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Ann Thwaite: A. A. Milne's Norfolk-based biographer

PUBLISHED: 16:03 21 September 2017 | UPDATED: 16:03 21 September 2017

A. A. Milne - the reflective writer (photo: David Appleby. 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures)

A. A. Milne - the reflective writer (photo: David Appleby. 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures)

@2016 Fox Searchlight (UK) Ltd.

A new feature film brings to life the world of Christopher Robin's parents, Alan and Daphne Milne. Victoria Manthorpe looks at the biography, written by a Norfolk author, behind the story

Biographer Ann Thwaite taking in the atmosphere of Ashdown Forest during filming of Goodbye Christopher Robin (photo: Nick Butcher)Biographer Ann Thwaite taking in the atmosphere of Ashdown Forest during filming of Goodbye Christopher Robin (photo: Nick Butcher)

Christopher Robin is one of the most famous children in literature – but, of course, he was also a real little boy. His creator in every sense, A.A. Milne, was, for the time, unusually involved in his upbringing. The biographer Ann Thwaite won the 1990 Whitbread Biography prize for A.A. Milne: His Life and it is her book that has formed the basis of a new British film to be released in cinemas on September 29 called Goodbye Christopher Robin. The book of the film will be published in paperback.

This is not a film for young children but the story of how Christopher Robin inspired his father to write the four volumes that made them both household names. Produced by Bafta-Award-winning Damien Jones (The History Boys; The Lady in the Van) and directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) the film stars Domnhall Gleeson as Alan Milne, Margot Robbie as his glamorous wife Daphne and Will Tilston as Christopher Robin. The screenwriter Frank Cottrell Bryce, who scripted the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, has focussed the drama in the roaring 1920s.

The timing of the film’s release is apposite; we are still within the centenary of the First World War and this, surprisingly, is in essence a war story. Alan Milne was born in 1882 and brought up in St John’s Wood, London where his father ran a private school. It was very happy childhood that later he hoped to replicate for his own son. Milne went up to Cambridge and then embarked on his writing career working for the popular satirical magazine Punch before trying his hand at playwriting. He had already achieved success when, in June 1913 at the age of 31, he married Daphne de Selincourt, eight years his junior.

Despite his humorous, light-hearted writing Milne cared deeply about many things and the war put him in an invidious position. He had a pacifist conscience but also a sense of patriotic duty which prevented him from declaring as a conscientious objector. Eventually in 1916 he was commissioned into the Warwickshire Regiment, 4th Battalion, as a Special Reserve of Officers and trained in the Signal Corps. He started active service in July of the same year and was immediately exposed to the horrors of the Somme.

Will Tilston as Christopher (photo: David Appleby 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures)Will Tilston as Christopher (photo: David Appleby 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures)

The film’s theme is about the aftermath of Milne’s trauma and how his relationship with his young son, Christopher Robin, born in 1920, helped him heal. During the process he wrote When We Were Very Young, Now We are Six, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. But therein lurked another dilemma. During and after the war Milne was establishing himself as a writer of West End and Broadway comedies. These are little known now although, one at least, The Dover Road, has recently been revived. Milne’s blithe style was perfect for the determinedly superficial mood of the age and the proceeds of his popularity provided a country house in Ashdown Forest, West Sussex, together with servants, cars, chauffeur and a privileged social life. But his theatrical success was nothing compared to the extraordinary worldwide renown of the Christopher Robin books. Suddenly the family – including Christopher as he grew up – had to deal with the transformation of their personal world into public property.

Ann Thwaite, who lives in Tharston, has written five biographies which focus on child-parent relationships. She and her husband, the poet Anthony Thwaite, had four children and Ann became interested in the way children cope with the adult world. She observed that parents could be as much influenced by their children as vice versa.

Ann has been a consultant on the film and enjoyed a high degree of involvement. Filming in Ashdown Forest and at the ‘Poohsticks’ Bridge has ensured authenticity and Ann is delighted with the script and the quality of the art direction. There was plenty of archival reference for the locations but Ann has been able to help with details. One of them in particular was critical for an author: when asked what kind of typewriter Milne used she was able to point out that he always wrote by hand.

The manuscripts of the two Winnie-the-Pooh books have been given by the Milne family to Trinity College, Cambridge, where they can be seen today. Sadly, Christopher Robin’s inheritance was not always a happy one since he was teased badly at school. However, this film concentrates on Milne’s story and the restorative power of play and the imagination.

Glamorous parents: Domnhall Gleeson as Alan Milne and Margot Robbie as Daphne Milne (photo: David Appleby 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures)Glamorous parents: Domnhall Gleeson as Alan Milne and Margot Robbie as Daphne Milne (photo: David Appleby 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Ann’s own precious first edition of Winnie-the-Pooh was originally a present from her father to her mother in 1926, six years before she was born. She says, “I know many of the poems by heart, presumably fixed there from when I was very small. They are, of course, extremely memorable and I am delighted to think many people who see the film will pick up references to them.”

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