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:
Dr Bill Frankland with Sophie Neville at Drapers’ Hall
Once Alexander Fleming’s clinical assistant, Dr Bill Frankland was still working as an allergist at the age of 103, ‘I have my first patient at 9.00am tomorrow morning.’ I gather he was still working on academic papers up until his recent death at the age of 108.
Dr Frankland and I were both Liverymen of the Worshipful Company of Drapers, so found ourselves seated together in all sorts of places from St Paul’s Cathedral to a bus heading for Romford. Always chatty and full of enthusiasm, Bill was an endless source of interesting stories. He gave me detailed insights on WWII, when he served as a medical officer in the Far East, becoming a PoW to the Japanese after Singapore fell and gallantly agreed toHe became the historical adviser on my next book, ‘The Man Who Got Out of Japan’. To my astonishment I found myself noting down the actual dialogue used in PoW camps. He could remember the exact words used by the Japanese. I was not be surprised to see he’d been invited to the premiere of ‘The Railway Man’, the movie of Eric Lomax’s wartime experience starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. He also attended the 70th Anniversary VJ Day memorial at Horse Guards Parade with other British and Commonwealth veterans.
Bill grew up in the Lake District with his identical twin brother, who sadly died some time ago. He was a good friend of Roger Altounyan and knew his sister Titty. Along with their other three siblings, Taqui , Susie and Brigit, they had been models for the Walker family in Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’. After he began working as an allergist, Bill became a colleague of Roger who developed the Intal spin-inhaler to relieve asthmatic symptoms.
Bill was amused by the fact that, as a child of twelve, I played the part of Titty in the 1974 feature film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’, delighted that I was able to introduce him to Nick Barton, the producer of the 2016 movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, now on DVD and released in the US by Samuel Goldwyn Meyer.
Bill lost his wife to cancer some time ago but his family were ever around him. At the age of 102, he told me that his doctor insisted that he walked a mile a day but it was quite an experience to accompany him along the crowded London streets. On turning 99 he began to use a walking stick which was twirled in all directions.
‘From Hell Island to Hay Fever, The Life of Dr Bill Frankland’, by Paul Watkins.
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 ofSwallows & 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.
Sten Grendon as Roger Walker with Virginia McKenna playing his mother
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.
What I didn’t know until recently was that Roger Altounyan was an asthmatic himself.
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.
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.
The boathouse at the Slate Quay where Arthur Ransome came on holiday as a child sits at the southern end of Coniston Water. How wise he was to write about the places, the culture and experiences that he knew so well.
As you walk down the foot path from the lane you come across interesting artwork, although it would not have been around in Ransome’s day.
~ Sculpture at Slate Quay by Andy Gormsly~
The boathouse came to be owned by Bridgit Sanders, nee Altounyan, who was the inspiration for the youngest of the Swallows Vicky, the ship’s baby, and went on to become the first president of The Arthur Ransome Society. She lived with her family in the house nearby, teaching her children and grandchildren to sail on Coniston Water. Roger Altounyan rented half the house after he had children and would take them sailing in Mavis, the model for Amazon, bailing like mad.
Whilst fish enjoy the reedy habitat small boys are reputed to enjoy the ‘Knickerbockerbreaker’ rocks that rise above what must be Swainson’s Farm at High Nibthwaite, featured in Swallowdale, which you can find by the road nearby.
We pressed on in search of more of the real places that made an impression on Ransome’s life. Although we had a very good driver this was not always as easy as one might imagine.
But I did find another representation of the crossed flags. Can anyone guess where?
~Kneeler embroidered by Jean Hopkins~
We drove through the gentle countryside south of Coniston Water passing a house called New Hall, once rented by Arthur Ransome and his wife, and on, climbing up past Gummer’s How and wiggling down to reach The Mason’s Arms, which I gather this was one of his favorite pubs.
Then, seemingly in the middle of no where, we came across the Holy Grail: Low Ludderburn and the erstwhile grey barn where Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’. He had a writing room on the first floor. Roger Wardale says he kept his car, the ‘Rattletrap’ in the wooden garage that you can see just in front of the building. It was private then, and is a private house now, but you can catch a glimpse of it from the lane that runs up and on, eventually taking you down to Blake Holme on Windermere, which he named as partly the inspiration for Wildcat Island.
I’ve always thought that Arthur Ransome must have been completly impervious to the damp, to cold and wet weather. I am not. By now it was raining so hard that my husband was wearing my pink beret, but we were still in good spirits.
It was not just British children who were saturated with the “Swallows and Amazons” novels of Arthur Ransome, as the review of “The Last Englishman,” by Roland Chambers, suggests (May 27). I grew up hundreds of miles from the ocean in Pittsburgh, wanting to be like Ransome’s characters. I wrote to him asking which of the English lakes was the right one. He sent me a postcard saying that it was “Windermere, with a few touches of Coniston, for the sake of disguise.” He ended with “You’ll be sailing some day!” and I lived on that.
So back to Windermere, and a long hot bath at Miller Howe, a lovely hotel that had a Jonathan Cape copy of Swallows and Amazons on the hall table. In the morning cloud was sitting on the high fells looking just like snow. I ran down to the lake to put my hands in the water, thinking, ‘This is the place for Winter Holiday’. But that is another book.
You can find maps showing these locations in the ebook of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ available from Amazon Kindle and other ebook platforms.
‘Here we are, intrepid explorers, making the first ever voyage into unchartered waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets shall be revealed?
As we set off from the Lakeside Railway Station on the southern shore of Windermere to explore Arthur Ransome’s world, I began wondering how many signs of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ we would find. Would we see the crossed flags that have become a symbol of the bestseller he wrote back in 1929?
We found the first sign the East of Lake road above Coniston Water. And there was Holly Howe where the Walker Family came for their holidays. It is so exciting to know that you can stay there too, or go for tea, and run down the field full of buttercups to dip your hands in the lake, just as the real Altounyan children – the real Swallows – must have done. We passed Lanehead, their grandparents’ house next-door as we drove down to Coniston. I gather it is for sale.
Coniston Old Man or Kanchenjunga, as the Swallows and Amazons called the mountain, was snoozing under a thick blanket of cloud but the challenge of climbing to the summit was for another day. Below the village, mooring up to the jetty at the Bluebird Cafe, was Ransome, the Coniston Launch. Peter Walker introduced us to the Captain who welcomed us aboard. He asked after Swallow the little ship from the film that we had re-launched from the very same jetty in April 2011. If you join The Arthur Ransome Society you can sail Swallow on Coniston this summer.
As we set off across the lake we could see Swallow’s boatshed clearly from the Coniston launch. It has been renovated and repaired but the old stone jetty is still there, below the huge horse chestnut trees. I remember how cold the water was when we first brought Swallow out from the depths of that shed in May 1973 to shoot the opening scenes of the movie. Two sheep came down to see what we were doing. Richard Pilbrow, the Producer, gave me this black and white photograph that, unusually, shows Claude Whatham the Director setting up the shot. I was letting water drain from my shoe.
The Coniston Launch can take you right down the lake to Wild Cat Island or Peel Island as it is really called. You can see the Secret Harbour best from a boat and imagine Titty trying to get out through the rocks in Amazon, in the dark, when she captured her from the terrifying Amazon Pirates.
Peter Walker met us and drove us on down the lake to show us The Heald, a bungalow above the road where Arthur Ransome lived with his Russian wife, Evgenia and his dinghy, Coch-y-bonddhu. It was here that he wrote Picts and Martyrs. Coch-y-bonddhu played the part of Dick and Dot’s boat Scarab. The original ‘Dogs Home’ can be found in the woods above the house. Rob Boden is very keen to restore it.
It was in the Grizedale Forest that we went to see the charcoal burners and met the real men in the process. And an adder. It was real too.
I looked back at the island where I spent so much of my childhood. It was difficult to imagine how a location catering wagon let alone two Route-master London double-decker buses could have driven down the winding East of Lake road. They parked in the field opposite the islands so the crew could at least eat lunch in the dry and we could have our lessons. The National Parks Authority had to ask the Production Manager to drape wartime camouflage netting over them. You must have been able to see the red buses for miles.
As you drive south you can look over the water to see Brown Howe, the house that we used as a location for Beckfoot in the film of Swallows and Amazons and shortly after, the Edwardian boathouse, which Claude Whatham used for the Amazons. I don’t think this was the one Ransome envisaged. His was at the mouth of the Amazon River – a reedy place. The pictures in the illustrations show a building with a low-pitched roof.
Peter took us down to a farm the south of Coniston Water where the real Ransome children spent their summer holidays. You can walk down the footpath they must have taken to dip their hands in the lake. And there I found what must be the real Amazon boat house.
A bright sunny day on Derwentwater. I wore what was my favourite costume, not least because I had the option of wearing a vest beneath the blouse and I didn’t have to worry about the divided skirt. I went to such an old fashioned school that I had a pair of grey flannel culottes myself, to wear on the games field, and thought them very much the sort of thing Titty would have worn. Roger, meanwhile was in long shorts or knickerbockers as the real Altounyan children would have called them, kept up with a snake belt. His even longer underwear was an item requested by Claude Whatham the director who, being born in the 1920s himself, had worn exactly the same sort of underpants as a child. As the day warmed up Claude stripped down to a pair of navy blue tailored shorts and sailing shoes. We were on a desert island after all. Even if it was a desert island in the Lake District.
