‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) starring Virginia McKenna was broadcast on BBC 2 on Sunday 30th August 2020, recalling the adventures of the Walker and Blackett families on a ‘Lake in the North’ in August 1929 before the school term began. Hailed as ‘The feel-good film of Lockdown’, it transports us back to a time of freedom, celebrating the beauty of the English Lake District. It was available on BBC iPlayer here.
You can watch a short re-mix here:
It was wonderful to see the feature film heralded as ‘Film of the Day’ but Hilary Weston of The Arthur Ransome Society pointed out that there are a few errors in the write up.
Arthur Ransome wrote the novel ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1929. The first illustrated hardback was published by Jonathan Cape on 1st December 1930. There are twelve books in the series, however only five are set in the Lake District. ‘Missee Lee’ sees the Swallows and Amazons exploring the South China sea with Captain Flint, while Dick and Dororthea join them all on the Sea Bear to cruise the Otter Hebrides in ‘Great Northern?’. The 13th story in the series, an unfinished manuscript entitled ‘Coots in the North’, is set in Cumbria.
Arthur Ransome died in 1967, aged 83, so was not around to see this feature film made. He had been grumpy about the 1963 BBC serial made in black and white, which starred Susan George as ‘Kitty’ (rather than Titty).
After he died, his Russian wife Evgenia was determined to avoid what they called a ‘Disneyfication’ of the books and kept a tight hold on the script, character names, locations and casting of Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 adaptation. As a result, David Wood’s screenplay adheres to the story and was approved by Mrs Ransome who gave the go ahead. On watching the finished film, her only adverse comment was that one of the kettles used was of the wrong period.
Arthur Ransome’s father died when he was thirteen and the theme of fatherlessness flows though his books granting the young characters independence. In ‘Swallows and Amazons’ it is Nancy and Peggy, the Amazon pirates, who have no father.
The story opens when the four elder Walker children are given permission to sail off to camp on an island by their father who is absent, in Malta with the Navy, and sends the famous telegram: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN (with no apostrophe).
Vicky, the fifth sibling and baby of the Walker family, keeps the Swallows’ mother at Holly Howe farm on the mainland. Tension is created after the Amazons let off a firework on their uncle’s houseboat while he is absorbed in his writing and ignoring them. He shook his fist at the crew of the Swallow assuming they were responsible for the damage and was labelled ‘Captain Flint’.
In his memoir, ‘A Theatre Project’, Richard Pilbrow describes how the idea of adapting ‘Swallows and Amazons’ came to him as he watched the sun set over Windermere one night when visiting the Lake District. He put the idea to Nat Cohen of EMI who was looking for a classic book adaptation similar to ‘The Railway Children’, which had been a box office success. Nat Cohen hadn’t heard of Arthur Ransome but his assistant loved his books and raved about the idea. EMI Films provided the initial budget of £250,000 although more was spent. The movie was directed by Claude Whatham who may well have been influenced by the Children’s Film Foundation but he was regarded as avant guard at the time and, like Richard, motivated by the beauty of the Lakes.
The original poster for the film used an ampersand in the title graphics but this was lost as it was translated, sold worldwide and remastered.
Someone who must love the old film claimed the error in the write up was that it was only given three stars. The DVD now has a 4.5 star rating on Amazon but it only gets 6.5 out of 10 on IMDb – the International Movie Data base, which is equivalent to three stars. You can add a review on this site here.
Mark Walker of the Arthur Ransome Group added: And they got the title of the article completely wrong. “Film of the *Day*”, indeed..!! Film of the Year, Decade, Century, Millenium….any of the above could have been more appropriate..!!
If you would like to learn more about the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ there is now a paperback entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ It can be ordered direct from the publishers and is available from Waterstones
A second edition of the ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons(1974), the first section of which you can read for free here.