What’s it like to watch the film again?

Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville ~ photo: Daphne Neville
Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville as the Walker children in 1973

In this morning’s despatches ~ via the Royal Mail ~ a letter arrived saying, ‘I’m sure we would all love to know how the recent screening of the film went and how you enjoyed the experience.’

Last Sunday, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon joined me at the Michael Croft Theatre for a special screening of Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 adaption of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ put on for an audience of excited children by Dulwich Film. We hadn’t watched the movie together since the premiere at the ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue in 1974. I hadn’t even seen Sten since that year. As we walked into the darkened auditorium, Sten’s girlfriend, who struck me as being rather special, insisted that we sat together to watch the film. 

Owl hoots trimmed

Blurred memories do come rushing back. I never managed to produce a real owl hoot.  Simon could – and I am sure Captain Nancy was adept, but it was all the trying to that brought us together.

Landing place
Director Claude Whatham at the Landing Place on Wild Cat Island with Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville

And as I watched the one thing that really struck me was, ‘How big Landing Place beach was then!’  I found myself leaning over and whispering to Sten that it has all but washed away. He didn’t know that the beach had been especially constructed for the film. It had been kept a secret.

Landing place with Claude
Rehearsing a scene on the Landing Place with Swallow

Our experience of making the film in 1973 was really quite technical. It was a wet summer and we had something of a battle against the elements to complete the scenes scheduled for each day. Back then, the aim was to capture enough footage to make the equivalent of 4 minutes of film in the final edit. You’d think this would be easy but each frame had to bear scrutiny on the big screen.  Since attention to detail was paramount, even making scrambled eggs in front of the camera was a demanding task.


As the wind blew north up Coniston Water we joined in the concentration required for the task of film-making. We were in Cumbria to work back then, even if working in the Lake District was something of an adventure, something we did for fun.

Sten Grendon on set with Claude Whatham and Suzanna Hamilton

So when we relax back and watch the film now we have a huge appreciation of what Claude Whatham put together. We laughed out loud, appreciating the humour. Much of this was generated by the serious expression on Roger’s face when he was picking up the why and wherefore of how something worked for the first time. It’s been a rare and ageless form of comedy that children loved forty years ago and evidently still love today. They always notice, ‘the bit when Roger doesn’t realise the cap is on the telescope.’ Adults love the fact that Roger always seems to be eating.

‘Oh yes!’ Sten remembered afterwards. ‘That pork pie I ate standing in the Amazon River. I was offered the choice of eating a meat pie or an apple. Well, I chose the pie, but it wasn’t so great when I had to eat another for the second take, and then another two for a different camera set-up.’

Isn’t it funny how well one can remember food?

Sten and Suzanna in camp
Sten Grendon as Roger Walker and Suzanna Hamilton as Susan Walker on Peel Island

‘Are you really old?’

‘Not so very old, by I was younger then,’ as Virginia McKenna said in the guise of Mrs Walker remembering her days camping in homemade tents. I bet someone asked Arthur Ransome the very same question.

I grew taller and had my teeth put straight. Same straggly hair. Sten still has all his thick dark hair and is quite tall himself. He works as a gardener now. Suzanna still has the biggest smile. She is the one who now needs to stand on a camera box but then she is the only one of us who does. What I mean to say is that she is the professional actress. We just turn up for fun.

‘And the others?’

I don’t know. Really, I don’t know. I’d love to see them again but am quietly waiting for them to contact me.  I hope they do. I have the first proof of a book to send them – it’s the diary I kept whilst making the film, forty years ago.

Swallows & Amazons reunion April 2013 006
Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon in 2013

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

27 thoughts on “What’s it like to watch the film again?”

  1. Yeah, great to see the three of you there, would be even better to see the lot of you having a bit of a reunion in the Lake district some time maybe 🙂

    You should talk Suzanna and Sten, into writing a page or two to put up on your blog Sophie!

  2. I do wish I’d been there (at the screening that is… of course I wish I’d been there when you were filming it too!!). I love the contrasting photos right at the start and at the end. It would indeed be wonderful to have the whole gang together. Do let us know here if anything comes of that. If there is a big shindig I hope we’ll be invited!

    1. Great. I am hoping to bring out a special, early edition for Arthur Ransome enthusiasts. I just have to draw the maps – impossible to dates as I broke my finger

  3. Hi Sophie, love reading everything you have written about filming Sallows and Amazons. We have the dvd and we sit and watch it together. It is so calming and exciting at the same time. Also love the photos. My daughter has been auditioning to play Titty and it has been wonderful to have an insight. Thank you very much for your blog. Kerry

    1. I am so glad you have enjoyed the blog about filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ back in 1974. It was all so long ago that much will have changed and I am sure the new film will be made very differently, however many people seem interested in the DVD. Do let me have any questions you might have.

  4. Hi Sophie,
    We have been watching the dvd of Swallows and Amazons together as a family. We find it calming and exciting at the same time. It is wonderful to see these photos of the making of the film from 1974. My daughter is auditioning for the role of Titty in the latest and it is giving us a wonderful insight. Thank you for this amazing blog. We are hoping to go and see Swallow next weekend at Bucklers Hard!

    1. It is great you are planning to come to Bucklers Hard this weekend. I hope the weather is good. I am planning to get there for the Sunday, God willing. I can feel a dreaded sore throat coming along (my sister is down with it) but I am determined to be well enough to sail the Nancy Blackett on Monday. Do come and introduce yourself to me if you make it down.

        1. Oo not sure – depends on the weather. I’ll aim at getting to bucklers Hard from 3.00pm onwards but this may have to change. Are you members of the Arthur Ransome Society? If not, think of joining quickly so you and your children can take part in some of the events this summer, if not this weekend.

  5. I was doing a bit of ‘where are they now’ surfing the other day (you’d think I had too much time on my hands!) and came across a picture of Lesley Bennett in Coronation Street. Did you know she’d been in that? I wouldn’t have recognised her from the photo though! (I have pasted the link below).

    Love the blog – it is still as fresh as ever!

    1. I’m sorry, I have only just seen this post and looked up the link for Lesley Bennett. She was 13 in 1973 so would have been aqged 20 in 1980, which fits but, you are right, it doesn’t look like her. I am hoping she will contact me, when I can ask.

  6. Thanks! I don’t recognise Lesley Bennett either. I have been told that the girl who played Peggy Blackett is married and living inthe Netherlands now although that doesn’t exlude her from appearing in ‘Coronation Street’. I am hoping she will contact me!

    Jack Woolgar was in ‘Coronation Street’ for many years, playing Carney. Perhaps I should have asked if I could direct the series but my life was in London and I have never warmed to the soap opera despite its influence.

  7. How cool, wish I had been there – I would love the chance to see S&A on the big screen. Have you really done a book? Superb! I can’t wait to read it 🙂

    1. We are currently proof-reading the book, which is based on the diary I kept whislt filming. It has taken ages to compile but makes more interesting reading than I first thought. It funny looking back on the early 1970s in detail. Like an old jean jacket the film seems to have retained a contemporary feel despite the fact that it was made 40 years ago. Do write to the Controller of Channel 4 and ask for it to be repeated!

  8. I’m just watching this on BBC2 now, a childhood favourite of mine that has never waned in its charm. So pleased I’ve found your website!

  9. I also like the photos at the beginning and the end; another fabulous blog. Thank you, Sophie.

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