Category Archives: Sophie Neville

The secrets of filming ‘Arthur of the Britons’ in 1972

I have promised to write more about my experiences behind-the-scenes in film and television for some time now. There is one series in particular that still has a strong following. 

Dressing up in medieval garb as children

Dressing up in medieval garb as children at Sudley Castle in about 1970

As children in 1971, we were all excited to hear that HTV was planning to film a series about King Arthur near where we lived in Gloucestershire. We were keen on dressing up and I was already interested in medieval history.

Filming 'King Arthur and the Spaceship'

The Arthurian legend had always been portrayed with ladies in pointy conical hats and knights in chain mail riding around with lances, however expectations of turreted castles were soon to be dashed.

Instead, we woke up one morning to find this tent in the field beyond our house, with a full English breakfast being served by location caterers from the back of a two-tone bus. The final scenes of Episode One of the series Arthur of the Britons, entitled Arthur is Dead, starring Oliver Tobias in the title role, was to be filmed on our farm.

A unit base for HTV's drama serial 'Arthur of the Britons' in 1972

The unit base for HTV’s drama serial ‘Arthur of the Britons’ being shot on our farm in the Cotswolds in 1972

We learnt that the drama series, Arthur of the Britions was to be quite different from traditional renditions of the well-loved stories. Apart from anything else the actors had long hair and wore rough hessian garments or sheepskins to reflect the culture of Iron Age England. Everyone was excited about the idea, which seemed more authentic and certainly held more sex-appeal than the Hollywood idyl lodged in our consciousness.

While the lane below the wood that ran along the sides of our valley was closed to traffic, HTV ran cables and moved in with their lights, camera equipment and props amounting to bundles of swords, spears, shields and other weaponry.

Filming 'Arthur of the Britons' on our farm

Here you can see the Gulliver’s Prop lorry as well as costume and make-up artists with their kit-bags attending to the actors and supporting artistes. Please remind me of the name of the character to the left of shot and who played him.

Filming 'Arthur of the Britons' on our farm2

It must have been dark under the trees, as there would have been have been  a large 2K light on this tripod. The crew  set up carefully and were finally ready to go for a take, recording the battle in the woods on 16mm.

Filming 'Arthur of the Britons' on our farm1

After a short skirmish, Arthur pretends to retreat, leading his men downhill. They are soon followed by the Saxon hordes. The reality was that the wood was much steeper than it came across on television. The actors ended up tumbling down the bank.

The actors come leaping out of the wood

We were waiting in the open field in the valley floor. Although naturally marshy, this had been made much wetter by damming the stream that flowed down from the woods. Our local road engineer Percy Baxter dug pits that filled with water and acted as a trap for the Saxons who did not know the secret way through the marshes.

Filming 'Arthur of the Britons' on our farm6

My sisters and our sheepdog with Percy Baxter who dug great holes in the field before allowing them to fill up with spring water. Members of the crew work beyond.

We knew the ledgend and were fascinated to see how the sequence would come together.

Filming 'Arthur of the Britons' on our farm5

As the scene was difficult to replicate it was shot with two cameras, seen here set on wooden tripods. The result was exciting.

Filming Arthur of the Britons

For photos of the location on the Arthur of the Britons website please click here.

Scroll to 19.50 towards the end of the episode to watch the scene here on Youtube:


Filed under Acting, Biography, Film, Film Catering, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, truelife story, Uncategorized, Vintage Film

Farewell, Adieu and Thank you

Sophie Neville 2015

I wanted to thank all those who have sent letters and emails about ‘The Secrets of Making Swallows & Amazons’. These have come in from around the world. Many people have taken the time and trouble to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads, which is hugely appreciated.

Ha Ha - The Amazon Pirates

I have been asked to write about other classic dramas I’ve been involved with but before I move on, I thought I could post some of the feedback and comments that have come in:

Titty is wonderful

‘It’s my favourite book!’ a little girl said on spotting ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’ on sale at Brantwood

‘It’s wonderful! (almost as great as reading the original book) Carl – USA

Blu-ray Rio scene

“Thank you” for writing that marvellous book, “Secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons”.  I purchased it on my Kindle from Amazon thinking it would be my “summer holiday” read – but was truly unable to put it down so it only lasted a day or so!  As a devoted Arthur Ransome fan (and proud dad to two daughters – 13 and 10 – who love the books and film also) your words really brought the film to life.  Such wonderful stories in the book.  How I wish that Claude had also made ‘Pigeon Post’ with the same cast! There are few films (and books) that evoke childhood in this way. ‘Swallows & Amazons’ will always take me back to being ten years old, and your film was one of the truly rare occasions when a film adaptation did justice to the book.  I guess it’s because everyone involved truly loved the story – it shows. Thank you again for sharing those few weeks in 1973.’  Paul – To read his review please click here
Blu-ray buying grog
‘…I loved the movie when I was young.  I only saw it once but was given the LP by my Godmother and played it — on my parents’ radiogram —  until I knew it by heart.  When I took my own children to see the movie (in the Aldeburgh Cinema a few years ago) I was still word perfect, much to their embarrassment!  We now have the DVD and it was the movie of choice for my children a couple of summers ago so they are now pretty word perfect too!  It’s great that the old film is going to be re-released at the same time as the new is coming out, though we are looking forward to that too.’ Lucy

swa_co_tra_ 005


I’ve just read this delightful ebook – thank you so much for writing it! …Many thanks again for giving me such a delightful film to immerse myself in as a child.’ Helena

I have just finished reading ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’. Apart from your wonderful narrative, what a task you undertook, I especially enjoyed reading all the amazing credits you’d researched on the film makers! John

Here is the original film trailer:


Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Biography, British Film, Cinema, family Entertainment, Film, Film History, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, titty, truelife story, Uncategorized, Virginia McKenna, Zanna Hamilton

A new magazine for sailors

Classic Sailor cover

I’ve just had an article published in a fabulous new magazine for all those who love classic boats and traditional craft. The balotina Nicoletta, a ceremonial gondola, pictured below, must be one of the most elegant on the River Thames.

Classic Sailor magazine

I am rowing at No 4 in this photograph of the Drapers’ shallop Royal Thamesis taken by Peter King. the shots of the Gloriana are my own:

Classic Sailor magazine p.33

There is lots more to read in the magazine including a story from Roger Barnes about taking his dinghy to a sail-and-oar challenge in France, as well as news of Thames barges on the east coast.

Sophie Neville with the flotilla

Classic Sailor are eager to hear from readers about what kind of articles they’d like included. If anyone can send me a book review or perhaps a piece on sailing films, I could forward it to the editor.

Old Father Thames on the stern of the Drapers Shallop

To read more about the event and see wonderful photographs, please click here


Comments from readers are flooding in:

‘I really enjoyed your article and photos.’ Richard
‘This is a really nice article you have written – well done!  It is a fitting tribute to such a memorable day…’ Edwina
‘..where were the BBC TV on the day?’ Juliet
‘Standing rowing is, for me, the best way to travel in the canals and rivers of Britain. Out at sea in the waves, clearly, sitting rowing has a place. But I like seeing where I’m going.’ Peter
‘ (the gondola) from the Tudor/16th Cent period or earlier? Kenny
‘ excellent article… the “sandalo in the background” is my sandalo Piero with its crew of Tony Meadows, three delightful ladies from Venice and yours truly.  One of my prouder moments although I have never concentrated so hard in my effort to keep in formation. Fortunately Tim Williams kept Nicoletta on an impeccable course making it easier for the rest of us.’ John Sykes
‘Enjoyed your article in Classical Sailor,’ Ted
City Barge - Maltese boat

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Filed under Autobiography, boating, Sophie Neville, truelife story

Back by popular demand

This autumn, the Nancy Blackett Trust presented another  screening of the classic film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ at the Riverside  in Woodbridge.  The cinema was celebrating 100 years of film and were thrilled to welcome a large and enthusiastic audience of children and Arthur Ransome enthusiasts one of whom told us he saw the film in Shaftesbury Avenue when it first came out in 1974.


