‘X marks the spot where they ate six missionaries’ ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island in 1973

‘Natives again. Or cannibals. This marks the spot where they ate six missionaries’ has to be the best line that anyone in the history of film making has ever had to utter.  It is not in the book, just that ‘…they might have been killed and eaten by other natives,’ as Titty, having digested huge helpings of Daniel Defoe, declares herself the most ardent imperialist of all time. And she has such fun doing so. I have always liked the talk of ‘the powerful native’ (Mr Jackson the Lakeland farmer) and the savages living around Rio. I always hope it shocks lots of people.

What I have found really does shock people – shocks them so much that they admit to being shocked – is that I was once a missionary. In Africa. And in Australia. I think they think I try to convert the natives but of course it is not like that. You go not knowing what will happen and find yourselves making life a bit more fun for people who belong to God but are battling a bit.

It is like this:  The Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, who are energetic tomboys living in the Lake District, had lost their father. It goes unsaid, but Peggy very touchingly lets it out in Swallowdale when they find a hidden tin on the peak of Kanchenjunga.  Their mother’s brother, Jim Turner, took them sailing and did things with them with them the first summer but then decided to concentrate on writing his book. Nancy and Peggy feel so rejected they light a firework on the roof of his boat, which enrages him. The Swallows, who know what it was like to live without a father around as theirs is in the Navy, travel from afar but somehow manage to come alongside the Amazons and give them a reason to keep going and live life to the full. Nancy and Peggy excel – they find life-long friends and do all the things they are meant to do. All sorts of things happen as a result. And the Swallows are challenged and have more fun than if they had ever travelled in a structured way, intent solely on their own enjoyment. They have great adventures and do more things than they ever imagined possible .

I still go on short term missions. We went to China with the Bible Society in March. It was amazing – hysterical. A mission of encouragement that Titty would have loved. We met people who had not had European visitors for forty years. They were really excited to know that people in the wider world were interested in their welfare and had come to bring them the word of God. The only Europeans – only white people – they had seen before us were there to make money. It’s shocking, isn’t it?

Swallow in the Secret Harbour

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Sophie Neville: Profile


Actors are warned: ‘Never work with children or animals’. This was originally coined because they can come across so well that an actor’s performance won’t be noticed.

Sophie spent years at the BBC specialising in drama productions that featured children and animals. She directed her first documentary in Kenya at the age of 25. By the age of 27 she was directing improvised dramas in a tough London Comprehensive school. After spending 13 weeks on the Ealing film stages as Director of FX sequences and animation on a 10-part drama she was asked to produce a series working with 4 to 6 year-olds. By the age of thirty she was directing a serial that featured an 8-year-old girl in almost every scene. ‘I cast identical twins to play the part, used two cameras operated by sports cameramen and finished by 4.30pm each day.’

‘I’d acted in feature films as a child and knew what would work. And what could cause havoc. You need to check children’s teeth well before filming. They tend to lose them just when it is most likely to wreck your continuity. The BBC never used casting directors, so I’d look for kids myself finding  a large cast of children able to sail for two Arthur Ransome book adaptations and the right boy to play Gerald Durrell in My family and Other Animals.’

‘I’d grown up with animals and love working with them. My family keep tame otters and filming wildlife sequences – handling creatures from adders to elephants – has always been part of my life. Making the zoo vet drama series with grat apes and big cats was fascinating . The best ting about working on Eastenders was that I was re-united with Little Willie, the pug dog that we had bought to play William, the hero of  Coot Club.’

Beenie the Otter Sophie hand-reared

In 1992 Sophie emigrated to southern Africa where she worked freelance for the BBC setting up wildlife films and documentaries in Botswana, Namibia and throughout South Africa.  ‘One highlight was setting up the Blue Peter visit to South Africa when Diane Jordan interviewed Archbishop Tutu.’

Breaking her pelvis in a riding accident Sophie was immobilized for a while but took up painting and established herself as a wildlife artist.

After meeting her husband at an archery match Sophie settled down  to concentrate on writing, looking for true stories that could be adapted for the screen. She has published Funnily Enough about her life in Gloucestershire and Ride the Wings of Morning set in Southern Africa. She is currently writing a pair of historical novels. Her filmography, The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ is published by the Lutterworth Press and available here.

Sophie Neville in Beijing

Sophie travels widely. She has driven through twenty different African countries and ridden horses across the Namib Desert, the Masai Mara and the Okavango Delta. She rode from Addis Ababa up to the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and through Cappadocia in Turkey. In 2009 she rode across South America in 19 days and is planning a 6th ride in southern Botswana.

Sophie is a founder and trustee of the Waterberg Welfare Trust . She has a BA Hons in Anthropology, is a fellow of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, an intercessor for CHM, a speaker for Bible Society, a Director of Witness Films Ltd and a member of The Drapers Company, which was used as locations for ‘The Kings Speech’.

Sophie lives with her husband on the south coast of England.  They have three grown children, two boats and constant building projects.

You can find a full list of books Sophie has contributed to on her Amazon page here

Sophie Neville

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