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 film ‘Swallows & Amazons‘, produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973.
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.
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:
When Mrs Ransome saw the finished film in 1974, her only comment was that the kettle was of the wrong period.
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.
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).
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.’
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.
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.
The 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
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.
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.
Since my last post, comments have flooded in as to why the simple story is so popular:
‘…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.
‘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.
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 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.
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 ‘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.
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.’
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.