I found telling 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 filmography that resonates with the lives of so many.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sister Allyne came. She didn’t flatter me but she was there.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
What is most memorable about the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for you?
I love exploring the places Arthur Ransome features in his stories. We were privileged to live out the pages of the book on location in the Lake District, but sailing in nothing but a short cotton dress and a pair of navy blue gym knickers was decidedly chilly – we earned our passage.
Would you consider Susan to be an influence on Titty within the story?
Susan made camping on the island possible. Suzanna Hamilton, the remarkable British actress who played Susan in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, became our rock without becoming prim or losing the joy and excitement of adventure. She went on to play leading roles in a number of major movies including ‘Out of Africa’ opposite Meryl Streep and ‘1984’ with John Hurt and Richard Burton. She is still working on cutting edge productions and recently had a guest appearance in ‘Eastenders’.
Is there anything you think should always be included in different versions of ‘Swallows and Amazons’?
You must feature the green parrot! It’s vital to enter the world of a 9-12 year old child, capturing the trepidation. It would be interesting to adapt Arthur Ransome’s books without featuring adults, or only including them as shadowy facilitators.
How did you feel about playing a part where you were able to be the cunning and playful younger sister?
In real life, I was the elder of three sisters so took on the roles of both John and Susan. Playing Titty felt something of a release. I was freed from the responsibility of taking the helm.
Titty is well-read and bright, creative and imaginative but I wouldn’t call her cunning. She longs to be alone on the island to experience what it was like to be Robinson Crusoe, which is why she volunteers to stay behind to light the candles, but is that a cunning plot? She is an innocent.
What was your favourite line in Swallows and Amazons?
Titty’s lines are challenging and can only be uttered with humour and an acceleration of charm. I rather enjoyed, ‘X marks the spot where we ate six missionaries’, although I don’t think it can be found in the book. ‘Thank you so much for letting us see your lovely serpent’ would probably be disallowed these days.
Did you have a favourite scene?
Finding the lighthouse tree was a short sequence that worked well. We shot it on the banks of Derwentwater towards the end of the filming. But I most enjoyed our day with the charcoal burners. They were wonderful.
What did you enjoy most about filming in the Lake District?
We loved High Force, the waterfall, and exploring the mossy woodlands. Secret Harbour on Peel Island is very special, as is One Tree Island where we found the treasure.
Do you feel that you and your character influenced children?
Even now, nearly 48 years after the film was released, I receive correspondence from people telling me how the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ influenced their lives or helped carry them through a tough patch. It is always wonderful to hear how Titty has inspired others.
Maurice Thomas who used to live in Cockermouth wrote: ‘My mum and my Auntie Gladys took me to see this little children’s flick in 1974/5 as it was a double bill with ‘The Railway Children‘. I remember ‘The Railway Children‘ reasonably fondly, but ‘Swallows & Amazons‘ had me utterly mesmerised.’
If you were to give any advice to actors wanting to perform in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ what would it be?
Visit the locations. Go to Bank Ground Farm and run, fast, down the field to dip your hands in the lake as Arthur Ransome did as a child. Capture that feeling and carry it with you as you sing out the lines.
And be prepared for the impact the story will have. It could follow you all your life.
To read another recent interview with Authors Reach please click here
If you would like to read more about the secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons, you can ‘Look inside’ the ebook free of charge here:
Are you looking for a special Birthday or Christmas present for someone who happens to love the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)?
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’.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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
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
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”.’
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:
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.