My mother is a squirrel. She arrived at my house, not with nuts, but a large envelope. Amongst other things, this contained the transcript of a piece she wrote almost forty-five years ago for BBC Radio Bristol, when she presented a programme called ‘Come Alive’. The four flimsy sheets of copy paper have only just been unearthed, along with a similar article for Woman magazine.
Daphne Neville was commissioned to write about her experience working on the original feature film, Swallows and Amazons, filmed on location in the Lake District in the summer of 1973 and brought to cinemas in 1974. Sold worldwide, has been broadcast on television for the last forty years and was last shown on TV in Australia on Boxing Day.
It is interesting to have Mum’s perspective. Some of the details are new to me. She timed this piece for BBC Radio as taking ‘8 minutes’ to read:
~ On Derwentwater in 1973: Suzannah Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Daphne Neville, Sten Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Lesley Bennett ~ photo: Martin Neville
But Mum, were we ever ‘Film Stars’?
We scowled at the terminology at the time. Ten years later and I thought of us a merely puppets, marionettes of the director who carefully honed our performances. I can now see the contribution we made when I watch the film, but we were never film stars.
What do I wish? I wish that we’d been able to make a sequel and develop our work more fully. The flip-side of this would have been that any more success, or more publicity, might have stripped us of our anonymity, which is the bain of real film stars. We’d have had to go around wearing sunglasses.
If you would like to see what we were filming 45 years ago, on 1st July 1973, please click here.
Let me know if you would like to see more archive material. I have the draft of my mother’s article for Woman magazine – it’s a different version of the same but with added detail. She needed permission from Anglo EMI Film Distributors before it could be published. There is also a draft of another radio script and a number of letters. If you would like to see vintage photos of Mum appearing on television herself, please click here
David Stott has written in to say, “When l got the job driving for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ l think I took over the production car when Jean McGill started driving you children around in the mini-bus.” This must have been in May 1973 when the original film of Arthur Ransome’s classic book was being made in Westmorland.
David explained that, although he lived in Ambleside, he has not seen Jean since the filming, so enjoyed reading that I had been in touch with her. “Jean’s Mum was called Girlie and she used to run a nursing home on Lake Road. Jean had a brother who was nicknamed Blondie. We would often have a cup of tea with Girlie in the nursing home kitchen.”
David has all sorts of memories of filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the Lake District that I knew nothing about. “Jean mentioned that she took Ronnie Fraser for an early morning glass of champagne to get him going. I remember having to take him to the Lodore Swiss Hotel in Borrowdale while filming on Derwentwater. He would order what he called, ‘A Frazer’, which was some sort of vodka cocktail.” David was only about seventeen at the time. Driving Ronald Fraser around must have been something of an eye-opener. “I remember bringing him back to film ‘walking the plank’ and he was very drunk at the time. Expect he needed it for the cold water. He could be a little difficult when he had had a few.”
“I was rather star struck when l was driving Virginia McKenna,” he admitted. “On one occasion I had to drive her from the farmhouse on Coniston to Grange railway station. She was telling me all about filming ‘Born Free’ with the lions and I drove a bit slowly as l was enjoying her company. We arrived rather late and l had to throw her and her luggage onto the train just as it was leaving.” I asked Virginia about this but she couldn’t remember ever being late for the train. I can only imagine that David must have coped well.
“On another occasion I think l had Richard Pilbrow in the car,” he was the producer of the film. “We were driving back from Derwentwater when a cow jumped off a bank and landed on the bonnet, causing quiet a lot of damage. I was dreading going back to Browns Motors and telling Alan Faulkener the owner what had happened.” Richard is still alive and well.
David, who now owns Crossways Hotel near Glynebourne, comes from an old Cumbrian family. His grandmother lived at High Green Gate, the farm next door to Beatrice Potter Hilltop. “My great grandfather was Farmer Potatoes in the ‘Tale of Samuel Whiskers’. It was sketched from a photograph that my mother still has. There is shortly to be an article in Cumbria Magazine about Beatrice Potter’s relationship with the Postlethwaite family.”
One of our locations – Haverthwaite Station today
“My father was the local joiner in Ambleside. He also kept about 1000 hens and delivered eggs around the hotels at the weekends. My brother and l would often help him on a Saturday morning.” David obviously knew the roads of Cumbria well.
It could only happen to them. My parents decided to take a holiday looking at castles in Northumberland and came across this scene:
They ended up appearing in a Walt Disney movie called Unidentified Flying Oddball. Here is the evidence:
The film’s original title had been The Spaceship and King Arthur, billed as a family adventure. It was an adaptation of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and was shot at Alnwick Castle, the seat of the Duke of Northumberland where the Harry Potter films were later made.
It was released on an unsuspecting public in 1979, but was shot in the summer of 1978. I’m not sure how advanced Visual Effects were at the time but there were no Computer Generated Images. It looks to me as if this little airbourne stunt was for real.
Life before the advent of CGI
Absolutely terrifying. While Kenneth Moore played King Arthur, Dad’s distant cousin John le Mesurier was Sir Gawain. Ron Moody played Merlin and Jim Dale starred as Sir Mordred with Dennis Dugan who played Tom Trimble. Rodney Bewes, who we knew as one of the Likely Lads had the role of Clarence. My father was hired for five days as a weapon bearer. This was simply so Mum had license to watch the filming.
Dennis Dugan on location in Northumberland
Pat Roach, 6’5″ tall British actor, later in all three Indiana Jones films, was Oaf. Mum hadn’t seen Jim Dale with permed hair before. She was used the lovable innocent he tended to play in Carry On films, but there he was looking fashionable on location in Northumberland, in the Duchess’s garden at that.
Jim Dale at Alnwick Castle
Jim Dale is known for the Harry Potter audiobooks in the USA, winning several high-profile awards for them, and for narrating the Harry Potter video games such as the Hogwart’s Challenge and Wizarding World. I wonder if they transported him back to Alnwick Castle?
~ Behind-the-scenes in film and television, continued ~
Much of Arthur of the Britonswas shot at Woodchester Mansion, a vast house built of cut stone yet left half-finished and eventually sold for £1 to Stroud District Council. My father became a Trustee of the Board that decided its future.
It was on the property below the half-finished building, that HTV constructed the vast 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 with her brother Krist unexpectedly by longboat. This was spotted drifting down the river – which is in reality the lake at Woodchester. In the story Arthur insists they should be returned to their own people by Kai, portrayed by Michael Gothard, who rode some distance with them on his horse.
We were also able to watch. The episode was a beautifully 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. It was a good thing Tamzin could ride. Her hessian dress was not exactly ideal riding wear.
‘I couldn’t even whistle when I had all my teeth.’
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.
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 carryied her into the village after Tamzin and Shaun.
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.
Forty two 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.
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.
I have been writing about my experiences behind-the-scenes in film and television for some time. There is one series in particular that still has a strong following, particularly those interested in British medieval history.
As children, back in 1971, we were all excited to hear that HTV was planning to film a series about King Arthur near where we lived in Gloucestershire. We were keen on dressing up and I was already interested in medieval history.
The Arthurian legend had always been portrayed with ladies in pointy conical hats and knights in chain mail riding around with lances, however expectations of turreted castles were soon to be dashed.
Instead, we woke up one morning to find this tent in the field beyond our house, with a full English breakfast being served by location caterers from the back of a two-tone bus. The final scenes of Episode One of the series Arthur of the Britons, entitled Arthur is Dead,starring Oliver Tobias in the title role,was to be filmed on our farm.
We learnt that the drama series, Arthur of the Britions was to be quite different from traditional renditions of the well-loved stories. Apart from anything else the actors had long hair and wore rough hessian garments or sheepskins to reflect the culture of Iron Age England. Everyone was excited about the idea, which seemed more authentic and certainly held more sex-appeal than the Hollywood idyl lodged in our consciousness.
While the lane below the wood that ran along the sides of our valley was closed to traffic, HTV ran cables and moved in with their lights, camera equipment and props amounting to bundles of swords, spears, shields and other weaponry.
Here you can see the Gulliver’s Prop lorry as well as costume and make-up artists with their kit-bags attending to the actors and supporting artistes. Please remind me of the name of the character to the left of shot and who played him. ***
It must have been dark under the trees, as there would have been have been a large 2K light on this tripod. The crew set up carefully and were finally ready to go for a take, recording the battle in the woods on 16mm.
After a short skirmish, Arthur pretends to retreat, leading his men downhill. They are soon followed by the Saxon hordes. The reality was that the wood was much steeper than it came across on television. The actors ended up tumbling down the bank.
We were waiting in the open field in the valley floor. Although naturally marshy, this had been made much wetter by damming the stream that flowed down from the woods. Our local road engineer Percy Baxter dug pits that filled with water and acted as a trap for the Saxons who did not know the secret way through the marshes.
We knew the ledgend and were fascinated to see how the sequence would come together.
As the scene was difficult to replicate it was shot with two cameras, seen here set on wooden tripods. The result was exciting.
Scroll to 19.50 towards the end of the episode to watch the scene here on Youtube:
***Post script: This email arrived recently. I have been given permission to feature it:
“Browsing the web the other day, I came across your website and photos relating to filming ‘Arthur of the Britons’. One photo in particular interested me, the one in which the request, ‘Please remind me of the name of the character to the left of shot and who played him’ appears.
Looking at that photo stirred many memories…
Back in 60’s Bristol, my old chum Bob Baker was trying his hand at script-writing for the media, somehow he got involved with a BBC Children’s series entitled ‘Pegasus’: of which meager entries appear online and actual footage seems non existent.
Bob and I enlisted as extras for a shoot at Berkeley Castle, much fun, beautifully authentic Napoleonic Infantry costumes, several closeups, a hard in-character slap on the face for Bob and a shot of me firing a rifle at an imaginary ‘Pegasus’, the eponymous hot air balloon, as it took off from the castle courtyard carrying the escapee heroes of the plot. An excellent tight closeup only marred by myself who, having fired and watched the imaginary effect of my bullet, lowered the rifle and stared up intently, for what seemed minutes (at nothing) finally relaxed… as my eye was drawn inexorably towards the huge camera lens inches from my face. ‘Christ! He just looked straight into the camera! Cut!’ I was particularly stung by a co-extras unconcealed schadenfreude as he muttered, ‘Shame about that Rog, they liked the look of you, blown your chances now.’ But it was too good to waste and, edited, made it into the final cut: it was however the last close-up I got.
The final location work called for a night shoot, it was raining intermittently and shooting was sporadic, Bob and I spent most of the night in the canteen, drinking wine with our old mate Keith Floyd who had managed to land the catering job – in many ways, the start of his career and of course he went on to considerable success, fame and several television series of his own. Bob and I ran out of cigarettes so, fully accoutred and armed with cocked hats, swords, rifles and bayonets, we strolled down into Berkeley village and went into The Boar’s Head just at closing time, startling the small group of locals, and ordered two pints and some fags. A stunned silence descended as without a word, Bob and I drained our pints and left as suddenly as we had appeared. I wonder if the legend of the two thirsty apparitions from La Grande Armée is told there still?
Bob and co-writer Dave Martin had written a well-researched film script about King Arthur. They knocked on many doors, Hollywood was mentioned; even Charlton Heston was reported to be interested, but finally, in 1973, it was HTV who eventually picked it up, though I see Bob actually gets credit only for the first episode ‘People of the Plough’.Of course, he went on to write many of the scripts for ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Wallace and Grommit’ but this was his first, if modest, success.
I was on my summer vacation and Bob mentioned HTV were looking for extras for ‘Arthur’ if I was interested. When I arrived on set it seemed that half of Bristol was there including many of my drinking mates from Clifton, most of whom had arrived equipped with cider and beer and it became fairly apparent the direction things would take. A few years ago I was reminiscing about those days with one of them, Mike Dauncey, who went on to become a respected BBC Cameraman, but who sadly, recently died. He told me he spent most of his time in the actors tent, along with a few other reprobates, smoking pot. I recall seeing him at the time but had no idea what was going on, though I remember enjoying plenty of the extraordinary amounts of alcohol that seemed to be around. I’m pretty sure Mike is the guy in the patterned doublet with his back to the camera, extreme right.
Vaguely, I recall lots of nonsense, involving charging down hills waving swords and yelling, mock fighting in in the river and defending a primitive ‘Saxon Village’ that had been constructed on a river bank. As always, shooting was a bit piecemeal, scenes being shot out of sequence and us extras standing around as background whilst Oliver Tobias, Jack Watson and, by the end of the shoot, the Celts, had taken the village. Not terribly dramatic at the time, presumably any attendant pillage and rapine was the subject of a different shoot, though I recall a fair amount of fake blood waiting in readiness. Finally the script called for the Celts to set fire to the village. And thus I got my big starring role, as employing all my acting skills, dressed in a ‘bloody’ sheepskin and in closeup, I was required to play a dead Saxon.
Unfortunately it had been steadily raining all day and the ‘village’, built largely from straw and dummy plastic wickerwork, refused to ignite. I was lying very close to the ‘village’ and began to get a bit concerned as, from my worms eye view, I watched the crew enthusiastically chucking gallons of petrol over the village to get things going. It all seemed to take a long time and as I lay there in the rain, I remember hoping they hadn’t forgotten that the dead Saxon was actually an extra and not a prop. More time went by setting up the shots but eventually the scene was in readiness. Action! shouted the director and with cameras rolling, three ‘Celtic horsemen’ with flaming torches galloped down on the village, narrowly avoiding trampling me, threw the torches at the ‘buildings’ and galloped off. For several seconds nothing happened, then suddenly with a huge WHOOMPH! all that petrol just went off, The heat where I was lying was incredible, the grass between me and the village began to steam then turn yellow and smoke, I began to smell wet, then burning wool, as my sheepskin began to smoulder, fortunately too sodden and thick to actually catch fire, but lying there, I discovered an earnest empathy for those Guy Fawkes dummies I had chucked on bonfires as a kid. The crew were oblivious to my plight as the director called for several takes and the scene took over an hour to shoot until eventually the flames died down and a wrap was called.
Months later the series appeared on TV, I saw very little of it but did see that scene; by modern standards it looked fairly amateurish, obviously phoney as you could see the plastic ‘wickerwork’ melting, but my closeup was excellent, I looked just like a corpse, very realistic, despite gently steaming.
Bob and Dave Martin always referred to the series as ‘Arthur in The Stinging Nettles’ but what struck me about that photo is that it looks more like the set for some fey setting of Lothlórien. What a bunch of fairies!
So back to that plea, who was the character on the left? Well, if it’s the guy having his face touched-up on the extreme left, I’m afraid it was no actor, just an extra that played a corpse. Me.
I seem to have banged on a bit, strange how a photograph brings it all back, apologies if it just seems like some old blokes boring memories – but then again, that’s exactly what it is!
One of the questions asked by fans of the film Swallows & Amazons, produced by Richard Pilbrow in1973, is whether any of the scenes written by David Wood ever hit the cutting-room floor. Looking back through the original screenplay I can see that the answer is, not many.
The shots of finding Swallow in the boatshed, bringing her out and raising her flag were moved forward, under the Voice Over of the Walker children reading out the letters to their father.
Simon West talking to director Claude Whatham with Sophie Neville
There is a scene in the book set at Holly Howe when medical supplies are being packed for the voyage. This was shot with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water, but must have slowed down the pace of the film as it was replaced by a montage of shots, which are much more exciting.
Virginia McKenna as Mother with Sophie Neville as Titty making Swallow’s flag
Making patterans on the way to the charcoal burners, was a lovely scene from the book that was recorded but never included in the film. Captain John can been seen explaining how gypsies use them as secret markers in this black and white still from the film. It was shot on a mossy bank in oak woodland so very characteristic of the Lake District. It was at this dramatic location, high above Derwentwater that this behind-the-scenes shot of the director, Claude Whatham was taken. You can see Cat Bells in the background.
Claude Whatham talking to his cast: Sten Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Suzanna Hamilton
Mrs Ransome, who worked closely with the screenwriter agreed that the storm scene on Wild Cat Island would not to be included in the screenplay, which we all thought a great pity as children. Such a violent gale blew in one day when we were filming on Peel Island that we would have had the right weather conditions, but you can not include everything. Jane Grendon, whose son Sten played Roger wrote to tell me that before filming began, ‘…one of the very first things we were asked was, ‘can Sten swim?” ‘I know he could doggy paddle,’ she continued. ‘ Neville (Thompson, the online Producer) organised swimming lessons at Pitville Pool, Cheltenham which included jumping off the diving boards. At the time I didn’t know why and I don’t think Sten is a natural in the water and the swimming lessons didn’t prove very successful. Claude (Whatham) told me – at the end of filming I think, when he gave me a copy of he original script – these lessons were because in the original script Roger was to jump in the water after Uncle Jim walked the plank.’ Jane sent me a copy of the page in question. I had not seen it before: It was a page of the script we never had the time or enough fine weather to shoot. I am so glad.
Readers often ask if any scenes involving the Amazons were cut, but none were left out. Nancy and Peggy simply do not appear in the book as much as one might remember.
Please leave any questions about the making of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the comments below.
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 out complections 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..