The Lake District is very beautiful. The problem about filming there is that it can rain quite hard – heavily – was the word I used in 1973.
By this stage in the filming of Swallows and Amazons Claude Whatham only had one ‘rain cover’ option. We were kept busy recording sea shanties with Virginia McKenna at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel by Lake Windermere while Dennis Lewiston, the DOP, lit Mrs Batty’s barn at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water.
Arthur Ransome must have done much to revive the songs of the sea
Farewell and adieu to you, fair Spanish ladies, Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain; For we’ve under orders for to sail for old England, And we may never see you fair ladies again.
We never got as far as the ranting and roaring bit in the film.
No one really knows how old this naval song is. The Oxford Book of Sea Songs, mentions it in the logbook of the Nellie of 1796, long before shanties really came established as a genre. All I know is that Titty loved it and was still singing it in Peter Duck when the song became quite useful for navigating the English Channel.
‘The first land we sighted was called the Dodman, Next Rame Head off Plymouth, Start, Portland and Wight; We sailed by Beachy, by Fairlight and Dover, And then we bore up for the South Foreland light,’ or sort of.
Walking into Mrs Batty’s barn that day was hugely exciting. Simon Holland, the designer, had mounted Swallow on a cradle so that she could be rocked, as if by water, as the scenes of her sailing at night were shot. It was brilliant, she even went about. Moonlight wasn’t not a problem. Richard Pilbrow can correct me, but I think it was produced by a lamp called a ‘tall blonde’. I don’t think we had a wind machine. The Prop Men used a large sheet of cardboard to produce a breeze.
‘Wouldn’t Titty have liked this?’
‘Sailing like this in the dark.’
’57, 58, 60, 61…’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Can’t you hear it? The wind in the trees? We must be near the bank. Quick, Susan lower the sail! Roger, catch the yard as it comes down!’ Then there is a crunch as the Swallows hit a landing stage. All mocked up. Quite fun.
‘What about Titty?’
Amazon was placed on the same mounting. I climbed aboard and started wrapping myself up in her white sail.
Children always love the irony of John saying, ‘She’s at the camp. She’ll be allright. She’s got a tent,’ when the shot cuts to me looking damp and uncomfortable about sleeping in Amazon, anchored out on the water.
Later I wake up and come out from under the sail to hear the burglars heaving Captain Flint’s trunk across Cormorant Island. All in all we achieved quite a bit on that wet day in Westmorland. Much safer and easier than being out on the water. Because the cradle was at waist height Claude was able to get lower angle shots than when out on the camera pontoon. I think Simon West, who played John, did really well. He managed to convince me that he was really sailing when I watched the film and I knew he wasn’t.
Back at our guest house in Ambleside there was a real life drama. Little Simon Price had gone missing. He was the small boy last seen on the beach at Rio, having his shorts pulled up by his sister. The Police were called and everything. But as in a lot of real life situations, things were sorted out, and we returned to the mundane world of maths lessons. I was tutored by Helen, one of the students at the Charlotte Mason College of Education who was also lodging at Oaklands as Mrs Causey, our teacher, could not ‘do modern Maths.’
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