Adaptations of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ discussed in the Independent by Jonathan Brown

Author Arthur Ransome loathed BBC’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’, his diaries reveal

Swallow in 'Swallows and Amazons' 2016

When the BBC announced plans to recreate the classic outdoor children’s sailing adventure Swallows and Amazons it was hailed as a blockbusting antidote to the health and safety culture of the mollycoddled video-game generation…

However, previously unread diaries of its creator, Arthur Ransome, reveal that the author considered the corporation’s last attempt to bring his much-loved story to life to be a “ghastly mess” marred by “dreadful ham” acting. The diaries reveal how Ransome clashed repeatedly with BBC executives in the early 1960s when the BBC commissioned a six-part dramatisation for television, starring Susan George, then aged 12, as Kitty (changed from the original Titty) Walker.

Ransome, then in declining health, was living in virtual retirement in his remote Cumbrian cottage Hill Top overlooking the spectacular Rusland valley with his wife Evgenia – the former secretary to Leon Trotsky, whom he met while working as a foreign correspondent and spying for Britain in revolutionary Russia. It was a spartan existence, often with no electricity or running water.

In a series of brusque entries at odds with his generally affable demeanour, he describes how he repeatedly fought with BBC executives over attempts to introduce two new characters – Ernie and Sam – to the story. Both he and his wife attempted to rewrite the script after concluding that one episode was “bad beyond belief”.

Rupert Hart-Davis with Arthur Ransome

At his home Hill Top with his publisher Rupert Hart-Davies

“I have agreed to Genia’s proposal that we shall wash our hands of the film leaving it to Mr Walls [of the BBC] to play the farceur as much as he likes. They may be right in thinking that vulgar ham acting is what the T.V. gapers want,” he wrote in July 1962.

Ransome was particularly unimpressed with the performance of popular British actor John Paul as Captain Flint – the character… said to be based on Ransome himself – describing it as “dreadful HAM”.

On attending a screening at the Hammer Theatre in Wardour Street, central London in October 1962, he concluded: “Saw the ghastly mess they have made of poor old Swallows and Amazons … MacCullogh [his friend Derek MacCullogh, former head of children’s broadcasting at the BBC who was also known as the presenter Uncle Mac] did not come possibly to avoid trouble with his employers.” It was eventually broadcast the following year.

Stephen Sykes now owns Hill Top and has restored the Ransomes’ former home. He is also helping transcribe the author’s sparsely detailed diaries from his years at Hill Top, which are kept at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library. Sykes said the writer received £3,500 for agreeing to the BBC broadcast – a considerable amount of money. “He was clearly making a very good living out of the rights to Swallows and Amazons. This was his baby and he had obviously pored over it. It is a very leanly written story and it was pretty clear it was written by a journalist because of its clarity, because there is nothing extraneous,” he said.

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Hill Top in the Lake District today

“He is extremely protective of his own work. He felt he didn’t want a word changing, and that he had honed the story down and it was what it was,” he added.

swallows and amazons map tea towel

Swallows and Amazons was first published in 1930. It recounts the adventures of the children from two families who while away an idyllic summer getting into scrapes sailing their dinghies across Coniston Water and Lake Windermere. As well as the television series, many theatrical and musical adaptations have been staged, and the story was made into a film in 1974 staring Ronald Fraser and Sophie Neville.

When the latest project was announced in 2011, head of BBC Films Christine Langan said it would seek to encapsulate a forgotten era of childhood adventure “from the pre-health and safety generation”.

Producer Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, who is collaborating on the film with the BBC, the Arthur Ransome Society and the author’s literary estate, said it had not been decided yet whether the children would be shown sailing without their life jackets.

But he said viewers could expect to experience the full majesty of the book’s setting. “The lakes and the mountains are very big and we are keen to recreate that grandeur of the scenery in the film,” he said. A spokeswoman for BBC Films said: “The film is still in development.”

To see a copy of the original article online, please click here

To contact Stephen Sykes at Hill Top, the Ransome’s last home, please click here

Hill Top - P1020151-lr

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

26 thoughts on “Adaptations of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ discussed in the Independent by Jonathan Brown”

  1. I’ve long thought that the best possible adaptation of Swallows and Amazons would be an anime one. Each book could be as many episodes as needed (some more, some less), and it would fit right in with some of the other classics that have been adapted, especially in the World Masterpiece Theatre Series, which did series-length adaptations of Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, Peter Pan and many others.

        1. It’ll be fascinating to see where scenes for the new film adaptation will be located.

          Any suggestions gratefully received.

          Which houses would you use for Beckfoot? Holly Howe? Dixon’s Farm – bearing in mind recent modifications and modernisations. A wind farm can be seen at the southern end of Coniston Water these days.

  2. The BBC 1962 production of Swallows and Amazons may have had some faults, but it introduced me to the world of Ransome and his great books. I loved it as a nine year old.

    1. Many people write saying they would like to see the whole series and be able to get it on DVD. If we could collect enough names and addresses I could approach Revelation films about it. They distribute the BBC drama serial of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’.

      Did you ever see the 1974 EMI feature film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’?

  3. I remember watching the BBC film series of “Swallows and Amazons” in 1963. It was repeated in 1964. That’s 50 years ago and I haven’t seen it since. I particularly remember the title music, which in style was a cross between Edwin Astley and Malcolm Armold. I would love to see it again for nostalgia reasons, but it probably can’t hold a candle to the colour feature filmed in 1973.

    1. It is surprising there have not been more adaptations. There have been so many versions of Jane Eyre, Austen and Dicken’s novels, but they have no copyright attached, whereas the rights to the Ransome books were difficult to acquire.

      Which of the Ransome books would you most like to see dramatized for the cinema and why?

  4. Ernie and Sam? I wonder what their role in the story would have been.

    As for life jackets, people usually go out in motorboats and rowing boats without them even today, and Swallow was a boat with a keel and heavy ballast designed not to capsize, making it very different from modern sailing dinghies. If the film was to be a more modern version of the story using more up-to-date dinghies, then life jackets would be essential and would fit the story, but if it’s going to be set in its original time they are inappropriate and unrealistic – it will end up looking like a health and safety campaign film and might as well have the words “Remember – always wear a life jacket” appear on the screen every time they show a boat. Personally, I think it’s dangerous to go on any kind of boat (including ferries) without a life jacket, and, even more importantly, clothing of a kind capable of keeping you warm in the water (good thermal underwear is almost as effective as a wetsuit because it holds warmed water in place), but this doesn’t mean we should rewrite the past.

    If they do want to pander to the health and safety brigade though, why not go the whole hog and make them all wear helmets too – there’s no better way to train children to let the boom hit their head.

    1. Ernie and Sam were parts invented for burglars with cockney accents.

      How would you feel if a film adaptation of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was set in the present day? This is not the plan, but Ransome wrote it in the present.

      1. If I was going to make a film of S&A, I’d certainly think about setting it in modern times – there’s already a really good film of it in existence and I very much doubt that another attempt at the same thing will be better. They may put right some things, but they’ll likely put just as many other things wrong. There’s still some point in doing it just because it will be a new film – that will automatically mean that a fair number of people will watch it, but it’s rare for a remake of anything to be as good as the original. I hope this is going to be one of the rare exceptions, but whatever the case, I’m happy at the thought that six more children are going to have the opportunity to be involved in making a film of this kind and that maybe a few thousand others will find their way into sailing as a result.

        Would setting the film in the present work though? I think you’d have to change the children a bit, because a lot of their behaviour was driven by things that have faded into history – they would be less tied into a Treasure Island mindset (which is where most of Nancy’s character came from), and I’m sure Susan wouldn’t be prepared to be such a housewife. You’d need to try to put yourself into the head of Arthur Ransome and attempt to write the story as he might have done it today, making bold changes wherever necessary, though it should be possible to keep the film true to the book in most aspects. If I was a director, I certainly couldn’t be bothered with a mere remake, even if the aim was to make it match up better with the book – I’d be looking to do something a bit more ambitious, but if you can’t get a decent writer to make the right changes while at the same time staying as true to the book as possible within the rules required by the modernisation, it would be a big disappointment, and realistically that’s exactly what would happen because any writer who’s actually up to the task would rather spend their time creating something entirely new.

          1. Would that interfere with the story though? The added safety that comes from having mobile phones makes it more credible that the children could be given the freedom they need for this kind of adventure to happen, and the impossibility of charging them would prevent them from using them other than minimally. When Titty’s left alone on the island, it would not seem at all unlikely for the battery in her phone to run out, so she still won’t know what’s going on when the Amazons arrive. You couldn’t have all the phones fail, of course, so Mother would necessarily call John or Susan [though Titty and Roger might easily not have phones of their own, so Susan’s phone would have been left with Titty] and establish that the other three Swallows are spending the night at a jetty on the wrong island, thereby preventing her from calling out a search party, while she would also assume that Titty had switched her phone off to save the battery. The leading lights and lighthouse tree are still necessary – you should never rely on GPS, and trying to do so will again run your battery flat. I don’t know if all the problems of trying to set the story in the present day could be solved, but it would be an interesting exercise.

            1. You’re right. Working it out is interesting. The kids would wear life jackets and might be equipped with flares. Would they use modern tents? What about the National Trust? Charcoal burners? A text message instead of a telegram? We could try the concept as a blog post and see what the reaction would be.

              Christina Hardyment – who is an executor of ransome’s literary estate – points out that the books were written in the present day, so the idea of setting them in the present doesn’t bother her.

              1. “better drowned than duffers if not duffers wont drown” – it already looks like a text message, and for a good reason. I don’t think flares are necessary (unless you want to set it in the ’70s) but shorts are more likely in any case. Or if you mean the other kind of flares, they’d be overkill on a lake. Life jackets, yes. Wetsuits, no – the boats can still be old and designed not to flip over, although it would be better if most or all the swimming in the story was done while wearing wetsuits, so maybe they should have them. Charcoal burners are fine – they wouldn’t be doing it full time these days, but they could be retired people who occasionally give it a go to keep the tradition alive, encouraged by the National Trust. Camping on the island? We don’t want to encourage people to think this can be done by anyone, so the island would have to belong to someone who gives them (and the Amazons) special permission due to family connections and local friendships. They probably shouldn’t be gathering burning so much wood there to burn either as it interferes with nature if you don’t leave it to rot where it falls, but they could do most of the cooking on gas and light a campfire only occasionally. A lot of the food would need to be changed, but they’d still want supplies of milk and need to collect it daily (not fresh from the cow, but from the same place). The Swallows could have a couple of cheap tents which can’t stand up to a storm. The Amazons have a stronger one, but there’s no need for any of them to be homemade. The changes would be fairly trivial even so, because the story is essentially timeless. The language needs a little updating in places, but there’s absolutely no need to reflect current fads in exotic vocabulary as they don’t last – nothing would date the film faster than trying to make it sound hip.

                Two important things though – any discussion of this must not interfere with the making of this (/last) year’s film as it would be awful if the whole thing was postponed for a rewrite, leading to the chosen children missing out; and if a version is to be made set in the present rather than in the past, it should ideally be done before Ransome’s copyright runs out so that those who care most about the books maintain control over how it’s done.

                All 12 books (or 13 – Coots in the North could maybe be finished) should really be filmed in quick succession too [this year’s film could give some indication of whether they could generate enough money for this to be possible]. Peter Duck is a particularly good story which would make a ripping good film, though I’d make a couple of little changes at the end: the Amazons would shoot a few arrows at the enemy ship (they deserve a chance to shoot some in anger – one of Peggy’s arrows could injure a pirate), and Peter Duck would deliberately sail into the path of the waterspout having determined that it’s going to swerve behind them. Oh, and I’d add a bit at the start too to give them a good reason to get a few months off school so that the story is no longer a fantasy – time off can be arranged for educational adventures and the original plan could simply be to sail round Britain, but who wouldn’t cancel that when there’s treasure to be found.

  5. All that I have seen of the 1962 version is the Youtube clip. Judging (unfairly) by that it seems a little too polite! Give me the EMI adaptation any day! But I’d gladly sign a petition to have it released if it still exists, as I would do for Sam and the River. As to which book should be filmed that hasn’t yet been filmed, I’d say We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, or Great Northern? Wouldn’t mind seeing Peter Duck or Missee Lee adapted either!.

    1. ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’ wouldn’t be too difficult to film. They still have the boat after all. There have been so few sailing films made and they are always both popular and inspirational.

      1. Interesting discussion above about whether to bring the new production into the present day. I don’t know what would be more incredible to modern kids: a summer vacation without all the paraphernalia of modern life, or the idea that kids today would even bother to sail to a island and leave behind the joys of WiFi! One could modernize it to a point before cell-phones and incorporating 1990s fashions and TV-culture. It’s almost as though one can’t set as positive or as innocent a story as S&A at any time after 9/11.
        We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea is a terrific action tale and I think I’ve read that it is a favorite among sailors thanks to it’s accurate depiction of sailing at sea! Wasn’t it also remotely based on a true story? The beauty of it would be that one could safely film the storm sequences in a water tank on a film lot and have the children in life vests throughout the film because I think that’s faithful to the book itself.
        I also found Great Northern a wonderful surprise filled with suspense and a great variety of action. In this day of environmental awareness it is almost prophetic and would be worth making for that alone. Think also of the beauty of the setting in Scotland, the delicious villains and the interesting encounter with the Scots “natives.” If only!
        Any idea whether the 2014 adaptation will go ahead with the cast chosen in 2013? Or will they have to recast the children who have probably grown a bit since last year?

        1. I believe David Wood wrote screenplays for both ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ and ‘Great Northern’. He still has copies. How I wish we’d made them in the 1970s.
          No idea about the casting for 2014. I’ll ask if I get the chance. Bit of both I’d expect.

  6. I cannot imagine how a new version of Swallows and Amazons could possibly be better than the original. Remakes of other classics, such as The Railway Children and Far from the Madding Crowd, were, to me, inferior. I’m sure there are many others.

    1. There are nine books in the Arhtur Ransome series that no one has ever adapted for the screne, although the playwright Daivd Wood was commissioned to work on drafts from two or three. Most have better story lines than ‘Swallows & Amazons’. I am sure ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’ would make an excellent film that wouldn’t be too difficult to make. ‘Peter Duck’ and ‘Missee Lee’ have the potential for exotic and exciting epics. Which books would you most like to see made into movies?

  7. I vaguely remember the 1963 serial and remember being outraged at the change of name from Titty to Kitty. I would, however love for it to come out on DVD. It would make for a good comparison with the two films.

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