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.
The Telegraph listed ‘Swallows & Amazons’ as Film of the Week when it was broadcast on ITV3 in the UK recently. It was also shown on GEM television in Australia last Friday. Sophie has been answering questions about making the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ at the Curious Arts Festival. If you have one, please use the comments box below.
On 26th July Sophie Neville, spoke to Dan Damon on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday morning programme ‘Broadcasting House’ about the enduring success of the film. To read more, please click here.
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