Auditioning to play the part of Titty Walker in the original film of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Fifty years ago this day, auditions were being held at 10 Long Acre near Leicester Square in London for parts in the original film of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ produced by Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Projects with the help of Neville C Thompsom and financed by Anglo EMI Films. It was to star Dame Virginia McKenna, but the leading roles were all for children under the age of thirteen who needed to be able to row and sail.

Producer Richard Pilbrow with Neville C Thompson on Derwentwater in the Lake District in 1973
Richard Pilbrow and Neville C Thompson in the Lake District in 1973

I recently received a Tweet from the award-winning author Wendy Clarke who wrote: Funnily enough (many, many years ago) I auditioned for the film role of Titty Walker… I would have been 12 then. I didn’t belong to a sailing club and couldn’t sail! Amazed I got the audition!’

When I asked if she could tell me more, she replied: ‘I have next to no memory of the day so wouldn’t have very much to say about it! I’m seeing my mum tomorrow and have asked her to bring her 1973 diary!’ Here it is:

Wendy Clarke’s mother, Joy Matthews, kept a diary every day of her life

‘This is where I went for the audition apparently. Was that the same place as you?’

It was! I remember the actual room.

Wendy explained that her mother, Joy Matthews, ‘has written a diary every day since I can remember (even if it’s just to say what the weather was like). Over the years it’s been very useful. She is now 91. I think this was the photo we sent!’

Wendy Clarke, aged 12, who auditioned for a part

I’ve just been reading your post and laughing at the escapades during the shooting of S&A. Can I really picture myself in your shoes… if I’m honest, no! I would have been too much of a scary cat. Especially when the mast broke!

A friend of mine also auditioned for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ but she couldn’t remember any details. Simon West, who ended up being cast as Captain John, told me that he met Richard and Neville for a first audition at his sailing club. His sister, Ginny, who was keen on acting, spotted a notice, but his father was amazed when he said he would also like to be considered for a role in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Aged eleven, he was a little young for the part of John, but he was bright, practical with a passion for sailing. Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett, who would eventually play the Amazons, also heard about the opportunity at their respective sailing clubs. Richard Pilbrow was very keen to find children who could sail and were able to swim well.

Wendy wrote: ‘Second interview… so I couldn’t have done too badly! (Probably still hadn’t mentioned the small matter of not being able to sail)… I may not have got the part but least I got to go to Madame Tussauds and the Planetarium!’

My parents only received a letter asking if I would like to be considered for a part on 26th March 1973. It was addressed to my father who was on an export mission to South Africa and the envelope lay unopened in our hall for a while. Luckily it was printed with the Theatre Projects logo and Mum did open it. We collected Dad from Heathrow and drove straight to Leicester Square and walked through China Town. I remember Claude looking rather intense as he asked me questions. He wanted to know what my favourite television progamme was. I don’t think he asked me to read anything, which was just as well as I would have been hopeless. Did he ask if I could row or sail? I might have told him that I could swim well, as I’d just gained a bronze life saving medal, one of my few achievements to date.

I too was taken to Madam Tausauds when the ticket took you to the neighbouring Planetarium as a double bill. We possibly went after another visit to London for ‘Swallows and Amazons’.

Wendy returned to Theatre Projects’s offices in Long Acre for a third interview. She was doing well:

I was fortunate in that I’d worked for Claude Whatham in 1971 when he had cast me as Eileen Brown in the first BBC adaptation of Laurie Lee’s book ‘Cider With Rosie’, set in the 1920s. We later found out that Claude liked working with actors like Brenda Bruce who he had employed on previous occasions. I’m not sure when he joined the production of ‘Swallows and Amazon’ but it could have been late in the day as he was the second director taken on board.

Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham

We were told that 1,800 children had been considered for the six parts in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Most of them had been members of sailing clubs. Claude had not wanted to visit stage schools but Suzanna Hamilton, who was cast as Mate Susan, had been going to the Anna Scher after school Theatre Club in Islington, which he may have visited. I had first met him at a drama club in Stroud in Gloucestershire in 1971.

Our final audition was held afloat, when about twenty children spent a weekend on a scout boat at Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex. This can’t have been an easy location for my parents to get to but Richard and Claude wanted to see how confident we all were on the water. We were taken dinghy sailing in wet and windy conditions. I remember Kit and her twin sister Alison Seymour facing the waves without a qualm. Richard bought his children Abigail and Fred along and I knew Sten Grendon who had also been in ‘Cider With Rosie’. We might have travelled to Essex together. The five girls up for the part of Titty all shared a cabin. I thought I was too old, too tall and too gangly. We were not aware of a screen test but Richard’s assistant Molly took super 8 cine footage.

Meanwhile, Wendy Clarke had been taken to Cumbria by her parents: ‘We’d gone to the Lake District to get a feel for it. Hadn’t heard anything about interview so Mum rang and, as she so very succinctly put, ‘that’s that’. That made me laugh.’

I noticed they had been to see the waterfall where we eventually shot a scene on the way to visit the charcoal burners.

Wendy wrote: ‘That May, mentioned in Mum’s diary extract, was my very first time in the Lake District. It was only years later, in my forties, that I visited again and fell in love with it. Maybe I’m destined to sail that boat after all! So lovely to ‘meet’ you (even though I probably hated you at the time for taking my part (which I would have been rubbish at anyway!) x

Wendy Clarke, whose website can be found here

‘My husband has just said, ‘why did you not tell me any of this?’ I was probably just relieved I didn’t have to get in a boat! In later life I discovered I was better at novel writing than acting!’

She added: ‘I’ve just found something else that links us. We both entered our books into the Flash Fiction Novel Opening Competition. My debut psychological thriller What She Saw, which was set in the Lake District, won it in 2017!’ I had a story shortlisted in 2022, which was encouraging.

Claude Whatham with the children he eventually cast as the Swallows

I would love to hear from others who auditioned all those years ago – do email me or leave a comment below. I have written a little more about the gaining the part from my perspective on an earlier post here.

We are approaching the 50th Anniversary of the filming, which began on 14th May 1973 – only a few weeks after my first interview. I’ve been asked to give a few talks on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, which I will detail on my Events page. You can find different editions of my books listed here

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

with an audiobook, narrated by me, Sophie Neville, available on all the usual platforms.

Dame Virginia McKenna and her work on the classic film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Virginia McKenna in 'Swallows and Amazons' (1974) by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu
Virginia McKenna in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) immortalized by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu (c) StudioCanal

I was so thrilled to read that Virginia McKenna has been awarded a DBE for services to wildlife conservation and to wild animal welfare in the New Year Honours. When I last spoke to her, she was working tirelessly for the Born Free Foundation that she co-founded with her son Will Travers OBE.

I first met Dame Virginia in 1973 when she agreed to star in the first big screen adaptation of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, produced by Richard Pilbrow, directed by Claude Whatham and released by EMI Films in 1974. She played the part of my mother, Mary Walker. The movie was shot entirely on location in the Lake District where Arthur Ransome set his classic series of children’s books.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm
Dame Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

The film has been broadcast on British television more than any other but it is when you watch it on the big screen that you can appreciate what made Virginia McKenna such a great star. Her face conveys a thousand tiny emotions that sweep you into a long-forgotten time when children were able to run free. 

Virginia McKenna holding the telegramme
Dame Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground in Cumbria ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

Dame Virginia had originally been scheduled to come up to Cumbria for the first ten days of the seven-week shoot but, since wet weather closed in, she was obliged to return when the sun came out for the famous scene when Roger tacks up the field at Holly Howe to receive ‘despatches’ in the form of the cryptic telegram BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN. 

Virginia McKenna with Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan
Dame Virginia McKenna with Ronnie Cogan ~ photo:Daphne Neville (c)

Dame Virginia enjoyed the discipline and focus of concentration on set and helped centre us from the start. If you watch other movies made at the time, such as ‘The Railway Children’ (1970), most of the adult actresses are wearing wigs with a district nineteen-seventies feel to their costume and make-up.  ‘Swallows and Amazons’ owes its timeless appeal to the fact that Virginia simply had had lovely thick hair scooped into a bun and wore her original 1929 garments with grace.

Sophie Neville as Titty
Sophie Neville as Titty in 1973 – photo: Daphne Neville (c)

I played Titty Walker who inveigled her mother into playing Man Friday to her Robinson Crusoe when she came to visit Wild Cat Island. The sequences were shot on Peel Island on Coniston Water where Ransome was taken as a boy by his own parents and met the Collingwood family in the 1890’s. He later became a good friend of Dora Collingwood whose five children became the inspiration for the story ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Her third daughter, the dreamer, was nicknamed Titty.

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island
Dame Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

It can not have been easy for Virginia to act with me, a child of twelve, while frying pemmican in butter on a camp fire. I was self-conscious about having lost an eye-tooth the night before and had rather a sore mouth and she later had to row from the island with a 35mm Panavision camera in her boat.

What I’d forgotten until recently was that Bill Travers watched the filming that day on Peel Island. He’d been a hero of mine ever since he played George Adamson in ‘Born Free’ and Gavin Maxwell in ‘Ring of Bright Water’ opposite Virginia. Their film, ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’, was released as a double bill with ‘Swallows and Amazons’

You can see a few more behind-the-scenes photos here and I’ve written more about being Robinson Crusoe here.

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville
‘They were very savage savages’ ~ Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

Looking back, I realise how fortunate we were to be able to play out the scenes from the iconic book in the actual locations, such as Bank Ground Farm where the Collingwood children had stayed one holiday as children, so they could visit their grandparents who lived at Tent Lodge next door and were too unwell to have them in the house.

The Walker Family at Holly Howe
Sten Grendon, Simon West, Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville at Bank Ground Farm, in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

We were not so keen on the publicity photographs taken for the film even though Virginia tried to make it fun. Right from the the very first day of filming, she worked hard to bring us together as a cast, playing games such as ‘Consequences’ to help us laugh and relax, while concentrating on the task of bringing the book to life.

The Walker family played by Suzanna Hamilton Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Virginnia McKenna and Simon West at Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria
Suzanna Hamilton Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Dame Virginia McKenna and Simon West – photo Daphne Neville (c)

In 1980, I went to work for Ginny and her husband Bill Travers, as a housekeeper for a few months. She needed domestic help while she was appearing with Yule Brynner in ‘The King and I’ at the London Palladium, for which she won an Olivier Award for Best Actress in a musical.  I looked after her youngest son, Dan, who later worked as a safety officer and consultant on the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I met him at the cast and crew screening in Leicester Square.

– Dan Travers and Sophie Neville in 2016 –

Ginny and I kept in touch. She was ever-supportive, encouraging me to keep raising funds for anti-poaching in South Africa, where she had been evacuated as a child during WWII. 

It was only when I heard her speak at the Kempsford  Literary Festival in the Cotswolds that I learnt that other ships in her convoy to Cape Town had been torpedoed and sunk crossing the Bay of Biscay. By some miracle, her ship had been delayed in Liverpool but she described finding the flotsam left by the ships that had been hit.

Having written a number of books herself, Ginny encouraged me to write, urging me to keep focused on one thing.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground

Her letters and cards also inspired me to keep raising funds for wildlife conservation in Africa.

Merry Christmas African animals card design by Sophie Neville
A Christmas card design by Sophie Neville

In turn, I supported the Born Free Foundation, printing them greeting cards, donating a Christmas card design for their catalogue and a picture that was auctioned at the Big Cat Open Day in Kent.

Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2000
Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001 – photo Daphne Neville (c)

In 2014, StudioCanal invited us both to appear in the DVD Extras package for the 40th anniversary DVD of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974). While we were waiting for the crew, she told me that she’d appeared in more than thirty movies. I know she’s made a few more since then.

You can watch her interview here:

Interview with Virginia Mckenna

I released the first edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ for which Virginia graciously provided a quote. You can read the first few pages in the preview of the ebook, entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons 1974’ here

To hear Virginia and her son Will Travers talking about receiving her DBE, please click here for BBC Sounds

~ ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons 1974’~

Discovering more about the film poster design for the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

Sophie Neville as Titty in 'Swallows and Amazons' (1974) by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu
Sophie Neville portrayed by Arnaldo Putzu

Who painted the film poster?

I have only just learned that it was the Italian artist Arnaldo Putzu.

Thomas Connery enlightened me, writing: ‘Whether it be Space 1999, The Railway Children, The Rollers or Jaimie Sommers, he always captured likeness’ of stars faithfully and remarkably accurately.’ 

I agree. He portrayed Virginia McKenna well. I wonder how large the original painting was and if any of the sketches have survived.

Virginia McKenna in 'Swallows and Amazons' (1974) by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu
Virginia McKenna in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

I have been given brown eyes and look a bit worried but am hugely honoured to have been featured at all. Kit Seymour looked far more cheery.

Kit Seymour as Nancy in ‘Swallows and Amazons’1974

A version of the artwork was used on cinema tickets, establishing the green parrot as one of the stars. I do like the way that Roger’s head looks out from the oval. This one gives Amazon a dark sail and shows the Amazons adopting different poses from on the poster. Nancy has folded arms and Peggy has her hands on her knees. Her stance is comic but a bit improbable. They have the wind behind them. What if the boat had gybed?

Premier ticket for the Gala of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

The ticket matched the souvenir programme for the film premier held in Shaftesbury Avenue on 4th April 1974. You can see inside this in an earlier post here.

Swallows and Amazons premier programme
The programme from the 1974 premier of the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’

I also have a large sepia poster given to my mother by a cinema. I can remember being too shy to ask for it, but she persevered. I haven’t seen another since.

As children, we all asked, ‘Who was sailing the boats?’ Magnus Smith, who now looks after Swallow, says that you can tie off the mainsheet and Susan could just about be controlling Swallow’s tiller, but Amazon looks a bit precarious. I don’t expect Arnaldo had any experience sailing dinghies. Ours were on a collision course, pitched at odd angles with rather high reefing points but he added a swashbuckling spirit, and a bit of white water spray, which is always exciting.

Swallows and Amazons (1974) sepia film poster (c) StudioCanal
Arnaldo Putzu’s poster for the EMI film Swallows & Amazons (1974)

Arnaldo Putzu (1927-2012) began working for Rank in the 1950s and moved to London in 1967. He worked on the advertising material for many iconic movies including That’ll Be The Day, featuring David Essex and Ringo Starr, which Claude Whatham directed in 1972 prior to working on Swallows and Amazons for EMI Films. Is that the cover of the LP in the right hand corner? Claude Whatham gave me a copy. It included the song ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’.

That'll be the Day -the film post by Arnaldo Putzu
Poster design by Arnaldo Putzu

This one is bordered by fairground lights, where as ours had been given the feel of a treasure map, with the credits on the reverse, which was clever. The original lettering, trendy in the mid-seventies, faded from fashion for a while but came back on-trend for the 40th Anniversary. The painting was somehow ageless, being used for the DVD cover up by StudioCanal until 2016. They still sell it as a jigsaw puzzle or on a mug.

According to The Guardian, ‘Putzu created some of the most famous Italian film posters of the 50s and early 60s, painting such stars as Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida.’ By 1973 ‘Putzu found himself the top-rated and most in-demand poster illustrator working in Britain. His output over the 1970s included oddball Hammer Horror fantasies such as Creatures the World Forgot and Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. For the Get Carter posters he put the ruthless gangster (played by) Michael Caine into an unlikely floral jacket, demonstrating the whimsical humour that makes his best posters unforgettable.’ An original of this poster signed by Michael Caine was once valued by Sotherby’s at between £4,000 to £6,000.

You can see more of of Putzu’s artwork here.

Lesley Bennett in 'Swallows and Amazons' (1974) by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu
Lesley Bennett in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy, still has her copy of the original film poster. She should probably get it signed by the actors. Others were pasted in London Underground stations, which I found alarming as a child.

Lesley Bennett who played Peggy in Swallows and Amazons 1974

I spied a framed poster on display at Windermere Jetty Steamboat museum, where it was featured on BBC Antiques Roadshow. There is more about the movie memorabilia, which was valued by the expert Marc Allum, here.

Swallows and Amazons film poster
Sophie Neville at Windermere Jetty museum in 2020

Some originals have been for sale on this site here. Studiocanal sell various prints here.

You can read about the adventures we had making the movie in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ and the multi-media ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ which retails for £2.99. You can ‘Look inside’ and read the first section for free here:

Swallows and Amazons, 1974 is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video where you can watch the film trailer. HotDog.com has a review of Amazon’s streaming service, including a 30-day free trial offer.

Titty’s Tooth in The Times

Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville – trying to row with her mouth shut.

The story of my missing tooth published in The Times! A great honour. The indignity of being toothless still rankles but I now have a full set.

You can find the whole story on The Nancy Blackett Trust website

It’s possible to spot the gap by watching the film trailer for the 1974 movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with further information on the International movie data base also seen here:

Sophie Neville, aged 12, without tooth. Suzanna Hamilton, aged 12, with beautiful teeth.

The lighthouse tree lantern from Swallows and Amazons (1974) has come to light

I received an interesting series of emails recently from a stone mason called Philip Chatfield:

“Hi Sophie, I was watching ‘Swallows and Amazons’, the old classic, on Talking Pictures TV… great channel. Curiously, I have, hanging in my cottage ceiling timbers, the lantern you used for the Lighthouse on Wild Cat Island !!!!!!”

The lighthouse tree lantern today

‘Lanterns like this pattern are not common, so I presume it must be the one used in your 1974 film. I like to think so. There is a hole in the top of my lantern which has been plugged up and holes in the base too. If you use the lantern with candles, which is what I always do. then you cannot have a hole in the top of the lantern. Heat goes up and out of it and the rope or wooden handle may catch fire! It is stopped up with a small bolt with a flat rounded top.’

The holes would have been made to insert an electric light behind the candle so that it would show up on film.

Sten Grendon (Roger), Suzanna Hamilton (Susan) and Sophie Neville (Titty) at the lighthouse tree in the 1974 movie of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’

It certainly looks like the lantern we used, which I knew well at the time. A hurricane lamp is used in the book Swallows and Amazons. John, ‘tied the other end round the oil box at the bottom of the lantern’, although candle lanterns were used to mark Secret Harbour.

You can see the lantern lying near Swallow’s mast

The black lantern was packed into Swallow on the voyage to the island, visible when the Walker children narrowly miss the Tern. You can see it lying in the shallow basket.

Film stills taken by Albert Clarke in 1973

It was rather uncomfortable to lean over when handing Roger the telescope.

Swallow nearly collides with MV Tern

The basket was taken out of Swallow at the landing place and Titty moves it up the beach ‘for fear of tidal waves.’ See if you can take some screen shots of it hanging from the lighthouse tree.

The same lantern was used in the movie ‘Far From the Madding Crowd'(1967) starring Alan Bates, Peter Finch, Terence Stamp and Julie Christie.

Terrence Stamp with the lantern

You can also see it hanging from a farm cart.

The same lantern

Philip says, ‘Clearly all the props went back to the Turk Phoenix shed near Teddington after shooting.’

Mike Turk’s warehouse full of film props

‘I never thought about it before but I used to work on a sailing ship called Grand Turk, which was owned by Mile Turk of Turk Phoenix who did a lot of film work.’

SV Grand Turk with Philip Chatfield firing a live shot on the Solent.  “That would have given Captain Flint’s houseboat a shaking up!”

‘The Grand Turk played the HMS Indefatigable in ‘Hornblower’ with Ioan Griffiths and co. While I was on board (as Third Mate and Gun Captain) I needed more props for the gunnery dept. The lantern was one of the props we had on board. It came from Turk Phoenix who still had one of the boats used in your wonderful film.’

Swallow at Mike Turk’s warehouse in 2010

‘Mike Turk’s business provided nautical props.’ When Mike reached the end of his life and fell ill, many of these were sold at auction in 2010, including the dinghy that played Swallow in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974), which was purchased by group of film fans now known as SailRansome.

Swallow prepared for auction in 2010

‘Before my time on Grand Turk I spent five years working on a lovely old square rig ship called MARIA ASUMPTA. Back in 1991 we sailed from London’s St Katherine’s Dock to Ipswich. We anchored off Shotley on the Orwell pretty much where the GOBLIN in Ransome’s book ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go to Sea’ book was set. As we hauled up our anchor we brought up a small kedge anchor. I still have it. At the time I was convinced it may have been from the story or even the sailing trip the story was originally based on. Who knows, but it is a lovely anecdote.  We had sailed the autumn before to Flushing in Holland and did a tour of the inland waters of Holland.’ 

Philip Chatfield with a kedge anchor

‘Sadly, Maria Asumpta was lost off Padstow in May 1995 with the loss of three crew. Thankfully I was one of the survivors.’

Maria Asumpta wrecked on a desolate shore

‘You can just see me standing staggering, second from the left, in a state of shock. Three were lost but I was amazed more weren’t, frankly. My friend the bosun Graham is sitting on the stern about to leap off. He survived, just. The ship had been built in Barcelona and launched in 1858.’ By the 1990’s it was the oldest square rigger still sailing.’ A true ship wrecked sailor! What would Titty say?

Philip Chatfield in HMS Victory working on a carving of Lord Nelson in 2008

‘As a stone carver and sculptor I make memorials. A few years ago I was asked to do the memorial for one of my old school teachers and eventually his wife, who now shares his grave in Monmouth. She was Helen Bucknall but her mother was Mrs Henry Clay. The Ransome book  ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ is dedicated to Mrs Henry Clay no less. Henry Clay was a friend and colleague of Ransome’s on the Manchester Guardian, also a keen sailor. I think Helen and her family were the inspiration for the story in the book. So Helen has a carving of the yacht they sailed as children on the large Welsh slate memorial in Monmouth cemetery.’

‘The galling thing for my friends, whose mother was Helen, is that they can’t find the original first edition of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ that Ransome signed. Hope it turns up. At least that charming card exists. Love his little sketch of the dinghy.’

‘Anyway, hope this is of interest… well done for all you do.  I have a hard copy of the book on order! Can’t wait. Very best wishes, Philip Chatfield’

The lighthouse tree lantern today

To read more about some of the Swallows and Amazons movie memorabilia, including Swallow’s flag and the fishing rods, please click here

To read more about ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ – click here

This lovely documentary shows Philip’s recent work on railways:

Alan Smith of BBC Radio 4 remembers being a film extra as a boy in the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

The original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was screened on Talking Pictures TV recently. The BBC Radio 4 newscaster Alan Smith, wrote to me recently, saying:

“It’s Alan Smith here – lovely to have all those memories flooding back! I’ve been through the family archive of photographs and have uncovered two pictures which I’m sure you won’t have:

Brian Doyle, Terry Smith and Graham Ford, with Virginia McKenna, Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Lesley Bennett (photo: Eileen Smith)

“The first picture is fairly obvious – it’s you and the other cast members in the car at Haverthwaite station. This will have been taken by my Mum at the time the ‘official’ photo was taken.” This was on 14th May 1973 when a reporter from the Times came to witness our first day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’. The station had only been re-opened two weeks earlier.

The cast of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) at Haverthwaite Railway Station with Jim Stelfox. Robin Smith is at the window, Alan Smith and John Eccles are standing in the doorway.


“The photo (below) shows (left to right) my brother Robin, me and our friend John Eccles standing in front of a pony & trap. This picture was also taken at Haverthwaite, probably by my mother. John came along with his grandparents Patsy and John, and everyone remarked on how distinguished Mr Eccles senior looked in his boater and blazer!

Robin Smith (6), Alan Smith (9) and John Eccles (7) at Haverthwaite Railway Station with the props lorry in the background


“Please feel free to use these pictures however you’d like – I wonder if they’ll prompt others who were there to unearth similar memories?!”


“We had a lovely two days as extras on the film. I remember there was a casting one Sunday morning at St Anne’s Hall (an old church which is now converted to flats) in Ambleside. This is where anyone who wanted to take part went along to meet the director and wardrobe people. My mother was given instructions re the dress-code for Robin and me, and we were asked to meet in Ambleside town centre a couple of weeks later to board a bus which took us to the first location (Haverthwaite).”  This took place about two weeks before the film. Eileen Smith ran the Gale Crescent Guesthouse in Ambleside although none of the crew stayed there. My mother, Daphne Neville, went along to help the wardrobe master, Terry Smith, fit the film extras with costumes.

Alan’s brother, Robin Smith, made it onto a jigsaw puzzle released with the film

Alan couldn’t think why his Dad didn’t come along. It might have been the threat of haircuts. No man in Cumbria under the age of seventy could be persuaded to have a 1929 haircut, apart from Jim Stelfox the station master and my own father, Martin Neville, who appeared in the Rio scenes shot at Bowness.

