Dame Virginia McKenna and her work on the classic film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Virginia McKenna in 'Swallows and Amazons' (1974) by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu
Virginia McKenna in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) immortalized by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu (c) StudioCanal

I was so thrilled to read that Virginia McKenna has been awarded a DBE for services to wildlife conservation and to wild animal welfare in the New Year Honours. When I last spoke to her, she was working tirelessly for the Born Free Foundation that she co-founded with her son Will Travers OBE.

I first met Dame Virginia in 1973 when she agreed to star in the first big screen adaptation of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, produced by Richard Pilbrow, directed by Claude Whatham and released by EMI Films in 1974. She played the part of my mother, Mary Walker. The movie was shot entirely on location in the Lake District where Arthur Ransome set his classic series of children’s books.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm
Dame Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

The film has been broadcast on British television more than any other but it is when you watch it on the big screen that you can appreciate what made Virginia McKenna such a great star. Her face conveys a thousand tiny emotions that sweep you into a long-forgotten time when children were able to run free. 

Virginia McKenna holding the telegramme
Dame Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground in Cumbria ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

Dame Virginia had originally been scheduled to come up to Cumbria for the first ten days of the seven-week shoot but, since wet weather closed in, she was obliged to return when the sun came out for the famous scene when Roger tacks up the field at Holly Howe to receive ‘despatches’ in the form of the cryptic telegram BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN. 

Virginia McKenna with Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan
Dame Virginia McKenna with Ronnie Cogan ~ photo:Daphne Neville (c)

Dame Virginia enjoyed the discipline and focus of concentration on set and helped centre us from the start. If you watch other movies made at the time, such as ‘The Railway Children’ (1970), most of the adult actresses are wearing wigs with a district nineteen-seventies feel to their costume and make-up.  ‘Swallows and Amazons’ owes its timeless appeal to the fact that Virginia simply had had lovely thick hair scooped into a bun and wore her original 1929 garments with grace.

Sophie Neville as Titty
Sophie Neville as Titty in 1973 – photo: Daphne Neville (c)

I played Titty Walker who inveigled her mother into playing Man Friday to her Robinson Crusoe when she came to visit Wild Cat Island. The sequences were shot on Peel Island on Coniston Water where Ransome was taken as a boy by his own parents and met the Collingwood family in the 1890’s. He later became a good friend of Dora Collingwood whose five children became the inspiration for the story ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Her third daughter, the dreamer, was nicknamed Titty.

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island
Dame Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

It can not have been easy for Virginia to act with me, a child of twelve, while frying pemmican in butter on a camp fire. I was self-conscious about having lost an eye-tooth the night before and had rather a sore mouth and she later had to row from the island with a 35mm Panavision camera in her boat.

What I’d forgotten until recently was that Bill Travers watched the filming that day on Peel Island. He’d been a hero of mine ever since he played George Adamson in ‘Born Free’ and Gavin Maxwell in ‘Ring of Bright Water’ opposite Virginia. Their film, ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’, was released as a double bill with ‘Swallows and Amazons’

You can see a few more behind-the-scenes photos here and I’ve written more about being Robinson Crusoe here.

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville
‘They were very savage savages’ ~ Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

Looking back, I realise how fortunate we were to be able to play out the scenes from the iconic book in the actual locations, such as Bank Ground Farm where the Collingwood children had stayed one holiday as children, so they could visit their grandparents who lived at Tent Lodge next door and were too unwell to have them in the house.

The Walker Family at Holly Howe
Sten Grendon, Simon West, Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville at Bank Ground Farm, in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

We were not so keen on the publicity photographs taken for the film even though Virginia tried to make it fun. Right from the the very first day of filming, she worked hard to bring us together as a cast, playing games such as ‘Consequences’ to help us laugh and relax, while concentrating on the task of bringing the book to life.

The Walker family played by Suzanna Hamilton Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Virginnia McKenna and Simon West at Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria
Suzanna Hamilton Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Dame Virginia McKenna and Simon West – photo Daphne Neville (c)

In 1980, I went to work for Ginny and her husband Bill Travers, as a housekeeper for a few months. She needed domestic help while she was appearing with Yule Brynner in ‘The King and I’ at the London Palladium, for which she won an Olivier Award for Best Actress in a musical.  I looked after her youngest son, Dan, who later worked as a safety officer and consultant on the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I met him at the cast and crew screening in Leicester Square.

– Dan Travers and Sophie Neville in 2016 –

Ginny and I kept in touch. She was ever-supportive, encouraging me to keep raising funds for anti-poaching in South Africa, where she had been evacuated as a child during WWII. 

It was only when I heard her speak at the Kempsford  Literary Festival in the Cotswolds that I learnt that other ships in her convoy to Cape Town had been torpedoed and sunk crossing the Bay of Biscay. By some miracle, her ship had been delayed in Liverpool but she described finding the flotsam left by the ships that had been hit.

Having written a number of books herself, Ginny encouraged me to write, urging me to keep focused on one thing.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground

Her letters and cards also inspired me to keep raising funds for wildlife conservation in Africa.

Merry Christmas African animals card design by Sophie Neville
A Christmas card design by Sophie Neville

In turn, I supported the Born Free Foundation, printing them greeting cards, donating a Christmas card design for their catalogue and a picture that was auctioned at the Big Cat Open Day in Kent.

Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2000
Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001 – photo Daphne Neville (c)

In 2014, StudioCanal invited us both to appear in the DVD Extras package for the 40th anniversary DVD of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974). While we were waiting for the crew, she told me that she’d appeared in more than thirty movies. I know she’s made a few more since then.

You can watch her interview here:

Interview with Virginia Mckenna

I released the first edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ for which Virginia graciously provided a quote. You can read the first few pages in the preview of the ebook, entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons 1974’ here

To hear Virginia and her son Will Travers talking about receiving her DBE, please click here for BBC Sounds

~ ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons 1974’~

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

7 thoughts on “Dame Virginia McKenna and her work on the classic film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)”

  1. Wow! I never knew that you’d worked as Virginia’s housekeeper! Or that she’d been evacuated to S Africa – I wonder whether that helped her in her characterisation as a mother who’d been brought up abroad? What an amazing person she has been, as a classic actress and a tireless worker for the welfare of animals. A long-overdue recognition.

  2. When I heard that Virginia McKenna had been made a Dame, I was delighted. It reminded me of my time working as a unit driver on Swallows and Amazons. I was rather star-struck when l was driving Virginia McKenna around. On one occasion I had to drive her from the Bank Side Farm on Coniston to Grange railway station. She was telling me all about filming Born Free with the loins and I drove a bit slowly as l was enjoying her company. We arrived rather late and l had to throw her and her luggage onto the train just as it was leaving.

    Sophie – I recently watched the updated version of Swallows and Amazons and was amused to discover that your part of Titty had been renamed Tatty.
    Happy New Year.
    David Stott

  3. Ms McKenna is a very kind, generous, talented and busy lady and well deserves her DBE. I will also be getting her book.

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