Secrets of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island, Coniston Water ~ in 1973

Arthur Ransome’s description of Wildcat Island is based on two real islands. The landing place and open grassy camp site illustrated in the books can be found at Blake Holme on Windermere but when Richard Pilbrow went there in 1972 he was so disappointed by the sight of caravans, and the fact it was so near the shore, that he decided to make the film almost entirely on Peel Island where you find Ransome’s Secret Harbour. We never went to Blake Holme.

It was Peel Island on Coniston Water where the real Swallows, the Altounyan children, camped. Roger Altounyan told Bill Frankland that he secretly spent the first three nights of his honeymoon camping there. It must have been magical. We loved going there – it was hugely exciting, even in the rain. There is something about the steep sides, which makes it like a fortress, the ancient Viking settlement WD Collingwood believed it to be.

Had I been producing Swallows and Amazons I would have used Peel island for the unique Secret Harbour but used the peninsular nearby on the mainland for the landing place, if at all possible. There is a nice open beach there and one wouldn’t have had to lug all the heavy paraphernalia of filming over the water – you can imagine time and effort  involved in taking a 35mm Panavision camera across with its mountings and track. I don’t know how they powered the arc lamps we needed to light the campsite, which was quite dark beneath the trees.  They must have run the cables under water. We loved crossing over there but getting us back for lessons and lunch wasn’t easy. There was no loo.

Sophie Neville, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Stephen Grendon on Wildcat Island in the scene where the Swallows find a place to camp

But – the wonderful thing is that now, when children reach the island, nearly all the places from the film are there. The Landing Place has nearly washed away.  We never knew it at the time but one great secret is that it was created for the film. They must have dumped a huge amount of shingle there.  The other secret is that there weren’t actually enough trees for the Swallows to erect the tents their mother had made for them. Two had to be added by the construction team. Arthur Ransome’s tents are not as easy to put up as you’d imagine. It is difficult for children to get the rope taut enough between the trees to take the weight of the canvas. You need to use wagon knots or twist it with a stick. If you tie the rope too high the tents ruck up. The reality was that Suzanna had Bobby-the-prop-man to help her.

One thing that is not a secret, but can take you unawares, is that there never seems to be any firewood on Wildcat Island.  It is the reason why the Swallows went to the mainland in the book. Roger really did struggle to find sticks to pick up on that wet day in May. Mine were carefully set out for me to find by the Designer.  Poor Roger did fall over and he did get quite badly scratched by thorns. Claude gave him a bit of  ‘Danger Money’ for being brave about it and not complaining.

Stephen Grendon playing young Laurie in the BBC Play ‘Cider with Rosie’

I’m not sure if Sten had ever received Danger Money when he played Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie, which Claude had made two years before. We watched it that night when it was broadcast on television. It must have been shown quite late as it was was labelled as avant garde.  We had to stay up as of course VHS machines hd not been heard of.

Rosemary Leach played Laurie’s long-suffering mother, Mrs Lee, quite beautifully. She was later to take the role of Mrs Barrable, the Admiral, in the BBC series Coot Club. Mike Pratt, who played Mr Dixon in Swallows and Amazonswas Uncle Ray, and Young Billy – John Franklin-Robbins was The Stranger.  Claude cast me as a little girl from Slad called Eileen Brown, who Laurie Lee always said was the first person he ever fell in love with. He was a friend of Mum’s and was around during the filming, since he still had a cottage in Slad. I’d been to a village school in the Cotswolds myself and enjoyed being in the classroom scenes, despite have to wear a drab and rather itchy green dress.

Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham on location at Slad in 1971

I was too shy to put myself forward when Claude asked if anyone knew the chants to playgound skipping games, but I did work hard to prepare for my big scene. I had to play quite a difficult piece on the piano, accompanying the ten-year-old Laurie Lee as he sawed away on his violin at the village concert, while his motherlooked on with tears in her eyes. I was only given the music three days before the filming and had to practice eight hours a day, for those three days, before I got it right. We plodded through Oh, Danny Boy but were so relieved to get it right that our smiles were real enough. At one point Claude took a deep breath and said, ‘Do you think you could play a little faster?’  I looked at him and replied, ‘They’re crochets. They don’t go any faster.’ He claimed that he didn’t know what a crotchet was.

Wilfred Josephs, who was familiar with crochets, wrote the most beautiful music for Cider with Rosie. You can listen to some of it on You Tube ~

Sophie Neville as Elieen Brown and Philip Hawkes as Laurie Lee in ‘Cider with Rosie’ directed by Claude Whatham in 1971.

Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the rain at Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria ~ 20th May 1973

It was quite funny when Mrs Batty’s sheep walked into Swallow’s boat shed, lifting our spirits on that rather gloomy wet day on Coniston, but I have no idea if it was caught on film. Can anyone remember seeing a television programme made up of amusing out-takes from movies prior to the 1980s?  I don’t suppose our out-takes were ever kept. It doesn’t matter – seeing them spoils the magic of the story in a way.

Simon West as John Walker taking Swallow out of the boatshed at Holly Howe aided by Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon and Sophie Neville

I wrote in my diary about playing Consequences in Bank Ground farmhouse. This is the game that Virginia McKenna had introduced us all to and we loved it. This time we seem to have roped in Costume, Hair and Make-up. It seems Emma Porteous, the Costume Designer, was on set with us that wet day in May. I would think that this was when they recorded the scenes inside Holly Howe with Susan and Roger and the wonderful lady who played Mrs Jackson. Someone recently asked why Susan never thanked her for lending her the frying pan, as it seemed out of character. Did she in Arthur Ransome’s book?

Ronnie Cogan was the quiet, gentle man usually clad in a grey tweed jacket, responsible for our hair on Swallows and Amazons.  Foregoing the use of wigs, so very much in use on costume dramas at the time, he simply did up Virginia McKenna’s lovely thick hair, and cut ours, giving the whole movie a classic feel.

Virginia McKenna having her hair put up by Ronnie Cogan ~ photo:Daphne Neville

Years later my mother worked with Ronnie on Diana: Her True Story, the bio-epic of epics based on Andrew Morton’s outrageous book. Serena Scott Thomas played Diana Princess of Wales, David Threlfall was Prince Charles, Anthony Calf had the glorious opportunity to play James Hewitt and my mother was given the role of Diana’s nanny, who hit her on the head with a wooden spoon. Mum said that she later bumped into Ronnie in Oxford Street but heard soon afterwards that he had sadly died. He had a wonderful career and must be hugely missed.  He’d worked on classics such as The Boys from Brazil with Sir Laurence Olivier and A Bridge too Far directed by Richard Attenborough – the Lord Attenborough. That must have been quite something. It starred Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Ryan O’Neal who I am sure would have been pretty concerned about having the standard WWII military haircut. Ronnie also worked for Roland Joffe on The Killing Fields and Kenneth Branagh when he had quite a haircut, the pudding basin, for his monumental film of Shakespeare’s Henry V.  It is funny how things inter-connect. Kenneth Branagh played my great uncle AO Neville in the Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Peter Robb-King had been the Chief Make-up Artist on Diana: her True Story. Having worked on movies such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Stars Wars – Return of the Jedi, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, he is still involved with the most amazing feature films. He has just completed The Cabin in the Woods where he was Sigourney Weaver’s personal make-up artist – and to think! He was once mine.

“But, Sophie – you disappoint me! You didn’t wear any make-up to play Titty.” No, but as we filmed out on the water more and more sun cream became extremely important. If even a tiny bit of us had turned red or peeled the filming would have put in jeopardy. Predicting that we would turn vaguely brown, Peter decided to give us a bit of a tan when scenes where shot out of sequence, as a couple had been that first week.  Peter and Ronnie were also responsible for the continuity of how we looked so that the shots would cut together. My fly-away hair was well monitored. Mum had to wash it every other day. Sten seemed to be forever having his hair trimmed. There are quite a few photographs of this particular activity inprogress.

Sophie Neville looking on as Stephen Grendon’s hair was being cut by Ronnie Cogan ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The end of our first week’s filming and all was not well ~

Suzanna was ill.  ‘I told Claude that it was because she wouldn’t eat anything,’ my mother said. ‘Oo she was difficult.’ But it can’t have just been that. We’d all got cold filming out on the lake in our flimsy costumes and she went down hill from there. The Producer, Richard Pilbrow, called a unit day off. As it happened the Saturday was a glorious sunny day and it rained on the Sunday, when the crew were originally scheduled to have the day off.

I made the most of it. Mum hardly ever took my sisters and I either shopping or walking when I we were children, but Sten’s mother, Jane Grendon was happy to take us around the craft shops of Ambleside and up into the fells. I am sure it was just what we needed while Mum stayed with Suzanna, and I expect had a snooze herself.  She was the better chaperone on location, where she felt happy and relaxed, Jane was better at taking us hill walking and encouraging us to sing on what could be long mini-bus journeys through the Lake District.

My diary

My diary 19th May page two

The norm when filming on location is to work six days a week, resting on Sundays. This, however, quite often has to be changed to a Saturday as some locations, such as busy town centres, can only be used on Sundays. The Police will only give you clearance for tricky sequences when it’s very quiet.  We didn’t have any gun fights in Swallows and Amazons but when I was a location manager myself on Rockcliffe’s Babies I once had to get everyone out working at 6.00am on a Sunday. We were recording a car chase going the wrong way around the Harrow Road roundabout above Paddington Station in West London with four Policemen employed to stop the traffic. We did have an actor clinging to the bonnet of the baddies’ car by the windscreen wipers. And they were moving.

I look back through my diary and am so touched. Virginia McKenna was incredibly kind to take such an interest in us, bringing Suzanna strawberries and talking us all to the cinema.  I wrote that Garth brought a pocket chess set. I’m afraid I couldn’t spell properly. This was meant to read Gareth. I have known two Gareths in my life.  A  Gloucester Old Spot pig, living in North Wales and Gareth Tandy, our third assistant director. His aunt Jessica Tandy was the famous Hollywood actress who had appeared in Alfred Hitchcock dramas such as The Birds.  In later life she went on to star in Driving Miss Daisy with Morgan Freeman, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and Nobody’s Fool with Paul Newman, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith.

Gareth had acted in all sorts of things as a boy from Oliver Twist to Dr. Findlay’s Casebook. If I’m not mistaken Swallows and Amazons was his first film as an Assistant Director but he made a career of it, going on to work on amazing moviesthe original Superman, For Your Eyes Only ~ the Bond film with Roger Moore, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Johnny Depp, Nanny McPhee, with Emma Thompson and Colin Firth, Johnny English Reborn with Rowan Atkinson and is currently the First Assistant Director on A Fantastic Fear of Everything.  

Gareth signed himself  ‘The whipcracker’ in my going-away book. It think this was because it had been his job to get us through costume and make-up and onto the set at the right time but I was left puzzled because he had done this with such charm we had never noticed any whips cracking at all. There must have been. Poor Gareth had been the runner with a walky-talky stopping unwanted traffic, cue-ing various boats and lugging tea urns about, but he did this with good grace and we all loved him. And no wonder, seeing as he’d given us a chess set just because Suzanna was ill in bed.

Sophie Neville with Jane Grendon in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Holly Howe on the 5th day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ near Coniston in 1973 ~

Holly Howe again  or back to Bank Ground Farm ~

My diary

My diary

When you next go to Bank Ground Farm you must stand outside and imagine the sight of two red London Route Master buses making their way down the drive.  They swayed from side to side.  We thought it comic. I still can’t work out how they managed to avoid how bringing down the dry stone walls. While sheep grazed around us outside in the rain, we made ourselves comfortable at the Formica tables in our school bus and got down to our lessons. I am sure it was good for us to be kept busy.

Bank Ground Farm
Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in Cumbria

Meanwhile Ian Whittaker, the Set Dresser, and Simon Holland, the Art Director, transformed two of Mrs Batty’s upstairs rooms into the Walker children’s  bedrooms of 1929. I changed in the cold and was rushed through the rain with a coat over my nightie to the magical atmosphere of the set, warmed by the lights with everyone’s focus on what was just in front of the camera; me reading a beautiful edition of Daniel Defoe’s classic. Claude needed to establish that Robinson Crusoe was Titty’s hero. I can remember having to hold the book in special way so the cover could be seen clearly. I described this as ‘a bed scene’, which might amuse some actors, especially those who are not at all keen on doing bed-scenes (every actor I know). The beds themselves are probably still at the farm.

The LP
Sophie Neville, Virginia McKenna and Simon West on the cover of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ LP, which is still available on Amazon.co.uk

I expect they shot the scene where John is learning Morse Code in bed before my scene. Simon West had to be made very brown indeed, the Make-up Designer dabbing away with a tiny sponge, for the uneasy sequence, much later in the story, when he came to explain himself to his mother. This was shot with Virginia McKenna sitting at a writing desk in the square bay window, with the view of Coniston Water beyond. I sat there myself when I was making Swallow’s flag.

Virginia McKenna and Lucy Batty at Bank Ground Farm on 15th May 1973

Mrs Batty later explained to me that the bay window leaked terribly and she was glad to get rid of it. She now has a lounge area there, which is dedicated as a Swallows and Amazons room.  I was chatting to her back in 2002 when we were waiting for Ben Fogle and the BBC crew of Countryfile to return from looking for other locations used in the film before interviewing Suzanna Hamilton and myself at the farm. The problem was that Suzanna’s train was terribly delayed. We waited and waited and waited. It got later and later. When her taxi finally arrived I was so excited to see her I grabbed her and made her run down to the lake to see Amazon, the dinghy we had sailed together, which was there at the time. The poor director must have been at her wit’s end. Ben Fogle had to come down to fetch us. My excuse was that Suzanna must have needed a stretch after such a long journey. The Westmorland Gazette captured the three of us plodding back up the field before we sat on the grass for our interview.

Countryfile

Ben Fogle, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and the BBC crew recording Countryfile at Bank Ground Farm in October 2002

I did the whole interview holding a bottle of grog, which the Arthur Ransome fans who were staying at the farm gave me. You can see it in the photographs if you look closely.  I don’t think Ben knew what it was.

It was into this interview that my father’s 16mm footage of the making of Swallows and Amazons was cut, with such success that the documentary was re-shown as Big Screen Britain. What I didn’t know was that Ben Fogle was born in 1973 after we had made the movie. It was only once the crew had disappeared that Suzanna and I really began to talk.

Arriving at Wild Cat Island on the fourth day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Coniston Water in 1973 ~

What would you wear to go sailing on Coniston Water in May?  Arriving at Wild Cat Island was exciting but I got terribly cold.

The Passion Killer scenes ~

The crew took delight in referring to my navy blue gym knickers as ‘Passion Killers’. Claude Whatham had me tuck my dress up into them. I don’t know if he knew it but, as Arthur Ransome said, the real Altounyan girls had done this, since they usually wore dresses in the 1930s rather than shorts. It made me think that I was wearing even less and haunts me still. Even this year ! there was a photograph in The Telegraph of me with my dress tucked up into my knickers. I was never allowed to un-tuck it between takes for fear of spoiling continuity.

Sophie Neville in her thin cotton dress and passion killers at Bank Ground Farm in May 1973 ~ photo:Daphne Neville

Sailing in thin cotton dresses ~

Emma Porteus, the Costume Designer on Swallows and Amazons was the one person we never saw on location. I’d met her at a fitting in London, when I tried on the silk dress and the shoes I wore in the train. She then had my cotton frocks made up, seemly without a thought to the Cumbrian climate. The fact that they were rather short was in keeping with 1970s fashion, rather than 1929. It was Claude who insisted that we all – boys and girls – wore original 1929 knickers and Mum who found us vests to wear once everyone realised how cold it was out on the water. I had to beg TSuzanna Hamilton in 1984erry, the Wardrobe Master, to let me wear the grey cardigan in subsequent sailing scenes.

Emma Porteus must have either been expensive or busy or both. She became the designer on many of the Bond movies ~ Octopussy, A View to a Kill and the Living Daylights. She worked on Aliens with Sigourney Weaver, Judge Dredd with Sylvester Stallone and, guess what? –  1984, which starred Suzanna with none other than John Hurt and Richard Burton. This was partly made near my home in Gloucestershire ~ Mum visited the set at Hullaverton ~ at the time I was working on the Arthur Ransome book adaptations of  Coot Club and The Big Six on the Norfolk Broards. Of all the costumes worn in movies through the decades Suzanna wore a classic in this film: a workman’s boiler-suit. Not designated by Emma Porteus, of course, but by George Orwell. Nice and comfy though for wearing on location.

The terrible royal blue nylon track suits with go-faster stripes down the arms that we wore on location were purchased to keep us warm during rehearsals. This was a huge mistake, firstly because they were ineffective in terms of thermal insulation and secondly because they found their way into the publicity shots. Someone commented on this only last week. they even made their way onto the cover of the VHS.  I can remember thinking at the time that they were a misguided purchase (and please note I was aged twelve at the time) but so grateful were we for the meagre warmth we willingly put them on.

Brian Doyle, the Publicity Manager on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in typical cold weather gear on Derwent Water in the Lake District

Dennis the DPO ~ Everyone on the crew was wrapped up warm and well equipped with wet weather gear.  They needed to be.  There was so much hanging around.  While it took a little time to line up a dinghy for a shot, Dennis Lewiston the Director of Photography was very strict about waiting for clouds to pass so that it looked sunshiney, even if it wasn’t that sunny in reality. This could take ages and ‘takes’ were often snatched between clouds. Looking back on it, this was crucial. My vision is of Dennis in a navy blue rain coat peering at the sky with a shaded eye glass that he wore habitually around his neck. He went on to make The Scarlet Pimpernel with Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour, Ian McKellen and Julian Fellows,  The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Meat Loaf, The Country Girls, starring Sam Neill, Marilyn and Me, Heidi with Patricia Neal, Montana and numerous other TV movies.

Filming the filming ~  I did not know until I read Mum’s letter last night that John Noakes had been offered a part in Swallows and Amazons or that Blue Peter had been offered the chance to document the making of the film. I wonder if John Noakes ever knew this? Biddy Baxter, the editor, was keen on ‘behind the scenes’ items.  Lesley Judd had worn a lovely red dress to make one earlier, in February 1973, about Dad’s Army with Arthur Lowe and John le Mesurier, who happened to be a cousin of Dad’s. Instead my father bought 16mm stock for his company’s Bolex and shot a number of reels.  The footage was never sold but not forgotten. I found it in 2003 when the BBC included it in the Countryfile documentary presented by Ben Fogle that was re-issued as Big Screen Britain. Does anyone have a copy of either of these?  I am yet to see them properly. Notes on the Diary ~It looks as if the food had improved.We had turkey for lunch on location, which was a great treat in the early ’70s.and ‘a super salad supper’ at the guest house, which I evidently enjoyed. Does anyone remember such things being a real treat? Translation of my mother’s letter home:My Darlings ~ Dad and my sisters’Letter to SAJ’ ~ Sister Ann-Julian, my headmistress. She signed her name SAJ and everyone called her Saj.When my long hair was cut for the part of Titty we sent the pony-tail back to my form at school so they could thatch the cottages of a model village they were making of medeval Childry. I was really sad to be missing the project.   Toos ~ Mum’s nick-name for meRuth ~ our cleaner from the village who was helping to look after my sistersB…    ~ (no idea)Gertie ~ her enormous Irish mare& co ~ our moorland poniesLupy, Joshua and Blue ~ our dogsShe must have been a bit homesick.

A letter from behind the scenes on the third day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

16th May 1973, was the third day of filming the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, recorded in this letter that my mother wrote to my father who was at home in Gloucestershire with my two younger sisters.

Mum kept her letters, my diaries and scrapbooks in a smart carrier bag. It once contained an expensive velvet dress bought for me in Carnaby Street when we met Claude Whatham, the director of Swallows and Amazons back in April 1973

1970’s English food ~

The food at our guest house was talking its toll. It was not a good idea to feed children on packet soups and baked beans in the days when 35mm film stock was so extremely expensive.  No one realised why, but the ingredients made Sten hyper-active, or as my mother put it, ‘causing a little hoo hah.’  A visiting  journalist wrote, ‘By the end of the day Roger, aged seven, had mown down the entire film crew using a hammer as a mock machine gun. He had fallen down several times and emerged with grazed knees all splattered with mud.’

Location catering ~

Suzanna Hamilton, who was playing Susan, simply refused to eat the revolting food.  Mum said,  “I couldn’t get her to eat anything.” Location catering is excellent now but back in the early 1970’s it could be pretty basic canteen food produced from a ‘chuck wagon’. We’d queue up for a tray of meat and two veg, which was usually consumed in a red London double-decker converted into a dining bus.  There were no salads, no fruit, just a working man’s lunch with coffee in plastic cups and paste sandwiches provided later with tea. The tea was good.

Pinewood location catering ~ Suzanna Hamilton pearing into the chuck wagon ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The fruit bowl in our bus ~

Mum started to order fruit and we relished it.  Back then, it was a huge treat to have bananas or melon, oranges and grapes.  A bowl sat in our bus where we were given lessons on Formica tables downstairs. The upper deck was used by Terry the Wardrobe Master as as our changing room. It was furnished with bunk beds. Mum made us rest in these after lunch. I don’t think she could pin down the Amazons easily but she made me use them. I know I objected at first but I must have needed to lie down and rest properly, especially when it was cold.

Molly and Richard Pilbrow

Molly and Richard Pilbrow on location with the two red London Double Decker buses where coffee was being served ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The film crew ~

Apart from Sue Merry the ‘Continuity Girl’ the film crew consisted entirely of men, forty-five of them. I include the Hair and Make-up Designers, the Wardrobe Master, the Art Director, Set Dresser, Propmen and Carpenters, Sound Recordist and Boom Operator, the Director of Photography, Camera Operator, Focus Puller and Grips with the Electricians from Lee Electric who looked after the lights and generators, Lorry Drivers and Sailing Director, the Director, three Assistant Directors and the Production Associate and Producer. I think there might have been a Film Accountant and Location Manager. Being a feature film we had a permanent Stills Photographer and a Publicity Manager.  And this was a small crew as Terry seemed to cope without Wardrobe Assistants or Dressers. They all knew each other pretty well from being on previous movies. I have a list of where they had digs in Ambleside. It’s quite interesting to see who shared with who.  Whenever we needed boats up to six local boatmen could also join the queue for the chuck wagon – and the mobile loos.  Mum wouldn’t let me use them. They were looked after by a ratty looking chap who later managed to persuade one of the Ambleside girls that he was the film’s Producer.

Neville  Thompson, who was effectively the on-line Producer, had a production secretary called Sally Shewing, but she must have been stuck in the production office as we never saw her.  Molly Friedel, Richard Pilbrow’s girl friend and assistant, was often on location. We adored her.  She was American, tall with long brown hair and always had time for us. I remember her working on the lighting design for the next Rolling Stones Concert by the shore of Lake Coniston while we milled about, playing on the rocks.

We had our tutor, Mrs Causey and a wonderful mini-bus driver called Jean McGill. She had been a top British Airways air hostess but had returned to Cumbria to look after her ailing mother and was driving us around the area she so loved to keep busy. As soon as my mother found out that she was also a qualified nursing sister she made sure that Jean was taken on as the official location nurse, which was great as it meant she could be around the whole time and we never had to wait for the bus. We found we soon needed a nurse too. Someone was always hurting themselves.

Jean McGill, our driver and location nurse, operating the radio with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

So in all, with our chaperones there were usually about six women around as well as journalists, friends and relatives who came to watch. It was a huge circus with often eighty people milling about. Certianly the Call Sheet asks the caterers to provide lunch for seventy on normal days. It would be much more when we had crowd scenes such as when we explored Rio.

The male:female ratio on crews is very different today. There are often more women than men, perhaps not on movies but certainly on BBC drama crews. It was already different by 1983 when Richard and Molly Pilbrow came to visit us on the location of  Coot Club in Norfolk, where there were about equal numbers of men and women on set. It made for a better, family atmosphere, certainly more appropriate with so many children involved.  Since he still held the rights to Arthur Ransome’s series of Swallows and Amazons books, Richard was the Executive Producer on the BBC serial Joe Waters produced. It was so good to see him again. I gather he is still going strong having just been awarded the Knights of Illumination Lifetime Recognition Award for more than 50 years of work in theatre lighting.

The third day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the Lake District in 1973

At Beckfoot: The Amazon’s garden and boat house ~

Day 3 of the diary

Day 3 of the diary  page 2

The Amazon’s time had come. In the script, the short scene where Nancy and Peggy careen their dinghy is set in the Amazon boathouse, but Claude Whatham shot them scrubbing the underside of their dinghy on the lakeside with Beckfoot behind. Nancy threw a bucket of water over him for his pains. It was a complete accident.  She actually chucked the water onto the bottom of the boat but it splashed back.  He was squatting below the camera to the bottom right and got well and truly soaked by what must have been very cold, lake water. Kit Seymour roared with laughter and he took in it good spirit but only up to a point. I don’t think he had anything else to wear.

David Blagden, David Cadwallader, and David Bracknell looking at the Amazon’s bottom with DPO Denis Lewiston in the backround with the Panavision

I was a conscientious child and keen not to fall behind with my school work.  Children under the age of sixteen have to be issued with a licence by their local education authority before they can act in films.  Mum, who was our legal chaperone, decided it would be quite fine if we did fifteen schooling hours a week rather than a minimum of three hours a day, as stipulated in the rule book.  I spent the day catching up in our school bus.

Mum was equally fluid about the time we spent on set – or indeed on location. Sten Grendon, who played Roger, was aged nine. I now know he was meant to go home every day at 4.30pm but we all returned together whenever it was deemed practical. But his mother, Jane, was with him and if ever there was a child who needed to expend energy it was Sten. Sending him back to the Oaklands Guest House early could have endangered the people of Ambleside.  It did us a lot of good to work hard, and cope with real, if channelled, responsibility.

We were all busting with energy, so much that I grazed my leg badly climbing a tree at lunch time that day. Claude put a stop to any more tree climbing as a result. He couldn’t risk any of us getting injured. My sister Tamzin Neville broke her ankle when she was in the middle of playing Anthea, the leading role in a BBC serialisation of E.Nesbit’s  The Phoenix and the Carpet. It could have been a disaster but she wore long Edwardian dresses with petticoats that covered up her splint. My legs were fully on display in Swallows and Amazons. If I hadn’t have been wearing dungarees when I climbed that tree the world would have seen the scratch.

I can remember admiring the large house featured as Beckfoot, the Blackett’s house on the lakeside, and wandering past towering the rhododendrons in the garden, but I have no idea where is is.  Christina Hardyment felt that Arthur Ransome must have modelled Beckfoot on Lanehead, the Collingwoods’ house on the East of Lake road above Coniston, but the film required a big house with lawns going down to a lake.  I don’t have the call sheet for that day. Can anyone tell me where the location was?   Is it on the south western shore of Coniston?  And is the Amazon Boathouse in the same place?  My mother thought it was at Elterwater but John Ward has written in to say that the ‘big house’ was Brown Howe House on the western Shore of Coniston Water south of Peel Island. The boathouse is also there on the edge of the lake.

****************************

I have just found an article in The Times which includes an extract from Kit Seymour’s diary:

‘This is the day I had been waiting for. The Amazons had at last begun filming. We got changed and had to be made up sunburnt. We then rehearsed what to do. We did the second scene. I quite accidently threw a bucket of water at Claude. After lunch we had to film the interior of the boat house. Peggy had to say, ‘Not a breath of wind.’ This was quite funny becasue our hair was flying about everywhere. They had to film this scene quite a lot of times.’ 

The clock is, indeed, still on the mantelpiece at Bank Ground Farm

It is aways wonderful to hear how the film of Swallows and Amazons has effected people’s lives.  I have just had such an interesting e-mail from Australia that I asked if I could post hit here. I only wish that Claude Whatham was alive to read it.

Did anyone else know about the the clock on the mantelpiece at Bank Ground Farm?

                                                                          then                                                                       now
Dear Sophie,
I can not tell you how much I am enjoying your website. I’ve searched for scraps of material regarding the making of Swallows and Amazons for decades, but you post more information in one day than I gleaned in a lifetime. It’s a fabulous insight, and one I really appreciate.
I became a film-maker largely because of Swallows and Amazons. I’ve written a small piece about this, which is going to be published in a promo for one of my film-making books. As a nine year old, I stumbled across Wild Cat Island just days after seeing the film. I was so thrilled to be standing where the film had been made, and so excited to see how clever use of the camera could exaggerate the feeling of a location and capture the magic of performance, that I set out to discover everything I could about film. It was a life-changing moment.
My daughters (5 and 7) adore Titty, and we are all impressed by your acting. I’ve directed my girls in a couple of things, and I know they gained confidence from having seen you perform. When Tabitha, my eldest daughter, saw the film for the first time, she burst into tears at the end. It was a release of pure joy, and is testament to the quality of the film.
I live in Australia now, but returned to the island in 2010 with Tabitha and Harriet (rowing all the way from the other end of the lake). We stayed at Bank Ground Farm. This months we went back and were lucky enough to sail Swallow into the Secret Harbour. It was a windy October day, and quite a frantic sail, but I can honestly say it was one of the highlights of my life.
When reading your recent post about set dressing at Bank Ground Farm, I wondered if you’d noticed that the clock on the mantlepiece is still there. It’s on the other mantlepiece, I believe, but it is still there. I have no idea whether it is a prop that was left behind, or whether the film-makers used the clock that belonged to the farm.
Thanks again.
Best wishes,
Chris
Christopher Kenworthy
Our set designer or ‘Art Director’ on Swallows and Amazons was Simon Holland. He worked tirelessly with his assistant Ian Whittaker and team of Prop men, making every effort to use absolutely authentic props and set dressing. It must have involved quite a bit of research. Holly Howe, for instnace would not have had mains electricity or back in 1929, so he made sure oil lamps were on set. These would have been modified by the Sparks so that it looked as if they lit the room in those evening scenes when we were busy packing.
The people of the Lake District still remember Simon asking if he could buy old tins of food. It seemed such an unusual request. When it came to making labels for the cans of ‘Pemmican’ he painted them himself ~
Art Director Simon Holland
Art Director Simon Holland painting labels for cans of Pemican on Mrs Batty’s lawn at Bank Ground Farm in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville
Simon had worked as the set dresser on the thriller Callan starring Edward Woodward, that we all saw in 1974. He had earlier been the Art Director on Bartleby, which featured Paul Scholfield with John McEnery in the title role Swallows and Amazons must have been one of his first features. He was only thirty-two that summer of 1973.
Simon Holland went to to work on well known movies such as Equus, Greystoke, Quadrophenia, The Sleeping Dictionary set in Sarawakand Tales of the Riverbank which starred Stephen Fry as the Owl and Miranda Hart as Miss March. He sadly died in 2010 at the age of 70 but will be remembered fondly by us all.
I have found the entry that Suzanna wrote in her diary at this time when we were filming at Bank Ground Farm. She drew a picture of the blue and white checked dress she wore and drescribed an interview with a reporter.

This is the newspaper clipping that Suzanna stuck in her dairy that featured Virginnia McKenna and the six of us children in one of the old motors that Simon Holland found to dress the Railway Platform set at Haverthwaite Station on the first day of filming.

A clipping from The Guardian Newspaper 15th May 1973

Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria in 1973

Bank Ground Farm ~

If you take the East of the Lake road along Coniston Water you will find Bank Ground Farm. It lies between Brantwood,  John Ruskin’s former home, and Lanehead where Arthur Ransome’s friends the Collingwoods lived. Ransome was particularly good friends of Dora Collingwood, who married an Irish-Armenian doctor keen on sailing called Ernest Altounyan. They went to live in Syria but every five years or so would bring their children to visit their Grandparents for the holidays. The would stay at Bank Ground Farm next door. Ernest bought two 14 foot sailing dinghies called Swallow and Mavis in which his family learnt to sail.

It was for the five Altounyan children, Taqui, Susie, Titty , Roger – and Bridget, the ships’s baby, that Arthur Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons after they gave him a pair of bright scarlet Turkish slippers as a birthday present.  I don’t think I knew that Titty was a real girl when I played her in the film, but I did know her character in the books and only felt rather bad that I didn’t have her thick dark hair.

Bank Ground Farm
Bank Ground Farm with its views over Coniston Water in the Lake District

Bank Ground Farm is much smarter now. Lucy Batty, who let us take over her home in 1973, is still around but the guest house is now run by her grandson Jonathan. You can either stay in the main house, where there is a lovely corner bedroom with views right down Langdale, or you can take a self catering cottage or flat, since they have been able to convert the barn and stables into further accommodation. I’ve just received post from Peter Willis of The Nancy Blackett Trust who said,

“I stayed at Bank Ground in the summer – it was utterly lovely, exactly as it ought to be – Jonathan Batty and his wife are really hospitable, and one of the great pleasures was the friendliness and interstingness of the other guests, who included a Japanese Ransome fan. Do have dinner if they’re doing it. Food’s great, but so’s the sociable atmosphere.”

16th May 1973

15th May 1973

Int: Holly Howe ~ Bank Ground Farm near Coniston

It was grey and raining in the Lake District on 15th May 1973. Instead of filming the scene when Roger tacks up the field, Denis Lewiston, the Director of Photography, lit Mrs Batty’s living room at Bank Ground Farm for an evening scene. Simon Holland the Art Director dressed the room in the style of a Cumbrian farmhouse in the 192os with oil lamps, Bobby the prop man brought in all the camping gear we were to be packing, while Virginia McKenna was having her hair done up and we had lessons in our red double-decker bus. Then we recorded a scene, the dialogue of which was never used in the finished film.

Int/Ext: Holly Howe

Int/Ext Holly Howe
The Screenplay: David Wood’s adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’

You do see Susan packing bars of soap and me making heavy weather of sewing our flag, my hair pinned back in a hideous way, with rather a modern reel of white cotton laying on the desk.  John packed the telescope in a biscuit tin, which to me now seems a mistake as we used it on the voyage, very much not in a tin, but then one always re-packs many times before an important trip.

Virginia McKenna as Mary Walker with Sophie Neville playing her daughter Titty Walker busy stiching Swallow’s new flag in preparation for the voyage to the island

After lunch we shot the scene when Mother is teaching us how to erect a tent on rocky ground, as she did with Father when they were young. Titty asks if she is really old.

‘Not really. But I was younger then,’ Virginia McKenna replied looking dubious.

This is rather how I feel now, all these years later, especially when I walk into a room when people are expecting me as Titty. I’m not really old, but I do look different from when I was only twelve. This always happens when I return to Bank Ground Farm. Everyone is a bit taken back by my height but say I sound just the same. And I am married now with a family of my own. It is a bit like when Peter Pan flew back to see Wendy and found she looked just like her mother – not least because in the play the adult Wendy is always played by the actress who formerly takes the role of Mrs Darling.

Sophie Neville
Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton in the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with Sophie Neville today, photographed at the recent Arthur Ransome Society Literary Weekend

I was standing outside the front door of Bank Ground once, talking to Lucy Batty, when two Japanese girls arrived to stay at the farm. They were fans of the film. They looked up at me and declared, ‘Ooo Titty!’ and bowed their heads whilst clasping their hands together in greeting. They had come from the other side of the world and yet recognised me immediately. Perhaps I haven’t changed that much after all.

The weather must have cleared up a bit by teatime on 15th May as we recorded the scenes in the boat house when John discovers Swallow, brings her out to the stone jetty and steps the mast. I’m pretty sure that the sunlight comes from an arc-lamp. They must have had to take the generator down to the lakeside. Suzanna got her shorts wet as she pushed out the clinker-built dinghy but we loved being by the water.

To be continued…

‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) the opening locations of the classic film

Ext : Ulverston Railway Station ~ filmed at The Haverthwaite Railway Station

An article in The Times 1973
A photograph taken for The Times –  all aboard the steam train at Haverthwaite

On the first day of making the original movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in May 1973, a huge effort was made to ‘dress’ Haverthwaite Railway Station, at the southern end of Windermere. The aim was to bring across the feel of a bustling 1929 holiday destination. Local people had been previously fitted with costumes in the Ambleside Church Hall, there was a horse and cart, porters’ trolleys laden with trunks and a number of old bikes, which were all of great interest to us.

Having stepped down from the steam locomotive, where the Times photographer must have taken this shot, we children were piled into an open-topped period vehicle, for further publicity photographs.  I liked sitting on the car but thought the photograph was silly, especially since Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett, who played the Amazons, were wearing ordinary clothes rather than period costumes. The result was later published in both The Guardian and Woman’s Realm. Virginia McKenna was interviewed by journalists while we were hurried away to get on with our lessons. Our tutor taught us Art. I drew the a picture of the motor car.

With Virginia McKenna on the first day of filming
A publicity shot featuring Virginia McKenna, with Kit Seymour, Steven Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton, taken on the first day of filming and published in the Guardian and other newspapers

The yellow motor used in the film for our taxi was superb. I can only imagine it was far grander than a real Lakeland taxi would have been. Sten, playing Roger, hung out of the window as the director, Claude Whatham, ‘filmed us driving out of the station, along the platform at top speed,’ as I recorded in my diary.

Director Claude Whatham talking to Virginia McKenna

Ext: Holly Howe ~ filmed at Bank Ground Farm by Coniston Water

Arriving at Holly Howe in the yellow taxi was truly exciting. It was not filmed the next day, as I think rain had set in. Claude waited for good evening light. But I remember the thrill of drawing up outside the farmhouse in the old car and pulling on my hat as we spilled out and ran past the big farm horses Mr Jackson was leading into the yard. I’m afraid our OOV (out of vision) dialogue was added later.

The screenplay of the 1973 film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adapted from Arthur Ransome’s book by David Wood

If you ever go to Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, named Holly Howe by Arthur Ransome in his books, you must run down the field to the lake as we did. As soon as you arrive. And at top speed. And you will be filled by the same feeling of elation as we were when we played the Walker children.

Bankground Farm
Steven Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West at Bankground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District

The slope, formed by glacial scouring and subsequent deposits long ago, is steeper than you think.  You soon learn the art of glaumphing at which I became adept.  What struck me when I returned to Bank Ground Farm one Spring, was that sadly the great trees have gone from around the old farm gate and the boatsheds down by the lake.  They must simply have reached the end of their lives.

Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West with Mr Jackson at Holly Howe~ photo: Daphne Neville

Ext: Peak at Darien ~ filmed by Derwent Water

Most Arthur Ransome devotees will know that the Peak at Darien, where once stood stout Cortez, is familiar to readers as it appears in two of the illustrations in the book. Sadly it can not be found below the farm. Mrs Ransome said that you could find the headland on Windermere. In April 2011, when I was on an early recce with Nick Barton, CEO of Harbour Picture Productions, we did pass one promising spot:

A possible Peak in Darien by Lake Windermere

However Richard and Claude chose Friar’s Crag on Derwent Water for the location. I didn’t know it but Christina Hardyment writes in her excellent book, Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint’s Trunk that they had found the very place Ransome had in mind, “without the slightest idea that they were quite right to be doing so.”  She found that Ransome had marked up postcard of Friar’s Peak for his illustrator Clifford Webb to work from in 1930. It feels completely right when you are there, with the iconic view of an island under the towering mountains. It was over a shot of this that they added the opening titles.

Sout Cortez, however, was not there. Neither were we children. By the time we had been transported from Coniston to Derwent Water for this scheduled scene the sun was going down.  We’d been delayed by the make-up artist who was determined to tone down the tans we had developed.  This took ages. He used a very small sponge. My mother was frustrated as she thought that this would never have shown up, but he put his foot down with the result that we were ‘late on set’ for the evening shots. Claude Whatham was very cross about it.

Sophie Neville as Titty arriving too late in the day to film at Friar’s Crag on Derwent Water. The island portrayed as Wildcat Island can be seen in the distance ~ photo: Daphne Neville

One of the big secrets of the film ~

One of the big secrets of the film is that the sequence when we run up to the Peak at Darien and first set eyes on the island in the lake was shot under an oak tree in Runnymede, near the River Thames. We were not an island at all.  It must have been an expensive ‘pick-up shot’, but we enjoyed meeting up again immensely. Claude had made an effort to gather together the same crew members and I was back in my lovely silk dress once more. We knew how to act by then and the joy of being together again shows on our faces.  The result was a scene to set the film off on the right foot.  We were jubilant and so excited, that, like swallows, we could have taken flight.

Sophie Neville, Claude Whatham and Simon West with Richard Pilbrow, right ~photo:Daphne Neville

The opening titles ~

I would have to check with Richard Pilbrow to be certain but I think that Simon Holland, the Art Director, penned the SWALLOWS and AMAZONS graphics for the opening titles.  I remember a discussion about the font type. A very fashionable script used on the poster of the film was favoured. I said that I thought they ought to use the handwritten capitals that Clifford Webb had penned on the map in the opening cover of the book and copied by Simon Holland (and me) on our chart. This was chosen.

Click on this image to see the poster of the film

The Seventies’ font, above, had been used for the titles of  Lionel Jefferey’s movie The Railway Children, which starred Jenny Agutter. As a viewer I felt that this soon dated it, whilst Swallows and Amazons sailed onto our television screens in the 1980’s and 1990’s, indeed into the 21st century, without being spoilt by what became most unfashionable graphics. Of course now that particular retro font is all the rage.  For sometime a DVD has been available which gives you both films.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the classic film by purchasing ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ published by the Lutterworth Press, available online and at all good bookshops.