Goodbye Christopher Robin: The film exploring Ashdown Forest’s influence on A. A. Milne
PUBLISHED: 14:52 30 October 2017
@2016 Fox Searchlight (UK) Ltd.
New film Goodbye Christopher Robin explores the influence Ashdown Forest had on a traumatised writer and his bear-loving little boy. Duncan Hall finds out more
“Wherever they go and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”
Almost 90 years on from their first publication those closing words from A. A. Milne’s last Christopher Robin book The House at Pooh Corner still have a resonance – about lost childhoods, summers that lasted forever and the eternal friendship which builds between a child and their favourite toy. They captured the imaginations of millions of children across the generations – leading to Forbes Magazine ranking Winnie-the-Pooh the second most valuable character after Mickey Mouse. In 2011 the Daily Mail reported that Winnie-the-Pooh merchandising products alone had estimated annual sales of more than £3.75bn.
A new film, part-shot in the bear of very little brain’s Ashdown Forest home, explores the gritty reality behind Milne’s creation. Goodbye Christopher Robin follows the story of Milne’s homecoming after his traumatic experiences on the Western Front and the cast of animal characters which helped both him and the world recover from the horrors of World War I. An unexpected consequence is the impact his tales have on the boy at the heart of the stories. Like Alice Liddell and Peter Llewelyn Davies – the real-life inspirations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and JM Barrie’s Peter Pan – Christopher Robin was a real person: Milne’s only child, known at home as Billy Moon. The second half of the movie penned by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughn draws on real-life events from the boy’s life as he moves from a dreamy innocent walking the woods with his nanny to being the subject of publicity stunts on both sides of the pond.
Fans of the original literary quartet will love spotting the visual allusions to famous passages and poems, as well as the moments of inspiration both Domhnall Gleeson’s Milne and Stephen Campbell Moore’s Ernest Shepard receive from the young boy and surrounding landscape. “Ashdown Forest is almost a character in the story,” says director Simon Curtis, who returned to Sussex to make the film after using Shoreham’s Brighton City Airport as a location in his last feature Woman in Gold. “There’s something about being on the actual Poohsticks Bridge, or the film ending with Milne and Christopher Robin sitting on the rock which has a plaque dedicated to Milne and Shepard on it – we had to cover over the plaque for the filming. It has a resonance for me. That view [over Ashdown Forest] is a classic English view.”
The forest – christened Hundred Acre Wood in the stories – is portrayed on film both by the original locations and woods in Windsor. It is this landscape which helps Milne and Shepard recover from the horrors of war – the scene where Milne and the equally traumatised artist discuss the illustrations as their experiences melt away, is one of the most memorable in the film. “Ernest is one of the unsung heroes,” says Simon. “Those drawings and illustrations are a huge part of the story.”
War was something Milne was later to write about in his 1934 polemic Peace with Honour. According to film consultant Ann Thwaite’s 1990 biography, AA Milne His Life, the playwright and Punch writer served in the 11th Royal Warwickshire Regiment and experienced firsthand the Battle of the Somme from July to November 1916. He was invalided home with “trench fever” which kept him from frontline service for the rest of the war. In one of his opening shots Curtis brilliantly captures the contrast between the horror of the trenches and the home front as Gleeson’s battle-scarred Milne is suddenly thrust into the centre of a black tie post-war party, cocktail in hand. Flashbacks to the horrors he experienced keep coming back – triggered by bright lights and the buzzing of flies. It was the chance to explore Milne’s state of mind which attracted the director to the project. “I hadn’t realised that Milne had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” says Simon. “The books were his way of comforting himself and getting through it. They became famous because audiences and readers could recapture their own lost innocence after the world had been traumatised by war.”
It was the arrival of his only son in 1920 which began the journey towards Hundred Acre Wood. As depicted in the film the birth was a traumatic experience for Milne’s wife Daphne. Margot Robbie’s portrayal is of a party-loving society beauty with a sharp, tactless tongue, who can’t understand what her husband is experiencing and whose immediate post-natal reaction is “not to blub”. “I did feel the mother herself was suffering from PTSD,” says Simon. “She was so traumatised by her husband going away for the war – she couldn’t endure the idea of having a child who might go away as well.”
According to Simon an expert in PTSD worked on the film to get the portrayal of Milne’s flashbacks and recovery as accurate as possible. “Those moments where he starts to be imaginative – when he talks about Billy’s knife and fork at breakfast – are him recuperating from his PTSD. He is allowing his imagination to come alive again.” The scene Simon refers to is based on a true life event, as recalled by Christopher Robin later in life. Father and son were having lunch when Milne gently chastised him for sitting at the table holding his knife and fork pointing upwards: “Suppose somebody fell through the ceiling. They might land on your fork and that would be very painful.” That scene follows on from Milne deciding to leave the city to start a new life in the country and is part of him connecting with his son. As a result the inspiration for his poetry and stories begins to flow. In reality Ann Thwaite’s biography says the Milne family moved to the renovated Cotchford Farm in spring 1925, months after the publication of When We Were Very Young – the first poetry collection inspired by Christopher Robin’s world.
