If you take the East of the Lake road along Coniston Water you will find Bank Ground Farm. It lies between Brantwood, John Ruskin’s former home, and Lanehead where Arthur Ransome’s friends the Collingwoods lived. Ransome was particularly good friends of Dora Collingwood, who married an Irish-Armenian doctor keen on sailing called Ernest Altounyan. They went to live in Syria but every five years or so would bring their children to visit their Grandparents for the holidays. The would stay at Bank Ground Farm next door. Ernest bought two 14 foot sailing dinghies called Swallow and Mavis in which his family learnt to sail.
It was for the five Altounyan children, Taqui, Susie, Titty , Roger – and Bridget, the ships’s baby, that Arthur Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons after they gave him a pair of bright scarlet Turkish slippers as a birthday present. I don’t think I knew that Titty was a real girl when I played her in the film, but I did know her character in the books and only felt rather bad that I didn’t have her thick dark hair.
Bank Ground Farm is much smarter now. Lucy Batty, who let us take over her home in 1973, is still around but the guest house is now run by her grandson Jonathan. You can either stay in the main house, where there is a lovely corner bedroom with views right down Langdale, or you can take a self catering cottage or flat, since they have been able to convert the barn and stables into further accommodation. I’ve just received post from Peter Willis of The Nancy Blackett Trust who said,
“I stayed at Bank Ground in the summer – it was utterly lovely, exactly as it ought to be – Jonathan Batty and his wife are really hospitable, and one of the great pleasures was the friendliness and interstingness of the other guests, who included a Japanese Ransome fan. Do have dinner if they’re doing it. Food’s great, but so’s the sociable atmosphere.”
Int: Holly Howe ~ Bank Ground Farm near Coniston
It was grey and raining in the Lake District on 15th May 1973. Instead of filming the scene when Roger tacks up the field, Denis Lewiston, the Director of Photography, lit Mrs Batty’s living room at Bank Ground Farm for an evening scene. Simon Holland the Art Director dressed the room in the style of a Cumbrian farmhouse in the 192os with oil lamps, Bobby the prop man brought in all the camping gear we were to be packing, while Virginia McKenna was having her hair done up and we had lessons in our red double-decker bus. Then we recorded a scene, the dialogue of which was never used in the finished film.
You do see Susan packing bars of soap and me making heavy weather of sewing our flag, my hair pinned back in a hideous way, with rather a modern reel of white cotton laying on the desk. John packed the telescope in a biscuit tin, which to me now seems a mistake as we used it on the voyage, very much not in a tin, but then one always re-packs many times before an important trip.
After lunch we shot the scene when Mother is teaching us how to erect a tent on rocky ground, as she did with Father when they were young. Titty asks if she is really old.
‘Not really. But I was younger then,’ Virginia McKenna replied looking dubious.
This is rather how I feel now, all these years later, especially when I walk into a room when people are expecting me as Titty. I’m not really old, but I do look different from when I was only twelve. This always happens when I return to Bank Ground Farm. Everyone is a bit taken back by my height but say I sound just the same. And I am married now with a family of my own. It is a bit like when Peter Pan flew back to see Wendy and found she looked just like her mother – not least because in the play the adult Wendy is always played by the actress who formerly takes the role of Mrs Darling.
I was standing outside the front door of Bank Ground once, talking to Lucy Batty, when two Japanese girls arrived to stay at the farm. They were fans of the film. They looked up at me and declared, ‘Ooo Titty!’ and bowed their heads whilst clasping their hands together in greeting. They had come from the other side of the world and yet recognised me immediately. Perhaps I haven’t changed that much after all.
The weather must have cleared up a bit by teatime on 15th May as we recorded the scenes in the boat house when John discovers Swallow, brings her out to the stone jetty and steps the mast. I’m pretty sure that the sunlight comes from an arc-lamp. They must have had to take the generator down to the lakeside. Suzanna got her shorts wet as she pushed out the clinker-built dinghy but we loved being by the water.
