Lat time ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) was screened on BBC Two, at least one film fan held a TV party with a 1930’s theme. Others ‘stoked up the wood-burner and settled down to spend an afternoon re-living summer in the Lake District’, adding, ‘It is as if Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – a timeless classic to watch again and again.’
For the latest edition of the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ with details of where the film was made and what those who appeared in it are doing now, Please click here
The ebook, entitled ‘The secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ is similar with a few more stories for adult readers and has links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It can be downloaded from iTunes, Smashwords,Kobo and Amazon Kindle
It would be lovely to hear from anyone who saw it in the cinema when it first came out in cinemas in the summer of 1974 – more than forty-five years ago.
Simon Hodkin kindly sent in this cinema programme that he has kept since watching the movie when he was a boy growing up in North Wales.
Arthur Herbertson managed to track down these rare publicity sheets for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ typical of movie games of the period:
Arthur has a collection of the four jigsaw puzzles and the Puffin paperback that came out with the film.
There was a vinyl LP narrated by the screenwriter David Wood that you can still purchase.
Arthur found a publicity brochure that I had never seen before.
To read comments from people who saw the film at the cinema in 1974, please click here
The original story was written by Arthur Ransome in 1929 ninety years ago, so the film hits the half-way mark between the original readers and today’s audience. It’s funny, the critics in 1974 are asking the same question as raised in the billing this week: Do ‘modern youngsters struggle to relate to such old-fashioned game playing’?
Do add your thoughts to the comments below.
~Billing in the Christmas edition of the Radio Times 2019~
~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.
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
Since Classic TV Press published ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’ in 2014, a number of facts have floated to the surface. The most amazing recollection was one that occurred to my mother.
‘The letter inviting you to come for an interview for a part in the film was addressed to your father. He was working abroad when it arrived. I never, ever opened his mail but something urged me to open that one envelope. It was a good thing I did as he was away for three weeks and we would have missed the opportunity altogether.’ She was amazed by the contents and replied at once, sending a photograph to Theatre Projects. I think it was this rather miserable one of me wearing a Laura Ashley dress.
Sophie Neville in 1972
A date was made to meet the director. I now remember that I was taken up to Long Acre in the West End to meet Claude Whatham very soon after Dad arrived back from his business trip. We walked through Soho and visited a Chinese grocery store on the way home.
Daphne Neville on HTV in 1973
‘I was never paid to work on the set as chaperone,’ Mum told me. ‘Neither was Jane. We were just happy that our expenses were covered but it ended up costing me quite a bit as I had to travel back to Bristol to work now and again.’ She was working for HTV as a television presenter alongside Jan Leeming, who is currently appearing on ‘The Real Marigold Hotel’. For the photo of them both on an HTV West show, please click here
Jean McGill said she didn’t get paid for acting as the Unit Nurse, as far as she could remember, ‘But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.’
The most exciting thing was meeting Kerry Darbyshire, who played Vicky’s nurse, at Zeffirelli’s cinema in Ambleside for the 40th Anniversary screening of the film. I learnt to my horror that I had mis-spelt her name in the credits I gave the actors. All I had to go on was her signature in the back of my copy of the hardback book of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ where I’d collected autographs.
Kerry laughed, telling me, ‘I should have had more legible handwriting.’ She appeared in the film quite a bit. ‘It was a pity I wasn’t able to bring my own child. She was the exact same age and colouring as the little girl they found to play baby Vicky.’ Kerry was with us in the compartment of the train on day one of the shoot. ‘I found it very difficult to laugh with you when the train went into the tunnel.’ I couldn’t think what she meant at first but it was the laughter that followed Virginia McKenna’s line: ‘He’d say, “Just look at that scenery”.’ at the moment the train goes into a dark tunnel. ‘You children found it no problem at all, but I couldn’t laugh. I was too shy.’ Zeffirelli’s are next screening ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) at 7.30pm on 2nd March.
I never knew the name of the snake wrangler – who brought the charcoal burners’ adder along, but Ken Foster wrote in recently to say it was his father, John Foster whose family farmed near Satterthwaite. He was once employed as an assistant at the fresh-water biology research establishment at Windermere and became a biological specimen supplier. You can read more about his unusual occupation here
Simon West, who played Captain John, remembered that Claude Whatham often used to take us for a quick run before going for a take. It freshened us up and was appropriate when we had to run into shot, slightly out of breath.
One little girl wrote to tell me how she pulls her dress over her knees just as I did when I played Titty, as I got rather cold in a scene when were were first sailing Swallow to the island.
George Marshall, the veteran film accountant, assured me we had a very talented film crew. Mark Birmingham, a film producer currently working on the bio-pic of Noel Coward, knew quite a few of the individuals working on ‘Swallows & Amazons’ and told me of the amazing careers they went on to lead. ‘Your Best Boy, Denis Carrigan, went on to run Sherperton Studios.’ Denis worked closely with Ridley Scott who made many great films there. ‘Sadly one of the other electricians died when he grabbed a live cable.’
