My mother and I reached Ambleside in the Lake District in what must have been Mum’s Renault 5. I know it was packed to the gills. We found the Oaklands Guest House, a solid stone Edwadian house that the film company had booked us into, along with the other children in the cast.
The cast ~A striking girl called Kit Seymour, who came from London, was playing Nancy Blackett, ‘Captain of the Amazon and terror of the seas.’ Her sister, Peggy Blackett, was played by Lesley Bennett. Simon West, who was playing my brother John Walker, came from Abingdon. He held a National Optimist title and was an excellent sailor. Suzanna Hamilton, who came from Islington where she went to Anna Scher’s theatre group, took the role of the very practical Susan. The part of our younger brother Roger had been given to Sten Grendon, who had played the young Laurie Lee in the BBC Play Cider with Rosie, which I had also been in. He came up from Gloucestershire with his mother Jane, who was to chaperone us with Mum.
The director ~As my diary relates, were were taken for tea at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel to meet Claude Whatham, who was directing the movie. He was a small man, habitually clad in jeans, with a denim jacket. He seemed young and trendy for an adult. Sten and I had worked for him two years previously on Cider with Rosie and the others already knew him from the weekend sailing audition. Claude had just finished making his first feature film, That’ll be the Day, starring David Essex and Ringo Star. He went on to become a revered and prolific director with a long list of credits including the TV mini-series Disreali, Play for Today, Tales of the Unexpected,C.A.T.S. Eyes and the adaptation of Mary Wesley’s book Jumping the Queue. Mum took me to Yorkshire to watch him making the moive of James Herriots’ vet story All Creatures Great and Small, starring Anthony Hopkins and Simon Ward. He went on to make the feature films Hoodwink (for which he was nominated for an AFI Award), Murder Made Easy and Buddy’s Song, but for all that, Cider with Rosie (for which he received a BAFTA Nomination) and Swallows and Amazons remain his best known works, with terrific DVD sales. Somehow they never felt dated.
I can only think that we were thrilled to hear that we would not be learning lines, never realising it was Claude’s key to gaining natural performances out of us. His other secret was that he never allowed us to see the ‘rushes’ – film that had just been recored – as he thought it might make us self concious. I learnt later in life that he was quite right. We were also encouraged to start using our character names, which is something we enjoyed. I knew from my parents that Claude had wanted to cast children who didn’t go to stage schools. I think he chose us for our spiritedness as much as anything else.
The producer had been keen that we could all sail and swim well and Claude looked for children who were members of sailing clubs. I don’t think he realised until we were out on the lakes in gusty weather how deeply he valued the confidence in sailing dinghies held by the children playing John and Nancy. They were so good that there were times when they told him what to do. That amused him.
One thing that amused me intensly was watching the large colour television at the hotel. I’m not sure if I had seen one before. They were hugely expensive in 1973 and considered a great luxury. The set, which had a wooden veneer, stood on legs and showed all three channels – BBC One, BBC Two and ITV. We all thought it was amazing. That dates me and the period, doesn’t it?
….this was how I reported on what must have been a complicated and well planned film schedule back in 1973 when Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons was made into a movie.
My behind-the-scenes diary ~
I have three volumes of diaries, kept in the same italic hand-writing, detailing what we did, and indeed what we said, on every single day. I was aged twelve at the time so the English is childish. They do need editing violently. I even recorded when we filled up the car with fuel. But, as a little bit of film history they provide the facts from an interesting angle. My mother would be pleased to know that I have started to type them up. She’s been nagging me for years.
On the inside cover of the first volume I wrote:
How I got the part of Titty ~
I had been very lucky to be picked out of all those hundreds of children for one of the six children (the characters in the story). I had been in a film (a television play) with Claude, the director, before but only for three days. He short-listed me for the part of T itty. I was then chosen with 22 others for a sailing holiday (a weekend in Burnham-on-Crouch) to see how we reacted and sailed. In about a week’s time they rang up top say I had got the part and Mummy a chaperone.
Missing the summer term ~
The Lake District gets very busy in the summer, so busy that I imagine Richard Pilbrow, the producer, decided to film during the summer term. This was a bit of an issue as I was at a convent boarding school and my parents needed the formal permission from Sister Anne-Julian, my headmistress. She came back to them saying that she had prayed about it with my housemistress Sister Allyne. They gave us the go ahead.
The filming started on Monday 14th May. ‘The last day for most’, as I put it, was on Friday 6th July – forty six days of filming with a full crew for a ninety minute movie shot entirely on location. We had a few ‘pick-up days’ tacked on afterwards with a sketeton crew.
Travelling up to the Lake District ~
On Friday 11th May 1973 Mum saw my father off to work, dropped my two little sisters at school and took me for a medical test to satisfy the County Council. What would they have done if I had been deemed unfit at that stage I do not know, but I had already passed medical tests for the company insuring the film, so this must have been a formality. My mother then bought me a paint box, a brush and a stash of hay-fever pills before driving up the motorway from Stroud to the Lake Dristict – a journey of about two hundred miles.
‘I remember going to the Puffin Club exhibition in London around the time of the film release and some of the cast were there with one of the boats. There was a quiz about S & A and you could win a copy of the book – which I did! Sophie, were you there? And do you know if the boat was ‘Swallow’ or ‘Amazon’?’
I do remember going to the Puffin Club. They published a very good article about Arthur Ransome and the film using the black and white stills in a far better way than any other magazine. I still have the clipping.
We were very excited because the publishers had just brought out a copy of Swallows and Amazons with a photograph of the two little ships near Cormorant Island on the cover. You can’t see us clearly but it was from the scene after Titty had just captured Amazon and both dinghies were being victoriously sailed back to Wild Cat Island by John and Roger, Titty and Susan. On the back of the book was a photograph of the Amazons in their red knitted caps waiting in the reeds at the mouth of the Amazon River.
About ten years later Puffin also bought out a copy of Coot Club and The Big Six, the series I worked on behind the camera at the BBC. I can remember getting the cast together for the shot of them on the Death and Glory – an old black boat. It was a happy time.
I had forgotten that we had one of the dinghies at the Puffin Club event but remember going to the Commonwealth Institute. I found appearing on television could be rather more daunting than public appearances. We were once taken to the BBC television studios to appear, live, on Points West, the regional news programme that came under the Nationwide banner at the time. The designer had gone to a great effort and made a camp fire in the studio, but it felt weird sitting around it in our own clothes. I think the problem had been that the presenters had not actually read the book so were not in touch with the subject matter. Before we knew it, the item was over and we were whisked off again, home to bed no doubt. Being interviewed on the radio was less scary although I broke into French once when being interviewed on Woman’s Hour. That scarred the presenter.
By far the most enjoyable programme to be in was Animal Magic, which was presented in those days by Johnny Morris. The Assistant Producer Robin Hellier came with a small crew to film me at home with my own boat and my green parrot, Chico.
I was deeply impressed by Robin as a director and I thought him far more talented than Claude Whatham, who had directed the movie. More than twenty years later I met up with Robin when I was working on a BBC natural history programme in South Africa called Global Sunrise. He arrived at Johannesburg International Airport having flown from the Kruger Park in a small passenger plane. They had been delayed by a terrible storm and I had ten minutes to get him onto the Friday night scheduled flight to Cape Town. It was a good thing I knew him. I saw him at a distance and shouted, ‘Quick, Robin! Run.’ And we just made it through the gate in time, laughing about Animal Magic. He told me that the film he made at our house with me and my parrot was the very first he had ever directed. I never knew.
‘When you went to see the charcoal burners, did Susan really leave her basket behind?’
‘Yes, she did!’ I’d totally forgotten, but she left it behind by mistake.
Last weekend I was invited to speak after dinner at the 11th Arthur Ransome Society Literary Weekendheld at Willis Hall, Bristol University. It was a joy and delight to meet the organisers and delegates, of which there were about 150. All seemed interested in learning more about the making of Swallows and Amazons, the feature film of Arthur Ransome’s book produced in 1973 by Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Projects and distributed by EMI in 1974.
Director Claude Whatham with his cast of Swallows and their basket
‘How old were you all?’ I was asked.
‘Ahh, that is rather a secret,’ I had to admit. When the filming began I was twelve, yet playing the part of Titty who was meant to be only nine. I managed to pretend to be much younger but the reality was that, although skinny, I was a tall child with long legs, so tall that in some shots you can see that I am taller than my elder brother John. Claude Whatham, the director, seemed unconcerned but had either holes dug for me or a box produced for John to stand on when were side by side. At other times he simply had John in a higher position.
John was played by Simon West, who even aged eleven was a true leader and excellent sailor. I believe he had been a National Optimist champion. Suzanna Hamilton, who played my elder sister Susan, was twelve. Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy was actually the eldest aged thirteen, and Kit Seymour turned thirteen during the filming. But, unlike at school, it didn’t seemed to matter to us. We all felt the same age and got on well as a result. Sten Grendon, who played the seven-year-old Roger was actually aged nine. And he really couldn’t swim, but somehow he survived.
I do remember that Roger received more danger money than any of us. Claude would compensate us for getting scratched by brambles – as poor Roger was – by handing out extra pocket money. I think we earnt £2 each for enduring the icy waters of Coniston when the swimming scene was shot on a grey day in May. The water was so cold that it was agony and the money hard earnt. Titty, who was keen on imitating cormorants, had to divie unther water and I nearly passed out. I am not very good at being wet and cold or when it comes to heights either, so it was encouraging to be rewarded after climbing trees, ‘For fear of ravenous beats.’ When you watch the film you can see that Susan inadvertently burnt Roger with the large flat frying pan, which she’d just taken off the camp fire. He flinches and she muttered ‘Sorry’, before ploughing on with the scene. The moment was captured in the film.
One problem encountered when filming with children is that they can unexpectedly lose their milk teeth. I did. People still comment on this today. I lost an eye tooth. In some scenes it is there, then it will suddenly vanish only to re-appear again. Claude was not very pleased that his continuity was blown and there was definately no tooth fairy. He wasn’t very pleased when I grazed my leg falling off a swing at lunch time either. Suzanna cut her hand whittling wood. Bobby, the Props man seemed so happy and absorbed making bows and arrows for the Amazons, out of local hazel saplings, that we all wanted to try for ourselves and started carving. I bought a penknife with my danger money and made a bow, which I still have today. This occupation kept us all quite until of course Suzanna nearly chopped a finger off and ended up with such a big bandage that Claude howled with dismay. We were banned from whittling after that, but I did learn to shoot with the bow and arrow. This proved providential since I gained the part of an archery champion in the next feature film I appeared in. Years later I met the man who became my husband at an archery event. He was chairman of the society. I might never have met him if I hadn’t learnt to shoot for the feature films.
‘Here we are, intrepid explorers, making the first ever voyage into uncharted waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets shall be revealed?’ Titty uttered dramatically as she looked out towards Wildcat Island. In fact we weren’t that intrepid. Our dinghy was wired to a pontoon on which was a 35mm Panasonic camera, a few yards of track and an entire film crew: sound, camera, lighting, wardrobe g et al.
The little bit of extra money Claude gave us was indeed compensation for encountering grave danger on one occasion. I don’t remember there being anything about it in Arthur Ransome’s book, but in the film there is a sequence when the Swallows nearly collide with the Tern, an elegant steamer that has taken tourists up and down Windermere since 1891. There is rather a large difference between the shot of the dinghy with the Tern coming towards her when Susan calls, ‘Look John! Steamer ahead!’ which was shot when Swallow was attached to the floating pontoon, and the next shot, a top shot, which was taken from the steamer when we were sailing free . That is when things went wrong. The Tern turned, John lost his wind in the lee of the larger vessel and we four children came perilously close to ending up in a very Duffer-ish state. Swallow had no centre board, only a keel and a shallow rudder, so she was difficult to turn at the best of times. We were acutely aware that Roger couldn’t swim, we had no buoyancy and I was perched on a pile of heavy old camping equipment. My father, who is a good dinghy sailor with years of experience racing in the Solent, was watching from the deck of the steamer, helpless. He could foresee the problem and yet was able to do nothing. Although we just managed to avoid a true collision he was so shaken someone had to find him a glass of whisky.
Serendipity [ser-uh n-dip-i-tee] an aptitude or faculty for making desirable discoveries by accident
Serendipity indeed. The word has been quoted to me so many times that I’ve started to take note. The serendipit in question connects me to a rather large, bald man with massive moustaches called Arthur Ransome.
In March 1973 my father was sent a letter, completely out of the blue:
We are at present casting for a film version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS which Mr Whatham is going to direct. We were wondering if you would be interested in your daughter being considered for one of the parts in this film. Amazing!
To gain a part I had to be able to swim well. I think this was to do with ensuring I was unlikely to drown. As it happened I could row, sail and swim. My parents had taught me. I can’t remember Claude Whatham asking me about this when he interviewed me. He wanted to know what my favourite Television programme was. ‘Blue Peter!’ ‘Why?’, ‘Because they show you how to do things.’ It was exactly what Mr Whatham wanted to hear. Why? Because that is what Arthur Ransome does in his books. He doesn’t tell. He shows his readers how to sail. And how to camp. By the age of twelve I had already read all eleven books in the series and loved the stories. What I didn’t know then was the effect they would have on the rest of my life.
By May 1973 I was on my way up to the Lake District to play Titty Walker in the feature film being produced by Theatre Projects and distributed by EMI. I didn’t think I was right as Titty at all. In real life Titty had been Anglo-Armenian and grew up in Syria. The illustrations show her with dark hair, cut in a bob. And I thought of myself as far more like the practical Susan, Titty’s older sister. However I was assured that I could play Titty and I did. Able seaman Titty, crew of the Swallow. Thankfully they cut my straggly blonde hair and I sang out the dialogue that I already knew off by heart from reading the book, ‘I expect someone hid on the island hundreds and hundreds of years ago.’
How the real parrot arrived on my shoulder I can’t quite remember but within months of returning from Coniston Water I had a green and yellow parrot of my own. I think he had outlived his owner and was given to us to keep. He was good company and very chatty. I adored him and could take him anywhere. When I was asked to be in Animal Magic to talk about the film he sat on my shoulder while I was rowing a boat, and I think did most of the talking.What I didn’t realise was how themes from Arthur Ransome’s life would follow me through the rest of my life.
When the time came for me to matriculate I went to Collingwood College at the University of Durham. The name resonated later when I discovered that W.D. Collingwood’s grandchildren were the real Swallows. W.D. Collingwood was an archaeologist living above Coniston Water, where the books are set, and had excavated Peel Island– or Wild Cat Island– finding the remains of a Viking settlement there. Some one had hidden there hundred of years ago. WD Collingwood Titty’s Gransfatherstudied at the Slade, as did my own grandfather HW Neville. He may have been there at the same time as Titty’s mother Dora Collingwood.
Arthur Ransome won a Kitchener Scholarship. Years later these rare awards have been won by both my niece and my nephew. When Arthur Ransome first lived in London, he had digs in Hollywood Road. When I moved to London I shared flats with friends, first in Tregunter Road, then Harcourt Terrance, which ware merely extensions of Hollywood Road, which is off the Fulham Road in West Brompton. I had gained a graduate traineeship at the BBC. The first drama series that I worked on was Swallows and Amazons Forever! an adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads, Coot Club and The Big Six. It was not a chance thing, I contacted the Producer and asked if I could work on the series, but the fact that I’d heard about it was unusual, and amazing really that it was made that year when I was available to join the production team. I had first worked with Rosemary Leach, who played The Admiral – Mrs Barrable, when she starred, not as Missee Lee, but as Mrs Lee in Cider with Rosie. I later found myself working with William the Pug dog on Eastenders when he featured as Ethel’s ‘Little Willie’ . It was such fun to see him again. He was a playful little dog with a great sense of fun.
The first documentary I directed for the BBC involved an adder. I was filming in at a Nature Reserve in Dorset with a group of children who came across one immediately. It was huge, a black adder. The Billies would have declared this a great sign of luck. I’m not sure I thought much about Swallows and Amazons, over the next few years but I did film at a school in Cumbria and loved being back in the Lakes.
After working at the BBC for eight years I fell ill and, much like Arthur Ransome, had to abandon my full time job to work from home. Like him I had a yearning to spend as much time as possible in the great outdoors and chose to live in the wilderness. I spent my time exploring southern Africa, camping and cooking on fires. Of the subjects I’d studied at university the ones I most enjoyed were cartography and water-colours. I started to earn my living by drawing birds, animals and decorative maps. The maps usually depicted game reserves and involved giving names to landmarks as places of interest, just like Titty’s maps. I must have drawn forty maps in the style of those on the original cover of Swallows and Amazons, using the same borders and style of lettering. And I kept diaries, writing just as Titty would have done. I also worked freelance for the BBC, mainly setting up wildlife programmes. A rye smile did pass my lips when I was asked to find South African items for Blue Peter. I was thinking back to my first interview at Theatre Projects with Claude. They came to South Africa for their summer expedition one year, and it was I who sent them off to film the Outspan harvest and wild dog puppies in the Kruger National Park. After a while I fell into the pattern of flying back to England at Easter time and returning to Africa in the autumn. This was partly through choice, partly to comply with visa regulations and work commitments. I’d migrate every year with the swallows.
When we were making the feature film of Swallows and Amazons my mother looked after all six children. The girls playing the Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, needed to learn how to shoot with a bow and arrow. My mother taught them. She had learnt how to draw a long bow when she was first married, and was encouraged by an ex-Olympian called Bertie. I became interested too, which stood me in good stead as the next part I had in a feature film was playing Liz Peters, a fictional archery champion.
Thirty years after the premier of Swallows and Amazons I had flown back from Africa and was staying at my parents’ house, when a lady arrived from Korea. She timidly knocked on the door, explaining that she was translating Swallows and Amazons into Chinese and would love to talk to me about the book. She came bearing gifts: a hand-quilted wedding bedspread and a pile of silk garments amounting to a bride’s trousseaux. It was a week after I had met my husband-to-be. At that stage he had not even asked me out and I had no idea we would marry. I’d met him at the archery – shooting with my bow and arrow. He was Bertie’s grandson. My three sisters have never been a bit interested in archery. If I hadn’t been enthused by Swallows and Amazons, and consequently taken it up to play Liz Peters, I would never have met my husband. I still have the wedding quilt.
And then I met Dr Frankland, a Harley Street Consultant who was to become an historical adviser on a script I was developing. I soon learnt that Bill Frankland had been a good friend of Roger Altounyan and knew his sister Titty. As young men they both worked for Alexander Flemming.
Roger, Titty and their elder sisters Susie and Taqui were W.D.Collingwood’s grandchildren, the real characters on which Arthur Ransome based the Swallows. What I didn’t know was that Roger Altounyan became an allergist. He developed the spin-inhaler, experimenting on himself. Dr Frankland explained that he eventually died as a result. I was allergic to feathers as a child and prone to horrific asthma attacks. Not from parrot’s feathers but old pillows and eiderdowns. The Ventolin inhaler is something to which I probably owe my life. Dr Frankland, who is to celebrate his 100th birthday this March, still works as a Harley Street allergist and is often called upon to make broadcasts on Radio 4. He instigated the pollen count, numbered Saddam Hussein as one of his most gratful patients and has been the expert witness at a number of murder trials.
Bertie’s Olympic bow now hangs on my stairs. I am still sailing dinghies, still drawing maps but thankfully no longer suffer from asthma. Harbour Pictures with BBC Films are now planning a new film adaptation of Swallows and Amazons. A whole new generation of children will be shown how to sail and camp and cook on open fires. I couldn’t be more thrilled.