My diary of Thursday 14th June 1973 continued…
Claude Whatham had no Peak of Darien at Bank Ground Farm, Arthur Ransome’s location for Holly Howe. But he did have buttercups and daisies, the flowers so evocative of childhood summers spent in the English countryside. The field that runs down to Coniston Water looked glorious that sunny day in June 1973. It was glowing.
Claude had used wild flowers to good effect when he made Laurie Lee’s memoir Cider with Rosie for the BBC in May 1971. It had been one of those months of endless sunny days in Gloucestershire but we were in Westmorland now, where buttercups bloomed later in the year and sunny days were cherished. This was Claude’s afternoon for low angle shots.
We arrived to find that a huge hole had been dug in the meadow for the camera, with a picnic for us spread out the other side of it. We thought this was very exciting. I’m not sure whether Mrs Batty throught quite the same way about the excavations in her field. I was sad that we didn’t have a fire with a kettle, as they do in the book of Swallows and Amazons, but that was kept as a feature of island life and camping yet to come.
Roger came sailing down clutching the telegram from our father, reaching out to deliver it over the hole. I understand that this was based on the cryptic telegrams that Ernest Altounyan sent his children Taqui, Susie, Titty and Roger, the real Swallows. It has become the iconic response to Health and Safety ever since.
What we ended up saying altered slightly from David Wood’s original screenplay. ‘Dispatches?’ – Ransome spells the word ‘Despatches’ but apparently both spellings are correct. John referred to Daddy as Father. I’m not sure why. He did so in his letter. It is daddy in the book but perhaps Claude considered ‘Father’ as having a more period feel. I stuck more to Ransome’s dialogue, as you can see if you compare the film script with my diary entry above. This was only because I knew his book so well, and never saw the script. The acting credit must go to Simon West who sat holding the telegram, graciously absorbing my bossiness, whilst I grappled with the words.
Back in 1973 it was the job of the ‘Continuity Girl’ to take notes on any changes made to the script. Sue Merry, ever present in her dark coat, took on this role. Today she would probably be known as a Script Supervisor but her Aviator sunglasses and black polo-necked jersey would be the height of fashion. Sue also took notes technical notes for the film editor and director, indicating which Takes were favoured and which had been spoilt, giving the reason. In those days we had no monitors. The camera lens would be unscrewed after each take and checked carefully. If any fluff was found, Bobby Sitwell the Camera Assistant would call out, ‘Hair in the gate!’ Sue would quietly note this down and David Bracknell, the First Assistant, would call out, ‘Set up to go again’. And we’d go again.
Sue was also responsible for the continuity, and would take numerous Polaroid photographs as an aide-memoir. This scene followed the one of Mother giving Roger the telegram, which had not yet been shot. Virginia McKenna hadn’t arrived back inCumbria. Looking back, this seems a huge gamble. Would they ever get another sunny day while the buttercups were still blooming, a day to match – exactly – the weather of 14th June?
Sue would sit and type up her notes on location, using a portable typewriter that sometimes was set up for her on a spindly picnic table. This method of working was different from the BBC, when the ‘Production Assistants’ would type up their notes at the end of each day. Would it have been so that one copy of her notes, typed on triplicate paper, could be sent to the laboratory with the exposed film. It meant that her evenings were free.
Sue Merry had worked for Neville C. Thompson before on The Boyfriend, Ken Russell’s movie that starred Twiggy with Tommy Tune, Barbara Windsor and Glenda Jackson. She later worked on The Wicker Man, Anthony Shaffer’s harrowing film directed by Robin Hardy that featured Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee and Diane Cliento, Britt Ekland and Ingrid Pitt. She went on to work with Dennis Lewiston and other members of our crew on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the movie that starred Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and such unexpected artists such as Meatloaf, Christopher Biggins and Prince Andrew’s old flame Koo Stark, who played a bridesmaid. Sue also did the continuity for Nicolas Roeg on The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie, before moving into television to work on The Professionals and The Comic Strip Presents… All quite fun!
But on that day in June 1973, she was the girl with the daisies in her hair, wearing a coat thick enough to indicate that although sunny it was still quite chilly in the Lake District.
You can read more in ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’