Fifty years ago this day, auditions were being held at 10 Long Acre near Leicester Square in London for parts in the original film of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ produced by Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Projects with the help of Neville C Thompsom and financed by Anglo EMI Films. It was to star Dame Virginia McKenna, but the leading roles were all for children under the age of thirteen who needed to be able to row and sail.
I recently received a Tweet from the award-winning author Wendy Clarke who wrote: ‘Funnily enough (many, many years ago) I auditioned for the film role of Titty Walker… I would have been 12 then. I didn’t belong to a sailing club and couldn’t sail! Amazed I got the audition!’
When I asked if she could tell me more, she replied: ‘I have next to no memory of the day so wouldn’t have very much to say about it! I’m seeing my mum tomorrow and have asked her to bring her 1973 diary!’ Here it is:
‘This is where I went for the audition apparently. Was that the same place as you?’
It was! I remember the actual room.
Wendy explained that her mother, Joy Matthews, ‘has written a diary every day since I can remember (even if it’s just to say what the weather was like). Over the years it’s been very useful. She is now 91. I think this was the photo we sent!’
‘I’ve just been reading your post and laughing at the escapades during the shooting of S&A. Can I really picture myself in your shoes… if I’m honest, no! I would have been too much of a scary cat. Especially when the mast broke!‘
A friend of mine also auditioned for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ but she couldn’t remember any details. Simon West, who ended up being cast as Captain John, told me that he met Richard and Neville for a first audition at his sailing club. His sister, Ginny, who was keen on acting, spotted a notice, but his father was amazed when he said he would also like to be considered for a role in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Aged eleven, he was a little young for the part of John, but he was bright, practical with a passion for sailing. Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett, who would eventually play the Amazons, also heard about the opportunity at their respective sailing clubs. Richard Pilbrow was very keen to find children who could sail and were able to swim well.
Wendy wrote: ‘Second interview… so I couldn’t have done too badly! (Probably still hadn’t mentioned the small matter of not being able to sail)… I may not have got the part but least I got to go to Madame Tussauds and the Planetarium!’
My parents only received a letter asking if I would like to be considered for a part on 26th March 1973. It was addressed to my father who was on an export mission to South Africa and the envelope lay unopened in our hall for a while. Luckily it was printed with the Theatre Projects logo and Mum did open it. We collected Dad from Heathrow and drove straight to Leicester Square and walked through China Town. I remember Claude looking rather intense as he asked me questions. He wanted to know what my favourite television progamme was. I don’t think he asked me to read anything, which was just as well as I would have been hopeless. Did he ask if I could row or sail? I might have told him that I could swim well, as I’d just gained a bronze life saving medal, one of my few achievements to date.
I too was taken to Madam Tausauds when the ticket took you to the neighbouring Planetarium as a double bill. We possibly went after another visit to London for ‘Swallows and Amazons’.
Wendy returned to Theatre Projects’s offices in Long Acre for a third interview. She was doing well:
I was fortunate in that I’d worked for Claude Whatham in 1971 when he had cast me as Eileen Brown in the first BBC adaptation of Laurie Lee’s book ‘Cider With Rosie’, set in the 1920s. We later found out that Claude liked working with actors like Brenda Bruce who he had employed on previous occasions. I’m not sure when he joined the production of ‘Swallows and Amazon’ but it could have been late in the day as he was the second director taken on board.
We were told that 1,800 children had been considered for the six parts in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Most of them had been members of sailing clubs. Claude had not wanted to visit stage schools but Suzanna Hamilton, who was cast as Mate Susan, had been going to the Anna Scher after school Theatre Club in Islington, which he may have visited. I had first met him at a drama club in Stroud in Gloucestershire in 1971.
Our final audition was held afloat, when about twenty children spent a weekend on a scout boat at Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex. This can’t have been an easy location for my parents to get to but Richard and Claude wanted to see how confident we all were on the water. We were taken dinghy sailing in wet and windy conditions. I remember Kit and her twin sister Alison Seymour facing the waves without a qualm. Richard bought his children Abigail and Fred along and I knew Sten Grendon who had also been in ‘Cider With Rosie’. We might have travelled to Essex together. The five girls up for the part of Titty all shared a cabin. I thought I was too old, too tall and too gangly. We were not aware of a screen test but Richard’s assistant Molly took super 8 cine footage.
Meanwhile, Wendy Clarke had been taken to Cumbria by her parents: ‘We’d gone to the Lake District to get a feel for it. Hadn’t heard anything about interview so Mum rang and, as she so very succinctly put, ‘that’s that’. That made me laugh.’
I noticed they had been to see the waterfall where we eventually shot a scene on the way to visit the charcoal burners.
Wendy wrote: ‘That May, mentioned in Mum’s diary extract, was my very first time in the Lake District. It was only years later, in my forties, that I visited again and fell in love with it. Maybe I’m destined to sail that boat after all! So lovely to ‘meet’ you (even though I probably hated you at the time for taking my part (which I would have been rubbish at anyway!) x
‘My husband has just said, ‘why did you not tell me any of this?’ I was probably just relieved I didn’t have to get in a boat!In later life I discovered I was better at novel writing than acting!’
She added: ‘I’ve just found something else that links us. We both entered our books into the Flash Fiction Novel Opening Competition. My debut psychological thriller What She Saw, which was set in the Lake District, won it in 2017!’ I had a story shortlisted in 2022, which was encouraging.
I would love to hear from others who auditioned all those years ago – do email me or leave a comment below. I have written a little more about the gaining the part from my perspective on an earlier post here.
We are approaching the 50th Anniversary of the filming, which began on 14th May 1973 – only a few weeks after my first interview. I’ve been asked to give a few talks on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, which I will detail on my Events page. You can find different editions of my books listed here
with an audiobook, narrated by me, Sophie Neville, available on all the usual platforms.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Her letters and cards also inspired me to keep raising funds for wildlife conservation in Africa.
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.
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:
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’~
In the long hot summer of 2022, I spent three days in a sound-proofed booth at Monkeynut Studios near Romsey narrating the audiobook of my memoir on the adventures we had making the 1974 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, now published in paperback by The Lutterworth Press. I found narrating the story, with all the different voices, more difficult than I had imagined but the audiobook has been beautifully produced, with sound adding a different dimension to this extraordinary filmography that resonates with the lives of so many.
You can listen to a free sample in the Audiobook Store here
There are a number of different online retailers. It is available on Spotify:
I gather it will be available on Audible but they are very slow to add books.
I hope it will take you back to that long hot summer in 1929 when the Swallows first set sail and remind you of the early 1970s when we made the original film in the days before mobile phones or computers without CGI or green screens. We literally walked into the page of the books and sang out Arthur Ransome’s immortal lines as the wind took us up Coniston Water. I hope you enjoy it.
BBC Antiques Roadshow featured Swallow, the dinghy used in the original feature film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in their first episode at Windermere Jetty repeated recently on BBC One. You can read about how she was valued by Rupert Maas on an earlier post on this blog here.
I wrote a little more about her history in an article for Practical Boat Owner, Britain’s most popular sailing magazine. The story opens in 2010, when I nearly bought her myself:
‘Swallow is coming up for auction,’ my father said, sending me the details of a clinker-built sailing dinghy stored in Mike Turk’s warehouse in Twickenham. It was the Spring of 2010. I took one look at the online photographs and wept.
The letters WK were carved on her transom. It was the twelve-foot, all-purpose, run-around vessel built by William King of Burnham-on-Sea that had been purchased by Richard Pilbrow in 1973 to feature as Swallow in the original feature film of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel Swallows and Amazons.
I knew the little ship intimately. She looked a bit dried out but my husband thought we ought to buy her. I had played the part of Able-seaman Titty, the nine year-old girl who Ransome so cleverly made into the heroine of the story when she grabbed a chance to capture the Amazon, which enabled the Swallows to win the war set to determine ‘who should be the flag-ship’. In mooring her prize overnight near Cormorant Island, Titty witnessed Captain Flint’s stolen treasure chest being buried and was eventually able to rescue it. She was rewarded by the gift of a green parrot.
‘Did you know how to sail before playing Titty in Swallows and Amazons?’ people often asked. The truth was that I had crewed for my father in a similar dinghy and felt confident in a boat. I had grown up living by a lake in the Cotswolds where we had a Thames skiff, which I was used to handling. This was important as Titty does quite a bit of rowing in the film. She and Roger become galley-slaves rowing back from the charcoal burners’, they row out to Cormorant Island and she takes the Amazon out of Secret Harbour. This I did alone, in one take, later rowing some distance from Peel Island with the lighting cameraman and his 35mm Panavision Camera onboard. No one had thought about the implications of this when we first tried out the two boats on Windermere but being aged twelve, rather than nine, I just about coped and grew adept at launching Swallow and moving about in her. As the book was written in 1929, we did not wear life-jackets.
Arthur Ransome described Swallow as being thirteen-foot long with a keel, rather than a centre board. In the illustrations she is painted white, a common way of protecting wood in the 1930s. I am pretty sure that Richard Pilbrow, the producer of the movie, bought the dinghy we used when we where in Burnham-on-Sea to audition for the parts in March 1973. She was varnished but had, or was given, the red-brown sail and balanced lug-sail as described in the books.
Simon West who played Captain John, aged only eleven, was a capable sailor with an understanding of the wind that enabled him to cope with gusty Lakeland conditions. Swallow had no buoyancy. In the scenes when we first sail to the island she was laden with camping gear, including heavy canvas tents, the lighthouse tree lantern and a shallow basket of kitchen utensils I shifted every time we went about.
My father was an experienced sailor, used to racing yachts having frequently crossed the Solent in his own clinker-built dinghy as a boy. He was looking after us children when he agreed to appear in costume as a ‘native’ aboard the MV Tern on Windermere, which bares down on the Swallows in the story. He watched, terrified, as we sailed towards it. The Victorian steamer only had a notch throttle and an inexperienced skipper. He realised that Claude Whatham, the film director had not anticipated the fact that we would lose our wind in the lee of the passenger ferry and gave Simon a cue over the radio that was far too late. We only just went about in time, being pushed away from the larger vessel by the bow wave. Watch the film and you can see how very close we got. I was about to reach out and feebly fend off.
Dad spoke sternly to the producer that afternoon, pointing out that we could have all gone down. Sten Grendon, who played the Boy Roger, was only aged eight and could hardly swim. I could have become entangled in the camping gear. My father tested the old BOAC life jackets we wore for rehearsals and to travel out to film locations. They failed to inflate. He nearly took me off the film.
Another tricky scene to film was when John, Susan and Roger set off from the Landing Place on Wild Cat Island leaving Titty to guard the camp and light the lanterns as they hoped to capture the Amazon and sail home after dark. I had push them off, grabbing the telescope at the last minute. Since Swallow’s mast was liable to catch in tree branches, I needed to wade out and give her a hard, one-handed shove. I slipped on a rock and fell up to my waste in water. Knowing it would be difficult to set up the shot a second time, I struggled to my feet and waved them off, dripping wet. By this time John had the mainsheet out as far as the knot and stood to grab the boom to avoid a Chinese gybe as Swallow was hit by a fresh gust of wind as he cleared the headland at the northern end of the island and sped northwards toward Coniston Old Man.
Having spent nearly seven weeks filming in the Lake District, the film was post-synced at Elstree studios. We arrived to sing out our lines to find Swallow there. She had been set in a tank so that the sounds of sailing could be captured. It is something you tend to take for granted as a viewer while it draws you into the experience. I last saw Swallow looking dejected outside the studio and was worried about what had become of her. Although she was offered to someone who had advised on the film, she was kept safely at Mike Turk’s prop hire company. Richard Pilbrow was hoping to make another film in the series.
When Mike retired, many boats that had featured in movies came up for auction. I knew Swallow would be costly and in need of renovation. After fans of the film and members of The Arthur Ransome Society contacted me, we clubbed together to make a bid. In the end about eighty members of a hastily formed group called SailRansome spent approximately £5,700 on the purchase.
I contacted Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, the film producer who was gaining the rights to make a new movie, hoping we could be able to re-coup costs by renting her back to him. Nick came up to Coniston Water to watch me re-launch Swallow in April 2011, sloshing brandy wine on her bow in true Ransome style. I helped him to raise finance for the new film, which was made in the summer of 2015 and released in 2016, starring Kelly Macdonald as Mrs Walker, Rafe Spall as Captain Flint and Andrew Scott as a Russian spy. In the end, he decided to use fourteen-foot RNSAs dinghies for Swallow and Amazon as they satisfied the film insurance company who demanded that two identical dinghies were used for Swallow.
Joining SailRansome was pivotal for me as I was asked by the Nancy Blackett Trust and The Arthur Ransome Society to give a series of talks on how the old film, and the BBC serialization of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ was made. I ended up speaking at a number of literary festivals, on BBC Radio and even ITV’s News at Ten, promoting the societies and urging people to help get young people out on the water. I ended up taking Swallow out on Ullswater, the Orwell and River Alde, remembering how difficult she is to turn, but enjoying her speed. She ended up being featured on BBC Antiques Roadshow when I brought movie memorabilia up to Windermere Jetty museum for two episodes first screened in 2021.
You can sail Swallow yourself, in the company of an experienced skipper, by contacting SailRansome.org who are looking for volunteers to help care for her. As you can see from this clip, she was in need of restoration when first acquired by Sailransome
You can read more about the adventures we had making the original film in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)‘ by Sophie Neville, published by the Lutterworth Press, available from libraries, online retailers and to order from all good bookshops including Waterstones.
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.
Are you looking for a special Birthday or Christmas present for someone who happens to love the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)?
Paddy Heron of Children in Read has a huge number of amazing books listed in a charity auction being held to raise funds for BBC Children in Need. Nearly £21,000 has already been pledged, which is amazing. We have 3 days left to bid, so you have time to chat to the family!
‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ is listed as Lot 298, in the section ‘Film & Television’ above Nigella Lawson’s book ‘Coot, eat, repeat’.
and scroll down until you see the image of the book you would like to bid on, then click on the price button and you can enter a bid when the large image pops up. You don’t pay until you win on the final day. I will pay the postage within the UK and inscribe the copy to whom you wish.
We now have another bid for £101. Copies on Amazon.UK – where is it has 47 reviews, are now listed as costing about £76. I promised that if the bidding went higher than £78 I would personally inscribe this large paperback edition and include a signed first edition hardback copy of my autobiographical book ‘Funnily Enough’, worth £15, which includes a few pages about filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the Lake District.
I said that the bidding goes any higher than £101, I will include a copy of ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’, my memoir about leading a Swallows and Amazons style life camping in Africa:
I received an interesting series of emails recently from a stone mason called Philip Chatfield:
“Hi Sophie, I was watching ‘Swallows and Amazons’, the old classic, on Talking Pictures TV… great channel. Curiously, I have, hanging in my cottage ceiling timbers, the lantern you used for the Lighthouse on Wild Cat Island !!!!!!”
‘Lanterns like this pattern are not common, so I presume it must be the one used in your 1974 film. I like to think so. There is a hole in the top of my lantern which has been plugged up and holes in the base too. If you use the lantern with candles, which is what I always do. then you cannot have a hole in the top of the lantern. Heat goes up and out of it and the rope or wooden handle may catch fire! It is stopped up with a small bolt with a flat rounded top.’
The holes would have been made to insert an electric light behind the candle so that it would show up on film.
It certainly looks like the lantern we used, which I knew well at the time. A hurricane lamp is used in the book Swallows and Amazons. John, ‘tied the other end round the oil box at the bottom of the lantern’, although candle lanterns were used to mark Secret Harbour.
The black lantern was packed into Swallow on the voyage to the island, visible when the Walker children narrowly miss the Tern. You can see it lying in the shallow basket.
It was rather uncomfortable to lean over when handing Roger the telescope.
The basket was taken out of Swallow at the landing place and Titty moves it up the beach ‘for fear of tidal waves.’ See if you can take some screen shots of it hanging from the lighthouse tree.
The same lantern was used in the movie ‘Far From the Madding Crowd'(1967) starring Alan Bates, Peter Finch, Terence Stamp and Julie Christie.
You can also see it hanging from a farm cart.
Philip says, ‘Clearly all the props went back to the Turk Phoenix shed near Teddington after shooting.’
‘I never thought about it before but I used to work on a sailing ship called Grand Turk, which was owned by Mile Turk of Turk Phoenix who did a lot of film work.’
‘The Grand Turk played the HMS Indefatigable in ‘Hornblower’ with Ioan Griffiths and co. While I was on board (as Third Mate and Gun Captain) I needed more props for the gunnery dept. The lantern was one of the props we had on board. It came from Turk Phoenix who still had one of the boats used in your wonderful film.’
‘Mike Turk’s business provided nautical props.’ When Mike reached the end of his life and fell ill, many of these were sold at auction in 2010, including the dinghy that played Swallow in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974), which was purchased by group of film fans now known as SailRansome.
‘Before my time on Grand Turk I spent five years working on a lovely old square rig ship called MARIA ASUMPTA. Back in 1991 we sailed from London’s St Katherine’s Dock to Ipswich. We anchored off Shotley on the Orwell pretty much where the GOBLIN in Ransome’s book ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go to Sea’ book was set. As we hauled up our anchor we brought up a small kedge anchor. I still have it. At the time I was convinced it may have been from the story or even the sailing trip the story was originally based on. Who knows, but it is a lovely anecdote. We had sailed the autumn before to Flushing in Holland and did a tour of the inland waters of Holland.’
‘Sadly, Maria Asumpta was lost off Padstow in May 1995 with the loss of three crew. Thankfully I was one of the survivors.’
‘You can just see me standing staggering, second from the left, in a state of shock. Three were lost but I was amazed more weren’t, frankly. My friend the bosun Graham is sitting on the stern about to leap off. He survived, just. The ship had been built in Barcelona and launched in 1858.’ By the 1990’s it was the oldest square rigger still sailing.’ A true ship wrecked sailor! What would Titty say?
‘As a stone carver and sculptor I make memorials. A few years ago I was asked to do the memorial for one of my old school teachers and eventually his wife, who now shares his grave in Monmouth. She was Helen Bucknall but her mother was Mrs Henry Clay. The Ransome book ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ is dedicated to Mrs Henry Clay no less. Henry Clay was a friend and colleague of Ransome’s on the Manchester Guardian, also a keen sailor. I think Helen and her family were the inspiration for the story in the book. So Helen has a carving of the yacht they sailed as children on the large Welsh slate memorial in Monmouth cemetery.’
‘The galling thing for my friends, whose mother was Helen, is that they can’t find the original first edition of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ that Ransome signed. Hope it turns up. At least that charming card exists. Love his little sketch of the dinghy.’
‘Anyway, hope this is of interest… well done for all you do. I have a hard copy of the book on order! Can’t wait. Very best wishes, Philip Chatfield’
To read more about some of the Swallows and Amazons movie memorabilia, including Swallow’s flag and the fishing rods, please click here
To read more about ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ – click here
This lovely documentary shows Philip’s recent work on railways:
“It’s Alan Smith here – lovely to have all those memories flooding back! I’ve been through the family archive of photographs and have uncovered two pictures which I’m sure you won’t have:
“The first picture is fairly obvious – it’s you and the other cast members in the car at Haverthwaite station. This will have been taken by my Mum at the time the ‘official’ photo was taken.” This was on 14th May 1973 when a reporter from the Times came to witness our first day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’. The station had only been re-opened two weeks earlier.
“The photo (below) shows (left to right) my brother Robin, me and our friend John Eccles standing in front of a pony & trap. This picture was also taken at Haverthwaite, probably by my mother. John came along with his grandparents Patsy and John, and everyone remarked on how distinguished Mr Eccles senior looked in his boater and blazer!
“Please feel free to use these pictures however you’d like – I wonder if they’ll prompt others who were there to unearth similar memories?!”
“We had a lovely two days as extras on the film. I remember there was a casting one Sunday morning at St Anne’s Hall (an old church which is now converted to flats) in Ambleside. This is where anyone who wanted to take part went along to meet the director and wardrobe people. My mother was given instructions re the dress-code for Robin and me, and we were asked to meet in Ambleside town centre a couple of weeks later to board a bus which took us to the first location (Haverthwaite).” This took place about two weeks before the film. Eileen Smith ran the Gale Crescent Guesthouse in Ambleside although none of the crew stayed there. My mother, Daphne Neville, went along to help the wardrobe master, Terry Smith, fit the film extras with costumes.
Alan couldn’t think why his Dad didn’t come along. It might have been the threat of haircuts. No man in Cumbria under the age of seventy could be persuaded to have a 1929 haircut, apart from Jim Stelfox the station master and my own father, Martin Neville, who appeared in the Rio scenes shot at Bowness.
You can see a quick flash of Alan and his family near the bus in this behind-the-scenes cine clip, shot by my father with a 16mm Bolex borrowed from his company:
Alan watched this and wrote, “My brother and I are convinced that the boy on the right of the frame at 0’06” is Robin, and the woman standing next to him in the hat with the red band is my mother, Eileen (I appear to have gone in search of ice cream or something, as I’m nowhere to be seen!).
“A couple of seconds earlier at 0’04” I’m almost certain the woman standing in front of the red bus with the large bag is John’s grandmother Patsy Eccles, and the the man in the white blazer, trousers and hat is John Eccles senior, Patsy’s husband. I have very fond memories of Mr & Mrs Eccles – they were a lovely, kind couple who were almost like an extra set of grandparents to Robin and me.
“We may only have been extras, but it was so exciting for all of us! The first day’s filming was spent getting on and off the train, followed by what seemed like endless trips up and down the line (this would have been when you and the other actors were in the next carriage filming the early scenes).
“The second day was a few days later at Bowness Bay. This must have been some feat to achieve as the road was closed to traffic and any clues from the 1970s such as road signs had to be covered up or disguised!
“Both days had a very big effect on me. As a child I’d always been fascinated by radio, film & television, and this brought my imagination to life. It also lit a fuse under my ambitions to do something in broadcasting. The result is I’m now a news presenter on Radio4, doing the news in programmes such as Today, PM and The World at One, so I have a lot to thank Swallows and Amazons for! My work means I now live in Buckinghamshire, but I get back to the Lakes 5 or 6 times a year, and I know that when I hang up my headphones for good, that’s where I’ll live.”
Although born in Edinburgh, Alan’s family moved to Cumbria when he was two years old. He and his brother, Robin, enjoyed an idyllic ‘Swallows and Amazons’ childhood growing up in the Lakes. They didn’t get into sailing but loved hill walking. You can see his BBC profile here
You can see more photos and read about the adventures everyone had making the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ here: