Category Archives: sailing film

Alison Hull interviews Sophie Neville on her involvement with the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Signing copies of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ in Cumbria

1 – How did you get the part of Titty?

In March 1973, a letter arrived, out of the blue, inviting me to audition for a role in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I was twelve years old, an ordinary school girl at a convent in Berkshire. I’d read the Arthur Ransome books but had no idea I was up for the lead in a major EMI feature film intended for a universal international audience. The movie was directed by Claude Whatham. Back in 1970, he’d cast me as Eileen Brown, opposite a boy playing Laurie Lee, in the BBC’s first adaptation of ‘Cider With Rosie’. It was a role that demanded learning a piano piece so complicated it took twenty-one hours to master, but I did it. Claude must have respected my hard work. I was too tall to play Titty but, after a sailing audition at Burnham-on-Crouch, I was offered the part. He cast Sten Grendon, who’d played the young Laurie Lee, as Roger, Suzanna Hamilton was Susan and Virginia McKenna starred as our mother. She later admitted to finding her character rather dull but it was her name, in lights outside cinemas, that drew big audiences. We’ve kept in touch. She is still acting, aged 87, and has led the Born Free Foundation’s international campaign to redeem the lives of wild animals held in miserable conditions since 1998.

With Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, in 1973 

2 – Why was it so suitable for you?

We loved visiting the Lake District as a family. My father helped the Maryport Button Factory with their publicity and once took us to stay on a farm near Castle Craig above the River Derwent. I spent my childhood camping and messing about in boats, adding a sail made from a dust-sheet to an old rowing skiff. The great thing about the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was that Simon West, who played Captain John, was an exceptional sailor. He went on to become a national champion. Kit Seymour, who played Captain Nancy, also had a natural command of the waves. It shows on screen. They were able to handle our small boats when squalls rolled down from the fells. I didn’t have their innate understanding of the wind but it was Titty’s job to row everywhere – back from the charcoal burners and off to One Tree Island on Derwentwater. “Pull harder, Roger!” I managed to row Amazon out of Secret Harbour in one take, with the cameraman and a massive 35mm Panavision Camera on board.

The Swallows voyage to Wild Cat IslandSimon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville in Swallow, 1973

Casting-off Swallow was more of a challenge. It doesn’t show on a small screen, but when ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is screened in cinemas, you can spot the sequence when I slip on a rock with the telescope in one hand. I was up to my waist in water but got back on my feet and battled on, waving as the others sailed up Coniston Water. I knew how difficult the shot was to achieve and was desperate to do my best for Claude Whatham.

Standing on Peel Island in a soaking wet dress while the Swallows sailed north

3 – Did it fire your wish to work in TV?

No! It was directing plays while reading Anthropology at Durham University that ignited a desire to work on television dramas. However, the experienced I’d gained acting in movies helped me win a place on the BBC TV Graduate Trainee scheme. After working on ‘The Russell Harty Show’, I grabbed the chance to cast children on the adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads: ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. I found Henry Dimbleby, then aged thirteen, to play the lead and spent three months on location with Julian Fellowes and Rosemary Leach – who I’d met when she played Laurie Lee’s mother. I later worked on ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Eastenders’ and ‘My Family and Other Animals’, before producing an INSET series, directing one episode at a village school in Cumbria. I began casting children in the Lake District to appear in BBC adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s Lakeland books but they were axed, which was sad, as we were all set to make ‘Swallowdale’ and ‘Pigeon Post’ on the high moors.

Sophie Neville directing a drama-doc with BBC cameraman Lorraine Smith

4 – What does the Lake District in general, and Keswick in particular, mean to you?

We live on the south coast but take the train north at any opportunity. I’m now President of The Arthur Ransome Society and came up for a fabulous weekend in May when we sailed from the jetty at Bank Ground Farm – Holly Howe in Ransome’s books. I gave an illustrated talk on the secrets of making ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at the Bassenthwaite Institute, using behind-the-scenes photographs taken when we were filming on Derwentwater forty-five years ago. We shot all the scenes involving Captain Flint’s Houseboat in a bay on the western shore. She was played by the Lady Derwentwater, converted for the drama by Ian Whittaker, a talented young set dresser who went on to win an Oscar for set decoration on the feature film ‘Howards End’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. We shot the lighthouse tree scenes near Friar’s Craig and used Lingholme or One Tree Island for Cormorant Island, where Titty finds the treasure chest. We enjoyed making Ronald Fraser, the film actor playing Captain Flint, walk the plank and sailed up Derwentwater to the strains of ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor’, played as the end credits roll. Forty years later, Suzanna Hamilton and I were asked to lunch with Richard Pilbrow the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Buskers were singing this song outside the restaurant in Covent Garden. We couldn’t believe the coincidence.

Meeting fans of Swallows and Amazons at Keswick in July

I meet people from far and wide who tell me the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ inspired them to visit the Lake District. It has been broadcast on television every year for the last forty years and was last shown in Australia on Boxing Day. It has been dubbed into Czech twice and is often shown at festivals as only ‘U’ certificate movies can be screened outdoors. I just hope this has proved a blessing to the people of Keswick, which I so loved visiting as a child. I thought the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – that I appear in for approximately two seconds – would overshadow the classic version but it has simply raised awareness along with DVD sales. Fan mail continues to arrive. A beautiful card came today. Arthur Ransome would have been touched. It had fish on it.

Funnily Enough - the first extract in iBelieve Magazine

Editorial coverage and a literary award for ‘Funnily Enough’

5 – Do you want to mention mental health/physical health issues are always in the news?

I find that many of my readers are stuck in bed or battling with ill-health. I hope they are amused and uplifted in some way by stories in my books. ‘Funnily Enough’, a diary I kept after collapsing at the BBC, is about my own struggle with what I am pretty sure was a tick-bourne disease. I lost my job but recovered in Southern Africa, where I fulfilled Titty’s dream of seeing “forests full of parrots” and produced decorative maps for a living, inspired by Spurrier’s illustration on the original cover of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I used maps and details from my sketchbook to illustrate a paperback entitled, ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’, which is out in colour as an ebook.

On the crew of the Gloriana in the Boat Race Flotilla in March featured on BBC Television 

6 – What else?

People often ask how ‘Swallows and Amazons’ influenced my life, keen to know what I am doing now. I am still keen on rowing. I completed the Voga Longa, a 32 kilometre marathon through the Venetian lagoon with Olympic gold medallist Ed Code and was on the crew of The Queen’s row barge Gloriana for the Boat Race Flotilla this year. This summer, I grabbed the chance to row through the canals of Amsterdam, which was fascinating. However, it was the Amazons bows and arrows that impacted my life. After learning to shoot on the shores of Coniston Water, I was cast as an archery champion in another movie and have since won three Ladies Championships. I met my husband at an archery match. My stepson shot for England in July, winning a tri-annual match against the Royal Company of Archers (so proud!) I gave a talk recently demonstrating how the arrows in ‘Swallows and Amazons were’ fired over my head. The shot looks so dangerous that it was cut from the TV version of the film, but is included in the re-mastered 40th Anniversary cinema Blu-ray version, which we are now able to watch on the big screen.

Rowing in from De Hoop Rowing Club in Amsterdam, July 2018

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‘Swallows and Amazons’ in Keswick

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.

Ronald Fraser walking the plank

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.

Captain Flint having walked the plank

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.

Secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons

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Speaking about filming ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ on the Norfolk Broads

 

Sophie Neville with Titmouse

~Sophie Neville with the star of ‘Coot Club’~

I was invited to talk about making the BBC TV classic serial ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ at the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club to help celebrate their 80th Anniversary. Titmouse, then 1930s dinghy owned by Hunter’s Yard had been brought down from Ludham for the occasion.

The bonus was that I was able to go sailing in one of the classic boats gathered at the club for their Open Day.

Geoff and Rose Angell kindly took me out on Pippa, their beautiful yacht with brown sails that appeared in ‘The Big Six’. I am sure Arthur Ransome would have loved her.

I’d spent nine months working with the BBC production back in 1983 when it had been my job to cast the children and teenagers who appear in the drama, many of whom needed genuine Norfolk accents.

Coot Club - book cover

~Henry Dimbleby, Nicholas Walpole, Jake Coppard, Mark Page, Caroline Downer and Richard Walton as they appeared in ‘The Big Six’ (1984)~

We had been looking for young actors who could swim well and were able handle boats. We then spent three months filming in East Anglia when I looked after the children and helped rehearse their lines. I set up this shot for the cover of the Puffin paperback that accompanied the series.

~Author Sophie Neville giving a talk at the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club~

At a forum organised after my talk, Pat Simpson from Stalham Yacht Services explained how he found one of the stars of the series – an old lifeboat suitable to play the Death and Glory. She had been brought from where she is kept at Belaugh for the evening. You can see more photographs of her in the previous blog post here.

'The Death and Glory'

Pat provided a number of other vessels for the series including Buttercup and support boats such as the safely boat, a large modern cruiser used as a school room along with another for the costume and make up personnel. He explained that this came as a god-send as boat rentals had not been good that summer. Working on the series was harder than he imagined, ‘We once had to take a boat from Regan to Horning Hall overnight’ but he was pleased that ‘after three months of concentrated work, we got it all done.’

~Robin Richardson~

Robin Richardson, who co-owned Pippa back in 1983, explained how the shot of her being cast adrift was achieved. This wasn’t as easy as first thought as even when Simon Hawes, who was playing George Owdon, flung her stem line on the deck, a gentle breeze was blowing her back against the staithe. ‘Pippa didn’t want to go anywhere’. Robin had to stage the action by throwing out a mud anchor, climbing under her awning and pulling on the line to create the effect of a boat drifting out of control into potential danger. Pippa’s white canvas cover is pulled back here, but you can imagine the scene.

He was on location when Henry Dimbleby, who played Tom Dudgeon, was attempting to tow the Teasel under Potter Heigham bridge. He was rowing Titmouse, pulling hard on the aors but nothing was happening. ‘Stop for lunch,’ Robin advised the director, ‘and the tide will turn.’ This they did, and Henry we able to row under the bridge, towing the Teasel quite easily. Hunter’s Yard, who own Lullaby, who played the Teasle, could not bring her down for the weekend as she had been leased out with other boats, but they sent her transom, painted with her stage name.

'TEASEL'

Robin Richardson owns the ‘Slipstream’ class dinghy called Spindrift who played Shooting Star in the serial. She was built by her father but couldn’t be with us as they were not able to complete her winter maintenance in time but Richard Hattersley said she came tenth in this year’s Three Rivers race when only 15 of the 98 entries actually finished. It’s a 24 hour endurance challenge, which they completed despite light winds. He sent me this shot, ‘of her battling it out with much larger Thames A Raters.’

Spindrift a Slipstream class dinghy

I was shown a wonderful black and white photograph of the vessel used to play the Cachalot. She was skippered in the series by the film actor Sam Kelly in the role of the unnamed pike fishermen who the Death and Glory boys simply called ‘Sir’. She is seen here with John Boswell, her real owner who has sadly passed away. His son, the artist Patrick Boswell, brought along an album of behind-the-scenes photos.

The theme of the weekend was ‘Boats of the 1930s’. I explained how Swallow, the dinghy used in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ originally came from Burnham-on-Sea where she was made by W. King and Sons to be used as a run-a-round boat. She was stabilised by a keel that ran the length of the hull, as Ransome described. It makes her rather difficult to turn. You can sail her today and is in the Lake District right now. Please see Sailransome for details.

There was quite a bit of interest in memorabilia from the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I bought along the white elephant flag captured from Captain Flint’s houseboat in the 1974 film, which was approved by a young Amazon pirate.

After a celebratory dinner, David and Nicky Talbot invited me to spend the night in the comfortable for’ard cabin of Kingfisher, a 1970’s motor yacht moored at the club.

I woke early on the Sunday morning to find mist hanging above the water as the sun was rising on what proved to be another sunny day with a fair wind for sailing.

After breakfast aboard, I was invited out in the 1930s river cruiser ‘Water Rail’, who had also appeared in the serial. We took her down the River Bure to her mooring in Horning where she is still part of the scene.

It was wonderful to be out on the waterways of Norfolk, passing traditional buildings. This was a stretch of river never featured in the television drama as Rosemary Leach, who played Mrs Barrable, took Dick and Dorothea from Wroxham to Horning in a trap pulled by Rufus the pony. One reason for this was that in 1983 we had to use the North Norfolk Steam Railway, since Wroxham Station had been modernised but Joe Waters, the producer, said he wanted to add variety by featuring a pony rather than a motorboat.

IMG_6885

We encountered a number of period cruisers, although Janca, who we used to play the Hullabaloos’ Margoletta, sadly could not be with us, as she is still under repair.

IMG_6912

However, by motoring into Horning ourselves, we passed The Swan Inn and Horning Staithe where a number of scenes had been shot, including some that featured Julian Fellowes and Sarah Crowden, playing the hated Hullabaloos. You can see photographs of them in an earlier post here.

~Horning in Norfolk showing The Swan Inn and Horning Staithe where boats are moored~

Another vessel that interested me was a river launch that reminded me of the 1901 steamboat Daffodil, which I renovated with my father in 1978. I have photographs of her here.

IMG_6903

You can read more about the traditional boats used in the series by clicking here.

Gerry Spiller, has written from Woodbridge in Suffolk, to say that she has found an oar labelled TITMOUSE, bought at a boat jumble. Could this date from the early 1930? Does anyone have the pair?

Blade labelled TITMOUSE

 

The DVD of the serial is now available on a re-mastered DVD, available from Amazon here

(Do not be tempted by the old version with a more colourful cover as the image quality is very poor)

New DVD of 'Coot Club and The Big Six'

Additional photographs by Richard Hattersly

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Filed under 1983, Arthur Ransome, boating, Dinghy sailing, sailing film, Sophie Neville, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, Uncategorized

Longing to add more stories to ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’

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:

Cross flags at Rusland Church where the Ransomes are buried - photo Sophie Neville

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 in the camera box~ 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.

Contact sheet - Ronald Fraser with Lesley Bennett

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.’ 

Contact sheet - Claude Whatham directing on the houseboat

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.

Contact sheet - Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville on Cormorant Island

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.

Contact sheet - blurred images of Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville rowing to Cormorant Island

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.’

Contact sheet - Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton night sailing

Please let me know if you have any points of interest that I could add to ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ that you think might of interest to readers. The great thing about ebooks is that they can be updated and re-loaded free of charge.

I’m going to be giving a number of talks on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ this summer. Please click here for details.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, British Film, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Family Film, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, filmography, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, sailing film, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, Titty in Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized, Vintage Film, Zanna Hamilton

Meeting up with Mate Peggy from the 1974 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – part three

Lesley Bennett as Peggy in 1974

~Lesley Bennett playing Mate Peggy in 1974 (copyright:StudioCanal)~

When I met up with Lesley Bennett in the Netherlands this summer, she kindly allowed me to take copies of the snaps she took while filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on location in the Lake District in the summer of 1973.

Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett in life jackets~Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett in 1973 (photo: Lesley Bennett)~

The shot above shows Lesley with Kit Seymour, who played her elder sister Nancy Blackett, wearing blue tracksuits and BOAC life-vests over their costumes. I instantly recognised that they were sitting on the east shore of Coniston Water waiting to cross over to Peel Island. Lesley is wearing Peggy Blackett’s distinctive red-stocking hat. We never saw the life-jackets inflated.

Lesely Bennett's photo of the double decker buses at Bank Ground Farm in 1973~Old London Routemaster buses in 1973 (photo: Lesley Bennett)~

Throughout the seven weeks filming, we children were obliged to continue with our schooling. The law stipulated that we completed at least three hours of lessons a day. These were given to us by a local supply teacher, our tutor Margaret Causey, in the bottom of a converted Routemaster bus. We changed into our costumes on the top deck where there were six bunk beds. My mother made me take a rest after lunch. Lesley, who at thirteen, was a year older than me, was allowed out to play.

The other double-decker bus, seen here parked behind Mrs Batty’s barn at Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, had been fitted out with tables and was used as a dinning room where the film crew could shelter from the rain. They took their lunch on trays from the caterers’ van manned by chef John Englewood and his assistant Margaret Wells from Pinewood Studios. We only had a few scenes with a large number of film extras, but these were recorded on sunny days when nobody needed to eat in the buses.

Lesley's photo of Jane Grendon at Rio~Behind the scenes in Bowness in 1973 (photo: Lesley Bennett)~

Lesley managed to take this shot of our chaperone, Jane Grendon, dressed in 1929 costume. This was not only fun but enabled her to look after children taking part in the Rio scenes shot at Bowness-on-Windemere while appearing in vision herself.

IMG_4969~Bowness Bandstand in 1973 (photo: Lesley Bennett)~

The Price family ran Oaklands Guesthouse in Ambleside where Lesley and I stayed for the duration of the filming, along with the other children in the cast. Jane Price and her brothers can be seen here with the Kendal Borough Band playing beyond them wearing their own period uniforms. Mr Price, who looked quite snazzy in his striped blazer, played the part of the native on the jetty who said, ‘That’s a nice little boat you’ve got there.’ If you do not remember this it’s because the scene was cut from the television version, although it remains in the 40th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray that is widely available. Sadly the bandstand no longer exists and has been replaced by a modern shelter.

Zena Ashberry also took part as a film extra in these scenes when she was a girl. Her maiden name was Khan and although she lived in Cumbria her father originated from the sub-continent. She wrote in saying:

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.

Zena Ashberry's photo of Rio

~filming in Bowness in 1973 (photo: Zena Khan)~

Zena kept this photo which shows the ice cream seller, Jane Grendon in her blue costume, possibly her daughter Jo Grendon in turquoise shorts and Michael Grendon along with the 35mm Panavision camera and film crew on the jetty where Swallow is moored to the right of frame. I don’t know who the lady in red can be – but do write in if you know!

For previous posts about filming in Bowness-on-Windermere that day, please click here

You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’, which can be ordered from your local library.

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Meeting up with Mate Peggy – part two

Amazons meet the Swallows

The Amazons confronting the Swallows on Peel Island in the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

In the feature film ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) the part of Peggy Blackett was played by Lesley Bennett. She was an experienced dingy sailor and enjoyed the scenes on the houseboat although she told me she didn’t want the parrot to flap onto her shoulder, which was understandable. Its claws dug into mine.

Sophie Neville with Lesely Bennett and a green parrot in 19730003

~Sophie Neville as Titty with the green parrot and Lesley Bennett as Peggy~

When I met up with Lesley in the Netherlands this summer, we looked though the photographs she’d been given by the producer and kept for posterity.

Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett at Brown Howe boathouse on Coniston Water in 1973

If you don’t recognise the scene above it is because, although the  shot was taken at Brown Howe, where the Amazon boathouse can be found, they were rehearsing the scene at Secret Harbour on Peel Island when the Blacketts find their boat has been captured. ‘She can’t have drifted against the wind.’ This was the first I knew of this. Perhaps they were waiting around for the camera to be set up or for a decision to be made about their red hats, which they were not wearing. This was rare. They wore them in every other scene.

The Amazons sailing on Derwentwater

Lesley didn’t have much time for Ronald Fraser, who played her Uncle Jim, renamed by Titty as Captain Flint. “He wasn’t very nice to us. I think he regarded us as a bit of a nuisance but as soon as the cameras were on him, he’d change!”

Ronald Fraser with Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour on Peel Island, Coniston Water in 1973

Lesley, who grew up in Kent, remembered my mother taking her shopping in Ambleside on one of our rare days off. “She had an appreciation of how important it is to buy a good top, explaining that she needed a selection for her work as a television presenter. I remember her waiting for ages while I tried on one after another.” I was amazed when I heard this. My mother only ever took me shopping once or twice when the first Laura Ashley shop opened in Cheltenham. This was deeply exciting but a rare treat. It was my poor father who was dragged from one shoe shop to another. It was difficult to find decent shoes in the ‘seventies.

Leaving London for the Lake District in May 1973 – photo Evening Standard

It was difficult to find decent clothes, that didn’t cost a fortune. There was a reason why dressmaking was so popular – we had to make our own garments. At the age of twelve I made a navy blue skirt for school so that it had a fashionably broad waist band. Flared dungarees were all the rage, worn with a stripy polo-neck or blouse with a large collar. Kit, Lesley and I all wore these, although sadly my brushed-cotton dungarees grew rather short during the filming.

Lesely Bennett's visit to Chiddingstone School's Boat Fair in 1974

Lesley signing autographs at the Chiddingstone School Book Fair in 1974

Lesley managed to find what I’d thought was the ideal outfit for our afternoon film premiere, which I’m pretty sure she is wearing in the shot above. Although we were almost obsessed with clothes, they were not a subject people discussed with new acquaintances, which was a pity as it would have provided us something neutral to discuss with the press.

“I remember the journalists at the hotel in the Lake District,” Lesley said, “and Claude saying, ‘Be careful what you say to journalists because they will turn it against you.'” However, when it came to film publicity Lesley was both enthusiastic and gracious turning up at a local school book fair and posing for newspaper photographers. I can see that tank-tops had come in by this time and it was possible to blow-dry your own hair.

Lesley Bennett in 1974

Lesley enjoyed drama at school and looked into going to RADA, but after auditioning for one film decided the acting profession was too precarious. I think we were both interviewed for parts, possibly the same part in the same film. It was set in Wales and involved rock climbing. I said I wasn’t scared of heights, which was a lie! Sadly it was never made. I told her that Ronald Faser wanted us both to appear in another movie but that the funding fell through. She wasn’t disappointed. I was able to tell her that there was an actress called Lesley Bennett of about our age who once had a part in the long-running soap opera ‘Coronation Street’ but she confirmed that this was not her.

Lesley always loved meeting people wanted to travel, so went into marketing, working for Unilever on the first ‘Just one Cornetto’ campaign. She later branched out into international event management, which took her all over the world. She married a tall Dutchman and has two grown sons. They have a policy of visiting a different place each holiday, there by exploring different places, and they lived in Dubai for a while before returning to the Netherlands where she has been based since the early 1980s.

The cast of Swallows and Amazons with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in 1973

Lesley looks back fondly on what she calls “The Swallows and Amazons era”, appreciating what recollections mean to those who have grown up with the movie and enjoy Arthur Ransome’s books. “Innocent films like ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) appeal to those who know exactly how the books were written.” One thing she kept was the original film poster. Here she is with it more than forty-three years after the release. And she hasn’t changed a bit.

Lesley Bennett, 2017

Lesley today, with her original film poster of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

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Meeting up with Peggy Blackett – from the film ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974)

Lesley Bennett in 1973

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:

With Virginia McKenna on the first day of filming

~A publicity shot featuring Virginia McKenna, with Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton, published in the Guardian and other newspapers~

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.

To be continued….

 

 

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A Little Bit of Film History

Contact sheet - Sophie Neville with Amazon's anchor

~ Titty with Amazon’s anchor ~

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.

Contact sheet - finding Titty in Amazon

~ The Swallows find Titty sleeping in Amazon near Cormorant Island ~

Contact sheet - Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville sailing Amazon

~ Titty and Susan sail Amazon back to Wild Cat Island ~

Contact sheet sailing Swallow & Amazon in 1973

~ Sailing Swallow and Amazon on Derwentwater ~

Contact sheet - sailing Swallow & 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 Making of Swallows & Amazons contact sheet - both boats

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.

Sophie Neville pulling up Amazons' anchor

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.

Contact sheet - filming Swallow

~ 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.

9780718894962_cover Amazons.indd

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Questions about filming ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) and tips for camping

3rd June 2017, marked the 50th Anniversary of Arthur Ransome’s death – a day to remember his books and the inspiration they have brought to our lives, not least since he encouraged the pursuit of outdoor activites such as sailing and camping, along with reading, writing and keeping a ship’s log. I’m not sure what he’d think of some of the conversations I’ve had about Swallows and Amazons but at least his well-loved story is being talked about.

Last time I gave a Q&A about the 1974 movie of ‘Swallow and Amazons’ at a cinema, I was interviewed by the actress Diana Quick, which was wonderful as she was so easy to talk to. She asked a few questions that have not come up before.

 

Did you children feel the film was like the book?

Very much so, I’d read most of the books in the series and ‘Swallows and Amazons’ twice. Richard Pilbrow, the producer was aiming to keep as close to the Arthur Ransome’s well-known story as possible. I never saw David Wood’s script, but simply sung out Titty’s dialogue from my Puffin paperback. It was amazing to find ourselves in Secret Harbour, just has Ransome had depicted it. We were rather disappointed that the storm scene was cut but could appreciate that ‘you can’t have everything’.

 

How much time did you have to get to know one another?

Not long, only two or three days. The weather wasn’t that good but we were taken out sailing which was fun and Virginia McKenna was wonderful at getting us to play games that broke the ice. We played consequences with folded strips of paper, the results of which made us laugh a great deal.

Would you have felt able to take a boat out as Titty does, on your own at night?

Yes, I managed to launch Amazon and row her out of Secret Harbour in one take, but I was aged twelve, rather than nine, which is Titty’s age in the book. Amazon was a very easy dinghy to handle and had been used in the BBC serial made in 1962, when Ransome was alive.

Although he claimed to have read ‘Swallows and Amazons’ forty-two times, David Blagdon, our sailing director, forgot that Titty was meant to sail Amazon back to Wild Cat Island, so I never practiced taking the helm, or sailing her alone. In the end the Mate Susan took my place, which I felt was a bit of a shame as in the book Titty sailed her back with John crewing.

It is interesting that Titty, the most adventurous character was played by you who have gone on to lead an adventurous life.

It may be partly the way I’d been raised. My father grew up reading the first editions of Ransome’s books in the 1930s and we often went camping as a family, certainly every summer holiday. My mother still goes camping at the age of eighty.

Perhaps the director, Claude Whatham recognised an adventurous spirit. I always need to see around the next corner. I was hugely inspired to travel by my father and by friends at university, particularly Alastair Fothergill who has spent his whole life travelling while making wildlife films, most recently African Cats, Chimpanzee, Bears and Monkey Kingdom for DisneyNature.

Have you got any tips for camping?

Yes! There is an art to camping:

  • You can always fill a metal water bottle with hot water at night and use it as a hot-water bottle in your sleeping bag. If you get thirsty later you can always take a drink without having to get up.
  • I usually keep my clothes for the next day with me in my sleeping bag so they stay warm and dry.
  • It’s important to keep tents clean. Never brush your hair inside a tent and never let anyone step of the fly sheet when they are folding it up otherwise you risk having footprints on the ceiling.
  • Make sure you keep a supply of dry firewood.
  • There are dangers to camping: always set down a cup on the ground before filling it with boiling water from a kettle. It is too easy to get burnt by super-heated water if you hold it.
  • I pack a leather glove or pot holders for cooking over camp fires.
  • Take care about where you place knives, barbeque grids or pans as it is easy for others to tread on them in the dark.
  • Make sure your torch is in the same place every night. I keep a small torch in my washbag.
  • Take a hair-dryer. If there is ever an electricity supply you can use it to heat your tent or dry out wet clothes and sleeping bags. We got soaked riding through New Zealand once but arrived at a sheep shears’ shed and found great comfort in drying our socks. I gave this task to rather an annoying German man who took such pride it doing the job thoroughly that he regained our respect on a number of levels.
  • Enjoy every moment.

If anyone has any questions, please leave a comment below.

If you would like to read more about my current adventures please click here

StudioCanal hold a vast selection of the best photographs from ‘Swallow and Amazons’ in their libray and have an on-line shop here.

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‘Swallows and Amazons’ launch of the 2016 film on DVD and Blu-Ray

The new Harbour Pictures film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ starring Rafe Spall, Andrew Scott and Kelly Macdonald is now available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK.

Saga are giving away one copy on Blu-ray. Please go to the Saga Facebook page and follow the instructions – you just might win the prize draw!

or you can attempt to win a copy by entering their prize draw competition on Twitter, which you can reach by entering the #SwallowsandAmazons into your Twitter search box.

You can order the film from Amazon by clicking here (also available from other outlets).

It makes a great Christmas present.

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