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.
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.
George Pattinson brought along his steamboat the Lady Elizabeth, which you can see here beyond the Windermere skiffs pulled up on the shore.
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.
Other exhibits included the exquisite steam launch Osprey, in fine fettle with her copper steam kettle kept brightly polished. I knew here 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).
Bidding mounted steadily for a hardback first edition copy of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’, signed by the author.
After 64 bids and it sold for £201
– I am quite blown away. Very many thanks to all our supporters.
100% of the money will be donated to BBC Children in Need – under the auspices of ‘Children in Read’ via the Jumblebee auction site where this illustrated book was listed under the categories of both ‘Autobiography’ and ‘Film & Television’.
To read a free sample of the first section of the 2nd edition – available as an ebook – click here – then click on ‘Look inside’.
To see more on the second edition of the ebook – click here
‘highly amusing and thoroughly enjoyable’ David Butters
Since the bidding ran so high, I will include a signed copy of the 2nd edition, entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’, published by The Lutterworth Press. This contains colour plates with more photos and additional stories that flowed down from the Lake District after the first edition came out.
I’m also including a hardback First Edition of my memoir ‘Funnily Enough’, which has a bit on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and a signed copy of ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’, which has noting about the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ but is all about living out the adventurous outdoor lifestyle advocated by Arthur Ransome, so there are four books in the bundle.
Although surpassed by Phillip Pullman and JK Rowling, I gained far more than authors such as Bernard Cornwall, Jeffery Archer, Sophie Kinsella and Maggie O’Farrell.
Being a filmography, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ sat alongside the bestsellers, ‘Killing Eve’ by Luke Jennings and ‘Kay’s Anatomy’ by Adam Kay, which you can see by clicking here.
This auction of books has already raised £21,841 for BBC Children in Need, which is fantastic. It closed on Friday 13th November at 11.00pm.
If you need to know more about the auction, please contact Paddy Heron at Children in Read: email@example.com
‘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.
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.
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.
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)
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’.
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.
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 *Day*”, indeed..!! Film of the Year, Decade, Century, Millenium….any of the above could have been more appropriate..!!
If you enjoyed the original film adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ broadcast on BBC Two today, do think of getting a copy of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, published by The Lutterworth Press or the ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’. You can read the first section for free on Kindle here. Quite fun!
It’s surprising ‘Swallows and Amazons’ hasn’t been re-made a number of times. The 1974 movie was sold all over the world and has been screened so often it’s become regarded as iconic, labelled ‘a cult classic’ or ‘enduring success’. You can listen to Wildfred Joseph’s film score here:
Thanks to Claude Whatham’s extraordinary skill in creating a period film that never dated, cinema audiences emerge asking if it was made last summer.
Although it was shot 45 years ago, fan mail still arrives from Australia, the USA and Japan. Families can quote David Wood’s script fluently, having watched the DVD thirty times or more. The biggest complement is that they talk of being ‘Titty-ish’ or ‘just like Titty’, the little girl whose imagination gave her the strength and courage to excel.
-A carefully made fan letter showing Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in 1974-
When I went to watch the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ being made on location, I warned the actors they were in for the long haul. Although the new adaptation has older children in the cast, and additions to the plot, it was heralded as a great British film, a landscape movie of significance about the thrill of exploring the great outdoors. Broadcast on BBC Two earlier this December and it is out on both Blu ray and DVD. For the Hanway Films billing of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 2016, please click here.
I went on BBC Radio Cumbria recently, to ask if I could meet anyone involved in filming the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the summer of 1973, since it was made on location in the Lake District with a young crew.
~Nick Newby of Nicole End Marine~
Nick Newby of Nichol End Marine in Portinscale came to find me when I was helping at the Keswick Convention. As a young man in the 1970s, he provided boats for a number of films and was contacted by Graham Ford, the production manager of Swallows and Amazons in the Spring of 1973. Graham had began working with Mike Turk who had started building boats for TV and films at his family firm, Turk’s Launches, but this was based on the Thames in London. They needed help from someone in the Lake District who knew about traditional boats.
