Riding the waves of film critics ~ after the release of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1974

Virginia McKenna, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon and Ronald Fraser appearing in the film premiere programme

I opened the pages of the programme at the film premiere to find one of the publicity photographs of us taken at Bank Ground Farm. I wasn’t sure the face Simon was making would sell a cinema ticket.

Simon West, Kit Seymour, Ronald Fraser, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton with half of Stephen Grendon on the second page of the premier programme

But the film was now out. It had to sell itself. Everyone was waiting to hear what critics from within the movie industry felt about it.

Would this photograph ever sell the film?

I think my mother must have written to Barry Norman, inviting him to bring his daughters to one of the promotional events held at the Commonwealth Institute. I wonder if she met him at the Preview of the Premiere.  He was then presenting BBC Television’s Film 74  and writing a weekly column in The Guardian newspaper. Here is his reply:

Barry Norman enjoyed it!  The Radio Times says that he was looking at ‘films for the family over the Easter holidays’.  Film 74 was shown on BBC TWO  at 10.15pm – and repeated on Fridays even later so he must have been speaking to parents. Here’s his theme tune.

One thing that strikes me when I open the March 1974 copy of ‘Films and Filming’, kept by my mother, is that ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has to be one of the most enduring movies to come out at the time. Sean Connery opted to appear with Charlotte Rampling in Zardoz’. I’ve neither seen or heard of it. Why couldn’t he have played Captain Flint with us? I did see Steve McQueen in  ‘Papillon’  but had no desire to watch it more than once. Richard Lester’s version of ‘The Three Musketeers’ was also made in 1973. Even though it stared Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Richard Chamberlain, Michael York and dear Spike Milligan I don’t think it can have been broadcast on television as many times as ‘Swallows and Amazons’. 

The magazine goes on to review ‘The Optimists of Nine Elms’ starring Peter Sellers, ‘Magnum Force’ starring Clint Eastwood, ‘Herbie Rides Again’ starring Stephanie Powers and many others, films I have never heard of. ‘American Graffiti’ came out in the States, directed by George Lucas starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat and Harrison Ford. It made gross profits of more than U$200 million becoming one of the most profitable films of all time,  but I wonder how many times it has been shown on British television this year? Do your children know anything about it? Has it been projected in the pouring rain for loyal fans sitting on a lake shore?

I his book, ‘A Theatre Project’ Richard Pilbrow says, ‘We had a success.’ He quotes Variety magazine, “Charming, delightful, beautifully made film,” but said it was, ‘Not a hit but a reasonable success that continues to play, principally on television, around the world.’ Richard goes on to quantify how it did financially. ‘The world of film finance is a distinct mystery. Our production costs were just under £300,000. Over the years, income trickled in from an international market. Curiously the costs inexorably rose to match the income. The costs of marketing the movie always seemed to equal receipts at the box office. In 2004 our film actually recouped. That’s why I have the temerity to call it a success.

Not all the newspapers thought so in 1974. You can read how much we hated the publicity in any of the books on how the film was made:

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

The premiere of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, held at the ABC Shafestbury Avenue on 4th April 1974

The Premiere of Richard Pilbrow’s movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was held at the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue on 4th  April 1974. Can you imagine the shock of finding a picture of myself on the cinema tickets when they arrived in the post?

There were adverts in the newspapers. It was to be a Royal Gala charity matinee in aid of the charity KIDS.

Swallows and Amazons premier

I didn’t know what to wear.  I wished that we’d been able to put on our costumes but it was clear I had to find an appropriate dress. Sadly, I had grown out of the one we bought in Carnaby Street. Shoes were another problem.

Sophie Neville at home in Gloucestershire in April 1974 ~ photo: Martin Neville

Nowadays one would be inundated by offers of designer dresses to model on the red carpet. As it was, my mother bought me green pinafore dress that I agreed would work for an afternoon event. I was not so happy about wearing ballet shoes. Please note these were real ballet shoes and I was now thirteen. I would have preferred court shoes with buckles. Ironically these zoomed out of fashion whilst ballet shoes have been loved by all ever since. My bobbed hair had grown out but Mummy put it in Carmen rollers. I am not sure the result was that successful but I liked it at the time.

The Neville girls modelling the fashions of 1974 ~ photo: Martin Neville

My sisters were terribly brave and wore velvet with their ballet shoes. The dress from Carnaby Street was slightly large for Perry, seen here on the left, but she coped. At least it was fashionable. Mum bought herself a blue outfit that was deemed the height of fashion. When I arrived in London I found Suzanna had found a Laura Ashley pinafore whilst the Amazons had both got away with wearing trousers. They looked far more sophisticated.

There was an awful lot of fuss about who should or could come and who couldn’t . Mum had insisted on bringing, not friends of mine, but two of the nuns from my school.

Outside the ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue, London in 1974 ~ photo: Martin Neville

So, I went off to my first premiere with my headmistress, Sister Ann-Julian and my housemistress, Sister Allyne. Not very cool in a thirteen year old’s world.  The Exorcist was out at the same time. They made no comment.

Sister Allyne, Daphne Neville, Tamzin Neville and Sophie Neville

In fact Sister Allyne proved the very best person to take. She was a performer herself. I am pretty sure she had been Australia’s foremost flautist.  She must have understood the turmoil in my little head and was undoubtedly praying for me. I would not be surprise to learn that spiritual protection was granted by her presence alone. She would have been an exorcist in her own right – a real one.  Perry remembers that she had been sick in the taxi. This was probably because she didn’t travel much.

Claude Whatham defied any plans my mother might have made by taking the six of us in the cast, and only the six of us, out to lunch at a wonderful bistro where we able to order beef-burgers, relax and enjoy ourselves.

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton in Laura Ashley and her mother

There was no red carpet when we arrived at the cinema in Shaftesbury Avenue but rather smart programmes were sold, one of which I still have. Until that point I had no idea that it was to be a Royal Gala held in aid of charity.

I was suddenly acutely aware of how I came across on the big screen. As the film was shown I groaned inwardly. It was like seeing endless photographs of oneself which were not exactly glamorous. I cringed. All Sister Allyne said was how much she enjoyed seeing the owl – a natural history shot that was added after all our hard work and effort on the drama.

The premier – as reported in Cinema TV Today

My mother was terribly impressed by the special guests. Princess Helena Moutafian was present with Earl Compton, chairman of the charity KIDS. I’m afraid I don’t remember meeting them but was interested to hear that she later became patron of the Young ME Sufferers Trust.

We walked down onto the stage with Ronnie Fraser to be presented to the audience. Sadly Virginia McKenna could not be there, although she sent her eldest children – Will and Louise Travers. Bobby Moore, who’d played for England came with his family, as did Mrs Spike Milligan. The Hollywood star  Patricia Neal, who won an Oscar for her leading role in the Paul Newman film Hud and appeared in Breakfast at Tiffany’s , brought her sweet little girls.  Julie Ege was a lovely Norwegian actress who appeared as Voluptua in Up Pompeii with Frankie Howard. I think Richard Pilbrow might have known her as he had produced the West End version.  She was known as a Bond Girl since she’d appeared in ‘On her Magesty’s Secret Service’ with Diana Rigg when George Lazenby played Bond and Telly Savalas was Bolfeld. We didn’t know any of this but I think having a Bond Girl at your premier was quite the thing.

I have a few precious posters of the film. The colour poster, which hung in the London Underground is still on the cover of some of the DVD’s.  I always quite liked the design, except for the rather jarring colour of my blouse, which for some reason is pink. Far more attractive were the huge sepia posters hung outside cinemas. They were very special. I still have one but it’s enormous and I am unsure what to do with it.

What the papers had to say about the film was a different matter. The first time we saw Swallows and Amazons was not at the film the premiere but at ‘The Preview’. This was held at a viewing theatre in London to which I assume journalists were invited. I only wish they’d been asked to bring their children. The cast was re-united, meeting up with various members of the production team, to see the film for the very first time. We were utterly amazed at how sunny everything looked. Denis Lewiston’s insistence that we should wait for clouds to pass, while we shivered, had paid off. It was wonderful to see how the film had been put together. We had not known that Claude would add shots of wildlife, which add so much to the movie. I loved the scene he included of cattle standing in the still lake at dawn.

You can read about how we made the film and find more photos in these publications available online or to order from libraries.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

The diary I kept whilst filming Swallows and Amazons… with a day off spent exploring Cumbria with my family

It was Sunday and a much needed, formal day off for the crew of Swallows and Amazons. It was also a day of rest for the ‘Artistes’ as Claude Whatham, the Director called us.  The crew called us ‘Saucepans’. Saucepan lids : kids.  It is Cockney rhyming slang. There was a lot of that about in Ambleside that year.

Sophie Neville with her mother on a scenic railway in Cumbria during a break in the filming of Swallows and Amazons in 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

My parents were still in bed, exhausted on that Sunday morning.  To keep me busy Mum had me writing letters to my Headmistress, Sister Ann-Julian and to my Housemistress, Sister Allyne. Amazing!  I wrote them.

My father’s idea of a day out in Westmorland was to drive over the hills and up the Hard Knott Pass taking car rugs, a picnic and his volcano. This is a brilliant item of equipment with which you can boil enough water to make a cup of tea using an old newspaper. I am sure I’ve read that Arthur Ransome had one…  I think my mother just pulled on her Charlotte Mason College of Education sweatshirt and came too.

The highlight of the day was a trip on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, through the National Park to the coast and back. You can still do this today. The historic line was opened in 1875 to ferry iron ore from the mine near Boot to the coast at Ravensglass by steam locomotive. They say that nowadays:

“Four steam locomotives are currently in regular service, ranging from River Irt, the oldest working 15″ gauge locomotive in the world, to Northern Rock, one of the most powerful. The locomotives names, with one obvious exception, are those of the local rivers, the Esk, Mite and Irt, the last mentioned flowing from Wastwater just a few miles away from the railway.”

My father has always loved steam.  He’s also rather enjoyed using the self-timer on his camera.

The Nevilles in the Lake District in 1973

I am guessing that we sitting on part of the Hard Knott Roman Fort near Boot with the fells behind.  Built between AD120 and AD138 at the Eskdale end of the Hard Knott Pass it must have been one of the furthermost outposts of the Roman Empire. As children we had grown up on a diet of Frankie Howard, dressed in a Roman tunic, telling us ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’. I didn’t know until this week that it was Richard Pilbrow who brought this production from New York to the West End, where the play that he produced ran for two years.

The hotel I mention was the Kirskstone Foot Hotel, at the top of Lake Windermere, in Ambleside where Richard Pilbrow and the senior members of the film crew were staying. Mum must have left her camera there.

Tamzin Neville and Daphne Neville in 1973

You can read the full account of making the film here:

‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) the opening locations of the classic film

On the first day of making the original movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in May 1973, a huge effort was made to ‘dress’ Haverthwaite Railway Station, at the southern end of Windermere. The aim was to bring across the feel of a bustling holiday destination in the year 1929. Local people had been fitted with costumes in the Ambleside Church Hall, there was a horse and cart, porters’ trolleys laden with trunks and a number of old bikes, which were all of great interest to us.

Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville

Having stepped down from the steam locomotive, where the Times photographer must have taken this shot, we children were piled into an open-topped period vehicle, for further publicity photographs.

An article in The Times 1973
A photograph taken for The Times of us all aboard the steam train at Haverthwaite

I thought the publicity photographs taken that day were silly, especially since Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett, who played the Amazons, were wearing ordinary clothes rather than period costumes, but the results were later published in both The Guardian and Woman’s Realm.

With Virginia McKenna on the first day of filming
A publicity shot featuring Virginia McKenna, with Kit Seymour, Steven Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton, taken on the first day of filming and published in the Guardian and other newspapers

The yellow motor used in the film for our taxi was superb. Would a real Lakeland taxi have been so grand? I recorded in my diary that Sten, playing Roger, hung out of the window as the director, Claude Whatham, ‘filmed us driving out of the station, along the platform at top speed.’

Once this shot was ‘in the can’ Virginia McKenna was interviewed by journalists while we were hurried away to get on with our lessons. Our tutor taught us Art. I drew the a picture of the motor car.

Director Claude Whatham talking to Virginia McKenna

Arriving at Holly Howe in the taxi was truly exciting. It was not filmed the next day, as I think rain had set in. Claude waited for good evening light. But I remember the thrill of drawing up outside the farmhouse in the old car and pulling on my hat as we spilled out and ran past the big farm horses Mr Jackson was leading into the yard. Our OOV (out of vision) dialogue was added later.

The screenplay of the 1973 film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adapted from Arthur Ransome’s book by David Wood

If you ever go to Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, named Holly Howe by Arthur Ransome in his books, you must run down the field to the lake as we did. As soon as you arrive. And at top speed. And you will be filled by the same feeling of elation as we were when we played the Walker children.

Bankground Farm
Steven Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West at Bankground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District

The slope, formed by glacial scouring and subsequent deposits long ago, is steeper than you might think.  We became adept at the art of glaumphing, advocated by Ransome in the book.

What struck me when I returned to Bank Ground Farm one Spring, was that sadly the great trees have gone from around the old farm gate and the boatsheds down by the lake.  They must simply have reached the end of their lives, but their glory was captured on celluloid to be remembered forever.

Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West with Mr Jackson at Holly Howe~ photo: Daphne Neville

Most Arthur Ransome devotees will know that the Peak at Darien, where once stood stout Cortez, is familiar to readers as it appears in two of the illustrations in the book. Sadly it can not be found below the farm in real life. Mrs Ransome said that you could find the headland on Windermere. In April 2011, when I was on an early recce with Nick Barton, CEO of Harbour Picture Productions, we did pass one promising spot. However Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham chose Friar’s Crag on Derwent Water for the location. I didn’t know it but Christina Hardyment writes in her excellent book, Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint’s Trunk, that they had found the very place Ransome had in mind, “without the slightest idea that they were quite right to be doing so.”  She found that Ransome had marked up postcard of Friar’s Peak for his illustrator Clifford Webb to work from in 1930. It feels completely right when you are there, with the iconic view of an island under the towering mountains. It was over a shot of this that the opening titles were added.

Sout Cortez was not around. Neither were we children. By the time we had been transported from Coniston to Derwent Water for this scheduled scene the sun was going down.  We’d been delayed by the make-up artist who was determined to tone down the tans we had developed.  This took ages as he used a very small sponge. My mother was frustrated, as she thought that this would never have shown up, but he put his foot down with the result that we were ‘late on set’ for the evening shots. Mum grabbed this photo but it was a disaster. Claude Whatham was very annoyed.

Sophie Neville as Titty arriving too late in the day to film at Friar’s Crag on Derwent Water. The island portrayed as Wildcat Island can be seen in the distance ~ photo: Daphne Neville

One of the big secrets of the film is that the sequence when we run up to the Peak at Darien and first set eyes on the island in the lake was shot under an oak tree in Runnymede, near the River Thames. We were not an island at all.  It must have been an expensive ‘pick-up shot’ but Claude had made an effort to gather together the same crew members and I was back in my lovely silk dress once more. We knew how to act by then and the joy of being together again shows on our faces.  The result was a scene to set the film off on the right foot.  We were jubilant and so excited, that, like swallows, we could have taken flight.

Sophie Neville, Claude Whatham and Simon West with Richard Pilbrow, right ~photo:Daphne Neville

I would have to check with Richard Pilbrow to be certain, but I think that Simon Holland, the Art Director, penned the SWALLOWS and AMAZONS graphics for the opening titles.  I remember a discussion about the font type. A very fashionable script used on the poster of the film was favoured. I said that they ought to use the handwritten capitals that Clifford Webb had penned on the map in the opening cover of the book, which were copied by Simon Holland (and me) on our chart. This was chosen.

