Monthly Archives: January 2014

Memories of filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973 from Simon West’s father

When I saw Simon West recently he told me that his father would love to see a copy of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’. 
Nigel West soon wrote to say:
     ‘…it makes fascinating reading. Simon told me very little in the way of detail about his experiences when filming so your account is very welcome.Simon’s mother, Dorothy, and I only visited the Lake District once during that period and then we only saw Simon fairly briefly and saw nothing of the filming. Things that I can recall about the whole experience I will describe below.
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     ‘Our family took up dinghy sailing when I built a Mirror dinghy in our dining room at home. It was built from a flat-pack and took nearly a year to construct, in my spare time, during which the family had to eat meals in the sitting room. I had been sailing on the Norfolk Broads with friends a few times in my college days, which had started my interest in boating. The family joined the Dorchester Sailing Club which was based on an old gravel pit not far from our home. Eventually we also acquired two children’s Optimist dinghies for Virginia and Simon, who spent many weekends racing their boats at open meetings around the country.’
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Simon West as John Walker
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     ‘One day at the club a notice appeared on the notice board asking children with sailing experience to audition for acting parts in a film to be made of Swallows and Amazons. Virginia immediately expressed interest and pressured Dorothy and me to take her to the auditions in London. We were reluctant to agree because we thought her chance of success would be so slim with thousands of other applicants, many with acting experience, queueing up for parts. Then, to my surprise, Simon said he was also interested, with his eye on the part of John, but surely, I thought, he would be too young and too short for that part and he had pooh-poohed the idea of trying for Roger.
     ‘As it happened we were due to visit Dorothy’s sister, who lived south of London, in Sussex, on the Saturday of the auditions, so we decided that a small detour would allow the children to attend without too much problem. Sadly Virginia fell at the first interview while Simon, to our utter amazement, won through that and all the other stages of selection to win the part of John. How pleased we were for him and proud – and sorry for Virginia who took her disappointment so well. You should ask Simon about the later stages of selection that included a long weekend living on an old motor torpedo boat at Burnham-on-Crouch having, among other things, his sailing proficiency assessed.
     ‘From the few things that Simon did tell us about the filming, I was extraordinarily impressed by the maturity he had so clearly gained in the whole experience. He explained how conscious he was of the crucial part he had to play in getting it right, in front of the camera, because the success of the whole project depended on that. With dozens of adults all working flat out as a team to a tight schedule meant that he had to concentrate on getting it right first time – a very maturing experience for an 11 year-old taking time out from his first year at secondary school.’
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BW Simon West learning morse code -  trimmed
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     ‘With Simon having no acting experience I was intrigued to know how Claude Watham had managed to get what he wanted from his young cast. Simon explained one technique that Claude had used to stop them looking wooden in front of the camera. He would make sure they knew their lines, send the children to run to some point and back again, then shoot the scene while they were still animated from the running.
     ‘One aspect of the production mentioned in your book is the studio post-sychronisation. I can remember taking Simon up to Elstree Studios in Borehamwood to re-record some of the dialogue, sometime after the filming had been completed. Maybe you did the same. Simon had to wear headphones to listen to the film dialogue, while watching a scene from the film, and to repeat to a microphone the dialogue in exact synchronism with what he heard in the headphones and saw on the film. He said it was an extremely difficult thing to do, to talk over one’s own voice, exactly, and then to give it the right expression. I imagine it needs a lot of practice to get it right. The object was, of course, to dub over recorded dialogue which had either been poorly recorded or which included extraneous noise.
     ‘Finally, I did manage to watch one scene filmed, but from a great distance, which you do mention in your book, and that was the Darien scene shot at Runnymede sometime much later in the year. In 1973 it was the fashion for all schoolboys to wear their hair indecently long. At Simon’s school the rule was that the hair was just allowed to touch the collar but not an inch longer. Simon’s hair was no exception but he had had it shorn for and throughout the filming and it had just started to grow back when he was summoned to the Runnymede shoot. On our arrival at Runnymede Simon was immediately sat on a chair and had his locks shorn once again. I think he should have been paid a special indignity fee for that day’s work.’
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Simon West having his hair cut - trimmed
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     ‘I remember watching the S&A float in the Lord Mayor’s Show pass by but the float passed too quickly to let you all spot our family in the crowd.
     ‘I also remember attending the film’s premier at the cinema in Shaftesbury Avenue, also attended by some minor member of royalty. It was a grand event and brought home to me that this was not some trivial little children’s entertainment but was a full length feature film of some standing. It must have been shown on British TV a dozen times over the years, particularly at Christmas, so it has stood the test of time by anybody’s standards.
     ‘That reminds me that at one point we made a half-hearted attempt to get Simon into Equity but without success. The result was that Simon only got paid a daily fee for his work on the film, with no residual payments for TV showings, overseas viewings or video and DVD earnings, to say nothing of his image appearing on a number of jigsaws!
Jigsaw puzzell
     ‘You probably know that Simon also acted in a film made for children’s television in 1974, when he took the title role in Sam and the River. This was recorded on film and was shown on BBC TV in the form of six 30 minute episodes. It was before the days of video recorders so we have only ever seen the original transmission. Fifteen years ago I approached the production company to see if I could obtain a copy, but they had been reorganised since the film was shot and had kept no copy, nor record, of the production. I then approached the BBC and they did a search for me but they drew a blank. At one stage the BBC had a Philistine in charge who infamously threw out masses of, now priceless, BBC archives as being a waste of space. One day I hope to put a name to him. Simon has since found that the BFI have an archive copy of Sam and the River so I will approach them, but they do emphasise that they have no authority to make or issue copies of archive films. Might, however, get them to show it to us one day perhaps.’
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BW Brenda Bruce with Simon West - trimmed
There were four jigsaws issued with the film. There is full image of the jigsaw above on an earlier post.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Dinghy sailing, e-publication, Family Life, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Kindle, Lake District, Letters, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized

How did Arthur Ransome influence your life?

Arthur Ransome was born in on 18th January 1884. This Saturday will be his 130th anniversary.

Around the world, those who loved his books will be celebrating his birthday. Around the UK, from the South Coast to Giggleswick in North Yorkshire and up in Scotland, various branches of The Arthur Ransome Society are holding events.

There will be a Birthday Parley in High Wycombe, another in Glasgow and one in Exeter. In the North of England they’ll be a cake with a secret message in the manner of Winter Holiday.  There will also be a lunch party at the Devon Hotel under the castle at Arundel, on 19th January.

Saturday 18th January will mark the last performance of the Theatre by the Lake’s production of the musical Swallows and Amazons at Keswick in Cumbria when members of the audience are invited to come dressed up as pirates. There will be prizes for the best outfits. The Arthur Ransome Trust have had a display up in the Circle Bar since the play opened in November, which I gather has been widely praised.

I will be going to Shotley in Suffolk to help TARS EAST to celebrate from the Shipwreck Restaurant, whilst gazing out across the Orwell where Arthur Ransome spent so much time sailing.

Sophie Neville at The Nancy Blackett Day

As you can see in the Comments below, Pamela Copley has just written from Australia to say:

‘There is a celebration of AR’s birthday in a suburb of Melbourne on Saturday – straight after the AGM. There will be a member from the UK group too.

Cheryl Paget tells me that, ‘In New Zealand members have  met in Auckland for a weekend of Ransome inspired activities. We have sailed under the Auckland Harbour Bridge in a 57ft ketch rigged deck scow, toured the historic naval town of Devonport and walked to the top of the dormant volcano of Rangitoto. We had a fiendishly hard quiz last night and ate a birthday cake to celebrate AR’s 130 birthday and today we are off to watch sharks. Come and join us next year for our annual birthday weekend in the South Island!’

Mikako Tarashima wrote from the Arthur Ransome Club in Japan to say:

‘We don’t have Ransome’s birthday event in this January. We would like to have a small exhibition in this year. Because in 2014, publication of new Japanese translation of Ransome saga will be complete. I am so happy that we can celebrate Ransome’s 130th Anniversary unexpectedly.’

The musical Swallows and Amazons will be performed in St. Louis, MO on January 25th and 26th by the Centre of Creative Arts (COCA). Produced by the COCA Theater Company, the musical is directed by Alec Wild and Shanara Gabrielle, with musical direction by Neal Richardson. The cast includes  St. Louis actors Maria Knasel, Steve Isom, Taylor Pietz and Pete Winfrey.

Nancy

So, this week, I ask the question: How has Arthur Ransome influenced your life?

What impact have his classic books, or the adaptations of Swallows and Amazons for film, television or the theatre, had on your family?

Do add a line or two to the Comments below.

Arthur Ransome's cutter the Nancy Blackett sailing on the Orwell

Arthur Ransome’s cutter the Nancy Blackett on the Orwell in July 2013

I am guilty of denial. When people asked, ‘How has Swallows & Amazons influenced your life?’ I’m afraid I used not to be that forth-coming, because I had moved on from acting in films. If you had asked me in 2010 I would have shrugged and said, ‘Not much.’

But then I stopped and thought again.

How much time I have spent exploring wilderness areas? I’d forgotten that it was the maps in Ransome’s books that attracted me to reading Cartography at university. I went to draw numerous maps all over the world.

I love living outdoors. I love fell walking, mud-flats, and being out on the high seas. I would drop everything to sail to China or the Caribbean tomorrow. I put this down to the fact that my father took us sailing and camping even before I read Ransome’s books. But who influenced Dad?  Born in 1929, he was an avid reader of Arthur Ransome and would eagerly wait for the next book about the Swallows and the Amazons to be published. It would be a longed-for Christmas present.

It then occurred to me that John’s careful planning, Susan’s packing, Titty’s log and Roger’s humour still steer my life. The food, the phrases, the urge to travel, became part of my life long ago. I’ve lived under Swallow’s flag.

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I for one, sail into the year ahead with Titty’s words still singing in my ears,

‘Here we are, intrepid explorers, making the first ever voyage into uncharted waters? What mysteries will it hold for us, what dark secrets shall me revealed?’

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Aboard the Nancy Blackett at Buckler’s Hard

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Filed under Arthur Ransome, Bestseller, Cumbria, Lake District, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons

More memories of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 from David Stott

David Stott, the Ambleside lad who worked as a unit driver on the film of  Swallows & Amazons in 1973 after he left college at the age of 19, has written from America:

‘I really enjoyed reliving Swallows & Amazons through your book.’

‘Oh my, what a trip down memory lane it was for me – so much that l had forgotten was rekindled. I cannot believe that it was forty years ago.

‘I think that I started work (on the film in) mid-June, which would fit in with finishing college. From your daily schedule it was when you went back to Coniston with Virgina McKenna on her second visit.’

Map showing film locations around Coniston Water

Map showing film locations around Coniston Water

David remembers the problem of being locked out of Bank Ground Farm by Mrs. Batty.  ‘I really could not blame her as the whole place had been turned into a circus and her house ripped apart.’

‘The first morning I met Richard Pilbrow was in his bedroom for some strange reason and remember thinking, ‘What a total mess. How can anybody live like this?’

‘My main contacts were Neville Thompson (the On-line Producer) and Graham Ford (the Production Manager). They were all based at Kirkstone Foot Hotel that was owned by friends of my parents, Simon and Jane Bateman.  Others stayed at the Waterhead Hotel down by the lake, where I would pick them up and take them to the location.

‘On arrival at the location I remember well the catering van and the breakfast that awaited us.  Having just competed three years studying hotel management at college I was amazed how two people with very limited equipment could produce the number of meals they did.  The washing up was done on a trestle table outside the van with bowls of water carried to location in large milk churns.

Map of film locations on Derwentwater in the Lake District

~ Map of film locations on Derwentwater in the Lake District ~

‘I did not have much contact with you and the other children, as you were under the watchful eye of your Mum and Jean McGill. Jean’s Mum was called Girly McGill and used to run a nursing home in Ambleside. As a child I used to deliver eggs to the home with my Dad.  Jean had a brother who I think everybody called Blondie.

‘Sten was a bit of a handful at times and held up shooting on a number of occasions while he was calmed down. I rather envied Simon West; I wished I had the chance he did to act in a film. To this day I’m a frustrated actor.

‘Dennis Lewiston (the Director of Photography) always seemed to be holding a light meter in the air or perhaps he was warding off the clouds.  I found him a little unapproachable.

‘My recollection of Sue Merry the continuity girl was setting up her folding table and tapping away on a portable typewriter.

‘Ronnie Cogan the hairdresser and I spent hours chatting. Once the shooting started, we had nothing else to do. He was such a nice man.

‘I was thrilled when I met Virginia McKenna and had to drive her around. One day I had to drive her to Grange railway station. I was so fascinated by her tales of working with lions in Born Free that I drove slowly to maximise her story-telling time. We almost missed the train and had to run from the car park.

‘One of the wettest days I remember is when the scene of Octopus Lagoon was filmed above Skelwith Fold Caravan Site. I don’t remember the support buses being around that day, but I do remember having to sit in the car for hours on end. Maybe the buses were somewhere else.

‘I know I was invited to the wrap party but cannot remember a thing about it.’

Map showing some of the film locations around Windermere

Map showing some of the film locations around Windermere

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Autobiography, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Film, Film Cast, Film Catering, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized