The school term is over, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is on BBC iPlayer and Christmas missives are arriving in the post. I have just been sent this homemade card from someone who came to the premier of the original film in 1974, when I was fortunate enough to play Able seaman Titty.
~Captain Flint hanging Christmas decorations around his houseboat on a card made from a Puffin book cover~
I dug out the Puffin paperback of Swallows and Amazons my father gave me when I was a girl and read avidly, along with other books in the series, by the time I was eleven years-old. It is a 1970’s edition in which I’d underlined everything Titty said. I must have re-read this copy when busy preparing for filming the 1974 movie financed by EMI.
Kaye Webb, the editor, had written an introduction saying, ‘This book is about sailing, fishing, swimming, camping, and piratical exploits.’ She wanted to make it available to children, thinking that discovering Swallows and Amazons ‘for the first time must be as exciting as a Christmas morning.’
Underneath, I’d noted down the skills I would need to acquire before playing the part of Titty. ‘Owl Hoot’, was one item, ‘wisle’ (sic) another. I was somewhat apprehensive about dancing the Hornpipe but excited about ‘being a cormorant’, having no idea how cold this experience would prove.
A new edition of the Puffin paperback was brought out to accompany the film. A still was used from the scene where the Swallows sail both dinghies from Cormorant Island.
Today, I am most interested in Ransome’s prose, amused to find the phrase ‘X marks the spot where they ate six missionaries’ does not appear within the pages of the book. It was given to Titty in 1973 by the screenwriter David Wood. However, there are words of wisdom a-plenty that were not used in the film adaptations:
‘I like cooking,’ said mate Susan.
‘If you want to go on liking it, take my advice and get someone else to do the washing up’, is Mother’s reply. (I wonder who might have said this in reality.)
‘You can be wide awake and not see a thing when you aren’t looking’ is one of Roger’s observations.
John was able to look back to ‘a different, distant life’, which is exactly how it feels when the excitement of Ransome’s world spoils you for the ordinary. It’s true: those involved in outdoor activities develop in leaps and bounds ending up, ‘not at all what they had been.’
What is it about Arthur Ransome’s writing that captures your imagination? Rowing? Sailing? Cooking over a camp fire? Which book has most influenced your life?
At least one film fan held a TV party with and 1930’s theme to celebrate. Others stoked up the wood-burner and settled down to spend an afternoon re-living summer in the Lake District. It is as if Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – a timeless classic to watch again and again.
For the latest edition of the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ with details of where the film was made and what those who appeared in it are doing now, Please click here
The ebook, entitled ‘The secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ is the same with a few more stories for adult readers and has links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It can be downloaded from iTunes, Smashwords,Kobo and Amazon Kindle
It would be lovely to hear from anyone who saw it in the cinema when it first came out in cinemas in the summer of 1974 – more than forty-five years ago.
Simon Hodkin kindly sent in this cinema programme that he has kept since watching the movie when he was a boy growing up in North Wales.
Arthur Herbertson managed to track down these rare publicity sheets for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ typical of movie games of the period:
Arthur has a collection of the four jigsaw puzzles and the Puffin paperback that came out with the film.
There was a vinyl LP narrated by the screenwriter David Wood that you can still purchase.
Arthur found a publicity brochure that I had never seen before.
To read comments from people who saw the film at the cinema in 1974, please click here
The original story was written by Arthur Ransome in 1929 ninety years ago, so the film hits the half-way mark between the original readers and today’s audience. It’s funny, the critics in 1974 are asking the same question as raised in the billing this week: Do ‘modern youngsters struggle to relate to such old-fashioned game playing’?
Do add your thoughts to the comments below.
~Billing in the Christmas edition of the Radio Times 2019~
An article first published in Mixed Moss, 2019, the journal of The Arthur Ransome Society:
‘I can’t see it,’ the man was standing in the rain outside the cinema, ‘you said Swallows and Amazons has parallels to missionary life but I don’t get it.’ He was a vicar, camping with his family in the Lake District. After spending a week at the Keswick Convention, he’d brought his children to see the original film Swallows and Amazons (1974) at the Alhambra where I was giving a Q&A after a screening of the movie.
‘I once went on a short-term mission to Australia,’ I told him. ‘People would ask me if I was going to convert the natives.’ I explained the archaic idea of berating aboriginal people filled me with horror but use of the word ‘natives’ reminded me of Swallows and Amazons. This led me to consider how deeply Arthur Ransome was influenced by missionary journeys of the early 1900s. As the author, Julian Lovelock points out, ‘exploring, trading and being a missionary were, in Victorian times, all shades of the same colonial activity. Dr Livingstone is often described as an ‘explorer-missionary’. This is the 80th Anniversary year of the publication of Secret Water where ‘missionaries’ enter Ransome’s world in their ‘mission ship’ Lapwing.
Linda Hendry, of The Arthur Ransome Society (TARS), observed that as a boy of ten, Arthur envied his Aunt Edith and Aunt Jessie who were going off to China as missionaries. Did this idea of adventures last with him?
Although his father, Cyril Ransome, came from a clerical background and ensured Arthur received a biblical education in Windermere, Margaret Ratcliffe of TARS reports that ‘there is never a hint of spirituality’ in his letters and diaries. ‘Arthur and Genia were not of an active religious persuasion; Christmas and Easter were ordinary days for them.’ The only time he went to church on a regular basis was when he lived in Finsthwaite and his closest fishing friend was the vicar, the Rev. Roland Pedder. ‘Arthur Ransome never mentions that they discuss spiritual matters, rather hooks, bait and water levels.’ I agree with Margaret’s view that any analogy ‘would have been subliminal on his part, rather than conscious’ but it is embedded in the story, all the more interesting for being unintended.
The reality of going on overseas missions does have parallels with Swallows and Amazons. You tend to set off as a group or family, like the Walker children, and usually end up helping people who need a bit of support, even if it is not what you might expect. Those once wounded often make the best doctors. One of the key themes, perhaps driving force behind Swallows and Amazons is fatherlessness. Is the story an out-working of Arthur Ransome’s grief for his own father who died when Arthur was thirteen? Was he desperate to prove that he is as reliable and resourceful as Captain John, planning the expedition while Commander Walker was in Malta preparing to sail to Hong Kong? As it is, the Swallows gain Daddy’s permission while remaining under the umbrella of their mother’s care, making sensible preparations before setting sail. This is very like missionary groups who usually need permission from the church with back-up and support from their mission organisation.
Peter Wright, chairman of The Arthur Ransome Society, added, ‘The Amazons seek out the Swallows in much the same way as indigenous people came to find out about early explorers.’ Any number of missionaries have had arrows fired at them. The Swallows discover that Nancy and Peggy not only prove to be the same age but share their terminology and outlook on life. They too have no father around and have recently been rejected by their uncle who is busy writing. As a result, they are being naughty, letting off a firework on the roof of his houseboat. The Swallows make friends with them and end up helping Uncle Jim to see sense.
Everyone’s moral values are tested in Swallows and Amazons. Uncle Jim realises he has been neglecting his relationship with his nieces and sees what ‘a cross-grained curmudgeonly idiot’ he’d been to ever doubt John Walker’s integrity. Although this casts a shadow on idyllic island days, it almost visibly builds John’s character before his leadership skills are stretched by challenges set by Nancy. The other characters use their gifts to the full, Susan becoming the practical facilitator and Roger learning to be helpful. Titty is the one keen on diving for fish like a cormorant. She keeps the journal or ‘ship’s log’ and takes guidance from Robinson Crusoe that, ‘tells you what to do on an island’, being well-aware that missionaries could be eaten by cannibals. Although her active imagination is undervalued at first, she comes up with ideas that prove vital.
When the Swallows meet indigenous people of the area like the charcoal burners, they are both polite and respectful, taking an interest in traditional beliefs, such as keeping an adder under the bed for luck. Although Roger makes a bit of a gaff, saying Old Billy ‘doesn’t look much like a son’, the others take an interest in ‘savage’ language and culture.
The Swallow’s mother looks out for them constantly. She reprimands John and sets rules when he goes too far, ‘No more sailing at night’, but continually ensures they are provisioned and their needs met. It might not be expected, but there are battles to be won on the mission field. They are usually tricky, demanding timely action and often involving discomfort akin to sleeping in a dinghy moored by Cormorant Island. Interestingly, it is Titty, the littlest girl, who finds the strength and courage to also find the buried treasure and bring restitution.
‘What did the burglars do when they found the treasure had gone?’ one little girl in the cinema asked?
Quick as a flash, Marc Grimston of TARS EAST, who was in the audience, said, ‘Captain Flint carves a fish for them to find instead of the trunk.’ Repentant and forgiven himself, Jim Turner opts to convince the thieves of their guilt rather than report them to the police.
The great thing is, that whilst fishing from boats and weathering the storm, firm friendships are forged that take the Swallows and the Amazons on further adventures, even to the ends of the Earth. There is something inspirational about these that stories lead others to extend themselves, hoist their sails and live life to the full.
You can’t go out as a missionary expecting to convert the natives. You need to come alongside people who are hurting, find the key to their needs and help them use their God-given ability to fulfil their dreams. It can be scary and things won’t always go smoothly but you are usually warned of danger. There will be a need for strong leadership when times become testing but it should be fun. If you can gain people’s trust and hold on to the unity there will be celebration and feasting in the end.
The vicar, standing in the rain beside his bicycle, began to appreciate the parallels. You may find more. One thing is certain: there is something about the Swallows and Amazons series of books that enables adults to enjoy them as much as children. We can escape pressures of contemporary life and are inspired to fulfill our dreams, becoming all the good Lord wants us to be, doing all the things He has prepared us to do.
You may disagree completely, you may can find parallels in other Arthur Ransome books please write in, using the comments box below.
Duncan Hall of the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook wrote: ‘Of course, throughout (the series of Swallows and Amazons books) there are references to fictional and non-fictional adventures of exploration and discovery which historically sat with Empire, missions and trade as well as with piracy, etc. They do contrast with a political outlook that is clearly oppositional to those traditions. We always end up being impressed by savages (in the Lakes or the Walton backwaters) rather than hoping to civilise them. In Missee Lee, we obviously want to protect the location of the Three Islands, rather than send Daddy’s gunboats over there (despite the pretty monstrous business that Miss Lee presided over, we are convinced that the Brits destroying their way of life would be more monstrous still).
In my role as President of The Arthur Ransome Society, I was interviewed by Chris Opperman for a new documentary produced by David Webb on the Walton Backwaters, known by Arthur Ransome enthusiasts as ‘Secret Water’.
The 75 min DVD entitled ‘Walton’s Secret Backwaters’ is compatible with all DVD players displaying the DVD Video & PAL logo. It can be purchased online here
Chris Opperman, who chatted to me at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club on the Orwell, has sailed in the area for years. After a career in newspapers, he produced programmes for Radio 4 and the World Service before presenting the breakfast News and countryside documentaries on BBC Radio Suffolk.
As President of The Arthur Ransome Society, I represent the 1,000 or so members of the literary society devoted to the Swallows and Amazons books, including those set in East Anglia. There is usually a lot of flag flying since many members also sail. Swallow, the dinghy used in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has taken part in Swamazons events on the Walton Backwaters since she was renovated in 2011.
You can discover what it was like to appear in the movie, in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’, an illustrated paperback published by the Lutterworth Press. Although written for adults, it is suitable for all ages and quite fun for anyone interested in acting or keen on visiting the Lake District. It can be ordered online, from good bookshops or your local library. If you already have a copy, do add a review to the online sites or email a photo – it is always great to hear from readers.
The second edition of the ebook, entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’, is similar but includes a few more stories from the Lake District and links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It is out on Kindle, Smashwords, iTunes, Nook/Barnes&Noble from £2.99 If you already have the first edition you can re-load the up-dated version free of charge.
If you enjoyed the original film adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ broadcast on BBC Two today, do think of getting a copy of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, published by The Lutterworth Press or the ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’. You can read the first section for free on Kindle here. Quite fun!
It’s surprising ‘Swallows and Amazons’ hasn’t been re-made a number of times. The 1974 movie was sold all over the world and has been screened so often it’s become regarded as iconic, labelled ‘a cult classic’ or ‘enduring success’. You can listen to Wildfred Joseph’s film score here:
Thanks to Claude Whatham’s extraordinary skill in creating a period film that never dated, cinema audiences emerge asking if it was made last summer.
Although it was shot 45 years ago, fan mail still arrives from Australia, the USA and Japan. Families can quote David Wood’s script fluently, having watched the DVD thirty times or more. The biggest complement is that they talk of being ‘Titty-ish’ or ‘just like Titty’, the little girl whose imagination gave her the strength and courage to excel.
-A carefully made fan letter showing Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in 1974-
When I went to watch the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ being made on location, I warned the actors they were in for the long haul. Although the new adaptation has older children in the cast, and additions to the plot, it was heralded as a great British film, a landscape movie of significance about the thrill of exploring the great outdoors. Broadcast on BBC Two earlier this December and it is out on both Blu ray and DVD. For the Hanway Films billing of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 2016, please click here.
I don’t know if Swallows and Amazons thimbles are still on ebay
I am not sure Arthur Ransome’s Literary Estate know about them. They do recommend this pair of bone china coffee cups feature exquisite designs incorporating Arthur Ransome’s own illustrations from the Swallows and Amazons books and are currently reduced by 40% here:
You could give someone an activity, such as a sail in Swallow, the original dinghy used in the 1974 film ‘Swallows and Amazons’. She is currently in Kendal so you could ask to go sailing on Coniston or Windermere. This can be booked through SailRansome.com
A member of the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook is asking for a new DVD that has just come out on the location described by Arthur Ransome in his book ‘Secret Water’. It is available here.
Nothing to do with Swallows and Amazons but I have a short piece in this Christmas book, which might prove useful if you need to hold a carol service and are looking for some new readings. It makes a good present for anyone who loves stories. Check it out on Kindle, order a copy from your library or buy one online here.