Tag Archives: Autobiography

Meeting up with Peggy Blackett – from the film ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974)

Lesley Bennett in 1973

When the original feature film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ was made in 1973, Peggy Blackett was played by Lesley Bennett. She can be seen here on location at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District.

For the last thirty-four years, Lesley has been living in the Netherlands. I met up with her for lunch at Schiphol Airport on my way back from sailing Arthur Ransome’s cutter, the Nancy Blackett, through the inland waterways of Zeeland. (Please see the last two previous posts.) I nearly didn’t make the meeting. A man had been arrested for planting a bomb on a train just north of Middleberg, but the authorities must have acted quickly as I wasn’t delayed for long.

Lesley had brought along a blue file of documents and a number of black and white movie stills that she’d been given by Richard Pilbrow, the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on one of our last days in Ambleside after filming had finished. We could both remember them spread out on a table at the unit hotel so we could each chose the ones we appeared in. I had picked one where Lesley and I are sitting together, our hair bobbed in line with the 1930’s, I wearing a cream silk dress, Lesley in a dark top looking very pretty:

With Virginia McKenna on the first day of filming

~A publicity shot featuring Virginia McKenna, with Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton, published in the Guardian and other newspapers~

Lesley’s parents, who lived near Tonbridge in Kent, originally learnt that Theatre Projects were looking for children to take part in the film when the Associate Producer, Neville Thompson, wrote to their local sailing club. Lesley explained that her father, who was very well organised, kept a copy of the letter sent to the Secretary of the club in January 1973.  Plans were made for Lesley to be interviewed for a part with her younger sister Lyn, who sadly fell ill and couldn’t make the audition. The letter contains a mistake that might explain why Lesley ended up playing Peggy when she was thirteen years old.

Lesley got on well with Kit Seymour who ended up playing her elder sister, Nancy Blackett – ‘terror of the seas’. Both girls would sail well and enjoyed being out on the lakes. Lesley told me that the reason why she held her hands between her legs in this photograph is that it was so cold when we were filming on Peel Island.

‘Kit would fold her arms and I’d try to keep my hands warm.’ Although I wore a cardigan in this scene, Swallows had been cold too. I remember thinking that at least the Amazons wore knitted hats. Otherwise their costumes were simple short-sleeved shirts and long shorts with black plymsols, worn without socks.

~Kit Seymour as Captain Nancy and Lesley Bennett as Mate Peggy in 1973~

Lesley told me their hats had been quite a problem – not quite a full-blown movie disaster but a they caused consternation in Consiton. The first scene the Amazons shot was set in the garden of Beckfoot, the Blacketts’ house. Although it does not lie on the ‘Amazon River’ at the northern end of the lake, Brown Howe on the western shore of Coniston Water was used as the location and the crew set up the 35mm Panavision camera, along with reflector boards and enough lighting to bring sunshine to Westmorland. When everyone on the production was ready, Gareth Tandy, the third assistant led the Amazons down to the set wearing red knitted stocking caps – with no bobbles. Beanies were not quite what either the director or producer had expected. Lesley has a photo showing the great discussion that ensued:


~Director Claude Whatham, Producer Richard Pilbrow, 3rd Assistant Director Gareth Tandy, Make-up Artist Peter Robb-King, Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan and Associate Producer Neville Thompson with Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett at Brown Howe on Coniston Water in May 1973 ~

In the end Claude Whatham shot the scene with the girls bare-headed, their hair blowing all over the place, even though it was meant to be ‘dead-calm’ in the story.  This looked natural as they were at home but they needed to look like pirates in every other scene.

~Nancy and Peggy running down to Amazon at the Blackett’s house Beckfoot~

Wooly hats with ‘longer ends’ were knitted locally at some speed. Red is not a good colour on the screen. I remember a couple of bright pink ribbed bobble-hats arrived when we were filming on Peel Island but they were deemed a complete disaster and rejected in favour of scarlet ones originally described by Arthur Ransome even if the colour might look a bit jarring on screen.

No one on the production knew anything about knitting or subtle shades of wool and Emma Porteous, the costume designer, was back in London. When the third pair of hats arrived we were all a bit worried about the fatness of the bobble-end, as they didn’t quite match the illustrations in the books, but no one knew what else to do. Time ran out and the producer was forced to compromise. ‘They were warm but prone to flop about,’ Lesley said, ‘and sometimes flopped forward, which looked a bit silly.’ I’d never noticed this but it was captured in one photograph:

~Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett as Nancy and Peggy Blackett on Wild Cat Island in 1973~

Mum was given the pink version of the hats. She kept them for years but no one ever wore them.

To be continued….

 

 

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Beyond, but because of, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~

Jan Leeming, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville

Jan Leeming, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville at a charity event in about 1975.

One of the reasons why I did not continue acting as a child was that it seemed rather more important to concentrate on my education. Another reason was that I simply grew too tall. I was all legs, like a foal.

Crossroads

Appearing as Kevin’s sister in the wedding episodes of the ATV Soap opera ‘Crossroads’. This continuity photograph shows how tall I’d grown. I wasn’t wearing high heels.

After a few years, the fact that I had appeared in both Swallows and Amazons and The Copter Kids meant surprisingly little professionally, except that I was able to gain a much coveted Equity card. In the late 1970’s the Unions were very strong in Britain, holding the film and television industry under a ‘closed shop’ policy. If you were not a Union member you could not work, but you could not gain a Union card without having worked professionally. Even though I had taken lead parts in two movies and had appeared in a number of television dramas, I had only just worked for enough days to get a ‘Provisional Equity membership’ – although another reason for this might have been because I was still only sixteen. Virginia McKenna’s lovely daughter Louise, who I had met at the premiere, was working as a dancer in Spain to gain an Equity card. Meanwhile, directors in the UK could not find young actors in Equity to cast in their dramas. Not being fussy about how I looked, I volunteered to play the part of a boy in the HTV movie Kidnapped. 

Sophie Neville in the HTV movie 'Kidnapped'

Sophie Neville on location at Bisley in Gloucestershire, appearing as a messenger boy in the HTV movie ‘Kidnapped’ in about 1977.

Although the snow was not real, I nearly froze to death.  I must have appeared a more than twenty television dramas, wearing ever more uncomfortable costumes.  Wearing wigs was the worst thing. They can be terribly itchy.

Sherlock Holmes

Sophie Neville in a corset for ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’

Concentrating on academic work was certainly a warmer way to spend the day. I ploughed on with my studies only accepting work that I was offered close to where we lived. The exception was The Two Ronnies, which was recorded on the south coast but it was an opportunity not to be missed. I was about nineteen and had an amusing part in their long running story of Charley Farley and Piggy Malone.

The Two Ronnies - Charley Farley and Piggy Malone

Sophie Neville, second from left, on location at Southampton Docks, appearing in The Two Ronnies for the BBC in about 1979

Since I was cast by Paul Jackson, the Producer, I hadn’t realised that Ronnie Barker would be directing the drama. It was the first time that I had acted with an actor/director, which was slightly tricky when I had my arms around him. The whole experience was surreal – and good fun. Ronnie had a wonderful costume designer who had great fun pouring us into outrageous outfits, including a commodious Yashmaks.  She gave me little round spectacles.  Since I put on a Southern American accent I thought, ‘No one will ever recognise me in this part,’ – but they did.The series ended with a large wooden crate being lowered by a crane from a ship on Southampton docks. One side of the crate fell open and I marched out playing For all the Saints on a trombone, followed by all these ladies dress in pink. I’m holding a tuba in this shot but it was swapped for a trombone. My heel got stuck in one of the tram lines on the dockside but I kept marching on.

Sophie Neville in The Two Ronnies

Sophie Neville playing a trombone for Ronnie Barker

My mother would have loved me to have followed her dream and try for RADA, where she was a student in the late 1950’s. Instead I was accepted by the University of Durham where I read Anthropology and made a number of very good friends.

In the summer of 1980 we went to see Virginia McKenna who was staring opposite Yule Brynner in the musical of The King and I in the West End. We would never have gone backstage if we hadn’t known her so well, if I hadn’t played her daughter in Swallows and Amazons. Virginia needed someone to look after her family in the country, while she was on the London stage. She wrote to ask my mother if she could recommend a cook-housekeeper. It was this domestic role I took on for the long university vacation, armed with a my school cookery book. It was just the Susan-ish job I needed to ground me. Bill Travers, Ginny’s husband, was working at home for much of the time, developing a screenplay for a film set in Africa.  Her son Will Travers had just returned from working on the crew of a movie made in the Nongorogro Crater in Tanzania, and, while her daughter Louise was still dancing in Spain, her second son was at boarding school, her youngest at day school. My feet did not touch the ground.

I couldn’t complain. Virginia hardly slept, and yet due to her obscure hours she could only ever see her youngest son when he was sleeping. She spent sixteen months at the London Palladium, with numerous other demands on her time such as performing at the Royal Variety Performance at the Theatre Royal in Dury Lane. While Yule Brynner had a bodyguard she would drive back though the night in her little blue car.

In her autobiography  The Life in my Years Virginia describes how The King and I  proved one of the highlights of her career. Yul Brynner was a complete perfectionist, which could make life hard, but she welcomed the discipline he bought to the theatre.  You don’t need to watch much of this clip to see  how demanding he could be ~

Almost as soon as I gained my Full Equity Union Membership, I decided that I really didn’t want to devote my life to acting.  After I finished working for Virginia McKenna, London Weekend Television came to make a drama called Dark Secret,  a two-part Sunday Night Thriller, shot at my parents’ house in the Cotswolds. Christopher Hodson, the director, thought it would be amusing if we turned up and knocked on the front door in the final scene, so I am regrettably credited is ‘Member of family party’ along with my mother.

Sophie Neville in 'Dark Secret'

Sophie Neville looking scary in The Sunday Night Thriller ‘Dark Secret’ for London Weekend Television in 1980

I’d actually been employed to help the Designer and his assistant modify our house in line with the story. I remember running errands for the Prop-buyer, who had no idea how to acquire action props of a rural nature such as dead rabbits. I got on so well with the LWT technicians that I decided that working on the crew was far more fulfilling that standing in front of the camera with an itchy hair-do. In 1982 I made a decision to opt for a career in television production. What I did not know is how soon Arthur Ransome would come back into my life.

For further details on the dramas I appeared in at this time, please scroll down on my About page.

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Filed under Acting, Autobiography, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, truelife story