Category Archives: Claude Whatham

Alison Hull interviews Sophie Neville on her involvement with the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Signing copies of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ in Cumbria

1 – How did you get the part of Titty?

In March 1973, a letter arrived, out of the blue, inviting me to audition for a role in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I was twelve years old, an ordinary school girl at a convent in Berkshire. I’d read the Arthur Ransome books but had no idea I was up for the lead in a major EMI feature film intended for a universal international audience. The movie was directed by Claude Whatham. Back in 1970, he’d cast me as Eileen Brown, opposite a boy playing Laurie Lee, in the BBC’s first adaptation of ‘Cider With Rosie’. It was a role that demanded learning a piano piece so complicated it took twenty-one hours to master, but I did it. Claude must have respected my hard work. I was too tall to play Titty but, after a sailing audition at Burnham-on-Crouch, I was offered the part. He cast Sten Grendon, who’d played the young Laurie Lee, as Roger, Suzanna Hamilton was Susan and Virginia McKenna starred as our mother. She later admitted to finding her character rather dull but it was her name, in lights outside cinemas, that drew big audiences. We’ve kept in touch. She is still acting, aged 87, and has led the Born Free Foundation’s international campaign to redeem the lives of wild animals held in miserable conditions since 1998.

With Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, in 1973 

2 – Why was it so suitable for you?

We loved visiting the Lake District as a family. My father helped the Maryport Button Factory with their publicity and once took us to stay on a farm near Castle Craig above the River Derwent. I spent my childhood camping and messing about in boats, adding a sail made from a dust-sheet to an old rowing skiff. The great thing about the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was that Simon West, who played Captain John, was an exceptional sailor. He went on to become a national champion. Kit Seymour, who played Captain Nancy, also had a natural command of the waves. It shows on screen. They were able to handle our small boats when squalls rolled down from the fells. I didn’t have their innate understanding of the wind but it was Titty’s job to row everywhere – back from the charcoal burners and off to One Tree Island on Derwentwater. “Pull harder, Roger!” I managed to row Amazon out of Secret Harbour in one take, with the cameraman and a massive 35mm Panavision Camera on board.

The Swallows voyage to Wild Cat IslandSimon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville in Swallow, 1973

Casting-off Swallow was more of a challenge. It doesn’t show on a small screen, but when ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is screened in cinemas, you can spot the sequence when I slip on a rock with the telescope in one hand. I was up to my waist in water but got back on my feet and battled on, waving as the others sailed up Coniston Water. I knew how difficult the shot was to achieve and was desperate to do my best for Claude Whatham.

Standing on Peel Island in a soaking wet dress while the Swallows sailed north

3 – Did it fire your wish to work in TV?

No! It was directing plays while reading Anthropology at Durham University that ignited a desire to work on television dramas. However, the experienced I’d gained acting in movies helped me win a place on the BBC TV Graduate Trainee scheme. After working on ‘The Russell Harty Show’, I grabbed the chance to cast children on the adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads: ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. I found Henry Dimbleby, then aged thirteen, to play the lead and spent three months on location with Julian Fellowes and Rosemary Leach – who I’d met when she played Laurie Lee’s mother. I later worked on ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Eastenders’ and ‘My Family and Other Animals’, before producing an INSET series, directing one episode at a village school in Cumbria. I began casting children in the Lake District to appear in BBC adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s Lakeland books but they were axed, which was sad, as we were all set to make ‘Swallowdale’ and ‘Pigeon Post’ on the high moors.

Sophie Neville directing a drama-doc with BBC cameraman Lorraine Smith

4 – What does the Lake District in general, and Keswick in particular, mean to you?

We live on the south coast but take the train north at any opportunity. I’m now President of The Arthur Ransome Society and came up for a fabulous weekend in May when we sailed from the jetty at Bank Ground Farm – Holly Howe in Ransome’s books. I gave an illustrated talk on the secrets of making ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at the Bassenthwaite Institute, using behind-the-scenes photographs taken when we were filming on Derwentwater forty-five years ago. We shot all the scenes involving Captain Flint’s Houseboat in a bay on the western shore. She was played by the Lady Derwentwater, converted for the drama by Ian Whittaker, a talented young set dresser who went on to win an Oscar for set decoration on the feature film ‘Howards End’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. We shot the lighthouse tree scenes near Friar’s Craig and used Lingholme or One Tree Island for Cormorant Island, where Titty finds the treasure chest. We enjoyed making Ronald Fraser, the film actor playing Captain Flint, walk the plank and sailed up Derwentwater to the strains of ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor’, played as the end credits roll. Forty years later, Suzanna Hamilton and I were asked to lunch with Richard Pilbrow the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Buskers were singing this song outside the restaurant in Covent Garden. We couldn’t believe the coincidence.

Meeting fans of Swallows and Amazons at Keswick in July

I meet people from far and wide who tell me the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ inspired them to visit the Lake District. It has been broadcast on television every year for the last forty years and was last shown in Australia on Boxing Day. It has been dubbed into Czech twice and is often shown at festivals as only ‘U’ certificate movies can be screened outdoors. I just hope this has proved a blessing to the people of Keswick, which I so loved visiting as a child. I thought the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – that I appear in for approximately two seconds – would overshadow the classic version but it has simply raised awareness along with DVD sales. Fan mail continues to arrive. A beautiful card came today. Arthur Ransome would have been touched. It had fish on it.

Funnily Enough - the first extract in iBelieve Magazine

Editorial coverage and a literary award for ‘Funnily Enough’

5 – Do you want to mention mental health/physical health issues are always in the news?

I find that many of my readers are stuck in bed or battling with ill-health. I hope they are amused and uplifted in some way by stories in my books. ‘Funnily Enough’, a diary I kept after collapsing at the BBC, is about my own struggle with what I am pretty sure was a tick-bourne disease. I lost my job but recovered in Southern Africa, where I fulfilled Titty’s dream of seeing “forests full of parrots” and produced decorative maps for a living, inspired by Spurrier’s illustration on the original cover of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I used maps and details from my sketchbook to illustrate a paperback entitled, ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’, which is out in colour as an ebook.

On the crew of the Gloriana in the Boat Race Flotilla in March featured on BBC Television 

6 – What else?

People often ask how ‘Swallows and Amazons’ influenced my life, keen to know what I am doing now. I am still keen on rowing. I completed the Voga Longa, a 32 kilometre marathon through the Venetian lagoon with Olympic gold medallist Ed Code and was on the crew of The Queen’s row barge Gloriana for the Boat Race Flotilla this year. This summer, I grabbed the chance to row through the canals of Amsterdam, which was fascinating. However, it was the Amazons bows and arrows that impacted my life. After learning to shoot on the shores of Coniston Water, I was cast as an archery champion in another movie and have since won three Ladies Championships. I met my husband at an archery match. My stepson shot for England in July, winning a tri-annual match against the Royal Company of Archers (so proud!) I gave a talk recently demonstrating how the arrows in ‘Swallows and Amazons were’ fired over my head. The shot looks so dangerous that it was cut from the TV version of the film, but is included in the re-mastered 40th Anniversary cinema Blu-ray version, which we are now able to watch on the big screen.

Rowing in from De Hoop Rowing Club in Amsterdam, July 2018

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‘I Chaperoned Six Film Stars’ Daphne Neville’s memories of making the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 part three

Daphne Neville in about 1973

Daphne Neville in about 1973

I clearly remember my mother winding carbon paper into the roller of her portable typewriter and bashing out articles. Ping! the bell would ring as she reached the end of a line. She would then pull left on a shiny paddle, with relish, to begin a new paragraph. She seemed to type like the wind, it was only a pity she didn’t write more. Was it more time-consuming when making changes was so laborious and a dictionary needed to be flicked through to check spelling? I was forever pouring through a thesaurus and looking for reference books in libraries as a child in the ‘seventies but find computers seems to steal more time.

Sophie Neville with the cast of Swallows

~The photograph that illustrated an article in Woman magazine taken at the Commonwealth Institute in 1974~

Here is the second part of the article Mum wrote for Woman magazine when the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was screened in cinemas around the country in April 1974. Earlier pages can be read in a previous post here and there is also a programme she wrote for BBC Radio Bristol on the same subject here.

Jean McGill, Jane Grendon, Sten Grendon, Kit Seymour, Sophie Neville, Claude Whatham, Simon West, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Ronnie Cogan, 1973

Daphne Neville giving Lesley Bennett (Peggy Blackett) archery lessons, 1973

The Saucepan and her mother, Daphne Neville in 1973

Terry Smith, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville on location in the Lake District

Wardrobe Master Terry Smith with Sophie Neville and her mother Daphne Neville outside the Make-up caravan on location near Keswick in Cumbria

I’d forgotton that Kit was sent half a Birthday cake but do remember Ronnie Fraser arrived at her party quite tiddly. I am amused to learn we finally left Oaklands Guest House with fifty peices of luggage but I still have a hazel bow and arrow set, which I don’t expect ever fitted into a suitcase.

Please let me know if you would like to see old scripts and letters relating to the original publicity for the film, kept in my mother’s archives.

To read more about Daphne Neville’s adventures in film and television please click here

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‘Swallows and Amazons’ in Keswick

This summer marked the 45th Anniversary of filming the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater when Ronald Fraser was obliged to walk the plank in a solar topi in July 1973.

Ronald Fraser walking the plank

To celebrate the anniversary, Sophie Neville, who played Titty, introduced a screening of the 1974 film at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick on Saturday 28th July.

Captain Flint having walked the plank

She demonstrated how one of the visual effects was achieved and signed copies of her book ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ after a Q&A.

‘I brought one of the original arrows that the Amazon pirates fired over my head. It looks so dangerous on film that the shot was cut from the television version but is included in the re-mastered cinemascope edition that we are now able to watch on the big screen. You might be able to spot a few other things that went wrong while we were filming, such as the time I inadvertently slipped up to my waist in water.’
‘The elegant Lakeland steamer, the Lady Derwentwater, had the starring role as Captain Flint’s houseboat. She was adapted for the part by the award-winning set designer Ian Whittaker, who went on to receive an Oscar for Best Art Direction on ‘Howards End’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. His astonishing list of nominations can been seen here
Swallow, the 1930s sailing dinghy used in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was at the lakeside for Arthur Ransome enthusiasts to admire. She is looked after by Rob Boden, from Kendal, who is happy to take people for a sail by prior arrangement via the SailRansome website here.

Secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons

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‘I chaperoned six film stars’ my mother’s memories of working on the 1974 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’-Part Two

Daphne Neville presenting 'Women Only'1

In 1974, my mother, Daphne Neville, was commissioned to write an article about working on the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for Woman magazine, which claimed to be ‘The world’s greatest weekly for women’. Here are some extracts from her type script:

Simon West, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville playing the Walker children in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 1973 ~photo: Daphne Neville

 

Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville and Simon West on Coniston Water

Our guests: Jane, Michael, Clare and Lucy Selby and their dog, Minnie on the shore of Conniston Water with my sisters Perry and Tamzin in 1973

I was amazed to read some of this. ‘….a dirth of birds’? Was that really how my mother spoke in the early ‘Seventies? I had no recollection that ‘Nomansland’ had been displayed on the front of our double-decker bus. I never remembered there only being bathroom at Oaklands Guesthouse or that Mum had to wash out clothes. I do remember Ronald Fraser shouting, ‘Piss off you little monster’.  I have the photo:

Sten Grendon irriating Ronnie Fraser

Sten Grendon sitting on top of Ronald Fraser during a break in the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

More to follow…. If you would like to see photos of Daphne Neville appearing in movies hereself, please click here

If you would like to read about what we did on 10th July 1973 – 45 years ago please click here

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‘I Chaperoned Six Film Stars’ – Daphne Neville’s memories of working behind-the-scenes on the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 45 years ago.

My mother is a squirrel. She arrived at my house, not with nuts, but a large envelope. Amongst other things, this contained the transcript of a piece she wrote almost forty-five years ago for BBC Radio Bristol, when she presented a programme called ‘Come Alive’.  The four flimsy sheets of copy paper have only just been unearthed, along with a similar article for Woman magazine.

Daphne Neville was commissioned to write about her experience working on the original feature film, Swallows and Amazons, filmed on location in the Lake District in the summer of 1973 and brought to cinemas in 1974. Sold worldwide, has been broadcast on television for the last forty years and was last shown on TV in Australia on Boxing Day.

Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville while filming 'Swallows and Amazons' in Cumbria

Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville while filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

It is interesting to have Mum’s perspective. Some of the details are new to me. She timed this piece for BBC Radio as taking ‘8 minutes’ to read:

Suzanna Hamilton, Lesley Bennett, Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour and Simon West before their hair was cut for the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Daphne Neville Chaperone

~ On Derwentwater in 1973: Suzannah Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Daphne Neville, Sten Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Lesley Bennett ~ photo: Martin Neville

'Swallows and Amazons'(1974) Daphne Neville with Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, fellow chaperone, Jane Grendon and Simon West on location in 1973

Daphne Neville with Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, fellow chaperone, Jane Grendon and Simon West on location in 1973

A Day Off in Blackpool - Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville kneeling at Blackpool funfair in 1973

Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville kneeling at Blackpool fun fair in 1973

But Mum, were we ever ‘Film Stars’?

We scowled at the terminology at the time. Ten years later and I thought of us a merely puppets, marionettes of the director who carefully honed our performances. I can now see the contribution we made when I watch the film, but we were never film stars.

What do I wish? I wish that we’d been able to make a sequel and develop our work more fully. The flip-side of this would have been that any more success, or more publicity, might have stripped us of our anonymity, which is the bain of real film stars. We’d have had to go around wearing sunglasses.

The film star Ronald Fraser with Daphne Neville and Sophie Neville in 1973

If you would like to see what we were filming 45 years ago, on 1st July 1973, please click here.

Let me know if you would like to see more archive material. I have the draft of my mother’s article for Woman magazine – it’s a different version of the same but with added detail. She needed permission from Anglo EMI Film Distributors before it could be published. There is also a draft of another radio script and a number of letters. If you would like to see vintage photos of Mum appearing on television herself, please click here

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Longing to add more stories to ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’

Almost as soon as we published the second edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ in May 2017, a number of facts and stories washed up on the incoming tide. I didn’t know that Ransome was aged twelve – Captain John’s age – when he first met the Collingwood family on Peel Island. I knew he went to Rugby School but not that he was given the study once used by the English author Lewis Carroll. I’m not sure if that inspired him to write children’s books but he certainly borrowed the term galumphing from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

~ Lewis Carroll’s plaque at Rugby School ~

I never knew that Rusland, where Arthur and Evgenia Ransome lie buried at St Paul’s Church, is also a name for Russia, where of course they met in what was then Petrograd when Evgenia was working as Leon Troski’s private secretary. Thanks to the feature writer Maggie Dickenson, I’ve learned that this kneeler at St Paul’s was embroidered by Jean Hopkins:

Cross flags at Rusland Church where the Ransomes are buried - photo Sophie Neville

Brian Crawley has just written in to say that, in 1973, our visit to the charcoal burners was filmed less than a mile to the west of the church in Glass Knott Wood. I gather the remains of the wig-wam’s fireplace can still be seen. I didn’t know it was so close, and just assumed we had been in the Grizedale Forest. I’ll have to add it to my map!

The Russian edition of Swallows and Amazons, that can be borrowed from The Arthur Ransome Society library, has proved a great source of reference. Donated by the Gatchina Library it is the only copy in the UK. I learnt from the comments at the back that the Black Jack is a pirate flag, which I’ve always called a Jolly Roger, and that ‘in one’s mind’s eye’ is an expression used by William Shakespeare in Hamlet. “Tip us a stave” means “give us a song”, a term used in Treasure Island.

Other flotsam and jetsam on my tide-line  is  a wonderful quote to accompany this behind-the-scenes photograph when re-reading Winter Holiday written by Arthur Ransome in 1933:

What’s in that box?” asked Roger.

It’s just about big enough for you, isn’t it?” said Captain Flint.

Sten Grendon in the camera box~ Sten Grendon playing Roger in the Panavision camera box in 1974~

A member of the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook commented on how annoying it was that Ronald Fraser made a funny face when he first sipped the tea Suzanna Hamilton offered him. Captain Flint ALWAYS enjoyed Susan’s tea.

Contact sheet - Ronald Fraser with Lesley Bennett

There was some discussion amongst members of the same Arthur Ransome Group about how female characters depicted in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Eddie Castellan wrote: Ransome is remarkably non-sexist for his era and remains so by today’s standards. Mind you, most great storytellers realise that weak female characters are simply dull… great storytellers seem to give women better roles than mediocre ones.’ 

Contact sheet - Claude Whatham directing on the houseboat

Fionna Grant added: Arthur Ransome had a range of roles for his female characters from Nancy to Susan to Titty…. not only represented, but honoured for their contribution to the group… All the kids in Swallows and Amazons are encouraged to learn through achievement but they are also allowed to choose their own path, follow their own interests.

Contact sheet - Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville on Cormorant Island

At a talk given about the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen given by Simon Browne, at a meeting of The Arthur Ransome Society, we were given a definition of the word Hero: one who combats adversity through integrity, bravery or strength, often sacrificing personal concerns for the greater good.

Titty was brave but all she really did was to grab a chance to swipe Amazon. It meant she had to sleep on board, which was rather uncomfortable, but what made Titty a true heroine in the film was her determination and persistence: she woke up early and persuaded Roger to help her find the treasure hidden on Cormorant Island. Like Ransome himself, she was prepared to grab a chance, take a risk – even if it meant being cold and uncomfortable for a while.

Contact sheet - blurred images of Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville rowing to Cormorant Island

I received another lovely note on Facebook from Zena Ashberry (nee Khan) who appeared as a film extra in the Rio scenes shot at Bowness-on-Windermere when she was a little girl, despite being of half-Asian descent:

‘I was nine at the time and my sister was eight. I remember going through an audition – which was really just a panel of three or four men looking at Mum, my sister and me to see if we would be in keeping with the ‘look’ of the film. They seemed very keen on having Mum. My sister, at the time had sandy coloured hair and so was not at all problematic, however I was very dark and because they wanted Mum they said that they could hide ‘it’ by putting me in a white dress and hat! How times have changed…obviously I remember other things too, like feeding the horses which pulled the open carriage and the horse standing on my foot oouuch!, the strange awkwardness of having to act ‘naturally’ whilst being watched through a camera, having to repeatedly carry out the same activity to ensure a good shot – how many times did we throw stones into the lake? The ice-cream tricycle with real ice cream mmmm a treat … being watched by crowds of tourists gathered along the footpath and flower beds. It was a strange and unreal experience, doing what as children we would normally do but doing it in ‘dressy-up’ clothes that weren’t from our own dressy -up box and playing the game with Mum and her friends with total strangers telling us what we should do…just a bit bewildering really, but funny in retrospect.’

Contact sheet - Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton night sailing

Please let me know if you have any points of interest that I could add to ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ that you think might of interest to readers. The great thing about ebooks is that they can be updated and re-loaded free of charge.

I’m going to be giving a number of talks on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ this summer. Please click here for details.

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Out of the archives: a 1974 script for a BBC Radio Bristol show about the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’

Swallow and Amazon sailing on Derwentwater in the Lake District 1973

When the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ first came out in cinemas it stirred up quite a bit of interest in the media.

This script for a programme made for BBC Radio Bristol has recently been discovered in a box in my mother’s attic. Typical of the early ‘seventies, it is a carbon copy, so is rather feint, but it a little bit of media history in itself:


It’s intriguing. What did we say in the interviews that they ran in?

Sadly, two of the first newspaper reviews of the movie were not complimentary. Last year, when interviewed by Tim Fenton at Pin Mill on the Orwell, Professor Hugh Brogan said that one of these articles was so ignorant and so angered him that he resolved to write the truth about Ransome’s distinguished career. This involved years of research but resulted in his biography, ‘The Life of Arthur Ransome’.

I haven’t been able to find the article Hugh read but he remembered it being ignorant of Arthur Ransome’s politics rather than the film. His beautifully written book sparked an enormous amount of additional research and television documentaries, including ‘The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome’, which can be viewed on iPlayer.

Since The Lutterworth Press published the seconded edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ in May last year, a number of other stories and facts have reached me. I’ve learned that the creamy yellow taxi in which the Walker family arrived at Holly Howe was a Vauxhall 20/60 R type saloon, 1928 – 1930 model hired for the film by the property buyer Ron Baker, whose name I must add to the credits. When the Altounyan children stayed at the same farmhouse, which in reality is called Bank Ground Farm, their hostess was called Mrs Jolly. Apparently her husband, Mr Jolly, did not live up to his name.

The lady in blue who waved from the deck of MV Tern after the Swallow’s near miss was played by Lorna Khan. Here she is with her daughter Zena and a yellow Austin Heavy 12/4 tourer, after they appeared in the Rio scenes. You can see other film extras and supporting artists in 1929 costume, patiently sitting in the Browns of Ambleside coach behind them.

 Photograph (c) Zena Ashbury

Did you know that missionaries in Africa used semaphore? Until I read a Russian edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ I’m afraid I didn’t know that Darien was the former name of the Isthmus of Panama, that the Rio Grande flows from South Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico or that ‘Shiver my timbers’ was a curse used by R. L Stephenson in Treasure Island.

Nick Owen had been living at Elterwater for seventeen years before he learnt the fishing scene from ‘Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ was shot there.

It had not occurred to me that the film was recorded in the annals until I was sent this excerpt from the third edition of ‘Time Out Film Guide’ (1993). Perhaps I should bring out a third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’.

Please let me know if you would like to see more archive material from the attic.

To read more about Cider With Rosie (1971) directed by Claude Whatham, starring Sten Grendon as Laurie Lee please click here

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Meeting up with Mate Peggy from the 1974 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – part three

Lesley Bennett as Peggy in 1974

~Lesley Bennett playing Mate Peggy in 1974 (copyright:StudioCanal)~

When I met up with Lesley Bennett in the Netherlands this summer, she kindly allowed me to take copies of the snaps she took while filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on location in the Lake District in the summer of 1973.

Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett in life jackets~Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett in 1973 (photo: Lesley Bennett)~

The shot above shows Lesley with Kit Seymour, who played her elder sister Nancy Blackett, wearing blue tracksuits and BOAC life-vests over their costumes. I instantly recognised that they were sitting on the east shore of Coniston Water waiting to cross over to Peel Island. Lesley is wearing Peggy Blackett’s distinctive red-stocking hat. We never saw the life-jackets inflated.

Lesely Bennett's photo of the double decker buses at Bank Ground Farm in 1973~Old London Routemaster buses in 1973 (photo: Lesley Bennett)~

Throughout the seven weeks filming, we children were obliged to continue with our schooling. The law stipulated that we completed at least three hours of lessons a day. These were given to us by a local supply teacher, our tutor Margaret Causey, in the bottom of a converted Routemaster bus. We changed into our costumes on the top deck where there were six bunk beds. My mother made me take a rest after lunch. Lesley, who at thirteen, was a year older than me, was allowed out to play.

The other double-decker bus, seen here parked behind Mrs Batty’s barn at Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, had been fitted out with tables and was used as a dinning room where the film crew could shelter from the rain. They took their lunch on trays from the caterers’ van manned by chef John Englewood and his assistant Margaret Wells from Pinewood Studios. We only had a few scenes with a large number of film extras, but these were recorded on sunny days when nobody needed to eat in the buses.

Lesley's photo of Jane Grendon at Rio~Behind the scenes in Bowness in 1973 (photo: Lesley Bennett)~

Lesley managed to take this shot of our chaperone, Jane Grendon, dressed in 1929 costume. This was not only fun but enabled her to look after children taking part in the Rio scenes shot at Bowness-on-Windemere while appearing in vision herself.

IMG_4969~Bowness Bandstand in 1973 (photo: Lesley Bennett)~

The Price family ran Oaklands Guesthouse in Ambleside where Lesley and I stayed for the duration of the filming, along with the other children in the cast. Jane Price and her brothers can be seen here with the Kendal Borough Band playing beyond them wearing their own period uniforms. Mr Price, who looked quite snazzy in his striped blazer, played the part of the native on the jetty who said, ‘That’s a nice little boat you’ve got there.’ If you do not remember this it’s because the scene was cut from the television version, although it remains in the 40th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray that is widely available. Sadly the bandstand no longer exists and has been replaced by a modern shelter.

Zena Ashberry also took part as a film extra in these scenes when she was a girl. Her maiden name was Khan and although she lived in Cumbria her father originated from the sub-continent. She wrote in saying:

I was nine at the time and my sister was eight. I remember going through an audition – which was really just a panel of three or four men looking at Mum, my sister and me to see if we would be in keeping with the ‘look’ of the film. They seemed very keen on having Mum. My sister, at the time had sandy coloured hair and so was not at all problematic, however I was very dark and because they wanted Mum they said that they could hide ‘it’ by putting me in a white dress and hat! how times have changed…obviously I remember other things too, like feeding the horses which pulled the open carriage and the horse standing on my foot oouuch!, the strange awkwardness of having to act ‘naturally’ whilst being watched through a camera, having to repeatedly carry out the same activity to ensure a good shot – how many times did we throw stones into the lake? The ice-cream tricycle with real ice cream mmmm a treat … being watched by crowds of tourists gathered along the footpath and flower beds. It was a strange and unreal experience, doing what as children we would normally do but doing it in ‘dressy-up’ clothes that weren’t from our own dressy -up box and playing the game with Mum and her friends with total strangers telling us what we should do…just a bit bewildering really, but funny in retrospect.

Zena Ashberry's photo of Rio

~filming in Bowness in 1973 (photo: Zena Khan)~

Zena kept this photo which shows the ice cream seller, Jane Grendon in her blue costume, possibly her daughter Jo Grendon in turquoise shorts and Michael Grendon along with the 35mm Panavision camera and film crew on the jetty where Swallow is moored to the right of frame. I don’t know who the lady in red can be – but do write in if you know!

For previous posts about filming in Bowness-on-Windermere that day, please click here

You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’, which can be ordered from your local library.

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Meeting up with Peggy Blackett – from the film ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974)

Lesley Bennett in 1973

When the original feature film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ was made in 1973, Peggy Blackett was played by Lesley Bennett. She can be seen here on location at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District.

For the last thirty-four years, Lesley has been living in the Netherlands. I met up with her for lunch at Schiphol Airport on my way back from sailing Arthur Ransome’s cutter, the Nancy Blackett, through the inland waterways of Zeeland. (Please see the last two previous posts.) I nearly didn’t make the meeting. A man had been arrested for planting a bomb on a train just north of Middleberg, but the authorities must have acted quickly as I wasn’t delayed for long.

Lesley had brought along a blue file of documents and a number of black and white movie stills that she’d been given by Richard Pilbrow, the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on one of our last days in Ambleside after filming had finished. We could both remember them spread out on a table at the unit hotel so we could each chose the ones we appeared in. I had picked one where Lesley and I are sitting together, our hair bobbed in line with the 1930’s, I wearing a cream silk dress, Lesley in a dark top looking very pretty:

With Virginia McKenna on the first day of filming

~A publicity shot featuring Virginia McKenna, with Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton, published in the Guardian and other newspapers~

Lesley’s parents, who lived near Tonbridge in Kent, originally learnt that Theatre Projects were looking for children to take part in the film when the Associate Producer, Neville Thompson, wrote to their local sailing club. Lesley explained that her father, who was very well organised, kept a copy of the letter sent to the Secretary of the club in January 1973.  Plans were made for Lesley to be interviewed for a part with her younger sister Lyn, who sadly fell ill and couldn’t make the audition. The letter contains a mistake that might explain why Lesley ended up playing Peggy when she was thirteen years old.

Lesley got on well with Kit Seymour who ended up playing her elder sister, Nancy Blackett – ‘terror of the seas’. Both girls would sail well and enjoyed being out on the lakes. Lesley told me that the reason why she held her hands between her legs in this photograph is that it was so cold when we were filming on Peel Island.

‘Kit would fold her arms and I’d try to keep my hands warm.’ Although I wore a cardigan in this scene, Swallows had been cold too. I remember thinking that at least the Amazons wore knitted hats. Otherwise their costumes were simple short-sleeved shirts and long shorts with black plymsols, worn without socks.

~Kit Seymour as Captain Nancy and Lesley Bennett as Mate Peggy in 1973~

Lesley told me their hats had been quite a problem – not quite a full-blown movie disaster but a they caused consternation in Consiton. The first scene the Amazons shot was set in the garden of Beckfoot, the Blacketts’ house. Although it does not lie on the ‘Amazon River’ at the northern end of the lake, Brown Howe on the western shore of Coniston Water was used as the location and the crew set up the 35mm Panavision camera, along with reflector boards and enough lighting to bring sunshine to Westmorland. When everyone on the production was ready, Gareth Tandy, the third assistant led the Amazons down to the set wearing red knitted stocking caps – with no bobbles. Beanies were not quite what either the director or producer had expected. Lesley has a photo showing the great discussion that ensued:


~Director Claude Whatham, Producer Richard Pilbrow, 3rd Assistant Director Gareth Tandy, Make-up Artist Peter Robb-King, Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan and Associate Producer Neville Thompson with Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett at Brown Howe on Coniston Water in May 1973 ~

In the end Claude Whatham shot the scene with the girls bare-headed, their hair blowing all over the place, even though it was meant to be ‘dead-calm’ in the story.  This looked natural as they were at home but they needed to look like pirates in every other scene.

~Nancy and Peggy running down to Amazon at the Blackett’s house Beckfoot~

Wooly hats with ‘longer ends’ were knitted locally at some speed. Red is not a good colour on the screen. I remember a couple of bright pink ribbed bobble-hats arrived when we were filming on Peel Island but they were deemed a complete disaster and rejected in favour of scarlet ones originally described by Arthur Ransome even if the colour might look a bit jarring on screen.

No one on the production knew anything about knitting or subtle shades of wool and Emma Porteous, the costume designer, was back in London. When the third pair of hats arrived we were all a bit worried about the fatness of the bobble-end, as they didn’t quite match the illustrations in the books, but no one knew what else to do. Time ran out and the producer was forced to compromise. ‘They were warm but prone to flop about,’ Lesley said, ‘and sometimes flopped forward, which looked a bit silly.’ I’d never noticed this but it was captured in one photograph:

~Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett as Nancy and Peggy Blackett on Wild Cat Island in 1973~

Mum was given the pink version of the hats. She kept them for years but no one ever wore them.

To be continued….

 

 

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A Little Bit of Film History

Contact sheet - Sophie Neville with Amazon's anchor

~ Titty with Amazon’s anchor ~

When I first posted an extract from ‘The Secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons’ on a literary website, someone wrote a review assuming it to be a novel. They must have thought that I was some poor creature who had imagined the whole thing. The reviewer considered the plot too far-fetched and fantastical – as you might if it had not been true.

‘You must have been dreaming.’

‘But Captain Flint, there were burglars, you’ve got to believe me.’

Poor Titty! No one ever believed her. Fortunately quite a bit of documentary evidence exists to support the fact that a certain feature film was made in the Lake District in 1973. I do wish I’d kept a copy of the book review though.

Contact sheet - finding Titty in Amazon

~ The Swallows find Titty sleeping in Amazon near Cormorant Island ~

Contact sheet - Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville sailing Amazon

~ Titty and Susan sail Amazon back to Wild Cat Island ~

Contact sheet sailing Swallow & Amazon in 1973

~ Sailing Swallow and Amazon on Derwentwater ~

Contact sheet - sailing Swallow & Amazon on Derwentwater

I was encouraged to collect things as a child, in case they might one day be of value. Back in 1973, I was given a number of black and white photographs and contact sheets of stills taken by Albert Clarke on the set of ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) – if you can call Derwentwater a movie set. I pasted some of these in a scrapbook but others remained in a roll that has only recently been returned to me. Each sheet looks roughly like this:

The Making of Swallows & Amazons contact sheet - both boats

The eye is easily tired by looking at the whole set but scanning and editing reveals a little bit of film history in every shot. I can see here that Titty wasn’t letting Amazon’s anchor down, she was hauling it in while Susan was at the helm, with a fair wind in her sails. This must have been quite tricky.

Sophie Neville pulling up Amazons' anchor

You can tell by the numbers above each shot how many were taken and in what sequence. presumably 2003 photographs had been snapped by the time the Swallows found Titty moored near Cormorant Island.

Contact sheet - filming Swallow

~ These bizarre shots show the film crew afloat on their pontoon ~

The photographs below show Virginia McKenna rowing away from Peel Island on Coniston Water in a native canoe with DoP Denis Lewiston and his 35mm camera, which is pretty unique.

One thing is certain, if these contact sheets had not been given to me they would have been thrown out and yet, over time, they have become precious. Do add a comment below if you would like to see more.

It is quite interesting to see which shots were chosen for the press. You can see a few of the action shots used in magazines of the time by clicking here. Newspapers tended to chose photographs akin to portraits as you can see here.

Recent newspaper articles tend to use a black and white film still that was clumsily tinted giving the lake water an unreal and bright blue hue as you find here.

Some of the black and white prints are now held at BFI. StudioCanal hold a vast selection of the best photos in their library and have an on-line shop here. I have included about a hundred behind-the-scenes snaps taken by my parents in the latest edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ recently published by The Lutterworth Press, available from libraries, bookshops and online stockists including The Nancy Blackett shop, where proceeds go towards the upkeep of Arthur Ransome’s favourite little ship.

9780718894962_cover Amazons.indd

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