Claude Whatham, the exceptional film director whose work never dated

Director Claude Whatham (photo:StudioCanal)

Although I knew Claude Whatham well, I had no idea how prolific he was until I read his obituary.

As an art student, in 1940, he was commissioned to paint murals by the young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret in their rooms at Windsor Castle after their paintings had been removed for safe-keeping during the Blitz. They couldn’t bear the idea of bare walls and asked if he could paint something cheerful.

-The pantomime pictures at Windsor Castle (The Royal Collection Trust)- 

As Claude was born in 1927, I thought he must have been too young but he was an evacuee in his first year at art college. You can see more images of the murals and read his own version of how this came to pass if you click here.

Claude Whatham at Egham
Claude Whatham in 1973 (photo Daphne Neville)

All I can tell you is that Claude Whatham simply had the self-confidence to succeed.  We all adored him.

Sophie Neville saying goodbye to Claude Whatham in Egham
Sophie Neville saying goodbye to director Claude Whatham

After working for a short time as a production designer he became a television director at the age of about thirty – evolving his craft in the early years of Granada Television.

Being both a craftsman and artist he loved innovation and being avant guard.

Claude Whatham showing the 16mm camera to Simon West and Sophie Neville. Sue Merry and Denis Lewiston.
Claude Whatham showing the 16mm camera to Simon West and Sophie Neville. Sue Merry and Denis Lewiston can be seen behind us.

Single-minded and determined, yet usually coming across as relaxed, he moved into directing movies in 1972 with That’ll Be The Day starring David Essex, Ringo Starr and Robert Lindsay, followed by Swallows & Amazons when he was forty-six.

The 1974 film Swallows and Amazons

I’d met him in 1971 when he directed the first BBC adaptation of Laurie Lee’s memoir, Cider with Rosie, for which he received a BAFTA nomination. It was made where the book is set at the village of Slad in the Cotswolds, about seven miles from where I grew up.

Cider with Rosie with Claude
Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham on location at Slad in 1971

Claude had a cottage in the nearby hamlet of Camp, also near Stroud in Gloucestershire. After casting me as Eileen Brown, Laurie Lee’s first love, he invited me to play Titty in Swallows and Amazons (1974) and appear as a girl in a Wheatbix advertisement.

Claude in my hat in Egham 1
Claude Whatham directing the title sequence of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ on location in Surrey with Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West and his camera crew

Claude loved taking his clothes off. It was almost indicative of his style. He wasn’t shy. If you look at what he was wearing you will see that his clothes were both on trend at the time and would still be fashionable today. He would wear Levi jeans, deck shoes or sailing boots and a Parka coat with a fur-lined hood in wet weather. As for headgear, I only ever saw him wearing other people’s hats.

Claude Whatham directing a commercial
Claude Whatham directing a TV advert (photo: Daphne Neville)

Claude was always happy working outside. Problems did not seem to phase him. I worked with him on location in Gloucestershire, Surrey and Cumbria, visiting him on set in the Yorkshire Dales when he was filming the movie All Creatures Great and Small based on the life of the vet James Herriot, starring Anthony Hopkins and Simon Ward. I was sorry when I heard that he gained a reputation at the BBC for being too detailed and pernickety in the studio. I expect it frustrated him.

Claude Whatham in 1973

Claude’s period films are marked by their enduring quality, they have not dated.

Claude Whatham profiled by Tom E Parkinson
Claude Whatham profiled by Tom E Parkinson in the Oldham Evening Chronicle 18th April 1974

For a full list of Claude’s film and television credits please click here

Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham and Ronald Fraser
Sophie Neville with director Claude Whatham, Ronald Fraser and DOP Denis Lewiston outside the catering bus parked at Derwentwater in the Lake District ~ photo: Daphne Neville

He was a major contributor to a new book about ‘Play for Today: The First Year’ by Simon Farquhar, which is dedicated to Claude. You can find it here.

Director Claude Whatham talking to Virginia McKenna at Haverthwaite Railway Station

I was glad to read that he had happy memories of filming Swallows and Amazons. You can read more about this in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons, 1974’ 

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

30 thoughts on “Claude Whatham, the exceptional film director whose work never dated”

  1. My wife recently found a jigsaw puzzle of a camping scene from the Swallows and Amazons film in our archive. We both very much enjoyed doing it in this dreadful weather we’ve been experiencing. I have a couple of photographs of it but don’t know how to attach them.

  2. I think I have a copy of Cider with Rosie somewhere. Long overdue to rewatch it and the efforts of the director and at least 2 actors from Swallows and Amazons before they were famous!

    1. A VHS of ‘Cider With Rosie’ (1971) can be purchased from Amazon ~
      You might find it at a much cheaper price on eBay – along with other DVDs of Claude Whatham’s work.

      Rosemary Leach appeared as Mrs Barrable in ‘Coot Club’. The DVD, which is titled ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’ is available from Revelation Films where it is one of their Top Ten bestsellers. They are bringing out a cleaned-up version soon, with extras.

  3. Claude was a very dear friend of mine in his final years. I’m delighted to see this tribute to him. He was a wonderful man, enormously kind, encouraging and inspiring.

    Not long before he died he wrote an account of his early life, which was never published, and which I treasure.

  4. One of my wife’s favourite books was Cider with Rosie and she loved the BBC adaptation, Just as I love all things Swallows and Amazons. Claude Whatham deserves to be better known.

      1. You’re right, it is. I look forward to seeing what you come up with. I suppose a re=showing on the BBC would be out of the question?!

          1. Cider with Rosie is already available on DVD. I have a copy. I might send a request to the BBC in any case though, it wouldn’t do any harm I suppose. But I would think we will have missed the schedule for this year by now.

            1. Ah – the BBC may well repeat the 1971 version of ‘Cider With Rosie’ for the 50th Anniversary. I think it was first broadcast on Christmas Eve. Do contact them. Sadly, Rosemary Leach and David Howells have passed away, but Sten and I are still breathing and the locations haven’t changed much.

              1. I will contact them, I promise. I hadn’t realised Rosemary Leach had passed away. I remember meeting her in the late ‘sixties; a lovely, charming lady.

    1. She did, as Mrs Barrable if I remember correctly. I can imagine her standing for no nonsense. I met her at a party/function that she attended in London. I was one of the musicians providing background entertainment (or noise, as we called it!).

            1. I was lucky to meet several celebrities in that period, one of the trio members was very well connected! Rosemary Leach stood out as being lovely, along with Arthur Askey who I met at least three times – a very nice man.

              1. It was. The trio was actually part of a traditional jazz band which we all played in. We had some fabulous times.

            2. I am a Whatham and my family come from Manchester so I must be close to the family, would love to explore

              1. Thank you so much for all the information it is so interesting. I knew of Claude Whatham when I was a child but did not fully understand I am a third cousin!

              2. Hi there and thank you for your attention. I own the Old Thatch Teashop, you can look it up, in the Old Village, Shanklin. The Teashop opens again for the summer season on the 24th March. Have you ever visited the Island, if not you must and come to the Teashop?

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