‘But we never touched his horrible houseboat…’ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island 30th May 1973

Peel Island on Coniston Water in the English Lake District whilst we were filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the summer of 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

An extract from the journal I kept aged twelve:

Stephen Grendon, Suzannah Hamilton and Sophie Neville on the cover of the LP of the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’

I must have lost my pen on this wet day in May 1973, for the diary on the making of the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ is written in pencil. I don’t know if Claude Whatham, the Director, ever remembered me writing but when the film ended he kindly sent me an engraved  Parker pen and propelling pencil. I loved the pen and wrote all my essays at university with it. Sadly I lost it just before my Finals but I still have the pencil. Somewhere. Although we had a late start it was a good day, a day when Claude encouraged us to improvise. The dialogue in the little scene when we were gutting fish is our own. I’ve always thought improvisation can be magical. When I started to direct at the BBC we were very conscious of the cost of film stock – the footage – so were reticient about taking chances, but I made a drama on school bullies that turned out to be very powerful, purely because I let the children improvise. The only problem was that it came across as almost too frighteningly real. I found that although short scenes always worked well, I had to write the story as a whole as I went along, which was a bit daunting. When I went on a BBC Studio Director’s Course I tried improvising a scene where a couple go camping in true Mike Leigh style. I asked the actors to erect a tent in the studio, and left them at it while I spoke to the Cameramen from the galley, as normal, via inter-com with the Vision-Mixer at my side. She also improvised.  The scene was to end with the couple going inside the tent, which then collapses on top of them. I used a dome tent of my own and I showed them just how easy it was for them to collapse it. It was quite fun, and worked surprisingly well. Up to a point. The problem was that I was working with actors and the actors, being actors, enjoyed themselves so much they didn’t want the scene to end. It nearly didn’t end at all. And I ended up with the longest studio show reel of all time. Suzanna Hamilton was very good at gutting fish. She is not a remotely squeamish person, in fact she loves snakes and other reptiles. A stoic, who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster, she is probably the most gutsy film actress there is. No fuss or over long scenes for her. I was more interested in examining the the high dorsal fin of the perch and could have spent all morning standing on the rock. I seem wired to illustrate stories. I am sure Arthur Ransome used a line drawing of one of the perch he caught. Is it in Swallows and Amazons?

Claude Whatham, the Director of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, on the shore of Coniston Water ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Claude did not shoot many ‘takes’. His aim was to get fresh performances. By this time he had started to film the rehearsal, and then one ‘take’ as a back-up, to give the Film Editor an option. Then he would change the camera angle. It is probably a good policy when filming with children – as charm is difficult to replicate. When I started to direct on Beta-cam I attempted to shoot quite long scenes on one shot by using ‘jib-arms’, small cranes or camera track to move the camera. This was all the rage in the late 1980s. I remember using one long shot for the opening scene of a comedy drama called Thinkabout Science that starred Patsy Bryne ~ she who had become known to the nation as Nursie in the BBC sitcom Blackadder . Patsy played a grandmother collecting two sisters and their friends from school. The children poured out of the front door, down some steps, met their granny and chatted to her as they skipped along the pavement. I had about 120 metres of camera track laid down the street, far more than any scene on Swallows and Amazons. We had a  rehearsal and shot the three minute scene. It worked perfectly. It was fresh and funny and active. I was all set to move the whole crew to the next location when my producer descended from the Scanner, the truck where she was watching on three monitors, to tell me that one of the Extras had waved at the camera. I should have recorded the rehearsal. It took us twelve more takes to get the scene right after that. Luckily Beta tape costs were negligible – certainly in comparison with the 35mm Technicolor stock that Claude was using. Richard Pilbrow must have been pleased to hear that we gained a reputation as ‘One take Wonders’ on Swallows. When it came to the scene when we returned to the camp to find the abrupt note from Captain Flint, Claude took me to one side and suggested I added a line of dialogue at the end when it came to the take, without letting the others know. He told me to say, ‘And he used my crayons too.’  I wish he had edited it out. I didn’t deliver the line well. I think Suzanna would have said it perfectly but the secret made me too self conscious.

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon and Sophie Neville in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ filmed on location in the English Lake District in 1973

The Amazons Attack ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island in 1973

My father said that his first impression of the film crew was, ‘What an awful mess of trucks and weird people!’  He’d just come from his office in the electronics industry where everybody wore suits and ties.  It’s true.  One of the Arthur Ransome Society members took one look at the footage Dad took of the making of Swallows and Amazons and said, ‘It looks like Woodstock.’ Woodstock on wheels. Dad couldn’t bear the notion of hanging around all day but he bought some paints with him to do what he never normally had time for while looking after us.

Painting with my father on the shore of Coniston Water ~ Martin Neville and Sophie Neville in 1973 during the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on location in Cumbria

My mother had to leave that Tuesday to spend four days at the Bath and West Show ~ a long term commitment that could not be cancelled. By this time she had been working for Harlech Television or HTV, as the station became known, for about four years. She started with the company as an ‘In Vision Announcer’, reading the News with Martyn Lewis from the studio in Cardiff, before moving on to present her own children’s programmes such as It’s Time for Me. By 1973 she was presenting a women’s afternoon programme made in Bristol called Women Only, with Jan Leeming.  No doubt they had to host the HTV stand at the Bath and West agricultural show. These are big events in rural Britain. My parents still have stands at about ten or twelve of them every year.

I have a horrible feeling that in this Woodstock-like atmosphere, where my father was probably feeling out of place, I might have taken on my mother’s role and got a little bit too bossy in the school bus. The result was a head-on attack from Sten, who must have been so offended that he not only fought me but would not let go. Perhaps this was a good sign in that we had become like a real family. Perhaps it was because the balance had been tipped by our real families turning up. Sten’s father had arrived with his little sister, and my little sisters were playing outside. Perhaps it had something to do with the red and yellow sweets we had started eating on the bus. Mum said that Sten was always picking fights. He was a nine-year-old boy.

Sophie Neville in her BOAC life jacket with her sister Tamzin on the shore of Coniston Water about to leave for the set of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island. Stephen Gredon’s father and little sister are in the background ~ photo: Martin Neville

Luckily for Claude, the director, we were filming the scenes on Wildcat Island where the Amazons attack.  ‘When we fell flat on our faces and the Amazons’ arrows flew over our heads.’ We loved this scene and it was great that Nancy and Peggy had at last arrived on Wildcat Island.

I don’t know if Mum had still been around to oversee that particular act of aggression. She had taught the Amazons to shoot.  The only photographs I have of her doing so are on slides, and I am yet to get them transferred, but they show her giving Nancy and Peggy archery lessons in the field outside the bus. They were using the hazel bows made for them on site by Bobby the Prop Man, which can’t have been very flexible, but my parents did know how to use the long bow. When they were first married they joined the Worcestershire Archery Society and went on to win quite a few prizes. I know all about this because the Chairman of that society was to become my father-in-law. Or rather, I too learnt to shoot and ended up marrying his son, the Worcestershire Archery Society’s Chairman of the day.

It  looks pretty scary when those arrows, fletched with green parrot feathers, fly over us.  Much to Nancy’s disappointment, these were actually fired by two prop men. They strung up fishing line and attached nylon loops to the arrows to ensure that we would not actually get hit, but it was quite thrilling – and still quite risky. I never forgot the trick though. When I became a BBC director myself I took much joy in using totally inexpensive visual effects, such as extended use of fishing line. I learnt how to use reflections from a very skilled director called Moira Armstrong and picked up on just how much could be achieved by juddering the camera when I worked on Doctor Who.  All that dramatic and complicated-looking Tardis malfunction was achieved simply by vibrating a studio camera.  However, I think that that fishing line was the only visual effect in the 1973 version of Swallows and Amazons.

After being on location for more than two weeks this was only the second day that Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett had appeared in front of the camera. All the hanging around must have been pretty frustrating for them. In 1983, when we were planning to make adaptations of the Arthur Ransome books at the BBC, I was hoping to cast the Amazons – if not all the children – from schools up in the Lake District. I don’t expect Claude had had the time to do that.  Luckily for me.

Daphne Neville's publicity photograph c.1973
Daphne Neville ~ presenter on HTV

Father loves the Lakes. He’d say, ‘Just look at that scenery…’ He joined us, with my sisters Perry and Tamzin, to take part in filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

My father has always grabbed a chance to go to the Lake District.  As a young man he once took advantage of a military travel warrant to climb in the hills and later made it his job to visit the Colfast Button factory in Maryport, every month, when he worked for BIP. He would stay at the Pheasant Inn at Bassenthwaite Lake, latching visits onto a weekend, so he could explore Cumbria.

Martin Neville in Cumbria with his dog

This was in the late 1950s.  When I came along he took us to stay at Goosemead Farm. We climbed Castle Crag and you only have to glance at the photographs to see how happy I was to be there. We had a sheepdog called Luppy who came too. She was a great character and much loved. Found as a stray before I was born she was still around when I left home to be in Swallows and Amazons.

