Monthly Archives: July 2012

Great pushings in ~ filming in the Lake District on 2nd July 1973

Sophie Neville with Terry Needham and the unit radio at Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I am often asked about my career in acting. I was even asked about it by the crew of  Swallows and Amazons as we climbed in and out of boats on Derwentwater back in 1973.

‘Are you going to be another Bette Davis?’ (I gathered I looked vaguely like her but didn’t really know who she was.)

‘Will you get stuck as a child actress like Shirley Temple?’ (I didn’t really know who she was either.)

There was much speculation. The truth was that I was always really more interested in what was happening behind the camera, and how the story was told, than I was in our performances. I had an empathy for the men who had to keep changing carefully made arrangements when the clouds rolled in. Whilst I was always interested in set dressing I loved aiding and abetting Terry Needham, the second assistant director, with whom we naturally spent a great deal of time. The 2nd July 1973 must have been a busy day for him. A maddening day really.

 

  

Whilst I was in front of the camera, delivering the line that fore-shadows the adventurous section of Arthur Ransome’s story, Terry  Needham would have been busy planning who would go out in which boat and when. Just as important really.

Producer Richard Pilbrow and Director Claude Whatham discussing the script in the Capri on Derwentwater. Molly Pilbrow is in the boat with them ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Whilst filming out on the lakes ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was far more complicated than most movies to stage manage. Terry needed to have what Claude Whatham called his ‘Artistes standing-by, ready on set’ when the set in question was a boat moored out in a lake. In reality this meant that the film actor Ronald Fraser had to wait around on the houseboat with Costume, Make-up and Props, whilst the sun tried to decide whether to come out.

Ronald Fraser playing Captain Flint with Peter Robb-King and Ian Whittaker waiting on the houseboat moored on Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Terry Needham, ever straight forward and prosaic, also had to make provision for a number of extra people who wanted to try and watch the action, notably Albert Clarke, the stills photographer, and the Producer, Richard Pilbrow who was often looking after journalists from major newspapers and magazines. We were making a movie that needed to be well publicised if it was to succeed.

Claude Whatham discussing plans with sailing director David Blagden (in white hat) and Richard Pilbrow with Molly Pilbrow in checked jacket, on the aft deck of the houseboat played by The Lady Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

What made Terry’s job even more demanding than usual was that since we were all under the age of sixteen we still had to complete at least three hours schooling a day. I was only meant to spend three hours a day in front of the camera and leave at 5.00pm. This meant that, unlike Ronnie Fraser, we had to be collected from our red bus and taken over the water to our set at the last possible moment when the camera and crew were ready to roll.

As Swallow, our clinker-built dinghy, was wired to a floating pontoon, the job of our loyal Lakeland boatmen was particularly important. Can anyone tell me the name of this chap, in the photo below?

Chaperone Jane Grendon on Derwentwater in a Dory with a local boatman

Terry Needham also had to take into consideration the numbers of people licensed to be in each support boat. Although a period film, our clothes were simple, so we didn’t need the contingent of dressers and make-up artists typically demanded by costume dramas. However life-jackets were a must and wherever we went one of our licensed chaperones had to come too. Since Mum stayed at our guesthouse in Ambleside with Kit Seymour who was ill with ‘flu that day, it was Jane Grendon came out on the lake with us.  It was her son Sten, playing the Boy Roger, who walked off the jetty into the water. Poor Jane was pushed in fully clothed. Suzanna Hamilton also fell in – or so she claims. What a nightmare for Terry Needham.

Terry Needham with the crew on the Houseboat moored on Derwentwater, Cumbria ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Terry survived to have the most prestigious career in film. Whilst he worked as an assistant director for Stanley Kubrick on The Shining (would Jack Nicholson have been easier to manage than us lot?) Terry was unit manager on Empire of the Sun for Stephen Speilberg and the first assistant director on such classic movies as Full Metal Jacket, Rambo III, A Man for All Seasons, The Field, The Golden Compass and Clash of the Titans. I only list a few of his many credits. He worked for Ridley Scott as Associate Producer and First Assistant on White Squall, G.I.Jane, Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down – all gigantium tasks – and was Executive Producer of Red Dragon, and Kingdom of Heaven, again for Ridely Scott. He is still working on movies. What changes he must have seen. I wonder if he can remember that far distant summer spent in the Lake District?

I would not have had the physical strength to follow in Terry’s footsteps. It was his job – plus a bit of work with action props and set dressing – that I found myself busy doing at the BBC when I was an Assistant Floor Manager on big costume dramas. I was exhausted after about four years. The walky-talky I found so attractive aged twelve became rather heavy on my hip. I have a Polaroid photograph of myself looking tired out when working as a Location Manager in Bayswater, kept to remind myself not to accept such work again.   Perhaps I should have taken the Bette Davis route after all. I might have had Terry looking after me again.

You can see Terry Needham with his portable radio at the end of this short 16mm film clip that was shot a couple of days later on Coniston Water. The pushings-in were still all the rage.

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The lighthouse tree ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater 1st July 1973

Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West above Derwentwater in 1973

Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West above Derwentwater in 1973

‘It would make a superb lighthouse,’ but not for a good few years yet.  The scots pine planted by The Arthur Ransome Society on the northern end of Peel Island was growing well when I last paid it homage. I hope I don’t spoil the magic if I explain that the pine used in the 1973 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is on a promentary above Derwentwater.  An appropriate tree was chosen that overlooked the location we used for Houseboat Bay.

Captain John, played by Simon West, starts to climb the lighthouse tree at the Lookout Point: Photo ~ Daphne Neville

If you can avoid being distracted by Bavid Bracknell’s trendy two-tone trousers you can see a bit more of the lighthouse tree location with the lake beyond.  I’ve been told it is Friar’s Crag.  Can anyone tell me more  about the bay on Derwentwater where Captain Flint’s houseboat was moored for the film?

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker hanging the lantern. Claude Whatham sits beside the camera crew including Eddie Collins, Dennis Lewiston and Bobby Sitwell, whilst first assistant David Bracknell looks on: photo ~ Daphne Neville

As a child reading Swallows and Amazons I was always deeply impressed that Captain John managed to climb the pine tree in Arthur Ransome’s drawing. Simon West was able to use branches but he really did climb quite high.  The camerman had a scaffold tower.

Suzanna wrote that, ‘In the late afternoon the Amazons were filming on the pontoon. Kit wasn’t feeling well.’  Lesley was feeling a bit better. There was a ‘flu-like bug going around.  Neither of them look that well in the resultant photograph but they survived.

Kit Seymour as Nancy Blackett with Lesley Bennett playing her sister Peggy Blackett in Amazon, who is still sailing today.

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30th June 1973 – Finding our photographs in the Daily Express

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The secret was out; ‘his anecdotes which are many, o u t r a g e o u s, and largely unrepeatable.’ Whilst we had been busy filming on a smelly lily pond the ‘joker’s joker’ had been languishing in the bar of the Kirkstone Foot Hotel just outside Ambleside saying that, ‘he was a lousy lover but loved to practice.’ Oh deary me.  Worse was to come.

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‘…baby, you’ve got to be a bit dotty.’ At least we were described as ‘bright and vivacious’.

 

David Blagden, our sailing director, had a small part of a prison officer in the movie Kidnapped, that we went to watch at the local cinema. It starred Michael Caine, Trevor Howard and Lawrence Douglas, with Jack Hawkins, Donald Pleasence and Gordon Jackson, but sadly not Ronald Fraser. He was still in the bar.

Suzanna Hamilton’s perspective on the day is not so very different but it is in purple.

Mediculs. A sure sign that our movie was over-schedule and over budget, with nothing much anyone could do about it but keep going. We still had to capture the houseboat. And make that splendid gentleman walk the plank.

The distinguished actor Ronald Fraser fishing with Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Sophie Neville and Stephen Grendon whilst filming on location in the Lake District ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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Octopus Lagoon ~ the trials of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Coniston Water in the rain

‘The rain poured down.’ Cumbria was covered in cloud, the Lake District dark and dismal. What a nightmare for Richard Pilbrow and his production team. We were behind schedule, Lesley Bennett who played Peggy was ill in bed and we had run out of ‘rain cover’.

A dull weather call: Rain clouds over Windermere in the Lake District, Cumbria

There was one sequence left that could be recorded in dull weather. Today was the day Claude Whatham shot the haunting scenes of Octopus Lagoon. After finishing our school work Kit Seymour and I sat watching the filming from the sloping field above the beautiful but rather smelly lily pond.

Sophie's diary about filming 'Swallows and Amazons' in 1973

I do not have the Call Sheet for 29th June 1973 but have an extract from this earlier one detailing the ‘Alternative Dull Weather Call’:

Call Sheet for Octopus Lagoon filming Swallows and Amazons in 1973

I can’t say whether the weather allowed for the scene set on the Amazon River to be shot. Lesley had ‘flu so they would have had to somehow manage without her. I think Claude devoted his time to capture the conundrum and challenges faced by Captain John in the lagoon. The location chosen for this was on private property near Skelwith Fold Caravan Park. Those who are interested in finding the film locations used might find this old hand-typed ‘Movement Order’ useful:

Addresses of rural locations used for the film of 'Swallows and Amazons'

Roger Wardale sites Octopus Lagoon as being Allan Tarn a short distance up the River Crake at the Southern end of Coniston Water, near High Nibthwaite. This is the place Arthur Ransome had in mind. He spent time there with is brother and sisters as a child when they spent their summers on Swainson’s Farm at Nibthwaite nearby. His father went there to fish for pike. It you have a shallow bottomed boat you can get there but it is not exactly on a footpath. The lily pond we used was in a high sided dip, which made it appropriately dark and gloomy. It was also more accessible for the film crew.

Graham Ford, who signed the Movement Order was our Production Manager. I only have a photograph of him taken on a sunnier day.

The Production Team on 'Swallows and Amazons' in 1973

Second Assistant Terry Needham, Associate Producer Neville C Thompson and Production Manager Graham Ford with the unit radio on a sunny day in June 1973

Graham Ford would have been responsible for the film schedule, putting together the whole logistical jigsaw puzzle posed by factors such as the availability of leading actors and locations with the movement of vehicles and boats, including the massive camera pontoon. It was Graham who took the stress of problems caused by wet weather.  I guess that he also took on the responsibilities of managing the locations, negotiating with owners and the Lake District National Park, something that authors such as Arthur Ransome would not have had to face.

Although young, Graham was pretty experienced. He had previously worked as an assistant director on such classic films as Steptoe and Son and had been the Unit Manager on The Devils, a film that starred Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed. After Swallows he went on to work as Production Manager on S.O.S Titanic, The Honorary Consul and Princess Daisy as well as Time Bandits and Brazil directed by Terry Gilliam starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist and Robert de Niro. Imagine being Terry Gilliam’s right hand man. He was a Location Manager for David Lynch on The Elephant Man and for Richard Attenborough on Ghandi in 1982. Graham’s career progressed. He produced The Nightmare Years and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in the late 1980s before working on Gettysburg, the massive four hour long movie about the American civil war, in 1993. A life in film. He died in Ontario in 1994 aged only 48.

Waterfall above Windermere in the Lake District

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‘Here we are intrepid explorers…’ filming in Swallow on Derwentwater in 1973

The Swallows voyage to Wild Cat Island

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West as the Walker children sailing to Wild Cat Island in Swallow

If you ever see a cormorant you must sing out, ‘They’ve got India-rubber necks!’

And then, if you are on a long journey you can add, ‘ Cormorants. We must be near the coast of China. The Chinese have cormorants. They train them to catch fish for them. Daddy sent me a picture.’

If you ever get lost – or the journey really is a long one, you can say,

‘Here we are intrepid explorers making the first ever voyage into unchartered waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets will be revealed?’

They were most complicated speeches to deliver afloat, ones I had to learn.  In the end the second part was heard OOV – out of vision. I could have read the lines.  But then they wouldn’t have stayed in my head forever, as they have.

The Swallows on their voyage to Wildcat Island

Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West sail Swallow on the voyage to Wild Cat Island, scenes shot on Derwentwater in 1973

If, on your journey, you happen to see a man sitting in a chair writing notes you score high and can say, ‘What’s that man doing?  He’s probably a retired pirate working on his devilish crimes.’

(I’m a bit hestitant about that one because my Aunt Hermione really was approached by pirates when she was sailing round the world. The Daily Mail published her dairy chronicling the adventure; a full page double- spread with photographs no less. Rather sadly they ran  headline ‘Intrepid Pensioners…’ What a swizz. She should have lied about her age and said she was 27 instead of 60. Well perhaps 57, what with the photos.)

The scene behind the camera that day on Derwentwater was rather different from from the scene in front of it.

28th June ~ my diary

28th June ~ my diary page two

28th June ~ my diary page three

28th June ~ my diary page four

I’m pretty sure that the photographs below were taken this same day. Please let me know if the far bank is indeed Derwentwater or if I am mistaken and this was shot on Coniston.

This shows the pontoon being used as a safety craft rather than a camera platform. Swallow is moored to it with Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Stephen Grendon onboard. Their chaperone Daphne Neville is standing-by with a track suit top as I was cold. First assistant David Bracknell is approaching in the Dory.

I got cold sailing but it was a glorious sunny day with a fair wind. We achieved a huge amount even if Cedric fell in. As you can see, some of the boatmen and crew were wearing life jackets, others were not – including my mother. We wore BOAC life jackets for rehearsals but Swallow is a safe little boat – her keel ensuring we didn’t capsize if we happened to jibe and we never fell in. The pontoon was really rather more dangerous being a raft with no gunwale. Any one could have misjudged their step and plopped overboard. Luckily we were not stiffled by Health and Safety in those days – only the rigorous demands of movie insurance companies.

This shows the camera crew climbing aboard the pontoon in order to film Swallow sailing. Daphne Neville sits in the Dory safety boat in the foreground.
A reflector board, wrapped camera mount and microphone are already on board.

I’m sure we had already shot the first two scenes of the day when I was in Amazon, setting the anchor and later hearing the robbers. I expect Claude needed to re-shoot for technical reasons. Day-for-Night filming requires clear, sunny days and he would have needed still water.

I have some of my father’s 16mm footage showing us at around this stage in the filming. It was shot on a different day but shows us on the shores of Derwentwater, waiting around before rushing off across the lake in motor boats to finish filming before Claude lost the light. You see the pontoon and a safety boat towing Swallow, me snapping bossily at Roger to get a move-on, (unforgiveable but I was 3 years older than him and irritated to distraction), the third assistant Gareth Tandy in blue with glasses, our sound recordist Robin Gregory throwing his arms wide open, Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett by the lake shore, David Blagden with his short hair-cut splicing rope, me in my Harry Potter-ish blue nylon track-suit top with Albert Clarke the stills photographer, Swallow and some mallard duckings.

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‘Now then, Miss Nancy’ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Wild Cat Island in 1973

Director Claude Whatham and Bobby Sitwell with Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker and Ronald Fraser as Jim Turner aka Captain Flint in 1973

I love this photograph of Suzanna with Claude Whatham and the Bobby the focus puller. It somehow captures the atmosphere of filming on Peel Island back in 1973. I was meant to be sitting on the biscuit tin where I have left my empty cup, but Claude must have been reading my lines as he took Suzanna Hamilton’s close-ups. I was never sure about the blouse she is wearing. We hadn’t heard of Margaret Thatcher at the time but it now seems to be edging a little too close to her style. I doubt if she took inspiration from us.

‘It was quite a nice day weather-wise,’ one of the others had noted, but obviously not the solid sunshine needed for the big scenes yet to be shot out on the lakes. However our sailing director David Blagden was back with us, his hair cut short in order to appear in vision as Sammy the Policeman, a part he played beautifully. Although there is a cheerful photograph of him taken straight after he gained a short-back-and-sides we can only find rather a distant and visually confused one of him in uniform at the camp site on Wild Cat Island. He was so desolate to have had his hair cut short that he took off his helmet during the scene to prove that he really had been shorn.

We were excited that David was on the set, in costume. He’d always been behind the camera before. But he made a very serious Policmen and didn’t let the persona of his character fall whilst he was in uniform. What works best in the film is the edit. ‘No more trouble of any kind, ‘ Virginia McKenna insists – and the shot cuts to the boots of a Policmen arrving in camp.

It looks as  if this was one long scene – but the section where the content of Uncle Jim’s book was discussed while we sipped tea had been shot a week previously when Ronald Frazer first arrived in the Lake District.

David Blagden who played Sammy the Policeman

David Blagden who played Sammy the Policman ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The clapper-loader, Sophie Neville and David Blagden as the Policeman on Peel Island ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Director Claude Whatham having lunch with his leading ladies, Suzanna Hamilton and Lesley Bennett ~ photo: Daphne Neville

It was a long day, but a happy one. Any secrets?  It was really in the scene when John declares ‘a dead calm’ and we decide to visit the charcoal burners that it became apparent that I was taller than my elder brother played by Simon West. A box was provided for him to stand on so that I look shorter when I run into shot. It was a shot I remember we did in one take – despite being fairly complicated. Everyone was amazed that we moved on so quickly. We needed to.

The pre-occupation of the producer was that, since the bad weather had caused delays, we still had an awful lot to film. We must have been about a week behind schedule – a huge worry for Richard Pilbrow. The next day we just had to get out on the water come what may.

The huge sadness was that David Blagden, so vibrant and good looking with so much to live for,  lost his life to the sea in the late 1970s. After Swallows and Amazons he presented an ITV series brooadcast on Sundays called ‘Plain Sailing’. It featured Willing Griffin the 19′ Hunter in which he’d crossed the Atlantic despite  horrific weather in 1972 and the survey of a 39′ wooden boat I think he intended to take on another crossing.  Apparently he set off in this yawl from Alderney in a Force 11 gale and was never seen again. The harbourmaster had begged him not to go.  They found his girlfriend’s body and parts of the boat but there was no trace David.

Very Willing Griffin by David Blagden sailing director on 'Swallows and Amazons'

The cover of ‘Very Willing Griffin’ by David Blagden. ‘An exciting adventure of persuing and living a dream against many odds’, this sort after book was reviewed in The Journal of Navigation.

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Champain on the set of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ to celebrate the 500th slate

Ronald Fraser, Daphne Neville and Sophie Neville in her BOAC Life jacket

Ronald Fraser as Captain Flint with Daphne Neville and Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker on Derwentwater in 1973

Suzanna Hamilton’s first impression of Ronald Fraser was that, ‘he was quite nice but v.fussy.’ It seems to me that he loved three things: acting, ladies and laughter. Whilst he had a small mouth his capacity for alcohol of almost any kind was legendary. Funnily Enough this was the day that we all had a  drink on set. The clapperboard or slate had snapped shut on the 500th  shot of the movie and in, line with tradition, a bottle of champagne was cracked open.  Somehow I managed to end up with the dregs. I thought them utterly delicious.

Sophie Neville with director Claude Whatham, Ronald Fraser and DOP Denis Lewiston outside the catering bus at Derwentwater in the Lake District ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I’m not sure exactly what was going through Ronnie Fraser’s mind at this point but Denis Lewiston has a call sheet in one hand, so must have still had his mind on work. I think we’d reached the end of a pretty good day.

The fishing rod was such an excitment. Simon West was very generous and let us all catch fish with it. Arthur Ransome would have been proud of him.

Suzanna added another story ~

Suzanna refers to the 500th take, but she was mistaken. We rarely took more that 3 takes of each shot. It was the 500th slate. It doesn’t seem much to me now. I went on to work on drama serials with so many episodes that they would have amounted to films four or five hours long.

Sophie Neville on the set of 'My Family and other Animals'

Sophie Neville on the set of ‘My Family and Other Animals’ shot on Corfu in 1987

I remember operating the clapper-board on this occasion because the entire camera crew were involved in pulling off a 360 degree shot, the cameraman Andrew Dunn up on a crane while a stiff wind was blowing, but that’s another story. I was just the girl saying, ‘Shot one thousand and forty-nine, take three.’ Quite fun.

Did appearing in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ inspire me towards working on a film crew?  No, at the time the hanging around aspect of filming bored and frustrated us children. Later, when I did work on productions, any time I was able to relax on set was treasured, absolutely relished. I was an assistant director with a Motorola on my hip and rarely had a chance to take the weight off my feet.

Neville C Thompson, the Associate Producer, relaxing on set. To be fair, this shot may well have been taken on Sunday 24th July 1973, by Daphne Neville

I have just watched the scene shot in the cabin of the houseboat and have noticed an odd thing. We have a travelling chest of drawers exactly like Captain Flint’s and I set a mirror on top of it just as Ian Whittaker the set-dresser had.

One secret of the scene is that, once we start to clap and sing, ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’ Claude Whatham, the director shouted, ‘Go round’, not once but twice.  If you listen very carefully you can just hear him the second time. He wanted us to dance around the room. I knew this but couldn’t move much with the parrot, so went up and down. Kit Seymour was absolutely boiling in her red bobble hat and no on else could move much for fear of knocking the furniture. It was left to Suzanna to dance about – a tricky thing to do without seeming self conscious. All in all I think we needed a glass of champagne by the end of that day.

Ronald Fraser and Denis Lewiston and a Route Master bus

Ronnie Fraser and DoP Denis Lewiston with paper cups of champagne, a cigarette and the call sheet for the next day outisde the Route Master location catering bus ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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The day of the green parrot ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on the houseboat in 1973

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker on Captain Flint's houseboat

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker aboard Captain Flint’s houseboat on Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Do all children dream of living on a houseboat?  Going out across Derwentwater for tea in Captain Flint’s cabin was fun. He had laid on such a lavish one. It was a feast.

Sophie Neville's diary written whilst filming 'Swallows and Amazons'

We hadn’t actually seen Captain Flint walk the plank at this point, but together as Swallows and Amazons, we could all imagine it.

Suzanna described the afternoon quite differently. Her focus was on the food.

An extract from Suzanna Hamilton’s diary of 25th July 1973

The green parrot had very sharp claws. If my eye’s are watering in this scene it is because they were digging into my shoulder. A piece of foam rubber was slipped under my blouse but it didn’t do much good. He really wasn’t a very tame parrot and had to have a chain around one leg in case he took flight. I was really rather worried he would nip me but ploughed on with the dialogue. If this is convincing it was because I needed to get through my close-ups before I lost part of an ear.

The parrot being taken to the Houseboat

Property Master Bob Hedges with his assistant Terry Wells taking the parrot to Captain Flint’s houseboat in the style of Amazon Pirates ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Despite this concern, I did rather want a parrot of my own. A tame one. Not long after we finished filming my parents came across a green parrot called Chico who was remarkably friendly, a sweet bird who soon came to live with us. He chatted away in Spanish and was good company. I went everywhere with him – even taking him out rowing on the lake.

Roger Lee with our green parrot Chico

Chico, our green parrot, on the shoulder of an old friend called Roger Lee

Tamzin Neville with our parrot Chico

My sister Tamzin with our parrot Chico who like having his neck stroked

I am often asked if Captain Flint’s parrot really did speak. He could certainly talk. I remember something along the lines of , ‘Who’s a pretty boy, then?’ delivered in a broad Lancashire accent. ‘Pieces of Eight’ was beyond his natural vocabulary and was dubbed on later along with music from the accordion. Ronald Fraser couldn’t really play this. Having said that, all music from instruments played on screen is added later so that the sound runs seamlessly no matter how the editor cuts the shots together. The accordion had been muted by Bobby Props.

Did the wishful lines given to Titty by the screen-writer David Wood cast light on my future? Rather unusually for an English child of the 1970’s I had already been to Africa. My family grew coffee on a farm between Arusha and Moshi in Northern Tanzania where I had been the summer before we made Swallows and Amazons.

Sophie Neville, aged 11, with Baroness Reinhild von Bodenhausen and rather a shy Masai warrior at our coffee factory near Usa River in Tanzania in 1972

I did not see forests of green parrots there, although, much later in my life I often saw Meyer’s parrots in the palm trees above our camp in Botswana.  They would clatter about looking for wild dates while I sat painting maps I had made, just as Titty would have done.

The question is ~ did Arthur Ransome ever have a parrot, or was it just a wish?

Macatoo Camp in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

A map by Sophie Neville depicting the area around Macatoo Camp in the Okavango Delta in Botswana where you find wild parrots in the trees

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Ronald Fraser and the Houseboat

Ronald Fraser being transported to the Houseboat

Ronald Fraser with wardrobe master Terry Smith being transported to Captain Flint’s Houseboat played by The Lady Derwentwater. Richard Pilbrow sits amid geraniums on the aft deck in his white hat. ~ photo: Daphne Neville

My diary entry for 24th June 1973 is not exactly revealing. As it was raining steadily in the Lake District, I was given a second day off. ‘We had a quirte morning,’ I wrote. I am sure I needed one. After a heavy week’s filming I’d spent the official ‘Unit Day Off’ writing five end-of-year exam papers, answering correspondence from school friends and going to Kit Seymour’s thirteenth Birthday party. I must have been exhausted. Legally I was meant to have two days off a week. This was the first time it had been possible.

24th June ~ my diary

Suzanna Hamilton’s diary adds little more, but my mother was on set, as was a journalist from The Guardian, so I can tell you what happened. I can even tell you what the location caterers from Pinewood cooked that day: Melon, followed by roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, boiled or roast potatoes, peas and carrots with apple crumble or tinned peaches served with custard or evaporated milk. It was a Sunday. Suzanna noted that we had ‘salad for super’, her favorite food.

Set dresser Ian Whittaker, Ronald Fraser and one of the Prop Men on the houseboat ~ photo: Daphne Neville

“The houseboat has been converted from a pleasure steamer,” wrote Michael McNay in the Features section of The Guardian, “the whole of the superstructure fore faked up by props, the cabin aft converted into a retired colonist’s sittingroom – African rug, flowery curtains, assegais on the walls, an ebony elephant with silver howdah and trappings, a walnut wireless cabinet, tall brass oil lamps, a pile of 78rpm records, a silver mounted cricket ball (presented to G.Gumbleton, 1899, for the highest individual score of the season), a chest, a writing desk and an ancient upright Imperial.” I have typed this up exactly as it was published on 7th July 1973.

By props, I don’t think Michael McNay meant pit-props. He was talking about the work of the design team headed by Simon Holland. Ian Whittaker, who later won an Oscar for set dressing, helped Simon to create Captain Flint’s cabin with one of the Prop men who is photographed here. Does anyone know his name? I think it might be Terry Wells. I expect the cane chairs and side table were being temporally stored on the roof when this snap shot was taken so as to make space for camera and lights. The gaffer and camera crew would have been in the process of setting up inside the cabin. Sound would not have settled in yet. How do I know that after all these years? I can see the recordist’s arm at the left of the photograph. I still remember his coat.

“Ronald Fraser, alias Uncle Jim, is tapping away at a book.” Michael continues. “Last minute panic: who can type out quickly a folio of copy to leave nonchantly in the roller?”  That would have been Sue Merry, the continuity girl.  The first scene was probably the one in which Uncle Jim is typing with the green parrot on his shoulder when a firework goes off on his cabin roof. I wonder if Arthur Ransome had ever been disturbed by the Altounyan children in such a way. Did he use an Imperial typewriter?

The film crew were on location on Derwentwater. “By now, the houseboat has been moved and moored to the western shore just off a promontory that is being faked up as one end of Wild Cat Island.” The houseboat, really one of the stars of the movie,  was being played by a long-time resident of Cumbria, The Lady Derwentwater. A 56 foot motor launch, owned by the Keswick Launch Company since 1935, she returned to real life after the filming, rather like I did. She still carries up to 90 passengers. You can go out on her today.

Was this the houseboat Arthur Ransome had in mind?  The photograph was taken by Martin Neville in 1973

My father, who is keen on steamboats, had been off to find the real houseboat that Arthur Ransome had in mind. Am I right in thinking this must have been the original Gondola? I expect she was too un-seaworthy for the production team to contemplate using in 1973.  A reliable, water-tight boat that could be towed into the location used for Houseboat Bay was needed. Last year we went to see TSSY Esperance   at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in Cumbria, which is another Victorian steam yacht invisaged by Ransome as a possible model for Captain Flint’s houseboat. It is a beauty but we did get a better view of the lake from of the cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater.

TSSY Esperance, the 1869 Steam Yacht, at the Windermere Steamboat Museum, Cumbria in Apirl 2011

“The rain has stopped, the mist is lifting from the 1,500 foot ridge of Cat Bells. Fraser climbs gingerly aboard, awkward in co-respondent’s brown and white shoes, rosy make-up and moves into the aft cabin.” McNay continues. He is describing the main scene to be shot that day. “John, alias Simon West, is in a rowing boat 15 feet away… The problem this time is that the rowing boat has to remain anchored but look as though Simon is pulling steadily in towards the houseboat and the anchor rope has to remain hidden.” This must have been so that Swallow could be lined up acurately and remain in focus for the camera.  It is one of the secrets of making the film that I have been asked about directly.

“Simon shows Claude Whatham how he’ll manage it. Quick rehearsal inside the cabin. Ronald Fraser on his knees by the chest folding a white pullover, catches sight of approaching boat, mimes angry surprise. Told not to jerk head so far back. Instead jerks eyebrows up. The cabin is no more than eight foot by ten and contains besides Fraser and the props, four men on a camera, one on lights, and the continuity girl.” McNay had not included Claude the director, who I know would have squeezed in since these were the days before monitors from the camera feed. And he was small. The sound recordist was bigger but may have just planted a microphone on the desk.

“On the small aft deck Pilbrow is for the next few minutes going to be redundant.” This is Richard Pilbrow, who now lives in Conneticut and I am sure will read this post. “He is a mild, inoffensive looking man producing his first film. He is 40… looks like your friendly local antiques dealer.  He and Whatham are a good team: Whatham is slight, energetic and calm. He has time, even as a sequence is being set up, to ask the Press if they can see enough of what’s going on from the crampt aft deck of the housebaot. It’s a cheerful crew, (Denis Lewiston the DOP) watching clouds overhead with benign suspicion, taking light meter readings inside and out-side the cabin every 30 seconds.

‘Stand-by Simon.’

‘Action,’ said quietly into the cabin.

‘ACTION,’ across the lake to Simon. The clapperboard shows 461 take 1. Fraser folds the pullover, looks up, jerks eyebrows in angry surprise, camera swings round to follow Fraser’s gaze through the window, Simon pulls on left oar, keeps the rope hidden.

‘CUT.’

Pause.

‘Stand by. Quiet everybody. Action. ACTION (461 take 2) … CUT.’

‘Once more please. Stand by. Action. ACTION (461 take 3) …. CUT.’

There’s a consensus that the third take was best. Ten minute break while the suceeding sequence is prepared: Fraser rushes out on deck and tells Simon to clear off. That too is filmed in triplicate. The time is 12.45. They started work at 6.30, began filming at 12.25 and they’ve got maybe 45 seconds in the can. Everybody seems pleased.”

The Gondola

The Gondola on Coniston Water today, re-built and restored by the National Trust, powered by steam and taking passengers down the lake from April to November.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film Catering, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized