‘I chaperoned six film stars’ my mother’s memories of working on the 1974 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’-Part Two

Daphne Neville presenting 'Women Only'1

In 1974, my mother, Daphne Neville, was commissioned to write an article about working on the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for Woman magazine, which claimed to be ‘The world’s greatest weekly for women’. Here are some extracts from her type script:

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

 

Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville and Simon West on Coniston Water

Our guests: Jane, Michael, Clare and Lucy Selby and their dog, Minnie on the shore of Conniston Water with my sisters Perry and Tamzin in 1973

I was amazed to read some of this. ‘….a dirth of birds’? Was that really how my mother spoke in the early ‘Seventies? I had no recollection that ‘Nomansland’ had been displayed on the front of our double-decker bus. I never remembered there only being bathroom at Oaklands Guesthouse or that Mum had to wash out clothes. I do remember Ronald Fraser shouting, ‘Piss off you little monster’.  I have the photo:

Sten Grendon irriating Ronnie Fraser
Sten Grendon sitting on top of Ronald Fraser during a break in the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

More to follow…. If you would like to see photos of Daphne Neville appearing in movies hereself, please click here

If you would like to read about what we did on 10th July 1973 – 45 years ago please click here

‘I Chaperoned Six Film Stars’ – Daphne Neville’s memories of working behind-the-scenes on the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 45 years ago.

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.

Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville while filming 'Swallows and Amazons' in Cumbria
Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville while filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

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:

Suzanna Hamilton, Lesley Bennett, Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour and Simon West before their hair was cut for the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Daphne Neville Chaperone

~ On Derwentwater in 1973: Suzannah Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Daphne Neville, Sten Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Lesley Bennett ~ photo: Martin Neville

'Swallows and Amazons'(1974) Daphne Neville with Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, fellow chaperone, Jane Grendon and Simon West on location in 1973
Daphne Neville with Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, fellow chaperone, Jane Grendon and Simon West on location in 1973

A Day Off in Blackpool - Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville kneeling at Blackpool funfair in 1973
Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville kneeling at Blackpool fun fair in 1973

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.

The film star Ronald Fraser with Daphne Neville and Sophie Neville in 1973

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

Sailing the Nancy Blackett in Dutch waters – part two

Nancy Blackett, the 28 foot cutter that Arthur Ransome bought with Spanish gold, as he called his royalties from ‘Swallows and Amazons’, is an old lady now. Built by Hillyards of Littlehampton in 1931, she turns eighty-five this year and yet looks pristine. If you ever wanted to sail the Goblin in ‘We Did Mean To Go To Sea’ you must know that it was Nancy who took this starring role in Ransome’s novel, first published eighty years ago.
Nancy Balckett in Middleburg photo Sophie Neville
Nancy Blackett
I arrived in the Netherlands this summer to find Nancy receiving visitors at a nautical festival in Midddleburg, while a jazz band played on the quay.  She was moored by a lifting bridge in the centre of town, neatly rigged and ready for anything. After taking a look at a number of old gaffers, her crew enjoyed a cold beer and walked down the canal to vittel-up at a supermarket before having dinner in what was once a packing house for silks and spices imported from the East Indies.
Nancy seen through the bridge in Middleburg
Nancy seen through the swing bridge in Middleburg
As the swing bridge rose the next morning, we made way and motored down the wide canal to Veere, mooring up by the grassy port bank. 
Hollyhocks of Veere
Hollyhocks of Veere
After being granted permission to go ashore, I passed the historic town well and walked down lanes bordered by hollyhocks to visit the museums of this ancient port. They house a number of charts and medieval maps that would have delighted the Swallows, along with old photographs of Dutch natives in traditional dress. I was tempted to buy a pair of clogs to take home for Bridget.
The waterways of Zeeland
The waterways of Zeeland
We left Veere to explore the islands and creeks of the Veersemeer before sailing down-channel and through a modern lock into the Oosterschelde estuary formed by the River Scheldt. It was once an important shipping route that bought wealth to the Netherlands but is quieter now. I spotted a seal and watched a cormorant swallow a large eel, that wriggled and jiggled inside its gullet.
Windmill of Zeeland
A windmill of Zierikzee
After negotiating the impressive Zeelandbrug that spans the delta, we sailed down to Zierikzee where you can climb the church tower, if you dare, and look out across the once fortified town. The windmills, ornate spires and ancient buildings help one to imagine what life must have been like in the 1500s when it became famous as a trading centre for salt and madder. I found scold’s stones and a whaler’s kayak from Greenland at the Stadhuis Museum in Zierikzee where Veronica Frenks was once the curator.
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The lock gates of Zierikzee
Our skipper, Ian McGlynn, wondered if we could sail back under an arch of the Zeelandbrug instead of waiting for one section of the road to lift. Built between 1963 and 1965 the Zeeland Bridge is more than five kilometres long and hardly comparable to the arch of Potter Heigham but Mate Judy Taylor didn’t want to take any risks. We had Nancy’s new mast to consider.
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Crewing the Nancy Blackett
It was only on our last evening-but-one that rain hit us. We’d had blue skies and sunshine all week. As the salt water was washed away from Nancy’s portholes I opened the pages of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ to find Ransome’s illustrations and read the final passages of the Swallows’ unplanned voyage to Holland. The book is eighty years old this year and yet moves me still. There is Nancy, portrayed as the Goblin moored up in a foreign port, which is where we left her to be enjoyed by other members of the Nancy Blackett Trust.
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Nancy Blackett in Zeeland
 A marathon reading of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ is planned, to celebrate the 80 year anniversary of its publication, at Pin Mill Sailing Club on the Orwell in Suffolk on Saturday 21st October 2017.
Pin Mill from the Water
To read more about Nancy or join the Nancy Blackett Trust please click here
Nancy has been featured by Country Life in a July issue you can read here
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We Did Mean To Go To Sea by Octavia Pollock

Sailing the Nancy Blackett in the Netherlands – part one

This summer, I grabbed the chance to sail Arthur Ransome’s favourite little ship, the Nancy Blackett. If you recognise her it might be because she was his model for the Goblin in ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea‘, possibly the most exciting and touching of the Swallows and Amazons series of books. I re-read it while we were in Dutch waters aboard the main character herself.

   ~ Nancy Blackett under sail on the Veersemeer in Zeeland this June ~

~ Beach End Buoy at the mouth of the River Orwell in Suffolk ~

In the story, the Swallows – John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker – promise their mother that they will not go to sea, but disaster strikes when the Goblin slips her anchor in thick fog, while her owner is ashore, and gets swept out past the Beach End Buoy at Harwich. The wind rises and the children find themselves sailing across the North Sea in a terrific storm before a friendly Dutch pilot guides them into Flushing.

~ Nancy in the old lock at near the medieval port of Veere ~

This year we joined Nancy when she had already made the crossing to the Netherlands but we did take her through an old lock built in the same style as the one the Swallows encountered, all be it at the other end of the canal. It was as if we had sailed into the pages of the book and lived out the adventure ourselves, learning about ropes and reefing each nautical mile.

Mooring up could be tricky, especially since Nancy is an old lady with a bow-sprit, but unlike Susan and Titty, I never felt sea-sick for a moment.

~ Learning how to hoist the mainsail ~

~ The Nancy Balckett undersail on the Veersemeer in the Netherlands ~

~ Sophie sailing in salt water ~

~ Looking out for Dutch barges ~

Local author Veronica Frenks came out with us one morning, taking us up a creek to see the traditional Dutch barges and historic ships that she often writes about. She soon made plans to write about Arthur Ransome for Spiegel der Zeilvaart, a Dutch periodical. Here she is at the helm:

To read about sailing Nancy on the River Orwell in Suffolk, where she is based. please click here.

To read about sailing Nancy on the Beaulieu River and the Solent, please click here

If you would like to grab a chance to sail Nancy or find out more about the Nancy Blackett Trust, please click here

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photographs by Veronica Frenks of Ma Plume, Judy Taylor and Sophie Neville

Comments on ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’

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This post comes with a huge thank you to readers who have taken the trouble to write in, send emails or add reviews on Amazon about ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’

Filming on Peel Island in 1973
Sophie Neville and Sten Grendon filming on Peel Island in 1973

‘I very much enjoyed reading about all the background and stories of what is one of mine and my children’s favourite films.’ David Hambelton, Oxford

Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennet as the Amazon Pirates
Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennet as the Amazon Pirates

‘…an absolutely fascinating account…about a film we all thought we knew so well. Like so many members of The Arthur Ransome Society I am an utter devotee… I’m finding the background to filming quite fascinating, and if I had thought it possible, yours is the book I have always longed for to exist. I’ve been absorbed in it ever since it arrived, forcing myself to take it slowly and not gobble it up in one go. Of course I’ll be back to it soon, dodging back and forth in tune with your narrative, indenifying particular scenes.’ Jeremy Gibson, Witney

Simon West and Sophie Neville in Swallow
Simon West as John and Sophie Neville as Titty in Swallow

‘If you liked the film, you MUST read this book. “Titty” is enthralling, and the story of the film is almost as exciting as the real story by Arthur Ransome. Essential reading for devotees.’ Chloe Randall, Scotland

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Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West on Peel Island

Children still ask me questions that never occurred to me:

‘How did it feel to be on the island by yourself?’  Alex aged 7.  The truth of course is that I was never on the island by myself. Perhaps I should have been left there for a while so I could experience it. I would have relished the chance.

