‘The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome’ along with a letter from Mrs Ransome herself

Members of The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook have alerted me to the fact that ‘The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome’ is currently available for viewing on BBCiPlayer.

Griff Rhys Jones

This beautifully made documentary, presented by Griff Rhys Jones, examines Ransome’s life as a war correspondent in Russia from 1913 to 1919 when he was so close to the action, in dialogue both Lenin and Leon Trotsky, that the question has been raised as to whether he was a British spy.

Hugh Brogan, Ransome’s biographer explains that he’d originally ran off to Russia to escape from his melodramatic wife, Ivy Walker in 1913. After using his time to record Russian fairy stories, that can still be read today in his book, ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales‘, he was employed by a national British newspaper to report on events leading up to the Russian Revolution. Black and white archive footage, along with photographs Ransome took himself, illustrate this well.

The BBC’s erstwhile political correspondent John Sergeant, explains the significance of certain survival strategies Ransome used, such as using ‘his practical skill to outwit people’, over extracts from the feature filmSwallows & Amazons, produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973.

Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West above Derwentwater in 1973
Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West, 1974

The scenes from the movie also show how the story Ransome wrote when back in the Lake District, was in many ways an outworking of feelings accumulated while he was working in Russia. By being away and concentrating on his writing, he neglected his daughter just as Uncle Jim was not around for the Blackett girls.

Captian Frlint with Nancy and Peggy

In the dramatised documentary, the beautiful actress Alina Karmazina plays Evgenia, the girl Ransome fell in love with while he was filing reports from Petrograd.  They later escaped over the border, trading her copper kettle for freedom of passage.

If the BBC had contacted Richard Pilbrow he would have been able to send them this letter. It was written to Neville Thompson, the online producer of the film, by Evgenia, who had become the second Mrs Ransome. It has never been published before. She gives the address as her retirement home near Banbury but it shows what kind of girl she was:

Mrs Ransome1

Page two:

Mrs Ransome page 2 trimmed

When Mrs Ransome saw the finished film in 1974, her only comment was that the kettle was of the wrong period.

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker with Stephen Grendon as Roger Walker camping on Peel Island, Conioston Water in Cumbria
Was Susan a portrayal of Evgenia? Here she is played by Suzanna Hamilton.

The story of the Ransome’s escape from Russian has been told by Hugh Lupton, Arthur Ransome’s great nephew, who gave us a rendition recently at The Arthur Ransome Society meeting near Bungay. It can be listened to on CD, available on CD from Burning Shed.

The Homing Stone by Hugh Lupton

The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome can be watched on BBC iPlayer

by clicking on the photo here

Griff Rhys Jones - BBC

‘Man Friday!’ found in the pages of an old copy of Lancashire Life

Virginia McKenna rowing
The 2014 Blu-ray of  ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (c) StudioCanal

Forty two years ago, this shot was taken of Virginia McKenna valiantly playing Man Friday, rowing away from what I had decided was a desert island. We were filming on Coniston Water in the Lake District. She was playing my mother, concerned about leaving a small girl alone as the evening drew in. I’ve been set a copy of Lancashire Life, published in 1974, which describes the filming at length. Quite fun. You can see a still of Man Friday and I cooking Pemmican cakes for supper on the camp fire, top right.

Lancashire Life May 1974 - S&A2 - lr

Being awarded an OBE in 2004 for services to wildlife and the arts, Virginia has since become a national treasure. She will quickly deny this but you will find photographs of her at the National Gallery, along with Suzanna Hamilton, who played her daughter – and my sister, Susan in Swallows & Amazons (1974).

NPG x126895; Stars of the British Screen by Norman Parkinson
‘Stars of the British Screen’ by Norman Parkinson. Virginia McKenna sits bottom centre, Suzanna Hamilton bottom right, either side of Susannah York.

Having just celebrated her 84th birthday Virginia has also been heralded as one who inspires others. I concur. ‘Do one thing at a time,’ was her advice to me, ‘Otherwise you can’t do anything well.’

Virginai McKenna with an Oscar

Virginia has appeared in over thirty feature films, numerous television dramas and many fascinating documentaries. She won a  BAFTA Award for Best British Actress in ‘A Town Like Alice’ and was nominated Best Actress by BAFTA for playing Violette Szabo in the WWII story Carve Her Name With Pride.’. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Joy Adamson inBorn Free’ , which won the composer John Barry two Academy awards. She is still happy to work as an actress, soon to appear in ‘Golden Years’ with Simon Callow and her granddaughter, Lily Travers.

Virginin McKenna with Born Free composer John Barry
Virginia McKenna with ‘Born Free’ composer John Barry

If you interview her now, Virginia is more likely to talk about wildlife than acting. She uses her name to promote kindness. And to stop the slaughter of elephants. One of her latest missions is to urge schools to teach children about conservation. She has recently become patron of  Shropshire Cat Rescue’s Purr project. Arthur Ransome helped finance a similar project himself.

Virginia McKenna in Mail on Saturday 214

2015 marks the thirty-first anniversary of the Born Free Foundation, which Virginia established with her son Will Travers to help big cats and other large mammals held in captivity. She still travels the world to raise awareness and alleviate suffering, drawing on all she learned from George Adamson whilst filming Born Free in Kenya back in 1966, and An Elephant Called Slowly in 1970. You can read more about her work by clicking here.

Virginia McKenna onthe cover of Saga Magazine

Virginia has written about her career and conservation work in a number of books including Into the Blue and an autobiography entitled The Life in My Years available online from the Born Free shop.

Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001
Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001

42 years ago we were filming with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in the Lake District.

To read the sections of my diary on filming Swallows & Amazons on Peel Island, please click here.

Forty two years ago today ~

The Guardian 8th June 1973The Guardian published this photograph, taken on the set of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ when the film of Arthur Ransome’s book was being shot at Bowness-on-Windermere in the Lake District on 7th June 1973. The story was set in 1929. The production team battled to find local men to appear as film extras. None of them wanted a short-back-and-sides hair cut. The ladies of the Lake District found this most amusing. Many of them wore their hair shorter than the men. To see more photographs and footage taken behind-the-scenes on this day, with diary extracts, please click here

For more photographs and a description of what happened please click here

It was Pandora Doyle, seen in the photos as a little girl in a blue dress, who sent me the newspaper clipping from the Guardian pasted above. Her father Brian Doyle was the Publicity Manager on the film. She kept all his files. Do leave a comment below to let us know what you were doing in June 1973.

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Why is ‘Swallows and Amazons’ so inspirational?

'John, Titty & Susan on the Swallow' by Fadi Mikhail
‘John, Titty & Susan on the Swallow’ by Fadi Mikhail

As you can see from these paintings, Fadi Mikhail, the artist famous in the UK for painting one of our Christmas stamps and being commissioned by the Prince of Wales, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, was certainly inspired by the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ made in 1973. He has kindly let me publish this remarkable series of paintings.

Look-Out-Another-boat
‘Look out! Another boat’ by Fadi Mikhail

Since my last post, comments have flooded in as to why the simple story is so popular:

John-And-Susan-Coming-About
‘John and Susan coming about’ by Fadi Mikhail

‘…the Swallows don’t own ‘Swallow’ – they’re having a farmhouse holiday and the boat belongs to the farm, and that could just have happened to any of us. Norman Willis… used to rise up against critics who considered that children from poorer backgrounds should read books full of gritty reality related to their daily lives: he pointed out that they wanted to escape from their daily lives for a few precious hours, not always into a zone of dragons and princesses but into an alternative realistic world.’ Jill Goulder of The Arthur Ransome Society.

'The Swallows in the boat' by Fadi Mikhail
‘The Swallows in the boat’ by Fadi Mikhail

‘What I liked most about these stories was that the Swallows and Amazons and their friends behaved like real children, but lived in a completely different world from the one I inhabited. I’d camped with the Girl Guides, but the Swallows and Amazons had astounding freedom – camping alone on an island, going out at night and sailing wherever they liked without needing to ask permission.’ Emily Lock ‘…the books gripped my imagination forever’. Please click here to read Emily Lock’s full review.

Titty-and-John-Eating-Apples
Titty and John eating apples by Fadi Mikhail

Christopher Tuft thought the enduring success is, ‘Because it’s a wonderful adventure story, with well rounded characters, played out in a beautiful setting, reminding us of a time now gone.’

The-Swallows-In-The-Wood
‘The Swallows in the wood’ by Faid Milhail

‘The combination of practical realism – everything that happens could happen – and the child’s viewpoint makes the story and it’s sister volumes almost unique even now,’ Andrew Craig-Bennett of The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook.

'John and Susan hoisting the sail'by Fadi Mikhail
‘John and Susan hoisting the sail’ by Fadi Mikhail

The whole series of books clearly have a worldwide following popular from one generation to another. ‘I don’t find this surprising. I got my first Arthur Ransome book (Swallowdale) as a present, in 1948. At the time it was a copper-bottomed dead cert as a present for any child, couldn’t be criticised, known to be virtuous, and incidentally known to be good. All that is still true and has been for decades. I don’t think it could fail to be up there. Children may now prefer Star Wars, Lego books or Minecraft (my grandsons certainly do), but books are still *bought* by adults.’ Peter Ceresole Roger-In-The-Boat ‘The book has lasting appeal, particularly for children, because there is nothing in the adventures of the Swallows and Amazons that readers feel they could not do themselves. They felt they could sail a dinghy like the Swallows. I know, because when adults came aboard Ransome’s restored boat Nancy Blackett in recent years, many had tears in their eyes and said: ‘I learned to sail from the books; and Arthur Ransome was the biggest influence on my life.’ The story is not like so many others an unachievable fantasy. This must stem in part from the fact that the characters are based on real children and on Ransome’s observation of those real children. The quality of the plotting is superb. Ransome was utterly clear about the stories he wrote, sometime writing chapters in the middle of the book before writing earlier ones. His prose is spare and simple and very easy to read, and bears comparison with the writing of Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels — another writer with appeal to both children and adults.’ Michael Rines Do add your own thoughts in the Comments below.

The-Swallows-Chasing-The-Amazons
‘The Swallows chasing the Amazons’ by Fadi Mikhail

Hugh Shelley wrote, in his Bodely Head Monograph of Arthur Ransome, that it is the joy with which the story is written that makes Swallows and Amazons a great book. In many ways it is a reflection of Arthur Ransome’s own childhood holidays with his brother and sisters on Coniston Water. And even today, children can discover the places mentioned for themselves. Holly, aged six, wrote to me recently saying, ‘My Mummy and Daddy took me to Wild Cat Island. It was my favorite day… When I am bigger I want to be like Titty.’

Roger-Ties-The-Swallow-Down
‘Roger ties the Swallow down’ by Fadi Mikhail

While ‘nearly all enduring books do so because of the writing,’ as another reader commented, children enjoy the camaraderie and the action that have been captured in these semi-abstract oils.

'Titty and John at Camp' by Fadi Mikhail
‘Titty and John at Camp’ by Fadi Mikhail

Some of these paintings have already sold, some are available from the Lawson Gallery in Cambridge, some from Gallery Rouge in St Albans, at Highgate Contemporary Art, the Aubrey Gallery in Great Dunmow and direct from Fadi Mikhail, the artist himself. You can see more here.

John-Susan-&-Roger-Waving-To-Titty
‘John, Susan and Roger waving to Titty’ 60x50cms  by Fadi Mikhail depicting Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West and Sten Grendon in a scene from ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)