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 this week and is repeated today, Thursday 23rd September.

The BBC Radio 4 newscaster Alan Smith, who also appears on Radio 4 Extra, wrote to me recently, saying:

“It’s Alan Smith here, the brother of Robin Smith with whom you’ve corresponded re ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Robin sent me the link to your website – it’s 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.”

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) 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:

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.

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 with closed mouth ~ 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.

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

Ronald Fraser with Peter Robb-King and Ian Whittaker on the houseboat

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, or Bob Hedges who was in charge of the action props. 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 or seen on Youtube here:

Talking about ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) movie memorabilia on Antiques Roadshow this Sunday 9th May at 7.00pm on BBC One

This Sunday 9th May, BBC Antiques Roadshow returns to Windermere Jetty in the Lake District at 7.00pm.

Swallows and Amazons fans expressed great excitement when the first episode was broadcast from the museum on Sunday 21st February as it featured ‘Swallow’, the dinghy from the original movie made on location in the Lake District in 1973 and brought to cinema scenes in 1974.

‘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.

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 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 another item.

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. He liked the programme from the premier and the original black and white film stills, along with the flags 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.

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

Marc Allum socially distanced from Sophie Neville and her bow

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’ will be 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’

Memories to add to the third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ – part three

“One pandemic discovery for my family was 1974’s ‘Swallows and Amazons,’ a charming British film about kids just playing on a lake. On their own, they’re plenty capable of making their own tents and adventures”, the US film critic Jake Coyle wrote in a review for the Associated Press of a new movie released on Netflix called ‘Yes Day’.

Many people have fond memories of watching the original movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when it first came out in cinemas nearly forty-seven years ago and list it in their Top Ten feature films of all time.

David Kerr wrote: “I first saw the film while I was a junior projectionist. I was 17 at the time. My cinema was called the Astor in Bromley, part of south east London. While an independent cinema, we took the ABC circuit films. Somewhere, I have the LP record and a poster of the film. I went on to a career spanning 40 years in international film distribution.”

“It remains one of my top ten films even to this day. I worked for 20th Century Fox…Polygram…and United International Pictures which distributed Universal, Paramount and Dreamworks films. I had a good career and witnessed the good the bad and the ugly during my travels.”

Simon West and the camera crew at Bank Ground Farm

“From memory, I can recall that the film was released over the Easter school holidays in 1974. It’s just been helped as I have found a press ad online and it lists South London unusually running the film first on April 14th.”

Finding Swallow
Simon West, Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville with the director Claude Whatham

“I believe the film was supported by ‘The Lion at Worlds End’ …the documentary that Virginia and Bill Travers made with George Adamson about returning an African lion to the wild. I know I ran the film again either in 1975 or ’76 as an afternoon matinee only with a Kung Fu adult programme in the evenings.”

Brenda Bruce and Simon West on location above Coniston Water

“The film means a lot to me and has done so since 1974. It made me revisit the books…which I still read (currently dipping in and out of an old hardback edition of ‘Pigeon Post’) but I believe I had only read one during my childhood, which I think was ‘Swallowdale’. I also embarked on a number of holidays in the lakes because of the film. That first year I camped on a farm at Torver on the west side of Coniston.”

Simon West as John Walker studying the chart at Holly Howe before the voyage.

“The reason I include it in my top ten is simple. It is pure storytelling that takes the viewer on an adventure. You do not notice the individual aspects of film making you just become engrossed in the story. And that is what a good film should do. I watched it again just last week on a streaming service… It makes me smile ….what more can I say.”

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville on location at Bank Ground Farm

John Rose wrote: “I can remember watching the film in 1974 with my mum and grandma when I was a nine or ten year-old, at the then called Mecca Cinema in Horsham, Sussex (sadly now demolished). I remember loving the natural setting and the adventure in the film and remember it being thrilling and suspenseful! Still my favourite film, so cheerful and up-lifting. The lovely music! All still brings a tear to my eye.  Back then in the ’70s we didn’t have the lakes but at every opportunity our little band of local children would run off over the fields playing, building camps and climbing trees in the woods – such happy, carefree days.”

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Sten Grendon in Swallow

Last time the film was broadcast on BBC Two, David Stott, who worked as a unit driver on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when he was fresh out of college, wrote in to say: “I remember how cold you all were whilst filming the swimming scene.  The lily pond scene brought back memories of a very wet day on Pull Wyke caravan park.  Most of the day was spent in the two double decker buses that were your school room and the canteen waiting for the rain to clear. Everyone was so grateful to pack up and go home.”

Sten Grendon as Roger with Suzanna Hamilton as Susan

 

“I had many incidents with the parrot that I had to collect in the morning and return at night.  I hated the bird, often it was let free in a bathroom at Kirskstone Foot and l would have to catch it and put it in its travel bag. I notice in the film that it is chained down whilst it is sitting on your shoulder.”

Kit Seymour as Nancy, Sophie Neville as Titty and Beauty playing Polly the green parrot.

 

“I would spend a lot chatting to Ronnie Logan the hairdresser while the shooting was taking place, such a nice man.”

“The day they filmed the walking the plank scene I remember very well.  I took Ronnie Fraser to the Lodore Swiss hotel at  lunchtime and he was really very well plastered by the time I got him back for the afternoon filming.  I suppose it was the only way they managed to get him in the water.  He was not a happy chappy that afternoon when I eventually took him back to Ambleside.”

“I had to put the rushes on the train to London in the evening and collect developed film (how times have changed).  One of my treats was that I was allowed to watch the rushes with the production team in the evening. Watching it again this afternoon was a real trip down memory lane.  I cannot believe that I was a student starting out in life at the time and now l am a pensioner.  Where has all that time gone?”

Simon West and Sophie Neville on Peel Island in 1973
 
You can read more in the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’
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You can see some of the illustrations here:

Quotes for the 3rd edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’

Movies are made for watching. In the end, they belong to those who love them and it is wonderful to hear of the impact they have had on people’s lives.

The screenwriter Caleb Ranson wrote: “You’ve no idea how thrilling this is for me to hear from you. Swallows & Amazons was a life changing cinema visit for me, set me off on my path writing/producing TV/films. I played the soundtrack album every night for years. And I love your book BTW, bought it when it first came out.”

Paddy Heron of Children in Read describes the movie Swallows and Amazons(1974) as “a national treasure of a film.”

Nigel Seymour wrote to say, “that the original film has an ambience which cannot be calculated.  It sits in time, yet it is as fresh as if it was made yesterday!” An international musician today, Nigel believes, “It possesses a simplicity of life we’ve lost, so watching it is a refreshing reminder of great days… a journey into another dimension and another world steeped with love and belonging, adventure and moral understanding, which is shared between a family and accepted. The characters are brought to life almost as if they are an infinite, integral part of the immortality of the story, each giving that picturesque understanding the viewer finds impossible to explain. After watching this film one arrives back in real time with a resounding bang! We wonder why such a simple story can create such an iconic understanding. Why watching this film can make you feel happy, totally complete and yearning to return again and savour that wonderful, eternal landscape we have all learned to grow  and love as the Lakes.”

Tracy Kenny from Ketts Books wrote: “Swallows and Amazons is a firm family favourite in our house and for a while there, your movie was the only film my eldest would watch!”

The author Catherine Randall said: “I lived and breathed Swallow & Amazons including your film. Knew nearly all the words!”

The fan letters continue to arrive. Each one treasured.

Nigel Young writes: “‘Swallows and Amazons’ is one of those films which sets itself  in that timeless space no one can quite fathom or understand, almost verging on ‘Immortality’.  I’m sure no one at the time working on it ever thought the film would achieve the cult status it seems to enjoy today. You are possibly smiling when you read this, but it’s a true reflection of a film, which is more than a film and touches on those beautiful innocent moments and times which have been lost forever.”

