Titty was the name of an imaginative and ‘highly original’ little girl who Arthur Ransome first got to know in the Lake District when she was aged eight. When I met her niece Barbara Altounyan, she was most amused to hear that I had once played her Auntie Titty.
~Sophie Neville playing Titty Altounyan in the 1974 film ‘Swallows & Amazons’. Official photograph taken a Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water copyright: StudioCanal~
I’d brought Barbara some long lost family photographs that included some of Titty’s wedding in Aleppo. They are beautiful.
Titty on the arm of her father, Dr Ernest Altounyan in Aleppo, 1954
Titty on her wedding day with her husband Melkon Guzelian, her sister-in-law, her father Ernest Altounyan, her mother Dora and brother Roger, far right. You can also see Roger, Ernest and Dora below, with Roger’s wife standing far right.
There is also a more informal shot.
‘Don’t you want to know about Titty?’ Barbara asked me. ‘She was a very detailed person and quite a perfectionist.’ I knew she was a wonderful artist who had studied under Henry Moore at the Chealsea School of Art. Although she produced a lot of colourful art, she was unwilling to ever attempt to sell her work. I was also told she also had long legs. I only hope that I have represented her well.
Titty Altounyan at her sister Brigit’s wedding to John Sanders in 1953
(NB: Ransome did not write ‘Swallows and Amazons’ while on holiday on Coniston Water as was stated in the programme. To see a photograph of Low Ludderburn, the house above Windermere where Arthur Ransome lived and wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ please click here and scroll down.)
You can read about what it was like to play the part of Able Seaman Titty in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in this illustrated paperback, available online or to order from libraries worldwide:
‘Paddling with Peter Duck’, John McCarthy’s documentary for BBC Radio 4, portrays the boats owned by the author Arthur Ransome and includes extracts read from his classic book Swallows and Amazons by Kate Taylor.
While the broadcast is a portrayal of Arthur Ransome and his boats, it touches on his friendship with the Altounyan family who inspired him to embark on writing the series of twelve Swallows and Amazons books. It is easy to understand this when looking at their photographs.
The Altounyan children with friends in Syria.
The girls seem to be Taqui, Brigit and Titty
Could it possibly be Arthur Ransome sitting on the right? He visited the family in Syria in 1932, when he must have been about forty-eight, but was never known to have worn shorts, although it would have been exceptionally hot in the Middle East. Click on the photos to enlarge.
Is this Arthur Ransome ? sitting on the bow of Peter Duck in Syria, the chap wearing the same hat and clothes as in the photo above? He took this dinghy out to Syria as a gift for the Altounyan children and wrote his novel Peter Duck while he and his wife Evgenia were staying with the family in Aleppo.
Possibly Arthur Ransome sailing Beetle II the Altounyans’ gunter-rigged dinghy at Amouk in Syria
Ransome’s friend Dr Ernest Altounyan in 1935
Dora Altounyan (nee Collingwood) in 1935
Was Dora the model for Mary Walker, the Swallows’ mother who grew up in Australia?
Sadly there is no sign of the original Swallow bought at the same time as Mavis by Arthur Ransome and Ernest Altounyan in Barrow-in-Furness, and later sailed by the Ransomes on Windermere. Mavis was later re-named Amazon by Brigit Altounyan, the youngest of the five Altounyan children, known as The Ship’s Baby.
Dr Ernest Altounyan on Coniston Water with ‘Mavis’, one of the dinghies that inspired ‘Swallows and Amazons’
These unique photographs were recently found in Cheshire by the antiques dealer John Jukes who asked me if I could return them to the Altounyan family. This I have done and show them here by kind permission of Roger’s daughter, Barbara Altounyan. Please do not copy these photos.
I arrived back from holiday to find that, following the ITV report, daily newspapers in the United Kingdom have been writing extensively about a certain inspirational boathouse on Coniston Water that is currently for sale.
The Times calls it ‘Ransome’s adventure playground’. The Evening Mail published a photograph of him I hadn’t seen before. The Daily Telegraph admitted that the Estate Agents have had more inquiries from journalists than buyers.
What no one has picked up on was the useful wooden jetty in front of the boathouses that appeared on Countryfile, Big Screen Britain and Country Tracks presented by Ben Fogle for BBC One.
Geraint Lewis of the Arthur Ransome Trust tells me that the wooden part of the jetty belongs to Lanehead. The old stone part belongs to Bank Ground Farm. So far as we are aware, the wooden part is not included in the Lanehead boathouse sale. Sealed bids had to be in by 4.00pm on 12th September. Peter Walker of Kendal tells me, ‘According to the local boatmen… the Lanehead boathouse has not been sold… prospective buyers have been put off by access problems.’ (See comments below).
The Battys, at Bank Ground, have bought a floating jetty/pontoon, which was used by the National Trust’s Steam Launch Gondola during the Coniston Regatta in May. Geraint says,
‘This was quite a feat, as the jetty was a lot shorter than Gondola, whose prow was well over the land once docked.’
He tells me that Bank Ground intend to build a new wood jetty if or when they get planning permission, suitable for more regular visits by the Gondola and Campbell the Coniston Launch. ‘Such a jetty would need to be “L” shaped, to allow rapid arrival and departure in deeper water’.
Do let me know of the latest news on this.
For those who do not know the historical background:
Lanehead is the large white house above Coniston Water in Cumbria, which was once owned by WG Collingwood. He worked as the personal secretary to John Ruskin who lived at Brantwood, just a little further down the East of Lake Road. Collingwood met the writer Arthur Ransome when he was a young man on holiday in the Lake District and invited him to stay at Lanehead.
Arthur Ransome became firm friends with WG Collingwood’s daughters Dora and Barbara. Although he light-heartedly proposed to both of them, Dora married a friend of her brother’s, a doctor of Armenian-Irish decent called Ernest Altounyan. He worked at the hospital his father had established at Aleppo in Syria where Dora joined him. They had five children – Taqui, Susie, Titty, Roger and Brigit who they would take to the Lake District every four or five years so that they could spend time with their grandparents. With so many in the family party, the Altounyans stayed at Bank Ground Farm, next door to Lanehead. Arthur Ransome joined his old friends, helping Ernest to acquire two clinker built dinghies so that they could teach the children to sail. One was called Mavis, the other Swallow. These were kept in the boathouse that is currently for sale, which then only had a short stone jetty.
When Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for the Altounyan children, depicted as John, Susan, Titty, Roger and Brigit, he set the opening chapters at Bank Ground Farm, which he called Holly Howe.
Roger Wardle, (see comments below) who has written a number of books on Arthur Ransome and has his diaries from the period tells me that there is no evidence that Arthur Ransome taught the Altounyan children to sail or that they even went out sailing in 1928/1928. He sailed Swallow alone until the weather got too bad and she was put away for the winter but the little boat obviously stirred his imagination.
The film Swallows & Amazons produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973, used the Bank Ground boathouse and jetty as a location. John discovers Swallow in the boatshed on the lake below the farm where the Walker family are staying.
The children gain permission to sail Swallow and soon have her brown sail hoisted with John as Captain and Susan as Mate, with Titty and Roger registered as crew, whilst baby Vicky helps wave them off on their adventures. The rowing boat moored next to it was known as ‘the native canoe’. It was used by Mrs Walker, graciously played by Virginia McKenna when she rowed out to Wild Cat Island where the Swallows went to camp. They encountered two girls who became know as the Amazon Pirates, after their own gaff-rigged dinghy that flew the Jolly Roger.
You can read the first section of my ebook on the making of Swallows and Amazons for free here:
Richard Pilbow says that the fantastic thing about filming Swallows and Amazons was that breakfast was served on location every morning, without fail, sending ‘a wonderful aroma across the set.’ Huge English breakfasts were dished up by two chaps working for a location catering company from Pinewood to greet the film crew every morning, with bacon and eggs, mushrooms, sausages and tomatoes. And the fried bread was well fried. So, it didn’t really matter that we missed breakfast at the Oaklands Guest House in Ambleside. A bacon butty would we placed into my hand as soon as we reached the base camp on Coniston Water. I only wish our guest house had been nearer Peel Island where we spent so much of our time filming.
I do believe my mother is still eating in the picture above. We all ate hugely to stave off the cold. You can see in the movie how much we enjoyed eating the iced buns before the Amazons attacked.
I remember the Parley Scene as being of importance to Mrs Ransome, who was still living at the time. Arthur Ransome had died in 1967 but his formidable widow, Evgenia, owned the copyright to his books. And she did not want there to be any sexual frison between John and Nancy. Richard Pilbrow had had quite a job of persuading her to give him the rights to the film at all. He know that Tom Maschler, the head of Jonathan Cape, had already had to turn down many movie offers. The Ransomes feared ‘a Disney-ization of the story, a vulgarization.’ Neither Arthur Ransome nor his wife, Evgenia, had liked the black and white BBC version of Swallows and Amazons made in 1962 when Susan George played the part of Kitty, rather than Titty. I watched it with Joe Waters at the BBC library. I remember it as being terribly boring and rather badly made but am fascinated by the clips now. Susan George had such beautiful long plaits.
In his recently published book A Theatre Project, Richard describes how, by vowing to be true to the book, he finally persuaded Mrs Ransome to let him have the film rights. But life wasn’t easy. At the very last minute, just as we were about to start shooting, she put her oar in. ‘She took a violent dislike to the casting of Roger…He was dark haired. “This is outrageous; he has to be fair,” she protested.’ It was too late for Claude Whatham to re-cast. Richard admits that with regret he had to over-ride her. This is a secret that has only just been revealed. I was amazed when I heard about it since all the Swallows in Arthur Ransome’s drawings had very dark hair – as did the real children – the Altounyans, whose father was of Armenian descent.
They lived in Aleppo, in Syria where Ernest Altounyan was working in his father’s hospital as a surgeon, and all looked quite tanned in the old photos. I though that, if anything, Mrs Ransome would have objected to me being too blonde but apparently she wanted ‘an English rose’ to play Titty. Once the books became well known, the Altounyans didn’t want people identifying the Walkers too closely with their children.
Roger Wardale said that Arthur Ransome’s intention was to keep the appearance of his characters vague so that any child could easily associate with them and imagine themselves in their place. He originally described the Amazons as having curly hair, but edited this out.
Although we loved filming on Peel Island, our real families, who had come up to the Lake District to be with us over half-term, couldn’t watch. Our friends the Selbys, with whom I had learnt to sail, had driven up to Cumbria from Chelmsford and yet probably saw nothing except for the bedraggled crew and me at lunch time.
Other members of the crew had been joined by their children. Brian Doyle noted in his diary that took his daughter Pandora off to Beatrix Potter’s farmhouse Hill Top, travelling in Dad’s car with my sisters Perry and Tamzin.
Although it was good to be on Coniston Water hanging around at the base camp all day would have been terribly dull for them. This, however was about to change. That evening Mum went to help Terry Smith, the Wardrobe Master, sort out costumes to fit the Supporting Artistes. My sisters were about to earn their own breakfasts . They were to become Film Extras.