At least one film fan held a TV party with and 1930’s theme to celebrate. Others stoked up the wood-burner and settled down to spend an afternoon re-living summer in the Lake District. It is as if Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – a timeless classic to watch again and again.
For the latest edition of the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ with details of where the film was made and what those who appeared in it are doing now, Please click here
The ebook, entitled ‘The secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ is the same with a few more stories for adult readers and has links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It can be downloaded from iTunes, Smashwords,Kobo and Amazon Kindle
It would be lovely to hear from anyone who saw it in the cinema when it first came out in cinemas in the summer of 1974 – more than forty-five years ago.
Simon Hodkin kindly sent in this cinema programme that he has kept since watching the movie when he was a boy growing up in North Wales.
Arthur Herbertson managed to track down these rare publicity sheets for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ typical of movie games of the period:
Arthur has a collection of the four jigsaw puzzles and the Puffin paperback that came out with the film.
There was a vinyl LP narrated by the screenwriter David Wood that you can still purchase.
Arthur found a publicity brochure that I had never seen before.
To read comments from people who saw the film at the cinema in 1974, please click here
The original story was written by Arthur Ransome in 1929 ninety years ago, so the film hits the half-way mark between the original readers and today’s audience. It’s funny, the critics in 1974 are asking the same question as raised in the billing this week: Do ‘modern youngsters struggle to relate to such old-fashioned game playing’?
Do add your thoughts to the comments below.
~Billing in the Christmas edition of the Radio Times 2019~
Signing copies of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ in Cumbria
1 – How did you get the part of Titty?
In March 1973, a letter arrived, out of the blue, inviting me to audition for a role in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I was twelve years old, an ordinary school girl at a convent in Berkshire. I’d read the Arthur Ransome books but had no idea I was up for the lead in a major EMI feature film intended for a universal international audience. The movie was directed by Claude Whatham. Back in 1970, he’d cast me as Eileen Brown, opposite a boy playing Laurie Lee, in the BBC’s first adaptation of ‘Cider With Rosie’. It was a role that demanded learning a piano piece so complicated it took twenty-one hours to master, but I did it. Claude must have respected my hard work. I was too tall to play Titty but, after a sailing audition at Burnham-on-Crouch, I was offered the part. He cast Sten Grendon, who’d played the young Laurie Lee, as Roger, Suzanna Hamilton was Susan and Virginia McKenna starred as our mother. She later admitted to finding her character rather dull but it was her name, in lights outside cinemas, that drew big audiences. We’ve kept in touch. She is still acting, aged 87, and has led the Born Free Foundation’s international campaign to redeem the lives of wild animals held in miserable conditions since 1998.
With Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, in 1973
2 – Why was it so suitable for you?
We loved visiting the Lake District as a family. My father helped the Maryport Button Factory with their publicity and once took us to stay on a farm near Castle Craig above the River Derwent. I spent my childhood camping and messing about in boats, adding a sail made from a dust-sheet to an old rowing skiff. The great thing about the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was that Simon West, who played Captain John, was an exceptional sailor. He went on to become a national champion. Kit Seymour, who played Captain Nancy, also had a natural command of the waves. It shows on screen. They were able to handle our small boats when squalls rolled down from the fells. I didn’t have their innate understanding of the wind but it was Titty’s job to row everywhere – back from the charcoal burners and off to One Tree Island on Derwentwater. “Pull harder, Roger!” I managed to row Amazon out of Secret Harbour in one take, with the cameraman and a massive 35mm Panavision Camera on board.
Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville in Swallow, 1973
Casting-off Swallow was more of a challenge. It doesn’t show on a small screen, but when ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is screened in cinemas, you can spot the sequence when I slip on a rock with the telescope in one hand. I was up to my waist in water but got back on my feet and battled on, waving as the others sailed up Coniston Water. I knew how difficult the shot was to achieve and was desperate to do my best for Claude Whatham.
3 – Did it fire your wish to work in TV?
No! It was directing plays while reading Anthropology at Durham University that ignited a desire to work on television dramas. However, the experienced I’d gained acting in movies helped me win a place on the BBC TV Graduate Trainee scheme. After working on ‘The Russell Harty Show’, I grabbed the chance to cast children on the adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads: ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. I found Henry Dimbleby, then aged thirteen, to play the lead and spent three months on location with Julian Fellowes and Rosemary Leach – who I’d met when she played Laurie Lee’s mother. I later worked on ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Eastenders’ and ‘My Family and Other Animals’, before producing an INSET series, directing one episode at a village school in Cumbria. I began casting children in the Lake District to appear in BBC adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s Lakeland books but they were axed, which was sad, as we were all set to make ‘Swallowdale’ and ‘Pigeon Post’ on the high moors.
4 – What does the Lake District in general, and Keswick in particular, mean to you?
We live on the south coast but take the train north at any opportunity. I’m now President of The Arthur Ransome Society and came up for a fabulous weekend in May when we sailed from the jetty at Bank Ground Farm – Holly Howe in Ransome’s books. I gave an illustrated talk on the secrets of making ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at the Bassenthwaite Institute, using behind-the-scenes photographs taken when we were filming on Derwentwater forty-five years ago. We shot all the scenes involving Captain Flint’s Houseboat in a bay on the western shore. She was played by the Lady Derwentwater, converted for the drama by Ian Whittaker, a talented young set dresser who went on to win an Oscar for set decoration on the feature film ‘Howards End’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. We shot the lighthouse tree scenes near Friar’s Craig and used Lingholme or One Tree Island for Cormorant Island, where Titty finds the treasure chest. We enjoyed making Ronald Fraser, the film actor playing Captain Flint, walk the plank and sailed up Derwentwater to the strains of ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor’, played as the end credits roll. Forty years later, Suzanna Hamilton and I were asked to lunch with Richard Pilbrow the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Buskers were singing this song outside the restaurant in Covent Garden. We couldn’t believe the coincidence.
Meeting fans of Swallows and Amazons at Keswick in July
I meet people from far and wide who tell me the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ inspired them to visit the Lake District. It has been broadcast on television every year for the last forty years and was last shown in Australia on Boxing Day. It has been dubbed into Czech twice and is often shown at festivals as only ‘U’ certificate movies can be screened outdoors. I just hope this has proved a blessing to the people of Keswick, which I so loved visiting as a child. I thought the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – that I appear in for approximately two seconds – would overshadow the classic version but it has simply raised awareness along with DVD sales. Fan mail continues to arrive. A beautiful card came today. Arthur Ransome would have been touched. It had fish on it.
Editorial coverage and a literary award for ‘Funnily Enough’
5 – Do you want to mention mental health/physical health issues are always in the news?
I find that many of my readers are stuck in bed or battling with ill-health. I hope they are amused and uplifted in some way by stories in my books. ‘Funnily Enough’, a diary I kept after collapsing at the BBC, is about my own struggle with what I am pretty sure was a tick-bourne disease. I lost my job but recovered in Southern Africa, where I fulfilled Titty’s dream of seeing “forests full of parrots” and produced decorative maps for a living, inspired by Spurrier’s illustration on the original cover of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I used maps and details from my sketchbook to illustrate a paperback entitled, ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’, which is out in colour as an ebook.
On the crew of the Gloriana in the Boat Race Flotilla in March featured on BBC Television
6 – What else?
People often ask how ‘Swallows and Amazons’ influenced my life, keen to know what I am doing now. I am still keen on rowing. I completed the Voga Longa, a 32 kilometre marathon through the Venetian lagoon with Olympic gold medallist Ed Code and was on the crew of The Queen’s row barge Gloriana for the Boat Race Flotilla this year. This summer, I grabbed the chance to row through the canals of Amsterdam, which was fascinating. However, it was the Amazons bows and arrows that impacted my life. After learning to shoot on the shores of Coniston Water, I was cast as an archery champion in another movie and have since won three Ladies Championships. I met my husband at an archery match. My stepson shot for England in July, winning a tri-annual match against the Royal Company of Archers (so proud!) I gave a talk recently demonstrating how the arrows in ‘Swallows and Amazons were’ fired over my head. The shot looks so dangerous that it was cut from the TV version of the film, but is included in the re-mastered 40th Anniversary cinema Blu-ray version, which we are now able to watch on the big screen.
Rowing in from De Hoop Rowing Club in Amsterdam, July 2018
I have been sent a copy of a letter written to a reader by Arthur Ransome in June 1955, revealing where some of his locations can be found. I was interested to read that, ‘the lake is mainly Windermere with some things stolen from Coniston.’
This summer, we spent a long weekend with The Arthur Ransome Society when we managed to find quite a few locations around Coniston Water that are featured in Ransome’s books.
~Low Yewdale Farm, near Coniston ~
The curator of the John Ruskin Museum took us on a walk around the village of Coniston and under the Yewdale Crags towards Tarn Howes. We passed Low Yewdale Farm where Arthur Ransome stayed as a young man. It is just as I imagined Swainson’s Farm in ‘Swallowdale’. The footpath takes you down to the beck where Ransome fished for brown trout. I could imagine Roger attempting to tickle trout there.
If you follow the path on south, then branch left up the East of Lake Road around Coniston Water, you will find another footpath leading to Bank Ground Farm.
A hand-painted sign guides you through fields, where Galloway cows maybe grazing. Look up and you will literally find yourself at Holly Howe, the long white farmhouse where Mr and Mrs Jackson live in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. You can imagine the Walker children running down the meadow to the Peak of Darien.
~ Dr Ernest Altounyan rigging Mavis on Coniston Water~
It was here that the Altounyan children, Taqui, Susie, Titty, Roger and Brigit spent one summer holiday in 1928, while visiting their grandparents who lived next door at Lane Head. They learned to sail on the lake in two dinghies: Swallow and Mavis, later re-named Amazons, who can be visited at the John Ruskin Museum in Coniston.
~Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria where the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) was made~
The barn, inside which we filmed some of the night sequences for the original movie of ‘Swallows & Amazons’, has been converted into self-catering holiday accommodation that can house a number of families quite easily. From here you can run down to the boat shed where John, Susan, Titty and Roger found Swallow and imagine them setting off on their voyage to Wild Cat Island leaving the Fair Spanish Ladies on the stone quay.
~The boatsheds below Bank Ground Farm, on Coniston Water~
Wooden jetties have been added recently and it is possible to either launch your own boat or hire a kyak from Bank Ground Farm.
~The northern end of Coniston Water~
We had a bedroom in the barn that looked north towards the Langdales. If you walk up the farm drive, you can look back towards Coniston Old Man, Kanchenjunga, which the Walkers and Blacketts climb in ‘Swallowdale’.
~Bank Ground Farm with the village of Coniston beyond~
Arthur Ransome was taken up the Old Man of Coniston as a tiny baby. You can climb it today but wear more than sand shoes. Stout walking boots are called for. The task of reaching the summit should not be underestimated.
We were able to get out on the lake to find a few more locations. This red-sailed dinghy, named Peggy Blackett, is a copy of Arthur Ransome’s Cochybundhu, used as the model for Dick and Dorothea’s boat Scarab.
~Sailing on Coniston Water towards the village of Coniston~
It is a long way down Coniston Water to Peel Island but it is there that you will spot the Secret Harbour, instantly recognisable as belonging to Wild Cat Island. We went there in the SL Gondola, that now belongs to the National Trust. Ransome knew the steam launch as a boy when he made friends with the captain.
~ Secret Harbour on the southern end of Peel Island, Coniston Water ~
In the cemetery of Coniston village I found the grave of Titty Altounyan, the girl who inspired Arthur Ransome’s well-loved character. I never met her but was with her niece Barbara that long weekend in Coniston, when we both thoroughly enjoyed walking, sailing and steaming along in Ransome’s footsteps.
~ Sophie Neville visiting Titty Altounyan’s grave in Coniston ~
For details of more locations at the southern end of Coniston Water that are featured in the Swallows and Amazons series of books, please click here.
When the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ first came out in cinemas it stirred up quite a bit of interest in the media.
This script for a programme made for BBC Radio Bristol has recently been discovered in a box in my mother’s attic. Typical of the early ‘seventies, it is a carbon copy, so is rather feint, but it a little bit of media history in itself:
It’s intriguing. What did we say in the interviews that they ran in?
Sadly, two of the first newspaper reviews of the movie were not complimentary. Last year, when interviewed by Tim Fenton at Pin Mill on the Orwell, Professor Hugh Brogan said that one of these articles was so ignorant and so angered him that he resolved to write the truth about Ransome’s distinguished career. This involved years of research but resulted in his biography, ‘The Life of Arthur Ransome’.
Since The Lutterworth Press published the seconded edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ in May last year, a number of other stories and facts have reached me. I’ve learned that the creamy yellow taxi in which the Walker family arrived at Holly Howe was a Vauxhall 20/60 R type saloon, 1928 – 1930 model hired for the film by the property buyer Ron Baker, whose name I must add to the credits. When the Altounyan children stayed at the same farmhouse, which in reality is called Bank Ground Farm, their hostess was called Mrs Jolly. Apparently her husband, Mr Jolly, did not live up to his name.
The lady in blue who waved from the deck of MV Tern after the Swallow’s near miss was played by Lorna Khan. Here she is with her daughter Zena and a yellow Austin Heavy 12/4 tourer, after they appeared in the Rio scenes. You can see other film extras and supporting artists in 1929 costume, patiently sitting in the Browns of Ambleside coach behind them.
Photograph (c) Zena Ashbury
Did you know that missionaries in Africa used semaphore? Until I read a Russian edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ I’m afraid I didn’t know that Darien was the former name of the Isthmus of Panama, that the Rio Grande flows from South Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico or that ‘Shiver my timbers’ was a curse used by R. L Stephenson in Treasure Island.
Nick Owen had been living at Elterwater for seventeen years before he learnt the fishing scene from ‘Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ was shot there.
It had not occurred to me that the film was recorded in the annals until I was sent this excerpt from the third edition of ‘Time Out Film Guide’ (1993). Perhaps I should bring out a third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’.
Please let me know if you would like to see more archive material from the attic.
To read more about Cider With Rosie (1971) directed by Claude Whatham, starring Sten Grendon as Laurie Lee please click here
The story begins at Pin Mill where the Swallows – John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker, along with their mother and Bridget-the-ship’s-baby, are waiting for their father to take up a Naval posting nearby at Shotley. The four children didn’t mean to go to sea at all but somehow ended up sailing to the Netherlands in a terrific storm. I was asked to read the last chapter.
~Gryff Rhys Jones and Sophie Neville appearing on Anglia Television~
Going back twenty years: Members of The Arthur Ransome Society alerted me to a BBC Children’s Television programme, which shows Griff Rhys Jones at Pin Mill in 1997 when he met Taqui Altounyan who knew Ransome when she was a girl. The Swallows were originally based on her family who learnt to sail in two clinker-built dinghies called Swallow and Mavis when they stayed at Bank Ground Farm (Holly Howe) above Coniston Water in the Lake District. I recently discovered the secret that Taqui was also the model for Captain Nancy in Ransome’s well-loved books.
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:
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.
I have been lying in the bath dreaming up a poem to enter this wonderful competition. So far, I have:
If you ever go for tea
at Bank Ground Farm, you’re sure to see
the field where the Swallows waited
for the telegram that stated
they could go to sea.
IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN
has become quiet well renowned
as a response to Health and Safety
when adult natives get too hasty
or turn adventure down.
Did Arthur Ransome ever think
that a feature film might one day link
Lucy Batty to a famous movie star
like sweet Virginia McKenna
while at her kitchen sink?
‘I put a paddlock on the gate,
obliging them to wait
until they paid a decent fee
to use my property
But if you stay at Bank Ground Farm’s
rooms in the house, the stable block or barns
you’ll be certainly
with open arms.
I think I need to try I littlhe harder. Here are the competition details:
A new competition for poets is being launched at a Lake District farm with a strong literary heritage.
The owners of Bank Ground Farm, on the eastern shore of Coniston, are asking poets to write about their visit – or about Swallows and Amazons, the children’s classic story which is set in the area.
The entries will be judged by American poet and author David Whyte who is visiting this summer to run a residential school. Whyte, the Anglo-Irish poet now living in the USA, is the author of eight books of poetry and four books of prose. With a degree in Marine Zoology, he has traveled widely, including living and working as a naturalist guide in the Galapagos Islands and leading anthropological and natural history expeditions in the Andes, Amazon and Himalaya.
Swallows and Amazons, loved by generations of children – and adults – opens at a farm called Holly…