‘Swallows and Amazons’ but no life jackets

Sophie Neville appearing on the cover of Swallows and Amazons published by the Daily Mail1

Sophie Neville as Titty in the dinghy ‘Swallow’ with Simon West in the 1974 EMI film of Swallows and Amazons set in 1929

At The Cannes Film Festival, Harbour Pictures, in association with BBC Films, announced that they plan to re-make Swallows and Amazons based on Arthur Ransome’s iconic book that was written in 1929. As a result a debate broke out, not about whether this is a good idea, but whether the characters should wear life jackets.

Ironically Sophie Neville, who played Titty in the 1974 feature film of Swallows and Amazons nearly drowned over Easter last year because she was wearing a buoyancy aid. ‘My sister insisted I wore a big old fashioned life-jacket as an example to her children. When I capsized it trapped me inside my canoe. I’d lost my paddle and hung upside down, in the cold water, unable to get out. I was literally plugged inside and couldn’t get free.’

(for alternative photo image see  http://bit.ly/jZMn1O  image from fotolink.pl of  Steven Grendon & Sophie Neville rowing Swallow in the EMI 1974 feature film Swallows and Amazons)

The EMI film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons was made entirely on location in the Lake District 1973. ‘It can get quite gusty on Coniston Water but we never fell in,’ Sophie remembers. ‘We had a wonderful time.’

Ronald Fraser as Captain Flint with Daphne Neville and Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker on Derwentwater in 1973

Ronald Fraser as Captain Flint with Daphne Neville and Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker on Derwentwater in 1973

Ten years later the BBC made the drama series Swallows and Amazons Forever! an adaptation of Ransome’s later books Coot Club and The Big Six, which are set on the Norfolk Boards. Julian Fellows featured as a Hullabaloo, an enraged tourist driving a motor cruiser.

In both the film and television series the decision was made to be true the 1930s period in which the books are set and let characters – adults and children alike (plus pug dog), go out on the water without life vests. They carried knives, lit fires and sailed at night without lights in boats that had no buoyancy aids. Lanterns were hung in tents and arrows were fired at other children. The boys in Norfolk also rode bikes without helmets, but that is how life was led in the 1930s.  No one had safety belts in cars.  Not much safety gear had been invented. ‘You wouldn’t film Elizabeth the Golden Years with Cate Blanchett in a BHS riding hat, or Russell Crow playing Robin Hood in a jockey’s helmet. No one moans about that.  When filming Swallows and Amazons we wore life jackets when setting up shots and had a lifeguard in a zoomy rubber boat on constant stand-by when filming, but you wear period costumes in a period film and that is it.’

BW Wearing Life Jackets in the Safety Boat - trimmed

Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Sophie Neville and Sten Grendon wearing BOAC lifejackets in 1973

Sophie worked for the BBC behind the camera on the crew of Coot Club and The Big Six. She said what concerned her in Norfolk was the thought of someone getting trapped between a moored boat and the staithe wall or getting bashed when boats passed under the famously low bridges. ‘This situation won’t exist in the Lake District when Swallows and Amazons is made into a film again. They will have a wonderful – inspirational – time.’

Meanwhile if you are planning on going canoeing – sign up for a safety course first and wear the proper gear. This is the year 2015 and buoyancy aids are available…

Sophie Neville with Swallow

Sophie Neville with Swallow by Coniston Water, holding an original publicity still from the EMI feature film of Swallows and Amazons.

Photo credit: Kitty Faulkner ©Sophie Neville

4 Comments

Filed under 1973, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Cumbria, Dinghy sailing, Film, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

4 responses to “‘Swallows and Amazons’ but no life jackets

  1. Felt so hpeloess looking for answers to my questions…until now.

  2. Liane Kennedy

    Dear Ms Neville,
    We have been having such a wonderful time with Arthur Ransome and with your movie. My son is six and a half and began to mess about in boats last summer. With an active junior sailing program on the lake where we live, he will be starting lessons this summer. With regards to the issue of children seeing the movie and not wearing life jackets, I doubt there is any confusion on their part. Just as most girls would not go sailing in dresses today, it would not occur to a child in a sailing program to go out without a life jacket. My son’s only question was what has happened to the Capt Flint’s canon? My thanks for adding to the magic of my son’s learning.

    • I am so glad you are enjoying ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I will try to remember to write about what happened to the canon either in my next posting or when I reach the pages in my diary when we started to film on the houseboat on Derwent Water. You must let me have any other questions. Many thanks, Sophie

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