Auditioning for parts in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ back in 1973

The final audition for 'Swallows & Amazons' in March 1973
The final audition for ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in March 1973 ~ a wet weekend sailing in Burnham-on-Crouch without parents.

People often ask what auditioning for the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was like for us, back in 1973, long before the advent of email and Youtube when casting directors only ever worked in Hollywood.

For me, the process was pretty quick. I had worked for the Director, Claude Whatham before, when I had a small part in the BBC film of Laurie Lee’s book, ‘Cider with Rosie’. After meeting Claude again at an interview held at Richard Pilbrow’s  Theatre Project’s offices in Long Acre on a sunny day in March 1973, I was invited to go to Burnham-on-Crouch for a sailing weekend that was to constitute the final audition. This proved something of an endurance test. It was miles from where we lived. The weather was awful with driving rain and rough seas. The only warm piece of clothing I had was a knitted hat. We slept in cabins aboard a permanently moored Scout Boat with flowery orange curtains. There were no parents around to boost our moral. The sailing was challenging and I felt bitterly cold.

Our producer Richard Pilbrow bought his two children, Abigail and Fred. With him was Neville Thompson, director Claude Whatham, and David Blagden who was to be the sailing director. He told us that he had read ‘Swallows and Amazons’ forty-two times, which sounded daunting. I had read all the books but could not see myself as Titty. She had thick dark hair in all the pictures and I was bossy – far more like Mate Susan. We didn’t read from a script. We weren’t asked to improvise or act out a scene.  There was no film-test, but 8mm movie footage was taken.  I wonder if it still exists.

Out of an initial 1,800 who applied, twenty-two children were short-listed for the six parts of the Swallows and the Amazons. While there were only two or three boys up for the role of Roger there were five girls auditioning to play Titty. At one stage Claude had a chat with all five of us in our cabin, all the Tittys. The others were all so sweet that I didn’t think I stood a chance. I was undeniably gangly and felt that I kept saying the wrong thing.

‘Did you take the helm?’

‘Oh, we all helmed like any-thing.’

One of the other girls auditioning for Titty looked incredibly together. She had pretty, fashionable clothes and would make a point of brushing her hair and wearing jewelry, just as Mummy would have liked me to have done. While I was used to boats my sailing wasn’t up to much. I was completely in awe of Kit Seymour’s seamanship and how the fast she got the dinghies to whizz through the driving rain.

BW the cast at Euston Station May 1973
A photograph taken for the Evening Standard of the cast at Euston Station on their way to the Lake District, before haircuts. Suzanna said, ‘We all felt right twits.’

A decision must have been made pretty quickly as all local education authorities demanded at least six weeks to process our licences to work on a film. It was 1973, casting time must have been scarce and I’m afraid the children finally cast all ended up coming from the south of England: Middlesex, Berkshire, Gloucestershire and London. None of us went to stage schools or had theatrical agents, apart from Suzanna Hamilton who went to the Anna Scher after-school Drama Club in Islington.  But before we knew it our hair was cut, transporting us back to 1929 and we were out on Lake Windermere realising the dream.

BW Wearing Life Jackets in the Safety Boat - trimmed
The Swallows, wearing ex-BOAC buoyancy aids, on Coniston Water

‘Did you have a pushy Mum?’ I am asked.

‘Oh, yes!’ She was brought up reading Noel Streatfield’s  ‘Ballet Shoes’, longed to act herself and so was keen for me to be in ‘Cider with Rosie’. She made the effort to take me along to a drama club and to a huge audition in the Stroud Subscription Rooms, however I only got the little part of Elieen Brown was because I could play the piano. My mother did force me to take my music to the third audition, which of course enabled me to out-shine the others. I was not a hugely talented pianist and ended up having to practice for eight hours a day before I could master the accompaniment to ‘Oh, Danny Boy’ featured in the film. It was shear hard work that won through in the end.

We were all lucky to be the right age at the right time. I was perhaps the most fortunate because at twelve I was really too tall for the part of Titty. I was a year older and a good two inches taller than Simon West who played my elder brother, but Claude must have known that he could cheat this on-screen.

Oxford Mail Wednesday June 20th 1973

‘Are you glad you did it?’

Yes, it was fun – wonderful to spend a summer in the Lake District. A chance grabbed. I had not been yearning to act but took a great interest in how the movie was made. In the end the experience set me up for something of a career in television behind the camera and gave me the confidence to a number of things that might otherwise have remained a dream.

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

10 thoughts on “Auditioning for parts in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ back in 1973”

  1. It’ll be different now. They have thermal vests, hi-tech clothing and better vehicles. You can imagine how primitive portaloos were in 1973. I always used a tree.

  2. And were most of the children aiming for specific parts? e.g. did Suzanna hope to be Susan, and Lesley hope to be Peggy? I guess they’d be wanting to act in a certain way to seem ideal for the character?

  3. I think the parts of Susan and Peggy are so similar that the same girl could go up for either part. Kit had a twin sister who was auditioning for Peggy, but I can only think that Lesley was more Peggish and chatty.

    Although Simon and I could be brother and sister but I never thought we looked very alike as a family of four children. Sadly I look nothing like Virginia McKenna but when photographed we do look staggeringly like mother and daughter – even now!

  4. Yes, how funny about Titty looking like her mother!!
    Hmmm, Susan and Peggy fulfil the same roles but are VERY different in other ways: both were exactly right – Lesley was totally like Jenny Agutter’s younger sister in The Railway Children, which is always how I’d imagined Peggy.

  5. I can only imagine that Virginia McKenna was invited to play mother before I was considered. Richard Pilbrow may remember.

    ‘Swallows & Amazons’ was financed with the cinema takings from EMI’s film ‘The Railway Children’ (1970).

  6. Many, many thanks indeed for featuring these rare press photos on your site. I wonder if the Evening Standard and the Oxford Mail still have the negatives to them, as they would look wonderful reprinted as glossy, high definition, 8 x 10 prints. As an eBayer for over eleven years, I look constantly on a daily basis for photos such as this, but they never turn up. In fact, most press photos promoting British films have to be obtained from America, because there’s nowhere in this country you can buy them. It was also interesting to see Simon and Stephen’s long, uni-sex hair styles before they were cut to a 1929 style. It was the fashion in the early 1970s for boys and girls hairstyles to be so alike. A look at child stars of the time, such as Mark Lester; Richard Beaumont, or Darren Burn (or even our 12 years old paperboy in 1973, Bryan Garner) confirms this.

    This is the most interesting site on the entire web!

    1. Thank you. Boy’s 1970’s hair-styles were pretty terrible, weren’t they. Sten gave me a few other press cuttings and a two page essay he wrote about the filming. I’ll post it 40 years to the day it was written. So glad you are enjoying the blog. Do comment on previous pages if you have any questions.

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