Tag Archives: David Suchet

The Boy Roger and the invention of the asthma inhaler

swa_bw_neg_ 005

John Franklin-Robins as Young Billy, Sophie Neville as Titty and Sten Grendon as Roger

~ Photo (c) StudioCanal ~

I have been deliberating upon points where fiction touches reality. The most significant in my own life is the story behind my fictional brother Roger Walker, one of the lead characters in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. The real Boy Roger was responsible for saving me from acute misery. Whilst I was an asthmatic, Dr Roger Altounyan was behind the invention of the Intal spin inhaler, which bought me instant relief.

About ten years ago I met Dr Bill Frankland, a former POW to the Japanese who became a Harley Street allergist. Bill told me that Roger Altounyan had been a good friend of his. They’d worked together on the Intal project. Roger introduced him to his sister Titty who, as a child had been in the inspiration for the character I played in the film of Swallows & Amazons.

I’d had known that Roger Altounyan had been in the RAF during World War II, but not that he had qualified as a doctor and become an allergist. Bill told me that he used his knowledge of propellers to develop the Intal spin-inhaler and effectively treat asthma.

Dr Bill Frankland

Dr Bill Frankland celebrating his 100th Birthday in 2012 with Sophie Neville

Please click here to listen to his life story on Desert Island Discs

Dr Frankland gave me a set of photos taken at Roger Altounyan’s going-away party in Cumbria when he took his family and friends up Coniston Water on the Gondola. He said that Roger insisted on smoking a pipe even though he was reliant on oxygen and explained that the experimentation was partly responsible for his early death in 1987.

I will explain the connection in further depth.

The well-loved book Swallows and Amazons was written by Arthur Ransome for the children of friends of his after they brought him a pair of red slippers for his forty-fifth birthday in January 1929. He based his main characters, the crew of the Swallow, on these five real Altounyan children who had been staying at Bank Ground Farm in the Lake District,

The character Roger Walker, known when he first started sailing as the Boy Roger, was inspired by Roger Altounyan then about six years old. As a consequence he was obliged to live out his school days under Swallow’s flag, as it where. This may have become tedious, although it was much the same for Sten Grendon who played the part of Roger in the 1974 film.

Altounyan Children - Susie, Taqui, Titty (seated) and Roger

The well-known photograph of the four eldest Altounyan children – Susie, Taqui, Titty (seated) and Roger (copyright ???)

Roger is seen here with three of his four sisters, and below as a boy along with Arthur Ransome obviously playing tennis (copyright: Brotherton Library, Leeds). The story of his family is told  by Jeremy Collingwood in his recent book,  A Lakeland Saga.

Altounyan family with Ransome

Did we depict Roger Walker accurately in the film? May be not! Richard Pilbrow, the producer of Swallows & Amazons  told me that Mrs Ransome was furious that Claude Whatham had cast a boy with dark hair, but she never explained why. She did not like the photograph she had been sent.

swa_bw_neg_ 002Sten Grendon as Roger Walker with Virginia McKenna playing his mother

~ Photo (c) StudioCanal ~

Luckily, when Evgenia Ransome visited the location and actually saw Sten running around at Bank Ground Farm she seemed happy enough and said nothing more. Perhaps Virginia McKenna somehow managed to make everything alright.

Stephen Grendon playing Roger

Sten Gredon playing Roger in 1973

~ Photo (c) StudioCanal ~

What I didn’t know until recently was that Roger Altounyan was an asthmatic.

Roger was specifically allergic to guinea pigs and would routinely experiment on himself. He would not have been allowed to do this by today’s regulations, which some say would have held back the testing definitely. I gather from reading Rodney Dingle’s biography that the model inhaler that he made with a piece of hose pipe worked well, whilst the prototype made professionally did not. If you use an inhaler you will hear that the propeller has to be able wiggle in order for the medication to be successfully diffused into the patient’s mouth and lungs. The discovery was portrayed by David Suchet in a documentary entitled Hair Soup.

Roger Altounyan’s daughter Barbara has just sent me this link where you can read more about Roger and his family.

Dr Roger Altounyan

Dr Roger Altounyan

I was allergic to feathers, not parrot’s feathers, but old pillows and eider-downs. I may owe my life to Roger and his spin-inhaler. The medication certainly helped me enormously and has always given me to the peace of mind that it will give me relief if I do get wheezy.

Further reading: Roger: The Life and Distinguished Achievements of Dr Roger Altounyan, by Rodney Dingle. It is difficult to get hold of but Kirkland Books in Kendal have a copy.

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Film production, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

What are they doing now? The children who appeared in ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’ ~ the BBC adaptation of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’

If you are interested in the cast of the 1974 movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ please see ‘The Making of SWALLOWS & AMAZONS’  or the ebook  ‘The Secrets of filming SWALLOWS & AMAZONS’ both by Sophie Neville who played Titty Walker.

If you are interested in the BBC serial of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, originally titled ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever’ please read on.

Coot Club - Caroline Downer, Rosemary Leach and Henry Dimbleby

Caroline Downer, Rosemary Leach and Henry Dimbelby

It is almost thirty years since we made the BBC adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books Coot Club and The Big Six on the Norfolk Broads.  The eight-part drama serial was filmed over three months during long hot summer of 1983. You can see from our faces how everyone made the whole experience enjoyable. It was ten years after we had made the movie ‘Swallow & Amazons’ but the atmosphere and the camaraderie felt similar.

