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’~

Launching the audiobook of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) narrated by Sophie Neville who played Able seaman Titty

In the long hot summer of 2022, I spent three days in a sound-proofed booth at Monkeynut Studios near Romsey narrating the audiobook of my memoir on the adventures we had making the 1974 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, now published in paperback by The Lutterworth Press. I found narrating the story, with all the different voices, more difficult than I had imagined but the audiobook has been beautifully produced, with sound adding a different dimension to this extraordinary filmography that resonates with the lives of so many.

Sophie Neville at Monkeynut Recording Studios

You can listen to a free sample in the Audiobook Store here

There are a number of different online retailers. It is available on Spotify:

The audiobook of The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville

Kobo have this deal:

Scribd stock it, along with a couple of articles from Practical Boat Owner, but I did not narrate those. It might be better to read them online.

You can listen to this true life story on audiobooks.com

It is also available on Google Play and from audiobookstore.com who have it on a special price here. This must be the American version:

Storytel have it for sale in rupees.

I gather it will be available on Audible but they are very slow to add books.

I hope it will take you back to that long hot summer in 1929 when the Swallows first set sail and remind you of the early 1970s when we made the original film in the days before mobile phones or computers without CGI or green screens. We literally walked into the page of the books and sang out Arthur Ransome’s immortal lines as the wind took us up Coniston Water. I hope you enjoy it.

Swallows and Amazons (1974) (c)StudioCanal

If you prefer holding a book in your hands the paperback is available from Waterstones and all online retailers.

How the chance of acting in the movie Swallows and Amazons began in Stroud in the Cotswolds

When I first published ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, someone left a review online saying they thought it a good idea for a novel but that it was a bit farfetched.

This amused me. It was a non-fiction book, written because the extraordinary story was true. Of all the roles, in all the novels ever written, I was asked to play Titty in Swallows and Amazons, an EMI film made in 1973 for universal distribution.

The offer came out of the blue. Within a year, I, an ordinary schoolgirl, found my image on the front of daily newspapers and on film posters pasted on the walls of the London Underground. All this happened nearly fifty years ago and yet the publicity never ends.

Swallows and Amazons (1974) now distributed by StudioCanal

Arthur Ransome, a haunted foreign correspondent, who escaped from Russia with Trotsky’s secretary, wrote Swallows and Amazons in 1929 while suffering from stomach pains so bad they prevented him from travelling. He said that the book wrote itself, but it is clear that he was self-medicating, grieving his own childhood, when he’d been longing to make friends and prove himself to his father who died when he was only thirteen.

Tweed-clad and continuously pipe-smoking, Ransome was oblivious to Lakeland weather. I acted out his almost-real fantasy in nothing but a thin cotton dress and a pair of enormous navy blue elasticated knickers. My book on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ is not a novel, not a fantasy. It is a true story. The movie is streaming on Amazon Prime where you can watch the trailer.

Why was I cast in the film? Why me? I had loved all the Arthur Ransome books I’d read in the Swallows and Amazons series, imagined myself exploring Wild Cat Island and the Great Lake in the North. Did I ever ask the Lord if I could live out the stories for myself?

The reality began in Stroud, at the Subscription Rooms. I put up my hand when someone asked if there was a ten year-old girl who could play the piano. They didn’t say, “play well.”

A young director called Claude Whatham, who lived in the Cotswold village of Camp, was looking for children to appear in the 1971 BBC adaptation of ‘Cider With Rosie’, based on Laurie Lee’s haunting memoir. He needed to find a little girl who had been to a village school near Stroud. I had attended Oakridge Parochial Church School when it was heated by pot-bellied stoves and the vicar told us Bible Stories.

I was chosen to play Eileen Brown, who shared a desk with Laurie Lee and accompanied him as he played Oh Danny Boy on his violin at the Christmas concert.

Sophie Neville in the 1971 BBC adaptation of ‘Cider with Rosie’, directed by Claude Whatham

My music arrived three days before filming began. It consisted of endless cords – a complicated accompaniment with no tune. To tackle the piece, I’d needed to practice for seven hours a day with the help of my long-suffering piano teacher from Far Oakridge.

Claude Whatham ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The director must have remembered me as a determined little girl because two years later a letter arrived, addressed to my father, only he was working in South Africa. My mother very nearly didn’t open it, however the words Theatre Projects were embossed on the envelope and she was intrigued.

But she did. We drove up from Gloucestershire to collect Dad from Heathrow and went straight to Long Acre near Leicester Square for an interview with Claude.

I was then invited to take part in a sailing audition at Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex – miles from the Cotswolds. The producer, Richard Pilbrow, was determined that any child chosen for a part knew how to sail. I had grown up beside one of the few lakes in Gloucestershire and knew how to row a Thames skiff. I’d added my own sail, made from a green dust sheet, but was no expert.

There were four other girls auditioning to play Titty. They were all smaller and prettier than me, with straight teeth. I didn’t think I was in with a chance.

The filming was to commence on 14th May 1973 and continue through the summer term. Our local authority – Gloucester County Council – needed my headmistress’ permission for me to miss five weeks of school.

Only, I didn’t go to school in Gloucestershire. I went to an Anglican convent in Berkshire. The nuns prayed about the proposition. They gave their permission – if I was chosen.

I didn’t think I was right to play Titty at all. I was three years too old and too tall. Ransome’s illustrations in the books portrayed girls with straight, dark hair. I didn’t know it but the character had been inspired by a real little girl called Titty Altounyan. I share her Scots, Irish and English heritage, but she was one quarter Armenian and had dark colouring.

However, unknown to us, Mrs Ransome had asked that ‘an English Rose’ should play Titty. Claude Whatham cast Sten Grendon, who had played Little Laurie Lee, as my younger brother Roger. Mrs Ransome – NB:the lady who once been Trotsky’s private secretary – was not happy that he had black hair. She nearly cancelled the film, but conceded when she saw him with a short-back-and-sides.

Sten Grendon as Roger and Sophie Neville as Titty rowing Swallow (c)StudioCanal

Sten claims we had the best parts. He grew up in the Whiteway Community and later went to school in Eastcombe. He now lives in France but still has family living in the Cotswolds. Back in 1973 his mother Jane, and my mother, Daphne, travelled up to the Lake District to look after us all.

Daphne Neville with Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Jane Grendon and Simon West

In at the deep end. Whoomph! We literally had to swim for it. The water was icy, but we had plenty of support. I was able to embody my part because Suzanna Hamilton, who played my sister, was so brilliant. She anchored us, as did Simon West, who played John. He was only aged eleven but very bright and a confident sailor.

Stephen Grendon as Roger Walker with Suzanna Hamilton on location in 1973

Making the film was character-building stuff. While it was an inspiration and privilege to work under arc lamps with Virginia McKenna, it was often chilly and involved a lot of hanging around.

Stephen Grendon, Simon West, Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville, trying not to look as tall as she was in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Virginia had four children of her own and brought us together as a team. While making things fun, she got us to focus and concentrate as we recorded the first scenes at Bank Ground Farm.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm
Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Arthur Ransome had been inspired as a boy by two of his aunts who left for Peking to serve as missionaries. They must have had great adventures. One even received a Boxer arrow in her bonnet. The story of Swallows and Amazons is about a family of four children on holiday who embark on something of a missionary journey themselves when they are allowed to sail off in a dinghy called Swallow to explore an island on a lake. They are confronted by two local girls, the Amazons, who are behaving badly, as their Uncle Jim has retired to his houseboat so that he can concentrate on writing his memoirs.

There is a strong undercurrent of fatherless-ness. Ransome had lost his own father before he could prove himself. The Swallows, whose father is in the Navy, come alongside the Amazons, who have lost their father and are being ignored by their uncle. They unite, make friends and have a lot of fun, whilst relishing in their independence granted because they are not duffers.

The crisis, in the story, is about the draft of a book being stolen, which I can only think must have been Ransome’s greatest fear. No one believes Titty, the youngest girl, who is sure she heard the burglars, so – in the film – she gets Roger to help her row Swallow to Cormorant Island where she finds it in what looks like a treasure chest.

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

Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham had a tough time making the movie. Filming in the Lake District with its unpredictable weather and pressure from tourists was not easy. We faced endless problems and over-ran by two weeks.

But Mum was praying, Granny was praying, the nuns must have been praying for me – we needed the covering: I was the only girl who never fell ill. Swallow’s mast broke. I fell in. Water sloshed into a support boat. The rain poured down. We nearly crashed into the Tern. Our life jackets proved useless. There was a gas leak in our bus. We could have had an explosion. Most of the crew smoked continuously.

Sophie Neville with Daphne Neville in the Lake District
Sophie Neville with Daphne Neville in the Lake District

The behavior of some members of the film crew was pretty toxic. Many drove too fast. A cow fell on to the producer’s car. I fell out of a tree whilst playing. Suzanna cut her finger. Ronald Fraser was almost permanently pickled. Someone got hit in the eye by a baseball. The film set was vandalized and I lost a tooth halfway through filming a scene with Virginia McKenna.

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island
Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville keeping her mouth shut ~ photo: Daphne Neville

We pushed on. Ran the race with perseverance. Somehow the challenges gave the finished film an edge, an enduring quality that made it into a classic.

Sophie Neville as Titty

The crew began asking if I would go on to act. The big question: was this a calling on my life? I didn’t just play Titty. I’d been part of the production team, suggesting that Ransome-like title graphics were used, that Seymour’s voice was used for Nancy. I didn’t want to act. I wanted to become a film director.

I’d enjoyed the post production work at Elstree Studios but disliked the fuss around the cinema release. Seeing yourself on camera always feels uncomfortable. The premiere of Swallows and Amazons was daunting.

Premier ticket for the Gala of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

It was first screened at the ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue alongside The Exorcist. But look! I literally had two guardians. My mother invited the nuns from school.

The ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue in 1974. It is now the Odeon Cinema.

Sister Allyne came. She didn’t flatter me but she was there.

Sister Allyne, Daphne Neville, Tamzin Neville and Sophie Neville

Like it or not, I ended up promoting the film on television. After I featured in ‘Animal Magic’, an image of me, rowing up the lake at Bakers Mill in the Cotswolds with a green parrot on my shoulder was used to replace the test card.

I grew too tall to continue playing children on screen and there was not much money for film finance in the 1970s when inflation was roaring. Sister Allyne prepared me for a film test for a musical Disney adaptation of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ but I wasn’t chosen. The movie flopped. I returned to my lessons.

At the age of fifteen I had a leading part in an adventure film with Vic Armstrong and Sophie Ward, called ‘The Copter Kids’, and I had a few little television parts in serials like ‘The Two Ronnies’ and ‘Crossroads’ while I was a student, but the drive wasn’t there. It was just as well. I didn’t have the bone structure.

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan with Sophie Neville as Titty busy writing the ship’s log

Suzanna had a strong desire to act professionally and fought for parts. She went on to appear in Tess directed by Polanski, 1984 opposite John Hurt, Out of Africa with Meryl Streep, Whetherby with Vanessa Redgrave, Brimstone and Treacle with Sting, and a number of increasingly dark movies. She survived to appear in Casualty, New Tricks, Eastenders and is still working.

What she hated was the publicity. It’s a difficult part to any job. As she said at the age of twelve, having your photo on the front page of the Evening Standard ‘makes you felt a right twit’. She was furious with me for writing about her under sung talent in the Telegraph even though she looked beautiful in the arms of John Hurt.

I developed a burning desire to direct and went into television production. I made my first documentary for Channel 4 whilst driving from London to Johannesburg. I must have begun directing at the BBC at the age of 27 and produced my first series aged 29, but overdid it and was hammered by ill health. It was a good training. I learnt endurance, how to edit and I grew used to working to deadlines. I understood about moving the audience, cliff-hangers and bringing out books to accompany your work.

I didn’t learn to embrace the marketing aspect until I worked in the safari industry when I was assured it comprised 50% of the job. This attitude helped when I became and wildlife artist and later an author. After writing two books my readers – and my formatter – implored me to write about the making of Swallows and Amazons, especially once they learned that I had kept a diary whilst making it – as did Suzanna.

I first brought this out as a multimedia ebook, which is now in its second edition. It includes links to the cine footage my parents took on location. There are two versions of the paperback entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, seen here on the flag we captured.

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

It has been a delight to figurehead a story about sailing, a pillar of childhood that has influenced so many. Parents want me to engender a love for the outdoor life, sailing and exploring the lakes and countryside.

I hope I have helped to attract the right kind of people to the Lake District, that we have been able to inspire young people to read Arthur Ransome’s books, to get out into the countryside and sail, fish, go camping, build friendships, whatever the weather.

In the footsteps of Ransome’s great aunts, I went on a Bible Society mission to China. The people we met thanked us for coming, saying they hadn’t received European visitors for forty years. ‘But we’ve seen Europeans in town.’ ‘Them? They have just come to make money, not visit us.’

Does the old film shine a light, offer solace? People write in to tell me that the film of Swallows and Amazons carried them through a difficult patch. Some watch it once a week. It exists to remind people that they need not despair.

Does the symbolism still hold? It was my self-appointed job in the screenplay to wait, alone, and light the lantern, to be a light in the darkness that could be seen for miles.

Swallows and Amazons was not made to make money. It wasn’t the producer’s motivation. Richard Pilbrow just loved the books and wanted to bring them to life. We children didn’t do it for the money. There wasn’t very much. I earned £7.50 a day and was given a book token for appearing in the Lord Mayor’s Show. Even today, StudioCanal were reluctant to pay my expenses for re-launching the 40th Anniversary DVD when we were interviewed for the Extras package.

It doesn’t matter. I have been so warmly greeted so warmly by fans of the film. I was invited to become President of the Arthur Ransome Society, and have been offered numerous opportunities to speak about my books. I’ve passed on most of my speaking fees to charity – sending disadvantaged children in South Africa on an environmental course that has literally changed their lives.

Sophie Neville speaking at The Arthur Ransome Society

The treasure Titty found wasn’t pieces of eight. It was heavy to carry, but she was rewarded for her tenacity. She was given her heart’s desire, and parrots live a long time. They can easily outlive their owners.

The author Julia Jones points out that, ‘the treasure that was finally unearthed on Cormorant Island was a book. It might or might not have been a good book but the message of the story is quite clear: if you’re convinced that there’s something hidden under the rocks, all you can do is keep digging.’ 

An extra ordinary thing happened. When Richard Pilbrow was awarded an honorary degree from he invited Suzanna and I to lunch in London. As we left the restaurant in Covent Garden a group of buskers outside where singing the final sea shanty from the film, What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? What were the chances of that? We hurried on to find transport and found ourselves outside the cinema where the premier had been held.

Something else happened to me as a result of Swallows and Amazons. Not what you might expect. We all wanted to learn to shoot with a bow and arrow. The next film role I was offered was as an archery champion. I kept up the sport, and ended up meeting my husband at a long bow meeting in the village where I was born. He was the chairman of the archery society. I won the Best Lady’s Gold. These are my colours:

Sophie Neville's bow and arrows

Proverbs 23-23 talks of wisdom, instruction and insight. My name, Sophia, means wisdom. My hope is that others gain wisdom and insight from what I have written.

You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, which is coming out as an audiobook. It will available from all the retailers and is currently on Scribd here.

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.

Sophie Neville speaking at the Southampton International Boat Show #SIBS22

Inspirational speaker, Sophie Neville
Southampton International Boat Show 2022

Swallow, the iconic dinghy who starred in the original film Swallows and Amazons is currently on display at the Southampton International Boat Show, greeting families as they arrive.

Sophie Neville who once played Titty Walker with her good little ship

I have been giving talks on filming afloat and how we made the movie on location in the Lake District nearly fifty years ago.

Over 103,000 people are expected to visit the show this year. Although busy, it does not feel crowded. There is a lot to see and do.

Speaker Sophie Neville
Sophie Neville speaking on the Foredeck Stage at #SIBS22

Thanks to the help of excellent technicians, my presentations proved popular, ‘inspiring talks on the Foredeck Stage’.

On the cover or Britain’s bestselling boating magazine

I later sign copies of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons‘ at Future Publishing’s corner stand. It has been a great opportunity to meet film fans, readers and feature writers.

Nick Jeffery the yacht publicist with Sophie Neville at the Southampton Boat Show

You can find a four-page feature on how we clubbed together to buy Swallow in this month’s Practical Boat Owner magazine.

A 4-page feature article in the bestselling magazine Practical Boat Owner

You can apply to SailRansome to take her out yourself. She is sea-worthy but we are looking for sponsorship from a boatbuilding company to help re-varnish her and repair a small hole in her bow.

Sophie Neville with Swallow from Swallows and Amazons (1974)

If you were are unable to get to the Southampton International Boat Show this year, you can watch an in-depth interview released this week by Your Take:

Your Take interview Sophie Neville on Zoom

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.

A signed, first edition copy of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ is being auctioned in aid of BBC Children in Need

Are you looking for a special Birthday or Christmas present for someone who happens to love the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)?

Sophie Neville
Author Sophie Neville

Paddy Heron of Children in Read has a huge number of amazing books listed in a charity auction being held to raise funds for BBC Children in Need. Nearly £21,000 has already been pledged, which is amazing. We have 3 days left to bid, so you have time to chat to the family!

‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ is listed as Lot 298, in the section ‘Film & Television’ above Nigella Lawson’s book ‘Coot, eat, repeat’.

Listing in the Film and TV section

To place a bid, click on this link: https://www.jumblebee.co.uk/childreninread2021?cid=2431

and scroll down until you see the image of the book you would like to bid on, then click on the price button and you can enter a bid when the large image pops up. You don’t pay until you win on the final day. I will pay the postage within the UK and inscribe the copy to whom you wish.

What the bidding page looks like

We now have another bid for £101. Copies on Amazon.UK – where is it has 47 reviews, are now listed as costing about £76. I promised that if the bidding went higher than £78 I would personally inscribe this large paperback edition and include a signed first edition hardback copy of my autobiographical book ‘Funnily Enough’, worth £15, which includes a few pages about filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the Lake District.

‘Funnily Enough’, Sophie Neville’s illustrated diary

I said that the bidding goes any higher than £101, I will include a copy of ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’, my memoir about leading a Swallows and Amazons style life camping in Africa:

Ride the Wings of Morning by Sophie Neville
Ride the Wings of Morning by Sophie Neville

To read about taking part in the same auction last year, please click here

If you need to know more about the auction, please contact Paddy Heron at Children in Read: childreninread@yahoo.com

Listings in the AutobiographyBiography section

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:

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.

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