Auditioning to play the part of Titty Walker in the original film of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Fifty years ago this day, auditions were being held at 10 Long Acre near Leicester Square in London for parts in the original film of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ produced by Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Projects with the help of Neville C Thompsom and financed by Anglo EMI Films. It was to star Dame Virginia McKenna, but the leading roles were all for children under the age of thirteen who needed to be able to row and sail.

Producer Richard Pilbrow with Neville C Thompson on Derwentwater in the Lake District in 1973
Richard Pilbrow and Neville C Thompson in the Lake District in 1973

I recently received a Tweet from the award-winning author Wendy Clarke who wrote: Funnily enough (many, many years ago) I auditioned for the film role of Titty Walker… I would have been 12 then. I didn’t belong to a sailing club and couldn’t sail! Amazed I got the audition!’

When I asked if she could tell me more, she replied: ‘I have next to no memory of the day so wouldn’t have very much to say about it! I’m seeing my mum tomorrow and have asked her to bring her 1973 diary!’ Here it is:

Wendy Clarke’s mother, Joy Matthews, kept a diary every day of her life

‘This is where I went for the audition apparently. Was that the same place as you?’

It was! I remember the actual room.

Wendy explained that her mother, Joy Matthews, ‘has written a diary every day since I can remember (even if it’s just to say what the weather was like). Over the years it’s been very useful. She is now 91. I think this was the photo we sent!’

Wendy Clarke, aged 12, who auditioned for a part

I’ve just been reading your post and laughing at the escapades during the shooting of S&A. Can I really picture myself in your shoes… if I’m honest, no! I would have been too much of a scary cat. Especially when the mast broke!

A friend of mine also auditioned for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ but she couldn’t remember any details. Simon West, who ended up being cast as Captain John, told me that he met Richard and Neville for a first audition at his sailing club. His sister, Ginny, who was keen on acting, spotted a notice, but his father was amazed when he said he would also like to be considered for a role in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Aged eleven, he was a little young for the part of John, but he was bright, practical with a passion for sailing. Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett, who would eventually play the Amazons, also heard about the opportunity at their respective sailing clubs. Richard Pilbrow was very keen to find children who could sail and were able to swim well.

Wendy wrote: ‘Second interview… so I couldn’t have done too badly! (Probably still hadn’t mentioned the small matter of not being able to sail)… I may not have got the part but least I got to go to Madame Tussauds and the Planetarium!’

My parents only received a letter asking if I would like to be considered for a part on 26th March 1973. It was addressed to my father who was on an export mission to South Africa and the envelope lay unopened in our hall for a while. Luckily it was printed with the Theatre Projects logo and Mum did open it. We collected Dad from Heathrow and drove straight to Leicester Square and walked through China Town. I remember Claude looking rather intense as he asked me questions. He wanted to know what my favourite television progamme was. I don’t think he asked me to read anything, which was just as well as I would have been hopeless. Did he ask if I could row or sail? I might have told him that I could swim well, as I’d just gained a bronze life saving medal, one of my few achievements to date.

I too was taken to Madam Tausauds when the ticket took you to the neighbouring Planetarium as a double bill. We possibly went after another visit to London for ‘Swallows and Amazons’.

Wendy returned to Theatre Projects’s offices in Long Acre for a third interview. She was doing well:

I was fortunate in that I’d worked for Claude Whatham in 1971 when he had cast me as Eileen Brown in the first BBC adaptation of Laurie Lee’s book ‘Cider With Rosie’, set in the 1920s. We later found out that Claude liked working with actors like Brenda Bruce who he had employed on previous occasions. I’m not sure when he joined the production of ‘Swallows and Amazon’ but it could have been late in the day as he was the second director taken on board.

Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham

We were told that 1,800 children had been considered for the six parts in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Most of them had been members of sailing clubs. Claude had not wanted to visit stage schools but Suzanna Hamilton, who was cast as Mate Susan, had been going to the Anna Scher after school Theatre Club in Islington, which he may have visited. I had first met him at a drama club in Stroud in Gloucestershire in 1971.

Our final audition was held afloat, when about twenty children spent a weekend on a scout boat at Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex. This can’t have been an easy location for my parents to get to but Richard and Claude wanted to see how confident we all were on the water. We were taken dinghy sailing in wet and windy conditions. I remember Kit and her twin sister Alison Seymour facing the waves without a qualm. Richard bought his children Abigail and Fred along and I knew Sten Grendon who had also been in ‘Cider With Rosie’. We might have travelled to Essex together. The five girls up for the part of Titty all shared a cabin. I thought I was too old, too tall and too gangly. We were not aware of a screen test but Richard’s assistant Molly took super 8 cine footage.

Meanwhile, Wendy Clarke had been taken to Cumbria by her parents: ‘We’d gone to the Lake District to get a feel for it. Hadn’t heard anything about interview so Mum rang and, as she so very succinctly put, ‘that’s that’. That made me laugh.’

I noticed they had been to see the waterfall where we eventually shot a scene on the way to visit the charcoal burners.

Wendy wrote: ‘That May, mentioned in Mum’s diary extract, was my very first time in the Lake District. It was only years later, in my forties, that I visited again and fell in love with it. Maybe I’m destined to sail that boat after all! So lovely to ‘meet’ you (even though I probably hated you at the time for taking my part (which I would have been rubbish at anyway!) x

Wendy Clarke, whose website can be found here

‘My husband has just said, ‘why did you not tell me any of this?’ I was probably just relieved I didn’t have to get in a boat! In later life I discovered I was better at novel writing than acting!’

She added: ‘I’ve just found something else that links us. We both entered our books into the Flash Fiction Novel Opening Competition. My debut psychological thriller What She Saw, which was set in the Lake District, won it in 2017!’ I had a story shortlisted in 2022, which was encouraging.

Claude Whatham with the children he eventually cast as the Swallows

I would love to hear from others who auditioned all those years ago – do email me or leave a comment below. I have written a little more about the gaining the part from my perspective on an earlier post here.

We are approaching the 50th Anniversary of the filming, which began on 14th May 1973 – only a few weeks after my first interview. I’ve been asked to give a few talks on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, which I will detail on my Events page. You can find different editions of my books listed here

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

with an audiobook, narrated by me, Sophie Neville, available on all the usual platforms.

Dame Virginia McKenna and her work on the classic film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Virginia McKenna in 'Swallows and Amazons' (1974) by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu
Virginia McKenna in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) immortalized by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu (c) StudioCanal

I was so thrilled to read that Virginia McKenna has been awarded a DBE for services to wildlife conservation and to wild animal welfare in the New Year Honours. When I last spoke to her, she was working tirelessly for the Born Free Foundation that she co-founded with her son Will Travers OBE.

I first met Dame Virginia in 1973 when she agreed to star in the first big screen adaptation of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, produced by Richard Pilbrow, directed by Claude Whatham and released by EMI Films in 1974. She played the part of my mother, Mary Walker. The movie was shot entirely on location in the Lake District where Arthur Ransome set his classic series of children’s books.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm
Dame Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

The film has been broadcast on British television more than any other but it is when you watch it on the big screen that you can appreciate what made Virginia McKenna such a great star. Her face conveys a thousand tiny emotions that sweep you into a long-forgotten time when children were able to run free. 

Virginia McKenna holding the telegramme
Dame Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground in Cumbria ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

Dame Virginia had originally been scheduled to come up to Cumbria for the first ten days of the seven-week shoot but, since wet weather closed in, she was obliged to return when the sun came out for the famous scene when Roger tacks up the field at Holly Howe to receive ‘despatches’ in the form of the cryptic telegram BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN. 

Virginia McKenna with Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan
Dame Virginia McKenna with Ronnie Cogan ~ photo:Daphne Neville (c)

Dame Virginia enjoyed the discipline and focus of concentration on set and helped centre us from the start. If you watch other movies made at the time, such as ‘The Railway Children’ (1970), most of the adult actresses are wearing wigs with a district nineteen-seventies feel to their costume and make-up.  ‘Swallows and Amazons’ owes its timeless appeal to the fact that Virginia simply had had lovely thick hair scooped into a bun and wore her original 1929 garments with grace.

Sophie Neville as Titty
Sophie Neville as Titty in 1973 – photo: Daphne Neville (c)

I played Titty Walker who inveigled her mother into playing Man Friday to her Robinson Crusoe when she came to visit Wild Cat Island. The sequences were shot on Peel Island on Coniston Water where Ransome was taken as a boy by his own parents and met the Collingwood family in the 1890’s. He later became a good friend of Dora Collingwood whose five children became the inspiration for the story ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Her third daughter, the dreamer, was nicknamed Titty.

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island
Dame Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

It can not have been easy for Virginia to act with me, a child of twelve, while frying pemmican in butter on a camp fire. I was self-conscious about having lost an eye-tooth the night before and had rather a sore mouth and she later had to row from the island with a 35mm Panavision camera in her boat.

What I’d forgotten until recently was that Bill Travers watched the filming that day on Peel Island. He’d been a hero of mine ever since he played George Adamson in ‘Born Free’ and Gavin Maxwell in ‘Ring of Bright Water’ opposite Virginia. Their film, ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’, was released as a double bill with ‘Swallows and Amazons’

You can see a few more behind-the-scenes photos here and I’ve written more about being Robinson Crusoe here.

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville
‘They were very savage savages’ ~ Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

Looking back, I realise how fortunate we were to be able to play out the scenes from the iconic book in the actual locations, such as Bank Ground Farm where the Collingwood children had stayed one holiday as children, so they could visit their grandparents who lived at Tent Lodge next door and were too unwell to have them in the house.

The Walker Family at Holly Howe
Sten Grendon, Simon West, Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville at Bank Ground Farm, in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

We were not so keen on the publicity photographs taken for the film even though Virginia tried to make it fun. Right from the the very first day of filming, she worked hard to bring us together as a cast, playing games such as ‘Consequences’ to help us laugh and relax, while concentrating on the task of bringing the book to life.

The Walker family played by Suzanna Hamilton Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Virginnia McKenna and Simon West at Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria
Suzanna Hamilton Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Dame Virginia McKenna and Simon West – photo Daphne Neville (c)

In 1980, I went to work for Ginny and her husband Bill Travers, as a housekeeper for a few months. She needed domestic help while she was appearing with Yule Brynner in ‘The King and I’ at the London Palladium, for which she won an Olivier Award for Best Actress in a musical.  I looked after her youngest son, Dan, who later worked as a safety officer and consultant on the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I met him at the cast and crew screening in Leicester Square.

– Dan Travers and Sophie Neville in 2016 –

Ginny and I kept in touch. She was ever-supportive, encouraging me to keep raising funds for anti-poaching in South Africa, where she had been evacuated as a child during WWII. 

It was only when I heard her speak at the Kempsford  Literary Festival in the Cotswolds that I learnt that other ships in her convoy to Cape Town had been torpedoed and sunk crossing the Bay of Biscay. By some miracle, her ship had been delayed in Liverpool but she described finding the flotsam left by the ships that had been hit.

Having written a number of books herself, Ginny encouraged me to write, urging me to keep focused on one thing.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground

Her letters and cards also inspired me to keep raising funds for wildlife conservation in Africa.

Merry Christmas African animals card design by Sophie Neville
A Christmas card design by Sophie Neville

In turn, I supported the Born Free Foundation, printing them greeting cards, donating a Christmas card design for their catalogue and a picture that was auctioned at the Big Cat Open Day in Kent.

Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2000
Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001 – photo Daphne Neville (c)

In 2014, StudioCanal invited us both to appear in the DVD Extras package for the 40th anniversary DVD of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974). While we were waiting for the crew, she told me that she’d appeared in more than thirty movies. I know she’s made a few more since then.

You can watch her interview here:

Interview with Virginia Mckenna

I released the first edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ for which Virginia graciously provided a quote. You can read the first few pages in the preview of the ebook, entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons 1974’ here

To hear Virginia and her son Will Travers talking about receiving her DBE, please click here for BBC Sounds

~ ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons 1974’~

Swallow, the dinghy that starred in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Sten Grendon as Roger and Sophie Neville as Titty rowing Swallow
(c)StudioCanal

BBC Antiques Roadshow featured Swallow, the dinghy used in the original feature film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in their first episode at Windermere Jetty repeated recently on BBC One. You can read about how she was valued by Rupert Maas on an earlier post on this blog here.

I wrote a little more about her history in an article for Practical Boat Owner, Britain’s most popular sailing magazine. The story opens in 2010, when I nearly bought her myself:

Swallow is coming up for auction,’ my father said, sending me the details of a clinker-built sailing dinghy stored in Mike Turk’s warehouse in Twickenham. It was the Spring of 2010. I took one look at the online photographs and wept.

Swallow stored in Twickenham

The letters WK were carved on her transom. It was the twelve-foot, all-purpose, run-around vessel built by William King of Burnham-on-Sea that had been purchased by Richard Pilbrow in 1973 to feature as Swallow in the original feature film of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel Swallows and Amazons.

Swallow built by William King of Burnham-on-Crouch

I knew the little ship intimately. She looked a bit dried out but my husband thought we ought to buy her. I had played the part of Able-seaman Titty, the nine year-old girl who Ransome so cleverly made into the heroine of the story when she grabbed a chance to capture the Amazon, which enabled the Swallows to win the war set to determine ‘who should be the flag-ship’. In mooring her prize overnight near Cormorant Island, Titty witnessed Captain Flint’s stolen treasure chest being buried and was eventually able to rescue it. She was rewarded by the gift of a green parrot.

‘Did you know how to sail before playing Titty in Swallows and Amazons?’ people often asked. The truth was that I had crewed for my father in a similar dinghy and felt confident in a boat. I had grown up living by a lake in the Cotswolds where we had a Thames skiff, which I was used to handling. This was important as Titty does quite a bit of rowing in the film. She and Roger become galley-slaves rowing back from the charcoal burners’, they row out to Cormorant Island and she takes the Amazon out of Secret Harbour. This I did alone, in one take, later rowing some distance from Peel Island with the lighting cameraman and his 35mm Panavision Camera onboard. No one had thought about the implications of this when we first tried out the two boats on Windermere but being aged twelve, rather than nine, I just about coped and grew adept at launching Swallow and moving about in her. As the book was written in 1929, we did not wear life-jackets.

Swallow with Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton (c) StudioCanal

Arthur Ransome described Swallow as being thirteen-foot long with a keel, rather than a centre board. In the illustrations she is painted white, a common way of protecting wood in the 1930s. I am pretty sure that Richard Pilbrow, the producer of the movie, bought the dinghy we used when we where in Burnham-on-Sea to audition for the parts in March 1973. She was varnished but had, or was given, the red-brown sail and balanced lug-sail as described in the books.

Simon West who played Captain John, aged only eleven, was a capable sailor with an understanding of the wind that enabled him to cope with gusty Lakeland conditions. Swallow had no buoyancy. In the scenes when we first sail to the island she was laden with camping gear, including heavy canvas tents, the lighthouse tree lantern and a shallow basket of kitchen utensils I shifted every time we went about.