Ext : Ulverston Railway Station ~ filmed at The Haverthwaite Railway Station
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 1929 holiday destination. Local people had been previously 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.
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. I liked sitting on the car but thought the photograph was silly, especially since Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett, who played the Amazons, were wearing ordinary clothes rather than period costumes. The result was later published in both The Guardian and Woman’s Realm. 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.
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.’
Ext: Holly Howe ~ filmed at Bank Ground Farm by Coniston Water
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.
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.
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.
Ext: Peak at Darien ~ filmed by Derwent Water
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 there. 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. 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.
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’. 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.
The opening titles ~
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.
A snazzy Seventies’ font, had been used for the titles of Lionel Jefferey’s movie The Railway Children and the poster of Swallows and Amazons.For sometime a DVD has been available which gives you both movies released by EMI Films.
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.
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 ~
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 guage and coloured black-berry black
~ The crossings out were made by my mother, in the tradition of marking a scene that has been recorded ~
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.
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.
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.
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 develope. 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.
A transcript of the entire screenplay of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) can be found by clicking here
…And so we spent the Sunday before the filming began sailing. I’m afraid I can’t remember a thing about it. I imagine we sailed out from the Kirkstone Foot Hotel on Lake Windermere.
I’ve always felt the cold. Back then I only had a terrible blue nylon anorak that I don’t think enabled me to enjoy the sailing, which is such a pity. I seemed to have got very cold even when sailing with the wind.
The Amazon has a centre board and was always a much faster boat than Swallow. It proved a bit of a problem during the filming as she always gained more distance when the director wanted a shot with both dinghies sailing together. But, even as old boats with very limited sail, they can go at quite a lick. I remember both were difficult to turn unless you did have a bit of speed up. Swallow’s long keel makes her roomy and stable but I sailed her recently and she’s not a boat that wants to go home. I’m used to modern rudders now, whereas Swallow and Amazon have shallow ones shaped like the letter ‘b’.
We had lunch with Virginia McKenna who was to play our Mother, Mrs Walker. She was sweet and so enthusiastic about what we were doing. I remember that she made a great effort to entertain us at the hotel, instigating games of Consequneces, which we adored. We roared with laughter as she read out the results.
As my father said recently, Virginia McKenna was completely right to play the part of a Naval Commander’s wife. A darling of the British public she is, and was, the star who carried the film. I knew her from having loved the animal movies she’d been in ~ Ring of Bright Water, An Elephant Called Slowly, Born Free and my favorite wartime story A Town Like Alice, for which she won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress.She was also nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Violette Szabo in the WWII story Carve Her Name With Pride and played Julie Hallam in The Cruel Sea, another superb wartime classic. Married to Bill Travers she had four children of her own by the time she made Swallows and Amazons. I don’t know how she managed to do so much, all with with so much grace and time for others.
Claude Whatham, the director, Richard Pilbrow, the producer and David Blagden, the sailing director were with us, along with Mum and Jane Grendon, Sten’s mother who was our other chaperone. Neville Thompson, the Associate Producer who was in charge of the budget and schedule, was also with us that first weekend. He later worked on the Mosquito Coast, Time Bandits, Sharpe’s Rifles and produced The Missionary with Michael Palin. He must have been a good man to have on board.
In the early ’70s most people had long hair. Ours had to be cut and bobbed to match the 1929 hair styles in Arthur Ransome’s well-known illustrations. I wrote in my diary that, ‘Sten went first and came out looking much older with all his locks cut off! Simon was next. He looked much the same, except with his ears showing.’ We thought they looked so much better with short-back-and-sides. Mum said that Sten really did have long, flowing hair, which looked extraordianry on a nine year old boy.
