‘I bought a signed copy of The Making of Swallows & Amazons and have just finished reading it. It’s a lovely, flowing read and I loved all the interesting details, especially chapters 12 to 18 in the later half of the book… I shall treasure it.’ Nigel
‘I am thoroughly enjoying reading your diary entries and hearing how life was on set etc… All the things I have always wanted to know about the film are in the book! I do hope you have lovely memories of all the locations you filmed at, especially Bank Ground Farm. Jonathan, who now owns the place and does all the farming has made my family and I very welcome indeed! (only) we can not tack up the field as they are growing it for Silage!!!! Thank you for inspiring my family and I so much! Yours sincerely, Benjamin’ (aged 10) ‘P.S. We’re off to Wild Cat Island tomorrow!’
Simon West as Captain John by the lighthouse tree
‘All of your recollections are insightful and tinged with humour (as always). In particular the story about Mrs Batty locking out the film crew and all the Cumbrian characters that were involved in the film. I didn’t know George Pattinson appeared in the Rio scene either, and I can just imagine the giggles you must have had when watching the double-deckers playing footsie with one another!’ David.
Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour as the Amazons stranded on Wild Cat Island
‘Good little book full of information and funny tales.’ Jennifer
‘This book has rekindled my interest and memories from the 70’s when I first saw the film and read all the books, so well written and very entertaining, in some ways it ll seems a long time ago but this book makes it seem like yesterday! Thoroughly recommended.’ Richard on Amazon.co.uk
‘Loved your book about filming Swallows & Amazons – my favourite childhood film, very nostalgic.’ Nicola
‘Just wanted to say how much I am enjoying The Making of Swallows & Amazons. What a wonderful time you all had… I have all the books & love the film & TV series Coot Club and The Big Six, so it’s fab to read about them.’
Sten Grendon, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton in Swallow
Forty two years ago, this shot was taken of Virginia McKenna valiantly playing Man Friday, rowing away from what I had decided was a desert island. We were filming on Coniston Water in the Lake District. She was playing my mother, concerned about leaving a small girl alone as the evening drew in. I’ve been set a copy of Lancashire Life, published in 1974, which describes the filming at length. Quite fun. You can see a still of Man Friday and I cooking Pemmican cakes for supper on the camp fire, top right.
Being awarded an OBE in 2004 for services to wildlife and the arts, Virginia has since become a national treasure. She will quickly deny this but you will find photographs of her at the National Gallery, along with Suzanna Hamilton, who played her daughter – and my sister, Susan in Swallows & Amazons (1974).
Having just celebrated her 84th birthday Virginia has also been heralded as one who inspires others. I concur. ‘Do one thing at a time,’ was her advice to me, ‘Otherwise you can’t do anything well.’
If you interview her now, Virginia is more likely to talk about wildlife than acting. She uses her name to promote kindness. And to stop the slaughter of elephants. One of her latest missions is to urge schools to teach children about conservation. She has recently become patron of Shropshire Cat Rescue’s Purr project. Arthur Ransome helped finance a similar project himself.
2015 marks the thirty-first anniversary of the Born Free Foundation, which Virginia established with her son Will Travers to help big cats and other large mammals held in captivity. She still travels the world to raise awareness and alleviate suffering, drawing on all she learned from George Adamson whilst filming Born Free in Kenya back in 1966, and An Elephant Called Slowly in 1970. You can read more about her work by clicking here.
‘Forty years after she enchanted film-goers as Titty in Swallows and Amazons, Sophie Neville has found a new audience… telling the behind-the-scenes secrets of the film of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel.’ The Daily MailThe Making of Swallows & Amazons ‘…is based on diaries, letters and old photographs which Sophie has turned into a heart-warming account of making the movie, which starred Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser.’
’The Telegraph~ Culture: ‘Set in the Lake District in 1929, the film follows four young adventurers who sail a dinghy around Lake Coniston, cook for themselves over campfires and sleep in makeshift campsites.’