Caroline Downer with Sophie Neville

Caroline Downer, who played Dorothea with Sophie Neville who played Titty Walker in the 1974 movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, seen here in 1983

Caroline Downer, who played Dorothea Callum so professionally, finally took out her plaits for good and returned to school – her real school rather than the boat where she had received lessons whist we were filming. She had done so well, holding her own with a cast made up predominantly of boys by the time we started filming The Big Six. A year or so after the series was broadcast she wrote to me of her plans for the future.  I am ashamed to say that I was so busy working on Doctor Who that I didn’t reply. I can’t think why I tarried. She was far more important to me than Doctor Who. I gather that Caroline now teaches drama. Hopefully she can draw on something of what she learnt during those months in East Anglia spent working with so many great British actors.

Henry Dimbelby while playing Tom Dudgeon in 1983

Henry Dimbelby while playing Tom Dudgeon in 1983

Despite the pressures and stress of filming, nothing flustered Henry Dimbelby. He was easy-going and optimistic – great fun to have around. He had no ambition to act but did such a good job. His parents were wonderful. Instead of going to Devon, where they kept a gaff-rigged boat, they rented a house on the North Coast of Norfolk for their summer holidays so as to be near our locations. I remember driving Caroline and Henry up on a unit day off only to find Jonathan Dimbelby there too, with his wife Bel Mooney who I chatted to when we went for a walk before lunch.  On the kitchen table back at the house was a huge colourful sausage and pasta salad made by Josceline Dimbelby, Henry’s mother. It was the first home-cooked meal I’d had for weeks, and was hugely appreciated.  I was mesmerised by the colours and textures, the whole inventiveness of a salad made for a large family.

While Henry’s grandfather, Richard Dimbelby the World War II correspondent, went into newspapers and his father, David Dimbelby, worked for the BBC as a News reporter, presenter and commentator,  you could say that Henry followed his mother. He trained as a chef – and became an innovative one, producing books on food and appearing on the occasional cookery program. In 2004 he opened Leon, the restaurant in Carnaby Street in central London that specialises in serving seasonal fast-food that is both delicious and good for you.  Founded with Allegra McEvedy and John Vincent, Leon soon became popular. It was awarded ‘Best New Restaurant’ at the Observer Food Monthly Awards six months after opening. I believe Henry and his partners now have a chain of ten outlets and that their recipe books are an inspiration to many.

Coot Club - One of the twins

Either Claire or Sarah Matthews as they appeared in ‘Coot Club’

Claire and Sarah Matthews, the twins who played Port and Starboard in Coot Club, went on to play Eve and Alexandra in the 1984 TV mini series Master of the Game , which starred Angharad Rees, David Suchet and Fernando Allende.  After that, I am not sure. I can only hope they will contact me to let me know if they are still acting and how life has panned out.

Coot Club - The Walpoles

Mrs Julie Walpole (centre) with her daughter, appearing as Extras in the drama

The Walpoles have written in! It was so good to hear from them. Nicholas Walpole, who played Joe, joined the Royal Navy and served on HMS Roebuck from 1989 – 90 as a survey recorder. A friend of his said he was teased mercilessly onboard about his acting background. Many-a-time a chorus of ‘Swallows and Amazons forever’ would ring out when he walked into the Mess. Nik is now married, lives in Coventry and has three grown up children, one of whom wants to act. His mother still enjoys living in rural Norfolk. You can read their comments at the bottom of previous posts.

Coot Club - George Owden

Simon Hawes who played George Owden, seen here in a Health and Safety helmet I made him wear while filming at Horsey Mill in 1983

I am afraid that I haven’t seen Simon Hawes, who played George Owden, or the other boys from Norfolk since we finished filming. They did so well. Playing a baddie isn’t easy even with Make-up and Hair Department straining to help.

Coot Club - The baddies

I would love to know what Richard Walton and Mark Page are doing now. If by any chance you know them, please encourage them to add a comment below.

Richard Walton who played Dick Callum, walking barefoot in the field behind the station

Richard Walton who played Dick Callum, walking barefoot in a field behind the station

We spent long days together, often out on the water.  Someone once explained to me that when you are camping and gadding about in boats, generally leading an Arthur Ramsome style life, you tend to laugh more. As a result more  endocrines get released into your system, relationships are forged and bonds made. It has to be said that the boy who made us laugh more than anyone else on the film crew was Jake Coppard, who played Pete, the shortest of the Death and Glory boys.  Although the character he played could be serious Jake was always finding something amusing or someone to imitate.  Sam Kelly got on with him particularly well, helping him through the scene when Pete falls in.

Coot Club - Jake Coppard

Jake was such a talented actor. I gather he went on to appear as Charlie in a television drama directed  by Tony Virgo called Travellers by Night (1985) , which featured Neil Morrissey who became so well known when the comedy series Men Behaving Badly proved a success. The lead role of Mrs Baker in Travellers of the Night was played by Jo Rowbottom who, by coincidence, had played Katie Leigh, Simon West’s mother in Sam and the River back in 1975.

 

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Filed under 1983, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, truelife story