Swallows and Amazons (1974)

A snazzy Seventies’ font, had been used for the titles of  Lionel Jefferey’s movie The Railway Children and the poster of Swallows & Amazons. For sometime a DVD has been available which gives you both movies released by EMI Films.

Click on this image to see the poster of the film

As a viewer I felt that this soon dated it, whilst Swallows and Amazons sailed onto our television screens in the 1980’s and 1990’s, without being spoilt by what became most unfashionable graphics. Of course that particular retro font is now all the rage.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'

You can read more about the trials of producing the classic film in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ published by the Lutterworth Press, available online and at all good bookshops.

‘Swallows and Amazons’ the screenplay of the 1973 film, adapted from Arthur Ransome’s book by David Wood

The screenplay~

Arthur Ransome’s book was adapted for the big screen by David Wood.  The first time I saw this script was early in 2011 when my mother pulled it from the back of a wardrobe. It’s really only now that I fully appreciate how beautifully it was crafted.

The opening scenes ~

Talking to the engine driver at the Haverthwaite Railway Station on the first day of filming 'Swallows and Amazons' in 1973 (Photo: Daphne Neville)
Talking to the engine driver at the Haverthwaite Railway Station on the first day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The film opens with a shot of a steam train passing through Cumbria. This does not feature in the book but was a powerful first image and good way of introducing the Walker family, setting the period and the very Englishness of travelling up to the Lake District for the summer holidays. It was a wonder that this was possible; The Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway , with it’s restored steam train, had only been open and running for two weeks ~ on 2nd May 1973 to be precise. It was a private concern run by a bunch of enthusiasts on the old Furness Railway branch line. The engine was a Fairburn 2-6-4 tank locomotive of 84 tons, of approximately 1930s vintage, standard gauge and coloured black-berry black

Swallows Script page 1
The original screenplay of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adapted from Arthur Ransome’s immortal book by David Wood in 1973

~ The crossings out were made by my mother, in the tradition of marking a scene that has been recorded ~

Swallows Script page 2
The original screenplay of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adapted by David Wood for Theatre Projects in 1973

What I never knew until I read the third scene today was that we added quite a bit of dialogue. I can’t remember if it was improvised or given to me by Claude but I said quite a bit more than was scripted, and recoded the fact in my diary.

notes to the text ~ Mrs Price was the lady who owned and ran our guest house. Our tutor, Margaret Causey, taught us in a converted red London double decker bus.
Swallows Diary 14th May page two
I took note of my dialogue in the pages of my diary. Here it was supplementary to the script

Swallows Diary 14th May page three

The railway carriage ~

Claude Whatham was keen to shoot the film in ‘story order’ as much as possible as he thought this would be easiest for us to comprehend. INT.RAILWAY CARRIAGE. DAY was, however, a difficult scene to execute. Once the railway carriage contained movie lights, the director, a huge 35mm Panavision camera, the cameraman and assistant, with microphones and an assistant sound recordist there wasn’t any room for me.  When it came round to the shots of me I had to give my lines to imaginary family members. They were no longer there – the camera had taken their place. It also got extremely hot.

Virginia McKenna, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennett and Sophie Neville at the Haverwaite Railway Station in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Story order ~

I look back on all this now and feel our opening performances, so vital to capture the audiences attention, were understandably rather wooden. Later on, when I was directing films that featured children I tried to schedule unimportant, ‘running around scenes’, which were easy for them, so that they could get used to working with the crew before tight close-ups were required.  I found that even six year-olds were unfazed by recording scenes out of story order, in fact they were probably less disorientated than the adults.

Continuity ~

With Virginia McKenna’s magazine, our picnic and Susan’s tapestry the matter of continuity in this scene was important. We greatly enjoyed learning about this technicality, so vital if the shots that make up the scene are to cut together smoothly. Numerous Polaroid shots were involved, which was exciting as these cameras had not been around for long and we enjoyed watching the photographs develop.  We did our best to be helpful and keep an eye on the picnic, but somehow it all went wrong. The continuity in this opening scene is out. This probably because Sue Merry, the Continuity Girl could not get in –  into the railway carriage, that is. There was simply no room for her.

You can read more here:

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