Monthly Archives: November 2012

With a parrot on my shoulder ~

At about this time we were given a green parrot from South America called Chico. I must have written to Kit and Suzanna telling them about him as this Nancy-ish letter came winging back.

Animal Magic1

Robin Hellier (in yellow) working with a 16mm film camera and his crew from BBC Bristol. I am sitting at the head of the table. Tamzin has our parrot on her shoulder.

Chico was wonderfully tame and came everywhere, chatting away in Spanish. He was much more affectionate – and less of a treat – than the parrot with a Lancastrian accent who played Polly in Captain Flint’s cabin. One minute he’d be sitting on Tamzin’s shoulder, the next, he’d be on mine.

Filming Animal Magic

Sophie, Perry and Tamzin Neville appearing in short film shot on 16mm for ‘Animal Magic’ being produced for the BBC NHU by Robin Hellier (in yellow sweater).

We didn’t always have tea with a parrot, but once the film of Swallows and Amazons was on general release I was often invited to appear on radio or television. This usually entailed going to a studio to appear on a magazine programme such as Points West or  Nationwide. However, Robin Hellier, who had just begun working for the BBC on Animal Magic, was thrilled to hear that I really did have a green parrot and brought a film crew from Bristol to our house. He took a shot of me rowing down the lake with my parrot, in the summer of 1974, which was used to fill endless small gaps in the schedules.

Animal Magic with our donkeys1

Robin Hellier directing a sequence featuring Sophie Neville, her parrot Chico and Lucy and Leonard the donkeys with Daphne Neville and Tamzin Neville

Although the focus of the item was a profile of  my role in Swallows and Amazons, the aim must have been to get as many animals on the programme as possible since they also featured our donkeys having their feet trimmed. The faithful parrot was still on my shoulder.

Animal Magic with our donkeys

Leonard and Lucy the donkeys, Tamzin, Daphne and Sophie (in green) with Chico the parrot, standing-by for Robin Hellier who was speaking to our farrier Graham Williams. You can see how much taller I had grown in a year.

I thought Robin Hellier was a brilliant director, far better than Claude Whatham at letting us know what he wanted to achieve. I was able to tell Robin this when I found myself working with him in South Africa twenty-two years later. He laughed, admitting that it was the very first film he ever directed.  Being conscientious, he took the trouble to write to let me know when it was to be broadcast, although I can’t remember ever seeing it go out.

Animal Magic

Children’s television was watched by everyone I knew in the 1970s. Letters poured in. My mother loved getting them. The volume was such that I think she had to answer some of them for me.

A fan letter2

A fan letter3

A fan letter4

And over the years the letters have kept coming.

A fan letter73

These came from a girl I corresponded with for years.  My friends at university were amazed to find letters arriving addressed to Titty, but they were always charming. I appreciated them more and more as the years went by.

A fan letter74

My mother only wrote me one proper letter while I was away at boarding school. It was to tell me that Chico had died. He spent so much time flying free that he caught a virus off wild birds and could not be saved. I was utterly inconsolable.

Animal Magic continued to featured through our childhood until 1982, when I started working at BBC Television myself. Johnny Morris, who presented the series, became a legend in his own time and is remembered with great affection.

and there is more ~

A WildFilm History interview of Robin Hellier can be viewed on this link:

http://www.wildfilmhistory.org/oh/44/clip/975/section/357/Robin+Hellier%3A+Reflections+on+a+career+at+the+BBC+Natural+History+Unit.html

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Filed under animal stories, Autobiography, Biography, Claude Whatham, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Letters, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

How children responded to the film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1974

A fan letter!

The last thing that I had expected was to receive fan letters! They came pouring in. My mother kept them all. Because most of them were written to me by children I have cut out the names and addresses on the letters copied here, but since we are all thirty-eight years older,  I am sure everyone can cope with seeing their own handwriting. This letter cames from someone who, despite living half way across the world, now happens to be a friend of mine on Facebook.

EMI sent me these photographs of myself to sign and send on. I’m afraid I didn’t like them one bit. They had been taken as publicity shots and it still shows. The staged pose was exactly what Claude Whatham had been working hard to avoid. Sadly he hadn’t been around to direct this shot. I look like a Woodetop and Spot the Dog rolled into one.

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker in 'Swallows and Amazons'

Sophie Neville swinging on a gate at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in 1973

However, sending a photograph was not aways enough. I had the hard work of replying to the letters.

A fan letter

There were so many questions to answer.

A fan letter

And I felt beholden to reply immediately.

And once I replied, yet more letters arrived:

A fan letter

This was a good question, of course.

Fiona was 10. Everyone wanted to know if a sequel was coming out. I have a letter from Kit –

Kit Seymour, who seemed to know about Richard Pilbrow’s plans to adapt Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Great Northern?’ set in the Outer Hebrides.  She must have sent me this second letter in about January 1974 – between Christmas and the premiere.

I wish we had made ‘Great Northern?’  It was my favorite Arthur Ransome book. Dramatising it would have been such fun. I don’t know why I was so negative, but I remember writing to Richard Pilbrow and telling him that Ransome was mistaken and had his facts about Great Northern Divers quite wrong. I had looked up information in an ancient bird book belonging to my father and wrote the most facetious letter about their geographical distribution. I hope it didn’t put him off. I should had used my time to persuade my fans to write enthusiastic letters to EMI Films.  I’m sure this viewer would have convinced Nat Cohen.

It was clear that what children wanted was more of the same. I think it is true today. Parents tell me that even though the movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has no really terrifying moments or spectacular visual effects, children tend to snuggle down peacefully and identify with the characters. The outcome, especially if they are taken to the real locations, is that they often take on our names for themselves, enjoying the fun of camping and swimming, fishing and sailing in the Lake District.

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

Magazine articles written about ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1974

Kit Seymour, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Virginia McKenna, Simon West Suzanna Hamilton and the station master of the Haverthwaite Steam Railway in Westmorland, appearing in the April edition of Homes and Garden 1974

Newspapers are read one day and on the kitchen floor the next. Back in 1974 they might have been used to wrap up fish and chips. Either way, an article in the ‘paper is soon forgotten. Not so a feature in a magazine. They tend to hang around in hotel foyers and doctor’s surgeries for waiting to have their pages turned for months, if not years.  The judgement they cast on our movie was important.

Director Claude Whatham and Producer Richard Pilbrow on location in the summer of 1973 in the Lake District

To my surprise I found an article about how we spent the summer of 1973 in ‘Homes and Garden’ magazine.

Photographs featuring Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon, Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour in the EMI film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’.

What amazed me was that the black and white photographs taken on the film set had been colour tinted. Please forgive my scanning – the pages were stuck in albums long ago and the  images blur at the edge.

Stephen Grendon, Simon West, Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville on location at Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria

Surely she was the journalist also known by her married name of Elspeth Huxley, the author who had written The Flame Trees of Thika and so many other books?  She wasn’t quite right in saying the film was shot entirely on location in the Lake District, but still. She was not to know about our day at Runnymede.

Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton appearing in The Tatler

Virginia McKenna in an article in Films Illustrated, April 1974

We were in both Punch and The Sunday People. My mother saved them all, scratching lines alongside the paragraphs in which I was mentioned.

and The Tablet.

What’s On and the News of the World:

Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett sailing Amazon on Derwentwater

The April addition of the film fan magazine Photoplay, which featured Steve McQueen on the cover. It cost 20p in those days.

and a publishing magazine I hadn’t heard of called Smith’s Trade News ~

Virginia McKenna eating a banana with Claude Whatham outside the catering bus with quite a good photo of Swallow wired to the camera pontoon

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Steam train Haverthwaite Railway Station, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

What the press said after ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was released in 1974

Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennett, Simon West, Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon, Ronald Fraser and Virginia McKenna on the newspaper advertisement for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ released in April 1974

A school friend of mine sent me this advertisement. She had found it in a teenage magazine we all read at the time called Tammy and Sandy. There was a similar one in The Sunday Times newspaper – and no doubt many others. Film posters hung in the London Underground and at cinemas throughout the country. Swallows and Amazons was to come out, on general release for the Easter Holidays.

My mother subscribed to a press clippings agency called Durrant’s ~ Durrant’s of Herbal Hill London ECI ~ who, for a fee of £50, sent her all the articles written about the film.  The Prince of Wales told a friend of mine that he never reads the newspapers. I know why. Reading about yourself is upsetting – or can be, especially if the facts are incorrect.  My mother didn’t mind.  She highlighted the bits about me, filling four albums.

After entertaining the Daily Express so nicely in the Lake District this is what they printed about the film. I would  think this is written by Ian Christie (1927-2010) the jazz clarinetist, who had formed the Christie Brothers Stompers with his brother Keith, and became a member of Humphrey Lyttelton’s band. He worked as a theater and film critic for the Daily Express for twenty-six years. Born in Blackpool and a habitue of Fleet Street pubs he held fiercely Left-wing views.

The same black and white photograph of me appeared on the front cover of The Daily Telegraph with the title ‘One Swallow won’t make a Summer’. Were they right?  The Scotsman said:

The Scotsman ~ 1st July 1974

However, Russell Davies of The Observer, another jazz musician who now presents Brain of Britain on BBC Radio 4,  saw that the film of Swallows and Amazons  had niche. (If you click on the article it will enlarge).

Jack Woolgar, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Stephen Grendon in a review by Russell Davies in The Observer 7th April 1974

Others recognised it as an innocent nostalgia trip ~

Others just loved it:

Stephen Grendon and Sophie Neville appearing in Chelsea Post 12th April 1974

Rosemary Caink said that her three children, ‘completely identified themselves with the children in the story.’

My favorite article wasn’t found by Durrant’s. It was written in The Brownie and must have been sent to me by a fan.

Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West, appearing in an article published in ‘The Brownie’ ~ 27th March 1974
Please click on the article to find out more about the Brownies.

I have many more articles ~ please let me know in the Comment box if you would like to see more. Otherwise I will move on to write about how the public responded and what happened next.

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Riding the waves of film critics ~ after the release of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1974

Virginia McKenna, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon and Ronald Fraser appearing in the film premiere programme

I opened the pages of the programme at the film premiere to find one of the publicity photographs of us taken at Bank Ground Farm. I wasn’t sure the face Simon was making would sell a cinema ticket.

Simon West, Kit Seymour, Ronald Fraser, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton with half of Stephen Grendon on the second page of the premier programme

But the film was now out. It had to sell itself. Everyone was waiting to hear what critics from within the movie industry felt about it.

Would this photograph ever sell the film?

I think my mother must have written to Barry Norman, inviting him to bring his daughters to one of the promotional events held at the Commonwealth Institute. I wonder if she met him at the Preview of the Premiere.  He was then presenting BBC Television’s Film 74  and writing a weekly column in The Guardian newspaper. Here is his reply:

Barry Norman enjoyed it!  The Radio Times says that he was looking at ‘films for the family over the Easter holidays’.  Film 74 was shown on BBC TWO  at 10.15pm – and repeated on Fridays even later so he must have been speaking to parents. Here’s his theme tune.

One thing that strikes me when I open the March 1974 copy of ‘Films and Filming’, kept by my mother, is that ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has to be one of the most enduring movies to come out at the time. Sean Connery opted to appear with Charlotte Rampling in Zardoz’. I’ve neither seen or heard of it. Why couldn’t he have played Captain Flint with us? I did see Steve McQueen in  ‘Papillon’  but had no desire to watch it more than once. Richard Lester’s version of ‘The Three Musketeers’ was also made in 1973. Even though it stared Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Richard Chamberlain, Michael York and dear Spike Milligan I don’t think it can have been broadcast on television as many times as ‘Swallows and Amazons’.  The magazine goes on to review ‘The Optimists of Nine Elms’ starring Peter Sellers, ‘Magnum Force’ starring Clint Eastwood, ‘Herbie Rides Again’ starring Stephanie Powers and many others, films I have never heard of. ‘American Graffiti’ came out in the States, directed by George Lucas starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat and Harrison Ford. It made gross profits of more than U$200 million becoming one of the most profitable films of all time  but I wonder how many times it has been shown on British television this year? Do your children know anything about it? Has it been projected in the pouring rain for loyal fans sitting on a lake shore?

I his book, ‘A Theatre Project’ Richard Pilbrow says, ‘We had a success.’ He quotes Variety magazine, “Charming, delightful, beautifully made film,” but said it was, ‘Not a hit but a reasonable success that continues to play, principally on television, around the world.’ Richard goes on to quantify how it did financially. ‘The world of film finance is a distinct mystery. Our production costs were just under £300,000. Over the years, income trickled in from an international market. Curiously the costs inexorably rose to match the income. The costs of marketing the movie always seemed to equal receipts at the box office. In 2004 our film actually recouped. That’s why I have the temerity to call it a success.

Not all the newspapers thought so in 1974. I’ll find some of the articles for the next posting.

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Cumbria, David Wood, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story