‘I thought he was a retired Pirate’ ~ filming the parley with the Amazons on Wildcat Island

Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton confronting the Amazon Pirates on Wildcat Island in Swallows and Amazons

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 do believe my mother is still eating in the picture above. We all ate hugely to stave off the cold. You can see in the movie how much we enjoyed eating the iced buns before the Amazons attacked. 

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. 

Daphne Neville with Richard Pilbrow1
Molly and Richard Pilbrow in 1973

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.  

Altounyan Children - Susie, Taqui, Titty (seated) and Roger
Altounyan Children – Susie, Taqui, Titty (seated) and Roger

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.

Stephen Grendon playing Roger

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.

Jane, Michael, Clare and Lucy Selby on the shore of Coniston Water talking to my sisters, Perry and Tamzin who is holding their dog, Minnie ~ photo: Martin Neville
 
Other members of the crew had been joined by their children. Brian Doyle noted in his diary that took his daughter Pandora off to Beatrix Potter’s farmhouse Hill Top, travelling in Dad’s car with my sisters Perry and Tamzin.
 
Perry and Tamzin in the Lake District
My sisters Perry Neville and Tamzin Neville waiting for me on the shore of Coniston Water

 

Although it was good to be on Coniston Water hanging around at the base camp all day would have been terribly dull for them. This, however was about to change.  That evening Mum went to help Terry Smith, the Wardrobe Master, sort out costumes to fit the Supporting Artistes. My sisters were about to earn their own breakfasts . They were to become Film Extras.
 

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Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

17 thoughts on “‘I thought he was a retired Pirate’ ~ filming the parley with the Amazons on Wildcat Island”

      1. Arthur Ransome deliberately avoided references to the appearance of his S & As in order to assist readers to identify with them. I don’t understand what Evgenia was on about Roger must be fair, as she knew this as well as anyone. In an early draft of S & A Ransome said that the Amazons had curly hair — a reference cut from the final version. This assisting readers to identify was one reason why he was so critical of other illustrators.

        1. You’ll be interested in Richard Pilbrow’s book, a Theatre Project, which has a section on ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I have corrected some of the name spellings for him since it’s been published. See if you can get a copy on Amazon.

  1. Although I never actually spoke with Evgenia, I stood very close to her on one occasion and she seemed very formidable and didn’t brook any opposing opinions!

      1. No, this was after Arthur Ransome had died. It was in a hotel in Windermere and it was quite by chance, in, I think, 1972 on one of my first trips to the Lakes with my new-ish wife. We were with some friends who were local and it was one of these friends who confirmed the identification. She was standing and talking to some people at the next table. ‘Holding forth’ might be a better description, but she still had an ‘accent’ which made her unmistakable.

          1. She was, and had quite a commanding presence I remember. But although she was definitely ‘putting someone straight’ at at least one point, she also seemed very good humoured., she was often heard laughing and seen smiling. I think she knew she was being overheard by most people in the room and she certainly had a slight accent to her speech. My wife, our friends and I at our table, literally next to her, were unashamedly fascinated by her and I was thrilled just to be in her presence; a lady who not only had been married to one of my literary heroes, but had known such an historical figure as Trotsky. I have forever wished that I’d had the courage to speak to her.

              1. I’ve been dreading you asking me this! At the moment, no I’m afraid I don’t. It was about 50 years ago, my wife passed away almost three years ago, and I am no longer in touch with the friends we were with; so I have no-one to ask. All is not necessarily lost, however, as I will see if we had a diary at the time; and also, next time I’m in Windermere I will see if my memory can be jogged. I will do my best to find out.

              1. Isn’t the Waterhead Hotel in Ambleside? I’m pretty sure we were in Windermere, or possibly Bowness.

  2. I haven’t found a diary for that time but I went to the Lakes yesterday and I am 99% certain that I saw her in the Craig Manor Hotel, Bowness.

      1. It’s on Lake Road, just as you are coming down into Bowness; on the right when travelling from Windermere.

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