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, sails to the Caribees in ‘Peter Duck’ and set on fire by Gibber 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 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.
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
This summer marked the 45th Anniversary of filming the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater when Ronald Fraser was obliged to walk the plank in a solar topi in July 1973.
To celebrate the anniversary, Sophie Neville, who played Titty, introduced a screening of the 1974 film at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick on Saturday 28th July.
She demonstrated how one of the visual effects was achieved and signed copies of her book ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ after a Q&A.
‘I brought one of the original arrows that the Amazon pirates fired over my head. It looks so dangerous on film that the shot was cut from the television version but is included in the re-mastered cinemascope edition that we are now able to watch on the big screen. You might be able to spot a few other things that went wrong while we were filming, such as the time I inadvertently slipped up to my waist in water.’
‘The elegant Lakeland steamer, the Lady Derwentwater, had the starring role as Captain Flint’s houseboat. She was adapted for the part by the award-winning set designer Ian Whittaker, who went on to receive an Oscar for Best Art Direction on ‘Howards End’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. His astonishing list of nominations can been seen here.
Swallow, the 1930s sailing dinghy used in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was at the lakeside for Arthur Ransome enthusiasts to admire. She is looked after by Rob Boden, from Kendal, who is happy to take people for a sail by prior arrangement via the SailRansome website 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
When the original feature film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ was made in 1973, Peggy Blackett was played by Lesley Bennett. She can be seen here on location at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District.
For the last thirty-four years, Lesley has been living in the Netherlands. I met up with her for lunch at Schiphol Airport on my way back from sailing Arthur Ransome’s cutter, the Nancy Blackett, through the inland waterways of Zeeland. (Please see the last two previous posts.) I nearly didn’t make the meeting. A man had been arrested for planting a bomb on a train just north of Middleberg, but the authorities must have acted quickly as I wasn’t delayed for long.
Lesley had brought along a blue file of documents and a number of black and white movie stills that she’d been given by Richard Pilbrow, the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on one of our last days in Ambleside after filming had finished. We could both remember them spread out on a table at the unit hotel so we could each chose the ones we appeared in. I had picked one where Lesley and I are sitting together, our hair bobbed in line with the 1930’s, I wearing a cream silk dress, Lesley in a dark top looking very pretty:
Lesley’s parents, who lived near Tonbridge in Kent, originally learnt that Theatre Projects were looking for children to take part in the film when the Associate Producer, Neville Thompson, wrote to their local sailing club. Lesley explained that her father, who was very well organised, kept a copy of the letter sent to the Secretary of the club in January 1973. Plans were made for Lesley to be interviewed for a part with her younger sister Lyn, who sadly fell ill and couldn’t make the audition. The letter contains a mistake that might explain why Lesley ended up playing Peggy when she was thirteen years old.
Lesley got on well with Kit Seymour who ended up playing her elder sister, Nancy Blackett – ‘terror of the seas’. Both girls would sail well and enjoyed being out on the lakes. Lesley told me that the reason why she held her hands between her legs in this photograph is that it was so cold when we were filming on Peel Island.
‘Kit would fold her arms and I’d try to keep my hands warm.’ Although I wore a cardigan in this scene, Swallows had been cold too. I remember thinking that at least the Amazons wore knitted hats. Otherwise their costumes were simple short-sleeved shirts and long shorts with black plymsols, worn without socks.
~Kit Seymour as Captain Nancy and Lesley Bennett as Mate Peggy in 1973~
Lesley told me their hats had been quite a problem – not quite a full-blown movie disaster but a they caused consternation in Consiton. The first scene the Amazons shot was set in the garden of Beckfoot, the Blacketts’ house. Although it does not lie on the ‘Amazon River’ at the northern end of the lake, Brown Howe on the western shore of Coniston Water was used as the location and the crew set up the 35mm Panavision camera, along with reflector boards and enough lighting to bring sunshine to Westmorland. When everyone on the production was ready, Gareth Tandy, the third assistant led the Amazons down to the set wearing red knitted stocking caps – with no bobbles. Beanies were not quite what either the director or producer had expected. Lesley has a photo showing the great discussion that ensued:
~Director Claude Whatham, Producer Richard Pilbrow, 3rd Assistant Director Gareth Tandy, Make-up Artist Peter Robb-King, Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan and Associate Producer Neville Thompson with Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett at Brown Howe on Coniston Water in May 1973 ~
In the end Claude Whatham shot the scene with the girls bare-headed, their hair blowing all over the place, even though it was meant to be ‘dead-calm’ in the story. This looked natural as they were at home but they needed to look like pirates in every other scene.
~Nancy and Peggy running down to Amazon at the Blackett’s house Beckfoot~
Wooly hats with ‘longer ends’ were knitted locally at some speed. Red is not a good colour on the screen. I remember a couple of bright pink ribbed bobble-hats arrived when we were filming on Peel Island but they were deemed a complete disaster and rejected in favour of scarlet ones originally described by Arthur Ransome even if the colour might look a bit jarring on screen.
No one on the production knew anything about knitting or subtle shades of wool and Emma Porteous, the costume designer, was back in London. When the third pair of hats arrived we were all a bit worried about the fatness of the bobble-end, as they didn’t quite match the illustrations in the books, but no one knew what else to do. Time ran out and the producer was forced to compromise. ‘They were warm but prone to flop about,’ Lesley said, ‘and sometimes flopped forward, which looked a bit silly.’ I’d never noticed this but it was captured in one photograph:
~Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett as Nancy and Peggy Blackett on Wild Cat Island in 1973~
Mum was given the pink version of the hats. She kept them for years but no one ever wore them.
by Hayloft Publishing, written by David Banning with a forward by Sophie Neville.
‘This is the finest comprehensive guide to the history of movies filmed in Cumbria and the Lake District, since the early twentieth century to the present day… it will take you on a journey through the filmic landscape of one of the world’s most beautiful places.’
‘You will be able to immerse yourself in the lush green world where Star Wars created an alien landscape or take a trip around Swallows and Amazons country, not to mention joining the ranks of Withnail and I pilgrims or sampling the nostalgic Breif Encounter tea rooms where a tiny piece of grit kick-started an enduring romance.’
To read more, please click here for Cumbria Todayor click on this image for a review in the Cumberland & Westmorland Herald:
For more information from Hayloft Publishing, and to buy this book, please click here
Terry Abraham, who made the film Life of a Mountain, writes: There are countless books covering aspects of the most beautiful corner of England but none which reveal little known facts regarding it as a location for filming. David thoroughly and interestingly brings to light the great number of films both large and small that have featured Lakeland on camera. Some less obvious than others but no less absorbing, you may well wish to seek out and visit where productions have captured the scenic delights of Lakeland. David’s book is an engaging and enlightening read and definitely one for the shelf alongside other works celebrating England’s finest landscape.
A second edition of the ebook ‘The Secrets of Filming ‘SWALLOWS & AMAZONS'(1974) is now available on Amazon Kindle, Smashwords, itunes, Kobo, and Nook for £2.99 . You can download this free of charge if you already own the first edition.
If you already have a copy of the ebook, contact a Customer Advisor and ask for a free update. You just need to give Kindle the ebook’s ASIN number. The ISBN for all online editions except Kindle is: ISBN 9781311761927
Since being contacted by others who were involved in the filming, I have been able to add a few more anecdotes and images, including this beautiful shot of Virginia McKenna in 1973 kindly sent in by the photographer Philip Hatfield.
I found a copy of my original contract for the film and when Jean McGill rang from Bowness, a few more secrets floated to the surface.
CBBCTV’s Cinemaniacs interviewed the screenwriter David Wood and myself on how the original movie of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was made back in the summer of 1973. The idea was to use 30 second clips, so please excuse my over-the-top reactions, but you can watch the whole recording below.
‘This has to be one of the most delightful interviews in my recent memory.’ Tim Lewis, USA
David Stott has written in to say, “When l got the job driving for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ l think I took over the production car when Jean McGill started driving you children around in the mini-bus.” This must have been in May 1973 when the original film of Arthur Ransome’s classic book was being made in Westmorland.
David explained that, although he lived in Ambleside, he has not seen Jean since the filming, so enjoyed reading that I had been in touch with her. “Jean’s Mum was called Girlie and she used to run a nursing home on Lake Road. Jean had a brother who was nicknamed Blondie. We would often have a cup of tea with Girlie in the nursing home kitchen.”
David has all sorts of memories of filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the Lake District that I knew nothing about. “Jean mentioned that she took Ronnie Fraser for an early morning glass of champagne to get him going. I remember having to take him to the Lodore Swiss Hotel in Borrowdale while filming on Derwentwater. He would order what he called, ‘A Frazer’, which was some sort of vodka cocktail.” David was only about seventeen at the time. Driving Ronald Fraser around must have been something of an eye-opener. “I remember bringing him back to film ‘walking the plank’ and he was very drunk at the time. Expect he needed it for the cold water. He could be a little difficult when he had had a few.”
“I was rather star struck when l was driving Virginia McKenna,” he admitted. “On one occasion I had to drive her from the farmhouse on Coniston to Grange railway station. She was telling me all about filming ‘Born Free’ with the lions and I drove a bit slowly as l was enjoying her company. We arrived rather late and l had to throw her and her luggage onto the train just as it was leaving.” I asked Virginia about this but she couldn’t remember ever being late for the train. I can only imagine that David must have coped well.
“On another occasion I think l had Richard Pilbrow in the car,” he was the producer of the film. “We were driving back from Derwentwater when a cow jumped off a bank and landed on the bonnet, causing quiet a lot of damage. I was dreading going back to Browns Motors and telling Alan Faulkener the owner what had happened.” Richard is still alive and well.
David, who now owns Crossways Hotel near Glynebourne, comes from an old Cumbrian family. His grandmother lived at High Green Gate, the farm next door to Beatrice Potter Hilltop. “My great grandfather was Farmer Potatoes in the ‘Tale of Samuel Whiskers’. It was sketched from a photograph that my mother still has. There is shortly to be an article in Cumbria Magazine about Beatrice Potter’s relationship with the Postlethwaite family.”
One of our locations – Haverthwaite Station today
“My father was the local joiner in Ambleside. He also kept about 1000 hens and delivered eggs around the hotels at the weekends. My brother and l would often help him on a Saturday morning.” David obviously knew the roads of Cumbria well.
I was on stage to answer questions about how we made the film after the screening. Swallow, the dinghy we used on the movie was rigged up outside the cinema and admired by many.
Back in April, I was invited to a similar screening of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) also held to raise funds for the up-keep of Arthur Ransome’s yacht Nancy Blackett. As the film ended I was invited up on stage to answer questions about how it was made. Marc Grimston sent a list of these, so I could answer them here for those unable to get cinema seats.
As a child were you like Titty? In 1973, I was aged twelve and at five-foot two, was really too old and too tall for the role of Titty but it was easy enough to pretend to be nine years old. I was on-screen a great deal so it probably a good thing that I was old enough to cope with long filming days. I thought I was much more like Mate Susan but perhaps that made it easier for me to play Titty.
How many tried for the role of Titty? About 1,800 children originally auditioned for the six parts in ‘Swallows & Amazons’. Claude Whatham, the director, wrote inviting me to an interview. In the end there were five girls up for the part of Titty. You can read more about the final audition here.
Sophie Neville on stage with Peter Willis, President of the Nancy Blackett Trust
Had you read the books before? I had read most of the books in the series and loved them, so it was very easy to take on the part. We never had to sit down and learn lines because we knew what to say from reading the book.
Sophie Neville taking about Swallows & Amazons
Were they any disasters during filming? Swallow’s mast broke!
How did you stay safe with the snake? It was a real adder, but quite a tame one. I think they lowered its metabolism by keeping it cool.
How did they make the lion noises? It was a recording of a real lion.
When you filmed the approach to the houseboat it seamed as if Amazon was coming in fast, was she? Yes, she hit it quite hard!
How long did it take to film? We spent forty six days onset in total, which meant spending about seven weeks in the Lake District.
Do you still have the parrot? I don’t. The green parrot belonged to Mrs Proctor of Kendal where the residents were terrified of him.
What happened to Amazon? She is owned by a family living in Kent who love sailing her in the lakes. She was the same Amazon as used in the BBC serial of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ made in 1962, when Susan George played Kitty.
Have you been back to the island? Yes! I last returned with Nick Barton who is planning a new film adaptation of ‘Swallows and Amazons’.
Are there adaptations of any other Swallows and Amazon books? Yes, in 1983 I was able to work on the BBC serialisation of ‘Coot Club and The Big Six’, starring Rosemary Leach, Colin Baker, Henry Dimbleby and Julian Fellowes as one of the Hullabaloos. It was my job to cast the children and look after them during the three months we spent on location, which was great fun.
The screening of Swallows & Amazons on Sunday was sold out. 250 tickets. They were endlessly turning people away. ‘We should have shown it again in the 6.00pm slot,’ I told the manager. ‘Oh, we have American Snipper on then.’ It stars Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller. ‘How many have booked to see it?’ ‘Three.’
All age groups were represented in the audience who came to the event – a fundraiser in aid of the Nancy Blackett Trust. About 70% had seen the film of Swallows & Amazons before. Some knew it well.
Swallow, the clinker built dinghy, originally built by William King and Sons at Burnham-on-Crouch and used in the 1974 film, was rigged up outside the cinema for everyone to meet. She is going to be at a number of The Arthur Ransome Society’sevents in Suffolk and Essex this summer. We used the best photo of Swallow under sail for the cover of the paperback on how the film was made, which was on display in the cinema lobby after the film. It is now available online or from the Aldebrugh Bookshop in Suffolk.
Someone asked if we had any disasters while making the film.
‘Swallow’s mast broke, we nearly sailed under the Windermere steamer and we were often rained off,’ but I couldn’t think of anything utterly disastrous from my perspective. I’ll have to ask Richard Pilbrow who produced the film back in 1973. I can list other questions asked by the audience in the next post. Do add any you might have to the comments box below.
The Riverside Cinema in Woodbridge are thinking of showing Swallows & Amazons again in September to help them celebrate their centenary ~ ‘100 Years of Film’. Do add a comment in the box below if you would like to organise a screening of the film at a cinema near you.