~Ronald Fraser being trransported by Dory to The Lady Derwentwater in 1973~
Arthur Ransome had clearly based Captain Flint’s houseboat on the Esperance, originally a steam launch cruising on Windermere. You can read more about her and see photos here. ‘Since she was sitting on the bottom of Whitecross Bay at the time,’ Nick told me, ‘the film crew decided to use the Lady Derwentwater.’ This was a launch licensed to carry 90 passengers that Nick had worked on and knew well. ‘She is about 58 foot long and quite a rigid boat, having four full length steel RSJs set inside her. She was built the Lakes in 1928. We moored her at Brandelhowe in Great Bay for the filming. You need to be careful getting in, as there is a rock shelf.’ The advantage of using her was that you could see the view over the lake from her large cabin windows, which enhanced interior scenes. The Lady Derwentwater, whose nick-name is Dishy, has since been re-built with a different stern, but you can book a passage and go out on the lake in her yourself.
~The Lady Derwentwater today~
Nick told me that Captain Flint’s eight foot Wright’s dinghy, the houseboat’s tender, had been made by Wright’s Brothers of Ipswich. The Jackson’s ‘native canoe’, rowed out to Peel Island by Virginia McKenna was ‘a family fourteen’ Wright’s sailing dinghy with a centre case. He knew many of the traditional boats in the Lakes. ‘I served me time as a yacht and boat builder at Shepherd’s in Bowness Bay.’ This company was based the green double-story boat sheds featured in the ‘Rio’ scenes. ‘During the winter we used to have to break the ice on the buckets of water when we were rubbing down boats. The sail lofts had a square panel in the apex so we could poke the 8 to 10 metre masts inside. A boom could go up the stairs but a mast certainly couldn’t. ‘
~Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville and DoP Denis Lewiston~
‘Amazon belonged to a chap called Vosey who was rather reluctant to let her be used for the filming,’ Nick said. ‘We did her up a bit after the filming.’ I gather she had been used in the black and white BBC serial of Swallows and Amazons made in 1962 when Susan George played the party of Kitty.
~Swallow sailing towards the filming pontoon in 1973~
I believe Swallow had been found at Burnham-on-Crouch as she was built by Williams King and Sons. Mike Turk, who had built a shallop for the 1966 movie ‘A Man For All Seasons’, purchased her for the film and brought her up to the Lakes. She had no added buoyancy. Nick claims that being a wooden boat she would never sink but I reminded him that we came close to hitting the MV Tern on Windermere when loaded with camping gear, which was a bit scary.
Swallow was later used at Elstree Studios when the sound was dubbed onto the finished film. Mike kept her out of the water in his store at Chatham until SailRansome bought her at auction in 2010. She was sensitively restored by Pattersons, has a new sail, added buoyancy bags and is now available for anyone to sail in Cumbria.
~Mike Turk’s filming pontoon with Swallow attached in 1973~
‘Mike already had the flat-bottomed filming pontoon. It had originally been used for carrying a vehicle. We added twin outboard engines and rigged scaffold under the water so that either Swallow or Amazon could be attached to it but still keel over naturally as they sailed. When the dinghy went about, I would turn one outboard and thrust the other into reverse so that the pontoon went about with them.’ I remembered that the first time they tried this Swallow’s mast footing broke. Amazon’s mast-gate broke on another occasion. Nick had to persuade a friend to let him borrow his welding workshop and managed to mend it over night, so that she could be ready on set first thing the next day.
~The camera pontoon, Capri and one of the Dorys used behind-the-scenes~
Nick went on to say the pontoon leaked a bit. ‘We would have to pump out hull every morning.’ The Capri used behind the scenes was Nick’s equivalent of a marine Land Rover. ‘It had a reinforced glass fibre hull for increased capability and a 55-horse power engine that had been used for the Olympics. We used it for Ken Russell’s film ‘Tommy‘, the rock opera with Roger Daltry and The Who. Once, when we were using it for Swallows and Amazons, Clive Stuart shoved it into gear with rather too much gusto. Someone only just managed to grab the director, Claude Whatham, before he was flung over the back. ‘Claude was spitting feathers after that.’
~Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Sten Grendon with David Stanger at the helm of the Dory in 1973~
Mike Turk provided two Dorys, built at his yard, to use as run-around boats. One was driven by David Stanger who is now skipper of a launch on Ullswater. It was a stable boat but you needed to watch how it was not overloaded. Water came over the bows one day giving my mother rather a shock.
~Nick Newby at the Alhambra cinema in 2018: photo Marc Grimston~
‘The boating world is a small world,’ Nick assured me. This July, forty-five years after making the film, he brought his grand-daughter to watch ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick and gamely came up on stage for a Q&A to explain how some of the sailing scenes were achieved.
Mike Turk, Swan Upper and Queen’s Waterman, who provided boats for numerous films from Moonraker to Hornblower, sadly passed away aged 78. You can read his obituary here. He went on to work on a number of James Bond movie. You can see his film credits here.
A group of Arthur Ransome enthusiasts clubbed together to buy Swallow from Mike’s collection in 2010. She is currently kept on a trailer at Kendal in the Lake District. If you would like to sail her, please visit SailRansome.com
For Nicol End Marine, about two miles outside Keswick on Derwentwater please click here
I clearly remember my mother winding carbon paper into the roller of her portable typewriter and bashing out articles. Ping! the bell would ring as she reached the end of a line. She would then pull left on a shiny paddle, with relish, to begin a new paragraph. She seemed to type like the wind, it was only a pity she didn’t write more. Was it more time-consuming when making changes was so laborious and a dictionary needed to be flicked through to check spelling? I was forever pouring through a thesaurus and looking for reference books in libraries as a child in the ‘seventies but find computers seems to steal more time.
~The photograph that illustrated an article in Woman magazine taken at the Commonwealth Institute in 1974~
Here is the second part of the article Mum wrote for Woman magazine when the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was screened in cinemas around the country in April 1974. Earlier pages can be read in a previous post here and there is also a programme she wrote for BBC Radio Bristol on the same subject here.
I’d forgotton that Kit was sent half a Birthday cake but do remember Ronnie Fraser arrived at her party quite tiddly. I am amused to learn we finally left Oaklands Guest House with fifty peices of luggage but I still have a hazel bow and arrow set, which I don’t expect ever fitted into a suitcase.
Please let me know if you would like to see old scripts and letters relating to the original publicity for the film, kept in my mother’s archives.
To read more about Daphne Neville’s adventures in film and television please click here
In 1974, my mother, Daphne Neville, was commissioned to write an article about working on the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for Woman magazine, which claimed to be ‘The world’s greatest weekly for women’. Here are some extracts from her type script:
I was amazed to read some of this. ‘….a dirth of birds’? Was that really how my mother spoke in the early ‘Seventies? I had no recollection that ‘Nomansland’ had been displayed on the front of our double-decker bus. I never remembered there only being bathroom at Oaklands Guesthouse or that Mum had to wash out clothes. I do remember Ronald Fraser shouting, ‘Piss off you little monster’. I have the photo:
More to follow…. If you would like to see photos of Daphne Neville appearing in movies hereself, please click here
If you would like to read about what we did on 10th July 1973 – 45 years ago please click here
My mother is a squirrel. She arrived at my house, not with nuts, but a large envelope. Amongst other things, this contained the transcript of a piece she wrote almost forty-five years ago for BBC Radio Bristol, when she presented a programme called ‘Come Alive’. The four flimsy sheets of copy paper have only just been unearthed, along with a similar article for Woman magazine.
Daphne Neville was commissioned to write about her experience working on the original feature film, Swallows and Amazons, filmed on location in the Lake District in the summer of 1973 and brought to cinemas in 1974. Sold worldwide, has been broadcast on television for the last forty years and was last shown on TV in Australia on Boxing Day.
It is interesting to have Mum’s perspective. Some of the details are new to me. She timed this piece for BBC Radio as taking ‘8 minutes’ to read:
~ On Derwentwater in 1973: Suzannah Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Daphne Neville, Sten Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Lesley Bennett ~ photo: Martin Neville
But Mum, were we ever ‘Film Stars’?
We scowled at the terminology at the time. Ten years later and I thought of us a merely puppets, marionettes of the director who carefully honed our performances. I can now see the contribution we made when I watch the film, but we were never film stars.
What do I wish? I wish that we’d been able to make a sequel and develop our work more fully. The flip-side of this would have been that any more success, or more publicity, might have stripped us of our anonymity, which is the bain of real film stars. We’d have had to go around wearing sunglasses.
If you would like to see what we were filming 45 years ago, on 1st July 1973, please click here.
Let me know if you would like to see more archive material. I have the draft of my mother’s article for Woman magazine – it’s a different version of the same but with added detail. She needed permission from Anglo EMI Film Distributors before it could be published. There is also a draft of another radio script and a number of letters. If you would like to see vintage photos of Mum appearing on television herself, please click here
~Tavistock Festival – from the original painting by Celia Duncan~
The Tavistock Music and Arts Festival is in full swing. Do take a look through the brochure and take part in some of the events on offer, especially if you are planning to visit Dartmoor over the next few weeks. You can find the online brochure here.
The talk and Q&A on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ went down well, with audiences made up of Arthur Ransome enthusiasts, those who loved both the old film and the Lake District. There were also young people interested in acting and film-making who said they had watched the DVD a number of times. One couple remembered Titty Altounyan who had lived in Coniston and was so well-loved by the people of the Lake District.
On Sunday 22nd April, the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was screened at The Wharf Cinema on the Tavistock Canal. We held a book signing directly afterwards, when festival members gathered to chat about films and film reviews, books and book reviews, along with all manner of things.
I met David Harrison, the projectionist, who told me that he first screened the movie when it came out in 1974. He worked at the Drake Cinema in Plymouth from 1967 to 2000 and is quite an expert on film with what sounded like an impressive private collection of DVDs. Dave told me I was ‘His favourite girl’ in the movie and presented me with a bunch of narcissi.
~Sophie Neville at the Wharf cinema with David Harrison~
In the foyer of The Wharf, where Virginia McKenna once gave a talk on making her iconic movie ‘Born Free’, they have new star: a glitzy otter called Rosie who was happy to pose wearing a red Amazon hat. She is one of many otters made for the Moor Otter Trail, that is becoming popular with visitors. You can read how they raised £126,000 for Dartmoor National Park here.
~Sophie Neville, Patron of the UK Wild Otter Trust: photo-Helena Ancil~
You can see pictures of the otters hand-reared by my family here
The Chairman of the Tavistock Festival, Christopher Kirwin, chatted to Belinda Dixon on BBC Radio Devon’s Sunday morning programme for about thirty minutes. You can listen to this, 1hr.26mins into the programme here:
Almost as soon as we published the second edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ in May 2017, a number of facts and stories washed up on the incoming tide. I didn’t know that Ransome was aged twelve – Captain John’s age – when he first met the Collingwood family on Peel Island. I knew he went to Rugby School but not that he was given the study once used by the English author Lewis Carroll. I’m not sure if that inspired him to write children’s books but he certainly borrowed the term galumphing from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).
~ Lewis Carroll’s plaque at Rugby School ~
I never knew that Rusland, where Arthur and Evgenia Ransome lie buried at St Paul’s Church, is also a name for Russia, where of course they met in what was then Petrograd when Evgenia was working as Leon Troski’s private secretary. Thanks to the feature writer Maggie Dickenson, I’ve learned that this kneeler at St Paul’s was embroidered by Jean Hopkins:
Brian Crawley has just written in to say that, in 1973, our visit to the charcoal burners was filmed less than a mile to the west of the church in Glass Knott Wood. I gather the remains of the wig-wam’s fireplace can still be seen. I didn’t know it was so close, and just assumed we had been in the Grizedale Forest. I’ll have to add it to my map!
The Russian edition of Swallows and Amazons, that can be borrowed from The Arthur Ransome Society library, has proved a great source of reference. Donated by the Gatchina Library it is the only copy in the UK. I learnt from the comments at the back that the Black Jack is a pirate flag, which I’ve always called a Jolly Roger, and that ‘in one’s mind’s eye’ is an expression used by William Shakespeare in Hamlet. “Tip us a stave” means “give us a song”, a term used in Treasure Island.
Other flotsam and jetsam on my tide-line is a wonderful quote to accompany this behind-the-scenes photograph when re-reading Winter Holiday written by Arthur Ransome in 1933:
“What’s in that box?” asked Roger.
“It’s just about big enough for you, isn’t it?” said Captain Flint.
~ Sten Grendon playing Roger in the Panavision camera box in 1974~
A member of the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook commented on how annoying it was that Ronald Fraser made a funny face when he first sipped the tea Suzanna Hamilton offered him. Captain Flint ALWAYS enjoyed Susan’s tea.
There was some discussion amongst members of the same Arthur Ransome Group about how female characters depicted in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Eddie Castellan wrote: ‘Ransome is remarkably non-sexist for his era and remains so by today’s standards. Mind you, most great storytellers realise that weak female characters are simply dull…great storytellers seem to give women better roles than mediocre ones.’
Fionna Grant added: ‘Arthur Ransome had a range of roles for his female characters from Nancy to Susan to Titty…. not only represented, but honoured for their contribution to the group…All the kids in Swallows and Amazons are encouraged to learn through achievement but they are also allowed to choose their own path, follow their own interests.
At a talk given about the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen given by Simon Browne, at a meeting of The Arthur Ransome Society, we were given a definition of the word Hero: one who combats adversity through integrity, bravery or strength, often sacrificing personal concerns for the greater good.
Titty was brave but all she really did was to grab a chance to swipe Amazon. It meant she had to sleep on board, which was rather uncomfortable, but what made Titty a true heroine in the film was her determination and persistence: she woke up early and persuaded Roger to help her find the treasure hidden on Cormorant Island. Like Ransome himself, she was prepared to grab a chance, take a risk – even if it meant being cold and uncomfortable for a while.
I received another lovely note on Facebook from Zena Ashberry (nee Khan) who appeared as a film extra in the Rio scenes shot at Bowness-on-Windermere when she was a little girl, despite being of half-Asian descent:
‘I was nine at the time and my sister was eight. I remember going through an audition – which was really just a panel of three or four men looking at Mum, my sister and me to see if we would be in keeping with the ‘look’ of the film. They seemed very keen on having Mum. My sister, at the time had sandy coloured hair and so was not at all problematic, however I was very dark and because they wanted Mum they said that they could hide ‘it’ by putting me in a white dress and hat! How times have changed…obviously I remember other things too, like feeding the horses which pulled the open carriage and the horse standing on my foot oouuch!, the strange awkwardness of having to act ‘naturally’ whilst being watched through a camera, having to repeatedly carry out the same activity to ensure a good shot – how many times did we throw stones into the lake? The ice-cream tricycle with real ice cream mmmm a treat … being watched by crowds of tourists gathered along the footpath and flower beds. It was a strange and unreal experience, doing what as children we would normally do but doing it in ‘dressy-up’ clothes that weren’t from our own dressy -up box and playing the game with Mum and her friends with total strangers telling us what we should do…just a bit bewildering really, but funny in retrospect.’