“I did the scene of exploring by myself”
Arthur Ransome’s description of Wild Cat Island is based on at least two real islands. The landing place and open grassy camp site illustrated in the books can be found at Blake Holme on Windermere but when Richard Pilbrow went there in 1972 he was so disappointed by the sight of caravans, and the fact it was near the shore, that he decided to make the film almost entirely on Peel Island where you find Ransome’s Secret Harbour. We never went to Blake Holme.
It was at Peel Island on Coniston Water that Ransome met the Collingwood family when he was a boy. The Collingwood grandchildren, Taqui, Susie, Titty, Roger and Brigit Altounyan, later camped there getting slugs in their hair. Roger Altounyan told my old friend Bill Frankland that he secretly spent the first three nights of his honeymoon there. It must have been magical.
We loved crossing to the island – it was hugely exciting, even in the rain. There is something about the sheer rock faces, which makes it like a fortress, the ancient Viking settlement WD Collingwood believed it to be. Getting us back for lessons and lunch can’t have been easy and there was no loo.
Had I been producing Swallows and Amazons I might have used Peel island for the unique Secret Harbour but tried to use ‘Near Peel Far’ on the mainland for the landing place. There is a nice open beach there and one wouldn’t have had to lug all the heavy paraphernalia of filming over the water – you can imagine time and effort involved in taking a 35mm Panavision camera across with its mountings and track. I don’t know how they powered the arc lamps we needed to light the campsite, which was quite dark beneath the trees. They must have run the cables under water.
But – the wonderful thing is that now, when children reach the island, most of the places featured in the film are there. The Landing Place has nearly washed away. We never knew it at the time, but one great secret is that the beach was created especially for the film. They must have dumped a huge amount of shingle there. The other secret is that there weren’t actually enough trees for the Swallows to erect the tents their mother had made for them. Two had to be added by the construction team.
Arthur Ransome’s tents are not as easy to put up as you’d imagine. It is difficult for children to get the rope taut enough between the trees to take the weight of the canvas. You need to use wagon knots or twist it with a stick. If you tie the rope too high the tents ruck up. The reality was that Suzanna had Bobby-the-prop-man to help her.
One thing that is not a secret, but can take you unawares, is that there never seems to be any firewood on Wildcat Island. It is the reason why the Swallows went to the mainland in the book.
Roger really did struggle to find sticks to pick up on that wet day in May. Mine were carefully set out for me to find by the designer but Sten really did fall over and he did get quite badly scratched by thorns. Claude gave him a bit of ‘Danger Money’ for being brave and not complaining.
I’m not sure if Sten had ever received Danger Money when he played Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie, which Claude had made two years before. We watched it that night when it was broadcast on television. It must have been shown quite late as it was was labelled as avant garde but we stayed up as of course VHS machines had not been heard of.
Rosemary Leach played Laurie’s long-suffering mother, Mrs Lee, quite beautifully. She was later to take the role of Mrs Barrable in the BBC series Coot Club, which I worked on in 1983. Mike Pratt, who played Mr Dixon in Swallows and Amazons, played Uncle Ray, and Young Billy – John Franklin-Robbins was The Stranger. Claude cast me as a little girl from Slad called Eileen Brown, who Laurie Lee always said was the first person he fell in love with. He was a friend of Mum’s and was around during the filming, since he still had a cottage in Slad. I’d been to a village school in the Cotswolds myself and enjoyed being in the classroom scenes, despite have to wear rather an itchy green dress.
I was too shy to put myself forward when Claude asked if anyone knew the chants to playground skipping games, but I did work hard to prepare for my big scene. I had to play quite a difficult piece on the piano, accompanying the ten-year-old Laurie Lee as he sawed away on his violin at the village concert. Rosemary Leach looked on with tears in her eyes. I was only given the music three days before the filming and had to practice eight hours a day, for those three days, before I got it right. We plodded through Oh, Danny Boy but were both so relieved to get it right that our smiles were real enough. At one point Claude took a deep breath and said, ‘Do you think you could play a little faster?’ I looked at him and replied, ‘They’re crochets. They don’t go any faster.’ He claimed that he didn’t know what a crotchet was.
I have written more about appearing in ‘Cider With Rosie’ here. It was pivotable as Claude Whatham invited Sten and I to appear as Roger and Titty in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ as he ‘had worked with us before’. He knew how we would react in front of the camera. I happened to have had a bit of experience crewing dinghies but the hard work I put into playing Eileen Brown gained me the role of Titty in the feature film now distributed by StudioCanal.
You can read more in one of the editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available online here and in paperback from Waterstones.
15 thoughts on “Secrets of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island, Coniston Water ~ 21st May 1973”
Thanks for your memories of Cider With Rosie, Sophie. I spent a lot of time and effort to find the version in which you starred, and finally found a VHS tape version. I have now transferred it to DVD as I would not like to lose it. The “Danny Boy” scene is brilliant !
Yes, it is available on VHS. I hope you have found one of good quality. Write in to the Controller of BBC One and ask for it to be repeated!
Some kind person has posted the evocative music written for Cider with Rosie.by Wilfred Josephs on Youtube.
I would say that the Claude Whatham version of Cider with Rosie that you starred in Sophie was the best adaptation I have seen. In the final scene Laurie Lee himself watches himself as a young boy walk by as this music plays.
Laurie Lee was one of my late wife, Stephanie’s favourite authors and we both loved Claude Whatham’s adaptation. I now have it on DVD.
I have a first edition of one of Laurie Lee’s other memoirs but have never been able to get into it. I’m sure he put more work into ‘Cider With Rosie’.
I must admit, ‘Cider With Rosie’ was probably for Stephanie what ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was to me: her all-time favourite book from childhood.
It is wonderful. If you ever visit the village of Slad you need to go in May or June and explore on foot. There is nothing much to see from the road.
After reading ‘Down in the Valley’ which you kindly sent to me last year, I do intend to visit Laurie Lee’s village. Thanks for the tip about when to go.
Visiting Slad can be an anti-climax because there is no village centre. It is just a strip along a busy road. However, the beach woods planted above the valley by Laurie Lee’s uncle are glorious when the new leaves come out in May.
It would be nice, if possible, to see where he lived; and the surrounding countryside sounds glorious. I fully intend to go, hopefully sometime in May or June this year.
I am sure you have already read it, but I’ve written about appearing in ‘Cider With Rosie’ here: https://sophieneville.net/2021/10/28/50th-anniversary-of-the-1971-bbc-play-cider-with-rosie-directed-by-claude-whatham/
I have read it but I shall enjoy reading it again. I think I told you after I had read it that I had the great pleasure of meeting Rosemary Leach when I was playing in a small band in London in about 1966/67.
Yes, what a lovely memory.
It is. She was a lovely lady; she seemed really interested in the three of us (in our band or trio) and was very appreciative of our music.. Playing in that trio introduced me to a number of well-known people, a lot of whom were in the theatre, and I can’t think of one who wasn’t very nice to us.