I’ve just been reminded that the production company really struggled to find male Extras to be in Swallows and Amazons because no one wanted this cut. The actors were the same. Mike Pratt, who played Mr Dixon the diary farmer, couldn’t have his hair cut as he was in the middle of filming a television series, The Adventures of Black Beauty, set in the Victorian era – a good excuse to avoid being shorn. His hair had to be pinned up under a flat cap, which looked weird on the big screen. You could see the kirby grips.
My mother had huge reservations about my straggly blonde hair being chopped off and said she nearly refused to let them. I am very glad she didn’t. It was wonderful having short hair. My haircut proved such a great success that I believe it set a fashion for having a graduated bob or ‘Titty Haircut’.
The dentist ~
I am sure that as well as having our teeth cleaned that they were checked over before they caused a problem. As it was I lost a fairly conspicuous milk tooth during the filming at a time when it caused havoc with the continuity. The director was not pleased but there was nothing he could do. Because the film could not always be shot in sequence you’ll see a full set of teeth in one shot and one missing in another. People still comment on it today.
The sailing director ~
Because Claude Whatham, the film director, was not a sailor himself he appointed a sailing instructor or ‘Sailing Director’, David Blagden who took us sailing in both Swallow and Amazon before the filming, as my diary relates.
We needed to get used to handling the dinghies, was great fun. David made it fun. He was a tall, dark, good looking actor who had been in Kidnapped and was given the part of the Sammy the Policeman, which he did very well. ‘Now then, Miss Nancy.’ Having his hair-cut was such a big thing that he took off his helmet during scene to make the most of it, displaying his very short hair to the the world. We all adored David, who was well known for having sailed across the Atlantic. He had come in tenth, out of fifty-nine competitors, in the 1972 Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Race. He made the crossing in Willing Griffin a Hunter 19, the smallest yacht ever to offically participate in a transatlantic race. I’m afraid that my father thought that he over estimated his abilities. He was of the opinion that crossing the ocean was not quite the experience needed for clinker built sailing dinghies, which could jibe viciously without warning when wind blustered down from the fells, and didn’t rate him highly for the job. Dad was concerned about our safety. After the film David attempted to cross the Atlantic once more. He was never seen again.
Richard Pilbrow and the other boats ~
Richard Pilbrow, who was producing Swallows and Amazons loved boats and was often out on the water with us. It seemed that he came on on this day with us in a motor boat – it was one of those typical glass-fibre ones with a small cabin that were thought quite snazzy at the time. Along with the gaff-rigged dinghies, Swallow and Amazon there were quite a number of other period boats used during the filming – not least Captain Flint’s Houseboat, one of the Windermere Steamers and the Holly Howe rowing boat, or native canoe, in which Virginia McKenna so gallantly rowed out to the island when as Mother she came to visit her children only to find Robinson Crusoe (me) in residence. Richard loved them all. So did we.
My mother and I reached Ambleside in the Lake District in what must have been Mum’s Renault 5. I know it was packed to the gills. We found the Oaklands Guest House, a solid stone Edwadian house that the film company had booked us into, along with the other children in the cast.
The cast ~A striking girl called Kit Seymour, who came from London, was playing Nancy Blackett, ‘Captain of the Amazon and terror of the seas.’ Her sister, Peggy Blackett, was played by Lesley Bennett. Simon West, who was playing my brother John Walker, came from Abingdon. He held a National Optimist title and was an excellent sailor. Suzanna Hamilton, who came from Islington where she went to Anna Scher’s theatre group, took the role of the very practical Susan. The part of our younger brother Roger had been given to Sten Grendon, who had played the young Laurie Lee in the BBC Play Cider with Rosie, which I had also been in. He came up from Gloucestershire with his mother Jane, who was to chaperone us with Mum.