You can see a quick flash of Alan and his family near the bus in this behind-the-scenes cine clip, shot by my father with a 16mm Bolex borrowed from his company:

Behind-the-scenes footage taken by Martin Neville

Alan watched this and wrote, “My brother and I are convinced that the boy on the right of the frame at 0’06” is Robin, and the woman standing next to him in the hat with the red band is my mother, Eileen (I appear to have gone in search of ice cream or something, as I’m nowhere to be seen!).

“A couple of seconds earlier at 0’04” I’m almost certain the woman standing in front of the red bus with the large bag is John’s grandmother Patsy Eccles, and the the man in the white blazer, trousers and hat is John Eccles senior, Patsy’s husband. I have very fond memories of Mr & Mrs Eccles – they were a lovely, kind couple who were almost like an extra set of grandparents to Robin and me.

Other children who took part, featured in the local newspaper

“We may only have been extras, but it was so exciting for all of us! The first day’s filming was spent getting on and off the train, followed by what seemed like endless trips up and down the line (this would have been when you and the other actors were in the next carriage filming the early scenes).

Some of the other film extras with Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville


“The second day was a few days later at Bowness Bay. This must have been some feat to achieve as the road was closed to traffic and any clues from the 1970s such as road signs had to be covered up or disguised!

Is Alan fighting with his brother in this shot, top right?

“Both days had a very big effect on me. As a child I’d always been fascinated by radio, film & television, and this brought my imagination to life. It also lit a fuse under my ambitions to do something in broadcasting. The result is I’m now a news presenter on Radio4, doing the news in programmes such as Today, PM and The World at One, so I have a lot to thank Swallows and Amazons for! My work means I now live in Buckinghamshire, but I get back to the Lakes 5 or 6 times a year, and I know that when I hang up my headphones for good, that’s where I’ll live.”

Although born in Edinburgh, Alan’s family moved to Cumbria when he was two years old. He and his brother, Robin, enjoyed an idyllic ‘Swallows and Amazons’ childhood growing up in the Lakes. They didn’t get into sailing but loved hill walking. You can see his BBC profile here

Zena Ashbury and her mother, in front of Brown’s coach returning the film extras to Ambleside at the end of the day’s filming in Bowness.

You can see more photos and read about the adventures everyone had making the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ here:

The disaster of the missing tooth – whilst making the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

Earlier in the year, I spoke to Helen Millican on BBC Radio Cumbria about making the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the Lake District, back in the summer of 1973. We have had an amusing development.

Sophie Neville speaking to Helen Millican on BBC Radio Cumbria

I had been chatting away, telling Helen that people like hearing about all the disasters we had whilst filming on location. One odd thing that went wrong was that one of my milk-teeth fell out in the middle of shooting a scene with Virginia McKenna on Peel Island. At the time, I was somewhat distracted and self-conscious about this but could do no more than try to keep my mouth shut.

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island
Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville ~ photo: Daphne Neville

However, viewers often spot the fact that my tooth suddenly disappeared. They still talk about it nearly fifty years later. Helen assured me that the tooth fairy was bound to turn up with it, suggesting I could then take the small canine on BBC ‘Antiques Roadshow’, which was being recorded at Windermere Jetty museum in Cumbria at the time.

The tooth that went missing – top right

Amazingly, the missing tooth has been sent to me.

Peter Robb-King, the Make-up Designer on ‘Swallows and Amazons’, rang to say that he had kept it safely in a metal film canister labelled ‘Titty’s tooth’. He promised to send it to me in the post so that I could add it to my bizarre collection of movie memorabilia – valued by Marc Allum at £4,000 to £6,000.

Sophie Neville being made up for the part of Titty by Peter Robb-King in 1973

Helen was delighted to hear that the tooth had materialized after 48 years. “Wow, Sophie what a result, after we made such a joke of it as well! That might just take your valuation up to the next level!”

Peter explained that he took the milk tooth to a dentist in Ambleside to ask if a bridge could be made to temporarily replace it but I remember the director, Claude Whatham, saying that he would ‘have to live with it’ – it being something of a continuity problem as he was yet to shoot earlier scenes of us sailing to the island. As a result, film fans can now work out which sequences were shot right at the end of our time on location even though they come before the scene with Man Friday (played by Virginia McKenna) in the storyline.

My missing tooth, kept since 1973

Peter Robb-King went on to have an amazing career in film, working on ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, ‘Aliens’, and a number of ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Batman’ and ‘Star Wars’ movies. He told me that he originally found it difficult to break into Make-Up Design as a man, but managed to win a post as a trainee on ‘The Avengers’ in 1968. ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) was his first job as a Make-Up Supervisor, proving a break-through for him and other members of the film crew. It was the first film made by the producer Richard Pilbrow and David Wood’s first screenplay. Suzanna Hamilton, who played Susan, went on to star in many movies including ‘1984’ with John Hurt and ‘Out of Africa’ opposite Meryl Streep. She has recently had a guest appearance on ‘EastEnders’.

Peter Robb-King can be glimpsed right at the end of this cine clip taken on location

Now retired, Peter and his wife live in Maidenhead but enjoy travelling around. We had a long chat about the green parrot as he later adopted a young one that was rescued while making an Indiana Jones film in Sri Lanka. Stephen Spielberg looked after another parrot from the clutch.

You can read more about the disasters that befell us whilst filming in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, signed copies of which are available from libraries, The Nancy Blackett Trust book shop and other online distributors.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'

If you enjoy ebooks, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ has links to behind-the-scenes cine footage and is very good value at £2.99 – available on Kobo, Smashwords, iTunes and on Kindle here

To read a little more about filming with Virginia McKenna on Peel Island, please click here

A list of Peter’s film credits can be found here: Peter Robb-King – IMDbimdb.com

An article on the tooth in the Times

You can listen to the ten minute recording of my chat with Helen Millican of Radio Cumbria on the Nancy Blackett Trust website here.

The episode of BBC ‘Antiques Roadshow’ showing movie memorabilia from the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ can be watched on BBCiPlayer here.

You can spot the missing tooth but the movie trailer can be seen here as we attack the houseboat. The clip is slightly out of sinc.

Swallow’s flag and the bamboo fishing rods featured in the 1974 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’

The flag Titty made for Swallow in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Were some of these stitches mine after all?

A few weeks ago, BBC Antiques Roadshow featured some of the flags from the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) in which I played Titty Walker. These film props had been sent to me by the producer Richard Pilbrow who now lives in Connecticut. I take them with me if I’m ever asked to give a Q&A or talk about ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’. Film fans enjoy taking selfies with them.

I explained that they were made on location in 1973, possibly by the Art Director, Simon Holland, who enjoyed painting. Equally, they may have been made by the Set Decorator Ian Whittaker, who went on to win an Oscar and nominations for several more. Bob Hedges who was in charge of the action props was also adept at making props in the days when health and safety regulations were more relaxed.

In the story, Titty decides to make a new flag for the Swallow. I was keen on sewing as a child, and was thrilled to be given a needle and thread to stitch a blue swallow on the flag myself in a scene with Virginia McKenna, who played Mrs Walker, shot at Holly Howe (Bank Ground Farm) above Coniston Water in the Lake District. Rather a modern reel of cotton was caught in vision.

Virginia McKenna, as Mary Walker with Sophie Neville playing her daughter Titty Walker busy stitching Swallow’s new flag in preparation for the voyage to the island (c)StudioCanal

It was not until I returned from recording Antiques Roadshow at Windermere Jetty and had the flag on my desk that I noticed some of the stitches are different from others. It looks as if the small, white stitching on one wing could have been my own. As a child, I had thought the larger stitches rather clumsy but am sure they looked appropriate in vision. It would be worth far more if it was known to have been made by Ian Whittaker. He won an Oscar and was nominated for his work on a number of other films.

Ian Whittaker with the Art Director Simon Holland

‘Properly’, as Titty would say, the bird should be flying towards the mast, although I am assured that Arthur Ransome did once draw a diving swallow on one flag. In his book, the swallow was sewn into the cloth rather that plonked on top of fabric browned by tea but our flag has lasted for 48 years.

Property Master Bob Hedges keeping the perch alive

After Antiques Roadshow was broadcast, a lady who grew up in Bowness on Windermere, wrote to say, ‘It may be of interest that we still have the fishing rods that were used in the film. They belonged to my father Leslie Borwick and were lent to the film crew. They are rather worse for wear but still treasured as I was a big fan of the books when I was young. Unfortunately I was living abroad when the film was made so have no memories of it.’

Leslie Borwick on Windermere

Leslie Borwick, was a keen fisherman who took his daughter out to catch perch. She said that the bamboo rods are quite fragile but one has a wooden reel, which is interesting.

Ronald Bousfield fishing at about the time ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was written

“My mother’s side of the family were very keen fishermen. Their surname was Bousefield and there is a fly called “Bousefield’s Fancy”(Frank Bousefield)”

You can read the original post about filming the fishing scene on Elterwater here

A clip of Swallow’s flag being valued on BBC Antiques Roadshow can be watched on BBC iPlayer.

The whole story of the making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) can be read here:

Memories of making ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974): part six

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in the 1974 movie

‘Titty from Swallows and Amazons’ often gets typed into the Goggle search engine but when I attempt to use it as a ‘tag’ a message pops up saying: ‘Sorry, you are not allowed to assign the provided terms.’ I can only conclude that Google lacks literary enlightenment but the BBC were happy for me to talk about Titty on BBC Antiques Roadshow recently.

Sophie Neville on BBC Antiques Roadshow

‘Memory picks and choses,’ as Arthur Ransome said in his autobiography (p.33) but those who love his novels often wonder what would have happened to the characters when they grew up. It dawned on me that this might be one reason why people are interested to know what we all did with our lives. I played Titty Walker in Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. In 1962, the film actress Susan George played the same character in the black and white BBC television serial of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with her hair in pigtails. She was called Kitty, apparently with Arthur Ransome’s approval. BBC Films decided to call the Able seaman ‘Tatty’ in the 2016 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, when she was brilliantly played by Teddy-Rose Malleson-Allen who went on to star in ‘Four Kids and It'(2020).

The character was inspired by a real little girl, Titty Altounyan, who stayed at Bank Ground Farm (or Holly Howe) when visiting her grandparents who lived above Coniston Water. In 1939, Miss Joyce Cartmell acquired a signed note from Arthur Ransome explaining that, ‘Titty is short for Tittymouse which is what she was called when she was a baby. Nobody ever calls her anything but Titty now’. It appears that Ransome was also asked for a photograph of himself, to which he responded, ‘Too ugly’.

Edward Thomas (1878-1917) described Arthur Ransome as ‘exuberant, rash and intelligent.’ In 1973, I can only assume the film director Claude Whatham was looking for the same spirit in us children. It was certainly captured by Wilfred Joseph’s nautical film score.

What constantly impacts me is the number of people who write in to say how much they wanted  Titty to become their best friend. In many ways the characters from Ransome’s books become friends for life. You can easily gain others who have the same outlook on life by joining The Arthur Ransome Society, who offer activities and grants for young people as well as adults with a literary bent. You too can stay at Bank Ground Farm and run down the field to dip your hands in the lake.

Staying at Bank Ground Farm – ‘Holly Howe’ with TARS

You can read more about making the movie in the multi-media ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’.

And in the illustrated paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ by Sophie Neville available online and from the Nancy Blackett Trust

 

Talking about ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) movie memorabilia on BBC Antiques Roadshow

Marc Allum socially distanced from Sophie Neville and her bow

When BBC Antiques Roadshow returned to Windermere Jetty in the Lake District there was great excitement from Swallows and Amazons fans.

The first episode broadcast from the museum featured Swallow, the dinghy from the original movie made on location in the Lake District in 1973 and brought to cinema scenes in 1974.

The movie poster of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) I’m in pink

‘Such an iconic film,’ the expert Rupert Maas, commented, admitting that it once inspired him to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.

He chatted to Rob Boden who looks after Swallow for the organisation Sail Ransome before placing a pretty high value on the old girl. They had just enough wind to sail off into the sunshine. It was great publicity for me as I had featured Swallow on the cover of two editions of my book on the making of the film

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

I had been invited along for the second episode, recorded the next day, when it poured with rain. While others were arriving with exquisite treasures, I staggered into the museum with two carrier bags of old photographs, a few flags and what my family regard as clutter.

Rupert Maas was busy valuing a painting by the waters edge but came to say Hello in the lovely new cafe at Windermere Jetty while we watched the expert, Marc Allum value a steam kettle.

Marc later walked around to inspect my collection of ‘movie memorabilia’ relating to the film of ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974), filmed in the Lake District forty-eight years ago.

Swallow being rowed by Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville (c)StudioCanal

He liked the LP, the programme from the premier and the original black and white film stills, along with the penants kindly sent to me from America by Richard Pilbrow who produced the movie now distributed by StudioCanal who have a remastered cinema Bluray and DVD with Extras.

Premier ticket for the Gala of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

The camera crew seemed adept at keeping their equipment dry, but lining up shots was tricky since everyone had to be carefully distanced.

I knew that signed, first edition copies of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazon’ are worth up to £11,000. A note sold in an envelope addressed to a Miss Cartmell postmarked 1939 and accompanied by a small card signed by the author with a pen and ink sketch of a sailing boat, sold recently with an estimate of £1,000-1,500 but I did not think my collection of movie memorabilia from the early 1970’s would be worth much.

Marc Allum lining up a shot with Sophie Neville

Marc invited me to take up the bow an arrow, whittled on location during the filming and fletched with feathers from a ‘Red Indian Headdress’ purchased from a toy shop in Ambleside in 1973.

Marc Allum and Sophie Neville with the director

I suggested the director might like to take a shot of the ML Tern as she passed but visibility was too low. Marc concentrated on my collection, which had nearly been thrown out in a fit of de-cluttering years ago. He valued it at far more than I ever would have imagined.

I wondered if my item would ever be included, thinking it could easily hit the cutting room floor, but this well a kind reader alerted me to the Radio Times billing here

To see more photos of BBC Antiques Roadshow at Windermere Jetty, please see the previous post here

You can find the illustrated book on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ here:

For details on the BBC Antiques Roadshow website, please click here They tell me they, “would be delighted to hear of any developments that may occur following the transmission of the programme. For instance, further information about the history of an item occasionally comes to light or a decision is taken to put the featured piece up for sale. Should you have any such news, please contact the Antiques Roadshow Office at antiques.roadshow@bbc.co.uk.

The episode ‘Windermere Jetty 2 – series 43’ is on BBC iPlayer here

Detail of an original ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) movie poster hanging at Windermere Jetty Museum

You can read more about how ‘Swallow’ was bought at auction and restored, in Yachts and Yachting and on the Sailransome website.

You can listen to Sophie chatting about the experience on BBC Radio Cumbria here

Swallow’s original burgee and the White Elephant flag captured from Captain Flint’s houseboat, featured in the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

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