People come from all over the world to visit Mavis, the traditional gaff-rigged dinghy known to all those who love the Arthur Ransome books as Amazon. She has been lovingly renovated but, still being a bit leaky, is on permanent display at the Coniston Museum in the Lake District. It was in this clinker-built dinghy and another little ship named Swallow that the Altounyan children learnt to sail on Coniston Water in the late 1920s.
In later life they used Mavis to teach their own children and grandchildren to sail. She was kept in Brigit Sander’s (ne Altounyan) boathouse at Slate Quay, which so resembles Ransome’s illustrations of the Amazon boathouse.
One of the secrets of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is that the character of Captain John, was, if anything, loosely based on a the eldest girl in the family. Arthur Ransome obviously needed to balance genders and have two boys and three girls instead of only one boy, as in real life. Taqui Altounyan seemed to take this in her stride, giving him what advice she could. She has detailed this in her memoirs of the family’s lives: In Allepo Once and Chimes from a Wooden Bell – excellent books that have become much sort after.
Roger Wardale, author of many books about Arthur Ransome and the locations he used in his stories, kindly sent me these photographs of Taqui that he took when she was showing him some of the places where she played as a girl.
The Lake District, where her Collingwood Grandparents lived, was obviously a special place for her.
These photographs of Roger’s show her walking back in time,
visit Mavis in Coniston Museum
and go aboard SL Esperance on Windermere,
soaking up the atmosphere in her cabin.
Very many thanks to Roger Wardale, whose own books can be found listed here.
For more photos of Amazon please click here
You can read about making of the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ here:
I am assured that Titty’s family will not be offended if I re-publish these news clippings. She has become well-loved by many who I know would like to learn more about her. The Times used her Christian name of Mavis, but she was always known as Titty.
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 Titty 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. One summer, when I was sailing Swallow, the dinghy used in the 1974 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.
Sophie Neville lowering Swallow’s sail on Ullswater in 2014
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.
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 “An English rose” to play Titty and that the children should have British colouring. The idea was that viewers could easily associate with us. I am of Scots/English/Irish heritage, like Titty’s grandmothers, but my second name is Rose.
Hairstylist Ronnie Cogan giving Sophie Neville a Titty hair cut on location
I don’t know if Titty ever saw the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. 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.
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.
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
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.
For some time now we have been doing a variety of things to raise interest in Arthur Ransome and his books, particularly the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series originally written for children.
SailRansome have made Swallow, the original clinker built dinghy used in the film, available for families to use there.
We’ve been using the Draper’s shallop to teach children how to row on the River Lee under the auspices of Countryside Live. We have now taught hundreds of children most of whom have never been in a boat before. The idea is to inspire them to join the Sea Scouts or a local rowing or canoeing club.
Another boat you can sail is the Nancy Blackett portrayed as Goblin from We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Secret Water.
It only costs £25 a year to join the Nancy Blackett Trust. This is wonderful for anyone living near the Orwell as Ransome once did.
The Arthur Ransome Society, known as TARS, is welcoming new members to its six regional branches.
Next year an international gathering is being planned in East Anglia over the May Bank Holiday when we hope to be able to take short trips on the wherry Albion and visit Hunter’s yard to meet Teasel, Titmouse, Dreadnaught and Death and Glory ~ the boats used in the BBC dramatisation of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, when the Albion played Sir Garnet skippered by Jack Watson. Revelation Films have digitally remastered the series, which they have available as a new release entitled ‘Swallows & Amazons Forever!’ I’ve been asked to give a talk on how the BBC serial was made.
I’ve been promoting StudioCanal’s re-release of the 1974 film of Swallows & Amazons on Radio Cumbria, Premier Radio, Lakeland Radio and Channel 5’s live TV programme The Wright Stuff. There’s a lot going on in the media with recent pictorials in Country Life, The Lady and Cotswold Life magazines as well as newspapers and colour supplements.
We brought the 1974 film of Swallows & Amazons back to cinemas in London, Ambleside, Kendal and to Hastings on Pirate Day. I took Captain Flint’s trunk along and wore a tricorn hat only to be told by one little boy in the audience, ‘I hate pirates. They are my enemies.’ Other children asked, ‘Did you enjoy being in the film?’ and ‘Were the spiders in your tent real?’
When we were in Kendal, the curator of the Museum of Lakeland Life gave a talk to the cinema audience bringing along the actual red slippers given to Arthur Ransome by the Altounyan children in 1929 which inspired him to write Swallows and Amazons.
Some schools have Swallows and Amazons as a set book. I was invited to give a talk at Walhampton School who claim a ‘Swallows and Amazons ethos’. They aspire to giving their pupils as much of an exciting outdoor education as possible with sailing and exploring on the curriculum. School House magazine backs this up saying, ‘There is a distinct ‘Swallows and Amazons’ spirit that burns brightly here.’
The Arthur Ransome Trust have a range of exhibitions, displays and resource materials. Do check out their website and future events. Meanwhile All Things Ransome have been quietly offering a veritable library of information along with a media vault. The Arthur Ransome Society has a large library of books in Dumfries where the 2016 IAGM will be held.
What could you do to keep Ransome’s writing on book shop shelves?
Could you organise an event at your local sailing club? Or request a screening of newly restored version of the film at your local cinema? One is being planned in Oxford with hopefully another at Wolverstone. PictureHouse cinemas are particularly open to the idea of screening classic family films.
I am planning ‘An Arthur Ransome Day’ at my local Waterstones and another at our library. How can we make this special and attract people off the street?
Do add your ideas to the comments below.
Easy things you can do right now to help promote the books:
Request a book or DVD from your local library.
Add a review to on-line sites. This leads to increased marketing of books, audio books or DVDs. The Imdb site for the 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons welcomes reviews.
Click here for Books by Arthur Ransome on Amazon UK
Add a comment about the DVD of the film. Click here for StudioCanal’s DVD on Amazon UK
Click here for the Amazon UK site for the DVD of the BBC serial of ‘Coot Club and The Big Six’ Look out for the one with this cover:
Join The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook. They always have lively discussions.
There are a number of Twitter sites you can follow.
Contact BBC TV to ask for your favourite TV or radio programmes on Arthur Ransome or his books to be repeated: Click here for the site.
You can read about the adventures we had making the original film with Swallow here:
Roger still couldn’t swim, but he was trying to. Very hard. The production manager had kindly scheduled the second of our swimming scenes as late in the summer as possible. The weather was warmer – we’d elected to go bathing in a river up near Rydal Water on our day off – but it was still pretty chilly out on Coniston.
Whilst we tried to acclimatise by running around in our swimming costumes the crew were all in their thick coats as you can see from this home movie footage shot by my mother. We had bought her 8mm camera by saving up Green Shield stamps. (Can you remember collecting Green Shield stamps from petrol stations? They were an icon of the early 1970s all by themselves.) I remember someone on the crew calling out ‘Second unit!’ as Mum lifted what looked like a grey and white toy to her face. It was a bit noisy so she was not able to record during a take. You only see us before and after the sequences in the film, but her footage shows quite a few of the members of the crew – all smoking away, even when they were trying to warm us up after each sequence. You can watch Jean McGill, from Cumbria, our unit nurse who was dressed in red popping Dextrose into our mouths and giving us hot drinks to warm us up. Jean made Gareth Tandy, the third assistant, who was aged about 18, wear a sun hat because he had previously suffered from sun stroke. David Blagden can be glimpsed as one of the only other men with short hair.
The camera pontoon must have been left up on Derwentwater. Claude was obliged to shoot these scenes from what we called the camera punt, which was smaller but quite useful. Richard Pilbrow sent me a picture. He has included others in a new book that he has written about his career, including a section on the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ called ‘A Theatre Project’
Do please let me know if you can tell me the names of the three Cumbrian boatmen featured in this photograph who helped us. Others are featured in the home-movie footage. They all look like pirates. Real ones.
Goodness knows that Health and Safety would say about that punt today. The DoP managed to get two sizeable electric lights, on stands, into a boat already overloaded with personnel and expensive equipment. You can see for yourself. Were these ‘Filler’ lights powered by portable batteries? The Lee Electric generator was on the shore. I was in the water. Busy being a cormorant.
We had an interesting afternoon filming with both dinghies. At one point we had the camera with us in Swallow. I found these photographs of us on the internet.
I was given the honour of clapping the clapper-board and calling out, ‘Shot 600, Take one!’ for a close-up of Suzanna Hamilton.
‘The worse possible kinds of natives’… Tourists were beginning to arrive for their summer holidays in the Lake District and we still had quite a bit more to film.
You can read more about the adventures we had making the original film of Swallows and Amazons here: