Tag Archives: ABC Shaftesbury Avenue

Captain John, Master of the Swallow, played by Simon West in 1973

Simon West and Sophie Neville on Peel Island in 1973

Simon West and Sophie Neville  as brother and sister on Peel Island in 1973

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 of Arthur 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.

BW Swallow about to jibe

Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton sailing Swallow from Peel Island where Sophie Neville stands shivering on the shore. Was this shot filmed from a camera pontoon?

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 West as Captian John sailing Swallow . Sten Grendon plays the Boy Roger in the bows

Simon West as Captain John sailing Swallow near Peel Island on Coniston Water. Sten Grendon plays the Boy Roger in the bows.

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.

Director Claude Whatham wearing his American Parker coat, looking on as Dennis Lewiston and Eddie Collins line up a shot over Derwentwater at dawn

Claude Whatham wearing his American Parker coat, as Dennis Lewiston and Eddie Collins line up a shot over Derwentwater at dawn

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?’

‘Yes.’

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

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

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:

31 Comments

Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Dinghy sailing, 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, Zanna Hamilton

What’s it like to watch the film again?

Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville as the Walker children in 1973

In this morning’s despatches ~ via the Royal Mail ~ a letter arrived saying, ‘I’m sure we would all love to know how the recent screening of the film went and how you enjoyed the experience.’

Last Sunday, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon joined me at the Michael Croft Theatre for a special screening of Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 adaption of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ put on for an audience of excited children by Dulwich Film. We hadn’t watched the movie together since the premiere at the ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue in 1974. I hadn’t even seen Sten since that year. As we walked into the darkened auditorium, Sten’s girlfriend, who struck me as being rather special, insisted that we sat together to watch the film. 

Owl hoots trimmed

Blurred memories do come rushing back. I never managed to produce a real owl hoot.  Simon could – and I am sure Captain Nancy was adept, but it was all the trying to that brought us together.

Landing place

Director Claude Whatham at the Landing Place on Wild Cat Island with Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville

And as I watched the one thing that really struck me was, ‘How big Landing Place beach was then!’  I found myself leaning over and whispering to Sten that it has all but washed away. He didn’t know that the beach had been especially constructed for the film. It had been kept a secret.

Landing place with Claude

Rehearsing a scene on the Landing Place with Swallow

Our experience of making the film in 1973 was really quite technical. It was a wet summer and we had something of a battle against the elements to complete the scenes scheduled for each day. Back then, the aim was to capture enough footage to make the equivalent of 4 minutes of film in the final edit. You’d think this would be easy but each frame had to bear scrutiny on the big screen.  Since attention to detail was paramount, even making scrambled eggs in front of the camera was a demanding task.

sophie003

As the wind blew north up Coniston Water we joined in the concentration required for the task of film-making. We were in Cumbria to work back then, even if working in the Lake District was something of an adventure, something we did for fun.

sophie007

Sten Grendon on set with Claude Whatham and Suzanna Hamilton

So when we relax back and watch the film now we have a huge appreciation of what Claude Whatham put together. We laughed out loud, appreciating the humour. Much of this was generated by the serious expression on Roger’s face when he was picking up the why and wherefore of how something worked for the first time. It’s been a rare and ageless form of comedy that children loved forty years ago and evidently still love today. They always notice, ‘the bit when Roger doesn’t realise the cap is on the telescope.’ Adults love the fact that Roger always seems to be eating.

‘Oh yes!’ Sten remembered afterwards. ‘That pork pie I ate standing in the Amazon River. I was offered the choice of eating a meat pie or an apple. Well, I chose the pie, but it wasn’t so great when I had to eat another for the second take, and then another two for a different camera set-up.’

Isn’t it funny how well one can remember food?

Sten and Suzanna in camp

Sten Grendon as Roger Walker and Suzanna Hamilton as Susan Walker on Peel Island

‘Are you really old?’

‘Not so very old, by I was younger then,’ as Virginia McKenna said in the guise of Mrs Walker remembering her days camping in homemade tents. I bet someone asked Arthur Ransome the very same question.

I grew taller and had my teeth put straight. Same straggly hair. Sten still has all his thick dark hair and is quite tall himself. He works as a gardener now. Suzanna still has the biggest smile. She is the one who now needs to stand on a camera box but then she is the only one of us who does. What I mean to say is that she is the professional actress. We just turn up for fun.

‘And the others?’

I don’t know. Really, I don’t know. I’d love to see them again but am quietly waiting for them to contact me.  I hope they do. I have the first proof of a book to send them – it’s the diary I kept whilst making the film, forty years ago.

Swallows & Amazons reunion April 2013 006

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon in 2013

22 Comments

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

The premiere of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, held at the ABC Shafestbury Avenue on 4th April 1974

 

The Premiere of Richard Pilbrow’s movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was held at the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue on 4th  April 1974. Can you imagine the shock of finding a picture of myself on the cinema tickets when they arrived in the post?

I didn’t know what to wear.  I wished that we’d been able to put on our costumes but it was clear I had to find an appropriate dress. Sadly I had grown out of the one we bought in Carnaby Street.

Sophie Neville at home in Gloucestershire in April 1974 ~ photo: Martin Neville

Nowadays one would be inundated by offers of designer dresses to model on the red carpet. As it was, my mother bought me green pinafore dress that I agreed would work for an afternoon event. I was not so happy about wearing ballet shoes. Please note these were real ballet shoes and I was now thirteen. I would have preferred court shoes with buckles. Ironically these zoomed out of fashion whilst ballet shoes have been loved by all ever since. My bobbed hair had grown out but Mummy put it in Carmen rollers. I am not sure the result was that successful but I liked it at the time.

The Neville girls modelling the fashions of 1974 ~ photo: Martin Neville

My sisters were terribly brave and wore velvet with their ballet shoes. The dress from Carnaby Street was slightly large for Perry but she coped. At least it was fashionable. Mum bought a blue outfit for herself that was deemed the height of fashion. When I arrived in London I found Suzanna had found a Laura Ashley pinafore whilst the Amazons had both got away with wearing trousers. They looked far more sophisticated.

There was an awful lot of fuss about who should or could come and who couldn’t  Mum had insisted on bringing, not friends of mine, but two of the nuns from my school.

Outside the ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue, London in 1974 ~ photo: Martin Neville

So I went off to my first premiere with my head mistress, Sister Ann-Julian and my house mistress, Sister Allyne. Not very cool in a thirteen year old’s world.  The Exorcist was out at the same time. They made no comment.

Sister Allyne, Daphne Neville, Tamzin Neville and Sophie Neville

In fact Sister Allyne proved the very best person to take. She was a performer herself. I am pretty sure she had been Australia’s foremost flautist.  She must have understood the turmoil in my little head and was undoubtedly praying for me. I would not be surprise to learn that spiritual protection was granted by her presence alone. She would have been an exorcist in her own right – a real one.  Perry remembers that she had been sick in the taxi. It think this was because she didn’t travel much.

Claude Whatham defied any plans my mother might have made by taking the six of us, and only the six of us, out to lunch at a wonderful bistro where we able to order beef-burgers, relax and enjoy ourselves.

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton in Laura Ashley and her mother

There was no red carpet when we arrived at the cinema in Shaftesbury Avenue but rather smart programmes were sold, one of which I still have. Until that point I had no idea that it was to be a Royal Gala held in aid of charity.

I was suddenly acutely aware of how I came across on the big screen. As the film was shown I groaned inwardly. It was like seeing endless photographs of oneself which were not exactly glamorous. I cringed. All Sister Allyne said was how much she enjoyed seeing the owl – a natural history shot that was added after all our hard work and effort on the drama.

The premier – as reported in Cinema TV Today

My mother was terribly impressed by the special guests. Princess Helena Moutafian was present with Earl Compton, chairman of the charity KIDS. I’m afraid I don’t remember meeting them but was interested to hear that she later became patron of the Young ME Sufferers Trust.

We walked down onto the stage with Ronnie Fraser to be presented to the audience. Sadly Virginia McKenna could not be there, although she sent her eldest children – Will and Louise Travers. Bobby Moore, who’d played for England came with his family, as did Mrs Spike Milligan. The Hollywood star  Patricia Neal, who won an Oscar for her leading role in the Paul Newman film Hud and appeared in Breakfast at Tiffany’s , brought her sweet little girls.  Julie Ege was a lovely Norwegian actress who appeared as Voluptua in Up Pompeii with Frankie Howard. I think Richard Pilbrow might have known her as he had produced the West End version.  She was known as a Bond Girl since she’d appeared in ‘On her Magesty’s Secret Service’ with Diana Rigg when George Lazenby played Bond and Telly Savalas was Bolfeld. We didn’t know any of this but I think having a Bond Girl at your premier was quite the thing.

I have a few precious posters of the film. The colour poster, which hung in the London Underground is still on the cover of some of the DVD’s.  I always quite liked the design, except for the rather jarring colour of my blouse, which for some reason is pink. Far more attractive were the huge sepia posters hung outside cinemas. They were very special. I still have one but it’s enormous and I am unsure what to do with it.

What the papers had to say about the film was a different matter. The first time we saw Swallows and Amazons was not at the film the premiere but at ‘The Preview’. This was held at a viewing theatre in London to which I assume journalists were invited. I only wish they’d been asked to bring their children. The cast was re-united, meeting up with various members of the production team, to see the film for the very first time. We were utterly amazed at how sunny everything looked. Denis Lewiston’s insistence that we should wait for clouds to pass, while we shivered, had paid off. It was wonderful to see how the film had been put together. We had not known that Claude would add shots of wildlife, which add so much to the movie. I loved the scene he included of cattle standing in the still lake at dawn.

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Swallows and Puffins ~ The film, the paperback and the publicity

I have just been asked about the promotion of the 1974 feature film of  Swallows and Amazons:

‘I remember going to the Puffin Club exhibition in London around the time of the film release and some of the cast were there with one of the boats.  There was a quiz about S & A and you could win a copy of the book – which I did!  Sophie, were you there?  And do you know if the boat was ‘Swallow’ or ‘Amazon’?’

I do remember going to the Puffin Club. They published a very good article about Arthur Ransome and the film using the black and white stills in a far better way than any other magazine. I still have the clipping.

Article on Swallows and Amazons in Puffin Magazine

We were very excited because the publishers had just brought out a copy of Swallows and Amazons with a photograph of the two little ships near Cormorant Island on the cover.  You can’t see us clearly but it was from the scene after Titty had just captured Amazon and both dinghies were being victoriously sailed back to Wild Cat Island by John and Roger, Titty and Susan. On the back of the book was a photograph of the Amazons in their red knitted caps waiting in the reeds at the mouth of the Amazon River.

About ten years later Puffin also bought out a copy of Coot Club and The Big Six, the series I worked on behind the camera at the BBC. I can remember getting the cast together for the shot of them on the Death and Glory – an old black boat. It was a happy time.

Swallows and Amazons book cover Coot Club and The Big Six book cover

My two book covers for Puffin

I had forgotten that we had one of the dinghies at the Puffin Club event but remember going to the Commonwealth Institute. I found appearing on television could be rather more daunting than public appearances. We were once taken to the BBC television studios to appear, live, on Points West, the regional news programme that came under the Nationwide banner at the time.  The designer had gone to a great effort and made a camp fire in the studio, but it felt weird sitting around it in our own clothes. I think the problem had been that the presenters had not actually read the book so were not in touch with the subject matter. Before we knew it, the item was over and we were whisked off again, home to bed no doubt. Being interviewed on the radio was less scary although I broke into French once when being interviewed on Woman’s Hour. That scarred the presenter.

By far the most enjoyable programme to be in was Animal Magic, which was presented in those days by Johnny Morris. The Assistant Producer Robin Hellier came with a small crew to film me at home with my own boat and my green parrot, Chico.

Appearing in ‘Animal Magic’, with my sisters and Chico our own green parrot

I was deeply impressed by Robin as a director and I thought him far more talented than Claude Whatham, who had directed the movie. More than twenty years later I met up with Robin when I was working on a BBC natural history programme in South Africa called Global Sunrise. He arrived at Johannesburg International Airport having flown from the Kruger Park in a small passenger plane. They had been delayed by a terrible storm and I had ten minutes to get him onto the Friday night scheduled flight to Cape Town. It was a good thing I knew him. I saw him at a distance and shouted, ‘Quick, Robin! Run.’ And we just made it through the gate in time, laughing about Animal Magic. He told me that the film he made at our house with me and my parrot was the very first he had ever directed. I never knew.

Swallows and Amazons premier

The programme from the 1974 premier of the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’

Leave a comment

Filed under 1973, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Film, Film Cast, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons