The Guardian published this photograph, taken on the set of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ when the film of Arthur Ransome’s book was being shot at Bowness-on-Windermere in the Lake District on 7th June 1973. The story was set in 1929. The production team battled to find local men to appear as film extras. None of them wanted a short-back-and-sides hair cut. The ladies of the Lake District found this most amusing. Many of them wore their hair shorter than the men. To see more photographs and footage taken behind-the-scenes on this day, with diary extracts, please click here
It was Pandora Doyle, seen in the photos as a little girl in a blue dress, who sent me the newspaper clipping from the Guardian pasted above. Her father Brian Doyle was the Publicity Manager on the film. She kept all his files with notes from all the film stars he’d worked with. Do leave a comment below to let us know what you were doing in June 1973.
When a television drama is ready to be transmitted there is a little publicity, but not much. Photographs might be taken for the cover of the Radio Times or a book to accompany the series, there might be a Preview at BAFTA to which journalists from the colour supplements and daily newspapers are invited, but, because the programme can be advertised on air, the actors are not intensively involved in the promotion. A feature film is very different.
Whilst we didn’t mind our photographs being taken while we were acting, and were fine about Mum clicking away with her little instamatic, we all hated having promotional photographs taken for ‘Swallows and Amazons’. They were usually so posed, set up by strangers who had no idea of the story. Virginia McKenna tried to make it fun for us but this is what we all felt about this photo-call:
Why were the Amazons at Holly Howe? Why weren’t we with any of the boats? It was all terribly hot and difficult to squint into the sunshine. Only Mrs Batty’s dog seemed to be enjoying the attention.
The glare of the flash bulbs had started on day one. As Suzanna said in her diary, it made us feel ‘right twits.’
Claude Whatham was very good at explaining things to children. Looking back I wish that he had explained why the publicity was so important, but of course this was not his job and he would have been busy setting up the next shot. Certainly once the filming had finished we needed to know how important it was to promote the film. Richard Pilbrow really wanted to make a sequel, particularly an adaptation of Ransome’s twelfth book in the series – ‘Great Northern?’He loves the Outer Hebrides and has a house on Col. I think we might have been a little keener about publicity shots if we had been told that the out-come could have been going up there for another summer. We would have been able to look forward to the possibility, but I don’t suppose he was at leave to even suggest it.
Journalists were introduced to us and looked after by our unit publicist Brian Doyle. Brian had worked on ‘Straw Dogs’ in 1971, the thriller that starred Dustin Hoffman, Susan George and Peter Vaughan.Susan George had of course played Titty, or ‘Kitty’ in the black and white BBC adaptation of Swallows and Amazons in the early 1960s. She was now regarded as glamorous sex symbol in British cinema – setting me rather a daunting example. Much easier for Brian to publicise her then me. She had a gorgeous figure with beautiful, thick, blonde, hair. I had what my sister still calls ‘tendrils’ and my mother calls ‘bits’. And was skinny with crooked teeth.
Brian was a lovely man. He had an amazing career, going on to work on films such as Ken Russell’s Valentino with Rudolf Nureyev and Leslie Caron, The Wild Geese, Alien, Educating Rita starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters and the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only – with Roger Moore in the lead role . He even has his name on the credits of one of George Lucas’ Star Wars films.
This was the profile he wrote for me:
Brian adored Children’s literature. His own children came up to stay on location over their half-term and spent hours playing with my sisters, indeed they all appeared together as extras in the scenes shot at Bowness, and can be seen playing on the beach. Sadly Brian died, very suddenly, in 2008. His daughter told me that he left a collection of 35,000 books.
I still have Brian’s announcement:
At this the journalists moved in. From all over the place!
There was a very trendy women’s magazine in the early 1970s called Over 21, which the senior girls at school used to read. My mother was thrilled to find that Celia Brayfield had written a double page feature. I was amazed. I didn’t mind the picture of us gutting fish, but started reading with trepidation.
(If you can read this, I’m afraid page one comes second.)
I read it, looked up the word etiolated in the dictionary and burst into tears.
What would you wear to go sailing on Coniston Water in May? Arriving at Wild Cat Island was exciting but I got terribly cold.
The Passion Killer scenes ~
The crew took delight in referring to my navy blue gym knickers as ‘Passion Killers’. Claude Whatham had me tuck my dress up into them. I don’t know if he knew it but, as Arthur Ransome said, the real Altounyan girls had done this, since they usually wore dresses in the 1930s rather than shorts. It made me think that I was wearing even less and haunts me still. Even this year ! there was a photograph in The Telegraph of me with my dress tucked up into my knickers. I was never allowed to un-tuck it between takes for fear of spoiling continuity.
Sailing in thin cotton dresses ~
Emma Porteus, the Costume Designer on Swallows and Amazons was the one person we didn’t see much on location. I’d met her at a fitting in London, when I tried on the silk dress and the shoes I wore in the train. She then had my cotton frocks made up, seemly without a thought to the Cumbrian climate. The fact that they were rather short was in keeping with 1970’s fashion, rather than 1929. It was Claude who insisted that we all – boys and girls – wore original 1929 knickers and Mum who found us vests to wear once everyone realised how cold it was out on the water. I had to beg Terry, the Wardrobe Master, to let me wear the grey cardigan in subsequent sailing scenes.
Emma Porteus must have either been expensive or busy or both. She became the designer on many of the Bond movies ~ Octopussy, A View to a Kill and the Living Daylights. She worked on Aliens with Sigourney Weaver, Judge Dredd with Sylvester Stallone and, guess what? – 1984, which starred Suzanna with none other than John Hurt and Richard Burton. This was partly made near my home in Gloucestershire ~ Mum visited the set at Hullaverton ~ at the time I was working on the Arthur Ransome book adaptations of Coot Club and The Big Six on the Norfolk Broads. Of all the costumes worn in movies through the decades Suzanna wore a classic in this film: a workman’s boiler-suit. Not designated by Emma Porteus, of course, but by George Orwell. Nice and comfy though for wearing on location.
The terrible royal blue nylon track suits with go-faster stripes down the arms that we wore on location were purchased to keep us warm during rehearsals. This was a huge mistake, firstly because they were ineffective in terms of thermal insulation and secondly because they found their way into the publicity shots. Someone commented on this only last week. they even made their way onto the cover of the VHS. I can remember thinking at the time that they were a misguided purchase (and please note I was aged twelve at the time) but so grateful were we for the meagre warmth we willingly put them on.
Dennis the DPO ~ Everyone on the crew was wrapped up warm and well equipped with wet weather gear. They needed to be. There was so much hanging around. While it took a little time to line up a dinghy for a shot, Dennis Lewiston the Director of Photography was very strict about waiting for clouds to pass so that it looked sunshiny, even if it wasn’t that sunny in reality. This could take ages and ‘takes’ were often snatched between clouds. Looking back on it, this was crucial. My vision is of Dennis in a navy blue rain coat peering at the sky with a shaded eye glass that he wore habitually around his neck. He went on to make The Scarlet Pimpernel with Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour, Ian McKellen and Julian Fellows, The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Meat Loaf, The Country Girls, starring Sam Neill, Marilyn and Me, Heidi with Patricia Neal, Montana and numerous other TV movies.
Filming the filming ~ I did not know until I read Mum’s letter last night that John Noakes had been offered a part in Swallows and Amazons or that Blue Peter, had been offered the chance to document the making of the film. I wonder if John Noakes ever knew this? Biddy Baxter, the editor, was keen on ‘behind the scenes’ items. Lesley Judd had worn a lovely red dress to make one earlier, in February 1973, about Dad’s Army with Arthur Lowe and John le Mesurier, who happened to be a cousin of Dad’s. Instead my father bought 16mm stock for his company’s Bolex and shot a number of reels. The footage was never sold but not forgotten. I found it in 2003 when the BBC included it in the Countryfile documentary presented by Ben Fogle that was re-issued as Big Screen Britain. Does anyone have a copy of either of these? I am yet to see them properly. Notes on the Diary ~It looks as if the food had improved.We had turkey for lunch on location, which was a great treat in the early ’70s.and ‘a super salad supper’ at the guest house, which I evidently enjoyed. Does anyone remember such things being a real treat?Translation of my mother’s letter home:My Darlings ~ Dad and my sisters’Letter to SAJ’ ~ Sister Ann-Julian, my headmistress. She signed her name SAJ and everyone called her Saj. When my long hair was cut for the part of Titty we sent the pony-tail back to my form at school so they could thatch the cottages of a model village they were making of medieval Childry. I was really sad to be missing the project. Toos ~ Mum’s nick-name for me, Ruth ~ our cleaner from the village who was helping to look after my sistersB… ~ (no idea) Gertie ~ her enormous Irish mare& co ~ our moorland ponies, Lupy, Joshua and Blue ~ our dogs. She must have been a bit homesick.
You can read the whole story of what happened next in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ or the ebook on ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, which includes links to behind-the-scenes cine footage: