A letter from behind the scenes on the third day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

16th May 1973, was the third day of filming the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, recorded in this letter that my mother wrote to my father who was at home in Gloucestershire with my two younger sisters.

Mum kept her letters, my diaries and scrapbooks in a smart carrier bag. It once contained an expensive velvet dress bought for me in Carnaby Street when we met Claude Whatham, the director of Swallows and Amazons back in April 1973

1970’s English food ~

The food at our guest house was talking its toll. It was not a good idea to feed children on packet soups and baked beans in the days when 35mm film stock was so extremely expensive.  No one realised why, but the ingredients made Sten hyper-active, or as my mother put it, ‘causing a little hoo hah.’  A visiting  journalist wrote, ‘By the end of the day Roger, aged seven, had mown down the entire film crew using a hammer as a mock machine gun. He had fallen down several times and emerged with grazed knees all splattered with mud.’

Location catering ~

Suzanna Hamilton, who was playing Susan, simply refused to eat the revolting food.  Mum said,  “I couldn’t get her to eat anything.” Location catering is excellent now but back in the early 1970’s it could be pretty basic canteen food produced from a ‘chuck wagon’. We’d queue up for a tray of meat and two veg, which was usually consumed in a red London double-decker converted into a dining bus.  There were no salads, no fruit, just a working man’s lunch with coffee in plastic cups and paste sandwiches provided later with tea. The tea was good.

Pinewood location catering ~ Suzanna Hamilton pearing into the chuck wagon ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The fruit bowl in our bus ~

Mum started to order fruit and we relished it.  Back then, it was a huge treat to have bananas or melon, oranges and grapes.  A bowl sat in our bus where we were given lessons on Formica tables downstairs. The upper deck was used by Terry the Wardrobe Master as as our changing room. It was furnished with bunk beds. Mum made us rest in these after lunch. I don’t think she could pin down the Amazons easily but she made me use them. I know I objected at first but I must have needed to lie down and rest properly, especially when it was cold.

Molly and Richard Pilbrow

Molly and Richard Pilbrow on location with the two red London Double Decker buses where coffee was being served ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The film crew ~

Apart from Sue Merry the ‘Continuity Girl’ the film crew consisted entirely of men, forty-five of them. I include the Hair and Make-up Designers, the Wardrobe Master, the Art Director, Set Dresser, Propmen and Carpenters, Sound Recordist and Boom Operator, the Director of Photography, Camera Operator, Focus Puller and Grips with the Electricians from Lee Electric who looked after the lights and generators, Lorry Drivers and Sailing Director, the Director, three Assistant Directors and the Production Associate and Producer. I think there might have been a Film Accountant and Location Manager. Being a feature film we had a permanent Stills Photographer and a Publicity Manager.  And this was a small crew as Terry seemed to cope without Wardrobe Assistants or Dressers. They all knew each other pretty well from being on previous movies. I have a list of where they had digs in Ambleside. It’s quite interesting to see who shared with who.  Whenever we needed boats up to six local boatmen could also join the queue for the chuck wagon – and the mobile loos.  Mum wouldn’t let me use them. They were looked after by a ratty looking chap who later managed to persuade one of the Ambleside girls that he was the film’s Producer.

Neville  Thompson, who was effectively the on-line Producer, had a production secretary called Sally Shewing, but she must have been stuck in the production office as we never saw her.  Molly Friedel, Richard Pilbrow’s girl friend and assistant, was often on location. We adored her.  She was American, tall with long brown hair and always had time for us. I remember her working on the lighting design for the next Rolling Stones Concert by the shore of Lake Coniston while we milled about, playing on the rocks.

We had our tutor, Mrs Causey and a wonderful mini-bus driver called Jean McGill. She had been a top British Airways air hostess but had returned to Cumbria to look after her ailing mother and was driving us around the area she so loved to keep busy. As soon as my mother found out that she was also a qualified nursing sister she made sure that Jean was taken on as the official location nurse, which was great as it meant she could be around the whole time and we never had to wait for the bus. We found we soon needed a nurse too. Someone was always hurting themselves.

Jean McGill, our driver and location nurse, operating the radio with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

So in all, with our chaperones there were usually about six women around as well as journalists, friends and relatives who came to watch. It was a huge circus with often eighty people milling about. Certianly the Call Sheet asks the caterers to provide lunch for seventy on normal days. It would be much more when we had crowd scenes such as when we explored Rio.

The male:female ratio on crews is very different today. There are often more women than men, perhaps not on movies but certainly on BBC drama crews. It was already different by 1983 when Richard and Molly Pilbrow came to visit us on the location of  Coot Club in Norfolk, where there were about equal numbers of men and women on set. It made for a better, family atmosphere, certainly more appropriate with so many children involved.  Since he still held the rights to Arthur Ransome’s series of Swallows and Amazons books, Richard was the Executive Producer on the BBC serial Joe Waters produced. It was so good to see him again. I gather he is still going strong having just been awarded the Knights of Illumination Lifetime Recognition Award for more than 50 years of work in theatre lighting.

The third day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the Lake District in 1973

At Beckfoot: The Amazon’s garden and boat house ~

Day 3 of the diary

Day 3 of the diary  page 2

The Amazon’s time had come. In the script, the short scene where Nancy and Peggy careen their dinghy is set in the Amazon boathouse, but Claude Whatham shot them scrubbing the underside of their dinghy on the lakeside with Beckfoot behind. Nancy threw a bucket of water over him for his pains. It was a complete accident.  She actually chucked the water onto the bottom of the boat but it splashed back.  He was squatting below the camera to the bottom right and got well and truly soaked by what must have been very cold, lake water. Kit Seymour roared with laughter and he took in it good spirit but only up to a point. I don’t think he had anything else to wear.

David Blagden, David Cadwallader, and David Bracknell looking at the Amazon’s bottom with DPO Denis Lewiston in the backround with the Panavision

I was a conscientious child and keen not to fall behind with my school work.  Children under the age of sixteen have to be issued with a licence by their local education authority before they can act in films.  Mum, who was our legal chaperone, decided it would be quite fine if we did fifteen schooling hours a week rather than a minimum of three hours a day, as stipulated in the rule book.  I spent the day catching up in our school bus.

Mum was equally fluid about the time we spent on set – or indeed on location. Sten Grendon, who played Roger, was aged nine. I now know he was meant to go home every day at 4.30pm but we all returned together whenever it was deemed practical. But his mother, Jane, was with him and if ever there was a child who needed to expend energy it was Sten. Sending him back to the Oaklands Guest House early could have endangered the people of Ambleside.  It did us a lot of good to work hard, and cope with real, if channelled, responsibility.

We were all busting with energy, so much that I grazed my leg badly climbing a tree at lunch time that day. Claude put a stop to any more tree climbing as a result. He couldn’t risk any of us getting injured. My sister Tamzin Neville broke her ankle when she was in the middle of playing Anthea, the leading role in a BBC serialisation of E.Nesbit’s  The Phoenix and the Carpet. It could have been a disaster but she wore long Edwardian dresses with petticoats that covered up her splint. My legs were fully on display in Swallows and Amazons. If I hadn’t have been wearing dungarees when I climbed that tree the world would have seen the scratch.

I can remember admiring the large house featured as Beckfoot, the Blackett’s house on the lakeside, and wandering past towering the rhododendrons in the garden, but I have no idea where is is.  Christina Hardyment felt that Arthur Ransome must have modelled Beckfoot on Lanehead, the Collingwoods’ house on the East of Lake road above Coniston, but the film required a big house with lawns going down to a lake.  I don’t have the call sheet for that day. Can anyone tell me where the location was?   Is it on the south western shore of Coniston?  And is the Amazon Boathouse in the same place?  My mother thought it was at Elterwater but John Ward has written in to say that the ‘big house’ was Brown Howe House on the western Shore of Coniston Water south of Peel Island. The boathouse is also there on the edge of the lake.

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I have just found an article in The Times which includes an extract from Kit Seymour’s diary:

‘This is the day I had been waiting for. The Amazons had at last begun filming. We got changed and had to be made up sunburnt. We then rehearsed what to do. We did the second scene. I quite accidently threw a bucket of water at Claude. After lunch we had to film the interior of the boat house. Peggy had to say, ‘Not a breath of wind.’ This was quite funny becasue our hair was flying about everywhere. They had to film this scene quite a lot of times.’ 

‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~ preparations for the 1973 film

Swallows and Amazons the film diary
My diary entry ~ Friday 11th May 1973

My mother and I reached Ambleside in the Lake District in what must have been Mum’s Renault 5. I know it was packed to the gills. We found the Oaklands Guest House, a solid stone Edwadian house that the film company had booked us into, along with the other children in the cast.

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in the film Swallows and Amazons
Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in the film Swallows and Amazons with her mother Daphne Neville

The cast ~A striking girl called Kit Seymour, who came from London, was playing Nancy Blackett, ‘Captain of the Amazon and terror of the seas.’  Her sister, Peggy Blackett, was played by Lesley Bennett.  Simon West, who was playing my brother John Walker, came from Abingdon. He held a National Optimist title and was an excellent sailor. Suzanna Hamilton, who came from Islington where she went to Anna Scher’s theatre group, took the role of  the very practical Susan. The part of our younger brother Roger had been given to  Sten Grendon, who had played the young Laurie Lee in the BBC Play Cider with Rosie, which I had also been in.  He came up from Gloucestershire with his mother Jane, who was to chaperone us with Mum.

The director ~As my diary relates, were were taken for tea at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel to meet Claude Whatham, who was directing the movie.  He was a small man, habitually clad in jeans, with a denim jacket.  He seemed young and trendy for an adult.  Sten and I had worked for him two years previously on Cider with Rosie  and the others already knew him from the weekend sailing audition.   Claude had just finished making his first feature film, That’ll be the Day, starring David Essex and Ringo Star. He went on to become a revered and prolific director with a long list of credits including the TV mini-series Disreali, Play for Today, Tales of the Unexpected, C.A.T.S. Eyes and the adaptation of  Mary Wesley’s book Jumping the Queue. Mum took me to Yorkshire to watch him making the moive of James Herriots’ vet story All Creatures Great and Small, starring Anthony Hopkins and Simon Ward. He went on to make the feature films Hoodwink (for which he was nominated for an AFI Award), Murder Made Easy and Buddy’s Song, but for all that, Cider with Rosie  (for which he received a BAFTA Nomination) and Swallows and Amazons remain his best known works, with terrific DVD sales. Somehow they never felt dated.

David Wood's screenplay of Swallows and Amazons

I can only think that we were thrilled to hear that we would not be learning lines, never realising it was Claude’s key to gaining natural performances out of us.  His other secret was that he never allowed us to see the ‘rushes’ – film that had just been recored – as  he thought it might make us self concious.  I learnt later in life that he was quite right.  We were also encouraged to start using our character names, which is something we enjoyed. I knew from my parents that Claude had wanted to cast children who didn’t go to stage schools.  I think he chose us for our spiritedness as much as anything else.

The producer had been keen that we could all sail and swim well and  Claude looked for children who were members of sailing clubs. I don’t think he realised until we were out on the lakes in gusty weather how deeply he valued the confidence in sailing dinghies held by the children playing John and Nancy.  They were so good that there were times when they told him what to do.  That amused him.

One thing that amused me intensly was watching the large colour television at the hotel. I’m not sure if I had seen one before.  They were hugely expensive in 1973 and considered a great luxury. The set, which had a wooden veneer, stood on legs and showed all three channels – BBC One, BBC Two and ITV.  We all thought it was amazing. That dates me and the period, doesn’t it?

‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~ the 1973 film schedule

Swallows and Amazons my version of the film schedule page 1
The film schedule as I saw it in 1973 ~ page one ~

Swallows and Amazons the 1973 film schedule as I saw it

….this was how I reported on what must have been a complicated and well planned film schedule back in 1973 when Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons was made into a movie.

My behind-the-scenes diary ~

I have three volumes of diaries, kept in the same italic hand-writing, detailing what we did, and indeed what we said, on every single day.  I was aged twelve at the time so the English is childish.  They do need editing violently.  I even recorded when we filled up the car with fuel.  But, as a little bit of film history they provide the facts from an interesting angle.  My mother would be pleased to know that I have started to type them up.  She’s been nagging me for years.

On the inside cover of the first volume I wrote:

How I got the part of Titty ~

I had been very lucky to be picked out of all those hundreds of children for one of the six children (the characters in the story).  I had been in a film (a television play) with Claude, the director, before but only for three days.  He short-listed me for the part of T itty.  I was then chosen with 22 others for a sailing holiday (a weekend in Burnham-on-Crouch) to see how we reacted and sailed.  In about a week’s time they rang up top say I had got the part and Mummy a chaperone.

Sophie Neville playing Elieen Brown in the BBC adaptation of ‘Cider with Rosie’, directed by Claude Whatham in 1971

Missing the summer term ~

The Lake District gets very busy in the summer, so busy that I imagine Richard Pilbrow, the producer, decided to film during the summer term.  This was a bit of an issue as I was at a convent boarding school and my parents needed the formal permission from Sister Anne-Julian, my headmistress.  She came back to them saying that she had prayed about it with my housemistress Sister Allyne.  They gave us the go ahead.

The filming started on Monday 14th May.  ‘The last day for most’, as I put it, was on Friday 6th July – forty six days of filming with a full crew for a ninety minute movie shot entirely on location.  We had a few ‘pick-up days’ tacked on afterwards with a sketeton crew.

Travelling up to the Lake District ~

On Friday 11th May 1973 Mum saw my father off to work, dropped my two little sisters at school and took me for a medical test to satisfy the County Council.  What would they have done if I had been deemed unfit at that stage I do not know, but I had already passed medical tests for the company insuring the film, so this must have been a formality. My mother then bought me a paint box, a brush and a stash of hay-fever pills before driving up the motorway from Stroud to the Lake Dristict – a journey of about two hundred miles.