I had no idea how prolific Claude Whatham was until I read his obituary. But can the facts in this be correct? It states that he had been commissioned to paint murals by the young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret in their rooms at Windsor Castle in 1940 after their pictures 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. As Claude was born in 1927 I thought he must have been to young but he was in his first year at art college. You can see images of the murals and read his own version of how this came to pass if you click here.
All I can tell you is that Claude Whatham simply had the self-confidence to succeed. After working for a short time as a production designer he became a director at the age of about thirty – evolving his craft in the early years of television. 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 in 1973 when he was forty-six.
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. Claude also had a cottage in the nearby hamlet of Camp, near Bisley, also near Stroud in Gloucestershire.
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 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, that starred 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’s period films are marked by their enduring quality, they have not dated. I was glad to read that he had happy memories of filming Swallows & Amazons:
I did not know it at the time but Titty’s chart had a profound influence on my life.
I loved drawing the map. I had prepared it earlier with Simon Holland, the Art Director, and always regret pressing too hard. If you look very carefully you can see that I had already written ‘Rio’ and rubbed it out, only to write Rio again when it came to the take. I also wish that I had been taught the song Away to Rio before this scene as I would had said that line differently. Never mind.
I think that the map on the end papers of Arthur Ransome’s book of Swallows and Amazons, originally drawn by Steven Spurrier, are an inspiration to millions. I’ve gazed and gazed at it.
When I grew up and went to university, I took a course in cartography that was to stand me in good stead. In the spring of 1992 I migrated to Southern Africa with the swallows and soon started drawing decorative maps. These were all very much like Spurrier’s. I added small pictures of settlements, trees, animals, and always a compass with a black and white border to give the scale. In the process I was able to explore the most wonderful country. Most of my commissions have been of game reserves or great swathes of Africa. I have mapped areas of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, the Waterberg Plateau in South Africa, one of the Malilangwe Conservation Trust in Zimbabwe and a map showing how to cross the Namib Desert on a horse. I’ve mapped Jembisa Game Reserve, Triple B Ranch and Ongava on the Etosha border. I have also drawn maps of military zones, ski resorts and stately homes. Some have been for charities such as Save the Rhino Trust, others for books, others for marketing holidays. They all gave me the excuse to go on living a Swallows and Amazons life, camping in wild places and exploring wilderness areas – uncharted territory. My final map – for I don’t think my eyesight will let me draw any more – was to direct guests to my own wedding, not so very long ago.
As I expect Titty would have done, I am now writing about these maps and the adventures I had in making them, currently putting everything together in a travel book call Ride the Wings of Morning. I have a couple of very early maps in my first book Funnily Enough. These were just sketched in my diary but one is of Windermere, where I went with my father and the Steam Boat Association, so I think it would be of interest to Arthur Ransome enthusiasts.