Richard Pilbow says that the fantastic thing about filming Swallows and Amazons was that breakfast was served on location every morning, without fail, sending ‘a wonderful aroma across the set.’ Huge English breakfasts were dished up by two chaps working for a location catering company from Pinewood to greet the film crew every morning, with bacon and eggs, mushrooms, sausages and tomatoes. And the fried bread was well fried. So, it didn’t really matter that we missed breakfast at the Oaklands Guest House in Ambleside. A bacon butty would we placed into my hand as soon as we reached the base camp on Coniston Water. I only wish our guest house had been nearer Peel Island where we spent so much of our time filming.
I remember the Parley Scene as being of importance to Mrs Ransome, who was still living at the time. Arthur Ransome had died in 1967 but his formidable widow, Evgenia, owned the copyright to his books. And she did not want there to be any sexual frison between John and Nancy. Richard Pilbrow had had quite a job of persuading her to give him the rights to the film at all. He know that Tom Maschler, the head of Jonathan Cape, had already had to turn down many movie offers. The Ransomes feared ‘a Disney-ization of the story, a vulgarization.’ Neither Arthur Ransome nor his wife, Evgenia, had liked the black and white BBC version of Swallows and Amazons made in 1962 when Susan George played the part of Kitty, rather than Titty. I watched it with Joe Waters at the BBC library. I remember it as being terribly boring and rather badly made but am fascinated by the clips now. Susan George had such beautiful long plaits.
In his recently published book A Theatre Project, Richard describes how, by vowing to be true to the book, he finally persuaded Mrs Ransome to let him have the film rights. But life wasn’t easy. At the very last minute, just as we were about to start shooting, she put her oar in. ‘She took a violent dislike to the casting of Roger…He was dark haired. “This is outrageous; he has to be fair,” she protested.’ It was too late for Claude Whatham to re-cast. Richard admits that with regret he had to over-ride her. This is a secret that has only just been revealed. I was amazed when I heard about it since all the Swallows in Arthur Ransome’s drawings had very dark hair – as did the real children – the Altounyans, whose father was of Armenian descent.
They lived in Aleppo, in Syria where Ernest Altounyan was working in his father’s hospital as a surgeon, and all looked quite tanned in the old photos. I though that, if anything, Mrs Ransome would have objected to me being too blonde but apparently she wanted ‘an English rose’ to play Titty. Once the books became well known, the Altounyans didn’t want people identifying the Walkers too closely with their children.
Roger Wardale said that Arthur Ransome’s intention was to keep the appearance of his characters vague so that any child could easily associate with them and imagine themselves in their place. He originally described the Amazons as having curly hair, but edited this out.
Although we loved filming on Peel Island, our real families, who had come up to the Lake District to be with us over half-term, couldn’t watch. Our friends the Selbys, with whom I had learnt to sail, had driven up to Cumbria from Chelmsford and yet probably saw nothing except for the bedraggled crew and me at lunch time.
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