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

News from David Wood, who adapted Swallows & Amazons for the big screen in 1973

Sophie Neville with David Wood and Claude Whatham
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David Wood, who originally worked with Evgenia Ransome to adapt her husband’s book Swallows & Amazons for the big screen in 1973, has recently written to tell me:
‘Several attempts were made to follow up SWALLOWS. I did a screenplay of GREAT NORTHERN?, plus detailed treatments of WINTER HOLIDAY (for film) and WE DIDN’T MEAN TO GO TO SEA (for television), plus a six-part serial based on PIGEON POST. But all of them bit the dust!!!
Claude is the only director for whom I worked as an actor on film (SWEET WILLIAM), television (CHERI, DISRAELI) and stage (VOYAGE ROUND MY FATHER), as well as working with him as a writer (SWALLOWS and a film that never got made called THE HEYDAY).
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Mike Pratt with Brenda Bruce
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Claude Whatham must have made the BBC adaptation of Colette’s novel  Cheri just before Swallows & Amazons as it was broadcast in April 1973. Brenda Bruce, who I knew as Mrs Dixon, played Charlotte whilst David was Desmond, supporting Scott Anthony and Yvonne Mitchell as the lovers Cheri and Lea.
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David Wood played Lord Derby in the 1978 BBC costume drama Disreali that Claude Whatham directed. Whilst Ian McShane had the title role, the part of  Queen Victoria was given to Rosemary Leach, who later played Mrs Barrable in the BBC serial of Coot Club and The Big Six.  Suzanna Hamilton appeared in it too as one of the princesses. She must have been about seventeen – a good age to be zooming about in a crinoline with scooped up hair. It would have been quite a contrast to playing Mate Susan on Peel Island in the Lake District.
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Suzanna Hamilton with director Claude Whatham on Peel Island
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When he was in his twenties David starred in the feature film if….  with Malcolm McDowell.  You can get it on DVD or watch the Youtube pasted in the Comments below. I’d love to see the wartime drama Aces High, the movie directed by Jack Gold in which David played Lt Tommy Thompson opposite Simon Ward, Peter Firth and  Christopher Plumber as well as Malcomb McDowell. John Gielgud played the Headmaster in scenes shot at Eton in this film, while Arthur Lowe played his house master in if… I am not sure which school they used. You will have to let me know. Arundel?
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 In 2004  David was awarded an OBE for services to literature and drama. I was not surprised. His output has been prolific. To find out more about his work as an author and playwright do watch this short BBC documentary Meet the Author presented by Nick Higham.
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Kit Seymour with Claude Whatham

40th Anniversary Celebrations ~

Guest sepaker Sophie Neville seen here on the film poster of 'Swallows and Amazons'

Sunday 21st April ~ Dulwich Film  screened ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974), produced by Richard Pilbrow and directed by Claude Whatham in 1973.  

Sophie Neville as Titty in 'Swallows & Amazons' (1974)

The film was introduced by Sophie Neville who answered questions about how it was made after the screening at the Michael Croft Theatre

Michael Croft founded the National Youth Theatre.  One of his students was Simon Ward, who went on to star as James Herriot in the film version of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’, which Claude Whatham directed in 1974 after finishing  ‘Swallows & Amazons’.  Sophie was invited to watch the filming in Yorkshire, meeting Anthony Hopkins and members of the cast and crew who had worked on Swallows & Amazons in 1973. Brenda Bruce played Mrs Harbottle and Wilfred Josephs composed the music, Terry Needham was the Location Manager and Ronnie Cogan the Hairdresser.

 

Sophie Neville with Ronnie Cogan in 1974

‘I didn’t meet James Herriot until I worked in production at the BBC on Russell Harty in 1982. He was charming – an incredibly confident man. I don’t remember his wife being interviewed but she came with him to the studio and struck me as being terribly nice. She wore a proper dress, which is more than could be said for anyone else in the Green Room.’

A year later Sophie Neville appeared with Simon Ward’s daughter Sophie Ward in the adventure movie ‘The Copter Kids’ when they played sisters. Simon brought the family to watch the filming on location near Gerrards Cross. In September there will be a special tribute to Simon Ward at the Michael Croft Theatre when they will be screening ‘Young Winston’.

Swallows and Amazons flags

Saturday 25th May 2013 ~  

Sophie Neville will be giving a 40th anniversary talk on ‘Filming Swallows & Amazons in 1973′ for members of The Arthur Ransome Society gathering for their AGM at Brockenhurst College in the New Forest ~ Please book with TARStarsinfo@arthur-ransome.org

The plan is that ‘Swallow’ the dinghy from the 1974 film, will be moored at Buckler’s Hard on the Beaulieu River that weekend, and sailing for members of Sail Ransome  if weather permits.

Arthur Ransome’s boat The Nancy Blackett ~ The Goblin in Arthur Ransome’s book ‘We didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’ will be in the Solent for this event and might sail over to Yarmouth with Swallow for ~

31st May – 2nd June ~ Old Gaffers Yogaff event at Yarmouth, Isle of Wight

Meanwhile in the Lake District:

29th May – 2nd June ~ Coniston Regatta based at Bank Ground Farm.

30th May 2013  ~ There will be an outdoor screening of the movie Swallows & Amazons at Holly Howe (Bank Ground Farm) on the shores of Coniston Water,  with Captain Flint’s Houseboat, SY Gondola, in attendance.

Bank Ground FArm above Coniston Water in Cumbria

For news of the 2013 film please click here

To read the filmography posts about the 1974 film please go to ~ https://sophieneville.net/category/autobiography/