My mother and I reached Ambleside in the Lake District in what must have been Mum’s Renault 5. I know it was packed to the gills. We found the Oaklands Guest House, a solid stone Edwadian house that the film company had booked us into, along with the other children in the cast.
The cast ~A striking girl called Kit Seymour, who came from London, was playing Nancy Blackett, ‘Captain of the Amazon and terror of the seas.’ Her sister, Peggy Blackett, was played by Lesley Bennett. Simon West, who was playing my brother John Walker, came from Abingdon. He held a National Optimist title and was an excellent sailor. Suzanna Hamilton, who came from Islington where she went to Anna Scher’s theatre group, took the role of the very practical Susan. The part of our younger brother Roger had been given to Sten Grendon, who had played the young Laurie Lee in the BBC Play Cider with Rosie, which I had also been in. He came up from Gloucestershire with his mother Jane, who was to chaperone us with Mum.
The director ~As my diary relates, were were taken for tea at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel to meet Claude Whatham, who was directing the movie. He was a small man, habitually clad in jeans, with a denim jacket. He seemed young and trendy for an adult. Sten and I had worked for him two years previously on Cider with Rosie and the others already knew him from the weekend sailing audition. Claude had just finished making his first feature film, That’ll be the Day, starring David Essex and Ringo Star. He went on to become a revered and prolific director with a long list of credits including the TV mini-series Disreali, Play for Today, Tales of the Unexpected, C.A.T.S. Eyes and the adaptation of Mary Wesley’s book Jumping the Queue. Mum took me to Yorkshire to watch him making the moive of James Herriots’ vet story All Creatures Great and Small, starring Anthony Hopkins and Simon Ward. He went on to make the feature films Hoodwink (for which he was nominated for an AFI Award), Murder Made Easy and Buddy’s Song, but for all that, Cider with Rosie (for which he received a BAFTA Nomination) and Swallows and Amazons remain his best known works, with terrific DVD sales. Somehow they never felt dated.
I can only think that we were thrilled to hear that we would not be learning lines, never realising it was Claude’s key to gaining natural performances out of us. His other secret was that he never allowed us to see the ‘rushes’ – film that had just been recored – as he thought it might make us self concious. I learnt later in life that he was quite right. We were also encouraged to start using our character names, which is something we enjoyed. I knew from my parents that Claude had wanted to cast children who didn’t go to stage schools. I think he chose us for our spiritedness as much as anything else.
The producer had been keen that we could all sail and swim well and Claude looked for children who were members of sailing clubs. I don’t think he realised until we were out on the lakes in gusty weather how deeply he valued the confidence in sailing dinghies held by the children playing John and Nancy. They were so good that there were times when they told him what to do. That amused him.
One thing that amused me intensly was watching the large colour television at the hotel. I’m not sure if I had seen one before. They were hugely expensive in 1973 and considered a great luxury. The set, which had a wooden veneer, stood on legs and showed all three channels – BBC One, BBC Two and ITV. We all thought it was amazing. That dates me and the period, doesn’t it?