Off to Elstree Studios ~ to dub ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville at Elstree Studios in 1973

The process of editing a film can be terrifying for a director. There is always the prospect of finding a sequence that will not cut together. But working with a good film editor is hugely creative and fulfilling. Problems do arise but great things can happen. Richard Pilbrow says in his new book, A Theatre Project  that he was completely captivated by the process. ‘Moving a few frames from here to there, could change the whole emphasis of a scene.’  On the whole editing is an exciting, yet more relaxing time for the director than having to lead a massive crew out on location. And the actors are never around.

Sadly I never met Michael Bradsell who edited Swallows and Amazons. Like many others on our film crew he’d worked with Claude Whatham before on the movie That’ll be the Day. He went to on edit many great movies; Local Hero for Bill Forsyth and  David Puttman,  Henry V for Kenneth Branagh and Wilde, which starred Stephen Fry. Oh, to think that he hauled my image over his Steenbeck.

I remember that when I saw Henry V at the Curzon Cinema in Mayfair, in 1989, there was something terribly wrong with the projection. The lip-sync was out. Kenneth Branagh’s voice was delivered after his lips started moving. It was most off-putting. I knew all about lip-sync because I had been involved in dubbing movies since I was twelve. For, it was back in 1973, when Claude Whatham was working on the sound track for Swallows and Amazons that, rather unusually, I was summons to the EMI Elstreee Studios.

Sophie Neville at the EMI Elstree Studios in 1973

Visiting Elstree Studios was exciting. I remember meeting the Dubbing Mixer and being there with the other Swallows, but I don’t think we saw anyone else in the cast. Suzanna came along with her nine-year-old cousin who was called Seymour – a very bright boy who was wearing stripey canvas trousers like a deck chair. Mummy had bought me a smart new dress that was the height of fashion. Looking at the photograph I rather wish she hadn’t bothered.

We were led into a huge dubbing theater hung with long black drapes around a high white screen. Claude explained that he needed to re-record our dialogue for various sequences. This was because the original soundtrack had been spoilt by the sound of motorboats, car horns or simply the wind. At first we were handed dubbing scripts, but it was difficult to look at them as well as the screen. As we could still remember our lines we didn’t need them. Instead, we stood in front of microphones on spindly stands and sung out the words we knew as sections of the film were projected. To help up a thick black cue-line would pass across the scene. When it hit one side it was time to start speaking. This was to ensure that our voices would be in sync with out lips. It could help, it could be off-putting. In the end we just went for it naturally. After each ‘take’ the film would be re-wound and we would go-again. There is a scene in at the Amazon Boathouse when John scrunches up the Amazon’s message and throws it in the water. It amused us to see this in reverse.

The post-syncing was a chance to improve on our performances and diction. Some time was spent in re-recording our sea shanty, Adieu and Farewell to you Fair Spanish Ladies. I made a mistake here that I have always regretted. Instead of singing sweetly and true I went for volume, which was not only unnecessary, but disastrous. It is acceptable on the film when you can see I am singing out on the water but sounds horrid on the LP. We had no idea at the time that EMI were going to bring out an album to accompany the movie, but they did.

Jack Woolgar as Old Billy confronting Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Stephen Grendon as the Swallows who were visiting the charcoal burners.

The one line that I simply could not replicate was the dialogue Titty delivered when saying goodbye to the charcoal burners: ‘Thank you so much for letting us see your lovely serpent.’  We went over it again and again, but Jack Woolgar wasn’t at the dubbing studio and I couldn’t do it without looking at him. The charm and sincerity of the moment was not something I could reproduce. In the end Claude said he just had to use the original despite the sound of the roaring wind.

After we had left sound effects would have been added. Richard Pilbrow said that, ‘Bill Rowe was our masterful sound mixer, working magic with birdsong, a rustle of leaves, a broken twig – all the tiniest details that went into making the story spring to life.’ When I watch the film of Swallows and Amazons now I so admire the technique of using sound to illustrate the soaring of Titty’s imagination. The storm bell on Robinson Crusoe’s ship heralds the roaring wind and lends reality to scene when I play the shipwrecked sailor, dragging my parched body towards the island campsite. You can hear parrots and monkeys in the palm trees. I am sure Arthur Ransome would have approved.

Bill Rowe, I read, was the director of Post Production and Sound at Elstree Studios until he died at the age of sixty in 1992.  He’d worked on an amazing number of movies winning an Oscar for The Last Emperor and BAFTAs for The Killing Fields, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Alien with nominations for Chariots of Fire, A Clockwork Orange, The Mission and Batman. And to think, we had been playing Hide and Seek behind his sound drapes.

Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton at the helm of Swallow with Stephen Grendon in the bows, while Sophie Neville looks on from the shore of Peel Island, where she has been left alone with the telescope. Sound of Swallow’s moving parts was added later by the dubbing editor Bill Rowe at Elstree Studios.

One thing that really worried me was that I saw Swallow lying outside Elstree Studios. She looked forlorn, a ship out of water. Looking back on it they must have needed her to record sound effects.  I was concerned that we would not see her again, but we did. The next time we Swallows gathered was to publicize the film. We found ourselves climbing aboard Swallows again, albeit in a very different location from the Lake District. And this I will write about in my next post.

Later in life, when I worked in television production, I spent many months at Elstree Studios at Borehamwood. However these were the BBC Studios on the other side of the road where we recorded endless episodes of  Eastenders and the wartime romance Bluebell, programmes that were never post-synced. I’d drive past the old EMI/ATV Studios and never breathe a word that I’d worked there once as an actress.

Sophie Neville, in striped top, on the BBC Studio Director’s Course at the BBC Elstree Studios, Borehamwood in 1990

7 Comments

Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, David Wood, 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

7 responses to “Off to Elstree Studios ~ to dub ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

  1. I was a projectionist at Elstree at the time we dubbed Swallows and Amazons. Had some good chats with Claude Watham at the time. Some nice memories of those days.

    • How good to hear from you! What did you think of us children? Did we come across as precocious?

      • No, not at all, and thank you for your reply. I grew up in the late 1940’s early 1950s and have to say that the atmosphere portrayed in the movie was very reminiscent of the times I spent as a child: swap the Lake District of Arthur Ransome’s 1930s children’s adventure with London’s bomb sites of the late 1940s early 1950s, and we were all on the look-out for adventurous experiences. Kids at that time had only their imaginations to work with; very little television to entice or guide them, and no computers to hold them back. We only had simple comic papers and good children’s books to whet our appetites. They were good days.
        Kind regards
        Keith

        • Tell me, were you projecting all the clips that we re-voiced on Swallows, back in the summer of 1973? Where you around when Claude was auditioning voices? What else was involved in the dubbing process that I wasn’t involved in? You must have been there when they added the parrot’s voice and those of the burglars.

          • I was there at the time you mention, although we would have not had any input with regards to voice auditioning. The projection department was quite large, with around 25 projectionists. We had several viewing theatres which were manned in turn by all the members of the department. I was working in Dubbing One at the time. What you refer to as a voice dub we knew as Post Sync. This is where an actor re-voices his character to improve the sound track. We ran loops of film until the actor had successfully re-voiced a section of dialogue and then we moved to another loop to repeat the process. I have put a couple of images on my Facebook page which might interest you. One is of the dubbing suite and the other is a card sent to me by Claude Watham at the time he was at the Lakes.

            https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10204027791089476.1073741827.1664705002&type=1&l=fd67b20b72
            Kind regards
            Keith

            • Thanks so much. I’d love to share your photo, if that is possible. My publisher would be fascinated. Have to managed to read the ebook or paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons?’ You must please let me know if there are details I need to correct for the 2nd edition and of any names I could add to the credits at the front. Did you ever get to work at the BBC?

              • Please feel free to use the photos, or email me and I will send you the ones I have on my computer. No copyright charges for them at all. I haven’t read your book, but would love to look at it.

                No, never worked for the Beeb although I had an offer to visit. In fact, I came out of the industry towards the end of 1974 to start a new career in the catering industry. During that time I owned a small hotel and ran my own fast food business with my wife up until I retired in 2002. I am now 71 years of age and still enjoying my favourite love of photography.

                Kind regards

                Keith

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