This question has recently been typed into the Google search engine. It has to be said the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is a pretty abstract title. What does it mean? Is it about South America?
The national press brewed a great storm last summer when they discovered that BBC Films and the BFI had changed the lead character’s name to Tatty. When the Daily Telegraph phoned me for comment, I asked if someone had made a spelling mistake. Titty was mistakenly referred to as Tilly in The Times a year before, along with rather an over excited headline:
I’ve received letters addressed to Titty for so long that I couldn’t understand the problem until I typed the name Titty into Twitter. You do not see my face – or anybody else’s. I am not sure if it has been defined by the Oxford Dictionary yet but it seems a titty-tatty is now the term used for a certain kind of tattoo.
Last week I found an interesting document. It is the original contract that my father was sent in April 1973 when I was offered a part in the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’. It doesn’t refer to Titty at all:
This was the reason why my mother suggested I wrote the name Titania Walker on the front of the ship’s log which you can see if you watch the movie closely. Why Theatre Projects used the classical name I do not know. It could be argued that ‘Swallows and Amazons’ contains traces of Shakespearean influence but Arthur Ransome insisted the name Titty wasn’t short for anything.
People often ask how much I was paid for appearing in the feature film. The contact states, ‘We…
This period refereed to the seven weeks spent filming on location. I paid another £10 a day for dubbing the film and for a pick-up day when we filmed a scene in Surrey. Although publicizing the movie was more demanding than being on location we were neither licensed or paid. I did receive a book token for promoting EMI Films at the Lord Mayor’s Show.
Dubbed it was – into a number of languages including French, Czech and Norwegian:
People imagine that we receive residuals when the film is sold abroad or broadcast on television but we actors are only due a fee if our image is used to advertise a product. This is a few years old but does it count?
Or could this? I saw the image used in a TV commercial with my own eyes, so I’d love to know.
When interviewed aboard the yacht Ransome bought with his royalties, Taqui Altounyan said that on receiving a new copy of ‘The Swallows and The Amazons’, as the first edition was titled, her family were also thrown by the abstract title, wondering if it was about South America. It could be about migrating birds.
You can see Anita Singh’s article that sparked up international debate last summer by clicking here The juxtaposition of the photos is so naughty, but brilliant of course. I’m the one with the telescope.
~ Behind-the-scenes in film and television, continued ~
Much of Arthur of the Britonswas shot at Woodchester Mansion where HTV constructed the huge lathe and wattle hall which comprised King Arthur’s seat.
We went to watch the filming soon after the fire scene, which opens the episode entitled ‘The Gift of Life’. My sister Tamzin was cast as Elka, the little Saxon girl who arrived unexpectedly by longboat with her brother Krist.
In the story, this was spotted drifting down the river – which is in reality the lake at Woodchester. Arthur insists they should be returned to their own people by Kai, portrayed by Michael Gothard, who rides off with them on his horse.
We were able to watch the episode being shot.
‘I want to feed the squirrels,’ Tamzin declared after they had been riding for a while. It was a line few have forgotten.
‘Why couldn’t you feed the squirrels before you left?’
‘I did, but now I want to feed them again.’
I was fascinated in her costume, including her shoes which were made of hessian sacking.
I am not sure whether Michael Gothard had worked with children before but he seemed able to cope. No one had asked Tamzin if she could ride. It was a good thing she was used to large horses and had a naughty pony of her own. They set off at speed and her hessian dress was not exactly ideal riding wear.
Shaun Fleming was excellent as her brother and managed to cling on behind the saddle as they charged across the hills, which can’t have been easy. The secret was that he acted under his mother’s maiden name instead of his real surname.
Tamzin was then asked if she could whistle while she was ‘feeding the squirrels’, or having a pee as we would say now. It was demanded by the script.
No one had asked her in advance if she could whistle. This was tricky as the tooth fairy had recently visited her in a big way.
‘I couldn’t even whistle when I had all my teeth.’
I appeared as the Saxon girl with blonde curly hair seen working in the fields with Heather Wright when the children returned to the Saxon village. While Heather was in lime green, I wore a gold-ish coloured top and plum skirt with no shoes. You can see me hobbling across the end of the field which was full of thistles.
My other sister, Perry, was barefoot too. My mother, as a Saxon woman with short fair hair, (photographed above) virtually carried her into the village after Tamzin and Shaun.
It had been decided that, on the whole, Saxons were blonde, Celts were dark-haired like Oliver Tobias, who played King Arthur. It wasn’t until I did an Ancestry.com DNA test in 2022 that I discovered my heritage was almost 100% Celtic – Scots/Cornish/Irish/Welsh with a little Danish thrown in.
There were a number of weapons on set that intrigued us as children. We all wanted to learn how to use them. Oliver Tobias began to teach us sword fighting, however there was an accident on set which put a stop to this. One of the actors was having his boots sorted out by a wardrobe assistant when he casually swung his axe. Although it was just a blunt prop, with no edge to the blade, it went into her head, resulting in a four inch gash across her scalp. He was devastated. It was a complete accident. The wardrobe assistant recovered but it was a sobering incident and great care was taken when handling the props afterwards, even though they seemed blunt and harmless.
Fifty years later this series is still treasured by many. It had such a strong cast. Heather Wright went on to star in The Bellstone Fox with Bill Travers and Dennis Waterman and in the 1976 movie Shout at the Devil with Lee Marvin, Roger Moore and Ian Holm.
Geoffrey Adams was terribly well known at the time, as for years he’d played the part of Detective Constable Lauderdale in the long-running BBC Police series Dixon of Dock Green appearing with Jack Warner in nearly 300 episodes.
Shaun (Fleming) Dromgoole went to work in film production on a number of well known movies including American Gothic and The Woman He Loved, about which starred Anthony Andrews and Olivia de Havilland and Jane Seymour as Wallis Simpson.
Woodchester Mansion, the vast house built of cut stone yet left half-finished, was eventually sold for £1 to Stroud District Council. My father became a Trustee of the Board that decided its future.
Shaun Fleming, Tamzin Neville, Sophie Neville , Jenny Fleming, Kerig the doll and Daphne Neville in 1972
The producer, Patrick Dromgoole was absolutely prolific, producing a huge number of classic television dram serials including The She Wolf of London and The Clifton House Mystery, which my mother appeared in as well as Robin of Sherwood . Her drama pupil Robert Addie played Sir Guy of Gisbourne so convincingly in that series he became hated throughout the UK. For more photographs of Mum please see flick down though various posts on my blog for Funnily Enough.
Do please add additional information or memories in the comments below.
The Telegraph listed ‘Swallows & Amazons’ as Film of the Week when it was broadcast on ITV3 in the UK recently. It was also shown on GEM television in Australia last Friday. Sophie has been answering questions about making the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ at the Curious Arts Festival. If you have one, please use the comments box below.
On 26th July Sophie Neville, spoke to Dan Damon on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday morning programme ‘Broadcasting House’ about the enduring success of the film. To read more, please click here.
This shot of Virginia McKenna valiantly playing Man Friday, was taken as she rowed away from what I had decided was a desert island. It was 1973 and 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.
On 21st March and 28th March, the new CBBC TV show ‘Cinemaniacs’ included guest appearances from Sophie Neville and from David Wood, who wrote the screenplay for ‘Swallows & Amazons’ back in 1973.
Oli White, the vlogger and presenter of ‘Cinemaniacs’, asks a number of people involved in movies about making their first film. Others featured include Michael Sheen, Sir Ian McKellen and Matthew Lewis famous for playing Neville Longbottom in all eight Harry Potter movies.
To find out more about how the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) was made, along with how the children’s parts were cast, please see earlier posts or read the book! It includes more than 120 photographs taken on location in the Lake District.
We have just found another reel of 16mm home movie footage shot, not on location in the Lake District, but at Runneymede near Egham in Surrey. It captures the essence of a hot day in September 1973 when we were re-called for pick-up shots after the main body of the film of Swallows & Amazons had already been edited.
The clip opens with the film hairstylist Ronnie Cogan cutting my hair. It had been a good six weeks since I had last played Titty in front of the camera and I needed a trim to restore it to the same length it had been on 14th May when we had first started filming on the Lakeside and Haverthwaite railway. Suzanna Hamilton’s thick dark hair had grown a great deal, as had Sten Grendon’s.
Peter Robb-King the Make-up artist had been toning down our complexions inside the same Make-up caravan we’d used while on location for seven weeks in Cumbria. I remember it had orange flowery curtains, a pattern much in vogue at the time.
Neville C Thompson, the Associate Producer, who was wearing a red shirt that day, seemed happy to be back on location. The film director, Claude Whatham was working, as I will always remember him, in a pair of navy blue shorts and sailing shoes. I loved putting on the school hat and silk dress I’d worn in the train but was difficult for the boys to climb into their woolen costumes on such a bright sunny day.
Richard Pilbrow, the Producer, who you can see wearing a white stripy cheese-cloth shirt so typical of the early 1970’s, seemed rather on edge. Bringing a camera crew along for what amounted to three shots must have been expensive, stretching his budget to the limit.
The oak tree, under which the 35mm Arriflex camera was set, was chosen to represent the Peak of Darien from which we looked out over an imaginary lake to an imaginary island. The finished movie cuts from the Walker children’s faces to a shot taken of Derwentwater at sunset with the opening title graphics superimposed over what is in reality Blakeholme, or Wild Cat Island as it is called in Arthur Ransome’s world.
Denis Lewiston, the Director of Photography, was working with the Cameraman Gordon Hayman, using reflector boards to light our faces. At one stage he had me standing on a cream coloured blanket to reflect light from below. You can see it in this shot:
What I had forgotten was that two little girls came along that day to stand-in for us when the shot was being lined up. You can see them in the home-movie footage, one wearing a pale blouse with puffed sleeves.
Claude was very keen on running. He often took us for a short run before going for a shot to aerate our minds and freshen up our faces. In the story we had run down the hill from Holly Howe, so he had us running quite far before we landed on the marks that the cameraman had given us so that we’d be in focus. We had no dialogue, but the expressions on our faces were crucial to engaging the audience.
You see a few other people on location, not least Sten’s mother, Jane Grendon, my little sister, Molly Pilbrow and a few others who were watching. My mother had been taking the footage.
To read about this day from another angle, please click here to visit an earlier post with a few more photos.
On Friday 21st November 2014, I was invited to talk about the making of Swallows & Amazons on the CBBC movie show with David Wood, who wrote the screenplay. I’ll let you know when this will be broadcast. While I was at Novel Entertainment I met Dexter Fletcher and Bonny Langford as well as Justin Johnson from the British Film Institute who is an adviser on the series of 6 x 30 minute programmes.
You can read the whole story of making the film 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 Mail The 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
One way or another, much of my childhood and teenage years were spent hanging around on film sets. When I was fifteen I had the opportunity to work as a film editor’s assistant for Tony Woollard when he was editing Abide With Me, an adaptation of Winifred Foley’s childhood memoir, which was directed for BBC Television by Moira Armstrong.
At the age of nineteen I found myself working for a prop buyer on a Saturday Night Thriller calledDark Secretthat LWT, London Weekend Television, were making at my parents’ house. I was struck by how nice the technicians were.
Our house was often used as a film location. You can’t hear the noise of traffic there. For some reason this always involved hose pipes (to provide water for the location caterers) and parking a huge number of vehicles. Our house was turned into a restaurant for Dark Secret, and then became known as a love nest, for the BBC costume drama House of Elliot which amused my father.
My mother thought the best way to occupy us children during school holidays was to send us filming. I was forever driving my little sisters to one location or another. Call times could be hideously early.
My sisters weren’t always so sure about this but they were well paid, which was one thing. Appearing as supporting artists in Tenko, the BBC serial about female internees in the Far East during WWII, gave us an appreciation of what was like to be held captive. Apart from the fact that the location catering was good, it made one feel exactly like a prisoner of war, or rather a female civilian internee.
Dressed in rags with our hair filled with grease, we were unable to move far or even sit down anywhere except in the filthy sand of the prison camp. The only good thing was that we were allowed to sunbathe, albeit in costume. What I did gain was the opportunity to watch a film crew in action day after day. It was all good experience for a girl who was soon to become a film runner herself.
It is with some bemusement that I see myself described as a child star in newspapers. I only appeared in two feature films before I grew too tall to do more. It was the little girl here seen eating ice-cream in a pink dress, appearing as a film extra in Swallows & Amazons, who became a brighter starlet than I.
My sister Tamzin enchanted directors who cast her in one role after another. Her career started in 1972 when she was given the lead role of Elka in an episode of Arthur of the Britons opposite Oliver Tobias who played King Arthur. He later introduced her as his co-star. By this time he was known as The Stud, having starred opposite Joan Collins in the movie of her sister Jackie Collins’ racy novel.
No one asked Tamzin if she could ride a horse. It was a good thing that she was proficient as she was soon cantering up and down hills whilst clutching that medieval doll.
Arthur of the Britons had the most prestigious cast: Brian Blessed, Martin Jarvis, Tom Baker, Catherine Schell, Iain Cuthbertson, Peter Firth, Heather Wright, Michael Gambon and Peter Bowles all appeared in the drama series, some of which was filmed on our parents’ farm. I remember Jack Watson leaping down the bank above our house. Tamzin played most of her scenes opposite Michael Gothard, who became famous for playing the villain Locque in the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only.
Tamzin was then cast as Anthea in the 1976 BBC adaptation of of E Nesbit’s classic story The Phoenix and the Carpet. I’ve just read that it was a story much admired by Arthur Ransome.
While Mum enjoyed playing the part of Mother, Tamzin’s brother Cyril was played by Gary Russell, who after appearing as Dick in the BBC series of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, grew up to become a writer and script editor on Doctor Who. I last saw him at a book launch at the Imperial War Museum.
Here he is with Tamzin in the 1970s:
As she was used to appearing on television, Tamzin wrote in to Blue Peter and soon appeared on the show. She was also featured on Animal Magic and a number of other magazine programmes.
Tamzin soon had another lead role, that of the young Linda in the ITV production of Nancy Mitford’s semi-autobiographical novel Love in a Cold Climate. While Judi Dench and Michael Aldridge starred as her parents, her brother Matt was played by Max Harris who had the role of her brother Robert in The Phoenix and the Carpet. Tamzin can been seen on the trailer wearing a red dressing-gown in the Hons’ cupboard, looking dreamy in a tam o’shanter and jumping a white Arab over a Cotswold stone wall, whilst riding side-saddle.
She went on to take leading roles in episodes of APlay for Today, Crown Court and Screen Two. Ironically she was expelled from Drama College after Mum persuaded her to work professionally one summer vacation. At that, she tossed her head and went on to occupy time more gainfully.
She won’t believe me, but Tamzin is a most amusing writer. You can see for yourself. Her letters are featured in Ride the Wings of Morning.
Thanks to the support of readers and reviewers I was brave enough to share my story, ‘Funnily Enough’ with the panel of judges at The International Rubery Book Award. I now have a cut glass trophy, which has its own silk-lined box.