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

8 Comments

Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Dinghy sailing, e-publication, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

8 responses to “The Amazons Attack ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island in 1973

  1. Mike Dennis

    Thank you Sophie! What a wonderful insight in to the film and your own (and your mother’s) career.
    Interesting to learn that there were plans for versions of the books in 1983, what happened? (money I suppose, or perceived lack of popularity?)

  2. Yes: money. After making ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ on the Norfolk Broards in 1984, the BBC Producer Joe Waters went up to recce the Lake District with a view to making ‘Swallowdale’ and ‘Pigeon Post’. The National Parks wanted very high location fees – £1,000 a day – then – even for open moorland. I had started casting the children but he returned to say that, sadly, it was just going to cost too much.

  3. Thanks, Sophie – I had heard that the BBC had originally planned to film more (hence the otherwise “strange” title of “Swallows and Amazons Forever” for the two Norfolk Broards books) and, like Mike, have wondered why they never fulfilled them.
    Thanks also for your kind tweets, and mentions of the Arthur Ransome Trust (ART) and Arthur Ransome Society (TARS) on your blog!

    • Yes, back in 1983 the BBC were planning to adapt more books, in association with Theatre Projects who still owned the rights. I think they would have done them very well but, being set outside and on boats, they are unexpectedly expensive to produce.

      I will try to keep Tweeting #ArthurRansomeTrust and #TARS. Do those tags work?

  4. Peter Leather

    Re your remark “….photographs I have of her doing so are on slides..” there is a Linux program called Xsane which has been adapted for Windows (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xsane) with which you can scan slides with an ordinary scanner. GBY!

  5. Steve Wintle

    Just seen the movie for the first time with my boys on a wet and miserable bank holiday afternoon. Spent so time recently back in the lake district and it’s lost non of its magic. What happened to the two girls that played the amazons?

    • I am so glad you managed to see the film. It rained a lot when we were making it. I will try to tell of what we are all doing now when I get to the end of the diary…

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