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.
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.
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.