Other people have written with interesting stories relating to the film locations.
‘The shop in Woodland Road was my grandfather Tom Kirkbride’s cobblers shop from 1930s to 1956,’ Brian Salisbury wrote. ‘After he retired, the wooden building became Stan Cropper’s sweet shop doing a roaring trade with the boys at St Mary’s Boys School just along the road and the newly built Droomer Estate.’ This was the shop where we bought rope for the Light House Tree that is now a barber’s in Windermere. To read more about this location and others in Windermere, please click here
If you live in France you can order a Kindle copy of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ – which is full of behind-the-scenes photos and links to home-movie footage taken on location, although the text is in English. The paperback makes a good present for students of Media Studies, Drama or Film:
Swallows & Amazons tours of the Lake District ~ including a trip on the steam train, led by Peter Walker of Mountain Goat in Windermere can be booked for groups by request. A must for overseas visitors. To read about this do go to: ‘In Search of our old Film Locations’. For booking details please click here.
Swallow, the dinghy used in the film, is currently in East Anglia. For opportunities to sail her yourself please click here
If you would like to know how the movie of Swallows & Amazons (1974) was made and know where the real locations can be found, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons(1974)’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon and Smashwords for £2.99. The paperback was launched to mark the 40th anniversary of the film’s release and is available online here.
The paperback, 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.
If you have any questions about making the film, please add them to the comments below, and I will get back to you.
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 ebook has been doing well in the Amazon charts and hit Number 1 in the category ‘Stage and Theatre’.
A preview of what the book holds in store can be watched here:
When I saw Simon West recently he told me that his father would love to see a copy of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’.
Nigel West soon wrote to say:
‘…it makes fascinating reading. Simon told me very little in the way of detail about his experiences when filming so your account is very welcome.Simon’s mother, Dorothy, and I only visited the Lake District once during that period and then we only saw Simon fairly briefly and saw nothing of the filming. Things that I can recall about the whole experience I will describe below.
‘Our family took up dinghy sailing when I built a Mirror dinghy in our dining room at home. It was built from a flat-pack and took nearly a year to construct, in my spare time, during which the family had to eat meals in the sitting room. I had been sailing on the Norfolk Broads with friends a few times in my college days, which had started my interest in boating. The family joined the Dorchester Sailing Club which was based on an old gravel pit not far from our home. Eventually we also acquired two children’s Optimist dinghies for Virginia and Simon, who spent many weekends racing their boats at open meetings around the country.’
‘One day at the club a notice appeared on the notice board asking children with sailing experience to audition for acting parts in a film to be made of Swallows and Amazons. Virginia immediately expressed interest and pressured Dorothy and me to take her to the auditions in London. We were reluctant to agree because we thought her chance of success would be so slim with thousands of other applicants, many with acting experience, queueing up for parts. Then, to my surprise, Simon said he was also interested, with his eye on the part of John, but surely, I thought, he would be too young and too short for that part and he had pooh-poohed the idea of trying for Roger.
‘As it happened we were due to visit Dorothy’s sister, who lived south of London, in Sussex, on the Saturday of the auditions, so we decided that a small detour would allow the children to attend without too much problem. Sadly Virginia fell at the first interview while Simon, to our utter amazement, won through that and all the other stages of selection to win the part of John. How pleased we were for him and proud – and sorry for Virginia who took her disappointment so well. You should ask Simon about the later stages of selection that included a long weekend living on an old motor torpedo boat at Burnham-on-Crouch having, among other things, his sailing proficiency assessed.
‘From the few things that Simon did tell us about the filming, I was extraordinarily impressed by the maturity he had so clearly gained in the whole experience. He explained how conscious he was of the crucial part he had to play in getting it right, in front of the camera, because the success of the whole project depended on that. With dozens of adults all working flat out as a team to a tight schedule meant that he had to concentrate on getting it right first time – a very maturing experience for an 11 year-old taking time out from his first year at secondary school.’
‘With Simon having no acting experience I was intrigued to know how Claude Watham had managed to get what he wanted from his young cast. Simon explained one technique that Claude had used to stop them looking wooden in front of the camera. He would make sure they knew their lines, send the children to run to some point and back again, then shoot the scene while they were still animated from the running.
‘One aspect of the production mentioned in your book is the studio post-sychronisation. I can remember taking Simon up to Elstree Studios in Borehamwood to re-record some of the dialogue, sometime after the filming had been completed. Maybe you did the same. Simon had to wear headphones to listen to the film dialogue, while watching a scene from the film, and to repeat to a microphone the dialogue in exact synchronism with what he heard in the headphones and saw on the film. He said it was an extremely difficult thing to do, to talk over one’s own voice, exactly, and then to give it the right expression. I imagine it needs a lot of practice to get it right. The object was, of course, to dub over recorded dialogue which had either been poorly recorded or which included extraneous noise.
‘Finally, I did manage to watch one scene filmed, but from a great distance, which you do mention in your book, and that was the Darien scene shot at Runnymede sometime much later in the year. In 1973 it was the fashion for all schoolboys to wear their hair indecently long. At Simon’s school the rule was that the hair was just allowed to touch the collar but not an inch longer. Simon’s hair was no exception but he had had it shorn for and throughout the filming and it had just started to grow back when he was summoned to the Runnymede shoot. On our arrival at Runnymede Simon was immediately sat on a chair and had his locks shorn once again. I think he should have been paid a special indignity fee for that day’s work.’
‘I remember watching the S&A float in the Lord Mayor’s Show pass by but the float passed too quickly to let you all spot our family in the crowd.
‘I also remember attending the film’s premier at the cinema in Shaftesbury Avenue, also attended by some minor member of royalty. It was a grand event and brought home to me that this was not some trivial little children’s entertainment but was a full length feature film of some standing. It must have been shown on British TV a dozen times over the years, particularly at Christmas, so it has stood the test of time by anybody’s standards.
‘That reminds me that at one point we made a half-hearted attempt to get Simon into Equity but without success. The result was that Simon only got paid a daily fee for his work on the film, with no residual payments for TV showings, overseas viewings or video and DVD earnings, to say nothing of his image appearing on a number of jigsaws!
‘You probably know that Simon also acted in a film made for children’s television in 1974, when he took the title role in Sam and the River. This was recorded on film and was shown on BBC TV in the form of six 30 minute episodes. It was before the days of video recorders so we have only ever seen the original transmission. Fifteen years ago I approached the production company to see if I could obtain a copy, but they had been reorganised since the film was shot and had kept no copy, nor record, of the production. I then approached the BBC and they did a search for me but they drew a blank. At one stage the BBC had a Philistine in charge who infamously threw out masses of, now priceless, BBC archives as being a waste of space. One day I hope to put a name to him. Simon has since found that the BFI have an archive copy of Sam and the River so I will approach them, but they do emphasise that they have no authority to make or issue copies of archive films. Might, however, get them to show it to us one day perhaps.’
There were four jigsaws issued with the film. There is full image of the jigsaw above on an earlier post.
When Sten Grendon was given the part of Roger in Swallows & Amazons (1974), his mother Jane Grendon came up to the Lake District with him to work as a chaperone, looking after all the children appearing in the movie.
Jane said that before filming began,
‘…one of the very first things we were asked was, ‘can Sten swim?”
‘I know he could doggy paddle. Neville organised swimming lessons at Pitville Pool, Cheltenham which included jumping off the diving boards. At the time I didn’t know why and I don’t think Sten is a natural in the water and the swimming lessons didn’t prove very successful. Claude told me – at the end of filming I think, when he gave me a copy of he original script – these lessons were because in the original script Roger was to jump in the water after Uncle Jim walked the plank.’
Jane sent me a copy of the page in question. I had not seen it before:
‘There are some personal memories. An aunt gave me the book for my birthday and I tried reading it but I hated all the technical boating details and I thought the children rather priggish so I didn’t enjoy it one bit and so was rather downhearted for Sten to be part of a story I hadn’t liked.’
Jane and her husband lived deep in the Cotswold countryside, at the rural Whiteway community, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. As I recollect, they had both qualified as teachers.
‘At the time of casting and during all the arrangements we had no phone at home and had to rely on a neighbour and the production team used to hold on while Ros came and fetched me! They must have really been fed up as it must have taken 10 minutes or so sometimes for me to get to the phone!’
Jane hadn’t imagined that she would end up in costume herself, if only for a day. She looked wonderful.
‘…. so there I was – a naïve, country girl flung into this alien world of a film unit. I was like a fish out of water! But I think it came out in your account that I related to you children better than I did to the adults around.’
Jane’s husband Michael was able to bring Sten’s sister, their little daughter Jo, up to watch the filming over half-term.
That summer Jane appeared in costume once more when Claude Whatham asked if Sten Grendon could also appear in a commercial he was directing for Weetabix, back in Gloucestershire at harvest time. This time she found herself on location not far from her own home and was always smiling.
Jane still lives the same house. Her husband Michael has retired from teaching and they have just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
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 70,000-word memoir.
“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.
From ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ by Sophie Neville
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
Also available for other reading devices on Smashwords
Thanks 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, you can download a free Kindle app.
Thanks to the support of readers and reviewers I was brave enough to share my story, ‘Funnily Enough’ with the panel of judges at The International Rubery Book Award. I now have a cut glass trophy, which has its own silk-lined box.