Other Arthur Ransome books adapted for film and television by David Wood

Sophie Neville in Secret Harbour

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in 1973

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David Wood, who wrote the screenplay for SWALLOWS & AMAZONS in 1973, has recently told me about his  work adapting other Arthur Ransome books – GREAT NORTHERN?, PIGEON POST, WE DIDN’T MEAN TO GO TO SEA and WINTER HOLIDAY – all for Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Project Films.
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Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water

Producer Richard Pilbrow with Director Claude Whatham in their wet weather gear at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water

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‘It was decided that GREAT NORTHERN? should be the follow-up to the SWALLOWS film, because it was ‘different’, being the only book set in Scotland. Also, the villainous birds’ egg collector was a strong adult role – Peter Sellers was mentioned….. We had great fun looking for locations, swooping around in a helicopter over Harris, Lewis etc.
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‘Word got out that I was working on GREAT NORTHERN? and I had a very firm letter from Mrs Ransome saying that no permission had been granted to work on this title, and that it would not be granted!! No reason was given. Years later, the Ransome autobiography suggested that Mrs R didn’t like GREAT NORTHERN? and criticised it to Ransome’s face.  Also, he used sometimes to swan off to the Highlands with his friend, Quiller-Couch (I think) to fish, leaving Evgenia on her own back in the Lake District. The only communication from him would be the occasional delivery on a horse and cart from the railway station of a salmon, caught in Scotland the day before! Maybe she resented Scotland for luring him away! But she was determined that GREAT NORTHERN? the movie would never see the light of day!! But I still wrote a complete screenplay! I did a film treatment for WINTER HOLIDAY, that never got off the ground either.’
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PIGEON POST was to be a six-part serial,  a BBC-Theatre Projects co-production.  David remembers that they got as far as looking for locations in the Lake District. I started making preparations to cast the children for this drama which Joe Waters wanted to produce in 1983, directly after making COOT CLUB and THE BIG SIX under the generic title SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS FOREVER! that had been adapted for television by Michael Robson.
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‘WE DIDN’T MEAN TO GO TO SEA was also to be a serial. I did a treatment, visited Pin Mill and other locations, and met the man who built one of Ransome’s boats, or maybe worked on it with his father. All the materials and scripts still exist, but they are probably a bit too ‘straight’ for contemporary taste.’
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David Wood will soon be directing his adaptation of Judith Kerr’s classic book  THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA  at The Arts Depot in North London. It will run from 3rd December to 5th January. His numerous other forthcoming events and theatrical releases, including two different productions of his musical THE GINGERBREAD MAN, are listed on his website.
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Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham on Peel Island
Can you help us?  Was Quiller-Couch the friend who whisked Arthur Ransome off to fish in the Hebrides?  Does anyone know where they went?
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9 Comments

Filed under 1973, 1983, Arthur Ransome, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Film, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

9 responses to “Other Arthur Ransome books adapted for film and television by David Wood

  1. Matthew Jones

    Evgenia clearly had a complicated relationship with the Swallows and Amazons. I can’t figure out of she had a brilliant grasp of the capitalist system or somehow had not figured it out yet! Either way, a formidable barrier obviously!

  2. Jill G

    We’re all very sorry indeed for a series of might-have-beens! They would all have been fabulous as they have such sense of place, with the landscape and weather being very much part of the story.

  3. Evgenia was indeed a formidable figure! What a pity she didn’t want to see “Great Northern?” filmed… But I think it may still go down well today, given the many thousands of AR fan around the world. Thanks for yet another interesting piece, Sophie!

    • It is all thanks to David Wood for taking time to write when he must be so busy. Do let me know if you have any questions for him.

      • Roger Wardale

        So far as I know Ransome never mentioned Quiller-Couch in diaries or letters and I think it unlikely that it was he who did the whisking. I also suspect (perhaps unfairly) that Evgenia was pitching David Wood a yarn.
        I wonder what she would have done had he proposed to write a screenplay for Picts!
        Did I mention that David Wood and I were at the same school? He began his acting career as ‘Planchett’, a tiny part in the school production of ‘The Three Musketeers’ that did not rate a mention in the cast list, but was singled out for special mention by the reviewer.

  4. Roger Wardale

    In answer to your second question, So far as I know, Ransome only stayed at Uig a hamlet on the Atlantic seaboard of Lewis where he was a guest at Uig Lodge (translated into the ‘Castle of the Gaels’) The country around Uig is very like “Great Northern’ country in the book and would have been fine for the film.

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