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24 September 2014

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Richard Adams in younger days
Richard Adams in younger days

Interview: Richard Adams

Richard Adams is most famously known as the author of Watership Down, the world-renowned tale of the rabbits at Sandleford Warren. Now 86, the Wash Common-born former civil servant exclusively reveals some truths about the book to BBC Berkshire.

Richard Adams was born in Wash Common, just outside Newbury, in 1920. A civil servant for most of his working life, he penned Watership Down in 1972 which, after 13 rejections from publishers, became a world-renowned story that is now Penguin Books' best-selling novel of all time.

BBC Radio Berkshire's Vernon Harwood met the now 86-year-old author for an exclusive interview about his life and works, including certains 'truths' about Watership Down.

Listen to the full interview here. Both audio clips are approximately 15 minutes long so expect a few minutes downloading time. You read excerpts from the interview below.

audio Interview: Richard Adams part one >
audio Interview: Richard Adams part two >
Audio and Video links on this page require Realplayer

On life in Newbury as a boy.

"My original idea was that Big Wig after he'd fought Woundwart and driven him off, would die of his wounds but my children simply would not have it."
Richard Adams

"I had a very happy home, and a nice upbringing. We had a nice house with three acres of garden, I had all that to play in, admittedly I mostly played by myself, not having any brothers or sisters but I think that really developed my imagination.

On first discovering his knack for writing tales.

"Well I've always been a story-teller all my life, when I was at school I did everything I could to get the masters to give me a job writing short stories as part of the school work and I discovered I came top time after time after time and I discovered for writing stories."

On the genesis of Watership Down.


"I always used to tell stories off the top of my head to my two little girls whenever we had a long car journey.

"Well one day we were going to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Judi Dench in Twelfth Night. Before I said anything in particular my elder daughter, who was eight at the time, said 'Now daddy we're going on a long car journey, so we want you to while away the time by telling us a completely new story, one that we have never heard before and without any delay. Please start now!'.

"This called for spontanaiety, it had to, and I just began off the top of my head: 'Once upon a time there were two rabbits, called eh, let me see, Hazel and Fiver, and I'm going to tell you about some of their adventures'.

"What followed was really the essence of Watership Down.

On the Berkshire countryside.

Watership Down
Watership Down

"If you've read Watership Down I'm sure you'll realise it's entirely based in the English countryside and you can almost say that the English countryside was another character in the book. No opportunities lost in describing the beauty of the Berkshire countryside.

"The route which the rabbits took in the story, it's all quite real, it's all there for anyone to see. In fact several people have actually amused themselves by walking the route of the rabbits from south of Newbury up to Watership Down.

On a possible alternative ending.

"My original idea was that Big Wig after he'd fought (General) Woundwart and driven him off, would die of his wounds but my children simply would not have it. They said 'no daddy Big Wig is not to die, he should be badly wounded but he's not to die.

"And I didn't dare actually to make him die after what my children had said. They had quite a lot to do with making up the story."

On the release of the the animated film version released in 1978 and directed by Martin Rosen. People were shocked because it started as a children story but it deals with adult themes such as death.

"Well I've always said that Watership Down is not a book for children. I say: it's a book, and anyone who wants to read it can read it. And I've had fan letters not only from kids who can hardly hold a pencil but the oldest one came from a man aged 85 who said how much he enjoyed the book."

Harry Potter deals with witches and warlocks and wizards and thus is accused of being anti-Christian. There's also been criticism of Watership Down about whether it has Christian symbolism or anti-Christian symbolisms.


"Well, I don't think there's any pro or anti-society in Watership Down, it's simply a tale. If I tell a tale there has to be some baddies as well as some goodies and there are several baddies in Watership Down. It's only a made-up story, it's in no sense an allegory or parable or any kind of political myth. I simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls.

So you can put to bed once and for all after 30-odd years of debate that you weren't out to parody or parallel any religious concepts in Watership Down?

Watership Down, the animated film
Watership Down, the animated film

"Nothing like that at all. Of course it's true in Watership Down that rabbits have their own religion.

"They don't worship but they believe passionately in El-ahrairah, their sort of Robin Hood, they tell stories about El-ahrairah and there are lots of El-ahrairah stories included in Watership Down.

"In Dickens' Pickwick Papers there are stories let into the action and the purpose of these are merely as a relief from the comedy. But the let-in tales, by way of contrast, are usually rather grim and tough. Well this idea was copied by Adams from Dickens, and it's just the other way around.

"In Watership Down as you know there are a lot of pretty grim things happening in the course of the real story and the let-in stories are meant as a relief from the main story by making people roar with laughter. They continue to be funny, I still think they're funny (chuckles)."

On his reaction to the film.

"All I can say really is that the chap who did it, Martin Rosen, has always been a good friend of mine and I think he's made a very good job of it in as much as the public go and see it time after time.

Watership Down
Watership Down

"But all I can say is, it's not my rabbits. I don't think I can develop that very well, but if you read Watership Down and then have a look at the film you'll realise immediately that those are not the rabbits in the book.

And finally, despite publishing 16 books, including a just-published story on slavery called Daniel, will there be any books he writes that can equal Watership Down?

"You can't expect another miracle like Watership Down. One's enough for any lifetime!"

last updated: 23/06/08
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victoria vaughan
watership down is good filmand book is good

I first read Watership Down when i was 11 years old at school in Overton back in 1978. The areas described in the book were known to me and made it even more real. Like Jade's comments below, i have revisited the book years latter. 30 years latter to be precise. i read it with my 11 year old twin daughters and we all cried at the end. Thank you John Adams."...the first primroses were beginning to bloom." - how very true.

Erica Choe
Thank you for this article. I've always loved the book, Watership Down and have found a newfound curiosity about the author. Thank you again for letting us read about the origin of the story and the possible alternative ending for Big Wig. Yay to his little girls who stopped him from dying! I would have been heartbroken to the point of no return if poor Big Wig would have died.

I love Watership Down. When I was little I watched it time and time again, and revisited it yesterday. Being ten years older now, (15, not 5!) I realised a lot of the film was very violent and dealt with tough issues. I used up a whole box of tissues and was very sad afterwards. It is one of those love/hate films! Very good though, and I'll read the book and see how that compares!

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