Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the rain at Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria ~ 20th May 1973

Finding Swallow

It was quite amusing when Mrs Batty’s sheep walked into Swallow’s boatshed, lifting our spirits on that rather gloomy wet day on Coniston, but I have no idea if it was caught on film. Can anyone remember seeing a television programme made up of amusing out-takes from movies prior to the 1980s? I don’t suppose ours were ever kept. It doesn’t matter – seeing them spoils the magic of the story in a way.

Simon West as John Walker taking Swallow out of the boatshed at Holly Howe aided by Suzanna Hamilton, Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville

In 1971, Claude Whatham had enjoyed glorious May weather when he made ‘Cider With Rosie’ in Gloucestershire, but it rained so hard in Cumbria that filming anything was proving difficult. He managed to capture one limpid shot of me looking at Swallow’s tatty flag.

Claude Whatham at the Boathouse with Simon West and Sophie Neville

I wrote more enthusiastically about playing Consequences in Bank Ground farmhouse. This is the game that Virginia McKenna had introduced us to and we loved it. This time we must have roped in heads of the Costume, Hair and Make-up Departments. It seems that Emma Porteous, the Costume Designer, was on set with us that wet day in May. I would think that this was when they recorded the scenes inside Holly Howe with Susan and Roger and the wonderful lady who played Mrs Jackson. Someone recently asked why Susan never thanked her for lending her the frying pan, as it seemed out of character, but she still wasn’t feeling very well. Does Susan thank Mrs Jackson in Arthur Ransome’s book?

Suzanna Hamilton's costumes for scenes set at Holly Howe
Suzanna Hamilton’s drawings of her costumes for scenes set at Holly Howe

Ronnie Cogan was the quiet, gentle man usually clad in a grey tweed jacket, responsible for our hair on Swallows and Amazons.  Foregoing the use of wigs, so very much in use on costume dramas at the time, he simply did up Virginia McKenna’s lovely thick hair, and cut ours, giving the whole movie a classic feel.

Mrs Ransome was fussy about Sten’s hair. She had specified didn’t want Richard to cast children with black hair and objected to his photo but acquiesced when she saw him running around at Bank Ground Farm with a short-back-and-sides.   

Virginia McKenna having her hair put up by Ronnie Cogan ~ photo:Daphne Neville

Years later my mother worked with Ronnie on Diana: Her True Story, the bio-epic of epics based on Andrew Morton’s outrageous book. Serena Scott Thomas played Diana Princess of Wales, David Threlfall was Prince Charles, Anthony Calf had the glorious opportunity to play James Hewitt and my mother was given the role of Diana’s nanny, who hit her on the head with a wooden spoon. Mum said that she later bumped into Ronnie in Oxford Street but heard soon afterwards that he had sadly died. He had a wonderful career and must be hugely missed. 

Simon West having his hair cut - trimmed
Simon West having his hair trimmed by Ronnie Cogan. Can anyone tell me the name of the driver holding him still.

He’d worked on classics such as The Boys from Brazil with Sir Laurence Olivier and A Bridge too Far directed by Richard Attenborough – the Lord Attenborough. That must have been quite something. It starred Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Ryan O’Neal who I am sure would have been pretty concerned about having the standard WWII military haircut. Ronnie also worked for Roland Joffe on The Killing Fields and Kenneth Branagh when he had  a pudding basin haircut, for his monumental film of Shakespeare’s Henry V.  It is funny how things inter-connect. Kenneth Branagh played my great uncle AO Neville in the Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Dixons Farm - Mike Pratt
Ronnie Cogan attending to Mike Pratt in the role of Mr Dixon  photo: Daphne Neville

Peter Robb-King had been the Chief Make-up Artist on Diana: her True Story. Having worked on movies such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Stars Wars – Return of the Jedi, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, he is still involved with the most amazing feature films. He has just completed The Cabin in the Woods where he was Sigourney Weaver’s personal make-up artist – and to think! He was once mine.

Sophie Neville as Titty getting her makeup done
Sophie Neville being made up for the part of Titty by Peter Robb-King in 1973

“But, Sophie – you disappoint me! You didn’t wear any make-up to play Titty.” No, but as we filmed out on the water, sun cream became extremely important. If even a tiny bit of us had turned red or peeled the filming would have put in jeopardy. Predicting that we would turn vaguely brown, Peter decided to give us a bit of a tan when scenes where shot out of sequence, as a couple had been that first week. 

Sophie Neville receiving a Titty haircut

Peter and Ronnie were also responsible for the continuity of how we looked so that the shots would cut together. My fly-away hair was well monitored. Mum had to wash it every other day.

Stephen Grendon and Ronnie Cogan
Ronnie Cogan with Sten Grendon. I was in the Make-up caravan beyond.

Sten seemed to be forever having his hair trimmed. There are quite a few photographs of this particular activity in progress.

Sophie Neville with Sten Grendon’s being given a haircut by Ronnie Cogan ~ photo: Daphne Neville

You can read more in ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ available as a multi-media ebook illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs.

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

10 thoughts on “Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the rain at Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria ~ 20th May 1973”

  1. It’s great to hear about the behind-the-scenes crew as well as the cast. A lot of film memoirs ignore them almost completely, which I think is a shame as they are just as an important part of making a movie as the on-screen team.

    1. The crew are all-important. We didn’t realise quite how long the cast wold have to carry responsibility for the promotion of the film – something we have never been paid for. It has been nearly fifty years and is a pleasure but can be quite time-consuming.

      1. No matter how great the cast is, a film wouldn’t happen without the crew. I can well imagine that publicity and promotion must take up an enormous amount of the cast’s time, with you having to look and behave perfectly all the time you are on show. Worth it in the end! I’m surprised you weren’t paid anything for it though.

            1. We probably would have been unlicensed, so the whole event needed to be seen as no more than a day out, but quite a lot was required of us. I hope our parents were given transport expenses. It would have been a commitment.

              1. Surely your travel expenses would have been paid. Didn’t they treat you to tea or a meal after the screening?

  2. Interesting about out-takes – do they spoil the magic? NO, I always love them – they’re a different sort of reality, just as the film is a different reality from the original book, and the filming story is a different reality from the film. It’s all layers, and all true!

    1. You are right. It becomes rather an extended story. We have to add Arthur Ransome’s own childhood, the Altounyans and his escapades with Evgenia to the mix.

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