The 50th Day ~ making the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, 11th July 1973

Producer Richard Pilbrow with Neville C Thompson on Derwentwater in the Lake District in 1973
Producer Richard Pilbrow with production associate Neville C Thompson on Derwentwater in the Lake District in 1973

This photograph of Richard and Neville sitting on the deck of Captain Flint’s houseboat in the pouring rain must epitomize the struggles they went through to work around the weather and bring ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in on budget.

It was Claude Whatham’s dream to end the movie with an aerial shot of Swallow and Amazon sailing away from Captain Flint’s houseboat.  He had a helicopter pilot standing-by with a special cameraman, but it wasn’t to be. He needed bright sunshine for the shot to cut with our farewell sequence after the battle. We waited three days but the weather was too dull and wet to film anything useful.  I’m so glad.  Claude ended up freezing the simple shot that captures Arthur Ransome’s book completely. It was used on the front of one of the first VHS copies of the movie.

'Swallows and Amazons' on VHS
The Amazons, played by Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennet and the Swallows, played by Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West and Stephen Grendon on the cover of the original VHS version of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

I’m afraid we hung about the very nice Water Head Hotel in Ambleside getting bored and precocious, or so the evidence suggests. Since John and Margaret, our location caterers, had returned to Pinewood Studios, we were taken to the hotel restaurant for lunch.

We loved that cinema in Ambleside. Was it the same then as Zeffirellis, the cinema in Compston Road operating today?  The adults must have found it a good means of keeping us peacefully entertained, but then again they were all film-makers, who loved movies. Zanna didn’t come to the cinema that afternoon. She walked four miles up Wanstell Pike with Jane Grendon.

Albert Clarke, the stills photographer on the film crew, had given us contact sheets of the black and white photographs that he had taken during the filming. I spent my time at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel, where Claude and Richard were  staying, with a tube of Copydex ~ or ‘rubber solution glue’, as they kept saying on Blue Peter,  sticking the tiny photographs into the scrap books that I had been keeping.

The Real Charcoal Burners a contact sheet

Richard Pilbrow kindly let us choose large 10’x 8′ versions of the photographs, which we are able to take home to our families. I kept mine all these years, never using them for anything, but treasuring them as a memory of those happy, fulfilling days spent in Cumbria in 1973.

Black and White photograph of a waterfall in the Lake District
‘It’s Niagara!’ Titty declared. ‘We could get a barrel and bounce down it.’ Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West and Sophie Neville as the Swallows on their way to visit the charcoal burners

You can now read about making the movie in the ebook ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ or the paperback entitled, ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ available at most online distributors or to order from your library or local bookshop.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'
published by The Lutterworth Press

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

17 thoughts on “The 50th Day ~ making the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, 11th July 1973”

  1. I am really enjoying this Sophie..Swallows is one of my favourite films and it is very interesting to see what went on behind the scenes…fascinating

    1. Thank you! I’ll move on to ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ soon. I worked on the serial behind the camera for the BBC in 1984. It was a bigger project than ‘Swallows and Amazons’.

  2. YES !!! That closing shot is just perfect and brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw it. I think the musical score intrudes at times in the film but in the arrival at Holly Howe and that finale, the sound-picture mix is powerful, evocative stuff!
    That ‘Niagara’ still is a great shot too.

  3. If there are any film makers still working who are interested in making ‘innocent’ films ( no swear words, sex nor violence!) I do think that ‘Secret Water’ would make an excellent film. The bit about getting nearly drowned on the causeway could be left out!

  4. Great! Next question is where we can get hold of Coot Club and Big Six, as I’ve never managed to see them. Any ideas?

    1. You could write to the BBC and ask them to repeat the serial. If you reminded them that Julian Fellowes was the baddie they might just re-release it. Controller BBC One, BBC TV Centre, Wood Lane, London W12 7RJ

  5. Well, there’s one fewer now as I’ve just bought it! Thanks, Barry. Looking forward to a DVD treat when I’m back in UK.

    1. Let me know what you think of the DVD. We thought the title graphics were wonderful at the time! They have dated horrifically but the main body of the drama was pretty true to the book.

      1. I don’t think the program itself has dated at all. Watched it when it was on tv and watch it every couple of years even now. Very sad that none of the child actors went further with a career (that I can see). The Death & Glory lads especially were about the best actors.

        1. So glad you like the serial – the Death and Glory boys were great. I’ll write about casting and making of the adaptation in due course.
          Do write in and ask the BBC to repeat it. I am sure it would proove hugely appreciated early evening weekend viewing.

  6. I also love the closing shot of the film; I don’t think an aerial shot would have worked any way near as well.

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