Filming The Swallow and The Amazon from a pontoon out on Coniston Water ~ 31st May 1973

The dinghies Swallow and Amazon with the camera pontoon at Peel Island on Coniston Water ~ photo: Martin Neville

How do you film two girls sailing a thirteen foot dinghy talking to their brothers sailing along in another small dinghy while calling out to two other girls in red bobble hats dancing about on a wooded island which both the small boats are approaching?

The scene looks so simple on paper.  It is the one when the Swallows sail back to Wild Cat Island with the captured Amazon to find Nancy ‘dancing with rage’ and Peggy anxious to get home before breakfast. One page of script.

Claude Whatham soon discovered that he was shooting the most complicated of sailing scenes. On a cold grey day in the Lake District.

It is extremely difficult to describe how he managed this, but I will attempt to do so.

31st May 1973 ~ My diary

Sophie Neville's diary 1974

There was no room in the dinghy Amazon to film Susan and Titty sailing. This had to be done from a boat or vessel lashed along side. The production had a pontoon hired from Mike Turk in Twickenham and managed with the help of Nick Newby at Nicole End Marine near Keswick. It was a sizeable raft equipped with four outboard engines and surfaced with a number of flat ‘camera boards’.

Swallow and the pontoonBasically rectangular, it had arms added on either side. The idea of this cross-shaped platform was to enable Claude to film us either side-on, from astern or across the bows of the dinghy, which was wired by its keel to the pontoon. The camera was normally on a tripod. The original idea was that it could be mounted on a short section of track but I don’t think this ever happened. Electric lighting was not something that could be used on this pontoon but two large reflector boards were used to light our faces instead.

The result was a shot used on the cover of a book and a DVD marketed by the Daily Mail in 2008.

Sophie Neville on the cover of the Daily Mail DVD

As well as the director and camera crew, the sound recordist and ‘boom swinger’ were on board the pontoon along with Sue the continuity girl. Costume, make-up and our chaperone would be in a separate safety boat, in this case a Capri. This would mill about with the life jackets, sunhats and warm clothes that we wore between set ups. The crew all started off wearing life jackets, but as you can see they were soon discarded. They were dangerous things, old BOAC ‘life vests’ with so many flappy straps that you were at risk of being trapped under water by them.

The pontoon was operated by two boat men under the eye of David Blagden, the sailing director. They had to work with Claude and the wind so that when we were sailing, while the pontoon travelled with us. This was tricky enough on open water. If we were near the shore it could become more difficult. As you can imagine the dinghy could easily start to sail away from the clumsy pontoon – or worse. Our mast socket broke that first day.  They needed my father on that pontoon. He there, quietly was watching from the shore.

The camera pontoon on Coniston Water with Amazon attached to it and Swallow sailing to the other side of Peel Island during the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973~ photo: Martin Neville

Although we had all read the book of Swallows and Amazons, and were devoted to adhering to every detail, no one remembered that John and Titty sailed the captured Amazon back to Wild Cat Island. She had a centre board which was a new thing for the Walkers so John decided to let Susan helm their familiar boat. I wish this had been detailed in the script. In the film, John was with Roger in Swallow whilst Susan and I were in the Amazon, which was a pity. I can only imagine that Claude decided this because he was trying to achieve a very difficult ‘three shot’. He was relying on John – on Simon West, who was aged eleven – to keep sailing Swallow in the right position, whilst out on the water between Amazon and Wild Cat Island.

Simon West sailing Swallow - trimmed
Simon West as Captain John sailing Swallow . Sten Grendon plays the Boy Roger in the bows

This wasn’t as easy as it looks. You can see from this photographs that Swallow kept racing ahead of the pontoon. It can be gusty around Peel Island and the rocks can be lethal. Roger was on lookout but he also had to deliver his lines.  Having no centre board and a shallow 1920’s rudder Swallow can be difficult to turn or get going if the wind slacks. This wasn’t actually a problem; Simon had wind and he did brilliantly. Suzanna Hamilton did too. She had no previous experience of sailing the Amazon. No one had remembered this sequence when we practiced before the filming began.

Molly Pilbrow and her dog with my sister, watching the camera pontoon from the shore of Coniston Water ~ photo: Martin Neville

Meanwhile Gareth Tandy, the third assistant director, was standing-by (probably for hours) on Peel Island with Nancy and Peggy. He had hide in the bushes and cue them at just the right time. They did so well. They had to deliver their lines while jumping from rock to slippery rock to keep up with both the Swallow, the camera and the story.

The Swallows and The Amazons in the Capri ~ Suzannah Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Daphne Neville, Stephen Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville and Lesley Bennett ~ photo: Martin Neville

When we filmed two of Arthur Ransome’s other books, Coot Club and The Big Six, on the Norfolk Broads in 1983, the BBC producer Joe Waters used a 35 foot river cruiser as camera boat. It could be difficult keeping it stable during a take, especially with so many people on board, but being a proper boat it was much easier to manoeuvre than the pontoon. And faster. Andrew Morgan, the director still managed to get his camera angles and it had the advantage of a cabin where sensitive equipment such as film stock and lenses could be stored. I can remember the camera assistant changing the film on board. I don’t know if the boat had heads. May be.

On both productions we had the inevitable problem of modern boats coming into shot. We had to have one of two men in zoomy motorboats that could zip across the open water to ask them to move clear of the shot. Even with this control you can imagine what happens. You line up your shot with all your boats in position, the sun comes out and a modern motorboat roars across the lake leaving you all rocking in its wake.  Then it rains.

The good thing about having a safety officer in a frog-suit is that they can carry you to shore at the end of a long day. You don’t have to get your feet wet.

The Safety Officer and me, with Dennis Lewiston and Claude Whatham still standing in the Amazon ~ photo: Martin Neville

The question is – Did the DOP and the director get carried ashore too?

You can read more here:

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

7 thoughts on “Filming The Swallow and The Amazon from a pontoon out on Coniston Water ~ 31st May 1973”

  1. Hello – thank you for all these posts, they are so interesting and entertaining. As a family we occasionally hire rowing boats at Keswick and the cry always goes up, “Swallows and Amazons forever” (more often from me than my 3 children I have to say!). We are big fans of the film, so these insights are great. Is the material in the book ‘Funnily Enough’ by any chance, and if not do you have any plans to put it in a future book? It would be a nice addition to the ‘Search for Arthur Ransome’ type books I have on my shelf.
    Best wishes, Kevin

    1. I do have a section on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the book ‘Funnily Enough’, my diary of the year 1991.
      The big question is: Do you think I should make a publication out of all these postings? I must say that I find myself writing things that I think would be quite useful to anyone wanting to make a new adaptation of the film. I had forgotten just how complicated it was to the sequence I wrote about today.

  2. Personally I think they would make a good book! Generally I think they’d appeal to any fans of the film (who are probably also fans of the books), although I wouldn’t know how many people that amounts to. The film must still be popular though – I see it for sale all over the Lake District (I live in the north east but we have a caravan over there so go there often), as well as the usual big DVD outlets. Last year we were at the Kendal Museum, where there is an Arthur Ransome room, and I noticed they were selling it there too.

    It seems to have really stood the test of time, along with that other classic ‘The Railway Children’ (we have them both on the same DVD!)

  3. Once I have reached the end of the story of making the film I can certainly publish it as a colour e-book. It might prove expensive as a paperback or hardback as I think we need the colour photographs. I’ve tried to keep the illustrations in a certain style. One thing we plan to add on the website are clips of the 16mm footage my father took. You may have seen bits of it on Big Screen Britain. I have it loaded on my PC and ready for editing, which is exciting. This is good as I have footage where we are lacking in stills photographs.

  4. Totally agree that we need those lovely 70s colour photos; yo for the e-book! Hugely look forward to it (when you’ve worn yourself out producing it for us all).

  5. It is tiring but if I don’t write up the story of making the film now I never will. Your encouraging comments keep me going!
    I row to Cormorant Island next and will soon be able to add more of my father’s 16mm footage.

  6. You don’t think, when you are film, how complicated some of the sequences must be. Particularly those shot on water! Thank you so much, Sophie, for this ‘inside information’.

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