The director ~As my diary relates, were were taken for tea at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel to meet Claude Whatham, who was directing the movie. He was a small man, habitually clad in jeans, with a denim jacket. He seemed young and trendy for an adult. Sten and I had worked for him two years previously on Cider with Rosie and the others already knew him from the weekend sailing audition. Claude had just finished making his first feature film, That’ll be the Day, starring David Essex and Ringo Star. He went on to become a revered and prolific director with a long list of credits including the TV mini-series Disreali, Play for Today, Tales of the Unexpected,C.A.T.S. Eyes and the adaptation of Mary Wesley’s book Jumping the Queue. Mum took me to Yorkshire to watch him making the moive of James Herriots’ vet story All Creatures Great and Small, starring Anthony Hopkins and Simon Ward. He went on to make the feature films Hoodwink (for which he was nominated for an AFI Award), Murder Made Easy and Buddy’s Song, but for all that, Cider with Rosie (for which he received a BAFTA Nomination) and Swallows and Amazons remain his best known works, with terrific DVD sales. Somehow they never felt dated.
I can only think that we were thrilled to hear that we would not be learning lines, never realising it was Claude’s key to gaining natural performances out of us. His other secret was that he never allowed us to see the ‘rushes’ – film that had just been recored – as he thought it might make us self concious. I learnt later in life that he was quite right. We were also encouraged to start using our character names, which is something we enjoyed. I knew from my parents that Claude had wanted to cast children who didn’t go to stage schools. I think he chose us for our spiritedness as much as anything else.
The producer had been keen that we could all sail and swim well and Claude looked for children who were members of sailing clubs. I don’t think he realised until we were out on the lakes in gusty weather how deeply he valued the confidence in sailing dinghies held by the children playing John and Nancy. They were so good that there were times when they told him what to do. That amused him.
One thing that amused me intensly was watching the large colour television at the hotel. I’m not sure if I had seen one before. They were hugely expensive in 1973 and considered a great luxury. The set, which had a wooden veneer, stood on legs and showed all three channels – BBC One, BBC Two and ITV. We all thought it was amazing. That dates me and the period, doesn’t it?
‘When you went to see the charcoal burners, did Susan really leave her basket behind?’
‘Yes, she did!’ I’d totally forgotten, but she left it behind by mistake.
Last weekend I was invited to speak after dinner at the 11th Arthur Ransome Society Literary Weekendheld at Willis Hall, Bristol University. It was a joy and delight to meet the organisers and delegates, of which there were about 150. All seemed interested in learning more about the making of Swallows and Amazons, the feature film of Arthur Ransome’s book produced in 1973 by Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Projects and distributed by EMI in 1974.
Director Claude Whatham with his cast of Swallows and their basket
‘How old were you all?’ I was asked.
‘Ahh, that is rather a secret,’ I had to admit. When the filming began I was twelve, yet playing the part of Titty who was meant to be only nine. I managed to pretend to be much younger but the reality was that, although skinny, I was a tall child with long legs, so tall that in some shots you can see that I am taller than my elder brother John. Claude Whatham, the director, seemed unconcerned but had either holes dug for me or a box produced for John to stand on when were side by side. At other times he simply had John in a higher position.
John was played by Simon West, who even aged eleven was a true leader and excellent sailor. I believe he had been a National Optimist champion. Suzanna Hamilton, who played my elder sister Susan, was twelve. Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy was actually the eldest aged thirteen, and Kit Seymour turned thirteen during the filming. But, unlike at school, it didn’t seemed to matter to us. We all felt the same age and got on well as a result. Sten Grendon, who played the seven-year-old Roger was actually aged nine. And he really couldn’t swim, but somehow he survived.
I do remember that Roger received more danger money than any of us. Claude would compensate us for getting scratched by brambles – as poor Roger was – by handing out extra pocket money. I think we earnt £2 each for enduring the icy waters of Coniston when the swimming scene was shot on a grey day in May. The water was so cold that it was agony and the money hard earnt. Titty, who was keen on imitating cormorants, had to divie unther water and I nearly passed out. I am not very good at being wet and cold or when it comes to heights either, so it was encouraging to be rewarded after climbing trees, ‘For fear of ravenous beats.’ When you watch the film you can see that Susan inadvertently burnt Roger with the large flat frying pan, which she’d just taken off the camp fire. He flinches and she muttered ‘Sorry’, before ploughing on with the scene. The moment was captured in the film.
One problem encountered when filming with children is that they can unexpectedly lose their milk teeth. I did. People still comment on this today. I lost an eye tooth. In some scenes it is there, then it will suddenly vanish only to re-appear again. Claude was not very pleased that his continuity was blown and there was definately no tooth fairy. He wasn’t very pleased when I grazed my leg falling off a swing at lunch time either. Suzanna cut her hand whittling wood. Bobby, the Props man seemed so happy and absorbed making bows and arrows for the Amazons, out of local hazel saplings, that we all wanted to try for ourselves and started carving. I bought a penknife with my danger money and made a bow, which I still have today. This occupation kept us all quite until of course Suzanna nearly chopped a finger off and ended up with such a big bandage that Claude howled with dismay. We were banned from whittling after that, but I did learn to shoot with the bow and arrow. This proved providential since I gained the part of an archery champion in the next feature film I appeared in. Years later I met the man who became my husband at an archery event. He was chairman of the society. I might never have met him if I hadn’t learnt to shoot for the feature films.
‘Here we are, intrepid explorers, making the first ever voyage into uncharted waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets shall be revealed?’ Titty uttered dramatically as she looked out towards Wildcat Island. In fact we weren’t that intrepid. Our dinghy was wired to a pontoon on which was a 35mm Panasonic camera, a few yards of track and an entire film crew: sound, camera, lighting, wardrobe g et al.
The little bit of extra money Claude gave us was indeed compensation for encountering grave danger on one occasion. I don’t remember there being anything about it in Arthur Ransome’s book, but in the film there is a sequence when the Swallows nearly collide with the Tern, an elegant steamer that has taken tourists up and down Windermere since 1891. There is rather a large difference between the shot of the dinghy with the Tern coming towards her when Susan calls, ‘Look John! Steamer ahead!’ which was shot when Swallow was attached to the floating pontoon, and the next shot, a top shot, which was taken from the steamer when we were sailing free . That is when things went wrong. The Tern turned, John lost his wind in the lee of the larger vessel and we four children came perilously close to ending up in a very Duffer-ish state. Swallow had no centre board, only a keel and a shallow rudder, so she was difficult to turn at the best of times. We were acutely aware that Roger couldn’t swim, we had no buoyancy and I was perched on a pile of heavy old camping equipment. My father, who is a good dinghy sailor with years of experience racing in the Solent, was watching from the deck of the steamer, helpless. He could foresee the problem and yet was able to do nothing. Although we just managed to avoid a true collision he was so shaken someone had to find him a glass of whisky.
At The Cannes Film Festival, Harbour Pictures, in association with BBC Films, announced that they plan to re-make Swallows and Amazons based on Arthur Ransome’s iconic book that was written in 1929. As a result a debate broke out, not about whether this is a good idea, but whether the characters should wear life jackets.
Ironically Sophie Neville, who played Titty in the 1974 feature film of Swallows and Amazons nearly drowned over Easter last year because she was wearing a buoyancy aid. ‘My sister insisted I wore a big old fashioned life-jacket as an example to her children. When I capsized it trapped me inside my canoe. I’d lost my paddle and hung upside down, in the cold water, unable to get out. I was literally plugged inside and couldn’t get free.’
(for alternative photo image see http://bit.ly/jZMn1O image from fotolink.pl of Steven Grendon & Sophie Neville rowing Swallow in the EMI 1974 feature film Swallows and Amazons)
The EMI film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons was made entirely on location in the Lake District 1973. ‘It can get quite gusty on Coniston Water but we never fell in,’ Sophie remembers. ‘We had a wonderful time.’
Ten years later the BBC made the drama series Swallows and Amazons Forever! an adaptation of Ransome’s later books Coot Club and The Big Six, which are set on the Norfolk Boards. Julian Fellows featured as a Hullabaloo, an enraged tourist driving a motor cruiser.
In both the film and television series the decision was made to be true the 1930s period in which the books are set and let characters – adults and children alike (plus pug dog), go out on the water without life vests. They carried knives, lit fires and sailed at night without lights in boats that had no buoyancy aids. Lanterns were hung in tents and arrows were fired at other children. The boys in Norfolk also rode bikes without helmets, but that is how life was led in the 1930s. No one had safety belts in cars. Not much safety gear had been invented. ‘You wouldn’t film Elizabeth the Golden Years with Cate Blanchett in a BHS riding hat, or Russell Crow playing Robin Hood in a jockey’s helmet. No one moans about that. When filming Swallows and Amazons we wore life jackets when setting up shots and had a lifeguard in a zoomy rubber boat on constant stand-by when filming, but you wear period costumes in a period film and that is it.’
Sophie worked for the BBC behind the camera on the crew of Coot Club and The Big Six. She said what concerned her in Norfolk was the thought of someone getting trapped between a moored boat and the staithe wall or getting bashed when boats passed under the famously low bridges. ‘This situation won’t exist in the Lake District when Swallows and Amazons is made into a film again. They will have a wonderful – inspirational – time.’
Meanwhile if you are planning on going canoeing – sign up for a safety course first and wear the proper gear. This is the year 2015 and buoyancy aids are available…
Sophie Neville with Swallow by Coniston Water, holding an original publicity still from the EMI feature film of Swallows and Amazons.
Serendipity [ser-uh n-dip-i-tee] an aptitude or faculty for making desirable discoveries by accident
Serendipity indeed. The word has been quoted to me so many times that I’ve started to take note. The serendipit in question connects me to a rather large, bald man with massive moustaches called Arthur Ransome.
In March 1973 my father was sent a letter, completely out of the blue:
We are at present casting for a film version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS which Mr Whatham is going to direct. We were wondering if you would be interested in your daughter being considered for one of the parts in this film. Amazing!
To gain a part I had to be able to swim well. I think this was to do with ensuring I was unlikely to drown. As it happened I could row, sail and swim. My parents had taught me. I can’t remember Claude Whatham asking me about this when he interviewed me. He wanted to know what my favourite Television programme was. ‘Blue Peter!’ ‘Why?’, ‘Because they show you how to do things.’ It was exactly what Mr Whatham wanted to hear. Why? Because that is what Arthur Ransome does in his books. He doesn’t tell. He shows his readers how to sail. And how to camp. By the age of twelve I had already read all eleven books in the series and loved the stories. What I didn’t know then was the effect they would have on the rest of my life.
By May 1973 I was on my way up to the Lake District to play Titty Walker in the feature film being produced by Theatre Projects and distributed by EMI. I didn’t think I was right as Titty at all. In real life Titty had been Anglo-Armenian and grew up in Syria. The illustrations show her with dark hair, cut in a bob. And I thought of myself as far more like the practical Susan, Titty’s older sister. However I was assured that I could play Titty and I did. Able seaman Titty, crew of the Swallow. Thankfully they cut my straggly blonde hair and I sang out the dialogue that I already knew off by heart from reading the book, ‘I expect someone hid on the island hundreds and hundreds of years ago.’
How the real parrot arrived on my shoulder I can’t quite remember but within months of returning from Coniston Water I had a green and yellow parrot of my own. I think he had outlived his owner and was given to us to keep. He was good company and very chatty. I adored him and could take him anywhere. When I was asked to be in Animal Magic to talk about the film he sat on my shoulder while I was rowing a boat, and I think did most of the talking.What I didn’t realise was how themes from Arthur Ransome’s life would follow me through the rest of my life.
When the time came for me to matriculate I went to Collingwood College at the University of Durham. The name resonated later when I discovered that W.D. Collingwood’s grandchildren were the real Swallows. W.D. Collingwood was an archaeologist living above Coniston Water, where the books are set, and had excavated Peel Island– or Wild Cat Island– finding the remains of a Viking settlement there. Some one had hidden there hundred of years ago. WD Collingwood Titty’s Gransfatherstudied at the Slade, as did my own grandfather HW Neville. He may have been there at the same time as Titty’s mother Dora Collingwood.
Arthur Ransome won a Kitchener Scholarship. Years later these rare awards have been won by both my niece and my nephew. When Arthur Ransome first lived in London, he had digs in Hollywood Road. When I moved to London I shared flats with friends, first in Tregunter Road, then Harcourt Terrance, which ware merely extensions of Hollywood Road, which is off the Fulham Road in West Brompton. I had gained a graduate traineeship at the BBC. The first drama series that I worked on was Swallows and Amazons Forever! an adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads, Coot Club and The Big Six. It was not a chance thing, I contacted the Producer and asked if I could work on the series, but the fact that I’d heard about it was unusual, and amazing really that it was made that year when I was available to join the production team. I had first worked with Rosemary Leach, who played The Admiral – Mrs Barrable, when she starred, not as Missee Lee, but as Mrs Lee in Cider with Rosie. I later found myself working with William the Pug dog on Eastenders when he featured as Ethel’s ‘Little Willie’ . It was such fun to see him again. He was a playful little dog with a great sense of fun.
The first documentary I directed for the BBC involved an adder. I was filming in at a Nature Reserve in Dorset with a group of children who came across one immediately. It was huge, a black adder. The Billies would have declared this a great sign of luck. I’m not sure I thought much about Swallows and Amazons, over the next few years but I did film at a school in Cumbria and loved being back in the Lakes.
After working at the BBC for eight years I fell ill and, much like Arthur Ransome, had to abandon my full time job to work from home. Like him I had a yearning to spend as much time as possible in the great outdoors and chose to live in the wilderness. I spent my time exploring southern Africa, camping and cooking on fires. Of the subjects I’d studied at university the ones I most enjoyed were cartography and water-colours. I started to earn my living by drawing birds, animals and decorative maps. The maps usually depicted game reserves and involved giving names to landmarks as places of interest, just like Titty’s maps. I must have drawn forty maps in the style of those on the original cover of Swallows and Amazons, using the same borders and style of lettering. And I kept diaries, writing just as Titty would have done. I also worked freelance for the BBC, mainly setting up wildlife programmes. A rye smile did pass my lips when I was asked to find South African items for Blue Peter. I was thinking back to my first interview at Theatre Projects with Claude. They came to South Africa for their summer expedition one year, and it was I who sent them off to film the Outspan harvest and wild dog puppies in the Kruger National Park. After a while I fell into the pattern of flying back to England at Easter time and returning to Africa in the autumn. This was partly through choice, partly to comply with visa regulations and work commitments. I’d migrate every year with the swallows.
When we were making the feature film of Swallows and Amazons my mother looked after all six children. The girls playing the Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, needed to learn how to shoot with a bow and arrow. My mother taught them. She had learnt how to draw a long bow when she was first married, and was encouraged by an ex-Olympian called Bertie. I became interested too, which stood me in good stead as the next part I had in a feature film was playing Liz Peters, a fictional archery champion.
Thirty years after the premier of Swallows and Amazons I had flown back from Africa and was staying at my parents’ house, when a lady arrived from Korea. She timidly knocked on the door, explaining that she was translating Swallows and Amazons into Chinese and would love to talk to me about the book. She came bearing gifts: a hand-quilted wedding bedspread and a pile of silk garments amounting to a bride’s trousseaux. It was a week after I had met my husband-to-be. At that stage he had not even asked me out and I had no idea we would marry. I’d met him at the archery – shooting with my bow and arrow. He was Bertie’s grandson. My three sisters have never been a bit interested in archery. If I hadn’t been enthused by Swallows and Amazons, and consequently taken it up to play Liz Peters, I would never have met my husband. I still have the wedding quilt.
And then I met Dr Frankland, a Harley Street Consultant who was to become an historical adviser on a script I was developing. I soon learnt that Bill Frankland had been a good friend of Roger Altounyan and knew his sister Titty. As young men they both worked for Alexander Flemming.
Roger, Titty and their elder sisters Susie and Taqui were W.D.Collingwood’s grandchildren, the real characters on which Arthur Ransome based the Swallows. What I didn’t know was that Roger Altounyan became an allergist. He developed the spin-inhaler, experimenting on himself. Dr Frankland explained that he eventually died as a result. I was allergic to feathers as a child and prone to horrific asthma attacks. Not from parrot’s feathers but old pillows and eiderdowns. The Ventolin inhaler is something to which I probably owe my life. Dr Frankland, who is to celebrate his 100th birthday this March, still works as a Harley Street allergist and is often called upon to make broadcasts on Radio 4. He instigated the pollen count, numbered Saddam Hussein as one of his most gratful patients and has been the expert witness at a number of murder trials.
Bertie’s Olympic bow now hangs on my stairs. I am still sailing dinghies, still drawing maps but thankfully no longer suffer from asthma. Harbour Pictures with BBC Films are now planning a new film adaptation of Swallows and Amazons. A whole new generation of children will be shown how to sail and camp and cook on open fires. I couldn’t be more thrilled.
Actors are warned: ‘Never work with children or animals’. This is because they come across so well that their own performance won’t be noticed.
Sophie Neville spent years at the BBC specialising in drama productions that featured children and animals.
Sophie directed her first documentary in Kenya at the age of 25. By the age of 27 she was directing improvised dramas in a tough London Comprehensive school. After spending 13 weeks on the Ealing film stages as Director of FX sequences and animation on a 10 part drama she was asked to produce a series working with 4 to 6 year-olds. By the age of thirty she was directing a serial that featured an 8-year-old girl in almost every scene. ‘I cast identical twins to play the part, used two cameras operated by sports cameramen and finished by 4.30pm each day.’
‘I’d acted in feature films as a child and knew what would work. And what could cause havoc. You need to check children’s teeth well before filming. They tend to lose them just when it is most likely to wreck your continuity. The BBC never used casting directors so I’d look for kids myself; finding a large cast of children able to sail for two Arthur Ransome book adaptations and the right boy to play Gerald Durrell in My family and Other Animals.’
‘I’d grown up with animals and love working with them. My family keep tame otters and filming wildlife sequences – handling creatures from adders to elephants – has always been part of my life. Making the zoo vet drama series with grat apes and big cats was fascinating . The best ting about working on Eastenders was that I was re-united with Little Willie, the pug dog that we had bought to play William, the hero of Coot Club.’
In 1992 Sophie emigrated to southern Africa where she worked freelance for the BBC setting up wildlife films and documentaries in Botswana,Namibia and throughout South Africa. ‘One highlight was setting up the Blue Petervisit to South Africa when Diane Jordan interviewed Archbishop Tutu.’
Breaking her pelvis in a riding accident Sophie was immobilized for a while but took up painting and established herself as a wildlife artist.
After meeting her husband at an archery match Sophie settled down to concentrate on writing, looking for true stories that could be adapted for the screen. She has just published Funnily Enoughabout her life in Gloucestershire and is planning the sequel Never Enough. She is soon to bring out Ride the Wings of MorningandLife on an Africa Farm, which are both set in Southern Africa. She is currently writing a filmography on the making of Swallows and Amazons and the screenplay of Makarongo’s War.