The greatest story my grandfather ever told
Richard Adams said it was ‘just about rabbits’ but there is more to ‘Watership Down’. By Miranda Johnson
My grandfather, Richard Adams, commonly listed as his hobbies English literature, music, chess, beer and shove-ha’penny, bird-song, folk-song and country walking. One he did not list, storytelling, was among his most wonderful. It also became his most famous. While driving to Stratford-uponAvon to see performances of Shakespeare plays, he made up tales of rabbits to delight my mother and my aunt.
Like any parent now, he sought merely to distract them on a long car journey. But the stories proved powerful. They became Watership Down, published in 1972, the tale of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and other rabbits searching for a new home. Both those who know it, and those who don’t, will be delighted by a new, two-part BBC and Netflix adaptation to be shown on television this Christmas.
As a boy, growing up near Newbury in the Twenties, my grandfather adored children’s books. Robert Louis Stevenson was among his favourite authors and Doctor Dolittle among his favourite characters. (Later in life he jokingly attributed his involvement in campaigns for animal rights to his love for Doctor Dolittle and his creatures.) Both his parents took the time to read to him, and he read in turn to his daughters. My greatgrandfather, a doctor, also inspired his youngest child to notice and appreciate the beauty of the countryside around their home. My grandfather detailed as much in his autobiography, The Day Gone By, which was published in 1990:
He later attended Horris Hill, which he described as “a school for young gentlemen” which taught “the vital importance of truth, honesty and correct behaviour”. My grandfather did not always behave entirely correctly, however. He developed a reputation as a storyteller, entertaining other boys in his dormitory even when they were all supposed to be asleep. He occasionally took a beating for it.
In a letter to his mother written in July 1929 he complains about all the “swotting” the pupils are supposed to do for a forthcoming Bible exam, and then uses much of the space underneath his signature to draw her a picture of a somewhat square-legged elephant. Animals always fascinated him.
After finishing school – he attended Bradfield College in his teenage years – my grandfather went to Worcester College, Oxford to read history. But his studies came to a halt after the outbreak of the Second World War. He reported for duty on July 13 1940 and what he saw during service in Sierra Leone, South Africa, Palestine, France, Denmark and Singapore stayed with him. Those who served by his side remained in Julia Donaldson’s mischievous dragon Zog (pictured) is tasked with catching a princess in this charming animation narrated by Lenny Henry. Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood watch as eight former Bake Off contestants bid to be festive star baker. his mind, inspiring the creation of certain characters in Watership Down decades later. One friend, Paddy Kavanagh, died defending the Oosterbeek perimeter as part of Operation Market Garden during September 1944. He held back so others could escape.
His sacrifice explains why Bigwig stands alone to
defend a tunnel in Six couples – including Caroline Flack and Ann Widdecombe – return to the ballroom to dance for the crown of Christmas Champions 2018. the rabbits’ new warren. And the grim regime at Efrafa, a rival warren, came from my grandfather’s perception of Nazi cruelty in the period.
After the war, upon completion of his degree, my grandfather decided to become a civil servant. His love of the countryside influenced his priorities as he moved from meeting to meeting, Based on David Walliams’s book, this touching comedy follows Tom’s magical escapades with five children he meets in hospital, and stars Walliams as Tom’s interfering, evil
BBC One, Christmas Day, 4.50pm Channel 4, Christmas Day, 8pm; New Year’s Eve, 7.40pm BBC One, Christmas Day, 5.30pm BBC One, Boxing Day, 7.30pm
How do animals cope with snow? Watch through hidden cameras across the world’s most beautiful winter wonderlands, with David Tennant narrating.
BBC One, Dec 30, 7pm