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 both the small boats are approaching?
The scene looks so simple on paper. It is the one when the Swallows sail back to Wildcat Island with the captured Amazon to find Nancy dancing with rage and Peggy anxious to get home. One page of script. Claude soon discovered that he was shooting the most complicated of sailing scenes. On a cold grey day in the Lake District. It is extreemly difficult to describe how he managed this, but I will attempt to do so.
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 especially built for this purpose. It was a 30 foot raft equipped with four outboard engines, surfaced with a number of flat ‘camera boards’. It was basically rectangular but with added arms 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 but could be mounted on a short section of track. Electric lighting was not something that could be used on this pontoon but two large reflector boards were used to light our faces instead.
As well as the Director and Camera crew, the Sound Recordist and ‘Boom Swinger’ were on board this pontoon along with Sue Continuity girl, Costume and Make-up, obviously the two boat men who drove it and David Blagen, the Sailing Director. He had to work with Claude, the wind and the boatmen so that 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.
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 Wildcat 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 Wildcat Island. 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.
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.
This picture was taken by Richard Pilbrow, the Producer of Swallows and Amazon, on a different, obviously warmer, sunnier day. It shows Susan climbing in to Amazon. I include it here to show the pontoon with its outboards and odd cross panels. Here there are at least twelve on board. I think that by this time 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.
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 question is – Did the DOP and the director get carried ashore too?
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