Daily Mail

Daddy laid to rest the ghosts of war by dreaming up Watership Down to amuse us in the car

As the classic novel turns 50, Richard Adams’s daughters reveal how fatherhood and the joy of writing overcame his devastatin­g breakdown


than the one with which readers are familiar today.

So long was the tale that it was completed only over the course of several school runs from Islington to Highgate. When it finally ended, the girls were insistent on more.

‘We said: “You should write it down,”’ says Rosamond.

Juliet picks up the tale, each sister clearly enjoying the act of storytelli­ng as much as their late father. ‘We were on holiday in the Lake District [in 1967] and I said to Ros: “I think we need to push Dad a bit, he keeps fobbing us off. Give me your pocket money and we will get a big thing of paper, and if we put it under his nose with a pen, then he has to write the book — hasn’t he?” ’ While Adams didn’t immediatel­y pick up his pen, when he did, the story of rabbits struggling to find a home flowed.

The quiet leader Hazel was inspired by Adams’s wartime commanding officer, Major John Gifford. Meanwhile, the showy, but loyal Bigwig was Captain Desmond ‘Paddy’ Kavanagh, whom Adams would say was ‘afraid of nothing’. Indeed, Kavanagh died in action during the battle of Arnhem in September 1944 — and Bigwig is the focus of one of the book’s most harrowing moments, when he is caught in a snare.

However, both sisters, and their mother, were insistent none of the rabbits should die. ‘The war for sure [was Dad’s biggest influence],’ says Juliet. ‘I think a lot of the interplay is about how a group of men under a lot of pressure and anxiety and fear, react and interact with one another in stressful situations.

‘How could that not influence this very impression­able, very highly strung young man who was picked up and put in uniform after one year at Oxford?’

And, of course, there were his beloved girls who, as he wrote, were ‘free to criticise and often suggested alteration­s and additions, which I adopted’.

The comic rabbit, Bluebell, for instance, was introduced at their suggestion.

‘We were his sounding board,’ says Rosamond. ‘One night he read as

The sisters insisted none of the rabbits died

far as he’d got, and we said “Oh Daddy, read a bit more” and he said: “I can’t — I haven’t written it yet!”’

‘He believed in it,’ says Juliet. ‘I’ve never seen anyone with such belief — he absolutely knew it was a cracking book. He said it was the easiest book he ever wrote. It just poured out.’

Getting it published, though, was more difficult. The sisters have a collection of the rejection letters their father received.

When one prospectiv­e publisher said he would print it if Adams got it down to 150 pages and ditched the rabbit language (he created a language called lapine), he said ‘absolutely not’.

In the end, it was their mother (now 93, and living in a care home) who took the phone call from a small publisher called Rex Collings who specialise­d in children’s books and wanted to take on the book.

And so, in 1972, all the hard work came to fruition.

‘I don’t think we had any great expectatio­ns,’ admits Juliet, who by then was a teenager. ‘ We just thought: “Thank God someone has published it.”

‘It took ages for anything much to happen. It was a slow burn, like lighting a firework and you think it has gone out . ’

‘And then suddenly it went whoosh,’ adds Ros.

The success brought a limousine to the door to whisk Adams on a promotiona­l tour of the U.S. (first

class); there was money for school bills, a new Volvo, a better washing machine and Adams was able to leave his civil service job and become a fulltime writer.

His later novels included the risqué The Girl In A Swing, an erotic ghost story that was criticised by some.

The film of Watership Down, in 1978, a rather frightenin­g but successful animated production featuring Art Garfunkel’s song Bright Eyes, is not something that the sisters want to dwell on.

Yes, they went to the premiere and met Prince Charles and enjoyed the after-party at The Dorchester — but there has been a recent legal battle with the U.S. producer of the film over rights, which was won by the Adams family but has been a source of hurt.

‘“A film is not a book” was Dad’s famous phrase. It’s a shadow of the book, [which] is so deep, rich, satisfying and moving,’ says Juliet.

She cherishes the fan letters that continue to arrive since their father’s death. ‘I had a wonderful one when Dad died saying: “I just wanted to let you know I read this book when my parents were going through a painful divorce and it saved my life.” It was an extraordin­ary letter.’

So many elements of the novel remain relevant today — not least man’s environmen­tal impact (the destructio­n of the rabbit’s warren to make way for housing is, after all, how the story begins).

A graphic novel due to be published next year shows just how popular it remains.

‘He didn’t believe in children’s books as such,’ says Juliet. ‘He thought people were over-prescripti­ve — they have got to be this long, you must do this, that and the other.’

‘Dad always said Watership Down was a book for anyone who wants to read it,’ adds Rosamond.

But ultimately, like their father, the sisters both say that it is just a story about rabbits.

Just, as Rosamond acknowledg­es: ‘A very deep story about rabbits.’

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 ?? ?? Devoted: Richard Adams in 1972 with daughters Juliet and Rosamond and the girls (left) in 1963 pretending to be rabbits
Devoted: Richard Adams in 1972 with daughters Juliet and Rosamond and the girls (left) in 1963 pretending to be rabbits

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