In Arthur Ransome’s book of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ the hunt for the treasure is slightly different and Captain Flint’s trunk lies buried under rocks. I wasn’t expecting the set-up with the tree trunk, although I think it works well and looks good, giving movement to the sequence. The only hesitation was that Claude didn’t want me to get hit by the rocks as they slid off. This was a pity as I would have jumped aside.
I am not sure why the Amazon had not been bailed out. I can remember having to lie in the bilge water, which proved cold and uncomfortable. Perhaps it gave my performance an edge. Titty would have been cold and stiff after a night wrapped in the sail. Great grey clouds were gathering by then and we were all getting tired.
Being together in a confined space becomes difficult to endure after while, not least when the space is a pontoon on a lake with not much to sit on. Small boys tend to muck about and become annoying when they are bored. The time had come when someone was going to crack – and they did. The result was silence. A sobering moment. And one very wet pair of knickerbockers.
In the end three of us went home in wet underwear. Gareth Tandy, the third assistant director – who I think was only about 18 – was pushed in to the lake, this time to great hilarity.
The big question, of course, it what is the name of the island on Derwentwater that we used as the location for Cormorant Island? Duncan Hall has written in to suggest it is called Lingholm Island (or possibly One Tree Island)What is the name of the larger island, seen in the background of shots, that represents Wildcat Island? Is it Rampsholme Island?
I have one behind-the-scenes clip of the crew on the pontoon – shot on a sunny day, I think at the southern end of Coniston Water. It looks most bizarre. It was. You can see how cramped and overloaded we were and guess at the patience demanded of us all. Imagine how long it took to set up shots, while totally exposed to the elements. It was quite a stable raft but when we went for a take it was vital that everyone kept completely still or there would have been camera wobble. We used a conventional boat with a cabin when we filmed ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ on the Norfolk Broads ten years later in 1983. It proved much easier – but had more wobble.
You can read more about ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974) in an ebook available on Amazon Kindle and other platforms.
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.
“…it was really horrible,” I told Tim Devlin, of The Times. “We had to run into the water and enjoy it. It was icy. I had to try to be a cormorant with my feet in the air. Then I had to step water as Susan taught Roger to swim. We were in for about three minutes and they had to do two takes of the scene. It was horrible.” This was the day when we shot the swimming scenes ~
The first scene of the day was actually was the one when Titty emerged from her tent in her pyjamas, wiped the dew off the top of a large biscuit tin and started writing her diary. I always regret writing Titania Walker on the cover but I had been contracted to play the part of TITANIA WALKER. My mother, Daphne Neville, who is quite theatrical, loved Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and encouraged me to write out the full name, but I do wish I had simply labelled by notebook ‘Ship’s Log’.
I am told that the real little girl who inspired my character, Titty Altounyan, was given the nickname after reading a horrible story of mousey death entitled ‘Titty mouse and Tatty mouse’ from English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs. Her family called her Titty mouse, then Titty for short. People were concerned that I would be teased for being associated with a name like Titty, but I never was. It’s a sweet name. However, it seems Arthur Ransome did not object when the BBC altered it to Kitty in 1962, when Susan George played the part.
Our knitted swimming costumes, with their little legs were a real novelty to us. I do wish mine hadn’t been red. It was such a cold, grey day I went blue. I remember the entire crew were clad in overcoats – even parkers with fur lined hoods. Looking back it was silly to have gone ahead with the scene in May. Child cruelty.
The director, Claude Whatham shot the scene using two cameras. The continuity would have been impossible otherwise. Eddie Collins the Camera Operator had a 16mm camera in the water with us. He was being steadied by another chap in a full wet-suit. Fitted neoprene was quite an unusual sight then when divers were known as frogmen.
Suzanna Hamilton, who played Susan, did well but it simply wasn’t possible to pretend we were enjoying ourselves. My rictus smile was not convincing. Later on in the summer the Lake District became so hot that we begged to be taken swimming in rivers on our day off. I wish we had re-shot the scene in July with an underwater camera capturing my pearl diving antics. I was a good swimmer. I still love snorkelling – but only in warm seas. As it was, I had to be extracted from Coniston Water by Eddie’s frogman. I’d almost passed out.
Quite a few people almost learnt how cold we had been for themselves later that day in May. The boats used to ferry us back and forward to the island were blue Dorys with outboard motors. You don’t want to have too much weight in the bows of those boats. Water can come in very quickly.