Copyright Sophie Neville
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To read the filmography posts about the 1974 film please go to ~ https://sophieneville.net/category/autobiography/
What a day!
A bright sunny day on Derwentwater. I wore what was my favourite costume, not least because I had the option of wearing a vest beneath the blouse and I didn’t have to worry about the divided skirt. I went to such an old fashioned school that I had a pair of grey flannel culottes myself, to wear on the games field, and thought them very much the sort of thing Titty would have worn. Roger, meanwhile was in long shorts or knickerbockers as the real Altounyan children would have called them, kept up with a snake belt. His even longer underwear was an item requested by Claude Whatham the director who, being born in the 1920s himself, had worn exactly the same sort of underpants as a child. As the day warmed up Claude stripped down to a pair of navy blue taylored shorts and sailing shoes. We were on a desert island after all. Even if it was a desert island in the Lake District.
In Arthur Ransome’s book of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ the hunt for the treasure is slightly different and Captain Flint’s trunk lies buried under rocks. I wasn’t expecting the set-up with the tree trunk, although I think it works well and looks good, giving movement to the sequence. The only hesitation was that Claude didn’t want me to get hit by the rocks as they slid off. This was a pity as I would have jumped aside.
I am not sure why the Amazon had not been bailed out. I can remember having to lie in the bilge water, which proved cold and uncomfortable. Perhaps it gave my performance an edge. Titty would have been cold and stiff aftrer a night wrapped in the sail. Great grey clouds were gathering by then and we were all getting tired.
Being together in a confinded space becomes difficult to endure after while, not least when the space is a pontoon on a lake with not much to sit on. Small boys tend to muck about and become annoying when they are bored. The time had come when someone was going to crack – and they did. The result was silence. A sobering moment. And one very wet pair of knickerbockers.
In the end three of us went home in wet underwear. Gareth Tandy, the third assistant director – who I think was only about 18 – was pushed in to the lake, this time to great hilarity.
The big question, of course, it what is the name of the island on Derwentwater that we used as the location for Cormorant Island? Duncan Hall has written in to suggest it is called Lingholm Island (or possibly One Tree Island)What is the name of the larger island, seen in the background of shots, that represents Wildcat Island? Is it Rampsholme Island?
I have one behind-the-scenes clip of the crew on the pontoon – shot on a sunny day, I think at the southern end of Coniston Water. It looks most bizarre. It was. You can see how crampt and overloaded we were and guess at the patience demanded of us all. Imagine how long it took to set up shots, while totally exposed to the elements. It was quite a stable raft but when we went for a take it was vital that everyone kept comepletly still or there would have been camera wobble. We used a conventional boat with a cabin when we filmed ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ on the Norfolk Broards ten years later in 1983. It proved much easier – but had more wobble.
Something very exciting happened last week. Suzanna Hamilton came to see me, bringing the photographs that she was given during the filming of Swallows and Amazons along with a bundle of papers. I immediately recognised the blue bound diary that she had kept. Her God-given sense of humour fills the pages.
Although Titty was the one who always kept the ship’s log in Arthur Ransome’s stories, we children all kept journals during the filming as part of our school work. It was quite a task.
Suzanna’s diary gives the story of making the film of Swallows and Amazons from the perspective of an actress, the actress she was then and ever more will be. Even before we began filming she was getting as excited as Susan about grog and molasses, calling us by our charcter names as Claude Whatham suggested.
Anna Scher ran the most wonderful children’s theatre club in Islington, which Zanna went to after school, along with Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson. I visited Anna Scher’s Theatre Club ten years later when I was casting children for the BBC drama serial of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. Although I didn’t find anyone there who could sail I held Anna Scher in huge admiration and respect, using her exercises when I was auditioning kids in Norfolk. She did so much for the young people of east London, giving children confidence with self-discipline aquired during their drama lessons and workshops.
David Wood, who wrote the screenplay of Swallows and Amazons, was already well known as an actor. Mum was rather in awe of him since he had played Johnny in Z Cars and had starred the feature film ‘If…’ alongside Malcolm McDowell. He had been a storyteller on the BBC Childrens Television programme we all adored called Jackanory. Suzanna had been involved in the same series when E.Nesbit’s ‘The Treasure Seekers’ had been read. She had also appeared in ‘The Edwardians’ form the book by E.Nesbit directed by James Cellan Jones in 1972. By coincidence Pauline Quirke played Eliza in ‘The Story of the Treasure Seekers’ in 1982 and I worked with her a few years later on Rockliffe’s Babies. My mother appeared in a pantomine David Wood wrote called The Gingerbread Man when it was produced at The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham. She wore red with a pill-box hat as Miss Ginger.
