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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Dan Travers and Sophie Neville in 2016 –

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

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

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

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch her interview here:

Interview with Virginia Mckenna

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

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

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

Launching the audiobook of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) narrated by Sophie Neville who played Able seaman Titty

In the long hot summer of 2022, I spent three days in a sound-proofed booth at Monkeynut Studios near Romsey narrating the audiobook of my memoir on the adventures we had making the 1974 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, now published in paperback by The Lutterworth Press. I found narrating the story, with all the different voices, more difficult than I had imagined but the audiobook has been beautifully produced, with sound adding a different dimension to this extraordinary filmography that resonates with the lives of so many.

Sophie Neville at Monkeynut Recording Studios

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:

The audiobook of The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville

Kobo have this deal:

Scribd stock it, along with a couple of articles from Practical Boat Owner, but I did not narrate those. It might be better to read them online.

You can listen to this true life story on audiobooks.com

It is also available on Google Play and from audiobookstore.com who have it on a special price here. This must be the American version:

Storytel have it for sale in rupees.

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.

Swallows and Amazons (1974) (c)StudioCanal

If you prefer holding a book in your hands the paperback is available from Waterstones and all online retailers.

How the chance of acting in the movie Swallows and Amazons began in Stroud in the Cotswolds

When I first published ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, someone left a review online saying they thought it a good idea for a novel but that it was a bit farfetched.

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.

Swallows and Amazons (1974) now distributed by StudioCanal

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.

Sophie Neville in the 1971 BBC adaptation of ‘Cider with Rosie’, directed by Claude Whatham

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.

Claude Whatham ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

But she did. We drove up from Gloucestershire to collect Dad from Heathrow and went straight to Shaftesbury Avenue 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 looking for children who could 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 Grendon as Roger and Sophie Neville as Titty rowing Swallow (c)StudioCanal

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.

Daphne Neville with Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Jane Grendon and Simon West

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.

Stephen Grendon as Roger Walker with Suzanna Hamilton on location in 1973

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.

Stephen Grendon, Simon West, Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville, trying not to look as tall as she was in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm
Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

Producer Richard Pilbrow with Neville C Thompson on Derwentwater in the Lake District in 1973
Producer Richard Pilbrow and Production Associate Neville C Thompson on Derwentwater in the Lake District in 1973

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.

Sophie Neville with Daphne Neville in the Lake District
Sophie Neville with Daphne Neville in the Lake District

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.

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island
Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville keeping her mouth shut ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

Sophie Neville as Titty

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.

Premier ticket for the Gala of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

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.

The ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue in 1974. It is now the Odeon Cinema.

Sister Allyne came. She didn’t flatter me but she was there.

Sister Allyne, Daphne Neville, Tamzin Neville and Sophie Neville

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 Hamilton playing Susan with Sophie Neville as Titty busy writing the ship’s log

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.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

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.

Sophie Neville speaking at The Arthur Ransome Society

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:

Sophie Neville's bow and arrows

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.

Discovering more about the film poster design for the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

Sophie Neville as Titty in 'Swallows and Amazons' (1974) by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu
Sophie Neville portrayed by Arnaldo Putzu

Who painted the film poster?

I have only just learned that it was the Italian artist Arnaldo Putzu.

Thomas Connery enlightened me, writing: ‘Whether it be Space 1999, The Railway Children, The Rollers or Jaimie Sommers, he always captured likeness’ of stars faithfully and remarkably accurately.’ 

I agree. He portrayed Virginia McKenna well. I wonder how large the original painting was and if any of the sketches have survived.

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

I have been given brown eyes and look a bit worried but am hugely honoured to have been featured at all. Kit Seymour looked far more cheery.

Kit Seymour as Nancy in ‘Swallows and Amazons’1974

A version of the artwork was used on cinema tickets, establishing the green parrot as one of the stars. I do like the way that Roger’s head looks out from the oval. This one gives Amazon a dark sail and shows the Amazons adopting different poses from on the poster. Nancy has folded arms and Peggy has her hands on her knees. Her stance is comic but a bit improbable. They have the wind behind them. What if the boat had gybed?

Premier ticket for the Gala of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

The ticket matched the souvenir programme for the film premier held in Shaftesbury Avenue on 4th April 1974. You can see inside this in an earlier post here.

Swallows and Amazons premier programme
The programme from the 1974 premier of the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’

I also have a large sepia poster given to my mother by a cinema. I can remember being too shy to ask for it, but she persevered. I haven’t seen another since.

As children, we all asked, ‘Who was sailing the boats?’ Magnus Smith, who now looks after Swallow, says that you can tie off the mainsheet and Susan could just about be controlling Swallow’s tiller, but Amazon looks a bit precarious. I don’t expect Arnaldo had any experience sailing dinghies. Ours were on a collision course, pitched at odd angles with rather high reefing points but he added a swashbuckling spirit, and a bit of white water spray, which is always exciting.

Swallows and Amazons (1974) sepia film poster (c) StudioCanal
Arnaldo Putzu’s poster for the EMI film Swallows & Amazons (1974)

Arnaldo Putzu (1927-2012) began working for Rank in the 1950s and moved to London in 1967. He worked on the advertising material for many iconic movies including That’ll Be The Day, featuring David Essex and Ringo Starr, which Claude Whatham directed in 1972 prior to working on Swallows and Amazons for EMI Films. Is that the cover of the LP in the right hand corner? Claude Whatham gave me a copy. It included the song ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’.

That'll be the Day -the film post by Arnaldo Putzu
Poster design by Arnaldo Putzu

This one is bordered by fairground lights, where as ours had been given the feel of a treasure map, with the credits on the reverse, which was clever. The original lettering, trendy in the mid-seventies, faded from fashion for a while but came back on-trend for the 40th Anniversary. The painting was somehow ageless, being used for the DVD cover up by StudioCanal until 2016. They still sell it as a jigsaw puzzle or on a mug.

According to The Guardian, ‘Putzu created some of the most famous Italian film posters of the 50s and early 60s, painting such stars as Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida.’ By 1973 ‘Putzu found himself the top-rated and most in-demand poster illustrator working in Britain. His output over the 1970s included oddball Hammer Horror fantasies such as Creatures the World Forgot and Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. For the Get Carter posters he put the ruthless gangster (played by) Michael Caine into an unlikely floral jacket, demonstrating the whimsical humour that makes his best posters unforgettable.’ An original of this poster signed by Michael Caine was once valued by Sotherby’s at between £4,000 to £6,000.

You can see more of of Putzu’s artwork here.

Lesley Bennett in 'Swallows and Amazons' (1974) by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu
Lesley Bennett in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy, still has her copy of the original film poster. She should probably get it signed by the actors. Others were pasted in London Underground stations, which I found alarming as a child.

Lesley Bennett who played Peggy in Swallows and Amazons 1974

I spied a framed poster on display at Windermere Jetty Steamboat museum, where it was featured on BBC Antiques Roadshow. There is more about the movie memorabilia, which was valued by the expert Marc Allum, here.

Swallows and Amazons film poster
Sophie Neville at Windermere Jetty museum in 2020

Some originals have been for sale on this site here. Studiocanal sell various prints here.

You can read about the adventures we had making the movie in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ and the multi-media ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ which retails for £2.99. You can ‘Look inside’ and read the first section for free here:

Swallows and Amazons, 1974 is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video where you can watch the film trailer. HotDog.com has a review of Amazon’s streaming service, including a 30-day free trial offer.

The Queen and members of the Royal Family who love ‘Swallows and Amazons’

HM Queen Elizabeth II was given Swallows and Amazons as a girl and, according to Arthur Ransome, ‘said very nice things’ about his books. He wrote to his mother saying that Queen Mary had purchased a copy of Swallows and Amazons in 1930. Elizabeth, The Queen Mother also ordered a set. Do they have first editions in the Royal Collection?

Titty’s chart

The Queen told the author Peter James that Swallows and Amazons was the first book she could remember reading. He has written about his time at Buckingham Palace meeting other authors here.

Archive photographs show The Queen at Girl Guides’ camp enjoying rowing and a Swallows and Amazons lifestyle, as you can see here. In this film clip, she looks a bit like Captain Nancy playing with her sister Peggy, a name that is short for Margaret:

Our late Queen kept a large flock of 200 racing pigeons at Sandringham all her life. This uncut Movietone footage shows the two princesses being shown a carrier pigeon. Could they have been influenced by Arthur Ransome’s book Pigeon Post?

In 1940, Claude Whatham, who went on to direct the original film of Swallows and Amazons, was commissioned by Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose to paint a series of pantomime pictures on the walls of Windsor Castle. One can presume they had a chat. I have just been asked to provide photos for a new documentary for Channel 5. You can read about this wartime story on a previous post of mine here. She loved appearing in the three pantomimes that they put on, when she played the principal boy.

Claude Whatham’s paintings at Windsor Castle

The Queen was able to visit Bowness-on-Windermere with the Duke of Edinburgh in 1956

She visited Coniston and Tarn Hows in 1980 and returned to Bowness-on- Windermere with the Princess Royal in 2013 when they took the Tern up to Ambleside.

I feel that the Queen would have enjoyed Ransome’s sense of humour. A few of the amusing things she said are captured here:

HM King Charles loved Swallows and Amazons as a boy. I’ve read that it was his favourite book. I met him when speaking about otter conservation but did not mention the fact I had played Titty in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons‘.

King Charles III speaking to Sophie Neville

HRH The Queen Consort has also expressed a love for Swallows and Amazons, recommending it on her Reading Room site as one of her top six books for children.

‘When asked what her favourite children’s books are, the Duchess revealed them to be Moorland Mousie by Golden Gorse… and Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome,’ which the Duchess described as “just a really good adventure story, full of a lot of imagination.” Hello magazine and Royal Central.

She also recalled her own experiences receiving new books as a child. “I still remember the intense excitement I felt as a child when choosing books to buy with my pocket money — Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons — and the joy of knowing that these precious books, clutched tightly in my hands, were my very own,” she wrote.

The Duchess of Cambridge cooking on a campfire in Cumbria

The Duchess of Cambridge is vaguely related to Arthur Ransome. His brother-in-law Hugo Lupton, was cousin to Kate’s great-grandmother Olive. You can read a little more here.

The Duke of Edinburgh endorsed what he called ‘the Swallows and Amazons spirit’. In 2014, Alan Hakim of The Arthur Ransome Society spotted a copy of The Big Six in his study aboard HMY Britannia. You can find a list of authors and well known people who love the books here.

Many thanks to members of the Arthur Ransome Group for help with this article.

Please add any more information in the comments below.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ by Sophie Neville

Authors who mention the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

People often write to say how much they have enjoyed the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (U) produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1974, currently streaming on Amazon Prime. It was last screened on Talking Pictures TV in December 2022 and is on Netflix in Europe, suitable for all ages.

‘Is it a good movie?’ people enquire of Google.

Helen Fielding mentions the DVD of Swallows & Amazons 1974 in the first edition of ‘Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy’ claiming it to be more edifying for her children to watch than ‘Beverley Hills Chihuahua 2‘.

Dame Margaret Drabble told Claude Whatham, the director, how much she loved Titty in his film of Swallows and Amzons, which was a huge compliment.

Sophie Neville as Titty in 1973

Elspeth Huxley CBE – author of thirty books including The Flame Trees of Thika – loved the 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons, reviewing it for The Tatler magazine under her married name, Elspeth Grant.

Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton appearing in The Tatler

There is specialist interest from a number of authors –

According to Kathryn Hughs in The Mail on Sunday BOOKS section, Robert Twigger ‘grew up in the 1970s obsessed with Swallows and Amazons’. He’s written 36 Islands: In Search of the Hidden Wonders of The Lake District… And a Few Other Things Too. It was well reviewed by Country Life.

Mail on Sunday - A homage to Swallows, Amazons and a girl with a rather rude name!

The arts curator David Banning profiled the 1974 movie of Swallows and Amazons in his book on films made in Cumbria and the Lake District, which you can see here.

Trevor Boult, who writes books on ships and sailing, is a great fan. He kindly donated the royalties from his most recent book Boats Yet Sailing to The Arthur Ransome Trust. You can order a copy direct from the publisher here.

For a list of well known people who love the Swallows and Amazons books, please click here

Do you know of any other authors who have written about the film? Please leave any information in the comments section, below.

Wilfred Joesph’s title music for ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

You can read the first section about how the film was made back in 1973, for free, on the Amazon preview of the ebook here:

Celebrities who love ‘Swallows and Amazons’

When Jonathan Cape first published Swallows and Amazons on 21st July 1930 for the price of 7/6d, it was eagerly received by numerous authors including JRR Tolkein and AA Milne. I’m often asked which well known people alive today have expressed an interest in Arthur Ransome’s series of books.

Griff Rhys Jones, who presented The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome using clips of the 1974 film of Swallows & Amazons in which I played Titty, joined me at Pin Mill in Suffolk for a marathon reading We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, the book that tells of the Swallows’ hair-raising voyage to Flushing. You can find Griff’s books here.

Griff Rhys Jones at Pin Mill for a reading of ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea’

John Sergeant, the veteran newscaster, has made a number of documentaries about Arthur Ransome, chatting to Griff on The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome, and The Secret Life of Books.

Geraint Lewis of The Arthur Ransome Trust sailing with John Sergeant

Ben Fogle interviewed Suzanna Hamilton and myself on Countryfile and Big Screen Britain after exploring the locations around Coniston Water. You can watch the episode here.

Ben Fogle interviewing Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville on Countryfile

Libby Purves, author and broadcaster, is now President of The Arthur Ransome Society. She refers to Swallows and Amazons in at least one of her novels.

Libby Purves afloat

A keen sailor, she also took part in the marathon reading of We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea organised by The Nancy Blackett Trust who own and look after the Goblin, the yacht portrayed in the story.

Libby Purves reading ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’

Dame Ellen McArthur, yachtswoman and Patron of The Nancy Blackett Trust, claims that Arthur Ransome’s novels inspired her to sail. She gives Swallows and Amazons a good mention in her book Taking on the World. Ellen was portrayed by Suzanna Hamilton in a Stephen Sharkey play at a festival at the Southall Playhouse. Suzanna played Susan Walker in the 1974 film of Swalllows and Amazons.

Sir Richard Branson often says how much he loved the book as a boy, describing it as, “a lovely kids’ adventure book.” He told The New York Times: “As a very young kid, I loved the Arthur Ransome novel Swallows and Amazons. It’s about a group of children having adventures in England. Now I read it to my grandkids. It’s a beautiful book.” I met Richard years ago when I worked on The Russell Harty Show. To may amazement, he recognised me when I was filming in the street in Kensington months later, so perhaps he has watched the original film of Swallows and Amazons.

John McCarthy, the journalist and keen sailor, made a radio programme called Paddling with Peter Duck, sailing Swallow, the dinghy featured in the 1974 film. You can sail her yourself via SailRansome.com

Peter Willis on Ransome’s yacht Nancy Blackett with Kevin Dawson and John McCarthy

Theresa May said she loves Swallows and Amazons. ‘When she was young she appears to have enjoyed reading… listing… Swallows and Amazons among her favourites.’ Mirror and Daily Mail She gave a copy to Baroness Davidson, once leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.

Dame Judi Dench also read the book as a girl: “…Swallows and Amazons, I remember that very well indeed.” Good Housekeeping

David Dimbleby loves gaff-rigged boats and recently helped with PR at the London Boat Show. He visited us on the set of the BBC Drama serial Swallows and Amazons For Ever! filmed on location in Norfolk.

Sophie Neville with David Dimbleby on location in Norfolk back in 1983

Sir Ben Ainslie ~ Steven Morris of the Guardian reports: “He recalled how he started sailing in Cornwall on the creeks around Falmouth as a boy. Ainslie has called it a Swallows and Amazons kind of childhood. He had friends on the other side of the creek so he sailed over to see them.”

Ben lived in Lymington – and came to our club to celebrate after the Olympics.  

Congratulating Ben Ainslie on his Olympic gold medal

Nikki Henderson, the youngest ever Clipper Around The World yachtswoman was inspired by the book Swallows and Amazons naming Swallow and one of the coolest sailing boats ever in Yachting World as reported by the Nancy Blackett Trust.

Alan Smith of BBC Radio 4, appeared as a boy in the scenes shot at Bowness. He was on location at the Haverthwaite Railway Station in May 1973 on the first day of filming Swallows and Amazons(1974) with Virginia McKenna who starred in the film as Mrs Walker. To read more, please click here.

Alan Smith in the doorway of the train with his friend John Eccles

Miranda Hart (Miranda, Call the Midwife, Not Going Out) “Oh, I love these wonderful stories about outdoor life in one of the most beautiful parts of our country – the Lake District. Camping, sailing, exploring, discovering – it’s still the stuff of dreams for me. My favourite character was Peggy. She was shy and a little nervy but always kept up with her sister, who was captain of their boat. It was rather like me and my sister; although I was the elder, I was the shyer one, and often had to rely on my little sis to do the grown-up things. And I have to say Peggy is my favourite character still, because that’s partly who my dog is named after. I love that this book celebrates the importance and joy of friendship. But above all it harks back to a time when children had to use nature and their imagination to have fun through the long summer holidays. No iPads on tap here. I hope it inspires kids and adults who may have forgotten about the bliss and thrill and beauty of nature to rediscover it.” You magazine.

The list continues in the next post here.

The end-title theme music to ‘Swallows and Amazons’ composed by Wilfred Josephs

You can read about The Making of Swallows and Amazons in paperback or on Kindle. The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons is available on all the ebook platforms. There is a review here.

The Making of Swallows and Amazons by Sophie Neville
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ by Sophie Neville

Sophie Neville interviewed by Jadzia Smeaton on The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)

Sophie Neville author of The Making of Swallows and Amazons
Sophie Neville

What is most memorable about the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for you?

I love exploring the places Arthur Ransome features in his stories. We were privileged to live out the pages of the book on location in the Lake District, but sailing in nothing but a short cotton dress and a pair of navy blue gym knickers was decidedly chilly – we earned our passage.

Would you consider Susan to be an influence on Titty within the story?

Susan made camping on the island possible. Suzanna Hamilton, the remarkable British actress who played Susan in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, became our rock without becoming prim or losing the joy and excitement of adventure. She went on to play leading roles in a number of major movies including ‘Out of Africa’ opposite Meryl Streep and ‘1984’ with John Hurt and Richard Burton. She is still working on cutting edge productions and recently had a guest appearance in ‘Eastenders’.

Time Out – April 1974

Is there anything you think should always be included in different versions of ‘Swallows and Amazons’?

You must feature the green parrot! It’s vital to enter the world of a 9-12 year old child, capturing the trepidation. It would be interesting to adapt Arthur Ransome’s books without featuring adults, or only including them as shadowy facilitators.

How did you feel about playing a part where you were able to be the cunning and playful younger sister?

In real life, I was the elder of three sisters so took on the roles of both John and Susan. Playing Titty felt something of a release. I was freed from the responsibility of taking the helm.

Titty is well-read and bright, creative and imaginative but I wouldn’t call her cunning. She longs to be alone on the island to experience what it was like to be Robinson Crusoe, which is why she volunteers to stay behind to light the candles, but is that a cunning plot? She is an innocent.

What was your favourite line in Swallows and Amazons?

Titty’s lines are challenging and can only be uttered with humour and an acceleration of charm. I rather enjoyed, ‘X marks the spot where we ate six missionaries’, although I don’t think it can be found in the book. ‘Thank you so much for letting us see your lovely serpent’ would probably be disallowed these days.

Did you have a favourite scene?

Finding the lighthouse tree was a short sequence that worked well. We shot it on the banks of Derwentwater towards the end of the filming. But I most enjoyed our day with the charcoal burners. They were wonderful.

What did you enjoy most about filming in the Lake District?

We loved High Force, the waterfall, and exploring the mossy woodlands. Secret Harbour on Peel Island is very special, as is One Tree Island where we found the treasure.

Do you feel that you and your character influenced children?

Even now, nearly 48 years after the film was released, I receive correspondence from people telling me how the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ influenced their lives or helped carry them through a tough patch. It is always wonderful to hear how Titty has inspired others.

Maurice Thomas who used to live in Cockermouth wrote: ‘My mum and my Auntie Gladys took me to see this little children’s flick in 1974/5 as it was a double bill with ‘The Railway Children‘. I remember ‘The Railway Children‘ reasonably fondly, but ‘Swallows & Amazons‘ had me utterly mesmerised.’

If you were to give any advice to actors wanting to perform in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ what would it be?

Visit the locations. Go to Bank Ground Farm and run, fast, down the field to dip your hands in the lake as Arthur Ransome did as a child. Capture that feeling and carry it with you as you sing out the lines.

And be prepared for the impact the story will have. It could follow you all your life.

To read another recent interview with Authors Reach please click here

If you would like to read more about the secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons, you can ‘Look inside’ the ebook free of charge here:

Titty’s Tooth in The Times

Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville – trying to row with her mouth shut.

The story of my missing tooth published in The Times! A great honour. The indignity of being toothless still rankles but I now have a full set.

You can find the whole story on The Nancy Blackett Trust website

It’s possible to spot the gap by watching the film trailer for the 1974 movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with further information on the International movie data base also seen here:

Sophie Neville, aged 12, without tooth. Suzanna Hamilton, aged 12, with beautiful teeth.

50th Anniversary of the 1971 BBC play ‘Cider With Rosie’ directed by Claude Whatham

Christmas Day 2021 marked the 50th Anniversary of the first BBC adaptation of Laurie Lee’s evocative book ‘Cider With Rosie‘, a story that tells of growing up in rural Gloucestershire before the combustion engine destroyed rural life as it had been led for centuries.

Sophie Neville playing Eileen Brown

First published in 1969, the memoir sold six million copies. The 1971 BBC play was screened in the UK, France, West Germany and Japan, becoming regarded as an avant garde, ground-breaking drama that received four BAFTA nominations – Best Script: Hugh Whitemore Best Actress: Rosemary Leach, who played Mrs Lee Best Design: Eileen Diss Best Drama Production: Claude Whatham

And I was in it, as a girl, playing the part of an urchin who could play the piano called Miss Eileen Brown. We were able to use the original village school in Slad as the location for both the classrooms and parochial Christmas concert. I can almost smell the chalk and dusty books mixed with hairspray used by the crew to limit unwanted reflections or dirty-up anything that looked smart and new.

As we ran out into the school yard, which was tiny, the director, Claude Whatham asked if any of us knew any skipping chants. No one said anything. I had been to a village school nearby and knew loads but was too shy to chant them. What a regret.

We used Laurie Lee’s village school in Slad as a location

It was June 1971. We had glorious weather. Prolific wildflowers made the drama special. I remember a bunch of buttercups standing in a classroom window. My scenes were set in 1925, when Laurie Lee was aged about eleven. I was used to having my hair tied in bunches but not up in hair ribbons. It felt strange. I wasn’t very happy about my dress, which was itchy and didn’t fit well. The costume designer assured me that Eileen would have only possessed one dress in real life. I was well aware that it would have been a hand-me-down, as were the boots.

Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham in Slad, 1971

The classroom scenes demanded little of me, I simply sat next to ‘Laurie Lee’ and reacted to the violence exhibited by the teacher. My challenge was that I had to play the accompaniment to ‘Oh Danny Boy’ on the piano. Laurie Lee had to play the violin but the boy playing him was given a double. I had to practice six hours a day, for three days, to get it right. In the end the director said, “Do you think you could play a little faster?”

“These are crotchets,” I said. “They don’t go any faster.”

The result is agonizing but authentic and brought tears to Rosemary Leach’s eyes. The author, Laurie Lee, who still had a cottage in Slad at the time, told my mother that Eileen Brown was the first girl he fell in love with, which was daunting but all this entailed was having to smile.

Sophie Neville with Philip Hawkes as Laurie Lee

My mother appeared in dream sequence, aged 34, looking beautiful in a neatly starched uniform, playing a housemaid when Mrs Lee remembered working with lovely things in a great house. Laurie Lee appeared as himself wearing tweeds – right at the end.

Two years later, in 1973, Claude cast Sten Grendon, who played Little Laurie Lee, as Roger Walker in the Theatre Projects/EMI movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’. He chose me to play his elder sister, Titty.

Sten Grendon with Claude Whatham

The actors John Franklyn-Robbins and Mike Pratt also appeared in both dramas. I didn’t remember this until I looked up the credits on IMDb years later. In 1983, I worked with Rosemary Leach in Norfolk on the BBC adaptation of ‘Coot Club’, when she played Mrs Barrable. I met up with the designer Michael Howells who had a small part as one of Laurie Lee’s elder half-brothers. Both have sadly died. All these amazing actors have sadly passed away, but were captured on film at their most vital.

The film score of Swallows and Amazons (1974) was composed by Wilfred Josephs who also wrote the haunting theme music for Cider with Rosie (1971). You can listen to it here:

The closing title music can be found here:


You can read an earlier article I wrote about appearing in Cider With Rosie (1971) on my other blog here and read more about Claude Whatham’s career here.

Claude Whatham ~ photo: Daphne Neville

This item presented by Paul Martin includes a clip of a black and white BBC documentary made with Lauri Lee in 1960 outside the school where we shot the drama. According to his biographer, he said of Rosie, ‘She was someone, she was no one, she was anyone.’

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