Monthly Archives: January 2012

‘It must be Niagara’…Dixon’s Farm and walking up to the charcoal burners ~ while ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville at Elterwater

Sophie Neville by Elterwater in 1973 ~ photo: DJ Neville

My mother was very excited about meeting the actress Brenda Bruce who Claude had engaged to play Mrs Dixon. She had arrived on 10th June whilst we were filming the fishing scene at Elterwater where she found Claude keeping up our moral by wearing my mother’s Donny Osmond hat. I think he needed it for warmth. It was unexpectedly cold. I can remember being worried that Brenda Bruce would be chilly as she was only wearing a blouse and flip-flops. Now I understand that she ‘was of a certain age’ and didn’t feel the cold quite so much as skinny twelve-year-olds with opinions.

Brenda Bruce

 I shouldn’t have been worried about Mrs Dixon. She looked wonderful in the film – was wonderful – and very comfortable in her nice clean dairy. I had no idea that Brenda Bruce was so well-known, that BAFTA ~ the British Academy for Television Awards had named her Best Actress in 1963. “Yes, you do!” Mum said. “She was the White Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass.”  She’d actually worked for Claude quite a bit and he trusted her to play a small part well.  When I look back on Swallows and Amazons I can see that he made sure it didn’t become chocolate-boxy. You can tell by glancing at Mike Pratt’s costume. Mike Pratt who played Mr Dixon the provider of worms for our fishing bait, the lovely Lakeland colours of his garments contrasting with the harsh blues and reds of our 1970’s clothes.

What Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham did want to make the most of was the Westmorland scenery. In many ways they were making a landscape movie. I think what they most enjoyed was finding all the locations to put together Arthur Ransome’s imaginary lake as depicted in the end pages of Swallows and Amazons and I am often asked where the waterfall is. “It must be Niagara!”  No, Sophie. It’s somewhere near Elterwater.

Kevin Burn sent me some suggestions with photos which made me feel pretty sure the actual waterfall is Skelwith Force. But Roger Wardale, who is an expert on Arthur Ransome’s locations, thinks not. “I don’t think it’s Skelwith Force which is more a series of rocky rapids in fairly level ground. I watched the film again yesterday and was reminded of the waterfall at Glen Mary (otherwise known as Tom Gill) the outlet for Tarn Hows dropping down to the Coniston-Ambleside road 4 miles from Skelwith Bridge.” So – any ideas most welcome!

What I can’t remember where Dixon’s Farm was filmed. The scenes set at Jackson’s Farm, Arthur Ransome’s  ‘Holly Howe’ were shot at Bank Ground Farm by Coniston Water, but all I know about the location for Dixon’s Farm is that our tutor got terribly lost trying to find it…

Geraint Lewis of the Arthur Ransome Trust has written to confirm Kevin Burn’s theory about the location we used for Mrs Dixon’s dairy. ‘I had a long conversation once with Lucy Batty about her recollections of filming at Bank Ground in the house, barn, etc. She confirmed that they used the buildings shown as Tent Lodge Cottages on Google Maps – as Dixon’s Farm. That certainly seems to fit from the view of the lake and shoreline trees in the background.’

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

‘It’s a shark! It’s a shark!’ One of the most enjoyable days filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville and Simon West on the cover of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ pub by the Daily Mail

Of all the wonderful days we spent filming Swallows and Amazons in 1973, the fishing scene, shot in a reedy bay on Elterwater was one I enjoyed most. It was a cold, rather wet morning but the Third Assistant, Gareth Tandy, taught us how to use our rods and we were absorbed in a way that Arthur  Ransome would have understood well.

Filming the fishing scene

Filming the fishing scene from the camera punt on Elterwater

The only problem we had that day was keeping the fish alive. A chap in waders, with hair so Bryl-creamed that it looked like black patent leather, had brought along a number of perch. Bob Hedges our Property Master, the Designer Simon Holland and Ian Whittaker, the Set Dresser, took it upon themselves to keep them as happy as they could, until they were – very carefully – attached to our hooks.  Titty doesn’t catch one but John did. Despite everyone’s best efforts it wasn’t a very lively perch.

Property Master Bob Hedges keeping the perch alive  ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The big challenge was Roger’s great fish – a massive pike that meant to be snapping and ferocious. I’ve been told that it ended up being re-suscitated in Keswick Hospital ICU – the Intensive Care Unit.

The local fisherman, Ian Whittaker, Simon Holland and Gareth Tandy with the fish  photo: Daphne Neville

Sadly this is the only photograph we have of the set designers at work together. Later that afternoon we went to one of the few interiors of the film – the general store in Rio or Bowness-on-Windermere where we bought the rope for the lighthouse tree and four bottles of grog. I’m not sure if it was a shop then or someone’s garage. It is a barber shop these days. Back then, Ian had dressed it with boxes of wooden dolly pegs and other things you’d buy in brown paper bags. A wonderful 1920’s radio set and two purring cats really made the scene come alive, especially since, being in reticent explorer mode, we were a bit gruff in our communications with the native shop keeper.

The general Store in Rio

Sophie Neville in Rio with four bottles of grog ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Ian Whittaker struck me as being rather different from everyone else on the crew. He was a very nice looking man and a gentleman of the old school. I remember him telling me that he’d originally set out to be an actor but had found it so difficult to get work that he grabbed a chance to become a Set-Dresser or Designer’s Assistant. He found he rather enjoyed it, and stuck to the job despite his family thinking it was not much of a career. He proved them wrong. By 1971 he was working for Ken Russell on The Boy Friend – a musical about a Musical starring Twiggy with Christopher Gable and Max Adian that I’d seen at school. After Swallows and Amazons he worked on Ridley Scott’s film Alien with Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and John Hurt and was nominated for an Oscar with the others on the design team. Eventually he won an Oscar for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration with the Designer Luciana Arrighi for Howards End –  the movie of EM Forster’s book starring Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter.  In 1994 he was nominated again, this time for Remains of the Day directed by James Ivory. After that he worked on Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson’s movie of the Jane Austen classic that launched Kate Winslet’s career, some of which was shot at Montacute in Somerset where my great-grandmother lived.  Ian Whittaker received another Oscar nomination for Anna and the King in 2000 and a nomination for an Emmy Award for the TV movie Into the Storm in 2009.

So, it was rather a waste that Ian spent his time just building little stone walls in the lake to keep the perch alive on our set, but I think he enjoyed the fishing scene as much as I.

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‘Look, John! Steamer ahead!’ ~ Near disaster whilst filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Ronnie Cogan having a cigarette and a drink with one of the Supporting Artistes. Terry Smith the Wardrobe Master is going below in the background. photo: Martin Neville.

It was a glorious day to film on Windermere. Conditions were perfect. My father had been asked to appear as a Extra in the scene in the film of Swallows and Amazons when the the crew of Swallow narrowly miss colliding with a steamer, that transports tourists up and down the lake, on their voyage to Wildcat Island. He was the tall dark native in a blazer and white flannels aboard the very elegant Lakeland steamer, The Tern. A lovely way to spend a sunny morning in the Lake District.

MV Tern on Windermere was built in 1890 with a steam engine, converted to diesel in the 1950s, and is still operating today.

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon and I were in the Swallow, which at the start of the day was attached to the camera pontoon so that Claude Whatham, our Director could capture the dialogue on film. In the script Roger is down to say, ‘Steamship on the port bow’.  I think what came out was, ‘Look John!  Over there – Steamer ahead!’

The screenplay of David Wood’s 1973 adapation of Arthur Ransome’s classic book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ set in the Lake District in 1929

My mother had been obligued to go to Bristol as she presented a weekly programme for HTV with Jan Leeming in those days, so Dad must have been in the dual role of chaperone.  A sailor with years of experience racing on the Solent he took a keen interest in all our sailing scenes.

Three men of Cumbria who were happy to have short-back-and-sides haircuts in 1973 on the deck of the MV Tern on Windermere in 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

And the next day… 

‘Carry on Matron’. I wonder what near disasters they had on that film.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Diary, Dinghy sailing, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

‘Away to Rio’ ~ Part Two

In Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons Titty is left keeping watch on an island, so small it is little more than a rock, whilst the Swallows sail into Rio Bay in search of the Amazons. Luckily for me, this is not so in the film. Susan declares, ‘They must be making for Rio’ and the scene cuts to a band playing in the municipal park at Bowness-on-Windermere. John rows into the bay pretty sure that the Amazons have given them the slip, Susan suggests that we could explore Rio and I happily declare, ‘We could buy rope for the lighthouse tree.’  And that is what we did – leaving the boy Roger in charge of Swallow. It was such a hot day I whipped off my grey cardigan before I leapt out of the boat, no doubt causing havoc for the Film Editor.

The Swallows approach the jetty in Rio. Empty camera boats are moored in the foreground beside a period launch. Are those green boatsheds still standing today?

Simon Holland, the Set Designer on Swallows and Amazons had transformed the busy Bowness of 1973 into a Lakelandtown of 1929. To do this he must have had a huge amount of glassfibre boats moved. These were replaced by the beautiful wooden launches and skiffs of the period. You can see my father in white flannel trousers, his dark hair cut short, standing on the jetty in front of the lovely old green boathouses that then overlooked the bay. He is talking to the owner of the launch with the green and white striped awning.

Much of the first part of this sequence, including the close ups in Swallow, was filmed from the grey punt used as a camera boat. It seems that Simon West, who played John was towing this as he rowed up to the jetty. It was a hot day and for once we were all feeling the heat.

Kit Seymour and Jane Grendon watch the filming on the jetty whilst Tamzin and Perry Neville eat ice creams with the one man in Cumbria willing to have a short-back-and-sides. You can just see the period cars parked in the background

Although the Swallows spurned the conventional attractions of tripperdom, we spotted the Stop-me-and-by-one ice cream cart like lightening.  I was entranced by the old cars, the pony and trap and the number of people dressed to populate Rio. They were organised and directed by Terry Needham, the Second Assistant Director. To our delight we found Gareth Tandy, the Third Assistant, was dressed in period costume too, his Motorola hidden under a stripy blazer so he could cue the Supporting Artists and keep back the general public without having to worry about appearing in vision himself. To his dismay he had had to have his hair cut. We all thought this a distinct improvement. He looked so handsome! I’m not sure if you can see him in the distance when we are climbing out of Swallow. You can just see my sisters walking towards the town at this point with Pandora Doyle, Brain Doyle’s daughter.

The Price children, Perry Neville, Jane Grendon, Tamzin Neville and Pandora Doyle in their 1929 costumes on the shore of Lake Windermere at Bowness in 1973 ~ all photos on this page : Martin Neville

Jane Grendon, our chaperone looked fabulous in her 1929 costume. It was the one and only time I saw her in a dress. She was wonderful. Being in costume enabled her to keep an eye on all the children playing on the beach. I know she would have kept them going and maintained safety as they flung pebbles into the water or rushed about with the donkeys that were giving rides along the shore – no one wearing helmets of course.

Another excitement of the day was that Claude Whatham had given Mr Price, the owner of the Oaklands Guest House where we were staying, the part of the native. The native who says, ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there.’ Mum said that Kit Seymour, Suzanna Hamilton and Lesley Bennett had spied him, pacing the garden at Oaklands trying out every possible way of saying this line. ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there.’  Then, ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there,’ leaving the girls in fits of giggles.

After we leave the general stores, me clutching bottles of grog, you can see Tamzin in a pink dress and straight back riding a chocolate coloured donkey along the beach while Dad is pushing out a rowing skiff with a log oar. Roger looks on from the Jetty to see Perry riding another donkey in a yellow dress while Tamzin walks by in the opposite direction with none other than Mr Price, in his striped blazer, who is walking along towards the boathouses holding a little boy’s hand.  I am sure it was one of his own children but it looks a bit dodgy because while Roger watches my sisters and Pandora throwing stones into the lake from the beach were the skiffs are pulled up, David Price comes walking along the jetty and delivers his line: ‘That’s a nice little ship you’ve got there.’ It’s shot in rather a creepy way. John did warn Roger to ‘Beware of natives.’

The film crew of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ wait with Swallow and Stephen Grendon at the end of the jetty while Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville line up by the launch

A moment later Pandora and my sisters are surrounding the ice cream man while John, Susan and Titty return, striding along the jetty like the three wise men, carrying rope, buns and bottles of grog.  My father’s all time passion in the form of a very graceful steam launch passes, almost silently, in the foreground. A happy, happy day. They only sad thing was that we didn’t have time to film inside the bun shop, which was such a pity as it looked glorious. Claude had been obliged to re-take a scene when some ladies – real life ladies in 1970’s garments and bouffant hairdos – had come scootling out of the Public Conveniences in the middle of a take.

What none of us knew was that is was nearly our last day on earth. The same Supporting Artists, including my father, had been booked for the next morning…

My father writes to say:

‘Mr Pattinson, the man who revived the steamboat world, along with Roger Mallinson, was the character in Elisabeth the little steamer.’

George Pattinson in his steam launch Elisabeth ~ photo: Martin Neville

‘The Bowness skiffs were not like the Thames version. The outriggers caught the oars and allowed a fisherman to let go of the grip if and when he caught an Artic char, the Winderenmere fish, the oars were retained.  A heavy boat.

I remember the rope was huge, fat and unsuitable!  Daphne was not around as she had to go south to present Women Only for HTV. She was devestated to leave the donkey scene.’

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

‘Away to Rio’ or Bowness on Windermere to film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 – part one

Swallow with Prop men aboard, being attached to the camera boat and its waiting film crew busy setting up at Bowness-on-Windermere ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

Jane Grendon as a Passer-by with her pram in Rio Bay ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Perry Neville, in yellow and Tamzin Neville, in pink riding donkeys in Rio Bay ~ photo: Daphne Neville

‘So lucky the old Victorian boatsheds were still there then, recorded forever more. How on earth do people sanction such monstrosities as that which replaced them?’

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Dinghy sailing, Film, Film Cast, Film Catering, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story