The phenomenal success of Vespers, the poem listed at the end of When We Were Very Young but which inspired the whole collection, is told pretty much as it happened. Milne was inspired by his two-year-old son saying his prayers with his nanny (known as Nou – as the film states the name Alice in the poem Buckingham Palace is more to do with the rhyming scheme). Milne penned the poem for his wife as a present. She sent it to Vanity Fair, who published it in January 1923. It became a hit – in Ann’s words: “There would be copies of Vespers hanging in nurseries all over the world”. Although the film suggests the magazine submission was made without Milne’s knowledge, Ann states Milne told his wife: “If she liked to get it published she could keep the money.”
Both in the film and real life the personification of Pooh the stuffed toy comes from Christopher Robin’s mother Daphne, in what are some of Simon’s favourite scenes. “I love those moments when Daphne comes up with voices for the toys,” says Simon. It is one of the rare scenes where Daphne is almost likeable. “It is important to say that they were parents in the way of their time. Parents would hand over their child to a nanny for months at a time. England is a very different place now. I just watched a film about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, which showed the British stiff upper lip no longer really existed. When Christopher Robin was a boy it very much did. Someone who saw the film said it was the story of the English – putting their emotion into the stories and fiction rather than the family.”
Finding a suitable boy to play the eight-year-old Christopher Robin proved to be a challenge. Will Tilston makes his acting debut as the youngster with the page boy haircut who spent most of his summers stomping around the forest in smocks. “We ended up with a boy who fit the part beautifully,” says Simon. “He had only just joined the Stagecoach drama club the week before the casting director visited!”
Christopher Robin’s experiences once the world fell in love with Winnie-the-Pooh could be compared to the feeding frenzy which attends new celebrities thrown into the media world through reality TV and talent shows. “It was a new concept, the child celebrity,” says Simon. “In those days we could say that England was wounded. All ages have a connection with Winnie-the-Pooh – it takes them back to their childhood. I suppose that is why the stories have meant so much to people.”
There is definitely a joy in seeing the boy and his father playing in the woods in Goodbye Christopher Robin – especially in the way Simon recreates certain iconic scenes captured in pencil by EH Shepard. But Goodbye Christopher Robin does suffer from playing on the audience’s prior knowledge. Many lines are suffused with a second meaning – be it a reference to the stories, or a portentous warning about the horrors of war or disrupted childhood to come.
The effect the stories had on Christopher Robin’s childhood and later life leaves a nasty taste in the mouth too – particularly the cruel use of the line originally penned in a Milne parody by satirist Beachcomber: “Hush, hush nobody cares/Christopher Robin has fallen downstairs.” As a cautionary tale in these times of oversharing – when baby’s first burp is uploaded onto the worldwide web for everyone to enjoy – Goodbye Christopher Robin certainly works. But the lustre of Ashdown Forest’s inspirational beauty is left slightly dimmed when the final credits roll.
Here’s hoping its international audience will want to visit the original setting. As a location it certainly impressed director Simon: “I still have family holidays in East Preston so I was more familiar with that side of Sussex. I had never been to Ashdown Forest before – but it is beautiful. I’m very happy with both my [filming] visits to Sussex – I would love to do something else again.”
Other famous Sussex filming locations
The East Sussex town was buzzing in 2013 with sightings of Hollywood stars George Clooney and Matt Damon when the World War II caper The Monuments Men ended its principal filming in Rye. The film was based on the true story of the Allied group assigned to rescue culturally important items from the retreating Nazis.
The town was also used as a backdrop for television adaptations of former Rye resident EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia tales – the most recent version starring Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor.
Brighton has been the backdrop for some pretty dark gangster films and tales of revenge, including the original Brighton Rock (1947), Mona Lisa (1986), Dirty Weekend (1993), Villain (1971) and bleak London To Brighton (2007). The West Pier doubled as the Western Front in Richard Attenborough’s musical Oh! What A Lovely War in 1969, and the 1960s Mods and rockers battles were recreated on the beach in 1979’s Quadrophenia. But it hasn’t all been gloomy – the town was also a holiday destination in 1973’s Carry On Girls, and Carry On At Your Convenience in 1971.
The early life of madam Cynthia Payne inspired David Leland’s 1987 comedy/drama Wish You Were Here starring Tom Bell and Emily Lloyd as the outspoken and feisty teenage girl trying to find her own way in her stultifying seaside hometown.
Earlier this year Steve Coogan and John C Reilly filmed in the former lido as part of a new movie about Laurel and Hardy’s last UK tour, provisionally titled Stan And Ollie.
As well as Simon Curtis’ Woman in Gold, Brighton City Airport, just down the road in Shoreham, featured in The Da Vinci Code, and TV favourites Poirot and Tenko.
One of the great British horror movies of the 1960s, The Innocents was inspired by The Turn of the Screw a novella penned by former Rye resident Henry James. Deborah Kerr played the new governess coming to Michael Redgrave’s palatial stately home Bly House – played by Sheffield Park – to look after his two young children.
But the beautiful gardens and lake are home to lost spirits of the chiildren’s former nanny and her love, a fearsome looking valet, who appear to take pleasure in haunting both the governess and her charges.
Beachy Head has proven a popular location – with 1969’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire both filming scenes there. The cliff also stood in for Gibraltar in the opening scenes of The Living Daylights, Timothy Dalton’s first outing as secret agent James Bond in 1987.
Eastbourne’s town centre was the setting for coming of age story Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging in 2008 while the pier stood in for 1960s Brighton in the 2010 remake of Brighton Rock.
• Famous film locations in Sussex - We’ve rounded up a selection of films from all genres that were either partly, or fully shot here in Sussex. Your favourite might be closer than you think...