Charles H Ball wrote: “‘Swallows and Amazons’ was instrumental in helping me through a very stressful period of my life… I will be obtaining ‘The making of Swallows and Amazons’ and no doubt many more of your other publications in due course. “

C.H.B. left a review of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ writing: ‘the feelings of anybody who would have loved to have had the opportunity of actually taking part in the film are summed up by Nancy Blackett when the D’s are explaining how they managed to get to the North Pole a day earlier than planned. ‘And you two came by yourselves and got here through that blizzard?’ said Nancy. ‘However did you find the Pole?’ ‘The blizzard helped really,’ said Dorothea. ‘We were sailing,’ said Dick………..’And we’ve gone and opened the stores,’ said Dorothea. ‘And eaten some of them. You see we lost our food when the sledge turned over and the mast broke…’ ‘Capsized!’ cried Nancy. ‘Mast gone by the board! Oh. you lucky, lucky beasts!’ Some of us will forever envy the lucky children who had the opportunity of a lifetime.

I hope to include all these quotes in the 3rd edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, to be brought out for the 50th Anniversary of the films release in April 2024. Do leave a comment below or write in, letting us know what the film meant to you or how it effected your life.

Sophie Neville being interviewed on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’

Lakeland Arts, based at the Windermere Jetty Museum, ask how the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was made on location in the Lake District in 1973 –

You can find out more in the illustrated paperback, suitable for all age of readers, entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, which makes a good Christmas present when combined with the 40th Anniversary DVD with DVD extras.

At Windermere Jetty museum – to see the amazing boats

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) 

In the summer of 1973, I was transported to the shores of Windermere, ‘The Great Lake in the North’ to appear as ‘Titty Walker’ in the classic movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, starring Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser.

The Swallows approach the jetty in Rio. Which launch is moored outside the boat sheds?

We were fortunate enough to film the scenes set in Rio at Bowness-on-Windermere before the original green boat sheds were demolished in favor of an amusement arcade.

Rio – or Bowness-on-Windermere in 1973 – with SL Elizabeth ~ photo: Martin Neville

George Pattinson brought along his steamboat the Lady Elizabeth, which you can see here beyond the Windermere skiffs pulled up on the shore.

George Pattinson in his steam launch Elisabeth ~ photo: Martin Neville

George’s personal collection made up the basis of the Steamboat Museum now rebuilt and known as Windermere Jetty, where we found the Lady Elizabeth under restoration.

Eighteen foot long, she was built in New York State in about 1900 and brought to England, so was likely on Windermere in 1929 when Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’. She sank off Cockshott Point beyond Bowness, but Mr Pattinson salvaged and renovated her in 1955. You can read more here.

The Lady Elizabeth under restoration at Windermere Jetty
The Lady Elizabeth under restoration at Windermere Jetty

Other exhibits included the exquisite steam launch Osprey, in fine fettle with her copper steam kettle kept brightly polished. I knew her from taking part in a Steam Boat Association rally on Windermere in 1991. 

The RNSA dinghies used to play Swallow and Amazon in the 2016 movie can also be seen in the wet dock at Windermere Jetty.

Look up, and you can spy a green beetle on an old burgee. 

Arthur Ransome’s dinghy Conch-y-bonddhu, known as Scarab in his books, is on display with Beatrix Potter’s rough, flat-bottomed rowing boat (the pointed bows of which can be seen here hanging on the wall to the right).

It was good to be able to examine Conchy’s rigging. You can read about her here.

The museum has many other treasures including the hull of the oldest yacht in existence in the Lake District.

Every one of the forty boats exhibited has a story to tell.  You can find out more about visiting Windermere Jetty on their website here.

The Windermere skiffs can still be seen up the road in Bowness where you can begin to look for locations used in the original film.

If you don’t already have a copy you can read about ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ here. This includes maps and chapters on how to find the film locations.

To learn more about the film locations, please click here.

The ebook on ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, which is similar, is available on all ebook platforms, including Kindle here.

A weekend spent steam boating on Windermere in 1991, is featured in ‘Funnily Enough’, a diary of a year when everything changed, can be found here.

Looking towards the jetty featured in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) at Bowness-on-Windermere

I look forward to returning to Windermere Jetty when the Lady Elizabeth is on back the water! The museum will be opening soon.

You can read about the 1901 steam launch Daffodil that I helped to renovate here.

Sophie Neville visiting Windermere Jetty – photo: Caroline Robinson

The original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ featured in the Radio Times as Film of the Day on Sunday 30th August 2020

‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) starring Virginia McKenna was broadcast on BBC 2 on Sunday 30th August 2020, recalling the adventures of the Walker and Blackett families on a ‘Lake in the North’ in August 1929 before the school term began. Hailed as ‘The feel-good film of Lockdown’, it transports us back to a time of freedom, celebrating the beauty of the English Lake District. It is available on BBC iPlayer here.

You can watch a short re-mix here:

It was wonderful to see the feature film heralded as Film of the Day but Hilary Weston of The Arthur Ransome Society pointed out that there are a few errors in the write up.

Arthur Ransome wrote the novel ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1929, published on 1st December 1930. There are 12 books in the series, however only five are set in the Lake District. ‘Missee Lee’ sees the Swallows and Amazons exploring the South China sea with Captain Flint, while Dick and Dororthea join them all on the Sea Bear to cruise the Otter Hebrides in ‘Great Northern’. The 13th story in the series, an unfinished manuscript entitled ‘Coots in the North’, is set in Cumbria.

Props used in the original film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

Arthur Ransome died in 1967, aged 83, so was not around to see this feature film made. He had been grumpy about the 1963 BBC serial made in black and white, which starred Susan George as ‘Kitty’ (rather than Titty). His wife Evgenia was determined to avoid what they called a ‘Disneyfication’ of the books and kept a tight hold on the script, character names, locations and casting of Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 adaptation. As a result, David Wood’s screenplay adheres to the story and was approved by Mrs Ransome who gave the go ahead. On watching the finished film, her only adverse comment was that one of the kettles used was of the wrong period.

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker with Sten Grendon as Roger

Arthur Ransome’s father died when he was thirteen and the theme of fatherlessness flows though his books granting the young characters independence. In ‘Swallows and Amazons’ it is Nancy and Peggy, the Amazon pirates, who have no father.

Kit Seymour as Nancy & Lesley Bennett as Peggy Blackett sailing Amazon

The story opens when the four elder Walker children are given permission to sail off to camp on an island by their father who is absent, in Malta with the Navy, and sends the famous telegram: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN (with no apostrophe)

Swallows and Amazons
Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton receiving the telegram from Father.

Vicky, the fifth sibling and baby of the Walker family, keeps the Swallows’ mother at Holly Howe farm on the mainland. Tension is created after the Amazons let off a firework on their uncle’s houseboat while he is absorbed in his writing and ignoring them. He shook his fist at the crew of the Swallow assuming they were responsible for the damage and was labelled ‘Captain Flint’.

A Theatre Project by Richard Pilbrow

Richard Pilbrow describes in his memoir, ‘A Theatre Project’, how the idea of adapting ‘Swallows and Amazons’ came to him as he watched the sun set over Windermere one night when visiting the Lake District. He put the idea to Nat Cohen of EMI who was looking for a classic book adaptation similar to ‘The Railway Children’, which had been a box office success. Nat Cohen hadn’t heard of Arthur Ransome but his assistant loved his books and raved about the idea. EMI Films provided the initial budget of £250,000 although more was spent. It was directed by Claude Whatham who may well have been influenced by the Children’s Film Foundation but he was regarded as avant guard at the time and, like Richard, motivated by the beauty of the Lakes.

Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water
Producer Richard Pilbrow with Director Claude Whatham in Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water

The original poster for the film used an ampersand in the title graphics but this was lost as it was translated, sold worldwide and remastered. Someone who must love the old film said the error in the write up was that it was only given three stars. The DVD now has a 4.5 star rating on Amazon but it only gets 6.5 out of 10 on IMDb – the International Movie Data base, which is equivalent to three stars. You can add a review on this site here.

Mark Walker of the Arthur Ransome Group added: And they got the title of the article completely wrong. “Film of the *Day*”, indeed..!! Film of the Year, Decade, Century, Millenium….any of the above could have been more appropriate..!!

If you would like to learn more about the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ there is now a paperback entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’  It can be ordered direct from the publishers and is available from Waterstones

A second edition of the ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons(1974), the first section of which you can read for free here.

Points to add to the third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) – part one

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville in Swallow about to leave the Houseboat. Amazon’s white sail can be seen the other side ~ photo: Daphe Neville

Viewers of the original film Swallows and Amazons'(1974) have written to point out that when the Amazons sailed up to Captain Flint’s houseboat there was a terrible crash. I found the quote from ‘The Picts and The Martrys’, which made me realise why this horrified anyone who knows the characters well:

“…when you come sailing along and fetch up with a bump against Jim’s new paint.”

“We never do,” said Nancy. “Remember when we came and made you and Uncle Jim walk the plank last summer? We were aboard and rushing the cabin before you knew we were anywhere near.” ‘Picts and Martyrs’ by Arthur Ransome p.14

Simon West and Sophie Neville on Captian Flint's Houseboat
Simon West as Captain John and Sophie Neville as Titty taking Captain Flint’s Houseboat : photo~ Daphne Neville

Jane Sullivan noticed Captain Flint yelled, “Death or Glory!” as the Swallows and Amazons laid siege to his houseboat. ‘Is that a pre-echo of the East Anglian stories?’ she asked.

Jane also noted: In the closing credits, I notice they spell For Ever as two words, which it is as it should be, rather than the modern way which confuses the adjective “forever” with the adverbial phrase “for ever”.’

Peel Island whilst we were filming in 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

Most people are familiar with the fact that Peel Island was used as the location for Wild Cat Island in the 1974 film.

Peter Dowden of the Arthur Ransome Group, pointed out that Peel Island is a classic example of a rocher moutonnee or sheepback, shaped by glacial erosion. Larger examples in Sweden are known as flyggbergs. Others comment that it’s easy to imagine the island as Captain Flint’s schooner the Wild Cat, which sails to the Caribees in ‘Peter Duck’ and is set on fire by Gibber the monkey in ‘Missee Lee’.

Peter also wrote about burgees. He noted, ‘Traditionally, creatures shown on flags face towards the “hoist” – the bit of the flag that is attached to the mast. So head near the mast and tail near the flappy part of the flag (called the ‘fly’). He went on to say, “someone did the research and Arthur Ransome drew the Swallow flag both beak to hoist and beak to fly!”

Our art director, Simon Holland, made what I considered the mistake of having the swallow on Swallow’s burgee flying away from the mast. 

My publisher asked me to draw our crossed flags, a sketch which was later stolen and used all over the place from the call sheet of the 2016 movie to badges for sale on eBay.

Paul Thomas, of the Arthur Ransome Group, explained that Swallow and Amazon are standing lugsail dinghies, rather the balanced lugsails as I had been told. “Swallow’s keel was designed for sailing in shallow estuaries and grounding on shifting shoals with sails tanned to protect them from rot and sunshine.”

“What is particularly impressive, to me,” Roger Barnes, president of the Dinghy Crusing Association, commented, “is how well done the sailing scenes are, and sometimes in pretty strong winds. Most sailing in films is really unconvincing.” Roger added: “The boom jaws off the mast as they first approach Wild Cat Island is the only major flaw with that aspect of the film.” I had never noticed! We were bitterly cold on that day when we first sailed Swallow in front of the camera.

Roger Barnes’ illustrated book, The Dinghy Cruising Companion, published by Bloomsbury, included my behind-the-scenes photo of Swallow, where you can see the jaw back in place.

You can also see the jaws in this film still (c) Studiocanal:

The Swallows on their voyage to Wildcat Island
Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West as the Swallows sailing on Coniston Water in 1973 (c)StudioCanal

Please do add a comment below or write in with any points you notice that I can add to a third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, an ebook available from a variety online stockists. You can look at the first pages here.