Lat time ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) was screened on BBC Two, at least one film fan held a TV party with a 1930’s theme. Others ‘stoked up the wood-burner and settled down to spend an afternoon re-living summer in the Lake District’, adding, ‘It is as if Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – a timeless classic to watch again and again.’
For the latest edition of the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ with details of where the film was made and what those who appeared in it are doing now, Please click here
The ebook, entitled ‘The secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ is similar with a few more stories for adult readers and has links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It can be downloaded from iTunes, Smashwords,Kobo and Amazon Kindle
It would be lovely to hear from anyone who saw it in the cinema when it first came out in cinemas in the summer of 1974 – more than forty-five years ago.
Simon Hodkin kindly sent in this cinema programme that he has kept since watching the movie when he was a boy growing up in North Wales.
Arthur Herbertson managed to track down these rare publicity sheets for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ typical of movie games of the period:
Arthur has a collection of the four jigsaw puzzles and the Puffin paperback that came out with the film.
There was a vinyl LP narrated by the screenwriter David Wood that you can still purchase.
Arthur found a publicity brochure that I had never seen before.
To read comments from people who saw the film at the cinema in 1974, please click here
The original story was written by Arthur Ransome in 1929 ninety years ago, so the film hits the half-way mark between the original readers and today’s audience. It’s funny, the critics in 1974 are asking the same question as raised in the billing this week: Do ‘modern youngsters struggle to relate to such old-fashioned game playing’?
Do add your thoughts to the comments below.
~Billing in the Christmas edition of the Radio Times 2019~
The 4th Waterberg Trust Challenge Ride, which set off on 21st January 2018, proved fast, fun and fulfilling. Thanks go to all those who sponsored me on Justgiving.com and helped me to raise funds in other ways.
Crossing the game reserves of South Africa was a joy, especially since we encountered a number of newborn animals.
When I first posted an extract from ‘The Secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons’ on a literary website, someone wrote a review assuming it to be a novel. They must have thought that I was some poor creature who had imagined the whole thing. The reviewer considered the plot too far-fetched and fantastical – as you might if it had not been true.
‘You must have been dreaming.’
‘But Captain Flint, there were burglars, you’ve got to believe me.’
Poor Titty! No one ever believed her. Fortunately quite a bit of documentary evidence exists to support the fact that a certain feature film was made in the Lake District in 1973. I do wish I’d kept a copy of the book review though.
~ The Swallows find Titty sleeping in Amazon near Cormorant Island ~
~ Titty and Susan sail Amazon back to Wild Cat Island ~
~ Sailing Swallow and Amazon on Derwentwater ~
I was encouraged to collect things as a child, in case they might one day be of value. Back in 1973, I was given a number of black and white photographs and contact sheets of stills taken by Albert Clarke on the set of ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) – if you can call Derwentwater a movie set. I pasted some of these in a scrapbook but others remained in a roll that has only recently been returned to me. Each sheet looks roughly like this:
The eye is easily tired by looking at the whole set but scanning and editing reveals a little bit of film history in every shot. I can see here that Titty wasn’t letting Amazon’s anchor down, she was hauling it in while Susan was at the helm, with a fair wind in her sails. This must have been quite tricky.
You can tell by the numbers above each shot how many were taken and in what sequence. presumably 2003 photographs had been snapped by the time the Swallows found Titty moored near Cormorant Island.
~ These bizarre shots show the film crew afloat on their pontoon ~
The photographs below show Virginia McKenna rowing away from Peel Island on Coniston Water in a native canoe with DoP Denis Lewiston and his 35mm camera, which is pretty unique.
One thing is certain, if these contact sheets had not been given to me they would have been thrown out and yet, over time, they have become precious. Do add a comment below if you would like to see more.
It is quite interesting to see which shots were chosen for the press. You can see a few of the action shots used in magazines of the time by clicking here. Newspapers tended to chose photographs akin to portraits as you can see here.
Recent newspaper articles tend to use a black and white film still that was clumsily tinted giving the lake water an unreal and bright blue hue as you find here.
Some of the black and white prints are now held at BFI. StudioCanal hold a vast selection of the best photos in their library and have an on-line shop here. I have included about a hundred behind-the-scenes snaps taken by my parents in the latest edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ recently published by The Lutterworth Press, available from libraries, bookshops and online stockists including The Nancy Blackett shop, where proceeds go towards the upkeep of Arthur Ransome’s favourite little ship.
‘Paddling with Peter Duck’, John McCarthy’s documentary for BBC Radio 4, portrays the boats owned by the author Arthur Ransome and includes extracts read by Kate Taylor from his classic book Swallows and Amazons.
While the broadcast is a portrayal of Arthur Ransome and his boats, it touches on his friendship with the Altounyan family who inspired him to embark on writing the series of twelve Swallows and Amazons books. It is easy to understand this when looking at their photographs.
The Altounyan children with friends in Syria.
The girls seem to be Taqui, Brigit and Titty
Could it possibly be Arthur Ransome sitting on the right? He visited the family in Syria in 1932, when he must have been about forty-eight, but was never known to have worn shorts, although it would have been exceptionally hot in the Middle East. Click on the photos to enlarge.
Is this Arthur Ransome ? sitting on the bow of Peter Duck in Syria, the chap wearing the same hat and clothes as in the photo above? He took this dinghy out to Syria as a gift for the Altounyan children and wrote his novel Peter Duck while he and his wife Evgenia were staying with the family in Aleppo.
Possibly Arthur Ransome sailing Beetle II the Altounyans’ gunter-rigged dinghy at Amouk in Syria
Ransome’s friend Dr Ernest Altounyan in 1935
Dora Altounyan (nee Collingwood) in 1935
Was Dora the model for Mary Walker, the Swallows’ mother who grew up in Australia?
Sadly there is no sign of the original Swallow bought at the same time as Mavis by Arthur Ransome and Ernest Altounyan in Barrow-in-Furness, and later sailed by the Ransomes on Windermere. Mavis was later re-named Amazon by Brigit Altounyan, the youngest of the five Altounyan children, known as The Ship’s Baby.
Dr Ernest Altounyan on Coniston Water with ‘Mavis’, one of the dinghies that inspired ‘Swallows and Amazons’
These unique photographs were recently found in Cheshire by the antiques dealer John Jukes who asked me if I could return them to the Altounyan family. This I have done and show them here by kind permission of Roger’s daughter, Barbara Altounyan. Please do not copy these photos.
Over the next few days I am going to be giving Q&A sessions at cinemas screening StudioCanal’s newly restored version of Richard Pilbrow’s movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (U) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the film’s release in 1974.
Sten Grendon, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville as the Swallows making Ronald Fraser walk the plank. Where are the Amazons?
If you can come, please do bring a question. I am always very interested in those asked by the children. They can be quite difficult to answer:
‘What did it feel like to be alone on the island?’
Titty leaving her tent on Wild Cat Island
‘Where you really able to keep the parrot?’
Kit Seymour with Sophie Neville and Polly in the Houseboat
‘How long did it take to film?’ is another question I am often asked. The answer is quite complicated.
Then I ask, ‘Would you like to know about the mistake I made?’
The crew of the Swallow leaving Holly Howe
I started singing, ‘Adieu and Farewell’, when the sea shanty Spanish Ladiesis always sung: ‘Farewell and Adieu…
Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies,
Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain;
For we’re under orders
For to sail to old England,
And we may ne’er see you fair ladies again.
We’ll rant and we’ll roar, like true British sailors,
We’ll range and we’ll roam all on the salt seas;
Until we strike soundings
In the Channel of old England,
From Ushant to Scilly ’tis thirty-five leagues.
Virginia McKenna watches the Swallows sail from the jetty at Bank Ground Farm on Coniston Water. Can you spot the safety officer – a frogman just visible right of shot?
I noticed that one inconsistency made by the design team was that the swallow flew down our flag whereas it always flies up Swallow’s burgee in Arthur Ransome book illustrations. I count it as a subtle differentiation that I reproduce whenever I draw the crossed flags myself.
When I was writing ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’ I noticed that, while the title of the book is ‘Swallows and Amazons’, the graphic designer working on the film always used an ampersand, making it SWALLOWS & AMAZONS in the 1974 film.
There is another odd thing right at the end of the film, as the credits roll. See if you can spot what it is.
There are often screenings at cinemas in Cumbria:
Royalty Cinema Bowness-on-Windermere, the Roxy Cinema Ulverston and the Alhambra in Keswick where we held a Q&A
Members of the Arthur Ransome Group have recently raised questions about what ‘fell onto the cutting room floor’ after we shot the movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the English Lake District in 1973.
‘I have always had the feeling that the Amazon’s role in the 1974 film was very much secondary to the Swallows.’ Stephen O’Brien posted. ‘This was probably down to much of the Amazon’s footage ending up on the cutting room floor. What do you think?’
The answer is that there were few scenes excluded from the film.
Virginia McKenna as Mrs Walker with Sophie Neville as Titty
The only other scene from Swallows & Amazons that I know was excluded was when the Swallows lay patterans on their way to visit the charcoal burners. The location was in a beautiful spot up above Derwentwater, the dialogue was straight from Arthur Ransome’s book and our performances would have been fluent by the time we shot the sequence.
Suzanna Hamilton, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West as the Swallows
I can only expect that when the movie came in over-length, these scenes were cut as the action had no influence on the plot.
In the original script, the Amazons do not really appear until page 41 – which would equate to nearly half-way into the the film. I thought that there might have been one or two shots of the Amazons sailing that were never used, because there was a day spent filming on Derwentwater when Kit and Lesley who played Nancy and Peggy weren’t feeling very well, but I’ve checked the script and nothing that they said was excluded. Not one word. Perhaps David Wood who dramatized the book could somehow have increased the Amazons’ parts. However, as Janet Means points out:
‘…in the book we find out more about what the Swallows think but only about what the Amazons do. There is little about the Amazons except when the Swallows are present too (hiding Amazon in the reeds and Nancy berating Peggy for losing Amazon when Titty’s made off with her). There’s lots about the Swallows without the Amazons.’
One scene in the DVD of the film used to be cut out of the television version. The clue is that it comes just before this photo was taken in Bowness-on-Windermere for Lancashire Life kindly sent to be by Stephen Sykes of Hill Top near Haverthwaite.
Sten Grendon, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville as the Swallows in Rio, an official still from the film published in Lancashire Life in 1974
When people see the Steam Yacht Gondola on Coniston today, in all her re-built glory, she seems rather plush to have been cast by Arthur Ransome as Captain Flint’s houseboat in Swallows and Amazons. The main reason for assuming that she was used as the model for the illustrations is because Arthur Ransome grabbed a post card of the Gondola and drew on it to give the first illustrators of Swallows and Amazons some idea of his vision. However Ransome’s biographer Roger Wardale told me that it was a former steamer on Windermere that he had in mind: the S.Y. Esperance. Ransome was known to have been spotted looking through her cabin windows and much admired her distinctive bow, designed to cut through cat ice on her way to Lakeside Railway station.
When I was first taken up to the Lake District in 1963, my father found what he thought was houseboat bay on Windermere and took this shot of SL Esperance moored in Rayrigg Bay. She does look very like the first professional drawing submitted to illustrate Swallows and Amazons.
Arthur Ransome’s terse note reads: ‘The ass has forgotten the mast’. I went to see the Esperance when she was lying at the Steamboat Museum on Windermere with the film producer Nick Barton in 2011. Built at Rutherglen in 1869 she is nearly 65 foot long with a 10 foot beam.
She did not always have such a traditional appearance. Roger Wardale kindly sent me this photograph showing what she looked like in the 1930s.
The cabin has since been removed from her rear end.
SY Esperance now looks more like this illustration – or could do. Although she has a setting for a mast the reality is that she has seven windows, whereas Clifford Webb’s illustration shows her with only six.
I have no idea if anyone could film aboard her today when marine safety regulations are so strict. We couldn’t in 1973.
When we made the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, the producer Richard Pilbrow was obliged to use the Lady Derwentwater, owned by the Keswick Launch Co. She has quite a different stern from the illustrations but was licensed to carry 90 passengers, which must have allowed him to take a seventy-strong film crew on board. At least she was given a mast. You can envisage Ronald Fraser, as Captain Flint, angrily stamping out the firework on the roof.
One advantage of the Lady Derwentwater was that the windows of her cabin enabled the director to get a good view of the lake, which he made use of when Captain John rowed over from Peel Island to visit Captain Flint and pass on the charcoal burners’ warning. She couldn’t be moved to another lake, but Derwentwater is surrounded by such dramatic fells that the director, Claude Whatham used this to his advantage during the final scenes of the classic film. The Lady Derwentwater has been given a transome but is still in commission and you can take a trip on her today.
Was the Gondola so very different? Ransome had known the steam launch since spending his own childhood holidays on Coniston, when she was in service. While staying at Nibthwaite he became a good friend of the Captain, or so the story goes. Back in 1973 the Gondola looked like this – her roof too curved to run along, her bow rising up a little too dramatically to accommodate the foredeck of a retired pirate busy writing up his devilish crimes while his a cannon lies glinting in the sunlight, ready to fire.
This Christmas has been marked by a number of amusing cards, emails and comments that have come in from people who remember making the film of Swallows & Amazons in 1973.
David Stott has already sent in his memories of working as Ronald Fraser’s driver at the age of 19 while Peter Walker remembers literally bumping into him in a pub in Ambleside. Various journalists added their recollections online below an article in the Telegraph. I hope to have gathered enough photographs to post a few more in the new year.
If you can remember anything about the filming of Swallows & Amazons, can recollect going to see it in the cinema when it was first released, or have memories about anyone connected to the movie, add a comment below or contact me on email@example.com.
I have a list of those who appeared as supporting artists in the film that I would love to add to. Can you help me with more details and full names? It would be awful if I had incorrect spellings.
Kerry Dartisnine ~ Nurse
Tiffany Smith ~ Baby Vicky
Moira Late ~ Mrs Jackson
Brian Robey Jones ~ Mr Jackson
Mr Turner ~ Shopkeeper
Mr Price ~ Native on the Rio jetty
Mrs Price ~ Visitor at Haverthwaite Railway Station
Martin Neville ~ Native on the steamer
George Pattinson ~ Steamboat owner
Stanley Wright ~ Motorboat mechanic
James Stelfox ~ Boat mechanic
Herbert Barton ~ Casual holiday-maker
L. Lucas Dews ~ Man just returned from abroad
Jane Price ~ Girl at Rio
Simon Price ~ Boy at Rio
Tamzin Neville ~ Girl at Rio
Perry Neville ~ Girl at Rio
Pandora Doyle ~ Girl at Rio
Alan Smith ~ Boy at Rio
Jane Grendon ~ Rio visitor
Janet Hadwin ~ Rio visitor
Peggy Drake ~ Rio visitor
William Drake ~ Rio visitor
Mrs Jill Jackson ~ Rio visitor
Lindsay Jackson ~ Rio visitor
Nicola Jackson ~ Rio visitor
Fiona Jackson ~ Rio visitor
Shane Jackson ~ Rio visitor
Zena Khan ~ Rio Visitor
Lorna Khan ~ Lady on the Tern
Sarah Boom ~ Cyclist at Rio
Jack Hadwin ~ Motorcyclist
Kendal Borough Band
Beauty Proctor ~ Polly, the green parrot
The following people worked on the crew of Swallows & Amazons but I am not sure of their exact job titles:
Gay Lawley-Wakelin, Richard Daniel, John Slater, Lee Apsey, Craig Hillier, Les Philips, Ron Baker, John Pullen, Harry Heeks, Graham Orange, Mike Henley, Joe Ballerino, Ted Elliot, Eddie Cook, John Engelman, John Mills, Ernie Russell, Clive Stewart, Toni Turner, Phyllis B, Pinewood Caterers John and Margaret ……, Robert Wakeling, David Stott. and other Drivers: Browns of Ambleside
Thanks to the encouragement and help of my blog followers and Arthur Ransome enthusiasts around the world, I have managed to put my diaries, letters, old photographs and documents together into a 70,000-word memoir.
“Sometimes extraordinary things do happen to ordinary people. Little girls can find themselves becoming film stars. Long ago, and quite unexpectedly, I found myself appearing in the EMI feature film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons, made for a universal international audience. I played Able-seaman Titty, one of the four Swallows. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I became Titty for a while, wearing thin cotton dresses and elasticated navy blue gym knickers, which the camera crew soon referred to as passion killers. The book was written in 1929 and although the film adaptation was made in the early 1970s it had an ageless quality and has been repeated on television year after year, typically on a Bank Holiday between movies starring Rock Hudson or Doris Day.
I got the part of Titty because I could play the piano. Although I had no ambition to be an actress, at the age of ten I was cast in a BBC dramatisation of Cider with Rosie. They needed a little girl to accompany the eleven-year-old Laurie Lee when he played his violin at the village concert. I plodded through Oh, Danny Boy at an agonising pace.
‘Do you think you could play a little faster?’ the Director asked.
‘No,’ I said, flatly. ‘These are crotchets, they don’t go any faster.’
Claude Whatham must have remembered my crotchets, for two years later, in March 1973, my father received a letter. It arrived completely out of the blue, from a company called Theatre Projects.
We are at present casting for a film version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS which Mr Whatham is going to direct. We were wondering if you would be interested in your daughter being considered for one of the parts in this film.
From ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ by Sophie Neville
Preview copies of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ at the Cruising Association dinner at the Water’s Edge Bar and Restaurant, Mermaid Marina on the River Hamble.
“This heart-warming memoir is illustrated with colour photographs, most of them taken at the time by Sophie’s family, and contains links to behind-the-scenes home movie footage for readers with browser-enabled tablets. It delivers a double helping of nostalgia for both fans of the era of Arthur Ransome, and the groovy times of the early 70’s.” ~ from the Amazon Kindle description
Also available for other reading devices on Smashwords
Thanks to those of you who contributed comments, questions, and aspects of local history on this blog. I would love to know what you think of the book!
If you would like a copy but don’t have a Kindle, you can download a free Kindle app.