Goodbye Christopher Robin tells the heart-tugging story behind one of the most popular creations in children’s literature, Winnie-the-Pooh. Inspired by his son’s collection of toys, A. A. Milne pens the magical world of Pooh Bear and friends. The film starring Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie and Kelly Macdonald arrives in cinemas on Friday 29 September.
Deborah Allison, Senior Programmer and Event Cinema Manager at Picturehouse Cinemas, talks to A. A. Milne’s biographer, Ann Thwaite, on whose book the film is based.
What brought you to this story and made you want to tell it?
My two previous biographies had both been about parent-child relationships – Frances Hodgson Burnett and her son, and Edmund Gosse (writer of Father and Son) and his father – so it was a perfect subject for me. I said I would do it if Christopher Milne agreed. Christopher was absolutely marvellous, and he said the perfect thing: “You must write it as if I weren’t going to read it”.
I’ve always been particularly interested in children, and the relationships between adults and children. One of the things that attracted me to the story was the fact that I thought the world had got it wrong by concentrating entirely on one dreadful interview Christopher did. He said (when he was himself trying to make a living, trying to decide what he was going to do with his own life), “It seemed to me, almost, that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders… and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son”. Journalists keep on repeating this – how he hated it – and of course my book and the film show that this was not the case at all.
He had a very good relationship as a child with his father, and a very unusual relationship for the time. I think that was one of the things that very much interested me. In the 1920s, it was unusual for parents to have as close a relationship as Milne had with his son. One of the things that I particularly wanted to draw attention to was the fact that he hardly wrote a letter when Christopher was a small child without talking about him, writing about him, and sending photographs of him.
There is the idea that the child only saw his parents in the evenings for an hour – a traditional thing in that period for upper class families – but of course Milne wasn’t upper class. That’s another thing that really appeals to me. He had this image of being (and he was) a bright young thing, but he came from a very ordinary background. His parents had made their own way in the world. His father was a schoolmaster, and a very good one.
A lovely quotation that I like to think of is that Milne as a boy said, “In father’s house it was easy to be clever”. It was that sort of tremendously encouraging childhood that he had himself. I think one of the things that you find with the relationship between Milne and Christopher was that he was trying to give Christopher the same sort of childhood. In the film it’s naturally slightly different from the way it really happened, but it was a very, very close relationship, and the vibe between Domhnall Gleeson (Milne) and Will Tilston (Christopher) is marvellous, and I think that was absolutely true to the real story.
Something in which the film succeeds is that despite its ‘chocolate box’ visual style it doesn’t shy away from the fact there’s real darkness to this story too.
One of the interesting things that screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce picked up on from my book, which is absolutely true, is the huge effect of the war. Milne was a pacifist even before 1914, and wrote, “It makes me physically sick to think of that nightmare of mental and moral degradation, the war”. It’s there: the real theme behind the book, which absolutely is not in the children’s stories, but which was part of Milne’s life.
The ‘chocolate box’ aspect was the world as it was then, and then underneath there’s this dark feeling which I think Frank Cottrell Boyce does brilliantly, bringing out the trauma of war, the awful experiences. The fact that both Shepard and Milne were on the Somme is one of the most amazing things about the Pooh books – that they were written at all, that they survived. The average time before young officers on the Somme were killed was around six weeks, but they both survived and that’s a miracle. The stories could so easily not have existed.
How much involvement did you have with the production of the film?
I had continuous involvement as a consultant on the screenplays. There have been a lot of scripts, and I have been reading them steadily for what seems like many years; I read the first in 2008. I would like to pay tremendous tribute to Damian Jones, the producer. It’s his film; it really is his film. He was determined to make this film and was so keen to get the story right. He kept sending me scripts, and we changed things, and finally he found Frank Cottrell Boyce, which was such a relief for both of us. The other thing, of course, was finding the right actors. He had to have three A-star actors. Director Simon Curtis was marvellous too, in that he waited and waited.
I had a wonderful time on set. They were both so marvellous. I think it’s partly because I’m so old that they were being so terribly nice to me! They gave me a happy day as an extra in the pageant scene, though even my friends will miss it if they blink at the wrong moment. I will always remember having a surprising hot lunch under a tree with Domhnall Gleeson – just the two of us, talking about Milne. I did spend quite a lot of time sitting by Simon looking up from the monitor at what was really happening, and then back to the monitor to see what the cameraman had made of it. I found it absolutely fascinating, because I’d never had anything to do with filming before. It was all very exciting!
Lots of lovely things happened. When the filming was taking place at Poohsticks Bridge in Ashdown Forest they had permission to film but not to close the bridge, and so tourists kept on coming by. There were mothers with babies in pushchairs – so sweet. One of them actually had an Eeyore on his buggy and another had a Tigger. The sad thing is they’re not old enough to remember watching the filming going on.
It sounds as though you not only had a fabulous time with the production of the film but you also seem very pleased with the results.
I am. It was a huge relief to me, of course. Obviously I cared about it tremendously, especially after all those years of reading scripts and trying to get it nearer and nearer to what was right. I was just so relieved at how well it turned out. I thought it was a lovely film.
The choosing of Will Tilston was one of the most interesting things about the whole business. Damian sent me videos of the auditions the little boys had done. I think there were about eight of them. They were all good in different ways, and at least four of them would have been possibilities, but I decided that Will was perfect. When I emailed Damian and told him my choice was Will Tilston he said, “Good, it’s mine too”, and presumably it was also Simon’s. I do think he did very, very well, and he was the most delightful child. He was very friendly and sweet, and really thrilled at being in the film. He didn’t have any experience at all; he’d only joined a drama class ten days before the casting people arrived.
One of the cleverest things about the film, I think, is that over and over again there are little references for people who know the books very well, and indeed the poems – such as Daphne going down to the end of the town in a golden gown. It’s very interesting to me how they were able to get round copyright problems. They weren’t using actual E. H. Shepard drawings, and the Winnie-the-Pooh was made specially to be like the one the real Christopher Robin had. The way they met all these problems is one of the things that made me so delighted at the film. I am very optimistic that it will give an enormous number of people a great deal of pleasure.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is released in cinemas on 29 September. Ann Thwaite’s Goodbye Christopher Robin: A. A. Milne and the Making of Winnie-the-Pooh, newly revised and edited from her earlier Whitbread-Prize-winning biography, is published by Pan Macmillan on 21 September.
On Wednesday 4 October at 6.00, Cinema City Norwich will welcome Ann on her 85th birthday for a Q&A and book-signing event. Book now