Tag Archives: Blue Peter

Behind-the-scenes in television and film

BW Filming on Peel Island

When I was a little girl, I was an avid viewer of Blue Peter, BBC Television’s flagship series for children. My favorite items would be profiles that were run from time to time about life behind the scenes at Television Centre. It was only later, whilst working for the BBC as a researcher, that I was told the terrible truth. The set designer Bruce Macadie said that such items were produced when the editor of Blue Peter was unexpectedly let down by a guest or couldn’t think of anything more newsworthy. I didn’t care a hoot. I was interested in how films were made from the age of about nine.

‘What a peculiar girl!’  I hear my friend Nac saying.

The reason was that I had rather a peculiar upbringing. I once described myself in an application for a job as a television director as a ‘Child of the studio floor’. The reason was that in 1969, when I was about eight years old, my mother became an in-vision announcer, reading the regional News and appearing on our crackly black and white set to brightly declare what would be shown that evening.  She worked at the Harlech Television Studios in Cardiff, alongside Martyn Lewis and Liz Carse. She would also descend in an oval wicker basket chair from which she would present a one-woman Children’s programme on called It’s Time For Me. This looked liked magic, and I wanted to know how it was achieved.

‘I was paid the same amount as a short-hand typist.’ The men were paid more than the women and her schedule was gruelling. On top of this she would drive 72 miles to the Cardiff studios in a rusty Mini van. Even though this was replaced she went part-time. Having become an expert on how long script bites took to read in different accents she would ‘whizz down to Bristol’ to read the letters on Any Answers for the producer Carol Stone.

‘But how did the basket come down?’

‘Oh, the rope was attached to a pulley on the studio lighting rig and  lowered  by three prop men.’

Daphne Neville making a radio commercial

My mother working in a radio studio in the 1970’s. Please not the producer’s cigarette and plastic cups.

I would often travel down with my mother to be shown around various studios. I remember sitting behind the Dalek-like cameras watching a live afternoon programme called Women Only being recorded at HTV Bristol. Mum presented it with Jan Leeming and a rotund TV cook called Tony. He had to wear a bright yellow chef’s hat and top so that they would come across as ‘chef’s whites’ rather than weirdo glowing garments on everyone’s black and white television sets. Mum spent ages looking for clothes to wear in vision as she was not allowed to wear either spots or stripes since they were liable to strobe. Dresses made from crimplene were all the rage but (luckily) she was banned from wearing this as TV screens would pick up on any static that it might exude. Sparkling garments were a no-no.

You wouldn’t think that Gloucestershire would be a hot spot for the film industry in the UK but in 1971 I was able to watch a film crew making a drama on location in Slad near Stroud, when I was chosen to play Eileen Brown in the BBC adaption of Laurie Lee’s memoir, Cider with Rosie directed by Claude Whatham. It had nothing to do with luck. I was the only little girl they could find with long hair who could play the piano.

Sophie Neville on the set of Cider with Rosie

Narrowly avoiding a collision with the BBC wardrobe mistress outside Slad village school where BBC TV were filming ‘Cider with Rosie’ in 1971. A tripod, camera cases and scenic props are stacked up by the blackout curtain.

In 1972 I was given a tiny non-speaking part of a ‘Woodchild’ in Arthur of the Britons that was made near Woodchester by HTV.  I had forgotten all about this until I saw a Youtube clip. I gather the serial has become cult viewing in the States.

Filming Arthur of the Britons

‘Arthur of the Britons’ being shot on two 16mm cameras at my parents’ farm in 1972

Around this time the BBC made an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, shot on location in Bath. We went down to be film extras in this and in a BBC drama called Song of Songs.

Sophie with the Panavision

Sophie Neville in 1973 with a 35mm Panavision camera

By the time I was cast as Titty in Swallows & Amazons I was relatively experienced. Later that summer I was in a Weetabix commercial and the next year I was invited to appear on a number of magazine programmes to publicise the movie. I remember being interviewed on Nationwide and profiled at home on Animal Magic.