‘…The occasional chaos and terrible weather during filming contributed to the eventual popularity of the extraordinary and very much loved film.’ The Times
‘The film Swallows & Amazons is 40 years old, but thanks to its careful period evocation, its respect for Arthur Ransome’s original book and the performances of its child actors, it’s become a timeless classic. One of those children was Sophie Neville, who played Titty, and who kept a diary during the filming. That diary, with her adult recollections, is this book. It’s a fascinating insight into filming on location in the Lake District… Classic Boat
‘… The result is compulsive reading as she recalls that cold wet summer, while the camera crew wrapped up warm and she shivered in her skimpy dress as Able Seaman Titty Walker. Sophie brings to life all the many memorable characters who worked on the film and in particular the other children, the Director Claude Whatham who developed a great relationship with his young cast and the stars Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser. Nor are the other young actors forgotten for there are diary contributions from Suzanna Hamilton who played Susan, Stephen Grendon who played the Boy Roger and Kit Seymour who played Nancy Blackett. The text is supported by numerous illustrations showing life on and off the set.’ Roger Wardale, author of Arthur Ransome: Master Storytellerand other books
‘You don’t need to be a Swallows & Amazons fan to enjoy this book – it’s universal!’ Winifred Wilson, Librarian of The Arthur Ransome Society
‘This was a most unusual and interesting book. I picked it up expecting to browse through it, and found myself so drawn in to Sophie Neville’s detailed, amusing and insightful description of film making in the 1970’s that I was unable to put her book down. As Arthur Ransome fans, my family and I have always loved the film, and felt that Sophie Neville was ‘just right’ as Titty. What fun it has been to be introduced to the young twelve year old Sophie with her intelligent awareness of the challenges facing the production crew while she shivered in her cotton dresses. The many photographs and illustrations contribute richly to bringing the 1970s setting to life. Sophie recorded her experiences beautifully, and in so doing, added one more valuable book to the cultural heritage of all Arthur Ransome fans.’ Juliet Calcott, English teacher,South Africa
The premier of the feature film Swallows & Amazons was held on 4th April 1974 in Shaftesbury Avenue, in London’s West End. Those who watch it on television today, or have the DVD, are amazed to hear it was first released almost forty years ago. Please forgive me if you have seen this photos before but it seems quite a date to celebrate.
The Royal Gala Matinee was held in aid of the charity KIDS, which works with disabled children, young people and their families. The society is still going strong and has been celebrating its own 40th anniversary recently.
We arrived by taxi with my house mistress, Sister Allyne, and head mistress Sister Ann-Julian, who had travelled up from Wantage in Oxfordshire for the occassion.
Of all films, they found The Exorcist was showing at the same cinema. I gazed up at the billing outside the entrance, more interested in seeing the names of Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser with the romantic design of the graphics spelling out Swallows & Amazons.
The first thing that happened was that I was whisked off for lunch with the five other children in the cast by Claude Whatham, the director. He chose a bistro where I chose hamburgers and chips. I’m not sure what the rest of my family did, but can only presume they found something to eat.
We arrived at the ABC cinema to find they had already taken their seats in the audience. We met up with Ronald Fraser and Richard Pilbrow, the film producer, who introduced us to Princess Helena Moutafian, Patron of KIDS, who the Earl and Countess of Compton had brought to celebrate the film’s release and help raise funds for the charity. Mummy had instead I made a curtsey to each person I was introduced to. Did this include members of the Press?
We also met a number of Ladies: Lady Bridport, Lady Onslow, Lady Nelson of Stafford, Lady Harford and others listed below who must have arrived with their children. It was all quite something.
Please note that Simon West, (to the right in the top photo) was wearing a tie that matched exactly with the floral print of his shirt. This was the height of fashion in 1974, something I have yet to see revived or replicated. Suzanna and I both wore pinafore dresses. These have not experienced a revival either, although Suzanna’s Laura Ashley print would be considered a treasured vintage piece. My mother was horrified that Ronald Fraser had his collar button undone, but I think that was a nod to trendy-ness. He also wore a badge in support of the charity pinned to his lapel. Badges were all the rage at the time and collected by all.
As you can see, we met Bobby Moore, the Hollywood actress Patricia Neal, the Norwegian Bond Girl Julie Ege and Spike Milligans’ family. Will Travers, now the CEO of the charity Born Free, came to represent his mother, Virginia McKenna who sadly couldn’t be with us.
A commemorative programme was being sold with a sepia version of the film poster on the cover:
Inside there were several pages about those who appeared in the film. I still have a copy:
The opposite page:
It wasn’t until years later that I was shown copies of the stills used to advertise the film inside cinemas.
The original film posters, which once hung in the London Underground, have become collector’s items, valued at about £240 each on eBay. Studiocanal, who now own the film rights, have a selection of posters available as framed prints if you click here.
This was the version used as an advertisement in the Sunday Times forty years ago.
You probably know that ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon Kindle and for other e-readers via Smashwords. It has been described by one reviewer on Amazon as the equivalent of DVD Extras, as it explains how we made the movie in the Lake District, back in the summer of 1973, as well as how the film was promoted and received in the UK. Hopefully the paperback and hardback versions will be out soon, but the ebook is unique in that it gives links to behind-the-scenes footage shot on location by my parents.
If you would like to know how the movie of Swallows & Amazons was made and know where the real locations can be found, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon and Smashwords for £2.56. The paperback was launched to mark the 40th anniversary of the film’s release, by Classic TV Press.
The book, which is suitable for any age group, is based on the diary that I kept when I played the part of Titty Walker in 1973. It is illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs and memorabilia such as one of the tickets to the Royal Gala premier in Shaftesbury Avenue held on 4th April 1974. You will also find out what the actors who played the Walker family ~ the Swallows ~ are doing now.
The joy of the ebook is that it includes a number of home-movie clips that my parents took of life behind the scenes that you can play wherever you have internet access.
If you have any questions about making the film, please add them to the comments below, and I will get back to you.
There were rather over-excited headlines in the Times and Telegraph when the ebook was launched but they only spoke of the legendary drinking of Ronald Fraser. Please don’t worry – there is nothing X-rated about the book – it is just the price one pays for half a page in a daily newspaper, especially since it came out on a Saturday.
The ebook has been doing well in the Amazon charts and hit Number 1 in the category ‘Stage and Theatre’.
A preview of what the book holds in store can be watched here:
An editor at the Sunday Telegraph magazine asked me recently,
‘Don’t all child actors get into drink and drugs?’
Not I, said the fly. I’m afraid I was far too Swallows and Amazons-ish and sensible. And I lived deep in the countryside, out of the reach of dealers looking for kids with a little bit of money.
Simon West told me that spent the money he earned from appearing in films and television on sailing dinghies. It was a good investment. At the age of about fifteen he won the British Championships in what must have been the new fibreglass model of Optimist. Until that time they had been constructed of plywood.
I remember that Suzanna Hamilton spent the extra cash she was given from being brave about swimming in Coniston Water on a Swiss Army penknife. I had never seen one before. She cut her finger so badly making arrows from hazel saplings with the Property Master that the director banned her from using it. I was rather envious of her scar.
Suzanna wrote to tell me:
‘I wasn’t allowed to spend much of my money until I bought an extremely good oboe. A few pounds (were spent) on some budgies (one lovely male named Ransome and one named Rio – a flighty female). She was a bad influence and they both flew out the window in the end. Ransome used to sit on my head very happily when I only had him.’
We really didn’t earn that much back in 1973, but all children dream of what they could do if they had a little bit of cash. Sten Grendon told me that he spent some of his first BBC fee on a bike. All he wanted to do with his earning from appearing in Swallows & Amazons was to buy the biggest Lego set in the world. His father found one for £20 and put the rest into a savings account.
Any money I made from being in films was immediately locked up in Barclay’s Unicorn Unit Trusts. My riding teacher tried to persuade Mum to let me buy a decent horse I could use to compete with. A very beautiful Palamino was offered. This wasn’t a bad idea, as I would have gained skills and confidence, although I couldn’t see myself as a British Champion.
Instead I eventually spent my savings on a ticket to Australia where I took a boat up Sydney Harbour and I learnt to dive on the Great Barrier Reef.
I had just finished directing a drama-documentary that featured children at a west London school. Whilst we were busy filming in the art room a teacher rushed in to tell us not to let anyone go outside. Drug addicts had been mugging kids crossing the playing fields for their dinner money. I was obliged to pay the eleven-year-olds who took the lead roles by sending their parents a decent set of professional photographs. Paying them in cash was too risky.
I had dinner with Captain John last night. It was extraordinary meeting up after forty years; a lifetime had whizzed by.
Tall, with dark hair, Simon West is no longer recognisable as John Walker but he looks back fondly on our time making the film ofArthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons in 1973, when we spent seven weeks of the summer term on location in the Lake District. To my surprise he doesn’t remember being cold at all. I claim that he was given a few more clothes to wear than me and had more to concentrate on. He was at the helm whilst I was a mere able-seaman in Swallow. He said that he hated it when she was wired to the pontoon and he had to pretend he was sailing.
Simon thought that I probably remember more about the experience than he did because my mother was there, chatting about what was going on every evening and naturally re-enforcing the shared experience.
‘I must have kept a diary, as it was part of our schoolwork, but I haven’t seen it since. I’ll look in my parent’s attic.’ Simon thought that it was his mother who put together an album from the black and white photos that Richard Pilbrow gave us after the filming.
Simon said that he remembers more about filming the six-part BBC serial, ‘Sam and the River’, in which he had the title role in 1974. Much of it was shot on the Thames Tideway east of London. ‘Of course all those places have changed enormously since then, whilst the Lakes are very much the same. I have never been able to find a copy of that series, which is a shame. I’d love to see it.’ We can’t find a copy in English, but there is a version in German entitled ‘Tom und die Themse’ currently for sale on DVD here.
Simon’s own children grew up watching Swallows & Amazons, which is still broadcast once or twice a year on television. He said that when they went to see the Warner Bros. Studios in Hertfordshire where much of the Harry Potter movies were made he felt hugely appreciative of the fact that we had been out on location the whole time, rather than boxed up on a film stage, acting against a green back ground.
Simon did remember the great Parker coats that Richard and Claude found to cope with the Cumbrian weather. So do I. My father bought one too. They were blue-grey and enormous, lined with fake sheepskin, their hoods edged with Eskimo-like fake fur.
‘They had recently come over from America,’ he explained, ‘And were a real innovation. Before that we just had tweed coats.’
‘And Mackintoshes. Dennis Lewsiton wore a blue Mac.’
‘Those dreadful nylon anoraks,’
‘That are back in fashion.’
‘The American Parkers are fashionable now too – all that fake fur around the hood. Uggh.’
Suddenly the cogs of close association clicked in. Simon tossed his head in a certain way that I recognised as his own expression of humour. He said that he was really pleased that Bobby Moore chatted to him at the film Premier at Shaftesbury Avenue.
‘Sir Booby Moore? Was he there? Did we meet him?’
I’d totally forgotten.
Simon said that he had become very attached to his Parker fountain pen from Aspreys, engraved with the words ‘Swallows & Amazons- 1973’, that Claude Whatham gave to each of us as a gift after the filming. ‘Stupidly I left in the boot of my car when I was in Paris, aged about twenty-seven. It was stolen with a load of other things.’ I had lost mine too. I dropped it on a footpath somewhere in Durham.
‘What did you spend your fee on?’
‘Oh, sailing dinghies. It was good to know I had £500 in the bank around the time I was heading towards the British Championships. You know, at first we had ply board hulls but the time came when I needed to buy a fibreglass boat.’ It was with this that he became the National Optimist Champion. We agreed it was money put to good use.
After the age of about sixteen, Simon’s family became interested in orienteering. Maps seems to have had a strong influence on both our lives.
Simon and his wife now have four grown children. ‘We are split down the middle: three of us sail, three of us do not.’ But every year he takes the family up to the Lake District to go fell walking, something they all enjoy very much.
If anyone sees a brushed steel Parker pen on eBay engraved with the words ‘Swallows & Amazons 1973’ please let me know. I’d love to be able to return it to Captain John.
Here you can see Simon appearing in ‘Sam and the River'(1975). This is the German version entitled Tom und die Themse:
Swallows & Amazons was broadcast recently on ITV3.
If you would like to know more about how the film was made you can find the details on this site.
Do leave any questions in the comments box below.
They will be answered by Sophie Neville who played Titty.
To read about our first day’s filming at Haverthwaite Railway Station click here and keep reading.
Do you know what lake we were on in the photograph below? We were busy loading urns of tea into a run-around boat to take out to the film crew who might have been on Cormorant Island. If you click on the photo you will get to the page of my diary, kept in June 1973, which describes this day.
There are still many questions about the making of the movie that remain unanswered.
This shot was taken while setting up the scene at Peel Island when Captain Flint brings Sammy the Policeman to question the Swallows. If you click on the photo you will find the photograph that the journalist ended up with. Titty’s hand is still on Captain Flint’s arm.
Making a movie is very different from watching one. Here is a record of Titty rehearsing the shot when she moves the camping equipment for fear of a tidal wave. It was a cold day on Coniston Water. The jersey came off when they went for a take.
Here you can see Lesley Bennett playing Peggy Blackett careening Amazon at Beckfoot. The same 35mm Panavision camera was focused on Kit Seymour, playing Captain Nancy.
The location used for Beckfoot and the Amazon boathouse can be found at Brown Howe on the western bank of Coniston Water. If you click on the photograph of Peggy you can read more about what happened that day.
If you would like to get future posts, please click the Follow button at the bottom of the side-bar.
At about this time we were given a green parrot from South America called Chico. I must have written to Kit and Suzanna telling them about him as this Nancy-ish letter came winging back.
Chico was wonderfully tame and came everywhere, chatting away in Spanish. He was much more affectionate – and less of a treat – than the parrot with a Lancastrian accent who played Polly in Captain Flint’s cabin. One minute he’d be sitting on Tamzin’s shoulder, the next, he’d be on mine.
We didn’t always have tea with a parrot, but once the film of Swallows and Amazons was on general release I was often invited to appear on radio or television. This usually entailed going to a studio to appear on a magazine programme such as Points West or Nationwide. However, Robin Hellier, who had just begun working for the BBC on Animal Magic, was thrilled to hear that I really did have a green parrot and brought a film crew from Bristol to our house. He took a shot of me rowing down the lake with my parrot, in the summer of 1974, which was used to fill endless small gaps in the schedules.
Although the focus of the item was a profile of my role in Swallows and Amazons, the aim must have been to get as many animals on the programme as possible since they also featured our donkeys having their feet trimmed. The faithful parrot was still on my shoulder.
I thought Robin Hellier was a brilliant director, far better than Claude Whatham at letting us know what he wanted to achieve. I was able to tell Robin this when I found myself working with him in South Africa twenty-two years later. He laughed, admitting that it was the very first film he ever directed. Being conscientious, he took the trouble to write to let me know when it was to be broadcast, although I can’t remember ever seeing it go out.
Children’s television was watched by everyone I knew in the 1970s. Letters poured in. My mother loved getting them. The volume was such that I think she had to answer some of them for me.
And over the years the letters have kept coming.
These came from a girl I corresponded with for years. My friends at university were amazed to find letters arriving addressed to Titty, but they were always charming. I appreciated them more and more as the years went by.
My mother only wrote me one proper letter while I was away at boarding school. It was to tell me that Chico had died. He spent so much time flying free that he caught a virus off wild birds and could not be saved. I was utterly inconsolable.
Animal Magic continued to featured through our childhood until 1982, when I started working at BBC Television myself. Johnny Morris, who presented the series, became a legend in his own time and is remembered with great affection.
and there is more ~
A WildFilm History interview of Robin Hellier can be viewed on this link:
The last thing that I had expected was to receive fan letters! They came pouring in. My mother kept them all. Because most of them were written to me by children I have cut out the names and addresses on the letters copied here, but since we are all thirty-eight years older, I am sure everyone can cope with seeing their own handwriting. This letter cames from someone who, despite living half way across the world, now happens to be a friend of mine on Facebook.
EMI sent me these photographs of myself to sign and send on. I’m afraid I didn’t like them one bit. They had been taken as publicity shots and it still shows. The staged pose was exactly what Claude Whatham had been working hard to avoid. Sadly he hadn’t been around to direct this shot. I look like a Woodetop and Spot the Dog rolled into one.
However, sending a photograph was not aways enough. I had the hard work of replying to the letters.
There were so many questions to answer.
And I felt beholden to reply immediately.
And once I replied, yet more letters arrived:
This was a good question, of course.
Fiona was 10. Everyone wanted to know if a sequel was coming out. I have a letter from Kit –
Kit Seymour, who seemed to know about Richard Pilbrow’s plans to adapt Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Great Northern?’ set in the Outer Hebrides. She must have sent me this second letter in about January 1974 – between Christmas and the premiere.
I wish we had made ‘Great Northern?’ It was my favorite Arthur Ransome book. Dramatising it would have been such fun. I don’t know why I was so negative, but I remember writing to Richard Pilbrow and telling him that Ransome was mistaken and had his facts about Great Northern Divers quite wrong. I had looked up information in an ancient bird book belonging to my father and wrote the most facetious letter about their geographical distribution. I hope it didn’t put him off. I should had used my time to persuade my fans to write enthusiastic letters to EMI Films. I’m sure this viewer would have convinced Nat Cohen.
It was clear that what children wanted was more of the same. I think it is true today. Parents tell me that even though the movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has no really terrifying moments or spectacular visual effects, children tend to snuggle down peacefully and identify with the characters. The outcome, especially if they are taken to the real locations, is that they often take on our names for themselves, enjoying the fun of camping and swimming, fishing and sailing in the Lake District.