A letter from behind the scenes on the third day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Last night I sat on the floor of the loft, where I have my computer, looking for old newspaper clippings and photographs of the Haverthwaite Railway Station.  Along with an article from The Times and a shot of us looking up at the steam engine, I found letters that my mother had written, in the Lake District, to my father who was at home in Gloucestershire with my two younger sisters.

Mum kept her letters, my diaries and scrap books in what must have been a smart carrier bag from Carnaby Street. She had bought a very expensive velvet dress for me there when we first went up to London to meet Claude Whatham, the director of Swallows and Amazons for my first interview back in April.

It was now 16th May 1973, the third day of filming ~

1970’s English food ~

The food at the guest house was talking its toll. Not a good idea to feed children on packet soups and baked beans in the days when 35mm film stock was so extremely expensive.  No one realised why, but the ingredients made Sten hyper- active, or as my mother put it, ‘causing a little hoo hah.’  A visiting  journalist wrote,‘By the end of the day Roger, aged seven, had mown down the entire film crew using a hammer as a mock machine gun. He had fallen down several times and emerged with grazed knees all splattered with mud.’

Location catering ~

Suzanna Hamilton, who was playing Susan, simply refused to eat the revolting food.  Mum said,  “I couldn’t get her to eat anything.” Location catering is excellent now – exquisite – but back in the early 1970’s it could be pretty basic canteen food produced on location from a ‘chuck wagon’. We’d queue up for a tray of meat and two veg, which was usually consumed in a red London double-decker converted into a dining bus with the old scratchy seats either side of Formica tables. There were no salads, no fruit, just a working man’s lunch with coffee in plastic cups and paste sandwiches provided later with tea. The tea was good.

Pinewood location catering ~ Suzanna Hamilton pearing into the chuck wagon ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The fruit bowl in our bus ~

Mum started to order fruit for us and we relished it.   It was a huge treat back then to have bananas or melon, oranges and grapes.  A bowl sat in our bus where we had our lessons on more Formica tables downstairs. The upper deck was used by Terry the Wardrobe Master as as our changing room. It also had bunk beds. Mum soon made us rest in these after lunch. I don’t think she could pin down the Amazons easily but she made me use them. I know I objected at first but I must have needed to lie down and rest properly, especially when it was cold.

Molly and Richard Pilbrow

Molly and Richard Pilbrow on location with the two red London Double Decker buses where coffee was being served ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The film crew ~

Apart from Sue Merry the ‘Continuity Girl’ the film crew consisted entirely of men, forty-five of them. I include the Hair and Make-up Designers, the Wardrobe Master, the Art Director, Set Dresser, Propmen and Carpenters, Sound Recordist and Boom Operator, the Director of Photography, Camera Operator, Focus Puller and Grips with the Electricians from Lee Electric who looked after the lights and generators, Lorry Drivers and Sailing Director, the Director, three Assistant Directors and the Production Associate and Producer. I think there might have been a Film Accountant and Location Manager. Being a feature film we had a permanent Stills Photographer and a Publicity Manager.  And this was a small crew as Terry seemed to cope without Wardrobe Assistants or Dressers. They all knew each other pretty well from being on previous movies. I have a list of where they had digs in Ambleside. It’s quite interesting to see who shared with who.  Whenever we needed boats up to six local boatmen could also join the queue for the chuck wagon – and the mobile loos.  Mum wouldn’t let me use them. They were looked after by a ratty looking chap who later managed to persuade one of the Ambleside girls that he was the film’s Producer.

Neville  Thompson, who was effectively the on-line Producer, had a production secretary called Sally Shewing, but she must have been stuck in the production office as we never saw her.  Molly Friedel, Richard Pilbrow’s girl friend and assistant, was often on location. We adored her.  She was American, tall with long brown hair and always had time for us. I remember her working on the lighting design for the next Rolling Stones Concert by the shore of Lake Coniston while we milled about, playing on the rocks.

We had our tutor, Mrs Causey and a wonderful mini-bus driver called Jean McGill. She had been a top British Airways air hostess but had returned to Cumbria to look after her ailing mother and was driving us around the area she so loved to keep busy. As soon as my mother found out that she was also a qualified nursing sister she made sure that Jean was taken on as the official location nurse, which was great as it meant she could be around the whole time and we never had to wait for the bus. We found we soon needed a nurse too. Someone was always hurting themselves.

Jean McGill, our driver and location nurse, operating the radio with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

So in all, with our chaperones there were usually about six women around as well as journalists, friends and relatives who came to watch. It was a huge circus with often eighty people milling about. Certianly the Call Sheet asks the caterers to provide lunch for seventy on normal days. It would be much more when we had crowd scenes such as when we explored Rio.

The male:female ratio on crews is very different today. There are often more women than men, perhaps not on movies but certainly on BBC drama crews. It was already different by 1983 when Richard and Molly Pilbrow came to visit us on the location of  Coot Club in Norfolk, where there were about equal numbers of men and women on set. It made for a better, family atmosphere, certainly more appropriate with so many children involved.  Since he still held the rights to Arthur Ransome’s series of Swallows and Amazons books, Richard was the Executive Producer on the BBC serial Joe Waters produced. It was so good to see him again. I gather he is still going strong having just been awarded the Knights of Illumination Lifetime Recognition Award for more than 50 years of work in theatre lighting.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, e-publication, Film, Film Cast, Film Catering, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Letters, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Steam train Haverthwaite Railway Station, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

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