Watching a television commercial being made in 1973

Watching a television commercial being made in 1973

Inevitably one thing leads to another and I was soon asked to audition for a number of subsequent films. Inflation was roaring at 17% in the mid-1970s and I don’t think any of these were ever made but it was good interview experience. I ended up at Shepperton Studios doing a screen test for a musical version of The Old Curiosity Shop. This was serious stuff, shot on a film stage in Victorian costume. My music teacher spent ages teaching me to sing All I Want is a Room Somewhere but despite endless discussions nothing more came of it. However looking around Shepperton had been amazing. At some stage I had also auditioned at Pinewood Studios. I had been shown around the set of the latest James Bond and even had a go on the swing featured in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Mum wouldn’t let me tell anyone at school about it, as I might had come across as swanky. But as film studios were not open to the public then it did add to my education.

Sophie and Vic Armstrong in Copter Kids

Jonathan Scott-Taylor, Sophie Neville, Sophie Ward, Vic Armstrong and Michael Balfour in ‘The Copter Kids’ – a movie for CFF shot on location in 1975

Although lanky, and focused on GCSEs, I managed to gain a leading role in an adventure film when I was fifteen. This proved interesting it involved working with stunt men including Vic Armstrong, who later became Harrison Ford’s double. We got to shoot from helicopters. At times the camera literally showed me shooting from a helicopter with a bow and arrow.

Sophie Neville in Crossroads for ATV

Playing Kevin’s sister, Glenda Brownlow’s bridesmaid, in a couple of episodes of ‘Crossroads’, the ATV soap opera that ran for 24 years

And then there was an opportunity to be in Crossroads. What an experience! I was various wedding scenes and the crowds who turned out to watch were unexpected. I was eighteen by then and did it purely for the money. I’ll see if I can find the article I wrote about it for my university magazine. Please let me know the name of the actor playing Kevin. I was meant to be his sister.

To see more about Mum’s career please see her website

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Filed under 1973, 1983, Acting, Autobiography, Biography, Film, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized

Life in 1973 – Part One

For the last year or so I have been writing about life in England forty-odd years ago. Reflecting on how our lives have changed has proved fascinating. Can you help me?  I’d love to receive comments (below) on how you remember aspects of growing up in the early 1970s. What did you eat then? Where did you go on holiday? What was it about 1973 that impacted you?

Jean McGill, Jane Grendon, Stephen Grendon, Kit Seymour, Sophie Neville, Claude Whatham, Simon West, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Ronnie Cogan~ photo: Daphne Neville

Jean McGill, Jane Grendon, Stephen Grendon, Kit Seymour, Sophie Neville, Claude Whatham, Simon West, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Ronnie Cogan in 1973

My husband remembers long hair, flared trousers and shirts with massive curved collars. I always longed for an embroidered t-shirt with wide sleeves or a cheese-cloth shirt but loathed the feel of acrylic jumpers and ribbed polo-necks. Stripy ones.

1973

Mum wearing a fluffy Donny Osmond hat

The food was pretty applauding. Suzanna Hamilton has just reminded me about the innovation of Italian cooking. Spaghetti was the highlight of our lives; a treat that we might have on Saturdays or for a party when red candles would be pushed into wine bottles and checked paper table cloths could enhance a Bistro image. However prawn cocktail was the pinnacle of popular aspiration, although us children preferred picking of the shells off prawns ourselves.

At parties you’d be offered chunks of cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks stuck into a half a melon that had been covered in tin foil. I always rather longed for the melon.  Homemade beer was regrettably all the rage, along with freezing your own runner beans. My family thought having to bring-a-bottle fun but we loathed the fact that cigarettes were smoked everywhere you went.

Dick Emery

Colour televisions were only just beginning to arrive in people’s homes. They were terribly expensive. We had to make do with our crackly black and white screen, watching Blue Peter, Animal Magic and Tony Hart  presenting Vision On with cartoons such as Marine Boy until Childrens’ Television ended with The Magic Roundabout just before Daddy came home from the Works  in time for the 6 O’Clock News.

We were allowed to stay up to watch  Dick Emery , Benny Hill, and ‘Titter ye not’, Frankie Howerd along with dramas such as The Onedin Line.  There was one sit com starring Wendy Craig entitled Not in front of the Children, which of course we all wanted to watch. What influence did this have on our young minds?

Mummy worked for HTV West presenting an afternoon programme called Women Only with Jan Jeeming. She also read the letters on Any Answers?, which was produced by BBC Radio Bristol by Carole Stone. I was so impressed – amazed – to meet a female radio producer.

Women Only

HTV West Christmas Show presented by Bruce Hocking, Jan Leeming & Daphne Neville

Our holidays were spent camping in Wales when we used an orange dome tent and yet slept on fold-up sun-loungers. Sailing was all about Mirror dinghies, which you could buy in kit form and make out of plywood. We never had one. In the late 1970’s Dad bought a fibre-glass  Topper, which was the height of cool. He called it Earwig.

My family were very keen on taking home movies. Dad usually took slides when we went on holiday, which were viewed along with the supper-8 footage at Christmas time when he pushed the furniture back, took down a painting and projected our memories onto the wall.

What have I forgotten? Do post your own recollections, especially of sailing and camping in the early seventies, in the comments below.

Dick Emery ~ walking social history

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Filed under 1973, Dinghy sailing, Family Life, Memoir, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, truelife story

The 50th Day ~ making the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, 11th July 1973

Producer Richard Pilbrow with Neville C Thompson on Derwentwater in the Lake District in 1973

Producer Richard Pilbrow with production associate Neville C Thompson on Derwentwater in the Lake District in 1973

This photograph of Richard and Neville sitting on the deck of Captian Flint’s houseboat in the pouring rain must epitomise the struggles they went through to work around the weather and bring ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in on budget.

It was Claude Whatham’s dream to end the movie with an aerial shot of Swallow and Amazon sailing away from Captian Flint’s houseboat.  He had a helicopter pilot standing-by with a special cameraman, but it wasn’t to be. He needed bright sunshine for the shot to cut with our farewell sequence after the battle. We waited three days but the weather was too dull and wet to film anything useful.  I’m so glad.  Claude ended up freezing the simple shot that captures Arthur Ransome’s book completely. It was used on the front of one of the first VHS copies of the movie.

'Swallows and Amazons' on VHS

The Amazons, played by Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennet and the Swallows, played by Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West and Stephen Grendon on the cover of the original VHS version of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

I’m afraid we hung about the very nice Water Head Hotel in Ambleside getting bored and precocious, or so the evidence suggests. Since John and Margaret, our location caterers, had returned to Pinewood Studios, we were taken to the hotel resturant for lunch.

We loved that cinema in Ambleside. Was it the same then as Zeffirellis, the cinema in Compston Road operating today?  The adults must have found it a good means of keeping us peacefully entertained, but then again they were all film-makers, who loved movies. Zanna didn’t come to the cinema that afternoon. She walked four miles up Wanstell Pike with Jane Grendon.

Albert Clarke, the stills photographer on the film crew, had given us contact sheets of the black and white photographs that he had taken during the filming. I spent my time at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel, where Claude and Richard were  staying, with a tube of Copydex ~ or ‘rubber solution glue’, as they kept saying on Blue Peter,  sticking the tiny photographs into the scrap books that I had been keeping.

The Real Charcoal Burners a contact sheet

Richard Pilbrow kindly let us choose large 10’x 8′ versions of the photographs, which we are able to take home to our families. I kept mine all these years, never using them for anything, but treasuring them as a memory of those happy, fulfilling days spent in Cumbria in 1973.

Black and White photograph of a waterfall in the Lake District

‘It’s Niagara!’ Titty declared. ‘We could get a barrel and bounce down it.’
Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West and Sophie Neville as the Swallows on their way to visit the charcoal burners

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Serendipity

or Swallows and Amazons Forever

Serendipity [ser-uh n-dip-i-tee] an aptitude or faculty for making desirable discoveries by accident

Serendipity indeed.  The word has been quoted to me so many times that I’ve started to take note.  The serendipit in question connects me to a rather large, bald man with massive moustaches called Arthur Ransome.

In March 1973 my father was sent a letter, completely out of the blue:

We are at present casting for a film version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS which Mr Whatham is going to direct. We were wondering if you would be interested in your daughter being considered for one of the parts in this film.  Amazing!

Sophie Neville as a child

Sophie Neville as a child ~ photo: Martin Neville

To gain a part I had to be able to swim well. I think this was to do with ensuring I was unlikely to drown.  As it happened I could row, sail and swim.  My parents had taught me. I can’t remember Claude Whatham asking me about this when he interviewed me. He wanted to know what my favourite Television programme was.  ‘Blue Peter!’  ‘Why?’,  ‘Because they show you how to do things.’ It was exactly what Mr Whatham wanted to hear. Why?  Because that is what Arthur Ransome does in his books. He doesn’t tell.  He shows his readers how to sail. And how to camp. By the age of twelve I had already read all eleven books in the series and loved the stories. What I didn’t know then was the effect they would have on the rest of my life.

By May 1973 I was on my way up to the Lake District to play Titty Walker in the feature film being produced by Theatre Projects and distributed by EMI.  I didn’t think I was right as Titty at all.  In real life Titty had been Anglo-Armenian and grew up in Syria. The illustrations show her with dark hair, cut in a bob. And I thought of myself as far more like the practical Susan, Titty’s older sister.  However I was assured that I could play Titty and I did. Able seaman Titty, crew of the Swallow. Thankfully they cut my straggly blonde hair and I sang out the dialogue that I already knew off by heart from reading the book, ‘I expect someone hid on the island hundreds and hundreds of years ago.’

Sophie Neville with Suzannah Hamilton and Simon West sailing Swallow 1973 ~ photo copyright Canal et Image

How the real parrot arrived on my shoulder I can’t quite remember but within months of returning from Coniston Water I had a green and yellow parrot of my own.  I think he had outlived his owner and was given to us to keep.  He was good company and very chatty. I adored him and could take him anywhere. When I was asked to be in Animal Magic to talk about the film he sat on my shoulder while I was rowing a boat, and I think did most of the talking.What I didn’t realise was how themes from Arthur Ransome’s life would follow me through the rest of my life.

Swallows and Amazons LP

When the time came for me to matriculate I went to Collingwood College at the University of Durham.  The name resonated later when I discovered that W.D. Collingwood’s grandchildren were the real Swallows. W.D. Collingwood was an archaeologist living above Coniston Water, where the books are set, and had excavated Peel Island– or Wild Cat Island– finding the remains of a Viking settlement there. Some one had hidden there hundred of years ago.  WD Collingwood Titty’s Gransfatherstudied at the Slade, as did my own grandfather HW Neville. He may have been there at the same time as Titty’s mother Dora Collingwood.

Arthur Ransome won a Kitchener Scholarship. Years later these rare awards have been won by both my niece and my nephew. When Arthur Ransome first lived in London, he had digs in Hollywood Road. When I moved to London I shared flats with friends, first in Tregunter Road, then Harcourt Terrance, which ware merely extensions of Hollywood Road, which is off the Fulham Road in West Brompton. I had gained a graduate traineeship at the BBC. The first drama series that I worked on was Swallows and Amazons Forever! an adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads, Coot Club and The Big Six. It was not a chance thing, I contacted the Producer and asked if I could work on the series, but the fact that I’d heard about it was unusual, and amazing really that it was made that year when I was available to join the production team. I had first worked with Rosemary Leach, who played The Admiral – Mrs Barrable, when she starred, not as Missee Lee, but as Mrs Lee in Cider with Rosie. I later found myself working with William the Pug dog on Eastenders when he featured as Ethel’s ‘Little Willie’ . It was such fun to see him again. He was a playful little dog with a great sense of fun.

Swallows and Amazons Coot Club and The Big Six

Coot Club and The Big Six

The first documentary I directed for the BBC involved an adder. I was filming in at a Nature Reserve in Dorset with a group of children who came across one immediately. It was huge, a black adder. The Billies would have declared this a great sign of luck. I’m not sure I thought much about Swallows and Amazons, over the next few years but I did film at a school in Cumbria and loved being back in the Lakes.

After working at the BBC for eight years I fell ill and, much like Arthur Ransome, had to abandon my full time job to work from home.  Like him I had a yearning to spend as much time as possible in the great outdoors and chose to live in the wilderness. I spent my time exploring southern Africa, camping and cooking on fires.  Of the subjects I’d studied at university the ones I most enjoyed were cartography and water-colours. I started to earn my living by drawing birds, animals and decorative maps.  The maps usually depicted game reserves and involved giving names to landmarks as places of interest, just like Titty’s maps. I must have drawn forty maps in the style of those on the original cover of Swallows and Amazons, using the same borders and style of lettering. And I kept diaries, writing just as Titty would have done. I also worked freelance for the BBC, mainly setting up wildlife programmes.  A rye smile did pass my lips when I was asked to find South African items for Blue Peter. I was thinking back to my first interview at Theatre Projects with Claude. They came to South Africa for their summer expedition one year, and it was I who sent them off to film the Outspan harvest and wild dog puppies in the Kruger National Park.  After a while I fell into the pattern of flying back to England at Easter time and returning to Africa in the autumn.  This was partly through choice, partly to comply with visa regulations and work commitments. I’d migrate every year with the swallows.

When we were making the feature film of Swallows and Amazons my mother looked after all six children.  The girls playing the Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, needed to learn how to shoot with a bow and arrow.  My mother taught them.  She had learnt how to draw a long bow when she was first married, and was encouraged by an ex-Olympian called Bertie. I became interested too, which stood me in good stead as the next part I had in a feature film was playing Liz Peters, a fictional archery champion.

Thirty years after the premier of Swallows and Amazons I had flown back from Africa and was staying at my parents’ house, when a lady arrived from Korea.  She timidly knocked on the door, explaining that she was translating Swallows and Amazons into Chinese and would love to talk to me about the book.  She came bearing gifts: a hand-quilted wedding bedspread and a pile of silk garments amounting to a bride’s trousseaux.  It was a week after I had met my husband-to-be. At that stage he had not even asked me out and I had no idea we would marry. I’d met him at the archery – shooting with my bow and arrow. He was Bertie’s grandson. My three sisters have never been a bit interested in archery. If I hadn’t been enthused by Swallows and Amazons, and consequently taken it up to play Liz Peters, I would never have met my husband. I still have the wedding quilt.

Sophie with her husband on the coast of South Africa

And then I met Dr Frankland, a Harley Street Consultant who was to become an historical adviser on a script I was developing.  I soon learnt that Bill Frankland had been a good friend of Roger Altounyan and knew his sister Titty.  As young  men they both worked for Alexander Flemming.

Roger, Titty and their elder sisters Susie and Taqui were W.D.Collingwood’s grandchildren,  the real characters on which Arthur Ransome based the Swallows.  What I didn’t know was that Roger Altounyan became an allergist.  He developed the spin-inhaler, experimenting on himself.  Dr Frankland explained that he eventually died as a result. I was allergic to feathers as a child and prone to horrific asthma attacks. Not from parrot’s feathers but old pillows and eiderdowns. The Ventolin inhaler is something to which I probably owe my life. Dr Frankland, who is to celebrate his 100th birthday this March, still works as a Harley Street allergist and is often called upon to make broadcasts on Radio 4.  He instigated the pollen count, numbered Saddam Hussein as one of his most gratful patients and has been the expert witness at a number of murder trials.

Bertie’s Olympic bow now hangs on my stairs. I am still sailing dinghies, still drawing maps but thankfully no longer suffer from asthma. Harbour Pictures with BBC Films are now planning a new film adaptation of Swallows and Amazons. A whole new generation of children will be shown how to sail and camp and cook on open fires. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

 

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Filed under 1973, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, e-publication, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Letters, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Sophie Neville: Profile

SOPHIE NEVILLE

Actors are warned: ‘Never work with children or animals’. This is because they come across so well that their own performance won’t be noticed.

Sophie Neville spent years at the BBC specialising in drama productions that featured children and animals.

Sophie 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 just published Funnily Enough about her life in Gloucestershire and is planning the sequel Never Enough. She is soon to bring out Ride the Wings of Morning and Life on an Africa Farm, which are both set in Southern Africa. She is currently writing a filmography on the making of Swallows and Amazons and the screenplay of Makarongo’s War.

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 recently 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 ride of 1000miles through Patagonia in 2012.

Sophie is a founder and trustee of the Waterberg Welfare Society Trust, a charity set up to address HIV/AIDS in rural South Africa . 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 recently used as locations for ‘The Kings Speech’.

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

Follow Sophie on Facebook on http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/profile.php?id=100002148369972

or Tweet Sophie_Neville

Contact sophie@sophieneville.co.uk   Also http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0481437/

Sophie Neville riding at Ant’s Nest in the Waterberg, South Africa

Current news ~

http://www.yachtsandyachting.com/photos/?s=64&PID=58283

Sail Ransome http://www.sailransome.org/photos  http://www.sailransome.org/videos

Movie Memories write-up  http://www.arthur-ransome-trust.org.uk/2011/11/movie-memories/#comment-2676

http://www.yachtsandyachting.com/news/?article=155317

http://www.bankground.com/swallows/

Signals from TARSUS  http://allthingsransome.net/archives/sft/sftjanuary2012.pdf

http://www.justgiving.com/patagonianride

Film clips ~

http://www.youtube.com/user/WriterSophieNeville/feed

http://www.ovguide.com/movies_tv/swallows_and_amazons.htm  

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Filed under Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Movie stories, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story