Why is ‘Swallows and Amazons’ so inspirational?

'John, Titty & Susan on the Swallow' by Fadi Mikhail
‘John, Titty & Susan on the Swallow’ by Fadi Mikhail

As you can see from these paintings, Fadi Mikhail, the artist famous in the UK for painting one of our Christmas stamps and being commissioned by the Prince of Wales, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, was certainly inspired by the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ made in 1973. He has kindly let me publish this remarkable series of paintings.

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‘Look out! Another boat’ by Fadi Mikhail

Since my last post, comments have flooded in as to why the simple story is so popular:

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‘John and Susan coming about’ by Fadi Mikhail

‘…the Swallows don’t own ‘Swallow’ – they’re having a farmhouse holiday and the boat belongs to the farm, and that could just have happened to any of us. Norman Willis… used to rise up against critics who considered that children from poorer backgrounds should read books full of gritty reality related to their daily lives: he pointed out that they wanted to escape from their daily lives for a few precious hours, not always into a zone of dragons and princesses but into an alternative realistic world.’ Jill Goulder of The Arthur Ransome Society.

'The Swallows in the boat' by Fadi Mikhail
‘The Swallows in the boat’ by Fadi Mikhail

‘What I liked most about these stories was that the Swallows and Amazons and their friends behaved like real children, but lived in a completely different world from the one I inhabited. I’d camped with the Girl Guides, but the Swallows and Amazons had astounding freedom – camping alone on an island, going out at night and sailing wherever they liked without needing to ask permission.’ Emily Lock ‘…the books gripped my imagination forever’. Please click here to read Emily Lock’s full review.

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Titty and John eating apples by Fadi Mikhail

Christopher Tuft thought the enduring success is, ‘Because it’s a wonderful adventure story, with well rounded characters, played out in a beautiful setting, reminding us of a time now gone.’

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‘The Swallows in the wood’ by Faid Milhail

‘The combination of practical realism – everything that happens could happen – and the child’s viewpoint makes the story and it’s sister volumes almost unique even now,’ Andrew Craig-Bennett of The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook.

'John and Susan hoisting the sail'by Fadi Mikhail
‘John and Susan hoisting the sail’ by Fadi Mikhail

The whole series of books clearly have a worldwide following popular from one generation to another. ‘I don’t find this surprising. I got my first Arthur Ransome book (Swallowdale) as a present, in 1948. At the time it was a copper-bottomed dead cert as a present for any child, couldn’t be criticised, known to be virtuous, and incidentally known to be good. All that is still true and has been for decades. I don’t think it could fail to be up there. Children may now prefer Star Wars, Lego books or Minecraft (my grandsons certainly do), but books are still *bought* by adults.’ Peter Ceresole Roger-In-The-Boat ‘The book has lasting appeal, particularly for children, because there is nothing in the adventures of the Swallows and Amazons that readers feel they could not do themselves. They felt they could sail a dinghy like the Swallows. I know, because when adults came aboard Ransome’s restored boat Nancy Blackett in recent years, many had tears in their eyes and said: ‘I learned to sail from the books; and Arthur Ransome was the biggest influence on my life.’ The story is not like so many others an unachievable fantasy. This must stem in part from the fact that the characters are based on real children and on Ransome’s observation of those real children. The quality of the plotting is superb. Ransome was utterly clear about the stories he wrote, sometime writing chapters in the middle of the book before writing earlier ones. His prose is spare and simple and very easy to read, and bears comparison with the writing of Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels — another writer with appeal to both children and adults.’ Michael Rines Do add your own thoughts in the Comments below.

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‘The Swallows chasing the Amazons’ by Fadi Mikhail

Hugh Shelley wrote, in his Bodely Head Monograph of Arthur Ransome, that it is the joy with which the story is written that makes Swallows and Amazons a great book. In many ways it is a reflection of Arthur Ransome’s own childhood holidays with his brother and sisters on Coniston Water. And even today, children can discover the places mentioned for themselves. Holly, aged six, wrote to me recently saying, ‘My Mummy and Daddy took me to Wild Cat Island. It was my favorite day… When I am bigger I want to be like Titty.’

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‘Roger ties the Swallow down’ by Fadi Mikhail

While ‘nearly all enduring books do so because of the writing,’ as another reader commented, children enjoy the camaraderie and the action that have been captured in these semi-abstract oils.

'Titty and John at Camp' by Fadi Mikhail
‘Titty and John at Camp’ by Fadi Mikhail

Some of these paintings have already sold, some are available from the Lawson Gallery in Cambridge, some from Gallery Rouge in St Albans, at Highgate Contemporary Art, the Aubrey Gallery in Great Dunmow and direct from Fadi Mikhail, the artist himself. You can see more here.

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‘John, Susan and Roger waving to Titty’ 60x50cms  by Fadi Mikhail depicting Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West and Sten Grendon in a scene from ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

Why is ‘Swallows and Amazons’ still a bestseller?

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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Despatches?

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.

Recent comments about ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’

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‘The 1974 Swallows and Amazons film is a classic, and this is a really enjoyable look behind the scenes, written by the actress who (for me, at least) gave the stand-out performance as Titty Walker. If the film recaptured the lost world of 1929, then the book recaptures the lost world of 1973, when rules on child actors were strict (chaperones and schoolwork absolute requirements) but regulations on health and safety a bit more lax, even when on water. We even learn the truth behind that strange scene on the jetty in Rio where Roger is left minding Swallow. Highly recommended.’ P. Stevens, Bath, UK

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‘Every now and again in cinematic history a classic is born. It doesn’t have to be a multi-billion pound blockbuster featuring legendary names, sometimes something timeless and endlessly endearing is born and this is most definitely the case with ‘Swallows and Amazons’.

‘This film has become an old friend to me; I must have watched it a thousand times and I never tire of it! It brings back memories of a summer childhood spent in wonder-filled Cumbria, in particular Windermere, Ambleside, Derwent and Coniston Water; places we’d visit as a family before the fates would, sadly intervene.

‘Sophie Neville’s excellent book recaptures again the halcyon days of youth in a summer-land of mountains, fells and shimmering lakes. She writes beautifully and with an easy style that’s a joy to read. The love for her subject is very evident, as is her passion for the work of Arthur Ransome. She takes you behind the scenes of the making of the film and the realities of filming on the water; how the director and crew worked tirelessly to bring out the best in the young actors and the splendours of the landscape. So glad I made this purchase. Pride of place on the old bookshelf.’ Allen Fairhurst

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‘Sophie has lost none of her infectious enthusiasm and this shines through on every page.’  Julian Lovelock in Mixed Moss, the journal of The Arthur Ransome Society.  ‘As well as using her own diary Sophie has mined the recollections and scrapbooks of a number of cast and crew.’

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‘The book itself is indeed a delight. I have long been a fan of Swallows and Amazons. I am delighted with the film which was made and Sophie’s account of the making of it adds a very charming and interesting dimension. I loved the account and I fully recommend any fan of Swallows and Amazons to get a copy for themselves.’

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Sophie in Suffolk ~

11015906_10202996212506899_2127206965502510144_nQ&A with Sophie Neville at the Riverside Cinema ~ photo: Claudia Myatt

The screening of Swallows & Amazons on Sunday was sold out. 250 tickets. They were endlessly turning people away. ‘We should have shown it again in the 6.00pm slot,’ I told the manager. ‘Oh, we have American Snipper on then.’ It stars Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller. ‘How many have booked to see it?’ ‘Three.’

Cromer Crab

Delicious lunch served at the Riverside Restaurant 

~ photo: Pandora Doyle ~

All age groups were represented in the audience who came to the event – a fundraiser in aid of the Nancy Blackett Trust. About 70% had seen the film of Swallows & Amazons before. Some knew it well.

Swallow, the clinker built dinghy, originally built by William King and Sons at Burnham-on-Crouch and used in the 1974 film, was rigged up outside the cinema for everyone to meet. She is going to be at a number of The Arthur Ransome Society’s events in Suffolk and Essex this summer. We used the best photo of Swallow under sail for the cover of the paperback on how the film was made, which was on display in the cinema lobby after the film. It is now available online or from the Aldebrugh Bookshop in Suffolk.

The Making of SWALLOWS & AMAZONS

Someone asked if we had any disasters while making the film.

Swallow’s mast broke, we nearly sailed under the Windermere steamer and we were often rained off,’ but I couldn’t think of anything utterly disastrous from my perspective. I’ll have to ask Richard Pilbrow who produced the film back in 1973. I can list other questions asked by the audience in the next post. Do add any you might have to the comments box below.

The Riverside Cinema in Woodbridge are thinking of showing Swallows & Amazons again in September to help them celebrate their centenary ~ ‘100 Years of Film’. Do add a comment in the box below if you would like to organise a screening of the film at a cinema near you.

What do children of today think of ‘SWALLOWS & AMAZONS’ (1974)?

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Daphne Neville,
Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Daphne Neville, Stephen Grendon, Lesley Bennett, Kit Seymour and Simon West promoting SWALLOWS & AMAZONS in 1973 ~ photo Woman magazine

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.

What do children of today think of the story – of the DVD of the movie we made back in 1973? Into Film say it is one of their ‘most popular titles’.

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Director Claude Whatham wearing my mother’s Donny Osmond hat. This is the one that sunk to the bottom of Derwentwater. Here they are on Peel Island on Coniston Water filming SWALLOWS & AMAZONS in 1973 with a 35mm Panavision camera

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

read more here

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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

read more here

Please add your views in the Comments box below.

‘Wouldn’t you love to go and camp on a island in the middle of a lake, i certainly would.’

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour with David Blagden on Peel Island on Coniston
Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour with David Blagden on Peel Island on Coniston Water in 1973

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Riding the waves of film critics ~ after the release of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1974

Virginia McKenna, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon and Ronald Fraser appearing in the film premiere programme

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.

Simon West, Kit Seymour, Ronald Fraser, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton with half of Stephen Grendon on the second page of the premier programme

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.

‘We sailed the length of the lake’ ~ filming on Derwentwater, 9th July 1973

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker with Stephen Grendon as the Boy Roger and Simon West playing Captain John Walker on Derwentwater
Sten Grendon as the Boy Roger, Sophie Neville as Able-seaman Titty and Simon West playing Captain John, Derwentwater in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

Terry Smith, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville on location in the Lake District
Behind-the-scenes: wardrobe master Terry Smith with Sophie Neville and her chaperone outside the Make-up caravan on location near Keswick.

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.

Simon West, Stephen Grendon and Sophie Neville whilst on location in the Lake District in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

The secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons in 1973

A boatman working on Derwent Water in 1973
Clive Stewart our boatman with the houseboat and the dinghies, Amazon and Swallow, on Derwentwater in 1973 ~ photo Daphne Neville

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.

Filming the voyage to the island in Swallow

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.

Terry Smith and Jean McGill on Derwentwater
Wardrobe master Terry Smith wearign the safety officer’s wetsuit with unit nurse and driver Jean McGill on Derwentwater. Kit Seymour is sitting behind them to their right ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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 Real Charcoal Burners ~ who we met whilst filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on 14th June 1973

Sophie Neville at the Charcoal Burners
Sophie Neville as Titty Walker visiting the charcoal burners on a cold day in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

On 14th June we were back at Ickenthwaite Forest, in Cumbria, to film the sequence when the Swallows visit the Charcoal Burners.

14th June ~ my diary aabout the charcoal burners

The real charcoal burner
Norman Allonby, the real charcoal burner outside the hut. Behind him the 35mm Panavision camera is being mounted on a small crane and short section of track ~ photo: Daphne Neville

‘He doesn’t look much like a son.’  The real Young Billy was almost indistinguishable from the actor. He seemed to take a wry interest in the filming but what he thought of us, of the crew, I dread to think. We were aliens on his planet. Terribly bossy ones.

The real Charcoal Burner with the actor
The charcaol burner Bill Allonby chatting to Jack Woolgar playing Old Billy

Our polystrene coffee cups look so out of place. They were. How much had changed in the art of producing charcoal between 1973 and 1929 when Arthur Ransome set our story?

Charcoal Burners during the filming of Swallows and Amazons
John Franklin-Robbins playing Young Billy, chatting to Norman Allonby of Bandrake Head  during a coffee break on set ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The Call Sheet for the day scheduled Scene 110 with the adder, but I recorded in my diary that we had completed that the previous day.  I must have meant my part in it.  The Director, Claude Whatham, was probably using the time to pick-up the shots of Young Billy working with his dampened fire.

Much later, when I asked Claude what made a good director he said, ‘You need to use your time well.’  This probably makes you an employable director, but I think Claude had other assets. We all adored him for one thing, and would do anything for him. We knew that he wanted us to keep going, no matter what happened. Susan really did leave her basket behind at the Charcoal Burners’. When Old Billy called her, she was truly taken aback and sweetly ran to collect it. It’s something that rings true, a natural quality that Claude brought to the film.

The interior of the hut must have been tricky to light. I think we had a real fire burning in the stone grate and Claude was keen for the scene to be atmospherically smoky. The wood smoke itself was fine but the crew were working with smoke guns, since they were more directional and considered more controllable. The acrid fumes produced by their oil canisters choked me but Jack Woolgar was absolutely stoic and kept our attention. I loved drawing with the charcoal. I wish I had drawn him.  Apart from the amount of smoke it was lovely inside the mossy wigwam. I could have stayed there quite happily. It was nice and warm.

Charcoal Burners Movie Call Sheet ~ Swallows and Amazons

Albert Clarke, our Stills Photographer, later gave us his unwanted contact sheets to stick in the scrap-books we kept of the filming. Amongst them are these photos he took of the Producer Richard Pilbrow with the charcoal burners of Ickenthwaite Forest.

Audrey Steeley told me that the older chacoal burner is Jack Allonby who lived at Spark bridge, a well known local character. However, Myles Dickinson has written in to say that it is Norman Allonby, Jack’s brother, who lived at Bandrake Head.  Audrey thinks the other chap could be Bill Norris, who was an authority on charcoal burning and also from Spark bridge, but that the picture doesn’t look much like him.  I think it might be Bill Allonby, Jack’s brother. Does anyone else remember them?

The Real Charcoal Burners 2
John Franklin-Robbins as Young Billy with Sophie Neville, Sten Grendon & the adder. Richard Pilbrow and the charcoal burner. John Franklin-Robbins & Jack Woolgar chat to the real charcoal burner, Bill Allonby.

As the Call Sheet decreed, we were scheduled to to move to Bank Ground Farm after lunch to film the receiving of despatches, a scene I look forward to describing in the next post.

You can see photos and read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’, available online here

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'

‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) the opening locations of the classic film

Ext : Ulverston Railway Station ~ filmed at The Haverthwaite Railway Station

An article in The Times 1973
A photograph taken for The Times –  all aboard the steam train at Haverthwaite

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.

With Virginia McKenna on the first day of filming
A publicity shot featuring Virginia McKenna, with Kit Seymour, Steven Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton, taken on the first day of filming and published in the Guardian and other newspapers

The yellow motor used in the film for our taxi was superb. Would a real Lakeland taxi have been so grand? I recorded in my diary that 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.’

Director Claude Whatham talking to Virginia McKenna

Ext: Holly Howe ~ filmed at Bank Ground Farm by Coniston Water

Arriving at Holly Howe in the 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. Our OOV (out of vision) dialogue was added later.

The screenplay of the 1973 film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adapted from Arthur Ransome’s book by David Wood

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.

Bankground Farm
Steven Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West at Bankground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District

The slope, formed by glacial scouring and subsequent deposits long ago, is steeper than you might think.  We became adept at the art of glaumphing, advocated by Ransome in the book.

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.

Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West with Mr Jackson at Holly Howe~ photo: Daphne Neville

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 in real life. 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:

A possible Peak in Darien by Lake Windermere

However Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham 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 Trunk, that 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 the opening titles were added.

Sout Cortez 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. Mum grabbed this photo but it was a disaster. Claude Whatham was very annoyed.

Sophie Neville as Titty arriving too late in the day to film at Friar’s Crag on Derwent Water. The island portrayed as Wildcat Island can be seen in the distance ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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’. 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.

Sophie Neville, Claude Whatham and Simon West with Richard Pilbrow, right ~photo:Daphne Neville

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 they ought to use the handwritten capitals that Clifford Webb had penned on the map in the opening cover of the book, which were copied by Simon Holland (and me) on our chart. This was chosen.

A snazzy Seventies’ font, had been used for the titles of  Lionel Jefferey’s movie The Railway Children and the poster of Swallows and Amazons.For sometime a DVD has been available which gives you both movies released by EMI Films.

Click on this image to see the poster of the film

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, without being spoilt by what became most unfashionable graphics. Of course that particular retro font is now all the rage.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'

You can read more about the trials of producing the classic film in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ published by the Lutterworth Press, available online and at all good bookshops.

‘Swallows and Amazons’ the screenplay of the 1973 film, adapted from Arthur Ransome’s book by David Wood

The screenplay~

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 ~

Talking to the engine driver at the Haverthwaite Railway Station on the first day of filming 'Swallows and Amazons' in 1973 (Photo: Daphne Neville)
Talking to the engine driver at the Haverthwaite Railway Station on the first day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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

Swallows Script page 1
The origianl screenplay of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adapted from Arthur Ransome’s immortal book by David Wood in 1973

~ The crossings out were made by my mother, in the tradition of marking a scene that has been recorded ~

Swallows Script page 2
The original screenplay of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adapted by David Wood for Theatre Projects in 1973

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.

notes to the text ~ Mrs Price was the lady who owned and ran our guest house. Our tutor, Margaret Causey, taught us in a converted red London double decker bus.
Swallows Diary 14th May page two
I took note of my dialogue in the pages of my diary. Here it was supplimentary to the script

Swallows Diary 14th May page three

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.

Virginia McKenna, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennett and Sophie Neville at the Haverwaite Railway Station in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

Continuity ~

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