Tag Archives: Bob Hedges

Memories of making the original movie of ‘Swallows & Amazons’

The phone in my office rang at about 6.30pm.

“Is that my little Titty?” a voice asked.

“Well…”

“Do you know who I am?”

I had no idea.

“I haven’t seen you since 1973!”

“It’s Jean!” It was Jean McGill ringing from Bowness in Cumbria. She had been our driver and the unit nurse on the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ made in the Lake District from May to July 1973, released a year later in 1974.

Jean our driver and location nurse operating the radio with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

Jean McGill our unit driver and location nurse with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

“I’ve never seen the film,” Jean declared, “but I loved your book about making it.  It brought back such memories.”  I urged her to tell me more. “I remember when Suzanna Hamilton cut her hand whittling wood. It was bleeding like anything. I bandaged it up nicely but the director was horrified and made me take the dressing off again.”  I think this was when we were in the middle of filming on Peel Island. The accident put an end to our wood carving hobby, which was a shame. We’d been using a Swiss Army knife to make our own bows and arrows with Bob Hedges the prop man.

Ronnie Fraser and DoP Denis Lewiston with paper cups of champagne and the call sheet for the next day ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Ronnie Fraser outside the dining bus on location with a paper cup of champagne

” You children persuaded me to go out to dinner with Ronnie Fraser! Why I went, I haven’t the foggiest. He was a rough character – very coarse.” Ronald Fraser was the movie actor playing Captain Flint. “I used to have to drive him to the local hotel in the mornings and order champagne to sober him up.”

“How would champagne have helped to sober him?”

“I don’t know. He told me it would.”

“I think he’d been divorced for a while at the time.”

“I wouldn’t have married him in the first place,” Jean assured me.

Terry Smith and Jean McGill on Derwentwater

Terry Smith wearing the safety officer’s wetsuit with unit nurse and driver Jean McGill

Jean had been taken on as the unit nurse after the first nurse proved rather out of her depth. I thought she was a State Registered Nurse but she corrected me. She had 26 years experience in nursing becoming a hospital sister but was never an SRN. “I was a driver for Browns (of Ambleside)” and as such was paid to work on the film. “I wasn’t paid to be the unit nurse. It didn’t matter, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

I only found out recently that my mother hadn’t been paid to be a chaperone either, despite the responsibility as well as her legal obligations. It was hardly a big budget movie. Like Jean, she was simply thanked with a bouquet of flowers at the end of the filming.

Jean was one of the few local people who worked on the film throughout the seven weeks we were on location. Her local knowledge made all the difference as she knew the roads well, took short cuts to avoid the traffic and knew the best swimming spots when the weather warmed up.

A Day Off in Blackpool

Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville (kneeling) Blackpool, 1973

I reminded Jean about the early 1970s – what we ate and how we dressed.  ” I bought a pair of jeans for the first time in my life. It was so hot that I changed into shorts while we were on set. You children took the jeans and stitched a big red heart on the backside.” There was a craze for adding embroidered patches to denim clothing. These were expensive to buy but we persuaded to Sten Grendon’s mother to make red hearts for everyone’s jeans. “It made walking through Ambleside very embarrassing.” Jean sounded as if she was still recovering from the indignity 43 years later. “It mucked me up!”

Jean went on to drive for Mountain Goat Tours in Cumbria and worked in a doctor’s surgery before becoming a registrar for ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’. “I’m a coffin-kicker now,” Jean told me cheerfully. She never worked on another film but kept a copy of the original screenplay and other memorabilia.

Not long after I spoke to her a brown paper package arrived in the post.  It contained an envelope with the writing,

FOR THE ATTENTION OF TITTY

‘Still looking for the photographs. Will send to you when I find them. 43 years old?  It was this tatty when I got same! Jean.’

And this is what the envelope contained:

Original Screenplay of Swallows & Amazons page 1

Here is Jean in her red top talking to my mother in her Donny Osmond hat:

 

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‘We sailed the length of the lake’ ~ filming on Derwentwater, 9th July 1973

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker with Stephen Grendon as the Boy Roger and Simon West playing Captain John Walker on Derwentwater

Sten Grendon as the Boy Roger, Sophie Neville as Able-seaman Titty and Simon West playing Captain John, Derwentwater in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Monday morning on Derwentwater in the Lake District and we had no lessons. The Cumbrian schools had broken-up for the summer holidays so we were free to play, or as freely as you can be when you are wearing a costume that can not under any circumstances get wet or dirty.

Terry Smith, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville on location in the Lake District

Behind-the-scenes: wardrobe master Terry Smith with Sophie Neville and her chaperone outside the Make-up caravan on location near Keswick.

Although Claude Whatham was operating with a skeleton crew our wardrobe master Terry Smith was still getting us into the right kit for each scene. My mother said that he either got muddled or distracted at one point as a whole sequence was shot with all of us wearing the wrong costumes. It caused quite a fuss. It would have been expensive in time and money. She thought he had been given the sack, but this doesn’t appear to have been the case.

Simon West, Stephen Grendon and Sophie Neville whilst on location in the Lake District in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

One of the secrets of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is that, on this day, Terry Smith adapted Ronald Fraser’s costume and white colonial pith helmet for our property master Bob Hedges to wear. It was he that fired the cannon on the houseboat.

The secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons in 1973

A boatman working on Derwent Water in 1973

Clive Stewart our boatman with the houseboat and the dinghies, Amazon and Swallow, on Derwentwater in 1973 ~ photo Daphne Neville

Clive Stewart of the Keswick Launch Co. was one of a number of Cumbrian boatman who worked on the support crew for the filming of Swallows and Amazons in 1973. They played a vital role not only ferrying us to the location but acting as safety boats and keeping modern boats out of shot. They were certainly busy once the wind got up on this particular day. Claude Whatham handed over the direction of montage sequence of the Swallows’ first voyage to the island to David Blagden, our sailing director. At last we had the sun and wind for it – if not too much wind. By now were were pretty experienced but the little ship was challenged to the full as wind gusted down from Cat Bells.

Suzanna Hamilton wrote in her diary that, ‘…it was very rough. We thought we were going to do a Chinese jibe but it was OK. We sailed the whole length of the lake.’  What must have been tricky for Simon West was that he had Denis Lewiston, the lighting-cameraman, on board with a 16mm camera, as well as all our clumsy camping equipment. You can see me heaving the crockery basket past the camera on the movie. The result was probably the most exciting sequence in the film, or so my father later declared.

Filming the voyage to the island in Swallow

Jean McGill, our unit nurse and driver, was ever around to scoop us up and keep everyone cheerful when we came in feeling a bit chilly.

Terry Smith and Jean McGill on Derwentwater

Wardrobe master Terry Smith wearign the safety officer’s wetsuit with unit nurse and driver Jean McGill on Derwentwater. Kit Seymour is sitting behind them to their right ~ photo: Daphne Neville

In the evening Richard Pilbrow, his girl-friend Molly Friedel and his assistant Liz Lomax came up to our guesthouse in Ambleside to show us the cine footage they took on the sailing weekend that had been the final audition for our parts. This had taken place in March at sailing town of Burnham-on-Crouch in the Maldon District of Essex when were stayed on board a moored vessel and went out sailing with David Blagden in quite grey, chilly weather. The conditions had been pretty rough then. I remember telling Claude that we ‘helmed like anything’.  I felt terribly embarrassed later when I realised that ‘helmed’ was not exactly what I had meant to say but I don’t think Claude was familiar with sailing terminology at the time.  He would have like the spirit of what I said.

It had been choppy but none of our days had been as rough as David Blagden’s Atlantic crossing, famously made in his tiny orange-hulled 19 foot yacht Willing Griffin.  I wonder if the footage of this still exists?

Richard Pilbrow must put me right on this, but the theory is that he acquired Swallow that weekend. We were told at the London Boat Show that she was originally the all-purpose run-around dinghy built by and for William King & Sons’ boatyard at Burnham-on Crouch in the 1930s.  She has the initials WK carved on her transom. They designed her well – a stable little ship with plenty of room inside and no centre-board to worry about. You can see detailed photographs of her on the Sailing Swallow website.

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The day of the green parrot ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on the houseboat in 1973

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker on Captain Flint's houseboat

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker aboard Captain Flint’s houseboat on Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Do all children dream of living on a houseboat?  Going out across Derwentwater for tea in Captain Flint’s cabin was fun. He had laid on such a lavish one. It was a feast.

Sophie Neville's diary written whilst filming 'Swallows and Amazons'

We hadn’t actually seen Captain Flint walk the plank at this point, but together as Swallows and Amazons, we could all imagine it.

Suzanna described the afternoon quite differently. Her focus was on the food.

An extract from Suzanna Hamilton’s diary of 25th July 1973

The green parrot had very sharp claws. If my eye’s are watering in this scene it is because they were digging into my shoulder. A piece of foam rubber was slipped under my blouse but it didn’t do much good. He really wasn’t a very tame parrot and had to have a chain around one leg in case he took flight. I was really rather worried he would nip me but ploughed on with the dialogue. If this is convincing it was because I needed to get through my close-ups before I lost part of an ear.

The parrot being taken to the Houseboat

Property Master Bob Hedges with his assistant Terry Wells taking the parrot to Captain Flint’s houseboat in the style of Amazon Pirates ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Despite this concern, I did rather want a parrot of my own. A tame one. Not long after we finished filming my parents came across a green parrot called Chico who was remarkably friendly, a sweet bird who soon came to live with us. He chatted away in Spanish and was good company. I went everywhere with him – even taking him out rowing on the lake.

Roger Lee with our green parrot Chico

Chico, our green parrot, on the shoulder of an old friend called Roger Lee

Tamzin Neville with our parrot Chico

My sister Tamzin with our parrot Chico who like having his neck stroked

I am often asked if Captain Flint’s parrot really did speak. He could certainly talk. I remember something along the lines of , ‘Who’s a pretty boy, then?’ delivered in a broad Lancashire accent. ‘Pieces of Eight’ was beyond his natural vocabulary and was dubbed on later along with music from the accordion. Ronald Fraser couldn’t really play this. Having said that, all music from instruments played on screen is added later so that the sound runs seamlessly no matter how the editor cuts the shots together. The accordion had been muted by Bobby Props.

Did the wishful lines given to Titty by the screen-writer David Wood cast light on my future? Rather unusually for an English child of the 1970’s I had already been to Africa. My family grew coffee on a farm between Arusha and Moshi in Northern Tanzania where I had been the summer before we made Swallows and Amazons.

Sophie Neville, aged 11, with Baroness Reinhild von Bodenhausen and rather a shy Masai warrior at our coffee factory near Usa River in Tanzania in 1972

I did not see forests of green parrots there, although, much later in my life I often saw Meyer’s parrots in the palm trees above our camp in Botswana.  They would clatter about looking for wild dates while I sat painting maps I had made, just as Titty would have done.

The question is ~ did Arthur Ransome ever have a parrot, or was it just a wish?

Macatoo Camp in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

A map by Sophie Neville depicting the area around Macatoo Camp in the Okavango Delta in Botswana where you find wild parrots in the trees

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Filming with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm, Cumbria ~ in 1973

Forty years ago today we were filming with Virginia McKenna at the location used for Arthur Ransome’s Holly Howe above Coniston Water. It was a day of days – the sunshiny day that we had all be waiting for.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm

Virginia McKenna at the other side of the boat houses at Bank Ground Farm in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

David Bracknell with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm

First Assistant Director David Bracknell standing-in (or kneeling-in) for Roger with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm. The great trees in the background are sadly no longer there ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The buttercups and daisies were still out in the field that flows from Holly Howe to the lake. Roger was able to tack up the meadow to receive the despatches from Mrs Walker, described in the opening pages of Arthur Ransome’s book.

‘…Each crossing of the field brought him nearer to the farm. The wind was against him, and he was tacking up against it to the farm, where at the gate his patient mother was awaiting him.’

Virginia McKenna with Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan

Virginia McKenna having her hair adjusted by Ronnie Cogan ~ photo:Daphne Neville

I don’t think you can tell that this section of the scene was recorded seven whole days later than the sequence that runs directly on from this when the Boy Roger delivers the very same ‘If not duffers’ telegram to Captain John. The hole that had been dug for the camera alongside our picnic had been filled in. You can see this from Mother’s perspective when I was milling about near the lake looking towards the island I couldn’t actually see.

Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground Farm (Holly Howe) in the Lake District. Property Master Bob Hedges is working in the foreground. Lee Electric lighting assistants stand-by with reflector boards while Assistant Sound Recordist Gay Lawley-Wakelin waits on a box with the boom ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Poor Sten, he had to run up the field on what proved to be our hottest day. I remember Jean McGill, the Unit Nurse ministering cool drinks and a flannel soaked in cool eau de Cologne to make sure he did not get dehydrated. We all wanted a go with the cool cloth on the back of our necks at lunch time.

With Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm

The Walker Family ~ Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan, Stephen Grendon as Roger, Sophie Neville as Titty, Virginia McKenna as Mother and Simon West as John in the meadow full of buttercups at Bank Ground Farm

It was good to escape the heat by getting out on the water. We shot the scene set on the old stone jetty at the boat houses below the farm when Titty leads ‘Good Queen Bess’ down to the harbour to inspect her ship. I didn’t realise she had a large box of matches in her hand. Virginia kept it a surprise from us in real life. I was excited to find out that Simon Holland, the Designer had painted the branded cover by hand.

As the Call Sheet specifies, our dinghy Swallow had been loaded with all the tents and camping equipment that had been on Peel Island the day before. I didn’t realise at the time quite how often the design team had struck camp and made it up again. I just sat on top of the equipment singing Adieu and Farewell, not very well, as we sailed out onto Coniston Water, waving goodbye to our Fair Spanish Ladies.

Arriving at Holly Howe

Claude Whatham with Virginia McKenna. Mrs Jackson stands patinetly at the door ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I am sure that we had already recorded the scene in David Wood’s screenplay when the Walker family arrive at Holly Howe, but Claude decided to take advantage of the golden light and shoot it again.  I am sure this was a good decision. It had been a long day and we were tired but the excitement of our arrival is tangible.

Arriving at Holly Howe

Director Claude Whatham, in a 1970s yellow long-sleeved t-shirt, watching the taxi drive up to Mrs Jackson’s front door in 1929. DoP Dennis Lewiston sets up the shot with Focus-puller Bobby Sitwell ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Nurse with Baby Vicky, the ship's baby

Nurse with Baby Vicky, the ship’s baby at Holly Howe ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Sophie Neville holding the horses

Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West with Mr Jackson at Holly Howe~ photo: Daphne Neville

My mother thought that Mrs and Mrs Jackson, Mrs Walker’s nurse and Vicky the ship’s baby, who are listed as Extras on the Call Sheet, were particularly well cast. It must have been a long day for them. It was a long hot day for all of us, but a happy day.

Simon West, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville

Simon West, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville playing the Walker children in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 1973 ~photo: Daphne Neville

The girls who had been taken on as our Stand-in’s the day before did not seem to be around to help limit the hours we spent on set, but perhaps I am muddled. They may have only materialized on Peel Island at a later date.

Stephen Grendon, Simon West, Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville, trying not to look as tall as she was in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

What I really did not know, until I watched the documentary broadcast last Sunday, was that Mrs Batty, who held the lease on Bank Ground Farm, had locked out the crew. She explained that when she was originally asked if we could film on her property she did not quite realise the scale of operations and only asked for – or accepted – a location fee of £75. The arrival of the two red double-decker buses, the Lee Electric van, the generator and other lorries, not to mention the Make-up caravan rather daunted her, as did the furniture moving activities involved at the start of the filming when we shot the interior scenes. She said that she decided that £75 was not enough, padlocked her front gate and wouldn’t let them back in until they agreed to pay her £1,000. It was a lot of money, more than double the fee I received.

Sophie Neville with Lucy Batty at Bank Ground Farm, Westmorland in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

You may have seen the BBC documentary about the making of Swallows and Amazons, when Ben Fogle interviewed Suzanna Hamilton and myself at Bank Ground Farm for ‘Big Screen Britain’. This was  re-packaged last year on a programme called Country TracksMy father’s 16mm footage had been skilfully inter-cut with an interview with our Director, Claude Whatham. I did not know that it was being broadcast but was able to watch on-line.

Sophie Neville at the Bank Ground Farm Boathouses

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At the location used as Beckfoot on Coniston Water in June 1973

Sophie Neville at Beckfoot

Sophie Neville who played Titty in ‘Swallows and Amazons’, eating icecream at Brown Howe, the location used for Beckfoot and the Amazon Boathouse ~ photo: Martin Neville

A hot sunny day in the Lake District, at last. This was 1973 and Mum had a blue sunhat firmly wedged onto my head. I suppose this was so that I wouldn’t go pink. It was lovely to be able to eat lunch outside under the rhododendrons with my sisters but I started to roast in my stripy acrylic polo-neck jersey and begged to be able to wear something cooler. Terry Smith the Wardrobe Master was not pleased when he found me wearing one of Suzanna Hamilton’s costumes, especially since I was eating a choc-ice in it.

Mrs Causey, our long suffering Tutor, was helping me to swot for the summer exams we knew being sent north from my school. These were taken very seriously. My father was still paying my fees. They amounted to as much as I was earning for appearing in the film. I don’t think my little sisters had any formal education at all that week. I can only suppose that they learnt a little more about being in films even though this was the one day that I didn’t appear in Swallows and Amazons.

Who were the boys?  The lad in the film clip with a Motorola and cigarette, who seems to have taken off his shirt for the first time that summer, is Gareth Tandy, the Third Assistant. The boys mentioned in my diary were slightly older. Why did we call them Prop-boys? Is it something left over from the theatre? I know Bobby-Props ~ Bob Hedges ~  must have been over 40 and was regarded as the father figure of the unit. He worked out of a lorry with a sunshiny roof with John Leuenberger, Terry Wells and Bill Hearn the carpenter. Dad caught them on film when they were having lunch. I think they must have later gone off to Bowness to help set up for our big scene the next day and kindly returned with ice-creams and Coco-cola, which would have been a great treat. They were generous to a fault.

The Prop-men on Swallows and Amazons have movie credits to their names which would delight any actor. They never seemed to stop working. Claude Whatham may well have asked for them to join us as they’d all been on the crew of  his first film That’ll be the Day.  Bobby Hedges later worked with some of the others on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Julia, The Shout and Midnight Express. John Leuenberger went on to work on Stardust, Bugsy Malone, Chariots of Fire and Superman III.  Terry Wells is listed as having been the Property Master on amazing movies such as The Mission, Braveheart, Quadrophenia, Cry Freedom, Full Metal Jacket, Troy, 101 Dalmatians and the most recent Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, as well as big TV series such as Holby City and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.

If you look at our Call Sheet for the day you can see at a glance how important the Property Master’s job was. Swallows and Amazons was a technically unsual film as the dinghies were action props. Swallow had to be kitted out with exactly the same rigging – plus the same ‘continuity props’ – the torch, compass, whistle, charts, blankets and provisions, originally listed by Arthur Ransome, that were in the little ship when she left Wildcat Island in the scene when John gave me the telescope.

In Scene: 135 the envelope containing the Amazon’s message is key to the action, thus an Action Prop. If we’d seen it before it would have been known as a ‘Continuity Action Prop’. You can see it pinned to the post in the short film clip. Simon Holland, our Set Designer, to whom the Prop-men were working, had a number of identical envelopes made. Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy Blackett, wrote the message in her clear, italic writing quite a few times so that there would be replacements for re-takes after John scrunched up the first one and flung it in the water. There are times when a continuity action prop such as our telescope, which was irreplaceable, becomes very precious indeed.  Had it been forgotten or lost it would have caused major disruption to the day’s filming.

There was very little ‘set dressing’ for theses scenes but you can understand that it was crucial that the guys mounted Captain Nancy’s scull and crossbones on the Amazon boathouse. They would have taken this off at the end of the day and stored it in case re-takes were needed, which is why the carpenter returned from Bowness with a long ladder in the lorry and ice creams for us all.

We loved the props as children. I treasured the few items that Bobby made on the set and gave me at the end of the filming, such as his proto-type flags. When I became an Assistant Floor Manager, the BBC’s equivalent to a Second Assistant Director, I found myself responsible for the Action Props with one or two prop men working with me. The few times that continuity props were forgotten or mislaid are painfully etched on my memory. That awful feeling, when a lost item effects so many people, like losing a wallet or your car keys, is magnified hugly when filming is so costly and involves so many. Despite always being terribly careful I had a continuity prop stolen from the Eastenders’ studio (see my About page and scroll down until you find the section with William the pug dog).  Someone once stole the soap from the set of Bluebell. I can’t think why. It was a miserable little piece for a scene set in Bescancon Internment Camp. Prisioner of war soap. The Prop-buyer got very angry. I quickly made up something that looked like the original but I couldn’t do the same when our Prop-man lost Gerald Durrell’s pre-war binoculars on the island of Corfu. I remember him turning out his van in despair before finding them carefully stored in bubble-wrap behind his seat. I don’t think any of the props were mislaid on Swallows and Amazons, despite all the rushing around in boats, but Mum says that we shot a scene wearing the wrong costumes.  We are not sure which this was but no doubt it will be recoded in the later pages of my diary…

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