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, was marked by a special screening of the film at the Alhambra in Keswick.
Kerry Derbyshire, who played Vicky’s nurse came on stage and we demonstrated how one of the visual effects was achieved.
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.
Nick Newby from Nicole End Marine came along to tell us how the elegant Lakeland steamer, the Lady Derwentwater, had been converted for her starring role as Captain Flint’s houseboat. She was appropriately dressed 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, 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.
I was invited to talk about making the BBC TV classic serial ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ at the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club to help celebrate their 80th Anniversary. Titmouse, then 1930s dinghy owned by Hunter’s Yard had been brought down from Ludham for the occasion.
The bonus was that I was able to go sailing in one of the classic boats gathered at the club for their Open Day.
Geoff and Rose Angell kindly took me out on Pippa, their beautiful yacht with brown sails that appeared in ‘The Big Six’. I am sure Arthur Ransome would have loved her.
I’d spent nine months working with the BBC production back in 1983 when it had been my job to cast the children and teenagers who appear in the drama, many of whom needed genuine Norfolk accents.
We had been looking for young actors who could swim well and were able handle boats. We then spent three months filming in East Anglia when I looked after the children and helped rehearse their lines. I set up this shot for the cover of the Puffin paperback that accompanied the series.
~Author Sophie Neville giving a talk at the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club~
At a forum organised after my talk, Pat Simpson from Stalham Yacht Services explained how he found one of the stars of the series – an old lifeboat suitable to play the Death and Glory. She had been brought from where she is kept at Belaugh for the evening. You can see more photographs of her in the previous blog post here.
Pat provided a number of other vessels for the series including Buttercup and support boats such as the safely boat, a large modern cruiser used as a school room along with another for the costume and make up personnel. He explained that this came as a god-send as boat rentals had not been good that summer. Working on the series was harder than he imagined, ‘We once had to take a boat from Regan to Horning Hall overnight’ but he was pleased that ‘after three months of concentrated work, we got it all done.’
Robin Richardson, who co-owned Pippa back in 1983, explained how the shot of her being cast adrift was achieved. This wasn’t as easy as first thought as even when Simon Hawes, who was playing George Owdon, flung her stem line on the deck, a gentle breeze was blowing her back against the staithe. ‘Pippa didn’t want to go anywhere’. Robin had to stage the action by throwing out a mud anchor, climbing under her awning and pulling on the line to create the effect of a boat drifting out of control into potential danger. Pippa’s white canvas cover is pulled back here, but you can imagine the scene.
He was on location when Henry Dimbleby, who played Tom Dudgeon, was attempting to tow the Teasel under Potter Heigham bridge. He was rowing Titmouse, pulling hard on the oars but nothing was happening. ‘Stop for lunch,’ Robin advised the director, ‘and the tide will turn.’ This they did, and Henry we able to row under the bridge, towing the Teasel quite easily. Hunter’s Yard, who own Lullaby, who played the Teasle, could not bring her down for the weekend as she had been leased out with other boats, but they sent her transom, painted with her stage name.
Robin Richardson owns the ‘Slipstream’ class dinghy called Spindrift who played Shooting Star in the serial. She was built by her father but couldn’t be with us as they were not able to complete her winter maintenance in time but Richard Hattersley said she came tenth in this year’s Three Rivers race when only 15 of the 98 entries actually finished. It’s a 24 hour endurance challenge, which they completed despite light winds. He sent me this shot, ‘of her battling it out with much larger Thames A Raters.’
I was shown a wonderful black and white photograph of the vessel used to play the Cachalot. She was skippered in the series by the film actor Sam Kelly in the role of the unnamed pike fishermen who the Death and Glory boys simply called ‘Sir’. She is seen here with John Boswell, her real owner who has sadly passed away. His son, the artist Patrick Boswell, brought along an album of behind-the-scenes photos.
The theme of the weekend was ‘Boats of the 1930s’. I explained how Swallow, the dinghy used in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ originally came from Burnham-on-Sea where she was made by W. King and Sons to be used as a run-a-round boat. She was stabilised by a keel that ran the length of the hull, as Ransome described. It makes her rather difficult to turn. You can sail her today and is in the Lake District right now. Please see Sailransome for details.
There was quite a bit of interest in memorabilia from the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I bought along the white elephant flag captured from Captain Flint’s houseboat in the 1974 film, which was approved by a young Amazon pirate.
After a celebratory dinner, David and Nicky Talbot invited me to spend the night in the comfortable for’ard cabin of Kingfisher, a 1970’s motor yacht moored at the club.
I woke early on the Sunday morning to find mist hanging above the water as the sun was rising on what proved to be another sunny day with a fair wind for sailing.
After breakfast aboard, I was invited out in the 1930s river cruiser ‘Water Rail’, who had also appeared in the serial. We took her down the River Bure to her mooring in Horning where she is still part of the scene.
It was wonderful to be out on the waterways of Norfolk, passing traditional buildings. This was a stretch of river never featured in the television drama as Rosemary Leach, who played Mrs Barrable, took Dick and Dorothea from Wroxham to Horning in a trap pulled by Rufus the pony. One reason for this was that in 1983 we had to use the North Norfolk Steam Railway, since Wroxham Station had been modernised but Joe Waters, the producer, said he wanted to add variety by featuring a pony rather than a motorboat.
We encountered a number of period cruisers, although Janca, who we used to play the Hullabaloos’ Margoletta, sadly could not be with us, as she is still under repair.
However, by motoring into Horning ourselves, we passed The Swan Inn and Horning Staithe where a number of scenes had been shot, including some that featured Julian Fellowes and Sarah Crowden, playing the hated Hullabaloos. You can see photographs of them in an earlier post here.
~Horning Staithe in Norfolk showing The Swan Inn~
Another vessel that interested me was a river launch that reminded me of the 1901 steamboat Daffodil, which I renovated with my father in 1978. I have photographs of her here.
You can read more about the traditional boats used in the series by clicking here.
Gerry Spiller, has written from Woodbridge in Suffolk, to say that she has found an oar labelled TITMOUSE, bought at a boat jumble. Could this date from the early 1930? Does anyone have the pair?
The DVD of the serial is now available on a re-mastered DVD, available from Amazon here
(Do not be tempted by the old version with a more colourful cover as the image quality is very poor)
~Lesley Bennett playing Mate Peggy in 1974 (copyright:StudioCanal)~
When I met up with Lesley Bennett in the Netherlands, 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 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. 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. The horrifying thing was that when my father tested one, it didn’t work.
~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 Lucy 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.
~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.
~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 David Watkin 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.
~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.
If you enjoy ebooks, similar publication is available from all stockist for £2.99, including Amazon Kindle.
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.
~ The Swallows find Titty sleeping in Amazon near Cormorant Island ~
~ Titty and Susan sail Amazon back to Wild Cat Island ~
~ Sailing Swallow and 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 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.
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.
~ 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.
3rd June 2017, marked the 50th Anniversary of Arthur Ransome’s death – a day to remember his books and the inspiration they have brought to our lives, not least since he encouraged the pursuit of outdoor activites such as sailing and camping, along with reading, writing and keeping a ship’s log. I’m not sure what he’d think of some of the conversations I’ve had about Swallows and Amazons but at least his well-loved story is being talked about.
Last time I gave a Q&A about the 1974 movie of ‘Swallow and Amazons’ at a cinema, I was interviewed by the actress Diana Quick, which was wonderful as she was so easy to talk to. She asked a few questions that have not come up before.
Did you children feel the film was like the book?
Very much so, I’d read most of the books in the series and ‘Swallows and Amazons’ twice. Richard Pilbrow, the producer was aiming to keep as close to the Arthur Ransome’s well-known story as possible. I never saw David Wood’s script, but simply sung out Titty’s dialogue from my Puffin paperback. It was amazing to find ourselves in Secret Harbour, just has Ransome had depicted it. We were rather disappointed that the storm scene was cut but could appreciate that ‘you can’t have everything’.
How much time did you have to get to know one another?
Not long, only two or three days. The weather wasn’t that good but we were taken out sailing which was fun and Virginia McKenna was wonderful at getting us to play games that broke the ice. We played consequences with folded strips of paper, the results of which made us laugh a great deal.
Would you have felt able to take a boat out as Titty does, on your own at night?
Yes, I managed to launch Amazon and row her out of Secret Harbour in one take, but I was aged twelve, rather than nine, which is Titty’s age in the book. Amazon was a very easy dinghy to handle and had been used in the BBC serial made in 1962, when Ransome was alive.
Although he claimed to have read ‘Swallows and Amazons’ forty-two times, David Blagdon, our sailing director, forgot that Titty was meant to sail Amazon back to Wild Cat Island, so I never practiced taking the helm, or sailing her alone. In the end the Mate Susan took my place, which I felt was a bit of a shame as in the book Titty sailed her back with John crewing.
It is interesting that Titty, the most adventurous character was played by you who have gone on to lead an adventurous life.
It may be partly the way I’d been raised. My father grew up reading the first editions of Ransome’s books in the 1930s and we often went camping as a family, certainly every summer holiday. My mother still goes camping at the age of eighty.
Perhaps the director, Claude Whatham recognised an adventurous spirit. I always need to see around the next corner. I was hugely inspired to travel by my father and by friends at university, particularly Alastair Fothergill who has spent his whole life travelling while making wildlife films, most recently African Cats, Chimpanzee, Bears and Monkey Kingdom for DisneyNature.
Have you got any tips for camping?
Yes! There is an art to camping:
You can always fill a metal water bottle with hot water at night and use it as a hot-water bottle in your sleeping bag. If you get thirsty later you can always take a drink without having to get up.
I usually keep my clothes for the next day with me in my sleeping bag so they stay warm and dry.
It’s important to keep tents clean. Never brush your hair inside a tent and never let anyone step of the fly sheet when they are folding it up otherwise you risk having footprints on the ceiling.
Make sure you keep a supply of dry firewood.
There are dangers to camping: always set down a cup on the ground before filling it with boiling water from a kettle. It is too easy to get burnt by super-heated water if you hold it.
I pack a leather glove or pot holders for cooking over camp fires.
Take care about where you place knives, barbeque grids or pans as it is easy for others to tread on them in the dark.
Make sure your torch is in the same place every night. I keep a small torch in my washbag.
Take a hair-dryer. If there is ever an electricity supply you can use it to heat your tent or dry out wet clothes and sleeping bags. We got soaked riding through New Zealand once but arrived at a sheep shears’ shed and found great comfort in drying our socks. I gave this task to rather an annoying German man who took such pride it doing the job thoroughly that he regained our respect on a number of levels.
Enjoy every moment.
If anyone has any questions, please leave a comment below.
On Saturday 13th May members of the Nancy Blackett Trust hosted an Arthur Ransome Jamboree at Pin Mill in Suffolk.
Although Ransome is remembered for his ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books set in the Lake District, he moved to the east coast of Suffolk in 1935 where he set a number of other books in the series. It seemed fitting to mark the 80th anniversary of the publication of his inspirational sailing book ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’ that begins at Pin Mill.
It is possible go aboard the Goblin, since she was modelled on Ransome’s own favourite little yacht, the Nancy Blackett. I joined her at The Royal Harwich Yacht Club where she was moored alongside Peter Duck one of his other much-loved yachts, named after the adventurous book he wrote that begins in Lowestoft. I met up with Octavia Pollock, a feature writer from Country Life, and walked down the riverside to enjoy supper at the Butt and Oyster in Pin Mill where Ransome himself often ate.
Soon after leaving university, I worked behind the camera on the BBC TV adaptations of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, Ransome’s two books set on the Norfolk Broads, in which the Coots also visit Beccles in Suffolk.
It was the Swallows who made it to Pin Mill. I first went there when The Arthur Ransome Society asked me to give a talk about making the BBC TV serial entitled, ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’ and signed copies of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS and AMAZONS – 1974’.
~The Orwell at Low tide~
During the Jamboree celebrations, Arthur Ransome’s biographer Professor Hugh Brogan was interviewed by erstwhile BBC reporter Tim Fenton at the Pin Mill Sailing Club where author Julia Jones also spoke about her children’s books.
~ Sophie Neville ~
This VisitEngland event was great fun. There was a geo-caching route along the footpath from Shotley to Pin Mill. Marine artists Claudia Myatt and Christine Bryant hosted drop-in sessions on the riverside where visitors could also find the Rabble Chorus singing.
~Mugs with artwork by Claudia Myatt sold in aid of the Nancy Blackett Trust~
There was an outdoor installation of old Pin Mill images enabling you to look back in time. These were taken by Arthur Ransome himself of the building of his boat Selina King at King’s boatyard nearby. It was the first public exhibition of these pictures ever seen and was appreciate by the hundreds of visitors who turned up.
The Pin Mill Studio also hosted an exhibition of photographs from the restoration of Melissa, a barge restored to her former glory by Webb’s boatyard, with additional archive images of Pin Mill from the early 1900’s.
The Vintage Mobile Cinema, as seen on BBC Television’s Reel History of Britain, screened unique archive film of Pin Mill and Shotley.
~The Nancy Blackett in her 85th year~
A Pin Mill ‘Wooden Boat’ race was held along the stream leading down to the river and you could take a ride on the Victorian swing boats on the Common as in years gone by. There was a ‘pirates and seafarers’ fancy dress competition for children and an Arthur Ransome lookalike competition (pipe and moustache) along with stalls and sideshows from local groups, charities and organisations.
Live music, including shanties from Pin Mill favourites, High Water Mark and a performance of We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea by pupils from Holbrook Academy who entertained visitors while cream teas, a barbecue and refreshments were served at the Butt and Oyster and Pin Mill Sailing Club.
T-shirts celebrating this special anniversary were sold along with gifts to generate funds for The Nancy Blackett Trust, who celebrate their 20th anniversary this year.
Do let us know if you came along by leaving a comment!
The long-awaited second edition of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS (1974)’ was being published in paperback by The Lutterworth Press in May 2017. It is available from their website here
This memoir of an odd thing that happened in the early 1970s is similar to the first edition but has a new cover and includes a few more stories, photographs and names from the ‘seventies that have floated to the surface. It compliments StudioCanal’s 40th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray and makes a good present for anyone who has grown up watching the 1974 film.
Sophie signed copies of her books at the Tavistock Festival and gave a talk at the Roseland Festival in St Mawes before a screening of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) at the lovely Hotel Tresanton cinema.
A second edition of the ebook ‘The Secrets of Filming ‘SWALLOWS & AMAZONS'(1974) is now available on Amazon Kindle, Smashwords, itunes, Kobo, and Nook for £2.99 . You can download this free of charge if you already own the first edition.
If you already have a copy of the ebook, contact a Customer Advisor and ask for a free update. You just need to give Kindle the ebook’s ASIN number. The ISBN for all online editions except Kindle is: ISBN 9781311761927
Since being contacted by others who were involved in the filming, I have been able to add a few more anecdotes and images, including this beautiful shot of Virginia McKenna in 1973 kindly sent in by the photographer Philip Hatfield.
I found a copy of my original contract for the film and when Jean McGill rang from Bowness, a few more secrets floated to the surface.
CBBCTV’s Cinemaniacs interviewed the screenwriter David Wood and myself on how the original movie of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was made back in the summer of 1973. The idea was to use 30 second clips, so please excuse my over-the-top reactions, but you can watch the whole recording below.
‘This has to be one of the most delightful interviews in my recent memory.’ Tim Lewis, USA
As president of The Arthur Ransome Society, I am keen to promote ‘Swallows and Amazons’, emphasizing the aspect that children today can enjoy the outdoor activities advocated by Arthur Ransome back in the 1930s.
ITV reporter Nina Nannar bravely came out sailing with me in a scow, rigged like Swallow with a balanced lug sail, to experience the excitement of letting the wind take us along at speed.
One of the shots was used on ITV on Thursday 28th July as a trailer for the next day:
When it came to the News on Friday 29th July, ITV showed clips of the new movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, being launched on 19th August 2016. The item was shown on the News in New Zealand on 5th August. A viewer wrote in saying:
‘Great to see a full 3+ minutes about the new S&A film on NZ TV news tonight.Sophie Nevilledid a great job of promoting the value for modern kids to get out on the water or under canvas.’
It stars Ralph Spall, Kelly Macdonald & Andrew Scott, seen here spying on Captain Flint.
After a clip from ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) starring Virginia McKenna
in which I played her daughter, Titty Walker or rather Able-seaman Titty,
they showed children today learning to sail, unaccompanied by adults.
Young children were crewing for the junior instructors, aged 16 and 17