Titty Altounyan

I am assured that Titty’s family will not be offended if I re-publish this news clippings. She has become well-loved by many who I know would love to know more about her. The Times used her Christian name of Mavis, but she was always known as Titty.

Titty Altounyan's obituary Titty Altounyan 001

Although she was heralded as Arthur Ransome’s muse, I know that Titty Altounyan had no wish to be famous. If anything she gradually disassociated herself with the character in the books, who struck her as being so good and clever. But it was her name. It was a name I have lived with too, for I played the part of Titty in the film of Swallows & Amazons produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973. Children and adults alike still call me Titty all these years later. Last summer, when I was sailing Swallow, the gaff-rigged dinghy used in the film, someone took this shot of me. It is as if I am still flying Titty’s inspirational flag, which I do with humility and with honour.

DSCF2700

Sophie Neville lowering Swallow’s sail on Ullswater in 2014

Titty Altounyan in 1938

Titty Altounyan with the Ransome’s flotilla on the Norfolk Broads in 1934 (?)

Mrs Ransome wrote to Titty’s mother, Dora Altounyan, from Wroxham. This postcard was kindly shown to us by Ted Alexander who rescued it from certain destruction.

DSCF2137 I thought I was far too fair to play Titty but Mrs Ransome approved.  Despite Ransome’s book illustrations of girls with dark hair, she was most decisive about casting children with English colouring, who did not have black hair. The idea was that anyone watching could easily associate with us.

Sophie Neville receiving a Titty haircut

Hairstylist Ronnie Cogan giving Sophie Neville a Titty hair cut on location

I don’t know if Titty ever saw the film. She might have done. I only hope that we captured the sense of adventure experienced by the Altounyans when they were little and went camping on Peel Island during the weeks when they stayed with their grandparents, Mr and Mrs WG Collingwood, at Lane Head at the northern end of  Coniston Water.

Titty alone on Wildcat Island

Sophie Neville as Titty on Peel Island (c) Studiocanal

Although they are seen wearing shorts as young children I have been told that the Altounyan girls sailed in dresses, which they tucked up into their knickers if they had to wade ashore, much as I did in the film.

BW Sophie Neville in Secret Harbour

Sophie Neville as Titty (c) StudioCanal

The reference to Titty’s name coming from the tale of Mrs Tittlemouse in the article feature in The Times above is incorrect. Titty’s name was based on a character in fairy story Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse by Joseph Jacobs published in 1890, that begins when Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse go leasing (or gathering) corn. Here is a later edition. Titty ‘never could resist anything in print.’

You can read the original story here 

Titty and Tatty book

 A version of the story published in 1949

With thanks to Roger Wardale who showed me the handwritten letters that Titty sent him. She had the most beautiful writing.

10 Comments

Filed under Arthur Ransome, Biography, Film Cast, Film History, Lake District, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

10 responses to “Titty Altounyan

  1. John Wilson-Smith

    Many thanks for posting this! Bridget occasionally commented on the other members of the family, but always in a very guarded way, so I just gathered the basics about her husband and her own life in the Lakes. I wonder how much interesting info has just been chucked away…!

  2. JillG

    Well done, Sophie, for a brilliant post – linking the reality and film, giving valuable commentary; this is just what we look for. Interesting about the hair colour; you did stand out among your dark-haired film ‘siblings’, but such mixes are not uncommon, and it made for a lively contrast, and as you say, a range for children to identify with, rather than faithfully depicting Titty as dark too. As for the Ransome drawings, Dorothea’s plaits always look dark but the text assures us that they were straw-coloured. Of course it’s hard to ‘do’ fair hair in pen and ink drawings – and so many b/w photos show fair hair as dark.

    When Alan Hakim and I went to Turkey in 1994 to find the lake near Aleppo on which Ransome had sailed with his ‘Swallows’, and the house at Sogukoluk in the mountains where the children were so happy, we had the enthusiastic support of Taqui, Susie and Brigit (Roger having long gone), and we gather that Taqui and Brigit did tell Titty; we longed for some kind of message, but were not surprised not to get one, as she had been quite scarred by the whole S&A thing; but we sincerely hoped that she felt OK about our journey of exploration. So the finding of an alternative and much more forthcoming ‘Titty’ has been a huge joy!

    A note to John Wilson-Smith – do visit the Ransome Collection in Leeds – I went there for my researches before my 1994 trip, and found an Aladdin’s Cave of diaries, letters etc.

    • We didn’t look much like brothers and sisters did we? Although Simon and I looked alike he now has dark hair.

      Apparently Mrs Ransome was adamant that the director found an ‘English rose’ to play Titty. Well, my second name is Rose and I am English. I believe the Altounyan children were 1/4 Irish and 1/4 Armenian.

      • JillG

        It is thought that it was perhaps Titty that the Ransomes asked to adopt (and that it might have been this that caused a fracas and an early departure from Aleppo on the Ransomes’ visit in 1932), so Evgenia may well have been particularly fond of her and perhaps sorry that the rest of her family outdistanced her in various ways as they grew up. She may have wanted to help Titty and bring her upwards, hence her wanting to portray her well and nicely?

  3. I’m sure the Ransomes would have readily identified with a little girl who loved books. I was surprised to read that Titty rand the kitchen at the hospital in Aleppo. She must have been very practical.

    Roger Wardale told me her pictures were full of colour. I vaguely remember him saying that she had pastels pinned up around her bungalow near Coniston when he went to visit her. Was she living there when we were filming in 1973?

    • When I visited Titty in the 1980s, she had pastels pinned around the walls of the living room in her bungalow at Coniston wherever there was any space. They were very bright and colourful, around 20cm x 30cm and, abstract, or to use her word, ‘phantistic’. There was one exception, a ‘speaking likeness’ self portrait, made fairly recently. Judging from that portrait, she was at least as good a portrait artist as her mother. The room was ‘comfortable’ rather than neat and tidy and she lived surrounded by the book collection of her father which she could not bring herself to part with.

      • Thank you so much for adding your personal comments. I knew that you had been to visit Titty but did not want to mis-quote you. I had read that she once ran the kitchens at the family hospital in Aleppo, which impressed me hugely.

    • Yes she was living there when you were filming, having sold Lanehead a few years earlier. Her children Asadour and Rahel were teenagers at the time, but they knew nothing about the book. ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales’ had been their bedtime reading!
      I don’t think she would have accepted that she was ‘practical’, although she did convert and rent the stable block at Lanehead to bring in extra income. Highly intelligent and a deep thinker, Titty was more likely to reach decisions by intuition rather than cold logic and practicality.

  4. Pingback: It’s Not The 1930s (Ode To Titty) Poetry | DontPaintLikeThis

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