My father Martin Neville on the shore of Coniston Water

My father was an experienced sailor, used to racing yachts having frequently crossed the Solent in his own clinker-built dinghy as a boy. He was looking after us children when he agreed to appear in costume as a ‘native’ aboard the MV Tern on Windermere, which bares down on the Swallows in the story. He watched, terrified, as we sailed towards it. The Victorian steamer only had a notch throttle and an inexperienced skipper. He realised that Claude Whatham, the film director had not anticipated the fact that we would lose our wind in the lee of the passenger ferry and gave Simon a cue over the radio that was far too late. We only just went about in time, being pushed away from the larger vessel by the bow wave. Watch the film and you can see how very close we got. I was about to reach out and feebly fend off.

Dad spoke sternly to the producer that afternoon, pointing out that we could have all gone down. Sten Grendon, who played the Boy Roger, was only aged eight and could hardly swim. I could have become entangled in the camping gear. My father tested the old BOAC life jackets we wore for rehearsals and to travel out to film locations. They failed to inflate. He nearly took me off the film.

Swallow and Amazon on the Puffin cover

Another tricky scene to film was when John, Susan and Roger set off from the Landing Place on Wild Cat Island leaving Titty to guard the camp and light the lanterns as they hoped to capture the Amazon and sail home after dark. I had push them off, grabbing the telescope at the last minute. Since Swallow’s mast was liable to catch in tree branches, I needed to wade out and give her a hard, one-handed shove. I slipped on a rock and fell up to my waste in water. Knowing it would be difficult to set up the shot a second time, I struggled to my feet and waved them off, dripping wet. By this time John had the mainsheet out as far as the knot and stood to grab the boom to avoid a Chinese gybe as Swallow was hit by a fresh gust of wind as he cleared the headland at the northern end of the island and sped northwards toward Coniston Old Man.

Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton at the helm of Swallow with Stephen Grendon in the bows, while Sophie Neville looks on from Peel Island.

Having spent nearly seven weeks filming in the Lake District, the film was post-synced at Elstree studios. We arrived to sing out our lines to find Swallow there. She had been set in a tank so that the sounds of sailing could be captured. It is something you tend to take for granted as a viewer while it draws you into the experience. I last saw Swallow looking dejected outside the studio and was worried about what had become of her. Although she was offered to someone who had advised on the film, she was kept safely at Mike Turk’s prop hire company. Richard Pilbrow was hoping to make another film in the series.

Swallow at
Swallow at Mike Turk’s store in London

When Mike retired, many boats that had featured in movies came up for auction. I knew Swallow would be costly and in need of renovation. After fans of the film and members of The Arthur Ransome Society contacted me, we clubbed together to make a bid. In the end about eighty members of a hastily formed group called SailRansome spent approximately £5,700 on the purchase.

I contacted Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, the film producer who was gaining the rights to make a new movie, hoping we could be able to re-coup costs by renting her back to him. Nick came up to Coniston Water to watch me re-launch Swallow in April 2011, sloshing brandy wine on her bow in true Ransome style. I helped him to raise finance for the new film, which was made in the summer of 2015 and released in 2016, starring Kelly Macdonald as Mrs Walker, Rafe Spall as Captain Flint and Andrew Scott as a Russian spy. In the end, he decided to use fourteen-foot RNSAs dinghies for Swallow and Amazon as they satisfied the film insurance company who demanded that two identical dinghies were used for Swallow.

This article was first published in Practical Boat Owner magazine

Joining SailRansome was pivotal for me as I was asked by the Nancy Blackett Trust and The Arthur Ransome Society to give a series of talks on how the old film, and the BBC serialization of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ was made. I ended up speaking at a number of literary festivals, on BBC Radio and even ITV’s News at Ten, promoting the societies and urging people to help get young people out on the water. I ended up taking Swallow out on Ullswater, the Orwell and River Alde, remembering how difficult she is to turn, but enjoying her speed. She ended up being featured on BBC Antiques Roadshow when I brought movie memorabilia up to Windermere Jetty museum for two episodes first screened in 2021.

Sophie Neville with Swallow on Coniston Water
Sophie Neville after re-launching Swallow on Coniston Water in 2011

You can sail Swallow yourself, in the company of an experienced skipper, by contacting SailRansome.org who are looking for volunteers to help care for her. As you can see from this clip, she was in need of restoration when first acquired by Sailransome

You can read more about the adventures we had making the original film in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)‘ by Sophie Neville, published by the Lutterworth Press, available from libraries, online retailers and to order from all good bookshops including Waterstones.

An article by Sophie Neville first published in Practical Boat Owner. A subscription to this bestselling UK magazine makes a great Christmas present.

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:

Titty’s Tooth in The Times

Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville – trying to row with her mouth shut.

The story of my missing tooth published in The Times! A great honour. The indignity of being toothless still rankles but I now have a full set.

You can find the whole story on The Nancy Blackett Trust website

It’s possible to spot the gap by watching the film trailer for the 1974 movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with further information on the International movie data base also seen here:

Sophie Neville, aged 12, without tooth. Suzanna Hamilton, aged 12, with beautiful teeth.

The lighthouse tree lantern from Swallows and Amazons (1974) has come to light

I received an interesting series of emails recently from a stone mason called Philip Chatfield:

“Hi Sophie, I was watching ‘Swallows and Amazons’, the old classic, on Talking Pictures TV… great channel. Curiously, I have, hanging in my cottage ceiling timbers, the lantern you used for the Lighthouse on Wild Cat Island !!!!!!”

The lighthouse tree lantern today

‘Lanterns like this pattern are not common, so I presume it must be the one used in your 1974 film. I like to think so. There is a hole in the top of my lantern which has been plugged up and holes in the base too. If you use the lantern with candles, which is what I always do. then you cannot have a hole in the top of the lantern. Heat goes up and out of it and the rope or wooden handle may catch fire! It is stopped up with a small bolt with a flat rounded top.’

The holes would have been made to insert an electric light behind the candle so that it would show up on film.

Sten Grendon (Roger), Suzanna Hamilton (Susan) and Sophie Neville (Titty) at the lighthouse tree in the 1974 movie of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’

It certainly looks like the lantern we used, which I knew well at the time. A hurricane lamp is used in the book Swallows and Amazons. John, ‘tied the other end round the oil box at the bottom of the lantern’, although candle lanterns were used to mark Secret Harbour.

You can see the lantern lying near Swallow’s mast

The black lantern was packed into Swallow on the voyage to the island, visible when the Walker children narrowly miss the Tern. You can see it lying in the shallow basket.

Film stills taken by Albert Clarke in 1973

It was rather uncomfortable to lean over when handing Roger the telescope.

Swallow nearly collides with MV Tern

The basket was taken out of Swallow at the landing place and Titty moves it up the beach ‘for fear of tidal waves.’ See if you can take some screen shots of it hanging from the lighthouse tree.

The same lantern was used in the movie ‘Far From the Madding Crowd'(1967) starring Alan Bates, Peter Finch, Terence Stamp and Julie Christie.

Terrence Stamp with the lantern

You can also see it hanging from a farm cart.

The same lantern

Philip says, ‘Clearly all the props went back to the Turk Phoenix shed near Teddington after shooting.’

Mike Turk’s warehouse full of film props

‘I never thought about it before but I used to work on a sailing ship called Grand Turk, which was owned by Mile Turk of Turk Phoenix who did a lot of film work.’

SV Grand Turk with Philip Chatfield firing a live shot on the Solent.  “That would have given Captain Flint’s houseboat a shaking up!”

‘The Grand Turk played the HMS Indefatigable in ‘Hornblower’ with Ioan Griffiths and co. While I was on board (as Third Mate and Gun Captain) I needed more props for the gunnery dept. The lantern was one of the props we had on board. It came from Turk Phoenix who still had one of the boats used in your wonderful film.’

Swallow at Mike Turk’s warehouse in 2010

‘Mike Turk’s business provided nautical props.’ When Mike reached the end of his life and fell ill, many of these were sold at auction in 2010, including the dinghy that played Swallow in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974), which was purchased by group of film fans now known as SailRansome.

Swallow prepared for auction in 2010

‘Before my time on Grand Turk I spent five years working on a lovely old square rig ship called MARIA ASUMPTA. Back in 1991 we sailed from London’s St Katherine’s Dock to Ipswich. We anchored off Shotley on the Orwell pretty much where the GOBLIN in Ransome’s book ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go to Sea’ book was set. As we hauled up our anchor we brought up a small kedge anchor. I still have it. At the time I was convinced it may have been from the story or even the sailing trip the story was originally based on. Who knows, but it is a lovely anecdote.  We had sailed the autumn before to Flushing in Holland and did a tour of the inland waters of Holland.’ 

Philip Chatfield with a kedge anchor

‘Sadly, Maria Asumpta was lost off Padstow in May 1995 with the loss of three crew. Thankfully I was one of the survivors.’

Maria Asumpta wrecked on a desolate shore

‘You can just see me standing staggering, second from the left, in a state of shock. Three were lost but I was amazed more weren’t, frankly. My friend the bosun Graham is sitting on the stern about to leap off. He survived, just. The ship had been built in Barcelona and launched in 1858.’ By the 1990’s it was the oldest square rigger still sailing.’ A true ship wrecked sailor! What would Titty say?

Philip Chatfield in HMS Victory working on a carving of Lord Nelson in 2008

‘As a stone carver and sculptor I make memorials. A few years ago I was asked to do the memorial for one of my old school teachers and eventually his wife, who now shares his grave in Monmouth. She was Helen Bucknall but her mother was Mrs Henry Clay. The Ransome book  ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ is dedicated to Mrs Henry Clay no less. Henry Clay was a friend and colleague of Ransome’s on the Manchester Guardian, also a keen sailor. I think Helen and her family were the inspiration for the story in the book. So Helen has a carving of the yacht they sailed as children on the large Welsh slate memorial in Monmouth cemetery.’

‘The galling thing for my friends, whose mother was Helen, is that they can’t find the original first edition of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ that Ransome signed. Hope it turns up. At least that charming card exists. Love his little sketch of the dinghy.’

‘Anyway, hope this is of interest… well done for all you do.  I have a hard copy of the book on order! Can’t wait. Very best wishes, Philip Chatfield’

The lighthouse tree lantern today

To read more about some of the Swallows and Amazons movie memorabilia, including Swallow’s flag and the fishing rods, please click here

To read more about ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ – click here

This lovely documentary shows Philip’s recent work on railways:

The disaster of the missing tooth – whilst making the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

Earlier in the year, I spoke to Helen Millican on BBC Radio Cumbria about making the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the Lake District, back in the summer of 1973. We have had an amusing development.

Sophie Neville speaking to Helen Millican on BBC Radio Cumbria

I had been chatting away, telling Helen that people like hearing about all the disasters we had whilst filming on location. One odd thing that went wrong was that one of my milk-teeth fell out in the middle of shooting a scene with Virginia McKenna on Peel Island. At the time, I was somewhat distracted and self-conscious about this but could do no more than try to keep my mouth shut.

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island
Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville ~ photo: Daphne Neville

However, viewers often spot the fact that my tooth suddenly disappeared. They still talk about it nearly fifty years later. Helen assured me that the tooth fairy was bound to turn up with it, suggesting I could then take the small canine on BBC ‘Antiques Roadshow’, which was being recorded at Windermere Jetty museum in Cumbria at the time.

The tooth that went missing – top right

Amazingly, the missing tooth has been sent to me.

Peter Robb-King, the Make-up Designer on ‘Swallows and Amazons’, rang to say that he had kept it safely in a metal film canister labelled ‘Titty’s tooth’. He promised to send it to me in the post so that I could add it to my bizarre collection of movie memorabilia – valued by Marc Allum at £4,000 to £6,000.

Sophie Neville being made up for the part of Titty by Peter Robb-King in 1973

Helen was delighted to hear that the tooth had materialized after 48 years. “Wow, Sophie what a result, after we made such a joke of it as well! That might just take your valuation up to the next level!”

Peter explained that he took the milk tooth to a dentist in Ambleside to ask if a bridge could be made to temporarily replace it but I remember the director, Claude Whatham, saying that he would ‘have to live with it’ – it being something of a continuity problem as he was yet to shoot earlier scenes of us sailing to the island. As a result, film fans can now work out which sequences were shot right at the end of our time on location even though they come before the scene with Man Friday (played by Virginia McKenna) in the storyline.

My missing tooth, kept since 1973

Peter Robb-King went on to have an amazing career in film, working on ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, ‘Aliens’, and a number of ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Batman’ and ‘Star Wars’ movies. He told me that he originally found it difficult to break into Make-Up Design as a man, but managed to win a post as a trainee on ‘The Avengers’ in 1968. ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) was his first job as a Make-Up Supervisor, proving a break-through for him and other members of the film crew. It was the first film made by the producer Richard Pilbrow and David Wood’s first screenplay. Suzanna Hamilton, who played Susan, went on to star in many movies including ‘1984’ with John Hurt and ‘Out of Africa’ opposite Meryl Streep. She has recently had a guest appearance on ‘EastEnders’.

Peter Robb-King can be glimpsed right at the end of this cine clip taken on location

Now retired, Peter and his wife live in Maidenhead but enjoy travelling around. We had a long chat about the green parrot as he later adopted a young one that was rescued while making an Indiana Jones film in Sri Lanka. Stephen Spielberg looked after another parrot from the clutch.

You can read more about the disasters that befell us whilst filming in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, signed copies of which are available from libraries, The Nancy Blackett Trust book shop and other online distributors.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'

If you enjoy ebooks, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ has links to behind-the-scenes cine footage and is very good value at £2.99 – available on Kobo, Smashwords, iTunes and on Kindle here

To read a little more about filming with Virginia McKenna on Peel Island, please click here

A list of Peter’s film credits can be found here: Peter Robb-King – IMDbimdb.com

An article on the tooth in the Times

You can listen to the ten minute recording of my chat with Helen Millican of Radio Cumbria on the Nancy Blackett Trust website here.

The episode of BBC ‘Antiques Roadshow’ showing movie memorabilia from the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ can be watched on BBCiPlayer here.

You can spot the missing tooth but the movie trailer can be seen here as we attack the houseboat. The clip is slightly out of sinc.

Memories to add to the third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ – part three

“One pandemic discovery for my family was 1974’s ‘Swallows and Amazons,’ a charming British film about kids just playing on a lake. On their own, they’re plenty capable of making their own tents and adventures”, the US film critic Jake Coyle wrote in a review for the Associated Press.

Many people have fond memories of watching the original movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when it first came out in cinemas nearly forty-seven years ago and list it in their Top Ten feature films of all time.

David Kerr wrote: “I first saw the film while I was a junior projectionist. I was 17 at the time. My cinema was called the Astor in Bromley, part of south east London. While an independent cinema, we took the ABC circuit films. Somewhere, I have the LP record and a poster of the film. I went on to a career spanning 40 years in international film distribution.”

“It remains one of my top ten films even to this day. I worked for 20th Century Fox…Polygram…and United International Pictures which distributed Universal, Paramount and Dreamworks films. I had a good career and witnessed the good the bad and the ugly during my travels.”

Simon West and the camera crew at Bank Ground Farm

“From memory, I can recall that the film was released over the Easter school holidays in 1974. It’s just been helped as I have found a press ad online and it lists South London unusually running the film first on April 14th.”

Finding Swallow
Simon West, Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville with the director Claude Whatham

“I believe the film was supported by ‘The Lion at Worlds End’ …the documentary that Virginia and Bill Travers made with George Adamson about returning an African lion to the wild. I know I ran the film again either in 1975 or ’76 as an afternoon matinee only with a Kung Fu adult programme in the evenings.”

Brenda Bruce and Simon West on location above Coniston Water

“The film means a lot to me and has done so since 1974. It made me revisit the books…which I still read (currently dipping in and out of an old hardback edition of ‘Pigeon Post’) but I believe I had only read one during my childhood, which I think was ‘Swallowdale’. I also embarked on a number of holidays in the lakes because of the film. That first year I camped on a farm at Torver on the west side of Coniston.”

Simon West as John Walker studying the chart at Holly Howe before the voyage.

“The reason I include it in my top ten is simple. It is pure storytelling that takes the viewer on an adventure. You do not notice the individual aspects of film making you just become engrossed in the story. And that is what a good film should do. I watched it again just last week on a streaming service… It makes me smile ….what more can I say.”

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville on location at Bank Ground Farm

John Rose wrote: “I can remember watching the film in 1974 with my mum and grandma when I was a nine or ten year-old, at the then called Mecca Cinema in Horsham, Sussex (sadly now demolished). I remember loving the natural setting and the adventure in the film and remember it being thrilling and suspenseful! Still my favourite film, so cheerful and up-lifting. The lovely music! All still brings a tear to my eye.  Back then in the ’70s we didn’t have the lakes but at every opportunity our little band of local children would run off over the fields playing, building camps and climbing trees in the woods – such happy, carefree days.”

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Sten Grendon in Swallow

Last time the film was broadcast on BBC Two, David Stott, who worked as a unit driver on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when he was fresh out of college, wrote in to say: “I remember how cold you all were whilst filming the swimming scene.  The lily pond scene brought back memories of a very wet day on Pull Wyke caravan park.  Most of the day was spent in the two double decker buses that were your school room and the canteen waiting for the rain to clear. Everyone was so grateful to pack up and go home.”

Sten Grendon as Roger with Suzanna Hamilton as Susan

 

“I had many incidents with the parrot that I had to collect in the morning and return at night.  I hated the bird, often it was let free in a bathroom at Kirskstone Foot and l would have to catch it and put it in its travel bag. I notice in the film that it is chained down whilst it is sitting on your shoulder.”

Kit Seymour as Nancy, Sophie Neville as Titty and Beauty playing Polly the green parrot.

 

“I would spend a lot chatting to Ronnie Logan the hairdresser while the shooting was taking place, such a nice man.”

“The day they filmed the walking the plank scene I remember very well.  I took Ronnie Fraser to the Lodore Swiss hotel at  lunchtime and he was really very well plastered by the time I got him back for the afternoon filming.  I suppose it was the only way they managed to get him in the water.  He was not a happy chappy that afternoon when I eventually took him back to Ambleside.”

“I had to put the rushes on the train to London in the evening and collect developed film (how times have changed).  One of my treats was that I was allowed to watch the rushes with the production team in the evening. Watching it again this afternoon was a real trip down memory lane.  I cannot believe that I was a student starting out in life at the time and now l am a pensioner.  Where has all that time gone?”

Simon West and Sophie Neville on Peel Island in 1973
 
You can read more in the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’
.
 
 

You can see some of the illustrations here:

At Windermere Jetty museum – to see the amazing boats

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) 

In the summer of 1973, I was transported to the shores of Windermere, ‘The Great Lake in the North’ to appear as ‘Titty Walker’ in the classic movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, starring Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser.

The Swallows approach the jetty in Rio. Which launch is moored outside the boat sheds?

We were fortunate enough to film the scenes set in Rio at Bowness-on-Windermere before the original green boat sheds were demolished in favor of an amusement arcade.

Rio – or Bowness-on-Windermere in 1973 – with SL Elizabeth ~ photo: Martin Neville

George Pattinson brought along his steamboat the Lady Elizabeth, which you can see here beyond the Windermere skiffs pulled up on the shore.

George Pattinson in his steam launch Elisabeth ~ photo: Martin Neville

George’s personal collection made up the basis of the Steamboat Museum now rebuilt and known as Windermere Jetty, where we found the Lady Elizabeth under full restoration.

Eighteen foot long, she was built in New York State in about 1900 and brought to England, so was likely on Windermere in 1929 when Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’. She sank off Cockshott Point beyond Bowness, but Mr Pattinson salvaged and renovated her in 1955. You can read more here.

The Lady Elizabeth under restoration at Windermere Jetty
The Lady Elizabeth under restoration at Windermere Jetty

Other exhibits included the exquisite steam launch Osprey, in fine fettle with her copper steam kettle kept brightly polished. I knew her from taking part in a Steam Boat Association rally on Windermere in 1991. 

The RNSA dinghies used to play Swallow and Amazon in the 2016 movie can also be seen in the wet dock at Windermere Jetty.

Look up, and you can spy a green beetle on an old burgee. 

Arthur Ransome’s dinghy Conch-y-bonddhu, known as Scarab in his books, is on display with Beatrix Potter’s rough, flat-bottomed rowing boat (the pointed bows of which can be seen here hanging on the wall to the right).

It was good to be able to examine Conchy’s rigging. You can read about her here.

The museum has many other treasures including the hull of the oldest yacht in existence in the Lake District.

Every one of the forty boats exhibited has a story to tell.  You can find out more about visiting Windermere Jetty on their website here.

The Windermere skiffs can still be seen up the road in Bowness where you can begin to look for locations used in the original film.

If you don’t already have a copy you can read about ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ here. This includes maps and chapters on how to find the film locations.

To learn more about the film locations, please click here.

The ebook on ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, which is similar, is available on all ebook platforms, including Kindle here.

A weekend spent steam boating on Windermere in 1991, is featured in ‘Funnily Enough’, a diary of a year when everything changed, can be found here.

Looking towards the jetty featured in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) at Bowness-on-Windermere

I look forward to returning to Windermere Jetty when the Lady Elizabeth is on back the water. The museum will be opening soon.

You can read about the 1901 steam launch Daffodil that I helped to renovate here.

Sophie Neville visiting Windermere Jetty – photo: Caroline Robinson

Points to add to the third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) – part one

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville in Swallow about to leave the Houseboat. Amazon’s white sail can be seen the other side ~ photo: Daphe Neville

Viewers of the original film Swallows and Amazons'(1974) have written to point out that when the Amazons sailed up to Captain Flint’s houseboat there was a terrible crash. I found the quote from ‘The Picts and The Martrys’, which made me realise why this horrified anyone who knows the characters well:

“…when you come sailing along and fetch up with a bump against Jim’s new paint.”

“We never do,” said Nancy. “Remember when we came and made you and Uncle Jim walk the plank last summer? We were aboard and rushing the cabin before you knew we were anywhere near.” ‘Picts and Martyrs’ by Arthur Ransome p.14

Simon West and Sophie Neville on Captian Flint's Houseboat
Simon West as Captain John and Sophie Neville as Titty taking Captain Flint’s Houseboat : photo~ Daphne Neville

Jane Sullivan noticed Captain Flint yelled, “Death or Glory!” as the Swallows and Amazons laid siege to his houseboat. ‘Is that a pre-echo of the East Anglian stories?’ she asked.

Jane also noted: In the closing credits, I notice they spell For Ever as two words, which it is as it should be, rather than the modern way which confuses the adjective “forever” with the adverbial phrase “for ever”.’

Peel Island whilst we were filming in 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

Most people are familiar with the fact that Peel Island was used as the location for Wild Cat Island in the 1974 film.

Peter Dowden of the Arthur Ransome Group, pointed out that Peel Island is a classic example of a rocher moutonnee or sheepback, shaped by glacial erosion. Larger examples in Sweden are known as flyggbergs. Others comment that it’s easy to imagine the island as Captain Flint’s schooner the Wild Cat, which sails to the Caribees in ‘Peter Duck’ and is set on fire by Gibber the monkey in ‘Missee Lee’.

Peter also wrote about burgees. He noted, ‘Traditionally, creatures shown on flags face towards the “hoist” – the bit of the flag that is attached to the mast. So head near the mast and tail near the flappy part of the flag (called the ‘fly’). He went on to say, “someone did the research and Arthur Ransome drew the Swallow flag both beak to hoist and beak to fly!”

Our art director, Simon Holland, made what I considered the mistake of having the swallow on Swallow’s burgee flying away from the mast. 

My publisher asked me to draw our crossed flags, a sketch which was later stolen and used all over the place from the call sheet of the 2016 movie to badges for sale on eBay.

Paul Thomas, of the Arthur Ransome Group, explained that Swallow and Amazon are standing lugsail dinghies, rather the balanced lugsails as I had been told. “Swallow’s keel was designed for sailing in shallow estuaries and grounding on shifting shoals with sails tanned to protect them from rot and sunshine.”

“What is particularly impressive, to me,” Roger Barnes, president of the Dinghy Crusing Association, commented, “is how well done the sailing scenes are, and sometimes in pretty strong winds. Most sailing in films is really unconvincing.” Roger added: “The boom jaws off the mast as they first approach Wild Cat Island is the only major flaw with that aspect of the film.” I had never noticed! We were bitterly cold on that day when we first sailed Swallow in front of the camera.

Roger Barnes’ illustrated book, The Dinghy Cruising Companion, published by Bloomsbury, included my behind-the-scenes photo of Swallow, where you can see the jaw back in place.

You can also see the jaws in this film still (c) Studiocanal:

The Swallows on their voyage to Wildcat Island
Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West as the Swallows sailing on Coniston Water in 1973 (c)StudioCanal

Please do add a comment below or write in with any points you notice that I can add to a third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, an ebook available from a variety online stockists. You can look at the first pages here.

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