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

The Duchess of Cambridge in Cumbria

The Duchess of Cambridge cooking on a campfire in Cumbria
The Duchess of Cambridge cooking on a campfire in Cumbria

The Duchess of Cambridge showed she was fully prepared when she braved the snowy weather to visit a Scout camp in the Lake District today.” (22nd March 2013)

“Her Royal Highness, who is a volunteer in the Scout Association, joined fellow adult volunteers as they trained to work with Beaver and Cub Scouts at the Great Tower Scout Camp near Newby Bridge in Cumbria.

She used her training to help look after a group of Cub Scouts from Cumbria and Manchester taking part in a pack holiday event at the 250-acre activity centre close to Lake Windermere.

As part of their programme, the Cub Scouts will get a chance to try outdoor cooking, fire-lighting and tree-climbing under the guidance of The Duchess and the other volunteers.”

To read more, visit princehenryofwales.org

According to Claudia Joseph’s biography of Kate ‘Princess in Waiting’, the Duchess is distantly related, not only to Beatrix Potter, but to Arthur Ransome.

My mother, Daphne Neville wearing a Donny Osmond hat in 1973 on location for SWALLOWS & AMAZONS
My mother, Daphne Neville wearing a Donny Osmond hat in 1973 on location in the Lake District  filming Richard Pilbrow’s movie  SWALLOWS & AMAZONS

The Duchess is obviously fond of Donny Osmond hats. My mother wore one on location in the Lake District whilst filming SWALLOWS & AMAZONS  (1974) . She can be seen here teaching Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy Blackett, to shoot with a bow and arrow for the scene on Wild Cat Island when the Amazons attack the Swallows who are occupying their camp.

Claude Whatham in Mum's hat with Brenda Bruce
Claude Whatham in Mum’s hat with Brenda Bruce

Our Director, Claude Whatham took a shine to it and would put it on to amuse us, although in this instance he was wearing it for warmth, probably like the Duchess on Friday. Click on the photo above to see me wearing the original purple velvet, 1973 winter season designer version, bought in Carnaby Street. I wear it all the time. It is very useful in this weather.

Peter Walker has found more photos of the Duchess in Cumbria in the Westmorland Gazette ~ she was visiting a scout camp next door to Low Ludderburn where Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ about a mile above Blakeholme, the island on Windermere he originally envisaged as Wild Cat Island.

Is the Duchess a ‘Swallows and Amazons’ fan?