When I first published ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, someone left a review online saying they thought it a good idea for a novel but that it was a bit farfetched.
This amused me. It was a non-fiction book, written because the extraordinary story was true. Of all the roles, in all the novels ever written, I was asked to play Titty in Swallows and Amazons, an EMI film made in 1973 for universal distribution.
The offer came out of the blue. Within a year, I, an ordinary schoolgirl, found my image on the front of daily newspapers and on film posters pasted on the walls of the London Underground. All this happened nearly fifty years ago and yet the publicity never ends.
Arthur Ransome, a haunted foreign correspondent, who escaped from Russia with Trotsky’s secretary, wrote Swallows and Amazons in 1929 while suffering from stomach pains so bad they prevented him from travelling. He said that the book wrote itself, but it is clear that he was self-medicating, grieving his own childhood, when he’d been longing to make friends and prove himself to his father who died when he was only thirteen.
Tweed-clad and continuously pipe-smoking, Ransome was oblivious to Lakeland weather. I acted out his almost-real fantasy in nothing but a thin cotton dress and a pair of enormous navy blue elasticated knickers. My book on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ is not a novel, not a fantasy. It is a true story. The movie is streaming on Amazon Prime where you can watch the trailer.
Why was I cast in the film? Why me? I had loved all the Arthur Ransome books I’d read in the Swallows and Amazons series, imagined myself exploring Wild Cat Island and the Great Lake in the North. Did I ever ask the Lord if I could live out the stories for myself?
The reality began in Stroud, at the Subscription Rooms. I put up my hand when someone asked if there was a ten year-old girl who could play the piano. They didn’t say, “play well.”
A young director called Claude Whatham, who lived in the Cotswold village of Camp, was looking for children to appear in the 1971 BBC adaptation of ‘Cider With Rosie’, based on Laurie Lee’s haunting memoir. He needed to find a little girl who had been to a village school near Stroud. I had attended Oakridge Parochial Church School when it was heated by pot-bellied stoves and the vicar told us Bible Stories.
I was chosen to play Eileen Brown, who shared a desk with Laurie Lee and accompanied him as he played Oh Danny Boy on his violin at the Christmas concert.
My music arrived three days before filming began. It consisted of endless cords – a complicated accompaniment with no tune. To tackle the piece, I’d needed to practice for seven hours a day with the help of my long-suffering piano teacher from Far Oakridge.
The director must have remembered me as a determined little girl because two years later a letter arrived, addressed to my father, only he was working in South Africa. My mother very nearly didn’t open it, however the words Theatre Projects were embossed on the envelope and she was intrigued.
But she did. We drove up from Gloucestershire to collect Dad from Heathrow and went straight to Long Acre near Leicester Square for an interview with Claude.
I was then invited to take part in a sailing audition at Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex – miles from the Cotswolds. The producer, Richard Pilbrow, was determined that any child chosen for a part knew how to sail. I had grown up beside one of the few lakes in Gloucestershire and knew how to row a Thames skiff. I’d added my own sail, made from a green dust sheet, but was no expert.
There were four other girls auditioning to play Titty. They were all smaller and prettier than me, with straight teeth. I didn’t think I was in with a chance.
The filming was to commence on 14th May 1973 and continue through the summer term. Our local authority – Gloucester County Council – needed my headmistress’ permission for me to miss five weeks of school.
Only, I didn’t go to school in Gloucestershire. I went to an Anglican convent in Berkshire. The nuns prayed about the proposition. They gave their permission – if I was chosen.
I didn’t think I was right to play Titty at all. I was three years too old and too tall. Ransome’s illustrations in the books portrayed girls with straight, dark hair. I didn’t know it but the character had been inspired by a real little girl called Titty Altounyan. I share her Scots, Irish and English heritage, but she was one quarter Armenian and had dark colouring.
However, unknown to us, Mrs Ransome had asked that ‘an English Rose’ should play Titty. Claude Whatham cast Sten Grendon, who had played Little Laurie Lee, as my younger brother Roger. Mrs Ransome – NB:the lady who once been Trotsky’s private secretary – was not happy that he had black hair. She nearly cancelled the film, but conceded when she saw him with a short-back-and-sides.
Sten claims we had the best parts. He grew up in the Whiteway Community and later went to school in Eastcombe. He now lives in France but still has family living in the Cotswolds. Back in 1973 his mother Jane, and my mother, Daphne, travelled up to the Lake District to look after us all.
In at the deep end. Whoomph! We literally had to swim for it. The water was icy, but we had plenty of support. I was able to embody my part because Suzanna Hamilton, who played my sister, was so brilliant. She anchored us, as did Simon West, who played John. He was only aged eleven but very bright and a confident sailor.
Making the film was character-building stuff. While it was an inspiration and privilege to work under arc lamps with Virginia McKenna, it was often chilly and involved a lot of hanging around.
Virginia had four children of her own and brought us together as a team. While making things fun, she got us to focus and concentrate as we recorded the first scenes at Bank Ground Farm.
Arthur Ransome had been inspired as a boy by two of his aunts who left for Peking to serve as missionaries. They must have had great adventures. One even received a Boxer arrow in her bonnet. The story of Swallows and Amazons is about a family of four children on holiday who embark on something of a missionary journey themselves when they are allowed to sail off in a dinghy called Swallow to explore an island on a lake. They are confronted by two local girls, the Amazons, who are behaving badly, as their Uncle Jim has retired to his houseboat so that he can concentrate on writing his memoirs.
There is a strong undercurrent of fatherless-ness. Ransome had lost his own father before he could prove himself. The Swallows, whose father is in the Navy, come alongside the Amazons, who have lost their father and are being ignored by their uncle. They unite, make friends and have a lot of fun, whilst relishing in their independence granted because they are not duffers.
The crisis, in the story, is about the draft of a book being stolen, which I can only think must have been Ransome’s greatest fear. No one believes Titty, the youngest girl, who is sure she heard the burglars, so – in the film – she gets Roger to help her row Swallow to Cormorant Island where she finds it in what looks like a treasure chest.
Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham had a tough time making the movie. Filming in the Lake District with its unpredictable weather and pressure from tourists was not easy. We faced endless problems and over-ran by two weeks.
But Mum was praying, Granny was praying, the nuns must have been praying for me – we needed the covering: I was the only girl who never fell ill. Swallow’s mast broke. I fell in. Water sloshed into a support boat. The rain poured down. We nearly crashed into the Tern. Our life jackets proved useless. There was a gas leak in our bus. We could have had an explosion. Most of the crew smoked continuously.
The behavior of some members of the film crew was pretty toxic. Many drove too fast. A cow fell on to the producer’s car. I fell out of a tree whilst playing. Suzanna cut her finger. Ronald Fraser was almost permanently pickled. Someone got hit in the eye by a baseball. The film set was vandalized and I lost a tooth halfway through filming a scene with Virginia McKenna.
We pushed on. Ran the race with perseverance. Somehow the challenges gave the finished film an edge, an enduring quality that made it into a classic.
The crew began asking if I would go on to act. The big question: was this a calling on my life? I didn’t just play Titty. I’d been part of the production team, suggesting that Ransome-like title graphics were used, that Seymour’s voice was used for Nancy. I didn’t want to act. I wanted to become a film director.
I’d enjoyed the post production work at Elstree Studios but disliked the fuss around the cinema release. Seeing yourself on camera always feels uncomfortable. The premiere of Swallows and Amazons was daunting.
It was first screened at the ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue alongside The Exorcist. But look! I literally had two guardians. My mother invited the nuns from school.
Sister Allyne came. She didn’t flatter me but she was there.
Like it or not, I ended up promoting the film on television. After I featured in ‘Animal Magic’, an image of me, rowing up the lake at Bakers Mill in the Cotswolds with a green parrot on my shoulder was used to replace the test card.
I grew too tall to continue playing children on screen and there was not much money for film finance in the 1970s when inflation was roaring. Sister Allyne prepared me for a film test for a musical Disney adaptation of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ but I wasn’t chosen. The movie flopped. I returned to my lessons.
At the age of fifteen I had a leading part in an adventure film with Vic Armstrong and Sophie Ward, called ‘The Copter Kids’, and I had a few little television parts in serials like ‘The Two Ronnies’ and ‘Crossroads’ while I was a student, but the drive wasn’t there. It was just as well. I didn’t have the bone structure.
Suzanna had a strong desire to act professionally and fought for parts. She went on to appear in Tess directed by Polanski, 1984 opposite John Hurt, Out of Africa with Meryl Streep, Whetherby with Vanessa Redgrave, Brimstone and Treacle with Sting, and a number of increasingly dark movies. She survived to appear in Casualty, New Tricks, Eastenders and is still working.
What she hated was the publicity. It’s a difficult part to any job. As she said at the age of twelve, having your photo on the front page of the Evening Standard ‘makes you felt a right twit’. She was furious with me for writing about her under sung talent in the Telegraph even though she looked beautiful in the arms of John Hurt.
I developed a burning desire to direct and went into television production. I made my first documentary for Channel 4 whilst driving from London to Johannesburg. I must have begun directing at the BBC at the age of 27 and produced my first series aged 29, but overdid it and was hammered by ill health. It was a good training. I learnt endurance, how to edit and I grew used to working to deadlines. I understood about moving the audience, cliff-hangers and bringing out books to accompany your work.
I didn’t learn to embrace the marketing aspect until I worked in the safari industry when I was assured it comprised 50% of the job. This attitude helped when I became and wildlife artist and later an author. After writing two books my readers – and my formatter – implored me to write about the making of Swallows and Amazons, especially once they learned that I had kept a diary whilst making it – as did Suzanna.
I first brought this out as a multimedia ebook, which is now in its second edition. It includes links to the cine footage my parents took on location. There are two versions of the paperback entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, seen here on the flag we captured.
It has been a delight to figurehead a story about sailing, a pillar of childhood that has influenced so many. Parents want me to engender a love for the outdoor life, sailing and exploring the lakes and countryside.
I hope I have helped to attract the right kind of people to the Lake District, that we have been able to inspire young people to read Arthur Ransome’s books, to get out into the countryside and sail, fish, go camping, build friendships, whatever the weather.
In the footsteps of Ransome’s great aunts, I went on a Bible Society mission to China. The people we met thanked us for coming, saying they hadn’t received European visitors for forty years. ‘But we’ve seen Europeans in town.’ ‘Them? They have just come to make money, not visit us.’
Does the old film shine a light, offer solace? People write in to tell me that the film of Swallows and Amazons carried them through a difficult patch. Some watch it once a week. It exists to remind people that they need not despair.
Does the symbolism still hold? It was my self-appointed job in the screenplay to wait, alone, and light the lantern, to be a light in the darkness that could be seen for miles.
Swallows and Amazons was not made to make money. It wasn’t the producer’s motivation. Richard Pilbrow just loved the books and wanted to bring them to life. We children didn’t do it for the money. There wasn’t very much. I earned £7.50 a day and was given a book token for appearing in the Lord Mayor’s Show. Even today, StudioCanal were reluctant to pay my expenses for re-launching the 40th Anniversary DVD when we were interviewed for the Extras package.
It doesn’t matter. I have been so warmly greeted so warmly by fans of the film. I was invited to become President of the Arthur Ransome Society, and have been offered numerous opportunities to speak about my books. I’ve passed on most of my speaking fees to charity – sending disadvantaged children in South Africa on an environmental course that has literally changed their lives.
The treasure Titty found wasn’t pieces of eight. It was heavy to carry, but she was rewarded for her tenacity. She was given her heart’s desire, and parrots live a long time. They can easily outlive their owners.
The author Julia Jones points out that, ‘the treasure that was finally unearthed on Cormorant Island was a book. It might or might not have been a good book but the message of the story is quite clear: if you’re convinced that there’s something hidden under the rocks, all you can do is keep digging.’
An extra ordinary thing happened. When Richard Pilbrow was awarded an honorary degree from he invited Suzanna and I to lunch in London. As we left the restaurant in Covent Garden a group of buskers outside where singing the final sea shanty from the film, What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? What were the chances of that? We hurried on to find transport and found ourselves outside the cinema where the premier had been held.
Something else happened to me as a result of Swallows and Amazons. Not what you might expect. We all wanted to learn to shoot with a bow and arrow. The next film role I was offered was as an archery champion. I kept up the sport, and ended up meeting my husband at a long bow meeting in the village where I was born. He was the chairman of the archery society. I won the Best Lady’s Gold. These are my colours:
Proverbs 23-23 talks of wisdom, instruction and insight. My name, Sophia, means wisdom. My hope is that others gain wisdom and insight from what I have written.
You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, which is coming out as an audiobook. It will available from all the retailers and is currently on Scribd here.
4 thoughts on “How the chance of acting in the movie Swallows and Amazons began in Stroud in the Cotswolds”
Very interesting, Sophie. I enjoyed reading the background to Swallows.
Thank you for this, Sophie. ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has been a favourite book of mine since childhood. The film is one my half-dozen all-time favourites, and I love your book(s) chronicling the making of it. Might there be a book describing your adventures in China in the pipeline? That would be great.
Thank you, Sophie Neville, for all you do. Mr. Ransome’s books have been favorites of mine since, at the age of ten, I first discovered the American edition of “Swallows and Amazons” in my neighborhood library in San Francisco.
I have greatly enjoyed your book and these stories and photos you share here.
Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment. I really appreciate the well-considered online reviews of my books and the old film, which received quite a battering when it first came out. I’ve recently been told that it has been screened on British television more than any other movie.