John Franklin-Robins as Young Billy, Sophie Neville as Titty and Sten Grendon as Roger
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 asthmatic as a child, 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 and president of the British Allergy Association, now the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Bill told me that Roger Altounyan had been a good friend ever since they 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 celebrating his 100th Birthday in 2012 with Sophie Neville
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.
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.
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 but it was taken before Sten’s received a short back-and-sides.
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.
Sten Gredon playing Roger in 1973
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 indefinitely. 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.
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 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.