Claude Whatham, the 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. ‘Could this be correct?’ I wondered. In 1940, he had been 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.  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.

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.

Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham in 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 and 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. 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’ 

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

Director Claude Whatham talking to Virginia McKenna at Haverthwaite Railway Station

A day off in Blackpool ~ whilst filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

A Day Off in Blackpool
Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham, Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville kneeling at Blackpool funfair in 1973

Apart from referring to us as The Swallows and The Amazons, our director Claude Whatham always called us his artistes – ‘My art-istes!’ This was, of course, because far from being trained actors we were just the children who made up his cast.

It was Saturday morning on 16th June 1973 and a day off from filming. We’d all been working hard. Instead of resting, Claude took us all to Blackpool, the famous holiday destination of the north east. None of us had ever been before. It was a great treat and hugely exciting. I can remember choosing the clothes I would wear, and putting on a shell necklace Daddy had brought back from Africa, for the occasion.

A complete contrast to camping and sailing in the wilds of Westmorland, Blackpool proved a day trip to remember.

It must have taken more than an hour-and-a-half to travel from Ambleside to the Blackpool promenade in those days. Jean McGill, our friend and driver, drove us down in the unit mini-bus. We were joined for the day by Ronnie Cogan, the hairdresser on the film crew, and of course Mum and Jane came as our parents and legal chaperones. I’m pretty sure Ronnie smoked the whole way there and back, but we all adored him and were thrilled he wanted to come too.

Blackpool funfari 1973
Claude Whatham with Stephen Grendon and Daphne Neville with Leseley Bennett

16th June ~ my diary page two

Blackpool
Lesley Bennett with Claude Whatham at Blackpool~ photo: Daphne Neville

I think Claude must have liked fun-fairs. Before Swallows and Amazons he directed That’ll be the Day, a rock and roll movie produced by David Puttman, set at a fun fair of the 1950s. It starred David Essex and Ringo Starr with Billy Fury singing “A Thousand Stars”, “Long Live Rock”, “That’s All Right Mama” and “What Did I Say”. Claude gave me the LP, which I played again and again.

We did it all. I was most impressed – and terrified out of my wits – by the big dipper but have always loved going in a pony and trap and racing donkeys. Looking back it seems we took a number of risks. What EMI’s insurance company would have said I do not know. Falling off a donkey could have cost quite a few expensive filming days but then EMI did own the circus we went to. There we saw true artistes, with snakes and crocodiles. The mind boggles.

We were exhilarated by the whole experience. Whilst it was tiring, it energised us, bringing us together as a family, all looking up to Claude as our father figure. He had two children of his own, but they must have been at college by then. Paul had been about sixteen when we made Cider with Rosie – Mum remembers him as a curly haired boy talking to his father about the casting. He sadly died in a motor cycle accident driving home from Oxford Polytechnic when he was only about nineteen. Claude never got over it. I weep for him, even now.

Jean McGill, Jane Grendon, Stephen Grendon, Kit Seymour, Sophie Neville, Claude Whatham, Simon West, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Ronnie Cogan~ photo: Daphne Neville