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Alison Hull interviews Sophie Neville on her involvement with the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Signing copies of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ in Cumbria

1 – How did you get the part of Titty?

In March 1973, a letter arrived, out of the blue, inviting me to audition for a role in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I was twelve years old, an ordinary school girl at a convent in Berkshire. I’d read the Arthur Ransome books but had no idea I was up for the lead in a major EMI feature film intended for a universal international audience. The movie was directed by Claude Whatham. Back in 1970, he’d cast me as Eileen Brown, opposite a boy playing Laurie Lee, in the BBC’s first adaptation of ‘Cider With Rosie’. It was a role that demanded learning a piano piece so complicated it took twenty-one hours to master, but I did it. Claude must have respected my hard work. I was too tall to play Titty but, after a sailing audition at Burnham-on-Crouch, I was offered the part. He cast Sten Grendon, who’d played the young Laurie Lee, as Roger, Suzanna Hamilton was Susan and Virginia McKenna starred as our mother. She later admitted to finding her character rather dull but it was her name, in lights outside cinemas, that drew big audiences. We’ve kept in touch. She is still acting, aged 87, and has led the Born Free Foundation’s international campaign to redeem the lives of wild animals held in miserable conditions since 1998.

With Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, in 1973 

2 – Why was it so suitable for you?

We loved visiting the Lake District as a family. My father helped the Maryport Button Factory with their publicity and once took us to stay on a farm near Castle Craig above the River Derwent. I spent my childhood camping and messing about in boats, adding a sail made from a dust-sheet to an old rowing skiff. The great thing about the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was that Simon West, who played Captain John, was an exceptional sailor. He went on to become a national champion. Kit Seymour, who played Captain Nancy, also had a natural command of the waves. It shows on screen. They were able to handle our small boats when squalls rolled down from the fells. I didn’t have their innate understanding of the wind but it was Titty’s job to row everywhere – back from the charcoal burners and off to One Tree Island on Derwentwater. “Pull harder, Roger!” I managed to row Amazon out of Secret Harbour in one take, with the cameraman and a massive 35mm Panavision Camera on board.

The Swallows voyage to Wild Cat IslandSimon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville in Swallow, 1973

Casting-off Swallow was more of a challenge. It doesn’t show on a small screen, but when ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is screened in cinemas, you can spot the sequence when I slip on a rock with the telescope in one hand. I was up to my waist in water but got back on my feet and battled on, waving as the others sailed up Coniston Water. I knew how difficult the shot was to achieve and was desperate to do my best for Claude Whatham.

Standing on Peel Island in a soaking wet dress while the Swallows sailed north

3 – Did it fire your wish to work in TV?

No! It was directing plays while reading Anthropology at Durham University that ignited a desire to work on television dramas. However, the experienced I’d gained acting in movies helped me win a place on the BBC TV Graduate Trainee scheme. After working on ‘The Russell Harty Show’, I grabbed the chance to cast children on the adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads: ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. I found Henry Dimbleby, then aged thirteen, to play the lead and spent three months on location with Julian Fellowes and Rosemary Leach – who I’d met when she played Laurie Lee’s mother. I later worked on ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Eastenders’ and ‘My Family and Other Animals’, before producing an INSET series, directing one episode at a village school in Cumbria. I began casting children in the Lake District to appear in BBC adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s Lakeland books but they were axed, which was sad, as we were all set to make ‘Swallowdale’ and ‘Pigeon Post’ on the high moors.

Sophie Neville directing a drama-doc with BBC cameraman Lorraine Smith

4 – What does the Lake District in general, and Keswick in particular, mean to you?

We live on the south coast but take the train north at any opportunity. I’m now President of The Arthur Ransome Society and came up for a fabulous weekend in May when we sailed from the jetty at Bank Ground Farm – Holly Howe in Ransome’s books. I gave an illustrated talk on the secrets of making ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at the Bassenthwaite Institute, using behind-the-scenes photographs taken when we were filming on Derwentwater forty-five years ago. We shot all the scenes involving Captain Flint’s Houseboat in a bay on the western shore. She was played by the Lady Derwentwater, converted for the drama by Ian Whittaker, a talented young set dresser who went on to win an Oscar for set decoration on the feature film ‘Howards End’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. We shot the lighthouse tree scenes near Friar’s Craig and used Lingholme or One Tree Island for Cormorant Island, where Titty finds the treasure chest. We enjoyed making Ronald Fraser, the film actor playing Captain Flint, walk the plank and sailed up Derwentwater to the strains of ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor’, played as the end credits roll. Forty years later, Suzanna Hamilton and I were asked to lunch with Richard Pilbrow the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Buskers were singing this song outside the restaurant in Covent Garden. We couldn’t believe the coincidence.

Meeting fans of Swallows and Amazons at Keswick in July

I meet people from far and wide who tell me the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ inspired them to visit the Lake District. It has been broadcast on television every year for the last forty years and was last shown in Australia on Boxing Day. It has been dubbed into Czech twice and is often shown at festivals as only ‘U’ certificate movies can be screened outdoors. I just hope this has proved a blessing to the people of Keswick, which I so loved visiting as a child. I thought the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – that I appear in for approximately two seconds – would overshadow the classic version but it has simply raised awareness along with DVD sales. Fan mail continues to arrive. A beautiful card came today. Arthur Ransome would have been touched. It had fish on it.

Funnily Enough - the first extract in iBelieve Magazine

Editorial coverage and a literary award for ‘Funnily Enough’

5 – Do you want to mention mental health/physical health issues are always in the news?

I find that many of my readers are stuck in bed or battling with ill-health. I hope they are amused and uplifted in some way by stories in my books. ‘Funnily Enough’, a diary I kept after collapsing at the BBC, is about my own struggle with what I am pretty sure was a tick-bourne disease. I lost my job but recovered in Southern Africa, where I fulfilled Titty’s dream of seeing “forests full of parrots” and produced decorative maps for a living, inspired by Spurrier’s illustration on the original cover of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I used maps and details from my sketchbook to illustrate a paperback entitled, ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’, which is out in colour as an ebook.

On the crew of the Gloriana in the Boat Race Flotilla in March featured on BBC Television 

6 – What else?

People often ask how ‘Swallows and Amazons’ influenced my life, keen to know what I am doing now. I am still keen on rowing. I completed the Voga Longa, a 32 kilometre marathon through the Venetian lagoon with Olympic gold medallist Ed Code and was on the crew of The Queen’s row barge Gloriana for the Boat Race Flotilla this year. This summer, I grabbed the chance to row through the canals of Amsterdam, which was fascinating. However, it was the Amazons bows and arrows that impacted my life. After learning to shoot on the shores of Coniston Water, I was cast as an archery champion in another movie and have since won three Ladies Championships. I met my husband at an archery match. My stepson shot for England in July, winning a tri-annual match against the Royal Company of Archers (so proud!) I gave a talk recently demonstrating how the arrows in ‘Swallows and Amazons were’ fired over my head. The shot looks so dangerous that it was cut from the TV version of the film, but is included in the re-mastered 40th Anniversary cinema Blu-ray version, which we are now able to watch on the big screen.

Rowing in from De Hoop Rowing Club in Amsterdam, July 2018

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‘Swallows and Amazons’ in Keswick

This summer marked 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.

Ronald Fraser walking the plank

To celebrate the anniversary, Sophie Neville, who played Titty, introduced a screening of the 1974 film at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick on Saturday 28th July.

Captain Flint having walked the plank

She demonstrated how one of the visual effects was achieved and signed copies of her book ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ after a Q&A.

‘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.’
‘The elegant Lakeland steamer, the Lady Derwentwater, had the starring role as Captain Flint’s houseboat. She was adapted 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 ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 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.

Secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons

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A marathon reading of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ by Arthur Ransome

On Saturday 21st October, local  ITV News interviewed Griff Rhys Jones and myself at Pin Mill in Suffolk. We were taking part in a marathon reading of Arthur Ransome’s iconic book ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ with other authors including Libby Purves, Francis Wheen, Christina Hardyment, Julia Jones and Marc Grimstone. Ivan Cutting of Eastern Angles and Dan Houston, editor of Classic Sailor, also read chapters. You can read more about the event here.


~Pin Mill on the Owell ~ photo: Anthony Cullen(c)~

The story begins at Pin Mill where the Swallows – John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker, along with their mother and Bridget-the-ship’s-baby, are waiting for their father to take up a Naval posting nearby at Shotley. The four children didn’t mean to go to sea at all but somehow ended up sailing to the Netherlands in a terrific storm. I was asked to read the last chapter.

Griff Rhys Jones and Sophie Neville at Pin Mill 21st Oct 2017

~Gryff Rhys Jones and Sophie Neville appearing on Anglia Television~

The reading, which lasted nine hours, was held to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the book’s publication in 1937. It has been profiled in the magazine Classic Boat and on the BBC News website. The event was organised by Peter Willis of The Nancy Blackett Trust who spoke at length to Lesley Dolphin on BBC Radio Suffolk

Julia Jones, Francis Wheen and Sophie Neville - photo by Anthony Cullen

~Julia Jones, Francis Wheen and Sophie Neville with a photograph taken by Arthur Ransome when his yacht Selina King was being built. Photo: Anthony Cullen~

You can read about our adventures sailing Nancy Blackett this summer in Country Life magazine:

Sophie Neville profiled in Country Life magazine 12 July 2017

There are also photos of our cruise through the Netherlands on the Nancy Blackett Trust website, as well as a six page colour feature in Classic Sailor magazine. You can watch the ITV News clip here.

Nancy Blackett in Classic Sailor

Going back twenty years: Members of The Arthur Ransome Society alerted me to a BBC Children’s Television programme, which shows Griff Rhys Jones at Pin Mill in 1997 when he met Taqui Altounyan who knew Ransome when she was a girl. The Swallows were originally based on her family who learnt to sail in two clinker-built dinghies called Swallow and Mavis when they stayed at Bank Ground Farm (Holly Howe) above Coniston Water in the Lake District. I recently discovered the secret that Taqui was also the model for Captain Nancy in Ransome’s well-loved books. This episode also contains clips from the 1963 television adapation of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, with Susan George playing ‘Kitty’. Forgive the series titles – it is worth viewing:

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News of 2nd edition of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS and AMAZONS (1974)’ published by The Lutterworth Press on 25th May 2017

9780718894962_cover Amazons.indd

The long-awaited second edition of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS (1974)’ is being published in paperback by The Lutterworth Press on 25th May. Pre-orders are now 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.
StudioCanal DVD cover
The new paperback edition will be stocked by the vast majority of book retailers including Amazon, Waterstones, Blackwells, Paperback Bookshop, Books Etc. and is available direct from The Lutterworth Press  who also publish ‘Swallows, Amazons and Coots’ by Julian Lovelock that has a forward by Sophie Neville.  Those in North America can order copies from the US distributor Casemate Academic
 Swallows & Amazons flags for book

Sophie hopes to be signing copies at events around the country this summer.

Please click here for details

Roseland Festival 2017
Last weekend Sophie was signing 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) on Sunday evening at the lovely Hotel Tresanton cinema.
Arthur Ransome Pin Mill Jamboree
We are hoping copies of the 2nd Edition will be available by Saturday 13th May when Sophie will be opening the Arthur Ransome Pin Mill Jamboree in Suffolk, to celebrate the  20th Anniversary of the Nancy Blackett Trust and Visit England’s Year of Literary Heroes. As we Discover the Land of Literary Greats, Sophie will be giving a talk on the adaptations of Ransome’s books set in East Anglia and the English Lake District.

Map of the Jamboree

 this Saturday 22nd May at 2.00pm

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‘Swallows and Amazons’ launch of the 2016 film on DVD and Blu-Ray

The new Harbour Pictures film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ starring Rafe Spall, Andrew Scott and Kelly Macdonald is now available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK.

Saga are giving away one copy on Blu-ray. Please go to the Saga Facebook page and follow the instructions – you just might win the prize draw!

or you can attempt to win a copy by entering their prize draw competition on Twitter, which you can reach by entering the #SwallowsandAmazons into your Twitter search box.

You can order the film from Amazon by clicking here (also available from other outlets).

It makes a great Christmas present.

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‘An A-Z of Cumbria and The Lake District on Film’ has been launched

by Hayloft Publishing, written by David Banning with a forward by Sophie Neville.

‘This is the finest comprehensive guide to the history of movies filmed in Cumbria and the Lake District, since the early twentieth century to the present day… it  will take you on a journey through the filmic landscape of one of the world’s most beautiful places.’

A-Z Cover image

‘You will be able to immerse yourself in the lush green world where Star Wars created an alien landscape or take a trip around Swallows and Amazons country, not to mention joining the ranks of Withnail and I pilgrims or sampling the nostalgic Breif Encounter tea rooms where a tiny piece of grit kick-started an enduring romance.’

To read more, please click here for Cumbria Today or click on this image for a review in the Cumberland & Westmorland Herald:

a-z-book-review

There is also a feature in the Westmoreland Gazette here

review-of-an-a-z-with-a-forward-by-sophie-neville

For more information from Hayloft Publishing, and to buy this book, please click here

Terry Abraham, who made the film Life of a Mountain, writes: There are countless books covering aspects of the most beautiful corner of England but none which reveal little known facts regarding it as a location for filming. David thoroughly and interestingly brings to light the great number of films both large and small that have featured Lakeland on camera. Some less obvious than others but no less absorbing, you may well wish to seek out and visit where productions have captured the scenic delights of Lakeland. David’s book is an engaging and enlightening read and definitely one for the shelf alongside other works celebrating England’s finest landscape.

Be the first to review this book on Amazon.co.uk

David Banning lists ten of the best films made in Cumbria. Please click on these links for the International Movie Database details and film trailers:

Brief Encounter, 1945

The Dambusters, 1955

Swallows and Amazons, 1974

The French Lieutenant’s Woman, 1981

Brazil, 1985

Withnail & I, 1987

28 Days Later, 2002

Miss Potter, 2006

Sightseers, 2012

Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens, 2015

You can see a shot of Derwent Water at 1.23 mins into the official film trailer for Star Wars after ‘This Christmas’ graphics, here:

 

 

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Launching the second edition of The Secrets of Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

front-cover-1974

A second edition of the ebook ‘The Secrets of Filming ‘SWALLOWS & AMAZONS'(1974) is now avaialble 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 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.

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.

virginia-mckenna-photo-by-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.

Sophie Neville and David Wood

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

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‘Scottish Mussel’, a British movie featuring our tame otters

A British film starring Talulah Riley, Martin Compston, and Joe Thomas of In Betweeners fame, has come out on DVD.  It also features our tame otters. I travelled up to Dunoon in Scotland to help with the scenes that, in the story, entail an injured otter brought into a wildlife conservation centre set in a beautiful location outside Glasgow.

Sophie Neville with Beanie the Otter

Belinda the Otter with Sophie and Daphne Neville

The romcom is written and directed by Talulah Riley who was keen to use our very energetic young male otter Rudi in a scene where the otter is released back into the wild.  To achieve this on film, without losing him altogether, was quite a feat but he enjoyed himself and the result looks endearing.

When one of the producers asked if I had worked on any other films featuring animals, I had to admit there have been quite a few. We once had a baboon in the studio and I became quite used to filming with trained elephants. I worked with a whole variety of exotic animals on the vet series ‘One by One’ from a pelican to a full grown leopard. In the mid 1980’s I was lucky enough to spend four months on Corfu making the first BBC adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s autobiography ‘My Family and Other Animals’ with Brian Blessed and a huge number of tortoises. As it happens, Rudi appeared in the second series of The Durrells, playing both the male and female otters.

To see more about what the otters have been up to, please go to Daphne Neville’s website here.

You can read about living with tame otters in my book ‘Funnily Enough’ available in the UK here in paperback or on Kindle here

There are more photographs of the otters here

The DVD, which will be released on 3rd October, is available for pre-order here

dphne-nevilles-otter

One of our hand-reared otters who stars in ‘Scottish Mussel’

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Swallows and Amazons films profiled on BBC South Today

‘Can you be in Cowes at 9.00am tomorrow morning?’ I was asked.

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BBC South Today explained that they’d like to interview me about being in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ back in 1974.

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‘They’re pirates!’ I found Sarah Farmer filming on the Parade.

Sophie Neville with BBC South Today

Seren Hawkes who plays Nancy Blackett in the new movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was with her.

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I was asked what advise I could give Seren about what might happen next.

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All I could say was, ‘Watch the wind and sail with it!’

Sophie Neville with Sarah Farmer and Seren Hawkes

Seren Hawkes, Sarah Farmer and Sophie Neville

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It was great to meet up with the producer Nick Barton, who showed me ‘Swallow’ the RNSA dinghy that also stars in the film.

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I went on to join fans of the film for lunch at the Royal London Yacht Club, where I once gave a talk, before going out on the Solent.

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Telegraph bag

 

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Swallows and Amazons (2016) – appearing in an opening scene

Kelly Macdonald starring as Mrs Walker and Andrew Scott as Lazlov, with me, Sophie Neville, as a dithering lady in a hat and rusty-coloured jacket getting into the steam train behind Roger at Portsmouth Station. Blink and you’ll miss me.

So opens the new film version of Arthur Ransome’s story ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (2016) directed by Phillipa Lowthorpe, which is coming out in cinemas around the UK on 19th August.

Meanwhile, here’s one I made earlier:

For news of all things ‘Swallows and Amazons’ please click here

Steam train 1928

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