‘Swallows and Amazons’ the screenplay of the 1973 film, adapted from Arthur Ransome’s book by David Wood

The screenplay~

Arthur Ransome’s book was adapted for the big screen by David Wood.  The first time I saw this script was early in 2011 when my mother pulled it from the back of a wardrobe. It’s really only now that I fully appreciate how beautifully it was crafted.

The opening scenes ~

Talking to the engine driver at the Haverthwaite Railway Station on the first day of filming 'Swallows and Amazons' in 1973 (Photo: Daphne Neville)
Talking to the engine driver at the Haverthwaite Railway Station on the first day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The film opens with a shot of a steam train passing through Cumbria. This does not feature in the book but was a powerful first image and good way of introducing the Walker family, setting the period and the very Englishness of travelling up to the Lake District for the summer holidays. It was a wonder that this was possible; The Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway , with it’s restored steam train, had only been open and running for two weeks ~ on 2nd May 1973 to be precise. It was a private concern run by a bunch of enthusiasts on the old Furness Railway branch line. The engine was a Fairburn 2-6-4 tank locomotive of 84 tons, of approximately 1930s vintage, standard gauge and coloured black-berry black

Swallows Script page 1
The original screenplay of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adapted from Arthur Ransome’s immortal book by David Wood in 1973

~ The crossings out were made by my mother, in the tradition of marking a scene that has been recorded ~

Swallows Script page 2
The original screenplay of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adapted by David Wood for Theatre Projects in 1973

What I never knew until I read the third scene today was that we added quite a bit of dialogue. I can’t remember if it was improvised or given to me by Claude but I said quite a bit more than was scripted, and recoded the fact in my diary.

notes to the text ~ Mrs Price was the lady who owned and ran our guest house. Our tutor, Margaret Causey, taught us in a converted red London double decker bus.
Swallows Diary 14th May page two
I took note of my dialogue in the pages of my diary. Here it was supplementary to the script

Swallows Diary 14th May page three

The railway carriage ~

Claude Whatham was keen to shoot the film in ‘story order’ as much as possible as he thought this would be easiest for us to comprehend. INT.RAILWAY CARRIAGE. DAY was, however, a difficult scene to execute. Once the railway carriage contained movie lights, the director, a huge 35mm Panavision camera, the cameraman and assistant, with microphones and an assistant sound recordist there wasn’t any room for me.  When it came round to the shots of me I had to give my lines to imaginary family members. They were no longer there – the camera had taken their place. It also got extremely hot.

Virginia McKenna, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennett and Sophie Neville at the Haverwaite Railway Station in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Story order ~

I look back on all this now and feel our opening performances, so vital to capture the audiences attention, were understandably rather wooden. Later on, when I was directing films that featured children I tried to schedule unimportant, ‘running around scenes’, which were easy for them, so that they could get used to working with the crew before tight close-ups were required.  I found that even six year-olds were unfazed by recording scenes out of story order, in fact they were probably less disorientated than the adults.

Continuity ~

With Virginia McKenna’s magazine, our picnic and Susan’s tapestry the matter of continuity in this scene was important. We greatly enjoyed learning about this technicality, so vital if the shots that make up the scene are to cut together smoothly. Numerous Polaroid shots were involved, which was exciting as these cameras had not been around for long and we enjoyed watching the photographs develop.  We did our best to be helpful and keep an eye on the picnic, but somehow it all went wrong. The continuity in this opening scene is out. This probably because Sue Merry, the Continuity Girl could not get in –  into the railway carriage, that is. There was simply no room for her.

You can read more here:

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

10 thoughts on “‘Swallows and Amazons’ the screenplay of the 1973 film, adapted from Arthur Ransome’s book by David Wood”

  1. How wonderful to read all of your memories – thank you for sharing so much about the film and your experiences of making it. We are in Ambleside on holiday with our two children, both of whom adore the 1974 film – and we watched it again last night.

    1. I am so glad you have enjoyed reading about filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’. It is wonderful to hear you are in Ambleside. I hope you have time to look for some of our locations. You will only find Bowness on Windermere – but you can ride on the Haverthwaite and Lakeside Railway just as we did. Our carriage was in a siding when I was last there. Many of our best locations were up on Derwent Water, others you will find on Coniston Water. You must visit Bank Ground Farm – Holly Howe. Please send them my love. Let me know how you get on and if you have any questions!

  2. Improvisation, in speech or on a musical instrument, is a great art. I was once taken (at age 11yrs!) to see the famous comedian Max Miller and I remember being told that actors of the calibre of Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Alec Guiness, et al., would go to see his performances to learn timing and, from his inter-actions with the audience, improvisation.

    1. I made three documentaries using improvised drama to illustrate issues. These worked well, but it could be difficult to shape the story. I found children had a good feel for it. Adult actors tended to give too much and go on for too long!

      1. Perhaps children are better at improvising because they are at an age where they ‘improvise’ during play.; whereas adults have possibly forgotten how to do it. Max Miller was famous for this ability which is presumably why the likes of Olivier, etc. went to watch him.

        1. Mike Leigh became famous for directing improvised drama. I had a go on a Studio Director’s course. It was great fun and worked well when I gave the actors the task of erecting a tent. You need to prepare a twist to end the story.

            1. It’s exciting to make as you have no idea what will happen next. You need to work out how to make it interesting though. It’s important the director has story-telling skills.

              1. Yes, I can see that. And someone like yourself, who writes fiction, would be ideal. If you ever hold a workshop please let me know; I’ll be there!

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