Auditioning to play the part of Titty Walker in the original film of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Fifty years ago this day, auditions were being held at 10 Long Acre near Leicester Square in London for parts in the original film of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ produced by Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Projects with the help of Neville C Thompsom and financed by Anglo EMI Films. It was to star Dame Virginia McKenna, but the leading roles were all for children under the age of thirteen who needed to be able to row and sail.

Producer Richard Pilbrow with Neville C Thompson on Derwentwater in the Lake District in 1973
Richard Pilbrow and Neville C Thompson in the Lake District in 1973

I recently received a Tweet from the award-winning author Wendy Clarke who wrote: Funnily enough (many, many years ago) I auditioned for the film role of Titty Walker… I would have been 12 then. I didn’t belong to a sailing club and couldn’t sail! Amazed I got the audition!’

When I asked if she could tell me more, she replied: ‘I have next to no memory of the day so wouldn’t have very much to say about it! I’m seeing my mum tomorrow and have asked her to bring her 1973 diary!’ Here it is:

Wendy Clarke’s mother, Joy Matthews, kept a diary every day of her life

‘This is where I went for the audition apparently. Was that the same place as you?’

It was! I remember the actual room.

Wendy explained that her mother, Joy Matthews, ‘has written a diary every day since I can remember (even if it’s just to say what the weather was like). Over the years it’s been very useful. She is now 91. I think this was the photo we sent!’

Wendy Clarke, aged 12, who auditioned for a part

I’ve just been reading your post and laughing at the escapades during the shooting of S&A. Can I really picture myself in your shoes… if I’m honest, no! I would have been too much of a scary cat. Especially when the mast broke!

A friend of mine also auditioned for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ but she couldn’t remember any details. Simon West, who ended up being cast as Captain John, told me that he met Richard and Neville for a first audition at his sailing club. His sister, Ginny, who was keen on acting, spotted a notice, but his father was amazed when he said he would also like to be considered for a role in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Aged eleven, he was a little young for the part of John, but he was bright, practical with a passion for sailing. Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett, who would eventually play the Amazons, also heard about the opportunity at their respective sailing clubs. Richard Pilbrow was very keen to find children who could sail and were able to swim well.

Wendy wrote: ‘Second interview… so I couldn’t have done too badly! (Probably still hadn’t mentioned the small matter of not being able to sail)… I may not have got the part but least I got to go to Madame Tussauds and the Planetarium!’

My parents only received a letter asking if I would like to be considered for a part on 26th March 1973. It was addressed to my father who was on an export mission to South Africa and the envelope lay unopened in our hall for a while. Luckily it was printed with the Theatre Projects logo and Mum did open it. We collected Dad from Heathrow and drove straight to Leicester Square and walked through China Town. I remember Claude looking rather intense as he asked me questions. He wanted to know what my favourite television progamme was. I don’t think he asked me to read anything, which was just as well as I would have been hopeless. Did he ask if I could row or sail? I might have told him that I could swim well, as I’d just gained a bronze life saving medal, one of my few achievements to date.

I too was taken to Madam Tausauds when the ticket took you to the neighbouring Planetarium as a double bill. We possibly went after another visit to London for ‘Swallows and Amazons’.

Wendy returned to Theatre Projects’s offices in Long Acre for a third interview. She was doing well:

I was fortunate in that I’d worked for Claude Whatham in 1971 when he had cast me as Eileen Brown in the first BBC adaptation of Laurie Lee’s book ‘Cider With Rosie’, set in the 1920s. We later found out that Claude liked working with actors like Brenda Bruce who he had employed on previous occasions. I’m not sure when he joined the production of ‘Swallows and Amazon’ but it could have been late in the day as he was the second director taken on board.

Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham

We were told that 1,800 children had been considered for the six parts in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Most of them had been members of sailing clubs. Claude had not wanted to visit stage schools but Suzanna Hamilton, who was cast as Mate Susan, had been going to the Anna Scher after school Theatre Club in Islington, which he may have visited. I had first met him at a drama club in Stroud in Gloucestershire in 1971.

Our final audition was held afloat, when about twenty children spent a weekend on a scout boat at Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex. This can’t have been an easy location for my parents to get to but Richard and Claude wanted to see how confident we all were on the water. We were taken dinghy sailing in wet and windy conditions. I remember Kit and her twin sister Alison Seymour facing the waves without a qualm. Richard bought his children Abigail and Fred along and I knew Sten Grendon who had also been in ‘Cider With Rosie’. We might have travelled to Essex together. The five girls up for the part of Titty all shared a cabin. I thought I was too old, too tall and too gangly. We were not aware of a screen test but Richard’s assistant Molly took super 8 cine footage.

Meanwhile, Wendy Clarke had been taken to Cumbria by her parents: ‘We’d gone to the Lake District to get a feel for it. Hadn’t heard anything about interview so Mum rang and, as she so very succinctly put, ‘that’s that’. That made me laugh.’

I noticed they had been to see the waterfall where we eventually shot a scene on the way to visit the charcoal burners.

Wendy wrote: ‘That May, mentioned in Mum’s diary extract, was my very first time in the Lake District. It was only years later, in my forties, that I visited again and fell in love with it. Maybe I’m destined to sail that boat after all! So lovely to ‘meet’ you (even though I probably hated you at the time for taking my part (which I would have been rubbish at anyway!) x

Wendy Clarke, whose website can be found here

‘My husband has just said, ‘why did you not tell me any of this?’ I was probably just relieved I didn’t have to get in a boat! In later life I discovered I was better at novel writing than acting!’

She added: ‘I’ve just found something else that links us. We both entered our books into the Flash Fiction Novel Opening Competition. My debut psychological thriller What She Saw, which was set in the Lake District, won it in 2017!’ I had a story shortlisted in 2022, which was encouraging.

Claude Whatham with the children he eventually cast as the Swallows

I would love to hear from others who auditioned all those years ago – do email me or leave a comment below. I have written a little more about the gaining the part from my perspective on an earlier post here.

We are approaching the 50th Anniversary of the filming, which began on 14th May 1973 – only a few weeks after my first interview. I’ve been asked to give a few talks on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, which I will detail on my Events page. You can find different editions of my books listed here

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

with an audiobook, narrated by me, Sophie Neville, available on all the usual platforms.

Launching the audiobook of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) narrated by Sophie Neville who played Able seaman Titty

In the long hot summer of 2022, I spent three days in a sound-proofed booth at Monkeynut Studios near Romsey narrating the audiobook of my memoir on the adventures we had making the 1974 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, now published in paperback by The Lutterworth Press. I found narrating the story, with all the different voices, more difficult than I had imagined but the audiobook has been beautifully produced, with sound adding a different dimension to this extraordinary filmography that resonates with the lives of so many.

Sophie Neville at Monkeynut Recording Studios

You can listen to a free sample in the Audiobook Store here

There are a number of different online retailers. It is available on Spotify:

The audiobook of The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville

Kobo have this deal:

Scribd stock it, along with a couple of articles from Practical Boat Owner, but I did not narrate those. It might be better to read them online.

You can listen to this true life story on audiobooks.com

It is also available on Google Play and from audiobookstore.com who have it on a special price here. This must be the American version:

Storytel have it for sale in rupees.

I gather it will be available on Audible but they are very slow to add books.

I hope it will take you back to that long hot summer in 1929 when the Swallows first set sail and remind you of the early 1970s when we made the original film in the days before mobile phones or computers without CGI or green screens. We literally walked into the page of the books and sang out Arthur Ransome’s immortal lines as the wind took us up Coniston Water. I hope you enjoy it.

Swallows and Amazons (1974) (c)StudioCanal

If you prefer holding a book in your hands the paperback is available from Waterstones and all online retailers.

Swallow, the dinghy that starred in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Sten Grendon as Roger and Sophie Neville as Titty rowing Swallow
(c)StudioCanal

BBC Antiques Roadshow featured Swallow, the dinghy used in the original feature film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in their first episode at Windermere Jetty repeated recently on BBC One. You can read about how she was valued by Rupert Maas on an earlier post on this blog here.

I wrote a little more about her history in an article for Practical Boat Owner, Britain’s most popular sailing magazine. The story opens in 2010, when I nearly bought her myself:

Swallow is coming up for auction,’ my father said, sending me the details of a clinker-built sailing dinghy stored in Mike Turk’s warehouse in Twickenham. It was the Spring of 2010. I took one look at the online photographs and wept.

Swallow stored in Twickenham

The letters WK were carved on her transom. It was the twelve-foot, all-purpose, run-around vessel built by William King of Burnham-on-Sea that had been purchased by Richard Pilbrow in 1973 to feature as Swallow in the original feature film of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel Swallows and Amazons.

Swallow built by William King of Burnham-on-Crouch

I knew the little ship intimately. She looked a bit dried out but my husband thought we ought to buy her. I had played the part of Able-seaman Titty, the nine year-old girl who Ransome so cleverly made into the heroine of the story when she grabbed a chance to capture the Amazon, which enabled the Swallows to win the war set to determine ‘who should be the flag-ship’. In mooring her prize overnight near Cormorant Island, Titty witnessed Captain Flint’s stolen treasure chest being buried and was eventually able to rescue it. She was rewarded by the gift of a green parrot.

‘Did you know how to sail before playing Titty in Swallows and Amazons?’ people often asked. The truth was that I had crewed for my father in a similar dinghy and felt confident in a boat. I had grown up living by a lake in the Cotswolds where we had a Thames skiff, which I was used to handling. This was important as Titty does quite a bit of rowing in the film. She and Roger become galley-slaves rowing back from the charcoal burners’, they row out to Cormorant Island and she takes the Amazon out of Secret Harbour. This I did alone, in one take, later rowing some distance from Peel Island with the lighting cameraman and his 35mm Panavision Camera onboard. No one had thought about the implications of this when we first tried out the two boats on Windermere but being aged twelve, rather than nine, I just about coped and grew adept at launching Swallow and moving about in her. As the book was written in 1929, we did not wear life-jackets.

Swallow with Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton (c) StudioCanal

Arthur Ransome described Swallow as being thirteen-foot long with a keel, rather than a centre board. In the illustrations she is painted white, a common way of protecting wood in the 1930s. I am pretty sure that Richard Pilbrow, the producer of the movie, bought the dinghy we used when we where in Burnham-on-Sea to audition for the parts in March 1973. She was varnished but had, or was given, the red-brown sail and balanced lug-sail as described in the books.

Simon West who played Captain John, aged only eleven, was a capable sailor with an understanding of the wind that enabled him to cope with gusty Lakeland conditions. Swallow had no buoyancy. In the scenes when we first sail to the island she was laden with camping gear, including heavy canvas tents, the lighthouse tree lantern and a shallow basket of kitchen utensils I shifted every time we went about.

My father Martin Neville on the shore of Coniston Water

My father was an experienced sailor, used to racing yachts having frequently crossed the Solent in his own clinker-built dinghy as a boy. He was looking after us children when he agreed to appear in costume as a ‘native’ aboard the MV Tern on Windermere, which bares down on the Swallows in the story. He watched, terrified, as we sailed towards it. The Victorian steamer only had a notch throttle and an inexperienced skipper. He realised that Claude Whatham, the film director had not anticipated the fact that we would lose our wind in the lee of the passenger ferry and gave Simon a cue over the radio that was far too late. We only just went about in time, being pushed away from the larger vessel by the bow wave. Watch the film and you can see how very close we got. I was about to reach out and feebly fend off.

Dad spoke sternly to the producer that afternoon, pointing out that we could have all gone down. Sten Grendon, who played the Boy Roger, was only aged eight and could hardly swim. I could have become entangled in the camping gear. My father tested the old BOAC life jackets we wore for rehearsals and to travel out to film locations. They failed to inflate. He nearly took me off the film.

Swallow and Amazon on the Puffin cover

Another tricky scene to film was when John, Susan and Roger set off from the Landing Place on Wild Cat Island leaving Titty to guard the camp and light the lanterns as they hoped to capture the Amazon and sail home after dark. I had push them off, grabbing the telescope at the last minute. Since Swallow’s mast was liable to catch in tree branches, I needed to wade out and give her a hard, one-handed shove. I slipped on a rock and fell up to my waste in water. Knowing it would be difficult to set up the shot a second time, I struggled to my feet and waved them off, dripping wet. By this time John had the mainsheet out as far as the knot and stood to grab the boom to avoid a Chinese gybe as Swallow was hit by a fresh gust of wind as he cleared the headland at the northern end of the island and sped northwards toward Coniston Old Man.

Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton at the helm of Swallow with Stephen Grendon in the bows, while Sophie Neville looks on from Peel Island.

Having spent nearly seven weeks filming in the Lake District, the film was post-synced at Elstree studios. We arrived to sing out our lines to find Swallow there. She had been set in a tank so that the sounds of sailing could be captured. It is something you tend to take for granted as a viewer while it draws you into the experience. I last saw Swallow looking dejected outside the studio and was worried about what had become of her. Although she was offered to someone who had advised on the film, she was kept safely at Mike Turk’s prop hire company. Richard Pilbrow was hoping to make another film in the series.

Swallow at
Swallow at Mike Turk’s store in London

When Mike retired, many boats that had featured in movies came up for auction. I knew Swallow would be costly and in need of renovation. After fans of the film and members of The Arthur Ransome Society contacted me, we clubbed together to make a bid. In the end about eighty members of a hastily formed group called SailRansome spent approximately £5,700 on the purchase.

I contacted Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, the film producer who was gaining the rights to make a new movie, hoping we could be able to re-coup costs by renting her back to him. Nick came up to Coniston Water to watch me re-launch Swallow in April 2011, sloshing brandy wine on her bow in true Ransome style. I helped him to raise finance for the new film, which was made in the summer of 2015 and released in 2016, starring Kelly Macdonald as Mrs Walker, Rafe Spall as Captain Flint and Andrew Scott as a Russian spy. In the end, he decided to use fourteen-foot RNSAs dinghies for Swallow and Amazon as they satisfied the film insurance company who demanded that two identical dinghies were used for Swallow.

This article was first published in Practical Boat Owner magazine

Joining SailRansome was pivotal for me as I was asked by the Nancy Blackett Trust and The Arthur Ransome Society to give a series of talks on how the old film, and the BBC serialization of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ was made. I ended up speaking at a number of literary festivals, on BBC Radio and even ITV’s News at Ten, promoting the societies and urging people to help get young people out on the water. I ended up taking Swallow out on Ullswater, the Orwell and River Alde, remembering how difficult she is to turn, but enjoying her speed. She ended up being featured on BBC Antiques Roadshow when I brought movie memorabilia up to Windermere Jetty museum for two episodes first screened in 2021.

Sophie Neville with Swallow on Coniston Water
Sophie Neville after re-launching Swallow on Coniston Water in 2011

You can sail Swallow yourself, in the company of an experienced skipper, by contacting SailRansome.org who are looking for volunteers to help care for her. As you can see from this clip, she was in need of restoration when first acquired by Sailransome

You can read more about the adventures we had making the original film in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)‘ by Sophie Neville, published by the Lutterworth Press, available from libraries, online retailers and to order from all good bookshops including Waterstones.

An article by Sophie Neville first published in Practical Boat Owner. A subscription to this bestselling UK magazine makes a great Christmas present.

A signed and dedicated paperback of ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’ was auctioned in aid of BBC Children in Need 2022

A book always makes a good Christmas present. This year, items in the Authors and Illustrators’ auction, raised a total of £24,061 for BBC Children in Need.

This annual online charity fundraiser is organised by Children in Read through Jumblebee. co.uk. Taking part is always great fun and offers authors a bit of publicity whilst presenting readers with the opportunity to buy a signed and dedicated book or illustration. The bidding ended on Friday 18th November.

Thank you for supporting this great cause!

How the chance of acting in the movie Swallows and Amazons began in Stroud in the Cotswolds

When I first published ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, someone left a review online saying they thought it a good idea for a novel but that it was a bit farfetched.

This amused me. It was a non-fiction book, written because the extraordinary story was true. Of all the roles, in all the novels ever written, I was asked to play Titty in Swallows and Amazons, an EMI film made in 1973 for universal distribution.

The offer came out of the blue. Within a year, I, an ordinary schoolgirl, found my image on the front of daily newspapers and on film posters pasted on the walls of the London Underground. All this happened nearly fifty years ago and yet the publicity never ends.

Swallows and Amazons (1974) now distributed by StudioCanal

Arthur Ransome, a haunted foreign correspondent, who escaped from Russia with Trotsky’s secretary, wrote Swallows and Amazons in 1929 while suffering from stomach pains so bad they prevented him from travelling. He said that the book wrote itself, but it is clear that he was self-medicating, grieving his own childhood, when he’d been longing to make friends and prove himself to his father who died when he was only thirteen.

Tweed-clad and continuously pipe-smoking, Ransome was oblivious to Lakeland weather. I acted out his almost-real fantasy in nothing but a thin cotton dress and a pair of enormous navy blue elasticated knickers. My book on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ is not a novel, not a fantasy. It is a true story. The movie is streaming on Amazon Prime where you can watch the trailer.

Why was I cast in the film? Why me? I had loved all the Arthur Ransome books I’d read in the Swallows and Amazons series, imagined myself exploring Wild Cat Island and the Great Lake in the North. Did I ever ask the Lord if I could live out the stories for myself?

The reality began in Stroud, at the Subscription Rooms. I put up my hand when someone asked if there was a ten year-old girl who could play the piano. They didn’t say, “play well.”

A young director called Claude Whatham, who lived in the Cotswold village of Camp, was looking for children to appear in the 1971 BBC adaptation of ‘Cider With Rosie’, based on Laurie Lee’s haunting memoir. He needed to find a little girl who had been to a village school near Stroud. I had attended Oakridge Parochial Church School when it was heated by pot-bellied stoves and the vicar told us Bible Stories.

I was chosen to play Eileen Brown, who shared a desk with Laurie Lee and accompanied him as he played Oh Danny Boy on his violin at the Christmas concert.

Sophie Neville in the 1971 BBC adaptation of ‘Cider with Rosie’, directed by Claude Whatham

My music arrived three days before filming began. It consisted of endless cords – a complicated accompaniment with no tune. To tackle the piece, I’d needed to practice for seven hours a day with the help of my long-suffering piano teacher from Far Oakridge.

Claude Whatham ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The director must have remembered me as a determined little girl because two years later a letter arrived, addressed to my father, only he was working in South Africa. My mother very nearly didn’t open it, however the words Theatre Projects were embossed on the envelope and she was intrigued.

But she did. We drove up from Gloucestershire to collect Dad from Heathrow and went straight to Long Acre near Leicester Square for an interview with Claude.

I was then invited to take part in a sailing audition at Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex – miles from the Cotswolds. The producer, Richard Pilbrow, was determined that any child chosen for a part knew how to sail. I had grown up beside one of the few lakes in Gloucestershire and knew how to row a Thames skiff. I’d added my own sail, made from a green dust sheet, but was no expert.

There were four other girls auditioning to play Titty. They were all smaller and prettier than me, with straight teeth. I didn’t think I was in with a chance.

The filming was to commence on 14th May 1973 and continue through the summer term. Our local authority – Gloucester County Council – needed my headmistress’ permission for me to miss five weeks of school.

Only, I didn’t go to school in Gloucestershire. I went to an Anglican convent in Berkshire. The nuns prayed about the proposition. They gave their permission – if I was chosen.

I didn’t think I was right to play Titty at all. I was three years too old and too tall. Ransome’s illustrations in the books portrayed girls with straight, dark hair. I didn’t know it but the character had been inspired by a real little girl called Titty Altounyan. I share her Scots, Irish and English heritage, but she was one quarter Armenian and had dark colouring.

However, unknown to us, Mrs Ransome had asked that ‘an English Rose’ should play Titty. Claude Whatham cast Sten Grendon, who had played Little Laurie Lee, as my younger brother Roger. Mrs Ransome – NB:the lady who once been Trotsky’s private secretary – was not happy that he had black hair. She nearly cancelled the film, but conceded when she saw him with a short-back-and-sides.

Sten Grendon as Roger and Sophie Neville as Titty rowing Swallow (c)StudioCanal

Sten claims we had the best parts. He grew up in the Whiteway Community and later went to school in Eastcombe. He now lives in France but still has family living in the Cotswolds. Back in 1973 his mother Jane, and my mother, Daphne, travelled up to the Lake District to look after us all.

Daphne Neville with Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Jane Grendon and Simon West

In at the deep end. Whoomph! We literally had to swim for it. The water was icy, but we had plenty of support. I was able to embody my part because Suzanna Hamilton, who played my sister, was so brilliant. She anchored us, as did Simon West, who played John. He was only aged eleven but very bright and a confident sailor.

Stephen Grendon as Roger Walker with Suzanna Hamilton on location in 1973

Making the film was character-building stuff. While it was an inspiration and privilege to work under arc lamps with Virginia McKenna, it was often chilly and involved a lot of hanging around.

Stephen Grendon, Simon West, Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville, trying not to look as tall as she was in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Virginia had four children of her own and brought us together as a team. While making things fun, she got us to focus and concentrate as we recorded the first scenes at Bank Ground Farm.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm
Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Arthur Ransome had been inspired as a boy by two of his aunts who left for Peking to serve as missionaries. They must have had great adventures. One even received a Boxer arrow in her bonnet. The story of Swallows and Amazons is about a family of four children on holiday who embark on something of a missionary journey themselves when they are allowed to sail off in a dinghy called Swallow to explore an island on a lake. They are confronted by two local girls, the Amazons, who are behaving badly, as their Uncle Jim has retired to his houseboat so that he can concentrate on writing his memoirs.

There is a strong undercurrent of fatherless-ness. Ransome had lost his own father before he could prove himself. The Swallows, whose father is in the Navy, come alongside the Amazons, who have lost their father and are being ignored by their uncle. They unite, make friends and have a lot of fun, whilst relishing in their independence granted because they are not duffers.

The crisis, in the story, is about the draft of a book being stolen, which I can only think must have been Ransome’s greatest fear. No one believes Titty, the youngest girl, who is sure she heard the burglars, so – in the film – she gets Roger to help her row Swallow to Cormorant Island where she finds it in what looks like a treasure chest.

Producer Richard Pilbrow with Neville C Thompson on Derwentwater in the Lake District in 1973
Producer Richard Pilbrow and Production Associate Neville C Thompson on Derwentwater in the Lake District in 1973

Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham had a tough time making the movie. Filming in the Lake District with its unpredictable weather and pressure from tourists was not easy. We faced endless problems and over-ran by two weeks.

But Mum was praying, Granny was praying, the nuns must have been praying for me – we needed the covering: I was the only girl who never fell ill. Swallow’s mast broke. I fell in. Water sloshed into a support boat. The rain poured down. We nearly crashed into the Tern. Our life jackets proved useless. There was a gas leak in our bus. We could have had an explosion. Most of the crew smoked continuously.

Sophie Neville with Daphne Neville in the Lake District
Sophie Neville with Daphne Neville in the Lake District

The behavior of some members of the film crew was pretty toxic. Many drove too fast. A cow fell on to the producer’s car. I fell out of a tree whilst playing. Suzanna cut her finger. Ronald Fraser was almost permanently pickled. Someone got hit in the eye by a baseball. The film set was vandalized and I lost a tooth halfway through filming a scene with Virginia McKenna.

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island
Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville keeping her mouth shut ~ photo: Daphne Neville

We pushed on. Ran the race with perseverance. Somehow the challenges gave the finished film an edge, an enduring quality that made it into a classic.

Sophie Neville as Titty

The crew began asking if I would go on to act. The big question: was this a calling on my life? I didn’t just play Titty. I’d been part of the production team, suggesting that Ransome-like title graphics were used, that Seymour’s voice was used for Nancy. I didn’t want to act. I wanted to become a film director.

I’d enjoyed the post production work at Elstree Studios but disliked the fuss around the cinema release. Seeing yourself on camera always feels uncomfortable. The premiere of Swallows and Amazons was daunting.

Premier ticket for the Gala of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

It was first screened at the ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue alongside The Exorcist. But look! I literally had two guardians. My mother invited the nuns from school.

The ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue in 1974. It is now the Odeon Cinema.

Sister Allyne came. She didn’t flatter me but she was there.

Sister Allyne, Daphne Neville, Tamzin Neville and Sophie Neville

Like it or not, I ended up promoting the film on television. After I featured in ‘Animal Magic’, an image of me, rowing up the lake at Bakers Mill in the Cotswolds with a green parrot on my shoulder was used to replace the test card.

I grew too tall to continue playing children on screen and there was not much money for film finance in the 1970s when inflation was roaring. Sister Allyne prepared me for a film test for a musical Disney adaptation of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ but I wasn’t chosen. The movie flopped. I returned to my lessons.

At the age of fifteen I had a leading part in an adventure film with Vic Armstrong and Sophie Ward, called ‘The Copter Kids’, and I had a few little television parts in serials like ‘The Two Ronnies’ and ‘Crossroads’ while I was a student, but the drive wasn’t there. It was just as well. I didn’t have the bone structure.

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan with Sophie Neville as Titty busy writing the ship’s log

Suzanna had a strong desire to act professionally and fought for parts. She went on to appear in Tess directed by Polanski, 1984 opposite John Hurt, Out of Africa with Meryl Streep, Whetherby with Vanessa Redgrave, Brimstone and Treacle with Sting, and a number of increasingly dark movies. She survived to appear in Casualty, New Tricks, Eastenders and is still working.

What she hated was the publicity. It’s a difficult part to any job. As she said at the age of twelve, having your photo on the front page of the Evening Standard ‘makes you felt a right twit’. She was furious with me for writing about her under sung talent in the Telegraph even though she looked beautiful in the arms of John Hurt.

I developed a burning desire to direct and went into television production. I made my first documentary for Channel 4 whilst driving from London to Johannesburg. I must have begun directing at the BBC at the age of 27 and produced my first series aged 29, but overdid it and was hammered by ill health. It was a good training. I learnt endurance, how to edit and I grew used to working to deadlines. I understood about moving the audience, cliff-hangers and bringing out books to accompany your work.

I didn’t learn to embrace the marketing aspect until I worked in the safari industry when I was assured it comprised 50% of the job. This attitude helped when I became and wildlife artist and later an author. After writing two books my readers – and my formatter – implored me to write about the making of Swallows and Amazons, especially once they learned that I had kept a diary whilst making it – as did Suzanna.

I first brought this out as a multimedia ebook, which is now in its second edition. It includes links to the cine footage my parents took on location. There are two versions of the paperback entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, seen here on the flag we captured.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

It has been a delight to figurehead a story about sailing, a pillar of childhood that has influenced so many. Parents want me to engender a love for the outdoor life, sailing and exploring the lakes and countryside.

I hope I have helped to attract the right kind of people to the Lake District, that we have been able to inspire young people to read Arthur Ransome’s books, to get out into the countryside and sail, fish, go camping, build friendships, whatever the weather.

In the footsteps of Ransome’s great aunts, I went on a Bible Society mission to China. The people we met thanked us for coming, saying they hadn’t received European visitors for forty years. ‘But we’ve seen Europeans in town.’ ‘Them? They have just come to make money, not visit us.’

Does the old film shine a light, offer solace? People write in to tell me that the film of Swallows and Amazons carried them through a difficult patch. Some watch it once a week. It exists to remind people that they need not despair.

Does the symbolism still hold? It was my self-appointed job in the screenplay to wait, alone, and light the lantern, to be a light in the darkness that could be seen for miles.

Swallows and Amazons was not made to make money. It wasn’t the producer’s motivation. Richard Pilbrow just loved the books and wanted to bring them to life. We children didn’t do it for the money. There wasn’t very much. I earned £7.50 a day and was given a book token for appearing in the Lord Mayor’s Show. Even today, StudioCanal were reluctant to pay my expenses for re-launching the 40th Anniversary DVD when we were interviewed for the Extras package.

It doesn’t matter. I have been so warmly greeted so warmly by fans of the film. I was invited to become President of the Arthur Ransome Society, and have been offered numerous opportunities to speak about my books. I’ve passed on most of my speaking fees to charity – sending disadvantaged children in South Africa on an environmental course that has literally changed their lives.

Sophie Neville speaking at The Arthur Ransome Society

The treasure Titty found wasn’t pieces of eight. It was heavy to carry, but she was rewarded for her tenacity. She was given her heart’s desire, and parrots live a long time. They can easily outlive their owners.

The author Julia Jones points out that, ‘the treasure that was finally unearthed on Cormorant Island was a book. It might or might not have been a good book but the message of the story is quite clear: if you’re convinced that there’s something hidden under the rocks, all you can do is keep digging.’ 

An extra ordinary thing happened. When Richard Pilbrow was awarded an honorary degree from he invited Suzanna and I to lunch in London. As we left the restaurant in Covent Garden a group of buskers outside where singing the final sea shanty from the film, What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? What were the chances of that? We hurried on to find transport and found ourselves outside the cinema where the premier had been held.

Something else happened to me as a result of Swallows and Amazons. Not what you might expect. We all wanted to learn to shoot with a bow and arrow. The next film role I was offered was as an archery champion. I kept up the sport, and ended up meeting my husband at a long bow meeting in the village where I was born. He was the chairman of the archery society. I won the Best Lady’s Gold. These are my colours:

Sophie Neville's bow and arrows

Proverbs 23-23 talks of wisdom, instruction and insight. My name, Sophia, means wisdom. My hope is that others gain wisdom and insight from what I have written.

You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, which is coming out as an audiobook. It will available from all the retailers and is currently on Scribd here.

The Puffin paperback copies of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

The school term is over, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is on BBC iPlayer and Christmas missives are arriving in the post. I have just been sent this homemade card from someone who came to the premier of the original film in 1974, when I was fortunate enough to play Able seaman Titty.

Image (75)

~Captain Flint hanging Christmas decorations around his houseboat on a card made from a Puffin book cover~

I dug out the Puffin paperback of Swallows and Amazons my father gave me when I was a girl and read avidly, along with other books in the series, by the time I was eleven years-old. It is a 1970’s edition in which I’d underlined everything Titty said. I must have re-read this copy when busy preparing for filming the 1974 movie financed by EMI.

'Swallows and Amazons' Puffin book cover 1970

Kaye Webb, the editor, had written an introduction saying, ‘This book is about sailing, fishing, swimming, camping, and piratical exploits.’ She wanted to make it available to children, thinking that discovering Swallows and Amazons ‘for the first time must be as exciting as a Christmas morning.’

Underneath, I’d noted down the skills I would need to acquire before playing the part of Titty. ‘Owl Hoot’, was one item, ‘wisle’ (sic) another. I was somewhat apprehensive about dancing the Hornpipe but excited about ‘being a cormorant’, having no idea how cold this experience would prove.

My 1970 Puffin edition of Swallows and Amazons

According to Trade News, 75,000 copies of a new Puffin paperback were brought out to accompany the original film. A still was used from the scene where the Swallows sail both dinghies from Cormorant Island. It retailed for 35p. Meanwhile Jonathan Cape printed 12,500 copies with the original dust jacket to accompany the release on 4th April 1974.

Swallows and Amazons 1984 Puffin book cover

Today, I am most interested in Ransome’s prose, amused to find the phrase ‘X marks the spot where they ate six missionaries’ does not appear within the pages of the book. It was given to Titty in 1973 by the screenwriter David Wood. However, there are words of wisdom a-plenty that were not used in the film adaptations:

‘I like cooking,’ said mate Susan.

‘If you want to go on liking it, take my advice and get someone else to do the washing up’, is Mother’s reply. (I wonder who might have said this in reality.)

‘You can be wide awake and not see a thing when you aren’t looking’ is one of Roger’s observations.

John was able to look back to ‘a different, distant life’, which is exactly how it feels when the excitement of Ransome’s world spoils you for the ordinary. It’s true: those involved in outdoor activities develop in leaps and bounds ending up, ‘not at all what they had been.’

What is it about Arthur Ransome’s writing that captures your imagination? Rowing? Sailing? Cooking over a camp fire? Which book has most influenced your life?

Article on Swallows and Amazons on Puffin Magazine
Article on Swallows and Amazons on Puffin Magazine

You can read about the adventures we had bringing out the original film in different versions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’, which is now available as an audiobook.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

More memories of making the original film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973 with the film actor Ronald Fraser

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.

file0001123825540

David explained that, although he lived in Ambleside at the time, 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.”

Lake District 6

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.”

Boats at Lake 2

“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.

Rydal Water Summer

“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 quite 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.

Lake Jetty 2

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.”

048

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.

file0001082631001

You can read more about David’s adventures in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available in paperback from all the usual places.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

Suzanna’s diary about filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on location in the Lake District in 1973

Suzanna Hamilton as Susan with Sophie Neville as Titty busy writing the ship’s log

Something very exciting happened last week. Suzanna Hamilton came to see me, bringing the photographs that she was given during the filming of Swallows and Amazons along with a bundle of papers. I immediately recognised the blue bound diary that she had kept.  Her God-given sense of humour fills the pages.

Although Titty was the one who always kept the ship’s log in Arthur Ransome’s stories, we children all kept journals during the filming as part of our school work. It was quite a task.

Suzanna Hamilton's Diary prior to the fiming of 'Swallows and Amazons'

Suzanna’s diary gives the story of making the film of Swallows and Amazons from the perspective of an actress, the actress she was then and ever more will be. Even before we began filming she was  getting as excited as Susan about grog and molasses, calling us by our charcter names as Claude Whatham suggested.

Suzanna Hamilton's Diary on the filming of 'Swallows and Amazons' 1973

Anna Scher ran the most wonderful children’s theatre club in Islington, which Zanna went to after school, along with Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson. I visited Anna Scher’s Theatre Club ten years later when I was casting children for the BBC drama serial of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. Although I didn’t find anyone there who could sail I held Anna Scher in huge admiration and respect, using her exercises when I was auditioning kids in Norfolk. She did so much for the young people of east London, giving children confidence with self-discipline aquired during their drama lessons and workshops.

David Wood, who wrote the screenplay of Swallows and Amazons, was already well known as an actor. Mum was rather in awe of him since he had played Johnny in Z Cars and had starred the feature film ‘If…’   alongside Malcolm McDowell. He had been a storyteller on the BBC Childrens Television programme we all adored called Jackanory.  Suzanna had been involved in the same series when E.Nesbit’s ‘The Treasure Seekers’ had been read.  She had also appeared in ‘The Edwardians’  form the book by E.Nesbit directed by James Cellan Jones in 1972. By coincidence Pauline Quirke played Eliza in ‘The Story of the Treasure Seekers’ in 1982 and I worked with her a few years later on Rockliffe’s Babies. My mother appeared in a pantomine David Wood wrote called The Gingerbread Man when it was produced at The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham. She wore red with a pill-box hat as Miss Ginger.

Suzanna Hamilton's diary of filming 'Swallows and Amazons in 1973

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker with Stephen Grendon as Roger Walker camping on Peel Island, Coniston Water in Cumbria, the Lake District

You can read more in the ebook ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974) available from Amazon Kindle and all ebook retailers.

%d bloggers like this: