Tag Archives: 1970’s

Beyond, but because of, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~

Jan Leeming, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville

Jan Leeming, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville at a charity event in about 1975.

One of the reasons why I did not continue acting as a child was that it seemed rather more important to concentrate on my education. Another reason was that I simply grew too tall. I was all legs, like a foal.

Crossroads

Appearing as Kevin’s sister in the wedding episodes of the ATV Soap opera ‘Crossroads’. This continuity photograph shows how tall I’d grown. I wasn’t wearing high heels.

After a few years, the fact that I had leading parts in both Swallows and Amazons and The Copter Kids meant surprisingly little professionally, except that I was able to gain a much coveted Equity card. In the late 1970’s Trade Unions were very strong in Britain, holding the film and television industry under a ‘closed shop’ policy. If you were not a Union member you could not work, but you could not gain a Union card without having worked professionally. Even though I had taken starred in two movies and had appeared in a number of television dramas, I had only just worked for enough days to get a ‘Provisional Equity membership’ – although another reason for this might have been because I was still only sixteen. Virginia McKenna’s lovely daughter Louise, who I had met at the premiere, was working as a dancer in Spain to gain an Equity card. Meanwhile, directors in the UK could not find young actors in Equity to cast in their dramas. Not being fussy about how I looked, I volunteered to play the part of a boy in the HTV movie Kidnapped. 

Sophie Neville in the HTV movie 'Kidnapped'

Sophie Neville on location at Bisley in Gloucestershire, appearing as a messenger boy in the HTV movie ‘Kidnapped’ in about 1977.

Although the snow was not real, I nearly froze to death.  I must have appeared a more than twenty television dramas, wearing ever more uncomfortable costumes.  Wearing wigs was the worst thing. They can be terribly itchy.

Sherlock Holmes

Sophie Neville in a corset for ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’

Concentrating on academic work was certainly a warmer way to spend the day. I ploughed on with my studies only accepting work that I was offered close to where we lived. The exception was the Two Ronnies, which was recorded on the south coast but it was an opportunity not to be missed. I was about nineteen and had an amusing part in their long running story of Charley Farley and Piggy Malone – The Band of Slaves.

The Two Ronnies - Charley Farley and Piggy Malone

Sophie Neville, second from left, on location at Southampton Docks, appearing in The Two Ronnies for the BBC in about 1979

Since I was cast by Paul Jackson, the Producer, I hadn’t realised that Ronnie Barker would be directing the drama. It was the first time that I had acted with an actor/director, which was slightly tricky when I had my arms around him. The whole experience was surreal – and good fun. Ronnie had a wonderful costume designer who amused Ronnie by pouring us into outrageous outfits, including commodious Yashmaks.  She gave me little round spectacles.  Since I put on a Southern American accent I thought, ‘No one will ever recognise me in this part,’ – but they did.The series ended with a large wooden crate being lowered by a crane from a ship on Southampton docks. One side of the crate fell open and I marched out playing For all the Saints on a trombone, followed by all these ladies dress in pink. I’m holding a tuba in this shot but it was swapped for a trombone. My heel got stuck in one of the tram lines on the dockside but I kept marching on.

Sophie Neville in The Two Ronnies

Sophie Neville playing a trombone for Ronnie Barker in the Two Ronnies

My mother would have loved me to have followed her dream and try for RADA, where she was a student in the late 1950’s. Instead I was accepted by the University of Durham where I read Anthropology and made a number of very good friends.

In the summer of 1980 we went to see Virginia McKenna who was staring opposite Yule Brynner in the musical of The King and I in the West End. We would never have gone backstage if we hadn’t known her so well, if I hadn’t played her daughter in Swallows and Amazons. Virginia needed someone to look after her family in the country, while she was on the London stage. She wrote to ask my mother if she could recommend a cook-housekeeper. It was this domestic role I took on for the long university vacation, armed with a my school cookery book. It was just the Susan-ish job I needed to ground me. Bill Travers, Ginny’s husband, was working at home for much of the time, developing a screenplay for a film set in Africa.  Her son Will Travers had just returned from working on the crew of a movie made in the Nongorogro Crater in Tanzania, and, while her daughter Louise was still dancing in Spain, her second son was at boarding school, her youngest at day school. My feet did not touch the ground.

I couldn’t complain. Virginia hardly slept, and yet due to her obscure hours she could only ever see her youngest son when he was sleeping. She spent sixteen months at the London Palladium, with numerous other demands on her time such as performing at the Royal Variety Performance at the Theatre Royal in Dury Lane. While Yule Brynner had a bodyguard she would drive back though the night in her little blue car.

In her autobiography  The Life in my Years Virginia describes how The King and I  proved one of the highlights of her career. Yul Brynner was a complete perfectionist, which could make life hard, but she welcomed the discipline he bought to the theatre.  You don’t need to watch much of this clip to see  how demanding he could be ~

Almost as soon as I gained my Full Equity Union Membership, I decided that I really didn’t want to devote my life to acting.  After I finished working for Virginia McKenna, London Weekend Television came to make a drama called Dark Secret,  a two-part Sunday Night Thriller, shot at my parents’ house in the Cotswolds. Christopher Hodson, the director, thought it would be amusing if we turned up and knocked on the front door in the final scene, so I am regrettably credited is ‘Member of family party’ along with my mother.

Sophie Neville in 'Dark Secret'

Sophie Neville looking scary in The Sunday Night Thriller ‘Dark Secret’ for London Weekend Television in 1980

I’d actually been employed to help the Designer and his assistant modify our house in line with the story. I remember running errands for the Prop-buyer, who had no idea how to acquire action props of a rural nature such as dead rabbits. I got on so well with the LWT technicians that I decided that working on the crew was far more fulfilling that standing in front of the camera with an itchy hair-do. In 1982 I made a decision to opt for a career in television production. What I did not know is how soon Arthur Ransome would come back into my life.

For further details on the dramas I appeared in at this time, please scroll down on my About page.

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Filed under Acting, Autobiography, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, truelife story

Walking the Plank – The Battle of Houseboat Bay, 5th July 1973

Filming on location in Cumbria in 1973 ~ nearly forty years ago.

Our designer Simon Holland was rowing Swallow without his shirt. Producer Richard Pilbrow was hanging on the side of the houseboat clad in denim.  Terry Smith, the wardrobe Master, was busy drying off Ronald Fraser’s wet costume on the aft deck.  The white pith helmet was being touched up by the unit painter.  Unions must have been strict back then.

Director Claude Whatham was making the most of the rare but glorious Lake District weather to complete the scene on the foredeck of the houseboat. The Swallows, the Amazons and their Uncle Jim, who had just been made to walk the plank and was now dripping wet, waited patiently while I delivered Titty’s immortal line: ‘Captain Flint – we’ve got a surprise for you.’ Not quite the same as in Arthur Ransome’s book but it worked well.

War cries from everyone…

Kit Seymour, who was playing Nancy, must have dropped on top of us all.

The cabin of the houseboat had been turned into a dressing room for Ronald Fraser.

A long day’s filming out on the lake.

My mother took a series of photographs showing how the crew managed in the limited space:

Director Claude Whatham in blue demin talks to DoP Denis Lewiston. Terry Needham stands on deck ~ Photo: Daphne Neville

The 16mm camera in the grey punt.

The film crew with Director Claude Whatham talking to Simon West, Lesely Bennett, Ronald Fraser and Stephen Grendon on the foredeck ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I think the chap in the swimming trunks is a boatman from Keswick. Does anyone recognise him?

http://www.amazon.com/Swallows-Amazons-Region-Dinah-Sheridan/dp/B00008IARQ/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1344950585&sr=8-4&keywords=Swallows+and+Amazons+DVD

DoP Denis Lewiston with his assistant camerman, Sue Merry in black Claude Whatham and the film cast ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The 16mm camera was noisy. This would have been the shot taken when I said we just went through the movements.

Molly Pilbrow in the plaid jacket witht he cast and crew on the houseboat ~ photo: Daphne Neville who was acting as chaperone.

And all the time Molly Pilbrow was keeping an eye on the script. I don’t think there was any room for Graham Ford. He was looking after the base camp:

Production Manager Graham Ford in Derwent Water: photo ~ Daphne Neville

It had been a productive day; a battle well fought, the treasure returned.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

In search of Arthur Ransome’s locations ~ Part Two

Arthur Ransome must surely have fished here

‘Here we are, intrepid explorers, making the first ever voyage into unchartered waters. What mysteries will they hold for us?  What dark secrets shall be revealed?

We set off from the Lakeside Railway Station on the southern shore of Windermere to explore Arthur Ransome’s world full of excitement.  I was wondering how many signs of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ we would find, if we’d see the crossed flags that have become a symbol of the bestseller he wrote back in 1929.

Swallows and Amazons Tearoom ~ photo: Sophie Neville

We found the first sign the East of Lake road above Coniston Water. And there was Holly Howe where the Walker Family came for their holidays. It is so exciting to know that you can stay there too, or go for tea, and run down the field full of buttercups to dip your hands in the lake, just as the real Altounyan children – the real Swallows – must have done. We passed Lanehead, their grandparents’ house next-door as we drove down to Coniston. I gather it is for sale.

Bank Ground Farm the location used for Holly Howe

Coniston Old Man or Kanchenjunga, as the Swallows and Amazons called the mountain, was snoozing under a thick blanket of cloud but the challenge of climbing to the summit was for another day. Below the village, mooring up to the jetty at the Bluebird Cafe, was Ransome, the Coniston Launch. Peter Walker introduced us to the Captain who welcomed us aboard. He asked after Swallow the little ship from the film that we had re-launched from the very same jetty in April 2011. If you join The Arthur Ransome Society you can sail Swallow on Coniston this summer.

The Boatsheds at Bank Ground Farm

As we set off across the lake we could see Swallow’s boatshed clearly from the Coniston launch.  It has been renovated and repaired but the old stone jetty is still there, below the huge horse chestnut trees. I remember how cold the water was when we first brought Swallow out from the depths of that shed in May 1973 to shoot the opening scenes of the movie. Two sheep came down to see what we were doing. Richard Pilbrow, the Producer, gave me this black and white photograph that, unusually, shows Claude Whatham the Director setting up the shot. I was letting water drain from my shoe.

Finding Swallow

Simon West as Captain John standing in ‘Swallow’ at the stone boatshed jetty on Coniston Water with Ableseaman Titty and The Boy Roger. Director Claude Whatham knew how cold the water was that day in May 1973

The Coniston Launch can take you right down the lake to Wild Cat Island or Peel Island as it is really called. You can see the Secret Harbour best from a boat and imagine Titty trying to get out through the rocks in Amazon, in the dark, when she captured her from the terrifying Amazon Pirates.

We actually disembarked at Brantwood, John Ruskin’s House. It was here that the Altounyan children’s grandfather WH Collingwood worked as Ruskin’s private secretary. He painted him at his desk there. My niece has just graduated from The Ruskin School of Art in Oxford.

Peter Walker met us and drove us on down the lake to show us The Heald, a bungalow above the road where Arthur Ransome lived with his Russian wife, Evgenia and his dinghy, Coch-y-bonddhu. It was here that he wrote Picts and Martyrs Coch-y-bonddhu played the part of Dick and Dot’s boat Scarab. The original ‘Dogs Home’ can be found in the woods above the house. Rob Boden is very keen to restore it.

It was in the Grizedale Forest that we went to see the charcoal burners and met the real men in the process. And an adder. It was real too.

John Franklyn-Robbins, as Young Billy who is showing his adder to Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon, Jack Woolgar, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West at a location in the Grizedale Forest above Coniston Water

I looked back at the island where I spent so much of my childhood. It was difficult to imagine how a location catering wagon let alone two Route-master London double-decker buses could have driven down the winding East of Lake road. They parked in the field opposite the islands so the crew could at least eat lunch in the dry and we could have our lessons. The National Parks Authority had to ask the Production Manager to drape wartime camouflage netting over them. You must have been able to see the red buses for miles.

Sophie Neville on Coniston Water with Peel Island

The hat is a purple ode to the early 1970’s. My mother bought it at great expense in Carnaby Street. It is very good at keeping off the rain.

As you drive south you can look over the water to see Brown Howe, the house that we used as a location for Beckfoot in the film of Swallows and Amazons and shortly after, the Edwardian boathouse, which Claude Whatham used for the Amazons. I don’t think this was the one Ransome envisaged. His was at the mouth of the Amazon River – a reedy place. The pictures in the illustrations show a building with a low-pitched roof.

Peter took us down to a farm the south of Coniston Water where the real Ransome children spent their summer holidays. You can walk down the footpath they must have taken to dip their hands in the lake. And there I found what must be the real Amazon boat house.

The Slate Quay on Coniston Water ~ photo: Sophie Neville

Is this the real Amazon Boathouse?

To be continued…

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Filed under Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Bestseller, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Film, Film Cast, Film Catering, Film crew, Film History, Lake District, Landscape Photographs, Memoir, Movie, Photography, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story