Since promoting my books at the London Book Fair 2012, great things have been happening ~ we have made it into the rank of ‘Bestselling Books’.
Funnily Enough has raced up the charts, and at the time of writing is in the upper Top Ten for Humour, Parenting & Families, and Self-Help!
~ Please see my ‘News’ page for stories ~
Ride the Wings of Morning is selling well. It is about the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ type of lifestyle that I led in Southern Africa after leaving the BBC. It is a book of letters, illustrated with sketches and maps that are in keeping with the inheritance Titty left me. Richard Pilbrow, the Producer of the movie Swallows and Amazons has kindly reviewed it ~ please see Reviews page
Forty years ago today we were filming with Virginia McKenna at the location used for Arthur Ransome’s Holly Howe above Coniston Water. It was a day of days – the sunshiny day that we had all be waiting for.
The buttercups and daisies were still out in the field that flows from Holly Howe to the lake. Roger was able to tack up the meadow to receive the despatches from Mrs Walker, described in the opening pages of Arthur Ransome’s book.
‘…Each crossing of the field brought him nearer to the farm. The wind was against him, and he was tacking up against it to the farm, where at the gate his patient mother was awaiting him.’
I don’t think you can tell that this section of the scene was recorded seven whole days later than the sequence that runs directly on from this when the Boy Roger delivers the very same ‘If not duffers’ telegram to Captain John. The hole that had been dug for the camera alongside our picnic had been filled in. You can see this from Mother’s perspective when I was milling about near the lake looking towards the island I couldn’t actually see.
Poor Sten, he had to run up the field on what proved to be our hottest day. I remember Jean McGill, the Unit Nurse ministering cool drinks and a flannel soaked in cool eau de Cologne to make sure he did not get dehydrated. We all wanted a go with the cool cloth on the back of our necks at lunch time.
It was good to escape the heat by getting out on the water. We shot the scene set on the old stone jetty at the boat houses below the farm when Titty leads ‘Good Queen Bess’ down to the harbour to inspect her ship. I didn’t realise she had a large box of matches in her hand. Virginia kept it a surprise from us in real life. I was excited to find out that Simon Holland, the Designer had painted the branded cover by hand.
As the Call Sheet specifies, our dinghy Swallow had been loaded with all the tents and camping equipment that had been on Peel Island the day before. I didn’t realise at the time quite how often the design team had struck camp and made it up again. I just sat on top of the equipment singing Adieu and Farewell, not very well, as we sailed out onto Coniston Water, waving goodbye to our Fair Spanish Ladies.
I am sure that we had already recorded the scene in David Wood’s screenplay when the Walker family arrive at Holly Howe, but Claude decided to take advantage of the golden light and shoot it again. I am sure this was a good decision. It had been a long day and we were tired but the excitement of our arrival is tangible.
My mother thought that Mrs and Mrs Jackson, Mrs Walker’s nurse and Vicky the ship’s baby, who are listed as Extras on the Call Sheet, were particularly well cast. It must have been a long day for them. It was a long hot day for all of us, but a happy day.
The girls who had been taken on as our Stand-in’s the day before did not seem to be around to help limit the hours we spent on set, but perhaps I am muddled. They may have only materialized on Peel Island at a later date.
What I really did not know, until I watched the documentary broadcast last Sunday, was that Mrs Batty, who held the lease on Bank Ground Farm, had locked out the crew. She explained that when she was originally asked if we could film on her property she did not quite realise the scale of operations and only asked for – or accepted – a location fee of £75. The arrival of the two red double-decker buses, the Lee Electric van, the generator and other lorries, not to mention the Make-up caravan rather daunted her, as did the furniture moving activities involved at the start of the filming when we shot the interior scenes. She said that she decided that £75 was not enough, padlocked her front gate and wouldn’t let them back in until they agreed to pay her £1,000. It was a lot of money, more than double the fee I received.
You may have seen the BBC documentary about the making of Swallows and Amazons, when Ben Fogle interviewed Suzanna Hamilton and myself at Bank Ground Farm for ‘Big Screen Britain’. This was re-packaged last year on a programme called Country Tracks. My father’s 16mm footage had been skilfully inter-cut with an interview with our Director, Claude Whatham. I did not know that it was being broadcast but was able to watch on-line.
Ronald Fraser! veteran of World War II movies who had won an award for playing Basil Allenby-Johnson in The Misfits had arrived on the shore of Coniston Water. Curiously so had two Stand-ins. A short lady for me, with dark hair, and a lady with blonde hair for Suzanna. I have blonde hair and Suzanna is dark, but that is how it was. The other four actors didn’t have stand-ins, which seemed odd. Simon West and Stephen Grendon, the two boys were younger than us, so that seemed odder. And we were some way into the filming. However the ladies were very excited about coming over to Peel Island. They sat in our positions and read our lines back to Ronald Fraser whilst the scene at the camp site was lit, and returned to stand-in for us later when his close-ups were shot. Somehow they managed to do this in scanty summer clothing dispite the brewing storm.
Our stand-ins got a lot of help from the crew as they went from boat to shore. We didn’t really, but then we were used to it and had to wear life-jackets. Mummy didn’t wear a life jacket, but she has always been surprising good at getting in and out of boats too.
My mother’s present day comment on the whole matter of my stand-in is concise: ‘I don’t think she was invited. I think she just turned up. Most unsuitable for a children’s film.’
The poor production team. I think the recording of our scene with Captain Flint on Peel Island went well, and that Claude Whatham the Director was happy with the result, but my diary reports how a Force 8 gale came in. The Call Sheet for 20th June documents how truly unpredictable the weather was. We had a ‘Fine Weather Call’, an ‘Alternative Dull Weather Call’, ‘Rain Cover’ in the Houseboat cabin and a pencilled-in end-plan entitled ‘Peel Island’. Richard Pilbrow, the Producer, had a 1970s embroidered patch sewn to his jeans which read: THE DECISION IS MAYBE AND THAT’S FINAL.
In Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons there is a dramatic storm with lashing rain. We were rather disappointed that it was not included in David Wood’s screenplay. It could have been shot that afternoon, but this was not to be. I can remember Mum saying, ‘You can’t have everything.’
What had been good about the 20th June was that we, the Swallows and the Amazons, were all together, not sailing but on Peel Island, with the novelty of working with Ronald Fraser for the first time. Kit Seymour, who played Nancy Blacket and Lesley Bennett in the role of her sister Peggy, had been so patient, waiting day after day for their scenes with their Uncle Jim to come up. They were stuck having endless lessons with Mrs Causey in the red double-decker bus most of the time. But the fact that they were on Stand-by was hugely helpful to the Production Manager who had to wrestle with the film schedule and Call Sheets.
As it was the storm blew hard but cleared the dull-weather clouds and the next day was glorious, one to remember forever…
The Lake District is very beautiful. The problem about filming there is that it can rain quite hard – heavely – was the word I used in 1973. By this stage in the filming of Swallows and Amazons Claude Whatham only had one ‘rain cover’ option. We were kept busy recording sea shanties with Virginia McKenna at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel by Lake Windermere while Dennis Lewiston, the DOP, lit Mrs Batty’s barn at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water. Arthur Ransome must have done much to revive the songs of the sea ~
We never got as far as the ranting and roaring bit in the film.
No one really knows how old this naval song is. The Oxford Book of Sea Songs, mentions it in the logbook of the Nellie of 1796, long before shanties really came extablished as a genre. All I know is that Titty loved it and was still singing it in Peter Duck when the song became quite useful for navigating the English Channel.
‘The first land we sighted was called the Dodman, Next Rame Head off Plymouth, Start, Portland and Wight; We sailed by Beachy, by Fairlight and Dover, And then we bore up for the South Foreland light,’ or sort of.
Walking into Mrs Batty’s barn that day was hugly excting. Simon Holland, the designer, had mounted Swallow on a cradle so that she could be rocked, as if by water, as the scenes of her sailing at night were shot. It was brilliant, she even went about. Moonlight wasn’t not a problem. Richard Pilbrow can correct me, but I think it was produced by a lamp called a ‘tall blonde’. I don’t think we had a wind machine. The Prop Men used a large sheet of cardboard to produce a breeze.
‘Wouldn’t Titty have liked this?’
‘Sailing like this in the dark.’
’57, 58, 60, 61…’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Can’t you hear it? The wind in the trees? We must be near the bank. Quick, Susan lower the sail! Roger, catch the yard as it comes down!’ Then there is a crunch as the Swallows hit a landing stage. All mocked up. Quite fun.
‘What about Titty?’
Amazon was placed on the same mounting. I climbed aboard and started wrapping myself up in her white sail.
Children always love the irony of John saying, ‘She’s at the camp. She’ll be allright. She’s got a tent,’ when the shot cuts to me looking damp and uncomfortable about sleeping in Amazon, anchored out on the water.
Later I wake up and come out from under the sail to hear the burgulars heaving Captain Flint’s trunk across Cormortant Island. All in all we achieved quite a bit on that wet day in Westmorland. Much safer and easier than being out on the water. Because the cradle was at waist height Claude was able to get lower angle shots than when out on the camera pontoon. I think Simon West, who played John, did really well. He managed to convince me that he was really sailing when I watched the film and I knew he wasn’t.
Back at our guest house in Ambleside there was a real life drama. Little Simon Price had gone missing. He was the small boy last seen on the beach at Rio, having his shorts pulled up by his sister. The Police were called and everything. But as in a lot of real life situations, things were sorted out, and we returned to the mundane world of maths lessons. I was tutored by Helen, one of the students at the Charlotte Mason College of Education who was also lodging at Oaklands as Mrs Causey, our teacher, could not ‘do modern Maths.’
I did not invisage it beforehand, but at this point in my life I became one of the actors who played Robinson Crusoe in film, with Virginia McKenna taking the part of Man Friday. It would come across rather well on a chat show. The audience would be taken unawares and we could meet the other actors who took the same parts after us. I am sure they were stranded on warmer desert islands.
Losing a milk tooth when you are twelve-and-a-half years old is really rather embarrassing. When you are in the middle of appearing in a feature film it’s disastrous. Not only was the gap sore but since it was an upper tooth at the front of my mouth the continuity of the whole movie was blown. I think today they may have tried to fit a bridge but Claude Whatham, the Director decided he would just have to live with the problem. I spent the next few days trying not to let my teeth show, but even today, all these years later, those who know the film well comment on the fact that I lost an eye tooth.
As it was, I had to concentrate on pushing the hideously heavy Holly Howe rowing boat away from our desert island in the scene when I bid farewell to Virginia McKenna who was galantly playing Man Friday. This was more tricky than it would be in real life as the massive 35mm camera, the Cameraman and Sound Recordist where in the boat with Virginia. The water was cold, the rocks rather slippy.
And I had the telescope in my hand. This was in order to deliver Arthur Ransome’s line, ‘Duffer. That’s with looking too hard. Try the other eye,’ whilst lowering the telescope to wipe away a tear. I’m afraid that what came out was ‘That’s for looking too hard.’ I busy thinking of terribly sad things, all geared up to produce the tears, when glycerine was produced and carefully blown into my eyes. The most enormous tears, far more difficult to contain than real ones, gushed forth. And I think that the Wardrobe Master must have forgotten about a hanky. You can tell that the square of white cotton I had tucked in my knickers is just a frayed piece of cloth.
Daniel Defoe’s hero Robinson Crusoe has been portrayed on the big screen by Douglas Fairbanks, Dan O’Herlihy – who earned an Oscar nomination for playing the part in 1952, Aidan Quinn, Pierce Brosnan and me. Or rather me playing Titty being Robinson Crusoe. Oh, dear, Oh dear.
The scene opens with Titty sitting on a biscuit tin, reading from her log. ‘Twenty-five years ago this day, I Robinson Crusoe, was wreck-ed on this desolate place.’ The fact that I had missed the -ed from wrecked was real. I hadn’t written the word down properly. As you can see in my actual diary there was then a dash ______ . At this point I flung myself to the ground and dragged my exhausted body into the camp grasping my throat so as to portray the fact that Robinson Crusoe was virtually dying of thirst.
I hauled myself to my feet by grabbing the forked stick by the fire. What I didn’t realise was that Graham Ford, the Sound Recordist had hidden his microphone there. You can still hear the sound crunch as I grasp the crossbar that held the kettle. He was a perfectionist and, despite my apologies, was really rather annoyed about it.
‘Make a good place for a camp,’ Titty declares heartily, whilst looking around. ‘I’ll build my hut here out of branches and moss.’ And so continued my solo performance. ‘Can’t have two tents for one ship-wrecked mariner.’
As I have mentioned before my mother is very theatrical. In her eyes this was my great soliloquy. The most embarrassing thing I have to admit is that for ages after the film, during my sensitive teenage years, Mum would insist that I used this scene as my audition piece. Can you imagine? It was dotty. Instead of something appropriate for a young girl, like a scene from I Capture the Castle, which Virginia McKenna had been in, or even something from Shakespeare such as Romeo and Juliet, I would fling myself to the floor of the audition space and enact Titty playing a bearded man. Even now I blush as I remember doing all this in front of five amazed executives, who had never seen Swallows and Amazons. They were looking for nothing more than a normal girl – to be in an advertisement for Parker Knoll armchairs.
Have you ever read the book? I don’t think many nine-year-olds would manage it. Despite the impression given by the poster above there are no girls in it. It’s about slavery. And cannibals. And rearing goats.
Douglas Fairbanks’ film was released in 1932, too late for Titty. The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was released as a movie in 1922 and in 1929. I wonder if Arthur Ransome ever saw either version? I have to say that if there is every a Hollywood line-up of actors who have played the part I want to be included in it. I might make up for the ignomity I suffered.
I didn’t know that Virginia McKenna was in the Lake District.
I didn’t know that we would spend that Sunday cooking on the camp fire.
I didn’t know that Virginia had come up with her husband Bill Travers.
I still don’t know how Lee Electric managed to get so many lights working out on Peel Island. I can’t remember having them for any other scene. They must have had the generator on the bank and run cables under the water. It looks as if it was a pretty dark day. It was wonderful having the flood lights – they kept us warm.
There was a hushed reverence when Virginia McKenna was on set. Gone were the saucepan jokes. Funny really, as it was frying-pan scene. ‘I waited til no-one was looking and jumped out of the pot and escaped!’ The pemmican potato cakes she made me were delicious. And very hot.
Working with Virginia and Arthur Ransome’s dialogue was altogether an exercise in charm, or managing charm. I hope I didn’t over-cook it. I was rather pre-occupied by my loose tooth but loved being involved in a proper scene around the camp fire.
Then Virginia was gone and I was a saucepan once more. A saucepan now with a very wiggly tooth indeed. Saucepan-lid, kid. No more lights. I was sitting up a tree above Coniston Water in my navy blue knickers, and descended feeling a bit like Pooh Bear.
It is still there, the mossy tree. You can climb it.
You can read more in ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’
Apart from referring to us as The Swallows and The Amazons, our director Claude Whatham always called us his artistes – ‘My art-istes!’ This was, of course, because far from being trained actors we were just the children who made up his cast.
It was Saturday morning on 16th June 1973 and a day off from filming. We’d all been working hard. Instead of resting, Claude took us all to Blackpool, the famous holiday destination of the north east. None of us had ever been before. It was a great treat and hugely exciting. I can remember choosing the clothes I would wear, and putting on a shell necklace Daddy had brought back from Africa, for the occasion.
A complete contrast to camping and sailing in the wilds of Westmorland, Blackpool proved a day trip to remember.
It must have taken more than an hour-and-a-half to travel from Ambleside to the Blackpool promenade in those days. Jean McGill, our friend and driver, drove us down in the unit mini-bus. We were joined for the day by Ronnie Cogan, the hairdresser on the film crew, and of course Mum and Jane came as our parents and legal chaperones. I’m pretty sure Ronnie smoked the whole way there and back, but we all adored him and were thrilled he wanted to come too.
I think Claude must have liked fun-fairs. Before Swallows and Amazons he directed That’ll be the Day, a rock and roll movie produced by David Puttman, set at a fun fair of the 1950s. It starred David Essex and Ringo Starr with Billy Fury singing “A Thousand Stars”, “Long Live Rock”, “That’s All Right Mama” and “What Did I Say”. Claude gave me the LP, which I played again and again.
We did it all. I was most impressed – and terrified out of my wits – by the big dipper but have always loved going in a pony and trap and racing donkeys. Looking back it seems we took a number of risks. What EMI’s insurance company would have said I do not know. Falling off a donkey could have cost quite a few expensive filming days but then EMI did own the circus we went to. There we saw true artistes, with snakes and crocodiles. The mind boggles.
We were exhilarated by the whole experience. Whilst it was tiring, it energised us, bringing us together as a family, all looking up to Claude as our father figure. He had two children of his own, but they must have been at college by then. Paul had been about sixteen when we made Cider with Rosie – Mum remembers him as a curly haired boy talking to his father about the casting. He sadly died in a motor cycle accident driving home from Oxford Polytechnic when he was only about nineteen. Claude never got over it. I weep for him, even now.