Filming with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm, Cumbria ~ in 1973

Nearly fifty years ago, we were filming with Virginia McKenna at the location used for Arthur Ransome’s Holly Howe above Coniston Water. It was a day of days – the sunshiny day that we had all be waiting for.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm
Dame Virginia McKenna at the other side of the boat houses at Bank Ground Farm in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

David Bracknell with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm
First Assistant Director David Bracknell standing-in (or kneeling-in) for Roger with Dame Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm. The great trees in the background are sadly no longer there ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

The buttercups and daisies were still out in the field that flows from Holly Howe to the lake. Roger was able to tack up the meadow to receive the despatches from Mrs Walker, described in the opening pages of Arthur Ransome’s book.

‘…Each crossing of the field brought him nearer to the farm. The wind was against him, and he was tacking up against it to the farm, where at the gate his patient mother was awaiting him.’

Virginia McKenna with Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan
Dame Virginia McKenna having her hair adjusted by Ronnie Cogan ~ photo:Daphne Neville (c)

I don’t think you can tell that this section of the scene was recorded seven whole days later than the sequence that runs directly on from this when the Boy Roger delivers the very same ‘If not duffers’ telegram to Captain John. The hole that had been dug for the camera alongside our picnic had been filled in. You can see this from Mother’s perspective when I was milling about near the lake looking towards the island I couldn’t actually see.

Dame Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground Farm (Holly Howe) in the Lake District. Property Master Bob Hedges is working in the foreground. Lee Electric lighting assistants stand-by with reflector boards while Assistant Sound Recordist Gay Lawley-Wakelin waits on a box with the boom ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

Poor Sten, he had to run up the field on what proved to be our hottest day. I remember Jean McGill, the Unit Nurse ministering cool drinks and a flannel soaked in cool eau de Cologne to make sure he did not get dehydrated. We all wanted a go with the cool cloth on the back of our necks at lunch time.

With Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm
The Walker Family ~ Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan, Stephen Grendon as Roger, Sophie Neville as Titty, Dame Virginia McKenna as Mother and Simon West as John. photo: Daphne Neville (c)

It was good to escape the heat by getting out on the water. We shot the scene set on the old stone jetty at the boat houses below the farm when Titty leads ‘Good Queen Bess’ down to the harbour to inspect her ship. I didn’t realise she had a large box of matches in her hand. Virginia kept it a surprise from us in real life. I was excited to find out that Simon Holland, the Designer had painted the branded cover by hand.

As the Call Sheet specifies, our dinghy Swallow had been loaded with all the tents and camping equipment that had been on Peel Island the day before. I didn’t realise at the time quite how often the design team had struck camp and made it up again. I just sat on top of the equipment singing Adieu and Farewell, not very well, as we sailed out onto Coniston Water, waving goodbye to our Fair Spanish Ladies.

Arriving at Holly Howe
Claude Whatham with Dame Virginia McKenna. Mrs Jackson stands patinetly at the door ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

I am sure that we had already recorded the scene in David Wood’s screenplay when the Walker family arrive at Holly Howe, but Claude decided to take advantage of the golden light and shoot it again.  I am sure this was a good decision. It had been a long day and we were tired but the excitement of our arrival is tangible.

Arriving at Holly Howe
Director Claude Whatham, in a 1970s yellow long-sleeved t-shirt, watching the taxi drive up to Mrs Jackson’s front door in 1929. DoP Dennis Lewiston sets up the shot with Focus-puller Bobby Sitwell ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)
Nurse with Baby Vicky, the ship's baby
Nurse with Baby Vicky, the ship’s baby at Holly Howe ~ photo: Daphne Neville(c)
Sophie Neville holding the horses
Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West with Mr Jackson at Holly Howe~ photo: Daphne Neville

My mother thought that Mrs and Mrs Jackson, Mrs Walker’s nurse and Vicky the ship’s baby, who are listed as Extras on the Call Sheet, were particularly well cast. It must have been a long day for them. It was a long hot day for all of us, but a happy day.

Simon West, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville
Simon West, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton & Sophie Neville playing the Walker children in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 1973 ~photo: Daphne Neville(c) 

The girls who had been taken on as our Stand-in’s the day before did not seem to be around to help limit the hours we spent on set, but perhaps I am muddled. They may have only materialized on Peel Island at a later date.

Stephen Grendon, Simon West, Dame Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville, trying not to look as tall as she was in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville(c)

What I really did not know, until I watched the documentary broadcast last Sunday, was that Mrs Batty, who held the lease on Bank Ground Farm, had locked out the crew. She explained that when she was originally asked if we could film on her property she did not quite realise the scale of operations and only asked for – or accepted – a location fee of £75. The arrival of the two red double-decker buses, the Lee Electric van, the generator and other lorries, not to mention the Make-up caravan rather daunted her, as did the furniture moving activities involved at the start of the filming when we shot the interior scenes. She said that she decided that £75 was not enough, padlocked her front gate and wouldn’t let them back in until they agreed to pay her £1,000. It was a lot of money, more than double the fee I received.

Sophie Neville with Lucy Batty at Bank Ground Farm, Westmorland in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville(c)

You may have seen the BBC documentary about the making of Swallows and Amazons, when Ben Fogle interviewed Suzanna Hamilton and myself at Bank Ground Farm for ‘Big Screen Britain’. This was  re-packaged last year on a programme called Country TracksMy father’s 16mm footage had been skilfully inter-cut with an interview with our Director, Claude Whatham. I did not know that it was being broadcast but was able to watch on-line.Sophie Neville at the Bank Ground Farm Boathouses ~The Author Sophie Neville at the boatshed in 2013~

If you would like to read more, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ is available on Amazon Kindle and all ebook platforms.

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

31 thoughts on “Filming with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm, Cumbria ~ in 1973”

  1. Thank you. I’m afraid I have to post the extracts in sections or the whole thing collapses, especially when I have a number of photographs.
    Did you manage to see ‘Country Tracks’? One of the TARS members has it on a video Dropbox.
    We go to Cormortant Island next – another lovely day.

  2. Curses – I’ve missed Country Tracks by a matter of hours, as BBC iPlayer only keeps seven days’-worth. Is that TARS member out there and ready to share her/ his copy of it??
    All the best

  3. Thank you very much for tweeting the link to these chapters of your life in the film. I really do enjoy them.

      1. They would definitely be interesting to any fan of yourself or Arthur Ransome. An ebook might be the better option. More financially viable.

      2. Thinking about it, if the BBC are going to produce a whole new series of Swallows and Amazons it would highlight the original film. Consequently your memories of that film would work particularly well as a glossy book type of publication. Loads of colour photos and parts of your diary. A new generation of fans.

  4. Richard Pilbrow, the Producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, recently brought out his own book, which has an illustrated section on making of the movie. He was very enthusiastic about these posts. I think there must be quite a few fans who would also welcome a filmography.

    Many thanks for your comments. Do let me know if you have any questions – or indeed if you spot any errors I will need to rectify if we do consider an e-book.

    1. Thank you! Please let me have any questions you might have about making ‘Swallows and Amazons’ or the BBC adaptations of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Bix Six’, which I also worked on.

      1. This is wonderful Sophie – these films were inspirational and the joy of watching them has lasted long enough to watch them with my own children and discover it all over again. I would love to ask you a couple of questions about the films for our website, best wishes

  5. Hi Sophie, Had lunch at ‘Holly Howe’ and met Lucy Batty’s grandson! I hope the remake of S and A goes ahead. Peraps your expertise will be called on….I was wondering why Kit Seymour’s dialogue appeared to be dubbed?Very best wishes. Malcolm

    1. How wonderful that you were able to spend time at Holly Howe and meet the Battys. Much of our dialogue was post-synced – I’ll explain why when I reach the end of the diary. We loved meeting up at Elstree Studios to work on the sound.

      1. Look forward to the completion of the diary. Did you all receive lots of sailing tuition? The sailing shots were very effective. Isn’t it splendid that the charm of the film remains nearly 40 years later.My year sixes were always shown the film prior to staying at the Local Authority’s Keswick outdoor centre for a week. They always marvelled at the freedom enjoyed by the children!

  6. After I originally left a comment I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new
    comments are added- checkbox and from now on every time a comment
    is added I receive four emails with the same comment. There has to
    be a means you can remove me from that service?

    Appreciate it!

          1. I think anyone would be pleased to meet Virginia McKenna; from what you have written, she seems a really lovely person.

              1. She’s had an exceptionally long career. The earliest film I know she was in is the ‘The Cruel Sea’ from 1953.

  7. I last saw Virginia McKenna when we were interviewed for the DVD Extras for the 40th Anniversary edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974). She told me that she’s been contracted by Rank who kept her busy making all those movies in her twenties.

    1. Not including the TV series ‘The Edwardians’ she had appeared in 18 films from 1952 up to ‘Swallows and Amazons’; including such classics as ‘A Town Like Alice’, Carve Her Name With Pride’, ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’ and ‘A Passage To India’, not to mention ‘Born Free’ and ‘Ring of Bright Water’. Not many have careers as long and successful as hers.

      1. In 2024, she told me that she’d appeared in 32 films. I thin ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’ was shown as a double bill with ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) in some cinemas. They often had a ‘B’ movie.

        1. If you went to the cinema in those days you felt cheated if there wasn’t a second (B) feature. If I remember right I believe ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’ also had Bill Travers and George Adamson in it as well as Virginia McKenna. 32 films up to 2014 is an impressive count!

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