by Francesca Tyer –
- How old were you when you first read Arthur Ransome’s books? Did you have a favourite storyline or character?
My father devoured the Swallows and Amazons books as they were published in the 1930s. I was a slow reader but must have started the series aged about ten or eleven as I’d read seven of the twelve by the time we arrived in the Lake District to make the film in 1973. I enjoyed the practical aspects of the books and most readily identified with Mate Susan, although I counted all the characters my friends. Ransome published thirty other books. Some are heavy going, but I enjoyed his autobiography.
- Have you re-read the books since your childhood? If so, how has your perception of the books and the characters, in particular Titty, changed?
I’ve re-read most of the books in the Swallows and Amazons series and gain something new each time I read Swallows and Amazons, recently appreciating how important Titty’s imagination was to progressing the story. Her ideas take the plot forward. I ended up writing an article on how Swallows and Amazons can be seen as an allegory to missionary work undertaken by Arthur Ransome’s great aunts, one of whom received a Boxer arrow in her bonnet for her efforts in China.
- Do you think playing Titty influenced your own personality? If so, how?
Titty helped me to look beyond the saucepans and concentrate on creative endeavors rather than getting bogged down by management and administration. Acting in the film instilled in me a work ethic, responsibility and striving for excellence. Looking back, the part was a huge burden to lay on the shoulders of a twelve-year-old but it was worth it. The film has had an enduring quality and is still broadcast today. I find constant interest when I’m in social or sporting situations. For me, it has truly been a case of ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’
- Do you remember what you wanted to be before you became an actress? Did a writing career ever interest you as a child?
I acted professionally from the age of ten until I was twenty-one, going into television production at the BBC before I became a writer. I’ve also worked as a safari guide, wildlife artist and – thanks to Titty – as a cartographer. You can see a few maps I drew on my website here.
I’ve undertaken quite a bit of charity work, fundraising and acting as webmaster for The Waterberg Trust. I can’t remember having strong career ambitions as a child but knew art to be my strongest subject. I have a visual brain that flits about. Keeping a diary and constant letter writing has helped me develop my writing and has given me a huge quantity of material to draw upon.
- What led/inspired you to become a producer?
Claude Whatham was a ground-breaking director who inspired all those around him, but directing became a viable option at Opera Camp, annual amateur productions we took part in over our summer holidays as teenagers. I began directing plays at university and developed a burning desire to direct for television, always ‘looking for the shot.’ By producing documentaries, I got to direct and put them together, editing voice-overs into a narrative arc. I would now like to adapt my own stories for film, so have Final Draft software on my laptop and Witness Films Ltd registered as a UK company, but although I have a couple of ideas out to tender, I’ve been concentrating on polishing my historical novels.
- I’ve read that before filming Swallows and Amazons, you were in a production of Cider with Rosie. Was playing Titty anything like your experience of playing Eileen Brown?
Claude Whatham directed bother Cider With Rosie (1971) and Swallows and Amazons (1974) so the experience was similar. I also appeared in a Weetabix commercial he made in the Cotswolds. All three productions were set in roughly the same period, but Titty’s costumes, designed by Emma Porteous, were easiest to wear. Cider With Rosie was the most daunting production as I had to play the piano, which required three days of intensive practice. Titty only had to draw, write and row a boat, which was much more my thing.
Working with Virginia McKenna was amazing. Hugely inspirational and one of our most iconic British film actresses, she taught me a great deal – and still does.
- What were your favourite and least favourite parts of the filming process?
We loved eating iced buns on set but hated hanging around in the cold. There was a lot of waiting for clouds to pass in the Lake District where I spent days clad in nothing but a thin cotton dress and enormous pair of navy blue gym knickers. I became more interested in the technical aspects of filming rather than acting, which for us children was more a case of ‘Let’s pretend.’
- What were your first impressions of the Lake District? Had you ever been to the Lake District before filming Swallows and Amazons?
My parents had taken me to the Lake District as a three-year-old and loved going themselves, so it was a treasured destination in my family. I was dazzled by the lakes and mountains. Holly Howe (Bank Ground Farm) above Coniston Water is a very special place. I love gazing up into the Langdales and walking up into the fells. We were members of the Steam Boat Association, something I have written about in my book, Funnily Enough and I returned over Lockdown to appear in BBC Antiques Roadshow when Swallows and Amazons was profiled.
- How detailed was the diary you wrote during the filming? Had you ever thought about turning your notes into a book before you were persuaded to write The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons?
I’ve put every page of my diary kept whilst making Swallows and Amazons on my blog at Sophieneville.net/swallowsandamazons My mother kept them, nagging me to write them up for years. Finding the time was difficult but I got there in time for the 40th Anniversary of the film’s release when StudioCanal brought out a DVD with an Extras package we appeared in.
- What was the writing process like? eg. challenges
The challenge with adapting a diary is to eliminate inevitable repetition but something extraordinary or disastrous happened everyday whilst filming Swallows and Amazons. With so much filmed afloat or on islands, it was an incredibly difficult production to work on and made a story in itself. I enjoyed finally bringing the book to life and interacting with readers who so kindly sent in reviews and comments. Some love hearing what we all went on to do after the film. One reader did not want to know, but I included this as there were many interesting links and coincidences, especially since I worked on the BBC serialisation of Coot Club and The Big Six.
and favourite moments?
It is very exciting when the first paperbacks arrive. Every author enjoys unpacking that box.
- What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned as a writer?
I never guessed how many times I would need to re-work my books. Each one is read though and edited repeatedly, on and on until it flows well and reads flawlessly. Recording the audiobooks has opened up a whole new world. I narrated them myself, which was far more complicated than I imagined. It’s difficult to digest the fact that I am on Spotify and the audiobookstore. Funnily Enough is selling well on audible.
- Do you have any events lined up to promote the book?
Yes, I list the events on my website sophieneville.net/events I’m hoping to be signing copies at the Royal Thames Yacht Club in April and Southampton International Boat Show in September.
I often give illustrated talks on how Swallows and Amazons was made and Q&As at cinema screenings. I’ve begun running workshops on photographing books at literary conferences, which is proving popular.
- Could you tell me a little bit about your other books?
Funnily Enough and Ride the Wings of Morning are illustrated memoirs that follow on from The Making of Swallows and Amazons, which is now in its 2nd edition.
Merry Christmas Everyone and Write Well are anthologies to which I have contributed a chapter. I have written Forewords to four books, including the Czech version of Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome, and Swallows, Amazons and Coots by Julian Lovelock. I have a couple of non-fiction books waiting in the wings including The Secrets of Filming Coot Club. The first three chapters have already been included in DVD extras for the remastered version of the DVD.
- Are you currently writing anything, either to do with Arthur Ransome or entirely separate?
I often write articles for magazines, which have connections to Swallows and Amazons, and have completed two historical novels, which are set in East Africa.
- Finally, could you tell me about your other pursuits such as your litter picking, art and the combination of the two? Have art and conservation always interested you?
I have always been passionate about wildlife conservation, often giving talks about otters since they are the key indicator species we have been active in protecting as a family. I am taking part in the Race for Reading by litter picking whilst walking the coast to raise funds for the UK literacy charity SchoolReaders. I sometimes make collages out of the rubbish to attract attention to the composition of sea plastic. You can see examples of this and my paintings on Instagram @Sophienevilleauthor