Being Robinson Crusoe on Wildcat Island ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville, playing Titty Walker in Swallows and Amazons

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker, who envisaged herself as Robbinson Crusoe alone on Wildcat Island

I did not invisage it beforehand, but at this point in my life I became one of the actors who played Robinson Crusoe in film, with Virginia McKenna taking the part of Man Friday. It would come across rather well on a chat show.  The audience would be taken unawares and we could meet the other actors who took the same parts after us. I am sure they were stranded on warmer desert islands.

Losing a milk tooth when you are twelve-and-a-half years old is really rather embarrassing. When you are in the middle of appearing in a feature film it’s disastrous. Not only was the gap sore but since it was an upper tooth at the front of my mouth the continuity of the whole movie was blown.  I think today they may have tried to fit a bridge but Claude Whatham, the Director decided he would just have to live with the problem. I spent the next few days trying not to let my teeth show, but even today, all these years later, those who know the film well comment on the fact that I lost an eye tooth.

Virginia McKenna playing Man Friday in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

As it was, I had to concentrate on pushing the hideously heavy Holly Howe rowing boat away from our desert island in the scene when I bid farewell to Virginia McKenna who was galantly playing Man Friday. This was more tricky than it would be in real life as the massive 35mm camera, the Cameraman and Sound Recordist where in the boat with Virginia. The water was cold, the rocks rather slippy.

And I had the telescope in my hand. This was in order to deliver Arthur Ransome’s line, ‘Duffer. That’s with looking too hard. Try the other eye,’ whilst lowering the telescope to wipe away a tear. I’m afraid that what came out was ‘That’s for looking too hard.’  I busy thinking of terribly sad things, all geared up to produce the tears, when glycerine was produced and carefully blown into my eyes. The most enormous tears, far more difficult to contain than real ones, gushed forth. And I think that the Wardrobe Master must have forgotten about a hanky. You can tell that the square of white cotton I had tucked in my knickers is just a frayed piece of cloth.

Daniel Defoe’s hero Robinson Crusoe has been portrayed on the big screen by Douglas Fairbanks, Dan O’Herlihy – who earned an Oscar nomination for playing the part in 1952, Aidan Quinn, Pierce Brosnan and me. Or rather me playing Titty being Robinson Crusoe. Oh, dear, Oh dear.

The scene opens with Titty sitting on a biscuit tin, reading from her log. ‘Twenty-five years ago this day, I Robinson Crusoe, was wreck-ed on this desolate place.’ The fact that I had missed the -ed from wrecked was real. I hadn’t written the word down properly.  As you can see in my actual diary there was then a dash ______ . At this point I flung myself  to the ground and dragged my exhausted body into the camp grasping my throat so as to portray the fact that Robinson Crusoe was virtually dying of thirst.

I hauled myself to my feet by grabbing the forked stick by the fire. What I didn’t realise was that Graham Ford, the Sound Recordist had hidden his microphone there. You can still hear the sound crunch as I grasp the crossbar that held the kettle. He was a perfectionist and, despite my apologies, was really rather annoyed about it.

‘Make a good place for a camp,’ Titty declares heartily, whilst looking around. ‘I’ll build my hut here out of  branches and moss.’ And so continued my solo performance. ‘Can’t have two tents for one ship-wrecked mariner.’

As I have mentioned before my mother is very theatrical. In her eyes this was my great soliloquy. The most embarrassing thing I have to admit is that for ages after the film, during my sensitive teenage years, Mum would insist that I used this scene as my audition piece.  Can you imagine? It was dotty. Instead of something appropriate for a young girl, like a scene from I Capture the Castle, which Virginia McKenna had been in, or even something from Shakespeare such as Romeo and Juliet, I would fling myself to the floor of the audition space and enact Titty playing a bearded man. Even now I blush as I remember doing all this in front of five amazed executives, who had never seen Swallows and Amazons. They were looking for nothing more than a normal girl – to be in an advertisement for Parker Knoll armchairs.

Have you ever read the book?  I don’t think many nine-year-olds would manage it. Despite the impression given by the poster above there are no girls in it. It’s about slavery. And cannibals. And rearing goats.

Douglas Fairbanks’ film was released in 1932, too late for Titty. The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was released as a movie in 1922 and in 1929. I wonder if Arthur Ransome ever saw either version? I have to say that if there is every a Hollywood line-up of actors who have played the part I want to be included in it. I might make up for the ignomity I suffered.

2 Comments

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

2 responses to “Being Robinson Crusoe on Wildcat Island ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

  1. Roger Wardale

    Sophie,
    There is the story that in making IKWIG Micky Powell made Pamela Brown say the line ‘Ye-ess, but money isn’t everything,’ 22 times and then settled for the 22nd which was exactly like the first take. Claude Whatham seems to have avoided retakes like the plague, fearing that he would lose the spontaneity and naturalistic acting that he was after. Were there examples of any/multiple retakes?

  2. Claude would often film ‘The rehearsal’ and then just one take. I am sure this was mainly to capture freshness and avoid pressurising us. Often re-takes have nothing to do with an actor’s performance. All directors need a couple of takes to give their film editor options, particually when shooting sailing sequences. The most common example of this would be to make an edit possible when someone walked into shot to gain continuity of movement. The actor must be on the right leg. You also need to ‘go again’ for technical reasons such as ‘a hair in the gate’. We did go to seven takes once, I think on Peel Island. 35mm film was expensive, so there must have been good reason for this – I can’t remember what it was though! Apparently Shirley Temple was a real ‘one take wonder’ but those early films were made very much like recording a play with long single wide shots, rather than intercutting within a sequence, which enables a director to control the pace and focus on the most interesting aspects of the scene whilst cutting out any glitches.

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