Being Robinson Crusoe on Wildcat Island ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville, playing Titty Walker in Swallows and Amazons
Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker, who envisaged herself as Robbinson Crusoe alone on Wildcat Island

I did not invisage it beforehand, but at this point in my life I became one of the actors who played Robinson Crusoe in film, with Virginia McKenna taking the part of Man Friday. It would come across rather well on a chat show.  The audience would be taken unawares and we could meet the other actors who took the same parts after us. I am sure they were stranded on warmer desert islands.

Losing a milk tooth when you are twelve-and-a-half years old is really rather embarrassing. When you are in the middle of appearing in a feature film it’s disastrous. Not only was the gap sore but since it was an upper tooth at the front of my mouth the continuity of the whole movie was blown.  I think today they may have tried to fit a bridge but Claude Whatham, the Director decided he would just have to live with the problem. I spent the next few days trying not to let my teeth show, but even today, all these years later, those who know the film well comment on the fact that I lost an eye tooth.

Virginia McKenna playing Man Friday in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

As it was, I had to concentrate on pushing the hideously heavy Holly Howe rowing boat away from our desert island in the scene when I bid farewell to Virginia McKenna who was galantly playing Man Friday. This was more tricky than it would be in real life as the massive 35mm camera, the Cameraman and Sound Recordist where in the boat with Virginia. The water was cold, the rocks rather slippy.

And I had the telescope in my hand. This was in order to deliver Arthur Ransome’s line, ‘Duffer. That’s with looking too hard. Try the other eye,’ whilst lowering the telescope to wipe away a tear. I’m afraid that what came out was ‘That’s for looking too hard.’  I busy thinking of terribly sad things, all geared up to produce the tears, when glycerine was produced and carefully blown into my eyes. The most enormous tears, far more difficult to contain than real ones, gushed forth. And I think that the Wardrobe Master must have forgotten about a hanky. You can tell that the square of white cotton I had tucked in my knickers is just a frayed piece of cloth.

Daniel Defoe’s hero Robinson Crusoe has been portrayed on the big screen by Douglas Fairbanks, Dan O’Herlihy – who earned an Oscar nomination for playing the part in 1952, Aidan Quinn, Pierce Brosnan and me. Or rather me playing Titty being Robinson Crusoe. Oh, dear, Oh dear.

The scene opens with Titty sitting on a biscuit tin, reading from her log. ‘Twenty-five years ago this day, I Robinson Crusoe, was wreck-ed on this desolate place.’ The fact that I had missed the -ed from wrecked was real. I hadn’t written the word down properly.  As you can see in my actual diary there was then a dash ______ . At this point I flung myself  to the ground and dragged my exhausted body into the camp grasping my throat so as to portray the fact that Robinson Crusoe was virtually dying of thirst.

I hauled myself to my feet by grabbing the forked stick by the fire. What I didn’t realise was that Graham Ford, the Sound Recordist had hidden his microphone there. You can still hear the sound crunch as I grasp the crossbar that held the kettle. He was a perfectionist and, despite my apologies, was really rather annoyed about it.

‘Make a good place for a camp,’ Titty declares heartily, whilst looking around. ‘I’ll build my hut here out of  branches and moss.’ And so continued my solo performance. ‘Can’t have two tents for one ship-wrecked mariner.’

As I have mentioned before my mother is very theatrical. In her eyes this was my great soliloquy. The most embarrassing thing I have to admit is that for ages after the film, during my sensitive teenage years, Mum would insist that I used this scene as my audition piece.  Can you imagine? It was dotty. Instead of something appropriate for a young girl, like a scene from I Capture the Castle, which Virginia McKenna had been in, or even something from Shakespeare such as Romeo and Juliet, I would fling myself to the floor of the audition space and enact Titty playing a bearded man. Even now I blush as I remember doing all this in front of five amazed executives, who had never seen Swallows and Amazons. They were looking for nothing more than a normal girl – to be in an advertisement for Parker Knoll armchairs.

Have you ever read the book?  I don’t think many nine-year-olds would manage it. Despite the impression given by the poster above there are no girls in it. It’s about slavery. And cannibals. And rearing goats.

Douglas Fairbanks’ film was released in 1932, too late for Titty. The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was released as a movie in 1922 and in 1929. I wonder if Arthur Ransome ever saw either version? I have to say that if there is every a Hollywood line-up of actors who have played the part I want to be included in it. I might make up for the ignomity I suffered.

‘Man Friday!’ ~ filming with Virginia McKenna in 1973

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island
Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island in Cumbria, during the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I didn’t know that Virginia McKenna was in the Lake District.

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

I didn’t know that we would spend that Sunday cooking on the camp fire.

Bill Travers watching Virginia McKenna
Bill Travers watching the scene featuring his wife Virginia McKenna who is talking to Director Claude Whatham ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I didn’t know that Virginia had come up with her husband Bill Travers.

Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers as Joy and George Adamson in ‘Born Free’, Kenya 1964. Virginia later devoted her life to The Born Free Foundation.

I still don’t know how Lee Electric managed to get so many lights working out on Peel Island. I can’t remember having them for any other scene. They must have had the generator on the bank and run cables under the water. It looks as if it was a pretty dark day. It was wonderful having the flood lights – they kept us warm.

There was a hushed reverence when Virginia McKenna was on set. Gone were the saucepan jokes. Funny really, as it was frying pan scene. ‘I waited til no-one was looking and jumped out of the pot and escaped!’ The pemmican potato cakes she made me were delicious. And very hot.

Working with Virginia and Arthur Ransome’s dialogue was altogether an exercise in charm, or managing charm. I hope I didn’t over-cook it. I was rather pre-occupied by my tooth but loved being involved in a proper scene around the camp fire.

Then Virginia was gone and I was a saucepan once more. A saucepan now with a very wiggly tooth indeed. Saucepan-lid, kid. No more lights. I was sitting up a tree above Coniston Water in my navy blue knickers, and descended feeling a bit like Pooh Bear.

me up a tree
‘Up a tree for fear of ravenous beasts’ with David Bracknell the First Assistant Director ~ photo: Daphne Neville

It is still there, the mossy tree. You can climb it.