DoP Denis Lewiston and Director Claude Whatham
DoP Denis Lewiston and Director Claude Whatham in Coniston Water

Another boy asked, ‘How did you do the water?’

This took my breath away for a second. ‘How did we do the water? The water was real, and it was very cold,’ I replied, explaining that we actually shot the film on four different lakes in Cumbria, all of which you can discover for yourself.

Have your children any questions? I’d love to hear them.

Simon West and Sophie Neville on Coniston Water
Simon West and Sophie Neville on Coniston Water

For more reviews of The Making of Swallows & Amazons on Amazon, please click here.

To see more still from the film that can be purchased as framed prints or on mugs etc please click here for StudioCanal’s website.

To find out more about The Arthur Ransome Society please click here

Brenda Bruce as Mrs Dixon with Claude Whatham
Brenda Bruce as Mrs Dixon with Claude Whatham at Tent Lodge Cottages

Is it possible to have a Swallows and Amazons childhood these days?

Sophie Neville promoting her book

When I appeared on Channel 5 recently Matthew Wright asked, “… if it’s possible to have a Swallows and Amazons childhood these days – and if today’s kids would actually have the skills to survive.”

I received so many interesting comments on Twitter and Facebook that I thought I should copy them here, hoping it is OK by those who took the time to write in.

“Would they survive? Hmm. Better drowned than duffers…” Fergus

“Of course it’s possible – we do it every time we are on holiday at www.lowwaterend.co.uk real Swallows and Amazons location. Our kids love it….” Kate

“I think few parents would look at a small sailboat & Coniston Water or Windermere, and give the go-ahead for children ages 12-7 to sail & camp by themselves. However, there are a lot of really wonderful parents who sail & camp WITH their children, and then allow independent exploration with help nearer at hand.” Elizabeth (USA)

“OK – so we cheat a little – in that we stay in the cottage rather than in tents on Wild Cat Island – but it has got a little busy there of late. Trying to bring a boat or canoe into the secret harbour is more like trying to park in a multi national supermarket car park, but very little has truly changed on the island and if you can see past the bright orange and red buoyancy aids of the temporary visitors, one can still imagine being the Walker children. And if you get the island to yourselves – it’s pure joy. We frequently issue the owl hoot just to let our kids know that food is ready! As for the lagoon downstream – it’s still there – our kids have taken to canoeing as far downstream as they can – wading in low water and paddling down rapids where they can. They take no mobiles, IT equipment etc – and they are gone for hours making maps of the stream and naming the shores, fallen trees etc.” Kate

“I’ve just been reading my daughter the bit in Winter Holiday where Dick rescues the cragfast sheep by inching his way along a rock ledge. “Would you be able to do that?” I asked her. “No, I’d be much too scared!” she replied. And I said “Good!”.” Valerie

“Some risks are too high, too likely to leave the child unable to enjoy a normal life afterwards. Examples: diving into rivers with rocks, driving way above the speed limit, using illegal drugs/binge drinking. There are risks that simply have too high a chance of a serious bad outcome. I like the “Roots & Wings” approach. While they are young, you teach how to make a reasonable decision about any given risk, then as they mature, let the child figure out more on their own.” Elizabeth

“It isn’t only duffers who come to grief, and even if it was, duffers deserve to be protected from their own stupidity. So, I prefer the idea of teaching children what the risks are and how to manage risk so that they can then do things that look highly risky without there being any great risk. What is wrong is to shut children’s lives down instead of teaching them how to be safe and free, and that’s the most dangerous route of all because it sets them up for empty lives which will lead them on into a prolonged and deep exploration of alcohol and drugs. Freedom is essential for good mental health and needs to be maximized, but learning about risk management is a crucial part of that. So, how do you teach risk management without it being dull? Get out there with your children and join in with the play. Point out the possible dangers along the way, not in a lecturing way, but simply by telling little stories about idiots who came to grief by making mistakes. It doesn’t take long to make a dangerous environment safe for children to play in by putting ideas in their heads as to all the easy ways to be killed or injured by the apparatus at hand. If they know what the unexpected dangers are, they will be armed against making them. If they die after that, then it will be against the odds – it would have been more dangerous not to let them out.” David

“Agree 100%. In my mind, risk-averseness is one of the great failings of my fellow modern Americans. Never be sorry for a might-have-been.” Sandy

Sophie Neville on The Wright Stuff

If you have views on the subject, or want to see more on outdoor pursuits discussed on the programme, send an email to: wrightstuff@channel5.com

To watch a recording of the programme please click here

Sophie Neville with Kate McIntyre

with Kate McIntryre who loves the outdoor lifestyle

Adaptations of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ discussed in the Independent on Sunday by Jonathan Brown

Author Arthur Ransome loathed BBC’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’, his diaries reveal

A new adaptation of the classic is coming, but its author called the 1960s version ‘a ghastly mess’

Sunday 16 February 2014

When the BBC announced plans to recreate the classic outdoor children’s sailing adventure Swallows and Amazons it was hailed as a blockbusting antidote to the health and safety culture of the mollycoddled video-game generation. Filming of the new version of the 1930s Lake District adventure is due to begin later this summer with big stars including Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens already linked to the project.

However, previously unread diaries of its creator, Arthur Ransome, reveal that the author considered the corporation’s last attempt to bring his much-loved story to life to be a “ghastly mess” marred by “dreadful ham” acting. The diaries reveal how Ransome clashed repeatedly with BBC executives in the early 1960s when the BBC commissioned a six-part dramatisation for television, starring Susan George, then aged 12, as Kitty (changed from the original Titty) Walker.

Ransome, then in declining health, was living in virtual retirement in his remote Cumbrian cottage Hill Top overlooking the spectacular Rusland valley with his wife Evgenia – the former secretary to Leon Trotsky, whom he met while working as a foreign correspondent and spying for Britain in revolutionary Russia. It was a spartan existence, often with no electricity or running water.

In a series of brusque entries at odds with his generally affable demeanour, he describes how he repeatedly fought with BBC executives over attempts to introduce two new characters – Ernie and Sam – to the story. Both he and his wife attempted to rewrite the script after concluding that one episode was “bad beyond belief”.

At his home Hill Top with his wife, Evgenia

At his home Hill Top with his wife, Evgenia

“I have agreed to Genia’s proposal that we shall wash our hands of the film leaving it to Mr Walls [of the BBC] to play the farceur as much as he likes. They may be right in thinking that vulgar ham acting is what the T.V. gapers want,” he wrote in July 1962.

Ransome was particularly unimpressed with the performance of popular British actor John Paul as Captain Flint – the character linked this time to Dan Stevens, and said to be based on Ransome himself – describing it as “dreadful HAM”.

On attending a screening at the Hammer Theatre in Wardour Street, central London in October 1962, he concluded: “Saw the ghastly mess they have made of poor old Swallows and Amazons … MacCullogh [his friend Derek MacCullogh, former head of children’s broadcasting at the BBC who was also known as the presenter Uncle Mac] did not come possibly to avoid trouble with his employers.” It was eventually broadcast the following year.

Stephen Sykes now owns Hill Top and has restored the Ransomes’ former home. He is also helping transcribe the author’s sparsely detailed diaries from his years at Hill Top, which are kept at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library. Sykes said the writer received £3,500 for agreeing to the BBC broadcast – a considerable amount of money. “He was clearly making a very good living out of the rights to Swallows and Amazons. This was his baby and he had obviously pored over it. It is a very leanly written story and it was pretty clear it was written by a journalist because of its clarity, because there is nothing extraneous,” he said.

“He is extremely protective of his own work. He felt he didn’t want a word changing, and that he had honed the story down and it was what it was,” he added.

Susan George, who played Kitty

Susan George, who played Kitty

Swallows and Amazons was first published in 1930. It recounts the adventures of the children from two families who while away an idyllic summer getting into scrapes sailing their dinghies across Coniston Water and Lake Windermere. As well as the television series, many theatrical and musical adaptations have been staged, and the story was made into a film in 1974 staring Ronald Fraser and Sophie Neville.

When the latest project was announced in 2011, head of BBC Films Christine Langan said it would seek to encapsulate a forgotten era of childhood adventure “from the pre-health and safety generation”.

Producer Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, which is collaborating on the film with the BBC, the Arthur Ransome Society and the author’s literary estate, said it had not been decided yet whether the children would be shown sailing without their life jackets.

But he said viewers could expect to experience the full majesty of the book’s setting. “The lakes and the mountains are very big and we are keen to recreate that grandeur of the scenery in the film,” he said. A spokeswoman for BBC Films said: “The film is still in development.”

To see a copy of the original article online, please click here

To contact Stephen Sykes at Hill Top, the Ransome’s last home, please click here