Tag Archives: Titty Altounyan

Finding photographs of Titty Altounyan

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. I met her niece Barbara Altounyan recently. She was most amused that I had once played her Aunt Titty.

Sophie Neville as Titty in Swallows and Amazons

~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 and Ernest - wedding in 1954

Titty on the arm of her father, Dr Ernest Altounyan in Aleppo, 1954

Titty Altounyan's wedding

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.

Titty's wedding group

There is also a more informal shot.

Titty's wedding in 1954

‘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, but 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 with Brigit and Joe,John Sanders, 1953

Titty Altounyan at her sister Brigit’s wedding to John Sanders in 1953

Titty obituary - The Guardian

You can see a couple more family photos on ‘Secret Britian – The Lakes’ currently on BBC iPlayer at about 11.50 minis in. Those in the UK can view the programme here.

(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.)

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, British Film, Cinema, Cumbria, Film, Film Cast, Lake District, Memoir, Sophie Neville, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, titty, truelife story, Uncategorized

Arthur Ransome, his boats and the Altounyan family

‘Paddling with Peter Duck’, John McCarthy’s  documentary for BBC Radio 4, can currently be listened to on IPlayer Radio. It is about 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.

Family Photo with donkeys

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.

Possibly Arthur Ransome in bow of Peter Duck the boat he took to Syria

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 in the Altounyan's dinghy Beetle II on Amouk in Syria

Possibly Arthur Ransome sailing Beetle II the Altounyans’ gunter-rigged dinghy at Amouk in Syria

Dr Ernest Altounyan 1935

Ransome’s friend Dr Ernest Altounyan in 1935

Dora Altounyan 1935

Dora Altounyan (nee Collingwood) in 1935

Was she the model for Mary Walker, the Swallows’ mother who grew up in Australia?

Roger at Dovedale

Roger Altounyan as a boy


Roger sailing off Peel Island 1978 by Asadour Guzelian

Dr Roger Altounyan sailing ‘Mavis’ on Coniston Water.

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.

Brigit seated

Brigit Altounyan as a girl

Brigit married, becoming known as Brigit Sanders and later became President of The Arthur Ransome Society. The original lugsail dinghy Mavis or Amazon can be visited in the Coniston Museum in Cumbria. To read more please click here to see this previous post.

Ernest Altounyan sailing Mavis on Coniston

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.

To listen to John McCarthy’s  Radio 4 broadcast, please click here

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Filed under Arthur Ransome, Biography, boating, Dinghy sailing, Family Life, Lake District, Landscape Photographs, Memoir, Photography, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, titty, truelife story

Titty Altounyan

I am assured that Titty’s family will not be offended if I re-publish these news clippings. She has become well-loved by many who I know would love to know more about her. The Times used her Christian name of Mavis, but she was always known as Titty.

Titty Altounyan's obituary Titty Altounyan 001

Although she was heralded as Arthur Ransome’s muse, I know that Titty Altounyan had no wish to be famous. If anything she gradually disassociated herself with the character in the books, who struck her as being so good and clever. But Titty was her name. It was a name I have lived with too, for I played the part of Titty in the film of Swallows & Amazons produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973. Children and adults alike still call me Titty all these years later. One summer, when I was sailing Swallow, the dinghy used in the 1974 film, someone took this shot of me. It is as if I am still flying Titty’s inspirational flag, which I do with humility and with honour.

DSCF2700

Sophie Neville lowering Swallow’s sail on Ullswater in 2014

Titty Altounyan in 1938

Titty Altounyan with the Ransome’s flotilla on the Norfolk Broads in 1934 (?)

Mrs Ransome wrote to Titty’s mother, Dora Altounyan, from Wroxham. This postcard was kindly shown to us by Ted Alexander who rescued it from certain destruction.

DSCF2137

I thought I was far too fair to play Titty but Mrs Ransome approved.  Despite Ransome’s book illustrations of girls with dark hair, she was most decisive about casting children with English colouring. The idea was that anyone watching could easily associate with us.

Sophie Neville receiving a Titty haircut

Hairstylist Ronnie Cogan giving Sophie Neville a Titty hair cut on location

I don’t know if Titty ever saw the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. She might have done. I only hope that we captured the sense of adventure experienced by the Altounyans when they were little and went camping on Peel Island during the weeks when they stayed with their grandparents, Mr and Mrs WG Collingwood, at Lane Head at the northern end of  Coniston Water.

Titty alone on Wildcat Island

Sophie Neville as Titty on Peel Island (c) Studiocanal

Although they are seen wearing shorts as young children I have been told that the Altounyan girls sailed in dresses, which they tucked up into their knickers if they had to wade ashore, much as I did in the film.

BW Sophie Neville in Secret Harbour

Sophie Neville as Titty (c) StudioCanal

The reference to Titty’s name coming from the tale of Mrs Tittlemouse in the article feature in The Times above is incorrect. Titty’s name was based on a character in fairy story Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse by Joseph Jacobs published in 1890, that begins when Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse go leasing (or gathering) corn. Here is a later edition. Titty ‘never could resist anything in print.’

You can read the original story here 

Titty and Tatty book

 A version of the story published in 1949

With thanks to Roger Wardale who showed me the handwritten letters that Titty sent him. She had the most beautiful writing.

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Filed under Arthur Ransome, Biography, Film Cast, Film History, Lake District, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Where are they now? More about the traditional boats used when filming of ‘Coot Club’ for BBC TV

Coot Club - Teasel and Titmouse - photo Jill Searle

Mary Soan with Jill and Jim Searle on the Teasel, towing the Titmouse on South Walsham

It was Jim and Jill Searle of the Norfolk Country Sailing Base in Ludham who helped us find the boats that starred in the BBC adaptation of Coot Club and The Big Six set on the Norfolk Broads. Jill has kindly sent me a copy of this photo taken of Lullaby just after she was chosen to play the Teasel. Her costume consisted of a false transom, which is still at Hunter’s Yard in Ludham today.

'TEASEL'

The Teasel’s transom ~ photo: Roger Wardale

Roger Wardale recently took this photograph that I believe is to be included in his new book,  Arthur Ransome on the Broads , which Amberley Publishing will bring out soon in full colour.  He tells of Arthur Ransome’s half-dozen or so holidays on hired yachts and of the young people who sailed in the fleet,  including Titty and Tacky (Taqui) Altounyan. Roger found out that the Ransomes hired a 23′ Fairway’  yacht from Jack Powles of Wroxham. This had a Primus stove with a special cooking locker in the well. It sounds very well kitted out with a wash-basin and self-emptying WC in a separate compartment. The three Somnus spring-berths had drawers underneath and there was even a wardrobe. Like the Teasel she was built of mahogany with a ‘bright varnish finish’ and given a fair wind she would have zipped along at quite a speed.

Roger  said that he spent six days last summer trying to find places Arthur Ransome visited that had not changed since the 1930’s for his photographs but said that was difficult. What he did find was the Titmouse at Hunter’s Yard

'TITMOUSE'

The Titmouse at Hunter’s Yard in Ludham ~ photo: Roger Wardale

It is still possible to hire the mahogany hulled, gunter-rigged yachts much as Arthur Ransome and his wife did in the 1930’s, together with a sailing dinghy or rowing boat. There are fourteen sailing cruisers in the Hunter’s fleet and none have an engine. They have lifting cabin tops so you have more headroom when you moor up. Lullaby, who was built in 1932 is 28ft long with four berths. The mast can be lowered with counter weights so that she can be taken under bridges with a clearance of 6 foot.

Jim and Jill Searle have a restored a traditional gaff-rigged 26′ 1930’s crusier, which is to be sold this year. I gather it is beautiful.

Roger Wardale says that in the 1930’s, many of the yachts had a ‘self-acting’ jib, ‘which according to Ransome was too large, so that there were times  when he lowered his and sailed better without it!’  I gather they still have self-acting jibs but the size may have been altered. (?)

AT HORNING STAITHE

At Horning Staithe today ~ photo: Roger Wardale

Roger also found a cruiser similar to the  Janca, the 1930’s cruiser who played the part of the Margoletta, skippered by Julian Fellowes in his glorious role as a Hullabaloo, the spiteful, arch-baddie of Coot Club. She made a perfect leading lady. I believe the Janca is currently being restored ~ but you’ll have to remind me who owns her.

MARGOLETTA

A large 1930’s Broads crusier similar to the one we used as the Margoletta in ‘Coot Club’ ~ photo: Roger Wardale

Back in 1983 we were hugely helped by a number of Norfolk boatmen who knew the broads well.

Coot Club - Mark and Brian

Mark Page, who played Bill getting help fixing something

You will have to let me know the name of these gentlemen who spent long hours helping us in the summer of 1983.

Coot Club - local boatmen

The skipper of the vessel used as a camera boat on ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’

Filming from one boat to another is tricky and their patience was much appreciated. In many ways the easiest boat to film with was the Death and Glory. She can still be found moored somewhere on the Broads.

Henry Dimbleby, Nicholas WAlpole, Jake Coppard, Mark Page, Caroline Downer and Richard Walton as they appeared in 'The Big Six' (1984)

Henry Dimbleby, Nicholas Walpole, Jake Coppard, Mark Page, Caroline Downer and Richard Walton as they appeared in ‘The Big Six’ (1984)

I well remember setting up this shot for the cover of the abridged version of the two stories, which was brought out by Puffin to accompany the series. It shows the Death and Glory complete with her green chimney. The big secret was that the interior of the cabin was larger than the exterior. we puzzled over Ransome’s drawings only to decide that he had cheated the measurements too.

Nicholas Walpole and Jake Coppard looking out of the window of the set that was made to represent the interior of the Death and Glory

Nicholas Walpole and Jake Coppard looking out of the window of the set that was made to represent the interior of the Death and Glory

Bruce McCaddy and his team built the set inside a modern boatshed where it was kept for ‘rain cover’,  since the interior scenes could always be shot if it was wet. It included ‘camera traps’ or sections that could be removed so the scenes could be shot. I never went inside but the boys loved it. In fact the weather was glorious. We enjoyed such constant sunshine in the later part of the shoot that we filmed the interiors when it was dry and so hot that the boys got quite over-heated.

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Filed under 1983, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, truelife story

“It was really horrible” ~ filming the swimming scenes for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

“…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.

35m Panasonic, Eddie Collins the Camera Operator in (wet suit), Dennis Lewiston the DOP (in cap) Claude Whatham the Director (in waders) on Peel Island, Coniston Water ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

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.

Filming the swimming scene

Eddie Collins opperating the 16mm camera to capture the pearl diving scene ~photo: Richard Pilbrow

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.

Sophie Neville in 1973 attempting to strangle Terry Smith the Wardrobe Master on ‘Swallows and Amazons’

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.

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