This autumn, the Nancy Blackett Trust presented another screening of the classic film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ at the Riverside in Woodbridge. The cinema was celebrating 100 years of film and were thrilled to welcome a large and enthusiastic audience of children and Arthur Ransome enthusiasts one of whom told us he saw the film in Shaftesbury Avenue when it first came out in 1974.
Swallow, the original dinghy used in the film was on display outside the cinema and I went along to answer questions about how the movie was made. Here are some of those asked by children in the audience:
Had you ever been on a boat before you started filming? Yes, my father was a great sailor and I’d crewed for him. As Titty, I had to row quite a bit – back from the charcoal burners, later when I captured Amazon and alongside Roger when we went to find the treasure on Cormorant Island.
How did you do the night time? We used Mrs Batty’s barn at Bank Ground Farm as a studio.
Which lake did you film on? Arthur Ransome wrote about an imaginary lake based on real places that we found on Windermere, Coniston Water, Derwentwater, Elterwater and a smelly lilly pond. the great thing is that you can go and find them too.
Did you enjoy filming? Yes, very much, but it could be chilly.
How long did it take to film? Forty-five days in all. It’s a 90 minute film so you can work out just how much we managed to film per day. It was well under the 4 minutes-a-day scheduled.
Did Titty actually keep the parrot? Titty did in the story but the parrot in the film was rather savage and had to be returned to Mrs Proctor of Kendal. However my parents bought a very tame green parrot called Chico who would sit on my shoulder, even when I went rowing.
Were you cold when you we filming the swimming scenes? Yes! We nearly passed out.
Why didn’t you wear life jackets? The film was set eighty-six years ago in 1929 when children didn’t wear life-jackets. We wore BOAC life-vests during rehearsals and when being taken out to the location.
What are the children doing now? Working! Suzanna Hamilton is the only one of us to kept acting. She’s appeared in two feature films this year including ‘My Feral Heart’. Simon West has an engineering company that invents machines, Sten Grendon is a gardener, Kit Seymour is spending this year in Australia and I believe Lesley Bennett lives in the Netherlands, but I’m not sure. I’d love to make contact with her. Virginia McKenna is still acting as well as figure-heading her charity Born Free that does so much to relieve the suffering of animals.
In reality, how old were you all when you acted? Roger was 8, I was aged 12 pretending to be aged 9, Susan was 12 and John 11. Nancy was about the right age as she celebrated her 13th birthday towards the end of the filming. The secret was that Peggy was the eldest at 13.
Do you have a cameo role in the new film? You might just see me on the platform of the railway station but I am wearing a wig!
Why is Swallow’s flag brown? Because it a little elderly.
The camping kit – was it all packed in Swallow? We children didn’t know it at the time but it didn’t all fit in, although they did keep taking the tents down. Why we had a rolling pin on board, I do not know.
What happened to Amazon? The Amazon Arthur Ransome knew, which was originally called Mavis, can be seen at the Coniston Museum. The dinghy we used in the film was also used in the black and white BBC TV serial made in 1962. She is now in Kent – and still sailing. You can see her on ‘Country Tracks’ by clicking here.
‘I’ve just read this delightful ebook – thank you so much for writing it! I’m sure you must get messages all the time like this, but I hope you will deservedly enjoy hearing that I absolutely adored the film of S&A and learned your name, along with all of the other actors and actresses off by heart from the record, which I played and played.
‘I also had the jigsaw of the campsite scene, which I thought was an incredible piece of merchandising (and it was, for its day).
‘I read my first S&A book (Swallowdale, but never mind) in the summer holidays when I was 7, and rapidly recruited my best friend Linda to being a fan. One of our mums spotted that the film was on at our local cinema in Dundee that Christmas, but the next day was the last date it was showing – so we were collected early from our school Christmas party, so that we could make it in time. We were in heaven. The next Easter, our families took us to the Lake District (staying in Coniston) for the first of many holidays there. We remember “finding” Gondola submerged in the reeds, and sailing with our dads over to Bank Ground and seeing the two dinghies named Swallow and Amazon. We soon found a favourite picnic on the shore close to Peel Island, and in later years, my dad and I rowed over to the Island in a rubber dinghy, which was tremendously exciting. Fascinating to hear about the artificial shingle beach!
I was interested to read that one of your qualifications for getting the job was that you could row, and that you’d practised at home in a Thames Skiff. Many thanks again for giving me such a delightful film to immerse myself in as a child. Helena Smalman-Smith
‘We love your book and tales of filming.’ Love Ambleside – on Twitter
‘…the girls adore your film of Swallows and Amazons. In fact, I fear it is thanks to your film rather than the book that my Swallows and Amazons camping weekend was full to bursting. I also have friends in Suffolk who would happily hot foot it across the country with their three children to hear you!’ Grainne Dennison (teacher and Ransome fan).
‘My daughter is 11 today & this is her favourite present! Titty was always Moira’s favourite character from the books AND the film, she is thrilled!’
‘My daughter LOVED your book! She couldn’t help sharing gems & finished it in a few days on hols. Magic! My turn now!’
‘I have been hesitating to write, but I do want to tell you how much I enjoyed reading ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’. It made watching the film so much more enjoyable. I came to Arthur Ransome late in life, but I’ve read all of them, and have a complete collection of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adventures.’ Mark Cheng, Bedford
‘I really love the Swallows and Amazons movie. I actually went to see it at the pictures in London, with my family when it first came out, but I was only about 4 or 5 years old, so I don’t remember much about that day. But of course I have watched it many times over the years and since I have the DVD I make a point to watch it at least once every year. You are my favourite as you are so charming!!’ Robert Newland, Dorset
I was on stage to answer questions about how we made the film after the screening. Swallow, the dinghy we used on the movie was rigged up outside the cinema and admired by many.
Back in April, I was invited to a similar screening of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) also held to raise funds for the up-keep of Arthur Ransome’s yacht Nancy Blackett. As the film ended I was invited up on stage to answer questions about how it was made. Marc Grimston sent a list of these, so I could answer them here for those unable to get cinema seats.
As a child were you like Titty? In 1973, I was aged twelve and at five-foot two, was really too old and too tall for the role of Titty but it was easy enough to pretend to be nine years old. I was on-screen a great deal so it probably a good thing that I was old enough to cope with long filming days. I thought I was much more like Mate Susan but perhaps that made it easier for me to play Titty.
How many tried for the role of Titty? About 1,800 children originally auditioned for the six parts in ‘Swallows & Amazons’. Claude Whatham, the director, wrote inviting me to an interview. In the end there were five girls up for the part of Titty. You can read more about the final audition here.
Sophie Neville on stage with Peter Willis, President of the Nancy Blackett Trust
Had you read the books before? I had read most of the books in the series and loved them, so it was very easy to take on the part. We never had to sit down and learn lines because we knew what to say from reading the book.
Sophie Neville taking about Swallows & Amazons
Were they any disasters during filming? Swallow’s mast broke!
How did you stay safe with the snake? It was a real adder, but quite a tame one. I think they lowered its metabolism by keeping it cool.
How did they make the lion noises? It was a recording of a real lion.
When you filmed the approach to the houseboat it seamed as if Amazon was coming in fast, was she? Yes, she hit it quite hard!
How long did it take to film? We spent forty six days onset in total, which meant spending about seven weeks in the Lake District.
Do you still have the parrot? I don’t. The green parrot belonged to Mrs Proctor of Kendal where the residents were terrified of him.
What happened to Amazon? She is owned by a family living in Kent who love sailing her in the lakes. She was the same Amazon as used in the BBC serial of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ made in 1962, when Susan George played Kitty.
Have you been back to the island? Yes! I last returned with Nick Barton who is planning a new film adaptation of ‘Swallows and Amazons’.
Are there adaptations of any other Swallows and Amazon books? Yes, in 1983 I was able to work on the BBC serialisation of ‘Coot Club and The Big Six’, starring Rosemary Leach, Colin Baker, Henry Dimbleby and Julian Fellowes as one of the Hullabaloos. It was my job to cast the children and look after them during the three months we spent on location, which was great fun.
An orange flag has been labelling the Vintage paperback edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ as a #1 Best Seller in the Amazon UK sales. Not bad for a book written 88 years ago.
I was asked to give a talk at the International Annual General Meeting of The Arthur Ransome Society recently, when I was able to ask learned members, ‘What has made it such an enduring success?’
Is it that ‘Swallows and Amazons’ set in the Lake District where so many of us long to spend our holidays?
Or that we can buy a set of wooden postcards depicting Ransome’s inspirational illustrations?
Is it because the stories are driven by the characters of the children themselves, as Jill Goulder has observed, and that adults are relegated to native status, featured as little as is possible so that we enter a child’s world? Do children relish the idea of independence and being in control of all they do, as John and Nancy seem to be? Is it that dressing up as pirates is cool?
Swallows and Amazons is about the importance of listening to children. It’s about integrity. Do we love the fact that Titty, the lowly able-seaman comes out as the unexpected hero? It was, after all, a brave thing to capture the Amazon at night and perhaps even braver still to return to Cormorant Island with Roger to look for the treasure no one believed was there.
Could it be because the story is about sailing, instructional on how to handle a simple dinghy? Claude Whatham, who directed the 1974 movie, recognised Ransome’s skill in describing how to make a camp was of huge appeal to children. Do we like to learn without the indignity of being taught?
Arthur Ransome’s style of writing is certainly vivid, drawing you into the world he created having been inspired by reading ‘Robinson Crusoe’, ‘Treasure Island’ and exotic tales himself. Martin Smith, whose comments on this strand have been endlessly interesting, has observed that there is something of ‘The Tempest’ by Shakespeare in the adventures set on Wild Cat Island.
Ransome was able to draw on years of experience as a writer before he launched the Swallows & Amazons series and this shines through. Since really only six children and two adults appear in his first book we get to know them well and are ready to welcome others such as Dick and Dorothea when they come along in Winter Holiday.
Is it because, ‘nothing happens in the books that couldn’t really have happened’, as Caroline Lawrence wrote recently in The Outlaw, a magazine written for children who readily identify with the characters. You can certainly enjoy looking for Ransome’s locations yourself. Those who do so are almost certain to buy the books for their own offspring.
Adults read the books, saying they bring great solace, evoking nostalgic memories and taking them back to a carefree childhood when summer days were spent devising camps and imaginary sailing adventures. Perhaps the traditional values act as an anchor in our stormy lives.
One thing is for certain. While many of the forty-two books Arthur Ransome wrote are now seen as obscure, his series of twelve ‘Swallows and Amazons’ novels line the shelves of almost every bookshop in Britain and are ever popular overseas. The Arthur Ransome Society has a thriving membership, enabling families to live the adventures for themselves. You can find out about joining yourself by clicking here.
The new feature film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ starring Ralp Spall, Andrew Scott and Kelly Macdonald and released in 2016 has hopefully brought the story to the nation’s consicousness. It has begun to win awards in the USA where it is being released in cinemas by Samuel Goldwyn.
The film adaptation of ‘Swallow & Amazons’ made in 1973 and repeated on television so many times, helped to keep the flags flying. It too has been labelled as ‘a timeless classic’ and ‘an enduring success’. StudioCanal released a 40th Anniversary DVD with footage so beautifully restored that if it wasn’t for the extras package you might think it had been shot last summer.
My mother had found a purple suede Donny Osmond hat. Amazing. We were shivering, wearing our costumes in London to promote the film of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ produced by Richard Pilbrow back in 1973 and released by EMI in April 1974. It’s forty years since we went up for a sailing weekend at Burnham-on-Crouch to audition for the parts.
There are some very well considered reviews of the DVD on the Amazon site. Those who mention how children feel include:
Swallows and Amazons Forever! I recently bought this for my 9 year old daughter and 7 year old son for Christmas, the film having been one of my favorite children’s films when I was young – before animated space-zombie-machines ruled the earth. Both children thoroughly enjoyed the film and after the first 5 minutes of watching, I felt like I’d only watched it very recently: The genuine proof of a time-less classic. A great film even by today’s standards if you like to let your kids just be kids…… S.Tully, 2011
A really lovely DVD: My 8 year-old daughter loves Famous Five style adventure books so hoped she might enjoy the Swallows and Amazons DVD. I was however a little concerned that she might find it a little old fashioned. I needn’t have worried, as she loved it and watched it over and over again. A very sweet and enjoyable adventure. ~ Smudge, 2012
A double helping of nostalgia For adults, this DVD is a double scoop of nostalgia – for the original Swallows and Amazons books and the era they were set in and for the 1970s when this film was made. The film is a pretty good adaptation of the book, with just a few incidents omitted, such as the final stormy night on the island. The actors, child and adult, are well-cast. Seeing Virginia McKenna again recalls films of the 1960s such as ‘Born Free’ and ‘Ring of Bright Water’.
I wondered how children would react to this, brought up as they are these days on CGI, Harry Potter and all the rest. However, my son (9) was gripped from start to finish. I think what is appealing is the sheer independence of the children, their capability and the good old-fashioned adventures outdoors messing about in boats. Overall, a good unpretentious piece of family entertainment. ~Secret Spi, Germany 2010
This is a fantastic movie. My daughter (6 yr old) loves the adventures that the children put together using their imagination. It is a fabulous childhood, the one we all use to have. Good clean fun for the whole family and the child actors are obviously having a great time as well. Highly recommended. J.Kennedy, Sydeny Australia 2010
Excellent kids adventure: I loved this as a kid and I bought it having read the story to my two boys. It is as good as I remembered it and I was completely amazed that my two boys love it as much as I did, if not more. They watch it again and again ~ Aldous Huxley, 2010
Classic kids film – just watch it with a group from 4 years to 11 and they all loved it. ~ Mike, 2011
Great film for children: we were extremely pleased to find this on DVD after our daughter, aged 5, is loving reading through the books together. It is a very informative & sweet adventure tale. It is so nice to find a traditional film she can safely watch & enjoy. ~ KTP, 2011
Still as good as I remember!! I have watched with my girls and they both love this as much as I did and still do!!! Good adventurous fun with no bad language, I would recommend. ~ Angel, 2011
Excellent DVD for children 5 and upwards. My grandchildren greatly enjoyed it as I enjoyed the books when I was a youngster. ~ John 2011
I found very different reviews written by children on an online Film Club site:
‘I liked this film it was adventurous to be honest but at the same time it was boring. I would love to have an uncle like him and I would love to be allowed to be free and go anywhere without my mum FREAKING out. I like how amazons were enemy’s to swallows but they became friends and they were a good group. The character I liked most was titty because she was the HERO!’ ~ Sade (2008)
This film is brilliant but what i don’t get is that there mother just let them sail onto this adventurous island, putting that behind it is brilliant, Mr Loftus said i look like one of the actors. Wouldn’t you love to go and camp on a island in the middle of a lake, i certainly would. Ellis (14) 24:1:11
I did’nt think it was as good as James Bond.I did’nt engoy the old English or the music because it did not fit in the film. from dominic (8) 8:10:12
‘I really liked this film because it was fun and adventerous’ ~ Robbie (12)
this film was ok but when i heard what we were watching i thought it was a non-fiction film about birds in the amazon not about two groups of children on adventures i do not reccomend this to anyone. Max (9) 20:11:12
I fourt that it was good. Daniel (5) 14:11:12
It was really good when the children were having a pillow fight with the Amazons (they are the baddies). Carly (10) 13:11:12
I thought Swallows and Amazons was a brilliant movie . I especially liked how there is a lot of adventure and excitement!My favourite part is when there on the young pirates uncles bout and they push the uncle into the water. The only bad thing is that there weren’t many funny bits and I like a bit of humour. Other thing I liked was that it was set on a deserted island and they had to look after themselves and they had to buy their own food and cook their own food. I’d like to do that!!! For Swallows and Amazons I would give it a 4 star rating. Issy (9) 8:11:12
I thought swallos and Amazons was very wonderous,adventerous,inspiering and competative.They are brilliant actors.Even though it was made in 1974 it is mind blowing Sophie is my faverout actor she is very brave and kind but the rest are very nice to.I dont know what else to write.If you ever watch this movie you will know what im saying and im sure you will think what i writ to Megan (9) 2:10:12
The film was excellent! I shown me how people camped in the olden days (even though it was discusted when they used dirty water wich had mud in it to drink.) Where did the amizons get their weapons from?I haven’t seen a film like this before. Fabian (9) 8:11:12
‘This very facinating film from the 1970’s has a very swashbuckling theme to it as in a war people in a family set off to a island in a boat called swallow and end up finding another twin set of girls shipwrecked off of their uncles house boat and then the girls start to try and get cunning and vicios and start to wreck all of the things that are nice going on on the island and I would reccomend this film to children aged 6-10 years old as it has a a lot of singing that might put people off a bit from liking this film that has a lot of songs and sing alongs so I would encourage lots of younger children to like or even watch this film so stay tuned to find out some of the other daredevil acts that these people perform in the film……
I loved Swallows and Amazons because I love adventure films.I’d like to stop on the island myself with a couple of my friends.It was really exiting when the children tried to capture each others boats.I really liked the parrot.The film was really exiting and I enjoyed it. Amelia, (9) 28:01:13
This film had some good points and bad points, the director Cluade Whatham could have possibly made a bit more of an effort? Another downside was the fact that the film didn’t really excite me much as it came to the end and it went on a bit too long. Four childeren discover an island and decide (with thier mothers permssion of course) to sail over to the island and make a camp, but when they get to the island they bump into the Amazons (to young sisters who came to the island for summer and formed a mini crew) who drag them into an adventurous war with thier uncle, will it all work out for this mischievous bunch of childeren? I reccomend this film mainly to any adventurous childeren who want to grow up and explore the world! Even though I’m into adventures I was a bit boring, but thats my opinion, other people may be excited out thier socks! So to sum it all up in two words- Mildly entertaining Annie (11) 28:9:12
What an adventurous movie! this film was awesome!!. Its really hard to tell what genre it was though, its like all these different things mashed into one movie. The children take a boat and find an island in the middle of the lake. I would love to go on that island!. I would recommend this movie to anyone because its spectacularly amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Gracie (11) 25:9:12
I’m Surprised, I thought’ Yeah its a classic BORING but when I watched it I actually quite enjoyed it. I liked it when Roger looked in a telescope and said “I cant see anything!” but actually he still had the cap on. Sophie (9) 3:6:12
Sophie Neville with Swallow on Coniston Water, Cumbria
Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, in collaboration with BBC Films, launched a new adaptation of Swallows and Amazons on 19th August 2016. They hope it will be the new Harry Potter or Chronicles of Narnia franchise, but are yet to start casting.
I joined him and his wife on the first recce to the Lake District in 2011, staying at Bank Ground Farm, sailing Swallow on Coniston Water and taking a boat trip down Lake Windermere in Cumbria. He went on to find locations on Derwentwater and in Yorkshire with his director Philippa Lowthorpe who developed the new script with Andrea Gibb.
To see a clip of the opening scenes, starring Kelly Macdonald and Andrew Scott – please click here
I opened the pages of the programme at the film premiere to find one of the publicity photographs of us taken at Bank Ground Farm. I wasn’t sure the face Simon was making would sell a cinema ticket.
But the film was now out. It had to sell itself. Everyone was waiting to hear what critics from within the movie industry felt about it.
Would this photograph ever sell the film?
I think my mother must have written to Barry Norman, inviting him to bring his daughters to one of the promotional events held at the Commonwealth Institute. I wonder if she met him at the Preview of the Premiere. He was then presenting BBC Television’s Film 74 and writing a weekly column in The Guardian newspaper. Here is his reply:
Barry Norman enjoyed it! The Radio Times says that he was looking at ‘films for the family over the Easter holidays’. Film 74 was shown on BBC TWO at 10.15pm – and repeated on Fridays even later so he must have been speaking to parents. Here’s his theme tune.
One thing that strikes me when I open the March 1974 copy of ‘Films and Filming’, kept by my mother, is that ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has to be one of the most enduring movies to come out at the time. Sean Connery opted to appear with Charlotte Rampling in ‘Zardoz’. I’ve neither seen or heard of it. Why couldn’t he have played Captain Flint with us? I did see Steve McQueen in ‘Papillon’ but had no desire to watch it more than once. Richard Lester’s version of ‘The Three Musketeers’ was also made in 1973. Even though it stared Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Richard Chamberlain, Michael York and dear Spike Milligan I don’t think it can have been broadcast on television as many times as ‘Swallows and Amazons’. The magazine goes on to review ‘The Optimists of Nine Elms’ starring Peter Sellers, ‘Magnum Force’ starring Clint Eastwood, ‘Herbie Rides Again’starring Stephanie Powers and many others, films I have never heard of. ‘American Graffiti’ came out in the States, directed by George Lucas starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat and Harrison Ford. It made gross profits of more than U$200 million becoming one of the most profitable films of all time but I wonder how many times it has been shown on British television this year? Do your children know anything about it? Has it been projected in the pouring rain for loyal fans sitting on a lake shore?
I his book, ‘A Theatre Project’ Richard Pilbrow says, ‘We had a success.’ He quotes Variety magazine, “Charming, delightful, beautifully made film,” but said it was, ‘Not a hit but a reasonable success that continues to play, principally on television, around the world.’ Richard goes on to quantify how it did financially. ‘The world of film finance is a distinct mystery. Our production costs were just under £300,000. Over the years, income trickled in from an international market. Curiously the costs inexorably rose to match the income. The costs of marketing the movie always seemed to equal receipts at the box office. In 2004 our film actually recouped. That’s why I have the temerity to call it a success.
Not all the newspapers thought so in 1974. I’ll find some of the articles for the next posting.
Our first major public appearance for the promotion of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was The Lord Mayor’s Show . For the first time since the filming we climbed into our costumes and then into Swallow who had been mounted on low-loader. Afloat on a float, we made ready to sail through the City of London.
It must have been early November and was so very cold before we set off that we needed to keep our own coats on. We were anxious this would spoil things for people. I’m sure it would not have made much difference. Did anyone know who we were? The film hadn’t come out. We were riding on the wave that Arthur Ransome and his books were so well loved by the people of our nation.
What was fun, if a little odd, was that it was the first time, indeed the only time, that the Swallows and the Amazons had been in a dinghy together. As we were taken through the streets of London passers-by started to wave at us and we waved back. Soon it was waves all round. Being Titty, I had Swallow’s flag to fly. John let Nancy take the tiller.
We were amazed to find huge crowds of people had gathered and that it was all rather fun. I don’t know why but Sten must have joined my mother on the pavement by the time this shot was taken. I can see the back of his head in this next photograph. He is wearing the tartan hat Claude Whatham bought him at Blackpool fun-fair.
Jeremy Fisher Frog was leaping about in front of us, which was rather amazing. With him danced other representatives from the Tales of Beatrix Potter, The Royal Ballet’s wonderful feature film that also came out in 1973/4. We were marking the 35th anniversary of EMI, whilst bringing the Lake District to London Town, which is something we all could celebrate.
Since we didn’t have to talk to anyone, we were able to enjoy being involved in the pageant, which included so many icons of British Life.
I hadn’t met a Pearly Queen before, but there was a whole clan of them in their glorious suits, lovingly embroidered with mother of pearl buttons. I resolved to collect enough to adorn my own jacket. My favorite view was of HM the Queen’s gold state coach pulled by her lovely white horses, six in hand. I’d been to see them at the Royal Mews when we came up for my first interview at Theatre Projects offices in Longacre when I first met our director Claude Whatham.
My mother took a photograph of the Queen’s Drum Horse. Much later she found that he was a stallion, on offer as part of a British Horse Society breeding improvement scheme. He was brought over to service her Irish mare Gerty. The result was a lanky skewbald called Nimrod, an enormous gelding who Andrew Parker Bowles rejected on behalf of the British Army. This proved an error. Like most heavy horses Nimrod was just slow to grow. He eventually became a national dressage champion, although not in our hands.
We have one last photograph which shows that the float in front of us depicted an EMI film crew, with 2K lights, a camera and technicians. It is studing this photograph that made me feel that we were not in Swallow as the transom seems so differnet. I don’t suppose anyone else noticed.
Funnily enough I was in a boat for the Lord Mayor’s Show this year. We rowed up the Thames in the Lord Mayor’s procession on Saturday 12th November.
I am on the crew of the Drapers’ Barge, Royal Thamesis a 33 foot shallop, which I last rowed on the tideway for the re-creation of Nelson’s funeral covered by Sky TV. You may have seen her taking part as the in the Queen’s Jubilee Pageants. We have been asked to take part in the procession of boats that heralds the Lord Mayor’s Show this coming November.
This colour footage shows various aspects of the Lord Mayor’s procession in 1973 including the Queen’s Gold State Coach built in 1762 and a float with Daleks, which must represent Doctor Who, a series I worked on about ten years later when at the BBC.
Monday morning on Derwentwater in the Lake District and we had no lessons. The Cumbrian schools had broken-up for the summer holidays so we were free to play, or as freely as you can be when you are wearing a costume that can not under any circumstances get wet or dirty.
Although Claude Whatham was operating with a skeleton crew our wardrobe master Terry Smith was still getting us into the right kit for each scene. My mother said that he either got muddled or distracted at one point as a whole sequence was shot with all of us wearing the wrong costumes. It caused quite a fuss. It would have been expensive in time and money. She thought he had been given the sack, but this doesn’t appear to have been the case.
One of the secrets of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is that, on this day, Terry Smith adapted Ronald Fraser’s costume and white colonial pith helmet for our property master Bob Hedges to wear. It was he that fired the cannon on the houseboat.
Clive Stewart of the Keswick Launch Co. was one of a number of Cumbrian boatman who worked on the support crew for the filming of Swallows and Amazons in 1973. They played a vital role not only ferrying us to the location but acting as safety boats and keeping modern boats out of shot. They were certainly busy once the wind got up on this particular day. Claude Whatham handed over the direction of montage sequence of the Swallows’ first voyage to the island to David Blagden, our sailing director. At last we had the sun and wind for it – if not too much wind. By now were were pretty experienced but the little ship was challenged to the full as wind gusted down from Cat Bells.
Suzanna Hamilton wrote in her diary that, ‘…it was very rough. We thought we were going to do a Chinese jibe but it was OK. We sailed the whole length of the lake.’ What must have been tricky for Simon West was that he had Denis Lewiston, the lighting-cameraman, on board with a 16mm camera, as well as all our clumsy camping equipment. You can see me heaving the crockery basket past the camera on the movie. The result was probably the most exciting sequence in the film, or so my father later declared.
Jean McGill, our unit nurse and driver, was ever around to scoop us up and keep everyone cheerful when we came in feeling a bit chilly.
In the evening Richard Pilbrow, his girl-friend Molly Friedel and his assistant Liz Lomax came up to our guesthouse in Ambleside to show us the cine footage they took on the sailing weekend that had been the final audition for our parts. This had taken place in March at sailing town of Burnham-on-Crouch in the Maldon District of Essex when were stayed on board a moored vessel and went out sailing with David Blagden in quite grey, chilly weather. The conditions had been pretty rough then. I remember telling Claude that we ‘helmed like anything’. I felt terribly embarrassed later when I realised that ‘helmed’ was not exactly what I had meant to say but I don’t think Claude was familiar with sailing terminology at the time. He would have like the spirit of what I said.
It had been choppy but none of our days had been as rough as David Blagden’s Atlantic crossing, famously made in his tiny orange-hulled 19 foot yacht Willing Griffin. I wonder if the footage of this still exists?
Richard Pilbrow must put me right on this, but the theory is that he acquired Swallow that weekend. We were told at the London Boat Show that she was originally the all-purpose run-around dinghy built by and for William King & Sons’ boatyard at Burnham-on Crouch in the 1930s. She has the initials WK carved on her transom. They designed her well – a stable little ship with plenty of room inside and no centre-board to worry about. You can see detailed photographs of her on the Sailing Swallow website.
The boathouse at the Slate Quay where Arthur Ransome came as a child sits at the southern end of Coniston Water. How wise he was to write about the places, the culture and experiences that he knew so well.
As you walk down the foot path from the lane you come across interesting artwork, although it would not have been around in Ransome’s day.
~ Sculpture at Slate Quay by Andy Gormsly~
The boathouse came to be owned by Bridgit Sanders, nee Altounyan, who was the inspiration for the youngest of the Swallows Vicky, the ship’s baby. She lived with her family in the house nearby, teaching her children and grandchildren to sail on Coniston Water.Roger Altounyan rented half the house after he had children and would take them sailing in Mavis, the model for Amazon, bailing like mad.
Whilst fish enjoy the reedy habitat small boys are reputed to enjoy the ‘Knickerbockerbreaker’ rocks that rise above what must be Swainson’s Farm at High Nibthwaite, featured in Swallowdale, which you can find by the road nearby.
We pressed on in search of more of the real places that made an impression on Ransome’s life. Although we had a very good driver this was not always as easy as one might imagine.
But I did find another representation of the crossed flags. Does anyone know where?
~Kneeler embroidered by Jean Hopkins~
We drove through the gentle countryside south of Coniston Water passing New Hall, once rented by Arthur Ransome and his wife, and on, climbing up past Gummer’s How and wiggling down to reach The Mason’s Arms, which I gather this was one of his favorite pubs.
Then, seemingly in the middle of no where, we came across the Holy Grail: Low Ludderburn and the erstwhile grey barn where Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’. He had a writing room on the first floor. Roger Wardale says he kept his car, the ‘Rattletrap’ in the wooden garage that you can see just in front of the building. It was private then, and is a private house now, but you can catch a glimpse of it from the lane that runs up and on, eventually taking you down to Blake Holme on Windermere, which he named as partly the inspiration for Wildcat Island.
I’ve always thought that Arthur Ransome must have been completly impervious to the damp, to cold and wet weather. I am not. By now it was raining so hard that my husband was wearing my pink beret, but we were still in good spirits.
It was not just British children who were saturated with the “Swallows and Amazons” novels of Arthur Ransome, as the review of “The Last Englishman,” by Roland Chambers, suggests (May 27). I grew up hundreds of miles from the ocean in Pittsburgh, wanting to be like Ransome’s characters. I wrote to him asking which of the English lakes was the right one. He sent me a postcard saying that it was “Windermere, with a few touches of Coniston, for the sake of disguise.” He ended with “You’ll be sailing some day!” and I lived on that.
So back to Windermere, and a long hot bath at Miller Howe, a lovely hotel that had a Jonathan Cape copy of Swallows and Amazons on the hall table. In the morning cloud was sitting on the high fells looking just like snow. I ran down to the lake to put my hands in the water, thinking, ‘This is the place for Winter Holiday’. But that is another book.