Sophie Neville as a small child visiting the Lake District

Arthur Ransome had been Dad’s favourite author as a boy. He said that he would wait in anticipation for another book to be published. He’d bought me the whole set, collecting them from various second hand shops. I had read the whole lot, bar Coots in the North,  by the time I was twelve.  He set my destiny.

My father left the dogs at home on 26th May so that he could drive my younger sisters up to join us for two weeks and watch the filming. He found Peel Island on Coniston Water and was there to meet us when the boat came in at the end of the day. My sisters stood smiling on the rocks, dressed for the weather in matching red jerseys, duffle coats and gumboots.

My sisters Perry Neville and Tamzin Neville waiting for me on the shore of         Coniston Water

My parents had booked a Bed and Breakfast in Ambleside across the road from the Oaklands Guest House. I immediatley noticed a sign declaring that you had to pay 10p to have a bath. ”Ten pee!’  Mum glarred at me, furious. ‘Do be quiet, they’ll hear you’.  I had moved to share Suzanna’s room, since Mrs Price had a long-standing booking for the back room Mum and I had been using. Her guest house was full to bursting since she had students from the Charlotte Mason College of Education lodging with her aswell as all of us and her own three children. The only real problem was that we had nylon sheets and the bedding kept slidding off in the middle of the night.

My sisters, Tamzin and Perry, who must have been about eight and nine, struck up an instant rapport with Suzanna Hamilton. She asked them to baby-sit her pet slow worms. These had come up from London with her in a small glass aquarium, which she had put in the fire place in our room. I don’t know what Mrs Price thought.  I wasn’t very keen on handling them and have no idea how she fed them but Perry was intrigued. Suzanna had also brought her ukulele. She would sit on her bed playing Ain’t She Sweet, Sunny side of the Street, Playing on my Banjo and other Norman Wisdom numbers, completley fluently and with great gusto. My sisters were entranced. They may have even shared the room with us and the slow-worms. Mum can’t remember.

Dad had already made plans for sailing that first Bank Holiday, when Richard Pilbrow had scheduled a break.

27th May page 2

I remember the Hula-hula girls well. Although it was only May they suddenly appeared on what seemed to be a remote, inaccessible island, clad in garish, brightly coloured bikinis – the kind that had little frilly skirts to them. We watched them splash about and swim in complete wonder as, although it was sunny, we knew how cold the water was.

We had seen something of the same kind of savage the day before. I can remember the dismay on the First Assistant’s face when he realised it really was the Saturday of the Bank Holiday. We had had Peel Island to ourselves, indeed it had become ours – our special place, our magical camp, our home. And suddenly it was being invaded by brash women from Manchester who certainly had no respect for anyone making a film.  I don’t know how they got out there. they seemed to arrive from no where when we were in the secret harbour, which was suddenly a secret no more. It was their holiday and there was no stopping them or their over-weight and noisy children. They were quite frightening.

The horrific Bank Holiday traffic queues were also unexpected, but my father took us up into the mountains and out on Derwent Water. He must have been trying to teach my mother to sail for decades but she has never begun to get the hang of it. She was in mourning that weekend as she had watched her favourite hat blow across the water and sink to the bottom of the lake. It was a bulbous pink and white Donny Osmond cap that Claude Whatham had enjoyed wearing on set to amuse us. She was able to find a yellow and white one to replace it but he never liked it as much. Said it didn’t suit his colouring.

‘X marks the spot where they ate six missionaries’ ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island in 1973

‘Natives again. Or cannibals. This marks the spot where they ate six missionaries’ has to be the best line that anyone in the history of film making has ever had to utter.  It is not in the book, just that ‘…they might have been killed and eaten by other natives,’ as Titty, having digested huge helpings of Daniel Defoe, declares herself the most ardent imperialist of all time. And she has such fun doing so. I have always liked the talk of ‘the powerful native’ (Mr Jackson the Lakeland farmer) and the savages living around Rio. I always hope it shocks lots of people.

What I have found really does shock people – shocks them so much that they admit to being shocked – is that I was once a missionary. In Africa. And in Australia. I think they think I try to convert the natives but of course it is not like that. You go not knowing what will happen and find yourselves making life a bit more fun for people who belong to God but are battling a bit.

It is like this:  The Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, who are energetic tomboys living in the Lake District, had lost their father. It goes unsaid, but Peggy very touchingly lets it out in Swallowdale when they find a hidden tin on the peak of Kanchenjunga.  Their mother’s brother, Jim Turner, took them sailing and did things with them with them the first summer but then decided to concentrate on writing his book. Nancy and Peggy feel so rejected they light a firework on the roof of his boat, which enrages him. The Swallows, who know what it was like to live without a father around as theirs is in the Navy, travel from afar but somehow manage to come alongside the Amazons and give them a reason to keep going and live life to the full. Nancy and Peggy excel – they find life-long friends and do all the things they are meant to do. All sorts of things happen as a result. And the Swallows are challenged and have more fun than if they had ever travelled in a structured way, intent soley on their own enjoyment. They have great adventures and do more things than they ever imagined possible .

I still go on short term missions. We went to China with the Bible Society in March. It was amazing – hysterical. A mission of encouragement that Titty would have loved. We met people who had not had European visitors for forty years. They were really excited to know that people in the wider world were interested in their welfare and had come to bring them the word of God. The only Europeans – only white people – they had seen before us were there to make money. It’s shocking, isn’t it?

Swallow in the Secret Harbour

25th May ~ When I first started drawing maps

I did not know it at the time but Titty’s chart had a profound influence on my life.

I loved drawing the map. I had prepared it earlier with Simon Holland, the Art Director, and always regret pressing too hard. If you look very carefully you can see that I had already written ‘Rio’ and rubbed it out, only to write Rio again when it came to the take.  I also wish that I had been taught the song Away to Rio before this scene as I would had said that line differently. Never mind.

 I think that the map on the end papers of Arthur Ransome’s book of Swallows and Amazons, originally drawn by Steven Spurrier, are an inspiration to millions. I’ve gazed and gazed at it.

When I grew up and went to university, I took a course in cartography that was to stand me in good stead.  In the spring of 1992 I migrated to Southern Africa with the swallows and soon started drawing decorative maps. These were all very much like Spurrier’s. I added small pictures of settlements, trees, animals, and always a compass with a black and white border to give the scale. In the process I was able to explore the most wonderful country. Most of my commissions have been of game reserves or great swathes of Africa. I have mapped areas of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, the Waterberg Plateau in South Africa, one of the Malilangwe Conservation Trust in Zimbabwe and a map showing how to cross the Namib Desert on a horse. I’ve mapped Jembisa Game Reserve, Triple B Ranch  and Ongava on the Etosha border. I have also drawn maps of military zones, ski resorts and stately homes.  Some have been for charities such as Save the Rhino Trust, others for books, others for marketing holidays. They all gave me the excuse to go on living a Swallows and Amazons life, camping in wild places and exploring wilderness areas – uncharted territory. My final map – for I don’t think my eyesight will let me draw any more – was to direct guests to my own wedding, not so very long ago.

As I expect Titty would have done, I am now writing about these maps and the adventures I had in making them, currently putting everything together in a travel book call Ride the Wings of Morning. I have a couple of very early maps in my first book Funnily Enough. These were just sketched in my diary but one is of Windermere, where I went with my father and the Steam Boat Association, so I think it would be of interest to Arthur Ransome enthusiasts.

A map of Windermere sketched in Sophie Neville’s Diary of 1991 that has been recently published as the book ‘Funnily Enough’

“It was really horrible” ~ filming the swimming scenes for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

“…it was really horrible,” I told Tim Devlin, of The Times. “We had to run into the water and enjoy it. It was icy. I had to try to be a cormorant with my feet  in the air. Then I had to step water as Susan taught Roger to swim.  We were in for about three minutes and they had to do two takes of the scene. It was horrible.”   This was the day when we shot the swimming scenes ~

The first scene of the day was actually was the one when Titty emerged from her tent in her pyjamas, wiped the dew off the top of a large biscuit tin and started writing her diary. I always regret writing Titania Walker on the cover but I had been contracted to play the part of TITANIA WALKER. My mother, Daphne Neville, who is quite theatrical, loved Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and encouraged me to write out the full name, but I do wish I had simply labelled by notebook ‘Ship’s Log’.

I am told that the real little girl who inspired my character, Titty Altounyan, was given the nickname after reading a horrible story of mousey death entitled Titty mouse and Tatty mouse’  from English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs.  Her family called her Titty mouse, then Titty for short. People were concerned that I would be teased for being associated with a name like Titty, but I never was. It’s a sweet name. However, it seems Arthur Ransome did not object when the BBC altered it to Kitty in 1962, when Susan George played the part.

Our knitted swimming costumes, with their little legs were a real novelty to us. I do wish mine hadn’t been red. It was such a cold, grey day I went blue. I remember the entire crew were clad in overcoats – even parkers with fur lined hoods. Looking back it was silly to have gone ahead with the scene in May. Child cruelty.

35m Panasonic, Eddie Collins the Camera Operator in (wet suit), Dennis Lewiston the DOP (in cap) Claude Whatham the Director (in waders) on Peel Island, Coniston Water ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

The director, Claude Whatham shot the scene using two cameras. The continuity would have been impossible otherwise. Eddie Collins the Camera Operator had a 16mm camera in the water with us. He was being steadied by another chap in a full wet-suit. Fitted neoprene was quite an unusual sight then when divers were known as frogmen.

Filming the swimming scene
Eddie Collins opperating the 16mm camera to capture the pearl diving scene ~photo: Richard Pilbrow

Suzanna Hamilton, who played Susan, did well but it simply wasn’t possible to pretend we were enjoying ourselves.  My rictus smile was not convincing. Later on in the summer the Lake District became so hot that we begged to be taken swimming in rivers on our day off. I wish we had re-shot the scene in July with an underwater camera capturing my pearl diving antics. I was a good swimmer. I still love snorkelling – but only in warm seas. As it was, I had to be extracted from Coniston Water by Eddie’s frogman. I’d almost passed out.

Sophie Neville in 1973 attempting to strangle Terry Smith the Wardrobe Master on ‘Swallows and Amazons’

Quite a few people almost learnt how cold we had been for themselves later that day in May. The boats used to ferry us back and forward to the island were blue Dorys with outboard motors. You don’t want to have too much weight in the bows of those boats. Water can come in very quickly.

Filming with Swallow and on Peel Island in the Lake District ~ in 1973

If you drive south down the narrow East of Lake road along by Coniston Water, passing Bank Ground Farm, Brantwood and a cottage where Arthur Ransome once lived, you will eventually see Peel Island. It is not that far from the shore.

Richard Pilbrow had permission from the Lake District  National Park for his film crew to gain access and use the fields and woodland opposite Peel Island as a base. One proviso was that our two red double-decker buses had to be swathed with camouflage netting in an attempt to make them less conspicuous. As a result they looked comic – like huge monsters from Doctor Who. In addition to these we had a caravan for Make-up and Hair, the caterers’ mobile kitchen or chuck-wagon, a prop lorry, a lorry belonging to Lee Electric who provided the lighting and huge reflector boards, the Lee Electric generator and the regrettable and very basic mobile loos. I can not remember what kind of vehicle David Cadwallader the Grip used but I half remember a Land Rover. On top of this would be parked our mini-bus, the unit mini-bus, everyone’s cars and the boat trailers. Mum thinks that Terry Smith’s Range Rover could have been orange. ‘He was a very orange man.’

It must have been a bit of an effort to avoid getting the whole entourage in shot when John and I launched Swallow and rowed around to the harbour. You can tell that it was a greyer day than the one before.

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker and Simon West as John Walker  rowing Swallow towards Peel Island on Coniston Water in the Lake District National Park

A temporary jetty made from scaffold and planks had been built out into the water so that we could climb into any boat going to the island without getting wet. It must have been quite something lugging the camera out.  It travelled in a big black wooden box lined with foam rubber, with handles at either end that David had had made. The Panasonic was thus transported by two men like the Arc of the Covenant , holy and revered. Once on the island it would be set on the complex mounting, which enabled it to pan and tilt. This in turn usually sat on sections of track so that moving shots could be achieved.

Denis Lewiston, the Director of Photography, had a Camera Operator but insisted on doing most of the camera work himself. If you watch the scenes of the Swallows making up camp you can see that he must have just followed what Susan and Roger were doing. It has a wonderful, busy natural quality with the result that all one wants to do is to leave real life behind and go camping. I imagine that the scenes when the kettle is being filled were shot in the morning, while I was at my lessons, but I joined them after lunch.

We loved shooting any scene at our camp on the island, especially when we were eating. As I think I have said before, when Suzanna swung her frying pan of buttered eggs she really did burn Roger on the knee. He was very brave about it. It was a heavy pan.

David Cadwallader is still working as a grip, recently operating the crane on the 2011 movie of Jane Eyre, which stars Mia Wasikowska as Jane, Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester and Judi Dench as Mrs Fairfax. I’d been reading Jane Eyre on that day in May 1973. It was my set book. My set book for school and the book I read on set. I should have been reading Robinson Crusoe.

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Richard Pilbrow has just written from Connecticut to say~

You can read my side of the story, if you care to, in ‘A THEATRE PROJECT’, that you can get from Amazon.UK.