Category Archives: Diary

Announcing the publication of ‘The Making of SWALLOW & AMAZONS’

The Making of SWALLOWS & AMAZONS

The long-awaited paperback published by Classic TV Press

Sophie Neville at home with the S&A flags

Sophie Neville who played Titty Walker

Swallows & Amazons flags for book

‘Forty years after she enchanted film-goers as Titty in Swallows and Amazons, Sophie Neville has found a new audience… telling the behind-the-scenes secrets of the film of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel.’ The Daily Mail  The Making of  Swallows & Amazons ‘…is based on diaries, letters and old photographs which Sophie has turned into a heart-warming account of making the movie, which starred Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser.’

The Telegraph ~ Culture:  ‘Set in the Lake District in 1929, the film follows four young adventurers who sail a dinghy around Lake Coniston, cook for themselves over campfires and sleep in makeshift campsites.’

‘…The occasional chaos and terrible weather during filming contributed to the eventual popularity of the extraordinary and very much loved film.’ The Times

‘The film Swallows & Amazons is 40 years old, but thanks to its careful period evocation, its respect for Arthur Ransome’s original book and the performances of its child actors, it’s become a timeless classic. One of those children was Sophie Neville, who played Titty, and who kept a diary during the filming. That diary, with her adult recollections, is this book. It’s a fascinating insight into filming on location in the Lake District… Classic Boat

Sophie Suzanna and Sten

‘… The result is compulsive reading as she recalls that cold wet summer, while the camera crew wrapped up warm and she shivered in her skimpy dress as Able Seaman Titty Walker. Sophie brings to life all the many memorable characters who worked on the film and in particular the other children, the Director Claude Whatham who developed a great relationship with his young cast and the stars Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser. Nor are the other young actors forgotten for there are diary contributions from Suzanna Hamilton who played Susan, Stephen Grendon who played the Boy Roger and Kit Seymour who played Nancy Blackett. The text is supported by numerous illustrations showing life on and off the set.’ Roger Wardale, author of Arthur Ransome: Master Storyteller and other books

‘You don’t need to be a Swallows & Amazons fan to enjoy this book – it’s universal!’ Winifred Wilson, Librarian of The Arthur Ransome Society

‘This was a most unusual and interesting book. I picked it up expecting to browse through it, and found myself so drawn in to Sophie Neville’s detailed, amusing and insightful description of film making in the 1970’s that I was unable to put her book down. As Arthur Ransome fans, my family and I have always loved the film, and felt that Sophie Neville was ‘just right’ as Titty. What fun it has been to be introduced to the young twelve year old Sophie with her intelligent awareness of the challenges facing the production crew while she shivered in her cotton dresses. The many photographs and illustrations contribute richly to bringing the 1970s setting to life. Sophie recorded her experiences beautifully, and in so doing, added one more valuable book to the cultural heritage of all Arthur Ransome fans.’ Juliet Calcott, English teacher, South Africa

Lots of photos throughout the book bring the scenes to life – a delightful read.’ Celia Lewis author of An Illustrated Country Year

Mark Forrest Evening Show

Sophie Neville has been chatting to Mark Forrest on The Evening Show.

Please see her post on the Funnily Enough, the website  or click on his image above and slide the cursor to 02:14:20

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The cutting room floor

Members of the Arthur Ransome Group have recently raised questions about what ‘fell onto the cutting room floor’ after we shot the movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the English Lake District in 1973.

‘I have always had the feeling that the Amazon’s role in the 1974 film was very much secondary to the Swallows.’ Stephen O’Brien posted.  ‘This was probably down to much of the Amazon’s footage ending up on the cutting room floor. What do you think?’

The answer is that there were few scenes excluded from the film.

BW Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville

Virginia McKenna as Mrs Walker with Sophie Neville as Titty

One featured Virginia McKenna and Mrs Battys clock, which can still be found at Bank Ground Farm, our location used for Holly Howe. It was shot on the second morning and I fear that our director Claude Whatham might have taken it out because my own performance was rather stilted. I had quite a bit to say, most of which was really rather bizarre:

15th May deatil of outtake

The pages of my diary written on 15th May 1973

15th May detail  page two

The only other scene from Swallows & Amazons that I know was excluded was when the Swallows lay patterans on their way to visit the charcoal burners. The location was in a beautiful spot up above Derwentwater, the dialogue was straight from Arthur Ransome’s book and our performances would have been fluent by the time we shot the sequence. BW The Swallows make Patterans

 Suzanna Hamilton, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West as the Swallows

I can only expect that when the movie came in over-length these scenes were cut as the action was not exciting and had no influence on the plot.

In the original script the Amazons do not really appear until page 41 – which would equate to nearly half-way into the the film. I thought that there might have been one or two shots of the Amazons sailing that were never used, because there was  a day spent filming on Derwentwater when Kit and Lesley who played Nancy and Peggy weren’t feeling very well but I’ve checked the script and nothing that they said was excluded. Not one word. Perhaps David Wood who dramatised the book could somehow have increased the Amazons’ parts. However, as Janet Means points out:

‘…in the book we find out more about what the Swallows think but only about what the Amazons do. There is little about the Amazons except when the Swallows are present too (hiding Amazon in the reeds and Nancy berating Peggy for losing Amazon when Titty’s made off with her). There’s lots about the Swallows without the Amazons.’ 

One scene in the DVD of the film actually gets cut out of the television version. The clue is that it comes just before this photo was taken in Bowness-on-Windermere for Lancashire Life kindly sent to be by Stephen Sykes of Hill Top near Haverthwaite.

Lancashire Life May 1974 - S&A - Contents photo only Sten Grendon, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville as the Swallows in Rio, an official still from the film published in Lancashire Life in 1974

There are a few scenes in the screenplay that were never actually shot, but that’s on a different tack. To read more, please see: The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons.

Dennis Lewiston, director of Photography on 'Swallows and Amazons'  ~photo:Richard Pilbrow

Denis Lewiston, director of Photography on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow, taken on Derwentwater in Cumbria, 1973

Our sad news is that Denis Lewiston, the brilliant  Director of Photography on Swallows & Amazons (1974),  died recently. After a long and fulfilling career he will be remembered fondly and admired for the numerous films he made, seeking excellence with every sequence.

To see some of the shots Denis set up for the film of Swallows & Amazons,  please click here for the BFI site.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Photography, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Zanna Hamilton

News and Reviews of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’

Have you received the same despatches as me?

I opened my post to find not one but three reviews of my books, including this article published in The Outlaw and another in Signals, for which I am very grateful. I have pasted them here for fans of the film who do not yet subscribe to these literary magazines.

Review by Jack Parker in The Outlaw

This review was followed by by a comment from Winifred Wilson, librarian of The Arthur Ransome Society:

Review by Winifred Wilson1

The Library Supplement in The magazine of The Arthur Ransome Society gives a full description of all three books:

Review in Signals Library Supplement

Review in Signals

Mixed Moss  arrived before Easter with Spurrier’s map on the cover:

Mixed Moss 2014

I found another review inside, this time from New Zealand:

Mixed Moss1

Mixed Moss2

Mixed Moss3

The News is that The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons has been signed up by the publisher Classic TV Press who plan to bring out a new edition in paperback this July. It will include glossy photographs and additional points of interest. If you would like to order a signed copy please email: classictvpress@live.co.uk

If you are interested in joining the Arthur Ransome Society please click here.

Here is a shot from 1973, capturing some of the deb-archery:

Sophie Neville watching the Amazons practicing with bows and arrows

Sophie Neville with Peter Robb-King (Make-Up) and Ronnie Cogan (Hair) watching Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour trying out their bows and arrows with Terry Smith (Wardrobe) while on location near Peel Island on Coniston Water in the Lake District.

 

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If you enjoyed watching ‘Swallows & Amazons’ on ITV3 last weekend

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

If you would like to know how the movie of Swallows & Amazons was made and know where the real locations can be found, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon and Smashwords for £2.56.  The paperback was launched to mark the 40th anniversary of the film’s release, by Classic TV Press.

Do you know where the Peak of Darien can be found? photo: Roger Wardale

Do you know where the Peak of Darien can be found?

The book, which is suitable for any age group, is based on the diary that I kept when I played the part of Titty Walker in 1973. It is illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs and memorabilia such as one of the tickets to the Royal Gala premier in Shaftesbury Avenue held on 4th April 1974. You will also find out what the actors who played the Walker family ~ the Swallows ~ are doing now.

The joy of the ebook is that it includes a number of home-movie clips that my parents took of life behind the scenes that you can play wherever you have internet access.

Classi Boat magazine Books ~ Feb 2014

A review of the ebook in Classic Boat magazine ~ Feburary 2014

If you have any questions about making the film, please add them to the comments below, and I will get back to you.

Richard Kay's column in Daily Mail Friday Nov 22nd1

A review of ‘the Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ in Richard Kay’s column in the Daily Mail ~

There were rather over-excited headlines in the Times and Telegraph when the ebook was launched but they only spoke of the legendary drinking of Ronald Fraser. Please don’t worry – there is nothing X-rated about the book – it is just the price one pays for half a page in a daily newspaper, especially since it came out on a Saturday.

The Times Sat 23 Nov 20131

The ebook has been doing well in the Amazon charts and hit Number 1 in the category ‘Stage and Theatre’.

Lymington Times 4th Jan 2014

A preview of what the book holds in store can be watched here:

‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ – the book trailer

Very many thanks to all those who have left customer reviews on Amazon. It is always exciting to find out how the book has impacted others, especially those who love the Arthur Ransome books.

To read more reviews please click here

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Adaptations of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ discussed in the Independent on Sunday by Jonathan Brown

Author Arthur Ransome loathed BBC’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’, his diaries reveal

A new adaptation of the classic is coming, but its author called the 1960s version ‘a ghastly mess’

Sunday 16 February 2014

When the BBC announced plans to recreate the classic outdoor children’s sailing adventure Swallows and Amazons it was hailed as a blockbusting antidote to the health and safety culture of the mollycoddled video-game generation. Filming of the new version of the 1930s Lake District adventure is due to begin later this summer with big stars including Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens already linked to the project.

However, previously unread diaries of its creator, Arthur Ransome, reveal that the author considered the corporation’s last attempt to bring his much-loved story to life to be a “ghastly mess” marred by “dreadful ham” acting. The diaries reveal how Ransome clashed repeatedly with BBC executives in the early 1960s when the BBC commissioned a six-part dramatisation for television, starring Susan George, then aged 12, as Kitty (changed from the original Titty) Walker.

Ransome, then in declining health, was living in virtual retirement in his remote Cumbrian cottage Hill Top overlooking the spectacular Rusland valley with his wife Evgenia – the former secretary to Leon Trotsky, whom he met while working as a foreign correspondent and spying for Britain in revolutionary Russia. It was a spartan existence, often with no electricity or running water.

In a series of brusque entries at odds with his generally affable demeanour, he describes how he repeatedly fought with BBC executives over attempts to introduce two new characters – Ernie and Sam – to the story. Both he and his wife attempted to rewrite the script after concluding that one episode was “bad beyond belief”.

At his home Hill Top with his wife, Evgenia

At his home Hill Top with his wife, Evgenia

“I have agreed to Genia’s proposal that we shall wash our hands of the film leaving it to Mr Walls [of the BBC] to play the farceur as much as he likes. They may be right in thinking that vulgar ham acting is what the T.V. gapers want,” he wrote in July 1962.

Ransome was particularly unimpressed with the performance of popular British actor John Paul as Captain Flint – the character linked this time to Dan Stevens, and said to be based on Ransome himself – describing it as “dreadful HAM”.

On attending a screening at the Hammer Theatre in Wardour Street, central London in October 1962, he concluded: “Saw the ghastly mess they have made of poor old Swallows and Amazons … MacCullogh [his friend Derek MacCullogh, former head of children’s broadcasting at the BBC who was also known as the presenter Uncle Mac] did not come possibly to avoid trouble with his employers.” It was eventually broadcast the following year.

Stephen Sykes now owns Hill Top and has restored the Ransomes’ former home. He is also helping transcribe the author’s sparsely detailed diaries from his years at Hill Top, which are kept at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library. Sykes said the writer received £3,500 for agreeing to the BBC broadcast – a considerable amount of money. “He was clearly making a very good living out of the rights to Swallows and Amazons. This was his baby and he had obviously pored over it. It is a very leanly written story and it was pretty clear it was written by a journalist because of its clarity, because there is nothing extraneous,” he said.

“He is extremely protective of his own work. He felt he didn’t want a word changing, and that he had honed the story down and it was what it was,” he added.

Susan George, who played Kitty

Susan George, who played Kitty

Swallows and Amazons was first published in 1930. It recounts the adventures of the children from two families who while away an idyllic summer getting into scrapes sailing their dinghies across Coniston Water and Lake Windermere. As well as the television series, many theatrical and musical adaptations have been staged, and the story was made into a film in 1974 staring Ronald Fraser and Sophie Neville.

When the latest project was announced in 2011, head of BBC Films Christine Langan said it would seek to encapsulate a forgotten era of childhood adventure “from the pre-health and safety generation”.

Producer Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, which is collaborating on the film with the BBC, the Arthur Ransome Society and the author’s literary estate, said it had not been decided yet whether the children would be shown sailing without their life jackets.

But he said viewers could expect to experience the full majesty of the book’s setting. “The lakes and the mountains are very big and we are keen to recreate that grandeur of the scenery in the film,” he said. A spokeswoman for BBC Films said: “The film is still in development.”

To see a copy of the original article online, please click here

To contact Stephen Sykes at Hill Top, the Ransome’s last home, please click here

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Cinema, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Movie, Movie stories, News, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized

‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ ebook is out now

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

Thanks to the encouragement and help of my blog followers and Arthur Ransome enthusiasts around the world, I have managed to put my diaries, letters, old photographs and documents together into a 68,000-word memoir.

s&A book launch 2013 005

“Sometimes extraordinary things do happen to ordinary people. Little girls can find themselves becoming film stars. Long ago, and quite unexpectedly, I found myself appearing in the EMI feature film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons, made for a universal international audience. I played Able-seaman Titty, one of the four Swallows. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I became Titty for a while, wearing thin cotton dresses and elasticated navy blue gym knickers, which the camera crew soon referred to as passion killers. The book was written in 1929 and although the film adaptation was made in the early 1970s it had an ageless quality and has been repeated on television year after year, typically on a Bank Holiday between movies starring Rock Hudson or Doris Day.

I got the part of Titty because I could play the piano. Although I had no ambition to be an actress, at the age of ten I was cast in a BBC dramatisation of Cider with Rosie. They needed a little girl to accompany the eleven-year-old Laurie Lee when he played his violin at the village concert. I plodded through Oh, Danny Boy at an agonising pace.

‘Do you think you could play a little faster?’ the Director asked.

‘No,’ I said, flatly. ‘These are crotchets, they don’t go any faster.’

Claude Whatham must have remembered my crotchets, for two years later, in March 1973, my father received a letter. It arrived completely out of the blue, from a company called Theatre Projects.

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!”

From ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ by Sophie Neville

Preview copies of the print version of 'The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons'Preview copies of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’  at the Cruising Association dinner at the Water’s Edge Bar and Restaurant, Mermaid Marina on the River Hamble.

“This heart-warming memoir is illustrated with colour photographs, most of them taken at the time by Sophie’s family, and contains links to behind-the-scenes home movie footage for readers with browser-enabled tablets. It delivers a double helping of nostalgia for both fans of the era of Arthur Ransome, and the groovy times of the early 70’s.” ~ from the Amazon Kindle description

Map of Derwentwater by Sophie

Also available for other reading devices on Smashwords

Thank you again for all of your time and patience, and to those of you who contributed comments, questions, and aspects of local history on this blog. I would love to know what you think of the book!

If you would like a copy but don’t have a Kindle, worry not. We have added a link whereby you can download a free Kindle app. Please go to my Book Page and scroll down for the details.

Sophie Neville on the pontoon during the filming of 'Swallows and Amazons'

Richard Pilbrow, Denis Lewiston, Claude Whatham, David Cadwallader and Sophie Neville aged 12 playing Titty. Eddie Collins looks on ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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Swallows & Amazons ~ broadcast recently on ITV3

Behind-the-scenes while filming 'Swallows & Amazons' in 1973

Behind-the-scenes while filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973

Swallows & Amazons was broadcast recently on ITV3.

If you would like to know more about how the film was made you can find the details on this site.

Do leave any questions in the comments box below.

They will be answered by Sophie Neville who played Titty.

To read about our first day’s filming at Haverthwaite Railway Station click here and keep reading.

Sophie Neville having her hair cut on location for the part of Titty Walker in 1973

Sophie Neville having her hair cut on location for the part of Titty Walker in 1973

Do you know what lake we were on in the photograph below?  We were busy loading urns of tea into a run-around boat to take out to the film crew who might have been on Cormorant Island. If you click on the photo you will get to the page of my diary, kept in June 1973, which describes this day.

Wardrobe Master Terry Smith and Sophie Neville in her costume to play Titty. But what is the name of the boatman? Doers anybody know?

Wardrobe Master Terry Smith and Sophie Neville in her costume to play Titty. But what is the name of the boatman? Does anybody know?

There are still many questions about the making of the movie that remain unanswered.

A journalist on Peel Island

Does anyone know the name of this journalist who visited us on Peel Island?

This shot was taken while setting up the scene at Peel Island when Captain Flint brings Sammy the Policeman to question the Swallows.  If you click on the photo you will find the photograph that the journalist ended up with. Titty’s hand is still on Captain Flint’s arm.

Making a movie is very different from watching one. Here is a record of Titty rehearsing the shot when she moves the camping equipment for fear of a tidal wave. It was a cold day on Coniston Water. The jersey came off when they went for a take.

Sophie Neville with 35mm Panavision Camera

Here you can see Lesley Bennett playing Peggy Blackett careening Amazon at Beckfoot. The same 35mm Panavision camera was focused on Kit Seymour, playing Captain Nancy.

Beckfoot

Lesley Bennett as Peggy: Claude Whatham directing the scene with Kit Seymour

The location used for Beckfoot and the Amazon boathouse can be found at Brown Howe on the western bank of  Coniston Water. If you click on the photograph of Peggy you can read more about what happened that day.

Amazon Boathouse

Kit Seymour playing Nancy Blackett and Lesley Bennett playing Peggy Blackett

If you would like to get future posts, please click the Follow button at the bottom of the side-bar.

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Sailing the Nancy Blackett

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If you have ever wondered what Nancy Blackett is doing now – here she is. Built by Hillyards of Littlehampton in 1931 she was bought by Arthur Ransome with royalties from Swallows and Amazons and became both the inspiration and model for his book about the Swallows’ unplanned voyage to Holland ~  We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, in which she was known as the Goblin. She also appears in Secret Water.

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I was at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club to give a talk on making the BBC adaptations of two other Arthur Ransome books set in East Anglia, Coot Club and The Big Six.

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I thought that people would rather be out in the sunshine or watching the Wimbledon finals but it was well attended.

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After watching a clip of Ginger and Rosa, the BFI/BBC feature film directed by Sally Potter that Nancy Blackett starred in last year, we wandered down to the jetty in front of the new club house, and grabbed a chance to go out on the Orwell.

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Soon sails were being hoisted and we were underway, sailing down river in the evening light.

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Conditions were perfect for Nancy, a 28 foot Bermurdan cutter.

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I took the helm, whilst the others did the hard work.

Pin Mill in Suffolk

We were soon sailing past Pin Mill, which also features in the book.

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Some members of the crew were experienced sailors,

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others had previously managed to avoid spending much time on the water, but we all had a wonderful experience and were sad when the sails were stowed for the night.

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We saw a couple of Thames barges also coming in, as Nancy settled down after a successful day.

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For more photos please click here

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40 years today ~ The Log of the Boy Roger comes to light

BW Sten as Roger in Secret Harbour

The Boy Roger in Secret Harbour on Wild Cat Island played by Sten Grendon in 1973

Sten Grendon grew up in the Whiteway Colony near Stroud in Gloucestershire. Partly thinks to the kindness of his teacher, he was spotted by Claude Whatham in 1970 and asked to play young Laurie Lee in the BBC adaptation of ‘Cider with Rosie’, when I was given the part of Eileen Brown.

Sten with Claude Whatham in 1970

Sten Grendon in 1970, after playing Laurie Lee in ‘Cider with Rosie’ for BBC TV with Director Claude Whatham

Sten was eight-and-a-half when he found himself in the Lake District playing Roger in Arthur Ransome’s well-loved story, Swallows & Amazons. His drawing of learning to swim from Peel Island somehow seems to reflect the weather conditions on Coniston Water rather well.

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Whilst on location in Cumbria we usually received tuition from Margaret Causey, but on 29th June 1973 Sten spent the morning with his mother, Jane, writing:

It was raining very hard on Friday. We had our location at Skelwith Fold caravan park. I don’t do lessons with the teacher. I do lessons with Jane. We started our lesson at 9 o’clock when we are doing our lessons it stopped raining so Claude could call the children to come and have a word rehearsal in the caravan. But it started raining again so we had dinner and it stopped so we went to the lily pond which we use as Octopus Lagoon. We started fiming. It was covered with lilies. We filmed on the pond.

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And that was it. A highly accurate account of the day spent recording the scene when the Swallows go up river to look for the Amazon but find themselves thwarted by waterlilies in Octopus Lagoon.

‘Perhaps they are octopuses. Titty read out of a book how they can grab people out of boats.’

‘Shut-up Roger, they’re only flowers.’

BW Sten in Swallow

Sten went on to draw a very detailed picture showing what it was like to make a movie in the Lake District, when the weather was so important to our work.

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When I rang Sten yesterday he grabbed his phone and said,

‘Just a moment, I’ll go into the greenhouse – it’s just started to rain.’

Sten still lives in the hills above Stroud in the Cotswolds. After playing Roger in Swallows & Amazons he appeared in a Weetabix commercial for Claude and an industrial film for Rank as a school boy in a story a-kin to the Seven Ages of Man. A countryman by nature, he left acting behind him and literally moved on. After years spent travelling around France, Spain and Morocco, often fruit-picking or working in vineyards, he used his training at Pershore College of Horticulture to work locally as a gardener. Forty years on he still has the same thick dark hair and sudden smile.

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This year, while Swallows & Amazons (1974) was shown on the big screen in London, Cider with Rosie was shown to a local audience at the Whiteway Village Hall – double helpings of nostalgia for those who were able to re-live their own childhood as well as Laurie Lee’s.

Roger and Mother with the telegram

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What’s it like to watch the film again?

Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville as the Walker children in 1973

In this morning’s despatches ~ via the Royal Mail ~ a letter arrived saying, ‘I’m sure we would all love to know how the recent screening of the film went and how you enjoyed the experience.’

Last Sunday, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon joined me at the Michael Croft Theatre for a special screening of Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 adaption of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ put on for an audience of excited children by Dulwich Film. We hadn’t watched the movie together since the premiere at the ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue in 1974. I hadn’t even seen Sten since that year. As we walked into the darkened auditorium, Sten’s girlfriend, who struck me as being rather special, insisted that we sat together to watch the film. 

Owl hoots trimmed

Blurred memories do come rushing back. I never managed to produce a real owl hoot.  Simon could – and I am sure Captain Nancy was adept, but it was all the trying to that brought us together.

Landing place

Director Claude Whatham at the Landing Place on Wild Cat Island with Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville

And as I watched the one thing that really struck me was, ‘How big Landing Place beach was then!’  I found myself leaning over and whispering to Sten that it has all but washed away. He didn’t know that the beach had been especially constructed for the film. It had been kept a secret.

Landing place with Claude

Rehearsing a scene on the Landing Place with Swallow

Our experience of making the film in 1973 was really quite technical. It was a wet summer and we had something of a battle against the elements to complete the scenes scheduled for each day. Back then, the aim was to capture enough footage to make the equivalent of 4 minutes of film in the final edit. You’d think this would be easy but each frame had to bear scrutiny on the big screen.  Since attention to detail was paramount, even making scrambled eggs in front of the camera was a demanding task.

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As the wind blew north up Coniston Water we joined in the concentration required for the task of film-making. We were in Cumbria to work back then, even if working in the Lake District was something of an adventure, something we did for fun.

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Sten Grendon on set with Claude Whatham and Suzanna Hamilton

So when we relax back and watch the film now we have a huge appreciation of what Claude Whatham put together. We laughed out loud, appreciating the humour. Much of this was generated by the serious expression on Roger’s face when he was picking up the why and wherefore of how something worked for the first time. It’s been a rare and ageless form of comedy that children loved forty years ago and evidently still love today. They always notice, ‘the bit when Roger doesn’t realise the cap is on the telescope.’ Adults love the fact that Roger always seems to be eating.

‘Oh yes!’ Sten remembered afterwards. ‘That pork pie I ate standing in the Amazon River. I was offered the choice of eating a meat pie or an apple. Well, I chose the pie, but it wasn’t so great when I had to eat another for the second take, and then another two for a different camera set-up.’

Isn’t it funny how well one can remember food?

Sten and Suzanna in camp

Sten Grendon as Roger Walker and Suzanna Hamilton as Susan Walker on Peel Island

‘Are you really old?’

‘Not so very old, by I was younger then,’ as Virginia McKenna said in the guise of Mrs Walker remembering her days camping in homemade tents. I bet someone asked Arthur Ransome the very same question.

I grew taller and had my teeth put straight. Same straggly hair. Sten still has all his thick dark hair and is quite tall himself. He works as a gardener now. Suzanna still has the biggest smile. She is the one who now needs to stand on a camera box but then she is the only one of us who does. What I mean to say is that she is the professional actress. We just turn up for fun.

‘And the others?’

I don’t know. Really, I don’t know. I’d love to see them again but am quietly waiting for them to contact me.  I hope they do. I have the first proof of a book to send them – it’s the diary I kept whilst making the film, forty years ago.

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Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon in 2013

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Humor, Humour, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story