Swallow, the original dinghy used in the film was on display outside the cinema and I went along to answer questions about how the movie was made. Here are some of those asked by children in the audience:

Had you ever been on a boat before you started filming? Yes, my father was a great sailor and I’d crewed for him. As Titty, I had to row quite a bit – back from the charcoal burners, later when I captured Amazon and alongside Roger when we went to find the treasure on Cormorant Island.

How did you do the night time? We used Mrs Batty’s barn at Bank Ground Farm as a studio.

Which lake did you film on? Arthur Ransome wrote about an imaginary lake based on real places that we found on Windermere, Coniston Water, Derwentwater, Elterwater and a smelly lilly pond. the great thing is that you can go and find them too.

Sophie Neville at the Riverside Q&A

Did you enjoy filming? Yes, very much, but it could be chilly.
How long did it take to film? Forty-five days in all. It’s a 90 minute film so you can work out just how much we managed to film per day. It was well under the 4 minutes-a-day scheduled.
Did Titty actually keep the parrot? Titty did in the story but the parrot in the film was rather savage and had to be returned to Mrs Proctor of Kendal. However my parents bought a very tame green parrot called Chico who would sit on my shoulder, even when I went rowing.
Were you cold when you we filming the swimming scenes? Yes!  We nearly passed out.

Sophie Neville at the Riverside cinema

Why didn’t you wear life jackets? The film was set eighty-six years ago in 1929 when children didn’t wear life-jackets. We wore BOAC life-vests during rehearsals and when being taken out to the location.
What are the children doing now? Working! Suzanna Hamilton is the only one of us to kept acting. She’s appeared in two feature films this year including ‘My Feral Heart’. Simon West has an engineering company that invents machines, Sten Grendon is a gardener, Kit Seymour is spending this year in Australia and I believe Lesley Bennett lives in the Netherlands, but I’m not sure. I’d love to make contact with her. Virginia McKenna is still acting as well as figure-heading her charity Born Free that does so much to relieve the suffering of animals.
In reality, how old were you all when you acted? Roger was 8, I was aged 12 pretending to be aged 9, Susan was 12 and John 11. Nancy was about the right age as she celebrated her 13th birthday towards the end of the filming. The secret was that Peggy was the eldest at 13.
Do you have a cameo role in the new film? You might just see me on the platform of the railway station but I am wearing a wig!
Why is Swallow’s flag brown? Because it a little elderly.

Sophie Neville at the Riverside cinema Woodbridge

The camping kit – was it all packed in Swallow? We children didn’t know it at the time but it didn’t all fit in, although they did keep taking the tents down. Why we had a rolling pin on board, I do not know.
What happened to AmazonThe Amazon Arthur Ransome knew, which was originally called Mavis, can be seen at the Coniston Museum. The dinghy we used in the film was also used in the black and white BBC TV serial made in 1962. She is now in Kent – and still sailing. You can see her on ‘Country Tracks’ by clicking here.

Sophie Neville at the Riverside cinema Q&A

After the film screening, I was told that students on the Open University Children’s Literature course with study Arthur Ransome’s classic book ‘Swallows and Amazons’, which is good news, especially since the BBC News headline rang out the question: Do children still need to read the classics of English Literature? Declaring, ‘Gone from bedroom bookshelves are the Famous Five, The Chronicles of Narnia,and the adventures of the Swallows and Amazons.’

Is this true? Do leave your comments below – or contact the BBC!

Martine Artist Claudia Myatt at the Riverside Cinema

The marine artist Claudia Myatt with Swallow outside the Riverside in Woodbridge. You can see her website here

Photos by Charmain S Berry for the Riverside


Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, boating, British Film, charity, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Dinghy sailing, Emi film, family Entertainment, Family Film, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, questions about filmmaking, Richard Pilbrow, sailing film, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, titty, truelife story, Vintage Film, Virginia McKenna, Zanna Hamilton

Were there any disasters? and other questions asked about making the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1974

On Saturday 26th September at 3.00pm the original film of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was screened at the Riverside cinema in Woodbridge, Suffolk as part of their celebration of ‘100 Years of Film’.

I was on stage to answer questions about how we made the film after the screening.  Swallow, the dinghy we used on the movie was rigged up outside the cinema and admired by many.

Q&A title on screen

Back in April, I was invited to a similar screening of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) also held to raise funds for the up-keep of Arthur Ransome’s yacht Nancy Blackett. As the film ended I was invited up on stage to answer questions about how it was made. Marc Grimston sent a list of these, so I could answer them here for those unable to get cinema seats.

As a child were you like Titty? In 1973, I was aged twelve and at five-foot two, was really too old and too tall for the role of Titty but it was easy enough to pretend to be nine years old. I was on-screen a great deal so it probably a good thing that I was old enough to cope with long filming days. I thought I was much more like Mate Susan but perhaps that made it easier for me to play Titty.

How many tried for the role of Titty? About 1,800 children originally auditioned for the six parts in ‘Swallows & Amazons’. Claude Whatham, the director, wrote inviting me to an interview. In the end there were five girls up for the part of Titty. You can read more about the final audition here.

Q&A at Cinema Screening

Sophie Neville on stage with Peter Willis, President of the Nancy Blackett Trust

Had you read the books before? I had read most of the books in the series and loved them, so it was very easy to take on the part. We never had to sit down and learn lines because we knew what to say from reading the book.

Q&A to packed house

Sophie Neville  taking about Swallows & Amazons

Were they any disasters during filming? Swallow’s mast broke!

How did you stay safe with the snake? It was a real adder, but quite a tame one. I think they lowered its metabolism by keeping it cool.

How did they make the lion noises? It was a recording of a real lion.

How did you capture their boat? In one take!

How did they film the night scenes? We shot many of them inside Mrs Batty’s barn.

Q&A ar Riverside Screening

Sophie Neville with Swallow’s flag

When you filmed the approach to the houseboat it seamed as if Amazon was coming in fast, was she? Yes, she hit it quite hard!

How long did it take to film? Forty five days! We were up in the Lake District for about seven weeks.

Do you still have the parrot? I don’t. The green parrot belonged to Mrs Proctor of Kendal where the residents were terrified of him.

What happened to Amazon? She is owned by a family living in Kent who love sailing her in the lakes. She was the same Amazon as used in the BBC serial of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ made in 1962, when Susan George played Titty.

Have you been back to the island? Yes! I last returned with Nick Barton who is planning a new film adaptation of ‘Swallows and Amazons’.

Are there adaptations of any other Swallows and Amazon books? Yes, in 1983 I was able to work on the BBC serialisation of ‘Coot Club and The Big Six’, starring Rosemary Leach, Colin Baker, Henry Dimbleby and Julian Fellowes as one of the Hullabaloos. It was my job to cast the children and look after them during the three weeks we spent on location, which was great fun.

Q&A at Woodbridge Screening

Click here for further details: Riverside Cinema in Woodbridge


Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, British Film, Cinema, Claude Whatham, David Wood, Emi film, family Entertainment, Family Film, Film, Film History, Film production, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie disasters, Movie stories, questions about filmmaking, Richard Pilbrow, sailing film, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Vintage Film, Virginia McKenna, Zanna Hamilton

Recent comments on ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’

‘I bought a signed copy of The Making of Swallows & Amazons and have just finished reading it. It’s a lovely, flowing read and I loved all the interesting details, especially chapters 12 to 18 in the later half of the book… I shall treasure it.’ Nigel

Blu-ray fishing scene

‘I am thoroughly enjoying reading your diary entries and hearing how life was on set etc… All the things I have always wanted to know about the film are in the book! I do hope you have lovely memories of all the locations you filmed at, especially Bank Ground Farm. Jonathan, who now owns the place and does all the farming has made my family and I very welcome indeed! (only) we can not tack up the field as they are growing it for Silage!!!! Thank you for inspiring my family and I so much! Yours sincerely, Benjamin’ (aged 10) ‘P.S. We’re off to Wild Cat Island tomorrow!’

Blu-ray Lookout tree

Simon West as Captain John by the lighthouse tree

‘All of your recollections are insightful and tinged with humour (as always). In particular the story about Mrs Batty locking out the film crew and all the Cumbrian characters that were involved in the film. I didn’t know George Pattinson appeared in the Rio scene either, and I can just imagine the giggles you must have had when watching the double-deckers playing footsie with one another!’ David.

Blu-ray Amazon Pirates

Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour as the Amazons stranded on Wild Cat Island

‘Good little book full of information and funny tales.’ Jennifer

‘This book has rekindled my interest and memories from the 70’s when I first saw the film and read all the books, so well written and very entertaining, in some ways it ll seems a long time ago but this book makes it seem like yesterday! Thoroughly recommended.’ Richard on

‘Loved your book about filming Swallows & Amazons – my favourite childhood film, very nostalgic.’ Nicola

‘Just wanted to say how much I am enjoying The Making of Swallows & Amazons. What a wonderful time you all had… I have all the books & love the film & TV series Coot Club and The Big Six, so it’s fab to read about them.’

Blu-ray John rowing swallow

Sten Grendon, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton in Swallow

If you would like to write a short book review, please click here for the link.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, British Film, Cumbria, family Entertainment, Family Film, Film History, filmography, Memoir, Sophie Neville

The facts behind the concept of a ‘Swallows & Amazons’ childhood

What strikes me about Arthur Ransome’s whole series of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books is that they are set almost exclusively outside in the open – or afloat. When we made the film in 1973 it rained so much in the Lake District that the producer must have longed for the existence of a few more interior scenes. As it was, the longest one ended up on the cutting-room floor. Is this because the essence and appeal of the stories is that they occur beyond the confines of domestic realms?

Blu-ray reading telgram

‘If not duffers, won’t drown.’ Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

When I appeared on Channel 5 last year I learnt the most depressing facts about the decline in the amount of time children spend outdoors. Recent research shows that children tend to stay indoors, watching television, playing computer games or even spend time doing homework, rather than go out to play. Kids today play outside for less than five hours a day at weekends and only for an hour or so during the week, which is half the time their parents spent outdoors, whatever the weather. You’d have thought they must have had higher levels of vitamin D. Apparently only 21% children today play outside near their homes, as compared to 71% of their own parents when they were young.

Blu-ray Swallow's stern


  • 44 % of parents wish their children played outdoors more often.
  • 54 % seriously worry their child doesn’t spend enough time playing outdoors.
  • But 43 % of parents admitted they rely on school to ensure their children are getting plenty of time outdoors through PE and play times, and spend very little outdoor time with their children themselves.
  • One study found that eight in ten parents said their favourite activities as children involved being outdoors. But only half their children lead the same active life.

Apparently parents have forgotten how to play with their kids. While nine of ten parents recognise that it is vital for children to use their imaginations, 16 per cent of parents say they have no idea how to make up stories or create imaginative play. What would Titty say?

Blu-ray X marks the spot

‘X marks the spot where they ate six missionaries!’ Simon West, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon on Peel Island in the English Lake District.

So what’s changed?

  • 32% of parents quote safety fears as the reason their children didn’t play out more often.
  • 19% said it was due to a lack of time.
  • 16% said their children would rather do other things.
  • 53% of parents were reluctance to letting children out of their sight on the danger posed by traffic
  • 40% feared their child would be snatched by a stranger.
  • Over 25% worry their neighbours would disapprove if their children played outdoors unsupervised.

 Blu-ray gutting fish

The Arthur Ransome Society have organised a number of activities for families this summer, including a camp at Cobnor Point on Chichester Harbour from Friday 14th August to Sunday 16th August. The idea is that you bring your own tent, food, drink and a boat if you have one but the cost is very low at £20 for adults and £10 for children. Activities include nature walks, archery, games, signalling and water divinging with sailing when the weather permits. The cost includes a barbeque on the Saturday evening. Please click here for details.

If you missed Dan Damon’s programme on BBC Radio 4, when I spoke on the appeal of a Swallows and Amazons childhood, you can listen to the full recording on BBC World Update by clicking here.


Filed under adventure, Arthur Ransome, British Film, Cumbria, Family Life, Lake District, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, titty