‘Swallows and Amazons’ but no life jackets

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

When Harbour Pictures, in association with BBC Films, announced at the Cannes Film Festival that they were planing to re-make Swallows and Amazons based on Arthur Ransome’s iconic book that was written in 1929, a debate broke out as to whether the characters should wear life jackets.

Ironically Sophie Neville, who played Titty in the 1974 feature film of Swallows and Amazons nearly drowned one Easter 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.’

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 

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.

Swallow on Coniston

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

You can read more about how the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was made on location here:

the-making-of-swallows-and-amazons-1974-by-sophie-neville

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

7 thoughts on “‘Swallows and Amazons’ but no life jackets”

  1. 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.

    1. 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

  2. Your incident canoeing wearing a life-jacket sounds horrific! Ver scary! I am, I’m afraid, of tet vintage that feels that ‘Health & Safety’ is sometimes over-emphasised!

    1. I’m quite strict about Health and Safety these days! It seems stupid not to use the best safety equipment available although I wouldn’t use visible life jackets in a period film. Nowadays you can get wonderful thin wetsuits that you can wear under a costume.

      1. I do understand where you are coming from and the stance about H & S that I take for myself I wouldn’t assume for anyone in my care. The thin wetsuits that are wearable under normal clothing sounds an excellent idea.

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