The end of our first week’s filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 when all was not well ~

Suzanna was ill.  ‘I told Claude that it was because she wouldn’t eat anything,’ my mother said. ‘Oo she was difficult.’ But it can’t have just been that. We’d all got cold filming out on the lake in our flimsy costumes and she went down hill from there.

The Producer, Richard Pilbrow, called a ‘unit day off’. It happened to be a precious, sunny Saturday. Sadly for him, it rained the next day, which the crew were originally scheduled to take off.

Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water
Producer Richard Pilbrow with Director Claude Whatham

I made the most of it. Mum hardly ever took my sisters and I either shopping or walking when I we were children, but Sten’s mother, Jane Grendon was happy to take us around the craft shops of Ambleside and up into the fells. I am sure it was just what we needed while Mum stayed with Suzanna, and had a snooze herself.  She was the better chaperone on location, where she felt happy and relaxed, Jane enjoyed taking us hill walking and encouraged us to sing on mini-bus journeys through the Lake District.

My diary

My diary kept during the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

My diary 19th May page two

The norm when filming on location is to work six days a week, resting on Sundays. This quite often has to be changed to a Saturday as some locations, such as the police will only give you clearance for tricky sequences when it’s very quiet.  Busy town centres, can only be used on Sundays. We didn’t have any gun fights in Swallows and Amazons (1974) but when I was a location manager myself on Rockcliffe’s Babies I once had to get everyone out on a Sunday morning at 6.00am. We were recording a car chase going the wrong way around the Harrow Road roundabout above Paddington Station in West London with four policemen employed to stop the traffic. We had an actor clinging to the bonnet of the baddies’ car by the windscreen wipers, which were moving.

Dame Virginia McKenna on Windermere in 1973 - photo: Philip Hatfield
Dame Virginia McKenna on Windermere in 1973 – photo: Philip Hatfield

I look back through my diary and am so touched. Virginia McKenna was incredibly kind to take such an interest in us, bringing Suzanna strawberries and talking us all to the cinema in Ambleside. We must have watched ‘The Cowboys’, a 1972 movie starring John Wayne. I wonder if she’d met him in Hollywood. Her husband, Bill Travers had appeared in Rawhide with Clint Eastward and starred in Duel at Diablo with James Garner and Sydney Poitier when he’d been given the line, “Apaches seek revenge that way.” Titty would have loved it.

I wrote that Garth brought a pocket chess set. I’m afraid I couldn’t spell properly. This was meant to read Gareth. I have known two Gareths in my life.  A  Gloucester Old Spot pig, living in North Wales and Gareth Tandy, our third assistant director. His aunt Jessica Tandy was the famous Hollywood actress who had appeared in Alfred Hitchcock dramas such as The Birds. In later life she went on to star in Driving Miss Daisy with Morgan Freeman, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and Nobody’s Fool with Paul Newman, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith.

Gareth had acted in all sorts of things as a boy from Oliver Twist to Dr. Findlay’s Casebook. If I’m not mistaken, Swallows and Amazons was his first film as an Assistant Director but he made a career of it, going on to work on amazing movies including the original Superman, For Your Eyes Only ~ the Bond film with Roger Moore, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Johnny Depp, Nanny McPhee, with Emma Thompson and Colin Firth, Johnny English Reborn with Rowan Atkinson and was the First Assistant Director on A Fantastic Fear of Everything.  

Gareth signed himself  ‘The whipcracker’ in my going-away book. It think this was because it had been his job to get us through costume and make-up and onto the set at the right time but I was left puzzled because he had done this with such charm we had never noticed any whips cracking at all. There must have been. Poor Gareth had been the runner with a walky-talky stopping unwanted traffic, cue-ing various boats and lugging tea urns about, but he did this with good grace and we all loved him. And no wonder, seeing as he’d given us a chess set just because Suzanna was ill in bed.

Sophie Neville with Jane Grendon in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available online,  from Waterstones or direct from the publishers.


Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

6 thoughts on “The end of our first week’s filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 when all was not well ~”

  1. I have watched this film many times with my children and still enjoy it. My love for Arthur Ransome’s books goes back much further. I am really enjoying your diary entries and your account of the filming. Especially as I had always identified with Titty in the books, and found that my eldest daughter did the same, and liked her best in the film.

  2. Though somewhat ‘off topic’ I can agree with you about Virginia McKenna. I wrote to her via the Born Free site asking about a location used in filming the ocean scenes with ‘Elsa’ the lioness, and she personally answered my question. Such a dear sweet lady although she must be tremendously busy, she still made time to answer a stranger’s query. Quite like you Sophie!

    1. She is a very gracious lady! Thank you for your kind e-mail. It is so encouraging to receive positive comments.



  3. How wonderful, to have met a nephew of the great Jessica Tandy! Did the chess set get much use? Do you still play?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: