‘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.

8 Comments

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

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

  1. Paul

    Hi Sophie,
    As one of many who got something special (and still does) from this film and from the S&A stories in general, I’d just like to thank you. To be as busy a person as you obviously are, and yet, happy to spend your free time spinning these yarns for us, just shows what a nice person you must be…
    Keep it coming 🙂
    Paul H
    Australia

  2. Thank you for your encouragement. There are still a surprising number of days still to cover. Do let me have any questions you might have about the making of the film.

  3. Cheryl Brock

    Did you not have anyone charged with health and safety issues, like not going out sailing in rough weather? The idea that the producer was more concerned about the film being a week behind rather than expressing his concerns about 4 young children is rather frightening. You were just youngsters! how would you have handled something like the boat tipping over? I thought you were all extremely brave.

    • Health and Safety was not such a stiffling issue in 1973 as it is now. The Producer was unltimately responisble for many things including the budget, schedule and our safety. David Blagden was directly responsible for our safety in regards to sailing as he was deemed an expert. My father, who had far more experience than him was concerned that David was not an expert when it came to sailing on the Lakes in gaff-rigged dinghies. He did have confidenece in Simon West and Kit Seymour who were excellent sailors – even though young. We never tipped over. The Producer did ensure that we had three safety boats and a safety officer at all times. However – read on! Cedric, one of the professional boatmen fell in the next day. He was OK – I’m glad to say.

      My father’s judgement of David was probably proved right since he ultimately did not heed the Harbourmaster’s warning and lost his life at sea, when his girlfriend also drowned – but that was nothing to do with the film.

      • Thank you for your explanation. You were all obviously well protected. I had always thought that the actors who played John and Roger were quite experienced young sailors for their age. How long did it take them to learn the navigation skills needed to get into that tiny harbour below the campsite. I was mesmerised the first time I saw John navigate in. I have all of AR’s books but it was not until I saw the film that I really could feel I was there with the kids.

  4. Simon West was an International Optimist Champion – aged 11, but Stephen Grendon who played Roger had no experience of boats at all. Neither could he swim.

  5. Ahh, you must read the rest of the story. While Sten did manage the boat well he never learnt how to swim. None of us learnt lines as such. We all knew the books well and took in the lines during rehearsals.

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