Dark secrets revealed – the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville as Titty in ‘Swallows and Amazons’

‘Here we are, intrepid explorers making our way into uncharted waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets shall be revealed?’

The dark secret was that the inky black night scenes had to be shot in Mrs Batty’s barn. At Bank Ground Farm. During the day.  The design team strung up thick light-proof drapes and made the dusty out-building into a studio. The director, Claude Whatham had no choice.  We had quickly run out of interior scenes and the weather was so bad that we could do little else.

‘While the rest of England melted in a heat wave, the Lakes seemed wrapped in mist and rain,’ Richard Pilbrow the Producer remembers. I have a press cutting from The Guardian dated 7th July 1973, which opens with the words:

  • ‘THE WEATHER report follows in half a minute. Richard Pilbrow is obcessed with the weather. Every morning he wakes around 4 o’clock and crosses his room at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel to cock a weather eye at the sky above Wansfell Pike. Most mornings it is the same story… Pilbrow looks out of the window. Raining. ‘ 

What a worry and concern that rain was. Swallows and Amazons is firmly set in an idlyic childhood summer, August of 1929, when the water was warm enough to swim daily and the only disapointment was a total lack of wind. When we arrived to start filming at Derwent Water on 12th June 1973 it was too windy to even go out on the lake.

I loved filming in the barn.  The Third Assistant, Gareth Tandy, lead me through the high wooden doors and into a magical version of our camp on Peel Island, beautifully recreated by Ian Whittaker the Set Dresser. A real camp fire was burning. Blankets (goatskins in Titty’s imagination) and pillows from out tents had been laid out so I could be ‘shrouded in my cloak’ while I was waiting up for the Swallows to return from the Amazon River. The scene was beautifully lit with branches held in stands in front of the lights with a gentle wind produced by the prop men wafting a board to lift my hair at the right moment.  I don’t think there was an owl hoot for me to hear. I had to imagine that so they could add a real owl call later. Someone has written in to ask if I learnt how to make an answering hoot. I’m afraid not. I tried and tried. I still can’t.  John could do it but Claude asked us both to just pretend so that he could lay the sound on afterwards.

I think what we gained, despite or perhaps because of the weather, was a camaraderie that forms a foundational basis to the film. We had to be stoic and get on with filming despite getting cold and wet. Rain doesn’t show up on screen unless it is really pelting down. You can see the effects – wet hair and soggy costumes, but you actually have to use rain machines if you want to show rain in a drama.  We could film our trek up the hill to visit the charcoal burners without a problem but going out on the lake was impossible. You’d have seen the rain drops falling on the water.  And it was too windy.  As it was, we had a brilliant Director of Photography who used what light he had to capture that limpid quality you find in the Lakes, so quintessentially English it draws you in, reeling back to childhood days when we had time to make camps and rush about in the woods.

The rain did deter my mother from taking photographs. She didn’t have a flash to use in the barn but she took lots – masses – the following day…

Dressed for the Cumbrian weather: Daphne Neville with Liz Lomas, Richard’s assistant at Theatre Projects who had come up from London ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

4 Comments

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

4 responses to “Dark secrets revealed – the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

  1. Dear Sophie,
    I’ve just finished reading your posts up to date. Thank you so much for putting them up – they make fascinating reading. My sister and I are huge Ransome fans and we watched the film so many times when we were young that we can still quote huge chunks of the dialogue even now! I read the book before I saw the film and always thought that you portrayed Titty just as I had imagined her.

    Please carry on posting – I am going to direct all of my Ransomish friends to have a look at your website.

    Best wishes,

    Rachel.

    • Dear Rachel,

      I am so glad that you are enjoying reading about the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I just hope my stories don’t shatter the majic of the film. I didn’t start out to write anything much, but so many letters came in that those who love the movie have encouraged me to copy my oiriginal diaries, just as they are, and comment on how each day went. My parents took most of the colour photographs – and the Producer, Richard Pilbrow, sent a few more from America, so I should have enough to keep going until the end. In many ways there hasn’t been an end – I am surprised on how much there is to say. What has been your favorite post? Do you think I should publish this as an e-Book!

      Hoping your freinds enjoy reading the posts. Do encourage them to post comments with any questions they might have about the film.

      Yours,

      Sophie

      • Roger Wardale

        Sophie,
        I don’t think there is any danger that your story of that cold wet summer of 1973 could possibly spoil the magic of the film. For one thing it is all so long ago and for another I suspect that some of the scenes are so perfect that they will live with us for ever. Your diary entries, written each and every day, are magical in themselves! While I may have reservations about some aspects of the film, I do not believe that it would be possible to better, for example, the Billies scene or the joy of arrival at Holly Howe.
        Keep up the good work!
        Very best,
        Roger

  2. You are kind – and a great encouragement. I must keep going!
    Do let me know what bits have been of most interest to you – if I have managed to mention anything that you did not know about.

    I think I am more critial of the film than anyone – but you are right, the Billies were amazing. I am writing about them next. The best thing is that I have photographs of the real charcoal burners. You can hardly ditinguish them from the actors.

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