Tag Archives: David Essex

Claude Whatham, the film director whose work never dated

Claude and Virginia at the railway station

Claude Whatham & Virginia McKenna

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.

Claude Whatham at Egham

Claude Whatham in 1973

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 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 commercial

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 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 & Amazons:

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

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Film, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized, Zanna Hamilton

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

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Diary, e-publication, Film Cast, Film History, Lake District, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized