Sophie Neville speaking at the Southampton International Boat Show #SIBS22

Inspirational speaker, Sophie Neville
Southampton International Boat Show 2022

Swallow, the iconic dinghy who starred in the original film Swallows and Amazons is currently on display at the Southampton International Boat Show, greeting families as they arrive.

Sophie Neville who once played Titty Walker with her good little ship

I have been giving talks on filming afloat and how we made the movie on location in the Lake District nearly fifty years ago.

Over 103,000 are expected to visit the show this year. Although busy, it does not feel crowded. There is a lot to see and do.

Speaker Sophie Neville
Sophie Neville speaking on the Foredeck Stage at #SIBS22

Thanks to excellent technicians, my presentations proved popular, ‘inspiring talks on the Foredeck Stage’. I later sign copies of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons‘ at Future Publishing’s corner stand. It has been a great opportunity to meet film fans, readers and feature writers.

Nick Jeffery the yacht publicist with Sophie Neville at the Southampton Boat Show

You can find a four-page feature on how we clubbed together to buy Swallow in this month’s Practical Boat Owner magazine.

A 4-page feature article in the bestselling magazine Practical Boat Owner

You can apply to SailRansome to take her out yourself. She is sea-worthy but we are looking for sponsorship from a boatbuilding company to help re-varnish her and repair a small hole in her bow.

Sophie Neville with Swallow from Swallows and Amazons (1974)

If you are unable to get to the Southampton International Boat Show this year, you can watch an in-depth interview released this week by Your Take:

Your Take interview Sophie Neville on Zoom

Writers and illustrators inspired by Swallows and Amazons

Tom Stoppard, the playwright, said he turned books over as a child hoping they might be ‘Swallows and Amazons’. (The Guardian) In Hermione Lee’s recent biography of Tom Stoppard, she notes that as an eight-year-old boy, ‘The first real book he picked up, soon after getting to England, was Arthur Ransome’s Peter Duck, the third in the Swallows and Amazons series, a 1930s epic of Atlantic Ocean travel, shipwreck, hostile pursuit and secret treasure. He spotted on the jacket that Ransome had written some other books too. ‘My method of searching for these books had a sort of pathos about it: I simply went around picking up any book I saw lying about to see if it was called Swallows and Amazons. But it never was.’ Luckily he found a full set of Arthur Ransome books at school. ‘Stoppard, that enchanting master of the English language, was a Czech refugee, and Ransome was therefore one of his early English-language influencers.’

Melanie Philips lists Swallows and Amazons as one of the ‘great childhood books’ that ‘stay with us for ever’. ‘Books that make a profound impression on us in childhood can form part of our mental scaffolding throughout our lives.’ The Times

When asked , “What was it that first gave you the reading bug,” author Sarah Moss said, “Arthur Ransome: Swallows and Amazons. I was an outdoor child — though not always by choice — and I knew and loved the landscapes where the series is set. I re-read them with my children and they are classics with strong, likeable, flawed characters, a family dynamic that’s in some ways more interesting to me as an adult (John has some serious issues with the patriarchy) and a satisfying interest in fruit cake and pork pies. (Daily Mail)

Tony Ross – illustrator of Horrid Henry and The Little Princess, said, “I absolutely loved this book as a boy. I read it when I was ill with the mumps. The simple line drawings were just wonderful; they gave the feeling of wide open spaces and freedom. When you’re bound up in bed, when your jaw is aching and your face is the size of a football, it’s nice to be wafted out into the water. Swallows and Amazons gave me a lifelong love of sailing. I’m a bad sailor, but I love messing about on boats.” Daily Telegraph

Puffin edition of Swallows and Amazons
1974 Puffin edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

Sir Antony Jay, the author and co-writer of Yes, Minister and Yes,Prime Minister, who was editor of the BBC Tonight programme and Head of Television Talk Features, was a fan. Janet Means of the Arthur Ransome Group said that when she was a child, and he was a very young BBC producer, that he used to lend her Swallows and Amazons books.

I had been asking if Agatha Christie referred to any of Arthur Ransome’s books. She didn’t, but I’ve been told that in the recent adaptation of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Frankie Derwent reads Swallows and Amazons aloud to a young boy who has had a traumatic experience that day, as he falls asleep. The passage she reads includes: “But the big hills up at the lake helped to make him feel that the houseboat man did not matter. The hills had been there before Captain Flint. They would be there for ever. That, somehow was comforting.” The book was adapted for television by Hugh Laurie.

Julian Fellowes acted in the BBC adaptation of Coot Club but I’m not sure if he has referred to Swallows and Amazons in any of his novels of screenplays.

Tony Collins, who brought out 1,400 books as a publisher, mentions that he grew up reading Swallows and Amazons in the first page of his new memoir How to Make Mistakes in Publishing.

Sometimes it’s the Swallows and Amazons lifestyle that people speak of. Santa Montefiore ~ ‘I had an idyllic Swallows and Amazons childhood growing up in a beautiful Jacobean house on a farm in Hampshire.’ Guardian 

Frances Wheen who wrote the a-claimed biography of Karl Marx joined us at Pin Mill for a marathon reading of We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea hosted by the Nancy Blackett Trust

Brian Doyle, the publicist of many iconic movies including the original film of Swallows and Amazons, wrote about Arthur Ransome in his book, The Who’s Who of Children’s Literature, claiming that he launched a ‘new age’ in children’s literature by writing about his own childhood by the lakes he loved so much. He is featured in these books about making the film, available from all the usual sites online

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

For a list of other well known writers who have been inspired by Arthur Ransome, please click here.

Celebrities who love ‘Swallows and Amazons’

When Jonathan Cape first published Swallows and Amazons on 21st July 1930 for the price of 7/6d, it was eagerly received by numerous authors including JRR Tolkein and AA Milne. I’m often asked which well known people alive today have expressed an interest in Arthur Ransome’s series of books.

Griff Rhys Jones, who presented The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome using clips of the 1974 film of Swallows & Amazons in which I played Titty, joined me at Pin Mill in Suffolk for a marathon reading We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, the book that tells of the Swallows’ hair-raising voyage to Flushing. You can find Griff’s books here.

Griff Rhys Jones at Pin Mill for a reading of ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea’

John Sergeant, the veteran newscaster, has made a number of documentaries about Arthur Ransome, chatting to Griff on The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome, and The Secret Life of Books.

Geraint Lewis of The Arthur Ransome Trust sailing with John Sergeant

Ben Fogle interviewed Suzanna Hamilton and myself on Countryfile and Big Screen Britain after exploring the locations around Coniston Water. You can watch the episode here.

Ben Fogle interviewing Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville on Countryfile

Libby Purves, author and broadcaster, is now President of The Arthur Ransome Society. She refers to Swallows and Amazons in at least one of her novels.

Libby Purves afloat

A keen sailor, she also took part in the marathon reading of We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea organised by The Nancy Blackett Trust who own and look after Goblin, the yacht portrayed in the story.

Libby Purves reading ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’

Dame Ellen McArthur, yachtswoman and Patron of The Nancy Blackett Trust, claims that Arthur Ransome’s novels inspired her to sail. She gives Swallows and Amazons a good mention in her book Taking on the World. Ellen was portrayed by Suzanna Hamilton in a Stephen Sharkey play at a festival at the Southall Playhouse. Suzanna played Susan Walker in the 1974 film of Swalllows and Amazons.

Sir Richard Branson often says how much he loved the book as a boy, describing it as, “a lovely kids’ adventure book.” I met him years ago when I worked on The Russell Harty Show. To may amazement, he recognised me when I was filming in the street in Kensington, so perhaps he has watched the original film of Swallows and Amazons.

John McCarthy, the journalist and keen sailor, made a radio programme called Paddling with Peter Duck, sailing Swallow, the dinghy featured in the 1974 film. You can sail her yourself via SailRansome.com

Peter Willis on Ransome’s yacht Nancy Blackett with Kevin Dawson and John McCarthy

Theresa May said she loves Swallows and Amazons. ‘When she was young she appears to have enjoyed reading… listing… Swallows and Amazons among her favourites.’ Mirror and Daily Mail She gave a copy to Baroness Davidson, once leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.

Dame Judi Dench also read the book as a girl: “…Swallows and Amazons, I remember that very well indeed.” Good Housekeeping

David Dimbleby loves gaff-rigged boats and recently helped with PR at the London Boat Show. He visited us on the set of the BBC Drama serial Swallows and Amazons For Ever! filmed on location in Norfolk.

Sophie Neville with David Dimbleby on location in Norfolk back in 1983

Sir Ben Ainslie ~ Steven Morris of the Guardian reports: “He recalled how he started sailing in Cornwall on the creeks around Falmouth as a boy. Ainslie has called it a Swallows and Amazons kind of childhood. He had friends on the other side of the creek so he sailed over to see them.”

Ben lived in Lymington – and came to our club to celebrate after the Olympics.  

Congratulating Ben Ainslie on his Olympic gold medal

Nikki Henderson, the youngest ever Clipper Around The World yachtswoman was inspired by the book Swallows and Amazons naming Swallow and one of the coolest sailing boats ever in Yachting World as reported by the Nancy Blackett Trust.

Alan Smith of BBC Radio 4, appeared as a boy in the scenes shot at Bowness. He was on location at the Haverthwaite Railway Station in May 1973 on the first day of filming Swallows and Amazons(1974) with Virginia McKenna who starred in the film as Mrs Walker. To read more, please click here.

Alan Smith in the doorway of the train with his friend John Eccles

Miranda Hart (Miranda, Call the Midwife, Not Going Out) “Oh, I love these wonderful stories about outdoor life in one of the most beautiful parts of our country – the Lake District. Camping, sailing, exploring, discovering – it’s still the stuff of dreams for me. My favourite character was Peggy. She was shy and a little nervy but always kept up with her sister, who was captain of their boat. It was rather like me and my sister; although I was the elder, I was the shyer one, and often had to rely on my little sis to do the grown-up things. And I have to say Peggy is my favourite character still, because that’s partly who my dog is named after. I love that this book celebrates the importance and joy of friendship. But above all it harks back to a time when children had to use nature and their imagination to have fun through the long summer holidays. No iPads on tap here. I hope it inspires kids and adults who may have forgotten about the bliss and thrill and beauty of nature to rediscover it.” You magazine.

The list continues in the next post here.

The end-title theme music to ‘Swallows and Amazons’ composed by Wilfred Josephs

You can read about The Making of Swallows and Amazons in paperback or on Kindle. The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons is available on all the ebook platforms. There is a review here.

The Making of Swallows and Amazons by Sophie Neville
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ by Sophie Neville

Sophie Neville interviewed by Jadzia Smeaton on The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)

Sophie Neville author of The Making of Swallows and Amazons
Sophie Neville

What is most memorable about the making of Swallows and Amazons for you?

I love exploring the places Arthur Ransome features in his stories. We were privileged to live out the pages of the book on location in the Lake District, but sailing in nothing but a short cotton dress and a pair of navy blue gym knickers was decidedly chilly – we earned our passage.

Would you consider Susan to be an influence on Titty within the story?

Susan made camping on the island possible. Suzanna Hamilton, the remarkable British actress who played Susan in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, became our rock without becoming prim or losing the joy and excitement of adventure. She went on to play leading roles in a number of major movies including ‘Out of Africa’ opposite Meryl Streep and ‘1984’ with John Hurt and Richard Burton. She is still working on cutting edge productions and recently had a guest appearance in ‘Eastenders’.

Time Out – April 1974

Is there anything you think should always be included in different versions of ‘Swallows and Amazons’?

You must feature the green parrot! It’s vital to enter the world of a 9-12 year old child, capturing the trepidation. It would be interesting to adapt Arthur Ransome’s books without featuring adults, or only including them as shadowy facilitators.

How did you feel about playing a part where you were able to be the cunning and playful younger sister?

In real life, I was the elder of three sisters so took on the roles of both John and Susan. Playing Titty felt something of a release. I was freed from the responsibility of taking the helm.

Titty is well-read and bright, creative and imaginative but I wouldn’t call her cunning. She longs to be alone on the island to experience what it was like to be Robinson Crusoe, which is why she volunteers to stay behind to light the candles, but is that a cunning plot? She is an innocent.

What was your favourite line in Swallows and Amazons?

Titty’s lines are challenging and can only be uttered with humour and an acceleration of charm. I rather enjoyed, ‘X marks the spot where we ate six missionaries’, although I don’t think it can be found in the book. ‘Thank you so much for letting us see your lovely serpent’ would probably be disallowed these days.

Did you have a favourite scene?

Finding the lighthouse tree was a short sequence that worked well. We shot it on the banks of Derwentwater towards the end of the filming. But I most enjoyed our day with the charcoal burners. They were wonderful.

What did you enjoy most about filming in the Lake District?

We loved High Force, the waterfall, and exploring the mossy woodlands. Secret Harbour on Peel Island is very special, as is One Tree Island where we found the treasure.

Do you feel that you and your character influenced children?

Even now, nearly 48 years after the film was released, I receive correspondence from people telling me how the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ influenced their lives or helped carry them through a tough patch. It is always wonderful to hear how Titty has inspired others.

Maurice Thomas who used to live in Cockermouth wrote: ‘My mum and my Auntie Gladys took me to see this little children’s flick in 1974/5 as it was a double bill with ‘The Railway Children‘. I remember ‘The Railway Children‘ reasonably fondly, but ‘Swallows & Amazons‘ had me utterly mesmerised.’

If you were to give any advice to actors wanting to perform in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ what would it be?

Visit the locations. Go to Bank Ground Farm and run, fast, down the field to dip your hands in the lake as Arthur Ransome did as a child. Capture that feeling and carry it with you as you sing out the lines.

And be prepared for the impact the story will have. It could follow you all your life.

To read another recent interview with Authors Reach please click here

If you would like to read more about the secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons, you can ‘Look inside’ the ebook free of charge here:

Taqui Altounyan on Peel Island

Amazon, originally known as Mavis, now rsiding at the Coniston Museum
Amazon, originally known as Mavis, now residing at the Coniston Museum

People come from all over the world to visit Mavis, the traditional gaff-rigged dinghy known to all those who love the Arthur Ransome books as Amazon. She has been lovingly renovated but, still being a bit leaky, is on permanent display at the Coniston Museum in the Lake District. It was in this clinker-built dinghy and another little ship named Swallow that the Altounyan children learnt to sail on Coniston Water in the late 1920s.

In later life they used Mavis to teach their own children and grandchildren to sail. She was kept in Brigit Sander’s (ne Altounyan) boathouse at Slate Quay, which so resembles Ransome’s illustrations of the Amazon boathouse.

SUZIE, TAQUI, BRIGIT
Suzie, Taqui and Brigit Altounyan

One of the secrets of  ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is that the character of Captain John, was, if anything, loosely based on a the eldest girl in the family. Arthur Ransome obviously needed to balance genders and have two boys and three girls instead of only one boy, as in real life. Taqui Altounyan seemed to take this in her stride, giving him what advice she could. She has detailed this in her memoirs of the family’s lives:  In Allepo Once and Chimes from a Wooden Bell  – excellent books that have become much sort after.

Roger Wardale, author of many books about Arthur Ransome and the locations he used in his stories, kindly sent me these photographs of Taqui that he took when she was showing him some of the places where she played as a girl.

Taqui on PEEL Island -
Taqui Altounyan on Peel Island, Coniston Water

The Lake District, where her Collingwood Grandparents lived, was obviously a special place for her.

Taqui at Beacon Tarn
Taqui Altounyan pointing to the rocks from which they would jump into Trout (Beacon) Tarn.

These photographs of Roger’s show her walking back in time,

TAQUI VISITS PEEL I

visit Mavis in Coniston Museum

Taqui + MAVIS
Taqui Altounyan looking at Mavis, who was later renamed Amazon

and go aboard SL Esperance on Windermere,

Taqui, _You can sweep up_
‘You can sweep up’ Taqui Altounyan in Esperance

soaking up the atmosphere in her cabin.

Taqui HOUSEBOAT PICNIC
Taqui Altounyan with Roger Wardale and some of his former pupils inside the Esperance, which was the model for Captain Flint’s houseboat

Very many thanks to Roger Wardale, whose own books can be found listed here.

For more photos of Amazon please click here

You can read about making of the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ here:

Questions about my writing

Sophie Neville by Sylvain Guenot (trimmed)

Sallie Eden contacted me when she was staying at Bank Ground Farm last month, requesting an interview. I have pasted a few of her questions here:

  • Where do you write? In solitude? At home? I find it much easier to write the first draft of my book if I retreat to an African hut in the middle of no-where, which I managed to do in February and March of this year. However, much of writing is re-writing, which I do at any and every opportunity. Most of my books have to be checked by experts and get re-drafted a great many times while I improve the flow of the narrative. It’s hard work and takes time but I see it as vital. Even when a book is based on a dairy I might re-draft it 100 times, drawing on skills gained as a painter and when editing my own films. I have learnt to be unoffendable, preferring to laugh at my own mistakes rather than have them displayed in print.
  • What authors do you admire? I have been inspired by authors of amusing true life stories: Anne Lamott and Monica Dickens, James Herriot, Gerald Durrell and Helene Hanff, who wrote 84 Charing Cross Road from letters she’d received from a book shop in London. Gerald Durrell told me how he’d edited the story of his years spent on Corfu, making the construction of his book seem easy, when of course it must have been soul wrenching. I love CS Lewis and follow his advice on writing the book I would like to read that is not there.
  • Sophie Neville
    How do you describe yourself when people ask what you do?  I’ve managed to live about five lives professionally, working interchangeably as a writer, producer, artist, actress and horseback safari guide. All require practice to gain fluency and do well. None are much good a making money. Many people assume that we receive substantial residuals from Swallows & Amazons but we only earned £7.50 a day whist working on the film and nothing at all from VHS or DVD sales. The parrot earned £25 and he didn’t speak. I wish I was better at raising funds for charity. The need is so great. In the year 2000 I helped to set up the Waterberg Welfare Society in a corner of rural South Africa to help combat the pandemic HIV/AIDS. You can see some of the mad things we do help finance their work here:    
  • Do you need a trigger to start writing – to give you an idea? Good stories will always call out to be written and to be read. Getting down to illustrate them would be difficult if the drawings were not already waiting. I started putting together Ride the Wings of Morning when I was living in Africa but only added the illustrations once it was formatted, filling natural gaps between the letters which make up the book with sketches and paintings. I ended up using about 120 graphics, accumulated over the twelve previous years. Someday I am hoping that a version will be produced in full colour as a coffee-table book that will motivate others to get out into the wild and start painting. You can read about Ride the Wings of Morning here

For the full interview with Sallie Eden please click here

For Sallie Eden’s review of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ please click here

There are now three edition of Sophie’s book on The Making of Swallows and Amazons, available online here

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

Portrait photographs by Sylvain Guenot

Other Arthur Ransome books adapted for film and television by David Wood

Sophie Neville in Secret Harbour
Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in 1973

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David Wood, who wrote the screenplay for SWALLOWS & AMAZONS in 1973, has recently told me about his  work adapting other Arthur Ransome books – GREAT NORTHERN?, PIGEON POST, WE DIDN’T MEAN TO GO TO SEA and WINTER HOLIDAY – all for Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Project Films.
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Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water
Producer Richard Pilbrow with Director Claude Whatham in their wet weather gear at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water

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‘It was decided that GREAT NORTHERN? should be the follow-up to the SWALLOWS film, because it was ‘different’, being the only book set in Scotland. Also, the villainous birds’ egg collector was a strong adult role – Peter Sellers was mentioned….. We had great fun looking for locations, swooping around in a helicopter over Harris, Lewis etc.

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton & Sten Grendon with David Wood and Claude Whatham in 1973
Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton & Sten Grendon with David Wood and Claude Whatham in 1973

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‘Word got out that I was working on GREAT NORTHERN? and I had a very firm letter from Mrs Ransome saying that no permission had been granted to work on this title, and that it would not be granted!! No reason was given. Years later, the Ransome autobiography suggested that Mrs R didn’t like GREAT NORTHERN? and criticised it to Ransome’s face.  Also, he used sometimes to swan off to the Highlands with his friend, Quiller-Couch (I think) to fish, leaving Evgenia on her own back in the Lake District. The only communication from him would be the occasional delivery on a horse and cart from the railway station of a salmon, caught in Scotland the day before! Maybe she resented Scotland for luring him away! But she was determined that GREAT NORTHERN? the movie would never see the light of day!! But I still wrote a complete screenplay! I did a film treatment for WINTER HOLIDAY, that never got off the ground either.’

David Wood's screenplay of Swallows and Amazons
The script of the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ that I never saw until 2011

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PIGEON POST was to be a six-part serial,  a BBC-Theatre Projects co-production.  David remembers that they got as far as looking for locations in the Lake District. I started making preparations to cast the children for this drama which Joe Waters wanted to produce in 1983, directly after making COOT CLUB and THE BIG SIX under the generic title SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS FOREVER! that had been adapted for television by Michael Robson.
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‘WE DIDN’T MEAN TO GO TO SEA was also to be a serial. I did a treatment, visited Pin Mill and other locations, and met the man who built one of Ransome’s boats, or maybe worked on it with his father. All the materials and scripts still exist, but they are probably a bit too ‘straight’ for contemporary taste.’
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David Wood’s numerous other forthcoming events and theatrical releases are listed on his website.
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Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham on Peel Island
Can you help us?  Was Quiller-Couch the friend who whisked Arthur Ransome off to fish in the Hebrides?  Does anyone know where they went?
You can read more about the adventures we had whilst making Swallows and Amazons is these books, available to order online here
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'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

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