Eastenders when he featured as Ethel’s ‘Little Willie’ . It was such fun to see him again. He was a playful little dog with a great sense of fun.
The first documentary I directed for the BBC involved an adder. I was filming in at a Nature Reserve in Dorset with a group of children who came across one immediately. It was huge, a black adder. The Billies would have declared this a great sign of luck. I’m not sure I thought much about Swallows and Amazons, over the next few years but I did film at a school in Cumbria and loved being back in the Lakes.
After working at the BBC for eight years I fell ill and, much like Arthur Ransome, had to abandon my full time job to work from home. Like him I had a yearning to spend as much time as possible in the great outdoors and chose to live in the wilderness. I spent my time exploring southern Africa, camping and cooking on fires. Of the subjects I’d studied at university the ones I most enjoyed were cartography and water-colours. I started to earn my living by drawing birds, animals and decorative maps. The maps usually depicted game reserves and involved giving names to landmarks as places of interest, just like Titty’s maps. I must have drawn forty maps in the style of those on the original cover of Swallows and Amazons, using the same borders and style of lettering. And I kept diaries, writing just as Titty would have done. I also worked freelance for the BBC, mainly setting up wildlife programmes. A rye smile did pass my lips when I was asked to find South African items for Blue Peter. I was thinking back to my first interview at Theatre Projects with Claude. They came to South Africa for their summer expedition one year, and it was I who sent them off to film the Outspan harvest and wild dog puppies in the Kruger National Park. After a while I fell into the pattern of flying back to England at Easter time and returning to Africa in the autumn. This was partly through choice, partly to comply with visa regulations and work commitments. I’d migrate every year with the swallows.
When we were making the feature film of Swallows and Amazons my mother looked after all six children. The girls playing the Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, needed to learn how to shoot with a bow and arrow. My mother taught them. She had learnt how to draw a long bow when she was first married, and was encouraged by an ex-Olympian called Bertie. I became interested too, which stood me in good stead as the next part I had in a feature film was playing Liz Peters, a fictional archery champion.
Thirty years after the premier of Swallows and Amazons I had flown back from Africa and was staying at my parents’ house, when a lady arrived from Korea. She timidly knocked on the door, explaining that she was translating Swallows and Amazons into Chinese and would love to talk to me about the book. She came bearing gifts: a hand-quilted wedding bedspread and a pile of silk garments amounting to a bride’s trousseaux. It was a week after I had met my husband-to-be. At that stage he had not even asked me out and I had no idea we would marry. I’d met him at the archery – shooting with my bow and arrow. He was Bertie’s grandson. My three sisters have never been a bit interested in archery. If I hadn’t been enthused by Swallows and Amazons, and consequently taken it up to play Liz Peters, I would never have met my husband. I still have the wedding quilt.
And then I met Dr Frankland, a Harley Street Consultant who was to become an historical adviser on a script I was developing. I soon learnt that Bill Frankland had been a good friend of Roger Altounyan and knew his sister Titty. As young men they both worked for Alexander Flemming.
Roger, Titty and their elder sisters Susie and Taqui were W.D.Collingwood’s grandchildren, the real characters on which Arthur Ransome based the Swallows. What I didn’t know was that Roger Altounyan became an allergist. He developed the spin-inhaler, experimenting on himself. Dr Frankland explained that he eventually died as a result. I was allergic to feathers as a child and prone to horrific asthma attacks. Not from parrot’s feathers but old pillows and eiderdowns. The Ventolin inhaler is something to which I probably owe my life. Dr Frankland, who is to celebrate his 100th birthday this March, still works as a Harley Street allergist and is often called upon to make broadcasts on Radio 4. He instigated the pollen count, numbered Saddam Hussein as one of his most grateful patients and has been the expert witness at a number of murder trials.
Bertie’s Olympic bow now hangs on my stairs. I am still sailing dinghies, still drawing maps but thankfully no longer suffer from asthma. Harbour Pictures with BBC Films are now planning a new film adaptation of Swallows and Amazons. A whole new generation of children will be shown how to sail and camp and cook on open fires. I couldn’t be more thrilled.