From Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to living in a Transit van: Heather Ripley, 60, reveals how starring in one of Britain’s most beloved musicals as a child led to loneliness, PTSD and years of therapy before she ‘dropped out of society’
- Heather Ripley, 60, was child star Jemima Potts in film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
- Reinvented herself as eco-warrior, peace campaigner and anti-roads protester
- Now a grandmother, Heather has found her home in converted Ford Transit van
Heather Ripley is giving a guided tour of her new ‘home’, reeling off what needs to be done before she can move in.
‘I plan to have a base for a bed put in here and that door over there needs some attention,’ she purrs in her soft Scots brogue.
‘Then I’m going to use this material to insulate the roof and make it warm and comfortable year-round. There’s probably another two weeks of welding and other work still needed before it’s ready to go.’
On the road again: Heather and her white Ford Transit van ‘home’. Her life will be forever linked to movie history’s famous flying car whether she likes it or not — and mostly she does not
It is fair to say that most people don’t choose to have the doors to their house welded shut in order to make it habitable. But then, most people don’t choose to live in a converted Ford Transit van.
If it sounds like the sort of hare-brained scheme that could have sprung straight from the mind of Caractacus Potts, the eccentric inventor of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, then there is a certain delicious symmetry in that.
Ripley may have turned 60 now but her elfin features — delicate bone structure and the clearest green eyes — still exude the same mischievous defiance that made her a child star as Jemima Potts in one of the best-loved musical films of all time.
Heather Ripley as child star as Jemima Potts in one of the best-loved musical films of all time – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Her life will be forever linked to movie history’s famous flying car whether she likes it or not — and mostly she does not.
While the rest of us sing along to repeated screenings of a timeless children’s classic movie, Heather has rarely felt the feelgood factor from her finest — and, so far, only — celluloid moment.
So keen has she been to shun publicity since Chitty’s release in 1968, few people apart from film buffs ever remember that young Jemima, with her plummy English vowels, was actually played by a Scot.
Sally Ann Howes as Truly Scrumptious, Caractacus Potts played by Dick Van Dyke, Heather Ripley as Jemima Potts and Jeremy Potts played by Adrian Hall in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Fewer still could have imagined how her own life would turn out and how much of it she would blame on her brief flirtation with stardom.
From presenting flowers to the Queen at the film’s premiere at London’s Odeon Leicester Square on December 16, 1968, she would eventually drop out of society and reinvent herself as an eco-warrior, peace campaigner and anti-roads protester.
At one point she lived rough for six months in a ‘bender’ (a shelter made from branches and tarpaulin) to try to stop the building of the Newbury bypass.
Another time, she was arrested after lying down in the road and blocking traffic at the Faslane nuclear submarine base on the River Clyde in Scotland and spent 15 hours in a police cell.
Now a grandmother, she insists such wildness is behind her, having long since re-trained as a massage therapist based at the Findhorn Foundation, the spiritual community on the Moray Firth which has offered a haven for so many of life’s untamed souls.
Yet when we meet nearby, she has plans for a new adventure that sounds even madder: living partly in her newly modified white van and partly in a tent among a hippy community on a Tenerife beach.
‘I’m a hippy and proud of it,’ she laughs, a smile as rare as a comet flashing across her weather-beaten features and illuminating those piercing green eyes.
Quite where this yearning for an alternative lifestyle comes from is unclear but what is certain is the lasting impact her one foray into film had on her formative years.
‘I never liked fame,’ she says. ‘I don’t understand what kids’ big thing is about wanting to be famous. It just means you have no privacy and you are constantly being asked the same questions.
‘I do regret being in that film. I regret the effect it had on my mental health.
Caractacus Potts played by Dick Van Dyke, (centre) Heather Ripley as Jemima Potts and Jeremy Potts played by Adrian Hall in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
‘I felt overwhelmed by the amount of attention I got after the film came out. I had photographers trying to snap me in the school playground and follow me down the street.
‘This was after working for 14 months solidly on the film when I was so lonely. I had no friends apart from Adrian [Hall, who played her screen brother Jeremy Potts] and he would usually go home after filming each day.’
After years of therapy and counselling, she describes herself as a survivor of post-traumatic stress, adding: ‘I was only eight at the time. I was away from most of my family and all my friends for more than a year and felt completely isolated. It’s not good for any child.’
It’s strange to think that a sugar-sweet Hollywood film about happy families should have masked the dark domestic dramas engulfing its young starlet. An only child, Heather came from a well-to-do family. Her father Francis ran an optician’s and they would go skiing in winter and spend summers driving round France.
She was plucked from obscurity when she stood in for a sick cast member at Dundee Rep Theatre, where her mother Nanette was wardrobe mistress.
Ripley may have turned 60 now but her elfin features — delicate bone structure and the clearest green eyes — still exude the same mischievous defiance that made her a child star as Jemima Potts
Her performance was spotted by a talent scout, who sent a note south to casting agents who were looking for confident youngsters for a new film based on a children’s novel by 007 author Ian Fleming.
Six months before filming began, Ripley and her family went to London for a screen test with producer Cubby Broccoli and director Ken Hughes. She said: ‘The first question he asked was, “How old are you?”, and I said, “Seven and three-quarters!” They just fell about laughing.
‘Ken almost immediately said: “I think we’ve found Jemima, but what are we going to do about the Scots accent?”
‘Cubby said: “Oh don’t worry, we’ll fix that.” I was worried they meant brain surgery.’
What they actually meant was elocution lessons, provided initially by a woman called Paddy O’Neill, a friend of her mother, who just happened to be having an affair with Heather’s father.
‘The affair started before the film — but what better reason did my father need to see her than he was taking me to elocution lessons? Everybody in their social circle knew about it and just kept their mouths shut; that was what really hurt my mother.’
The cat was out of the bag when her father suffered a heart attack during filming. ‘We immediately jumped on a sleeper train to Dundee and went straight to the hospital, only for my mum to be told that “Mrs Ripley” was already in with him. After the divorce, they did get married but I never got on with my stepmother.’
Having idolised her father, she found it impossible to blame him for breaking up the family. ‘I was a real daddy’s girl. He was a good dad, too, apart from that. He doted on me.’
Instead, she blamed herself — and the film: ‘That was easy, because it was my fault that we were away doing the film.’ She remembers the film as 99 per cent boredom and one per cent fun, usually involving Dick Van Dyke and the evil Child Catcher himself, the late Sir Robert Helpmann.
‘I adored Robert. He was really friendly and an incredibly good mimic. He would impersonate everyone on set.
‘Adrian used to watch him put his make-up on and off in fascination, so Robert used to give him his old noses. He got a new nose every day of filming so Adrian ended up with this box of Robert’s old noses.’
She was also fascinated by the fakery employed by the prop makers, including making the sandcastles in the beach scenes out of concrete, so they wouldn’t keep washing away.
‘And the car, of course, never really flew. Most of the flying scenes were filmed with Chitty stuck on top of a bendy pole. Weeks of filming spent stuck up a pole. That was the reality.’
Returning to her private school in Dundee proved an alienating experience. Fellow pupils often teased her, singing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or mimicking the English voice she’d had to adopt for her role. She hated the attention.
What helped was her mother remarrying teacher-turned-actor David Glaisyer and she moved, aged 11, to Dublin and a new school where nobody knew her. Three years later, the family — which now included three step-siblings — moved again to the Cotswolds to work in her stepfather’s family art dealership.
At the time, Heather wept bitterly at having to give up new-found friendships.
Aged 16, Heather ran away to London in the hope of securing acting or modelling work but, crushingly, no one was interested. Instead, she survived by waitressing and working as a chambermaid. Her fee for Chitty, after ten years’ investment, was worth just £7,500 when she received it at 18.
Disillusioned and broke, she decided to train as an optician before returning to Scotland to work for her father’s business. It was here that she met the man who was to be the father of her children, William Hall, a labourer and oil-rig worker.
‘In the beginning we were very happy. But then, when I was 24 and pregnant with Cosmo, my Dad died from a heart attack.
‘He was only 53 and I hadn’t yet told him that I was expecting his first grandchild. I was devastated. Then my stepmother sacked me and sold the optician’s business. I was left with nothing and had to contest the will. I was awarded around £7,000.’
After ten years living in a tenement flat with their two children, with Heather reduced to taking cleaning jobs and William labouring, she bolted again — this time with the children in a gipsy caravan.
‘I felt very trapped when I had kids and that was when I first moved into a caravan in Logierait, Perthshire, after deciding living in a concrete box just wasn’t my thing. The kids were only about two and five — really young.’
Increasingly drawn to alternative, spiritual, New Age philosophies, she arrived at Findhorn in her early 30s, where she developed a passion for saving the environment, travelling the country seeking out peace camps and protest sites.
Not long after being photographed trying to throw himself on to a mechanical digger at the Newbury protests in 1997, Cosmo, then aged 12, asked his mother if he could go back to live with his father. Her daughter, Josie, lasted until she was 11 before heading back to the family home.
‘I do feel guilty about it,’ says Heather. ‘Looking back, the kids have completely opposite views. My son was absolutely OK with it — he thinks it was great — but my daughter is a lot more sensible. She did not appreciate it at all. I don’t think she’s ever going to forgive me.’
Heather had a brief role in a short film called The Interview screened at 2004’s Edinburgh Film Festival and helps film the foundation’s occasional live-streaming events.
Recently, she lent her voice to a short animation by amateurs from the Scottish Borders. She phoned in her performance — all two lines of dialogue.
She has no desire to watch the finished product, Lavatory Of Terror, saying: ‘I did it purely for the money.’
She attends the odd film convention where she can command £15 for an autograph, and was even guest of honour at the Broadway premiere of Chitty in 2005.
Heather has long since made her peace with her mother who, at the age of 87, is celebrating 50 years of happy marriage.
When she heads out to Tenerife, she will be reunited with her son who has wholly embraced the alternative lifestyle and even discovered the tented hippy community with whom his mother plans to lodge.
Her relationship with her daughter, who studied retail manage-ment and is the mother of her ten-year-old grandson, is more fraught. ‘We have similar temperaments and tend to speak our minds. She has always wanted a more settled life than I could offer. I help out with the Findhorn Foundation but I don’t consider myself a community person. I’m a loner.’
She has no partner and is not interested in having one. ‘Being an only child and having that experience on Chitty was good training.’ Perhaps, the back of an old Transit van is as much settling down as Jemima Potts can handle.
‘It was lovely to meet you,’ she says with a note of relief that the ordeal might be over. And she climbs aboard her new, rather shabby four-fendered friend and heads off into the Moray sun, the noisy chugga-chugga of the van’s motor receding into the distance.
All that was missing was that familiar, final ‘bang, bang’.
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