Nolly – streaming on the new ITVX – features Helena Bonham Carter celebrating the fabulous 1980’s fashions worn by Noele Gordon when she starred as Meg Mortimer in the long-running ATV soap Crossroads. It can be revealed that forty-two years ago today a bright pink and purple polyester costume was being made for me. My real-life sister and I played Kevin Bank’s younger sisters, appearing as bridesmaids when he married Glenda Barlow on a bright sunny day in 14th May 1981.
We shot one episode at the Barlow family home before being taken to the Church of St Laurence in Alvechurch clutching our fake flowers. A crowd of excited fans began to gather, virtually mobbing Paul Henry who played Benny Hawkins the handyman. He was obliged to scamper through the graveyard, pursued by screaming middle-age ladies in crimplene.
My sister and I were bemused by the whole experience. I remember being interviewed for the part by a female producer with a pretty cut-and-dried attitude. She stared at my feet, horrified by the summer shoes I was wearing. ‘Never wear white shoes,’ she said as I left the room. ‘They make your feet look large.’
The costume designer rang a week later to ask if we could bring our own white shoes.
We were suddenly centre of attention, part of the growing Banks family. I was ‘taken unawares,’ as Glenda might have said, but am ashamed to say that my motivation was not to rock the nation’s consciousness or promote church weddings, but simply to earn enough to pay for my college fees at Durham University.
I was slightly in awe of the Crossroads cast. They didn’t know me from a flatfish but David Moran was enthusiastically inclusive, hugging us at every opportunity.
Most of the other actors arrived dressed as wedding guests. It should have been a joyful gathering but the atmosphere seemed strained. Noele Gordon, famous for playing Meg Mortimer since 1964, sat in the congregation next to Tony Adams but looked grim. She learned she was to be axed a month later.
Crossroads was well known for being recorded live in studio. I had returned to college by 14th May when our episodes were aired. The ladies serving dinner looked at me and asked how I’d managed to drive up from Birmingham to Durham so quickly. Our sequences on location had been prerecorded.
Here is the actual continuity photo taken at the ATV studios by the costume designer.
I wrote about the floral polyester being somewhat brighter in reality in an article for our university magazine, The Idler, edited by Nick Archer, Charles Stewart-Smith, and Alastair Fothergill whose new book Wild Isles has become a bestseller. Looking back, it must have been my first article I ever published. I wrote another on appearing in the Two Ronnies and began working on the cover design.
How old were you when you first read Arthur Ransome’s books? Did you have a favourite storyline or character?
My father devoured the Swallows and Amazons books as they were published in the 1930s. I was a slow reader but must have started the series aged about ten or eleven as I’d read seven of the twelve by the time we arrived in the Lake District to make the film in 1973. I enjoyed the practical aspects of the books and most readily identified with Mate Susan, although I counted all the characters my friends. Ransome published thirty other books. Some are heavy going, but I enjoyed his autobiography.
Have you re-read the books since your childhood? If so, how has your perception of the books and the characters, in particular Titty, changed?
I’ve re-read most of the books in the Swallows and Amazons series and gain something new each time I read Swallows and Amazons, recently appreciating how important Titty’s imagination was to progressing the story. Her ideas take the plot forward. I ended up writing an article on how Swallows and Amazons can be seen as an allegory to missionary work undertaken by Arthur Ransome’s great aunts, one of whom received a Boxer arrow in her bonnet for her efforts in China.
Do you think playing Titty influenced your own personality? If so, how?
Titty helped me to look beyond the saucepans and concentrate on creative endeavors rather than getting bogged down by management and administration. Acting in the film instilled in me a work ethic, responsibility and striving for excellence. Looking back, the part was a huge burden to lay on the shoulders of a twelve-year-old but it was worth it. The film has had an enduring quality and is still broadcast today. I find constant interest when I’m in social or sporting situations. For me, it has truly been a case of ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’
Do you remember what you wanted to be before you became an actress? Did a writing career ever interest you as a child?
I acted professionally from the age of ten until I was twenty-one, going into television production at the BBC before I became a writer. I’ve also worked as a safari guide, wildlife artist and – thanks to Titty – as a cartographer. You can see a few maps I drew on my website here.
I’ve undertaken quite a bit of charity work, fundraising and acting as webmaster for The Waterberg Trust. I can’t remember having strong career ambitions as a child but knew art to be my strongest subject. I have a visual brain that flits about. Keeping a diary and constant letter writing has helped me develop my writing and has given me a huge quantity of material to draw upon.
What led/inspired you to become a producer?
Claude Whatham was a ground-breaking director who inspired all those around him, but directing became a viable option at Opera Camp, annual amateur productions we took part in over our summer holidays as teenagers. I began directing plays at university and developed a burning desire to direct for television, always ‘looking for the shot.’ By producing documentaries, I got to direct and put them together, editing voice-overs into a narrative arc. I would now like to adapt my own stories for film, so have Final Draft software on my laptop and Witness Films Ltd registered as a UK company, but although I have a couple of ideas out to tender, I’ve been concentrating on polishing my historical novels.
I’ve read that before filming Swallows and Amazons, you were in a production of Cider with Rosie. Was playing Titty anything like your experience of playing Eileen Brown?
Claude Whatham directed bother Cider With Rosie (1971) and Swallows and Amazons (1974) so the experience was similar. I also appeared in a Weetabix commercial he made in the Cotswolds. All three productions were set in roughly the same period, but Titty’s costumes, designed by Emma Porteous, were easiest to wear. Cider With Rosie was the most daunting production as I had to play the piano, which required three days of intensive practice. Titty only had to draw, write and row a boat, which was much more my thing.
Working with Virginia McKenna was amazing. Hugely inspirational and one of our most iconic British film actresses, she taught me a great deal – and still does.
What were your favourite and least favourite parts of the filming process?
We loved eating iced buns on set but hated hanging around in the cold. There was a lot of waiting for clouds to pass in the Lake District where I spent days clad in nothing but a thin cotton dress and enormous pair of navy blue gym knickers. I became more interested in the technical aspects of filming rather than acting, which for us children was more a case of ‘Let’s pretend.’
What were your first impressions of the Lake District? Had you ever been to the Lake District before filming Swallows and Amazons?
My parents had taken me to the Lake District as a three-year-old and loved going themselves, so it was a treasured destination in my family. I was dazzled by the lakes and mountains. Holly Howe (Bank Ground Farm) above Coniston Water is a very special place. I love gazing up into the Langdales and walking up into the fells. We were members of the Steam Boat Association, something I have written about in my book,Funnily Enough and I returned over Lockdown to appear in BBC Antiques Roadshow when Swallows and Amazons was profiled.
How detailed was the diary you wrote during the filming? Had you ever thought about turning your notes into a book before you were persuaded to write The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons?
I’ve put every page of my diary kept whilst making Swallows and Amazons on my blog at Sophieneville.net/swallowsandamazons My mother kept them, nagging me to write them up for years. Finding the time was difficult but I got there in time for the 40th Anniversary of the film’s release when StudioCanal brought out a DVD with an Extras package we appeared in.
What was the writing process like? eg. challenges
The challenge with adapting a diary is to eliminate inevitable repetition but something extraordinary or disastrous happened everyday whilst filming Swallows and Amazons. With so much filmed afloat or on islands, it was an incredibly difficult production to work on and made a story in itself. I enjoyed finally bringing the book to life and interacting with readers who so kindly sent in reviews and comments. Some love hearing what we all went on to do after the film. One reader did not want to know, but I included this as there were many interesting links and coincidences, especially since I worked on the BBC serialisation of Coot Club and The Big Six.
and favourite moments?
It is very exciting when the first paperbacks arrive. Every author enjoys unpacking that box.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned as a writer?
I never guessed how many times I would need to re-work my books. Each one is read though and edited repeatedly, on and on until it flows well and reads flawlessly. Recording the audiobooks has opened up a whole new world. I narrated them myself, which was far more complicated than I imagined. It’s difficult to digest the fact that I am on Spotify and the audiobookstore. Funnily Enough is selling well on audible.
Do you have any events lined up to promote the book?
Yes, I list the events on my website sophieneville.net/events I’m hoping to be signing copies at the Royal Thames Yacht Club in April and Southampton International Boat Show in September.
I often give illustrated talks on how Swallows and Amazons was made and Q&As at cinema screenings. I’ve begun running workshops on photographing books at literary conferences, which is proving popular.
Could you tell me a little bit about your other books?
Are you currently writing anything, either to do with Arthur Ransome or entirely separate?
I often write articles for magazines, which have connections to Swallows and Amazons, and have completed two historical novels, which are set in East Africa.
Finally, could you tell me about your other pursuits such as your litter picking, art and the combination of the two? Have art and conservation always interested you?
I have always been passionate about wildlife conservation, often giving talks about otters since they are the key indicator species we have been active in protecting as a family. I am taking part in the Race for Reading by litter picking whilst walking the coast to raise funds for the UK literacy charity SchoolReaders. I sometimes make collages out of the rubbish to attract attention to the composition of sea plastic. You can see examples of this and my paintings on Instagram @Sophienevilleauthor
David Wood, the award-winning playwright who adapted ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for the big screen in the early 1970s, wrote to say, “A fan recently reminded me that SWALLOWS, the film, will be celebrating its 50th birthday next year! Hard to believe, but true!”
He’s right. The Royal Gala that launched the film was held at the ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue on 4th April 1974. I still have the dress I wore and found a copy of the programme signed by other children in the cast. You can see photos in post I wrote about it here.
“I couldn’t attend the premiere,” David said, “I was rehearsing in Manchester!” This was a pity as it would have been amazing to watch the first film he’d written on the big screen with members of the cast present.
The event was followed by the publisher Kaye Webb’s Puffin Show at The Commonwealth Institute in Kensington High Street where the dinghy Swallow was on display from 9-21st April. I remember going along to meet readers. One of them wrote to me years later, thrilled that she’d won a new copy of the book. You can read her letter and find the Puffin Post article in an earlier post here.
“Do you think anyone will do anything to celebrate the anniversary? Are there any producers or distribution companies that might be approached? I am in touch with Richard Pilbrow, in America. I might drop him an email… Let me know if you think we ought to try to do something… a special screening, perhaps?”
When I suggested a few News presenters who might be interested in becoming involved, David replied saying:
“John Sergeant and I were at Oxford together, and performed in revue and cabaret….I directed him in a musical!
“Libby Purves interviewed me a few years ago at The Story Museum, Oxford. I was on Midweek twice too….”
“Have never met Ben Fogle, but years ago I knew his mother, Julia Foster. Her first husband was Lionel Morton, pop singer and Play School presenter, who played Owl for me in the first London production of THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT WENT TO SEE……in 1969!!!!!!”
“I was delighted that Virginia McKenna got her Damehood! Well deserved.”
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of making the film in the Lake District. I explained that I had been invited to give a talk to members of the Royal Thames Yacht Club in Kensington in April, hoping her could join me.
“I will put your April 18th talk in the diary – not sure yet if I will be free to come! But would appreciate you asking if I could attend. Last time I was there I gave a magic show for the members’ children!! About 50 years ago….just like the film!”
“The plans sound exciting. I wonder if the Arthur Ransome Society, to whom I gave a talk not long ago, might be interested in arranging something…”
They are. The idea is to put on an event at Windermere Jetty Museum in July 2024, under the auspices of Lakeland Arts. The Arthur Ransome Society are hoping to have both Swallow and Amazon there.
David then wrote to say: “The Cinema Museum, a rather wonderful institution in the Kennington area of South London, have pencilled Saturday April 6th 2024 for two screenings of SWALLOWS, to celebrate fifty years.” We have been invited to give Q&As and sign copies of our books. “Martin Humphries, who runs the Cinema Museum, organised a similar event about IF…., when I did a Q&A after the screening.”
This year is also the 50th Anniversary of the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Steam Railway where we spent the very first day of filming on 14th May 1973.
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.
Kay Frances Ecclestone wrote to say she saw a, “poster in my sailing club. If it was in 1973, I’d have been 12 or 13 & had been sailing since I was 9 & just started helming in races.” This was at “Pagham Yacht Club which was where my family sailed… I didn’t (audition) although I seriously thought about it, but I didn’t want my long hair bobbed! I can remember clearly being at the Club noticeboard and excitedly reading the poster. I loved all the Arthur Ransome books and spent my first ever sailing prize that year (which was a book voucher) on buying the final in the series of Puffin paperbacks that I didn’t have. I have no idea why my Mum didn’t point out that my hair would grow back!” She is still racing her Scorpion dinghy today. “The original Puffins (with some replacement Puffins as the original fell apart from constant reading) in my AR book collection.”
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’~
I found telling 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 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.