It is aways wonderful to hear how the film of Swallows and Amazons has effected people’s lives. I have just had such an interesting e-mail from Australia that I asked if I could post hit here. I only wish that Claude Whatham was alive to read it.
Did anyone else know about the the clock on the mantelpiece at Bank Ground Farm?
I can not tell you how much I am enjoying your website. I’ve searched for scraps of material regarding the making of Swallows and Amazons for decades, but you post more information in one day than I gleaned in a lifetime. It’s a fabulous insight, and one I really appreciate.
I became a film-maker largely because of Swallows and Amazons. I’ve written a small piece about this, which is going to be published in a promo for one of my film-making books. As a nine year old, I stumbled across Wild Cat Island just days after seeing the film. I was so thrilled to be standing where the film had been made, and so excited to see how clever use of the camera could exaggerate the feeling of a location and capture the magic of performance, that I set out to discover everything I could about film. It was a life-changing moment.
My daughters (5 and 7) adore Titty, and we are all impressed by your acting. I’ve directed my girls in a couple of things, and I know they gained confidence from having seen you perform. When Tabitha, my eldest daughter, saw the film for the first time, she burst into tears at the end. It was a release of pure joy, and is testament to the quality of the film.
I live in Australia now, but returned to the island in 2010 with Tabitha and Harriet (rowing all the way from the other end of the lake). We stayed at Bank Ground Farm. This months we went back and were lucky enough to sail Swallow into the Secret Harbour. It was a windy October day, and quite a frantic sail, but I can honestly say it was one of the highlights of my life.
When reading your recent post about set dressing at Bank Ground Farm, I wondered if you’d noticed that the clock on the mantlepiece is still there. It’s on the other mantlepiece, I believe, but it is still there. I have no idea whether it is a prop that was left behind, or whether the film-makers used the clock that belonged to the farm.
Our set designer or ‘Art Director’ on Swallows and Amazons was Simon Holland. He worked tirelessly with his assistant Ian Whittaker and team of Prop men, making every effort to use absolutely authentic props and set dressing. It must have involved quite a bit of research. Holly Howe, for instnace would not have had mains electricity or back in 1929, so he made sure oil lamps were on set. These would have been modified by the Sparks so that it looked as if they lit the room in those evening scenes when we were busy packing.
The people of the Lake District still remember Simon asking if he could buy old tins of food. It seemed such an unusual request. When it came to making labels for the cans of ‘Pemmican’ he painted them himself ~
Simon had worked as the set dresser on the thriller Callan starring Edward Woodward, that we all saw in 1974. He had earlier been the Art Director on Bartleby, which featured Paul Scholfield with John McEnery in the title role. Swallows and Amazons must have been one of his first features. He was only thirty-two that summer of 1973.
Simon Holland went to to work on well known movies such as Equus, Greystoke, Quadrophenia, The Sleeping Dictionary set in Sarawakand Tales of the Riverbank which starred Stephen Fry as the Owl and Miranda Hart as Miss March. He sadly died in 2010 at the age of 70 but will be remembered fondly by us all.
I have found the entry that Suzanna wrote in her diary at this time when we were filming at Bank Ground Farm. She drew a picture of the blue and white checked dress she wore and drescribed an interview with a reporter.
This is the newspaper clipping that Suzanna stuck in her dairy that featured Virginnia McKenna and the six of us children in one of the old motors that Simon Holland found to dress the Railway Platform set at Haverthwaite Station on the first day of filming.
Ext : Ulverston Railway Station ~ filmed at The Haverthwaite Railway Station
On the first day of making the original movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in May 1973, a huge effort was made to ‘dress’ Haverthwaite Railway Station, at the southern end of Windermere. The aim was to bring across the feel of a bustling 1929 holiday destination. Local people had been previously fitted with costumes in the Ambleside Church Hall, there was a horse and cart, porters’ trolleys laden with trunks and a number of old bikes, which were all of great interest to us.
Having stepped down from the steam locomotive, where the Times photographer must have taken this shot, we children were piled into an open-topped period vehicle, for further publicity photographs. I liked sitting on the car but thought the photograph was silly, especially since Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett, who played the Amazons, were wearing ordinary clothes rather than period costumes. The result was later published in both The Guardian and Woman’s Realm. Virginia McKenna was interviewed by journalists while we were hurried away to get on with our lessons. Our tutor taught us Art. I drew the a picture of the motor car.
The yellow motor used in the film for our taxi was superb. I can only imagine it was far grander than a real Lakeland taxi would have been. Sten, playing Roger, hung out of the window as the director, Claude Whatham, ‘filmed us driving out of the station, along the platform at top speed,’ as I recorded in my diary.
Ext: Holly Howe ~ filmed at Bank Ground Farm by Coniston Water
Arriving at Holly Howe in the yellow taxi was truly exciting. It was not filmed the next day, as I think rain had set in. Claude waited for good evening light. But I remember the thrill of drawing up outside the farmhouse in the old car and pulling on my hat as we spilled out and ran past the big farm horses Mr Jackson was leading into the yard. I’m afraid our OOV (out of vision) dialogue was added later.
If you ever go to Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, named Holly Howe by Arthur Ransome in his books, you must run down the field to the lake as we did. As soon as you arrive. And at top speed. And you will be filled by the same feeling of elation as we were when we played the Walker children.
The slope, formed by glacial scouring and subsequent deposits long ago, is steeper than you think. You soon learn the art of glaumphing at which I became adept. What struck me when I returned to Bank Ground Farm one Spring, was that sadly the great trees have gone from around the old farm gate and the boatsheds down by the lake. They must simply have reached the end of their lives.
Ext: Peak at Darien ~ filmed by Derwent Water
Most Arthur Ransome devotees will know that the Peak at Darien, where once stood stout Cortez, is familiar to readers as it appears in two of the illustrations in the book. Sadly it can not be found below the farm. Mrs Ransome said that you could find the headland on Windermere. In April 2011, when I was on an early recce with Nick Barton, CEO of Harbour Picture Productions, we did pass one promising spot:
However Richard and Claude chose Friar’s Crag on Derwent Water for the location. I didn’t know it but Christina Hardyment writes in her excellent book, Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint’s Trunkthat they had found the very place Ransome had in mind, “without the slightest idea that they were quite right to be doing so.” She found that Ransome had marked up postcard of Friar’s Peak for his illustrator Clifford Webb to work from in 1930. It feels completely right when you are there, with the iconic view of an island under the towering mountains. It was over a shot of this that they added the opening titles.
Sout Cortez, however, was not there. Neither were we children. By the time we had been transported from Coniston to Derwent Water for this scheduled scene the sun was going down. We’d been delayed by the make-up artist who was determined to tone down the tans we had developed. This took ages. He used a very small sponge. My mother was frustrated as she thought that this would never have shown up, but he put his foot down with the result that we were ‘late on set’ for the evening shots. Claude Whatham was very cross about it.
One of the big secrets of the film ~
One of the big secrets of the film is that the sequence when we run up to the Peak at Darien and first set eyes on the island in the lake was shot under an oak tree in Runnymede, near the River Thames. We were not an island at all. It must have been an expensive ‘pick-up shot’, but we enjoyed meeting up again immensely. Claude had made an effort to gather together the same crew members and I was back in my lovely silk dress once more. We knew how to act by then and the joy of being together again shows on our faces. The result was a scene to set the film off on the right foot. We were jubilant and so excited, that, like swallows, we could have taken flight.
The opening titles ~
I would have to check with Richard Pilbrow to be certain but I think that Simon Holland, the Art Director, penned the SWALLOWS and AMAZONS graphics for the opening titles. I remember a discussion about the font type. A very fashionable script used on the poster of the film was favoured. I said that I thought they ought to use the handwritten capitals that Clifford Webb had penned on the map in the opening cover of the book and copied by Simon Holland (and me) on our chart. This was chosen.
The Seventies’ font, above, had been used for the titles of Lionel Jefferey’s movie The Railway Children, which starred Jenny Agutter. As a viewer I felt that this soon dated it, whilst Swallows and Amazons sailed onto our television screens in the 1980’s and 1990’s, indeed into the 21st century, without being spoilt by what became most unfashionable graphics. Of course now that particular retro font is all the rage. For sometime a DVD has been available which gives you both films.
Arthur Ransome’s book was adapted for the big screen by David Wood. The first time I saw this script was early in 2011 when my mother pulled it from the back of a wardrobe. It’s really only now that I fully appreciate how beautifully it was crafted.
The opening scenes ~
The film opens with a shot of a steam train passing through Cumbria. This does not feature in the book but was a powerful first image and good way of introducing the Walker family, setting the period and the very Englishness of travelling up to the Lake District for the summer holidays. It was a wonder that this was possible; The Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway , with it’s restored steam train, had only been open and running for two weeks ~ on 2nd May 1973 to be precise. It was a private concern run by a bunch of enthusiasts on the old Furness Railway branch line. The engine was a Fairburn 2-6-4 tank locomotive of 84 tons, of approximately 1930s vintage, standard guage and coloured black-berry black
~ The crossings out were made by my mother, in the tradition of marking a scene that has been recorded ~
What I never knew until I read the third scene today was that we added quite a bit of dialogue. I can’t remember if it was improvised or given to me by Claude but I said quite a bit more than was scripted, and recoded the fact in my diary.
The railway carriage ~
Claude Whatham was keen to shoot the film in ‘story order’ as much as possible as he thought this would be easiest for us to comprehend. INT.RAILWAY CARRIAGE. DAY was, however, a difficult scene to execute. Once the railway carriage contained movie lights, the director, a huge 35mm Panavision camera, the cameraman and assistant, with microphones and an assistant sound recordist there wasn’t any room for me. When it came round to the shots of me I had to give my lines to imaginary family members. They were no longer there – the camera had taken their place. It also got extremely hot.
Story order ~
I look back on all this now and feel our opening performances, so vital to capture the audiences attention, were understandably rather wooden. Later on, when I was directing films that featured children I tried to schedule unimportant, ‘running around scenes’, which were easy for them, so that they could get used to working with the crew before tight close-ups were required. I found that even six year-olds were unfazed by recording scenes out of story order, in fact they were probably less disorientated than the adults.
With Virginia McKenna’s magazine, our picnic and Susan’s tapestry the matter of continuity in this scene was important. We greatly enjoyed learning about this technicality, so vital if the shots that make up the scene are to cut together smoothly. Numerous Polaroid shots were involved, which was exciting as these cameras had not been around for long and we enjoyed watching the photographs develope. We did our best to be helpful and keep an eye on the picnic, but somehow it all went wrong. The continuity in this opening scene is out. This probably because Sue Merry, the Continuity Girl could not get in – into the railway carriage, that is. There was simply no room for her.
A transcript of the entire screenplay of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) can be found by clicking here
…And so we spent the Sunday before the filming began sailing. I’m afraid I can’t remember a thing about it. I imagine we sailed out from the Kirkstone Foot Hotel on Lake Windermere.
I’ve always felt the cold. Back then I only had a terrible blue nylon anorak that I don’t think enabled me to enjoy the sailing, which is such a pity. I seemed to have got very cold even when sailing with the wind.
The Amazon has a centre board and was always a much faster boat than Swallow. It proved a bit of a problem during the filming as she always gained more distance when the director wanted a shot with both dinghies sailing together. But, even as old boats with very limited sail, they can go at quite a lick. I remember both were difficult to turn unless you did have a bit of speed up. Swallow’s long keel makes her roomy and stable but I sailed her recently and she’s not a boat that wants to go home. I’m used to modern rudders now, whereas Swallow and Amazon have shallow ones shaped like the letter ‘b’.
We had lunch with Virginia McKenna who was to play our Mother, Mrs Walker. She was sweet and so enthusiastic about what we were doing. I remember that she made a great effort to entertain us at the hotel, instigating games of Consequneces, which we adored. We roared with laughter as she read out the results.
As my father said recently, Virginia McKenna was completely right to play the part of a Naval Commander’s wife. A darling of the British public she is, and was, the star who carried the film. I knew her from having loved the animal movies she’d been in ~ Ring of Bright Water, An Elephant Called Slowly, Born Free and my favorite wartime story A Town Like Alice, for which she won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress.She was also nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Violette Szabo in the WWII story Carve Her Name With Pride and played Julie Hallam in The Cruel Sea, another superb wartime classic. Married to Bill Travers she had four children of her own by the time she made Swallows and Amazons. I don’t know how she managed to do so much, all with with so much grace and time for others.
Claude Whatham, the director, Richard Pilbrow, the producer and David Blagden, the sailing director were with us, along with Mum and Jane Grendon, Sten’s mother who was our other chaperone. Neville Thompson, the Associate Producer who was in charge of the budget and schedule, was also with us that first weekend. He later worked on the Mosquito Coast, Time Bandits, Sharpe’s Rifles and produced The Missionary with Michael Palin. He must have been a good man to have on board.