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:
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:
More to follow…. If you would like to see photos of Daphne Neville appearing in movies herself, please click here
You read about how we made the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in any of these books that retail online and can be ordered from bookshops or libraries:
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-nine 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.
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:
~ On Derwentwater in 1973: Suzannah Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Daphne Neville, Sten Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Lesley Bennett ~ photo: Martin Neville
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.
If you would like to see what we were filming 49 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
If you would like to read more about our adventures filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’, please click here:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One 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.
~ 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 ~
I was able to join Nancy when she had already made the crossing to the Netherlands but 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 Dutch 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 ~
~ Sophie sailing in salt water ~
~ Keeping a look out for Dutch barges ~
Local author Veronica Frenks came out 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 with me, at the helm:
To read about sailing Nancy on the River Orwell in Suffolk, where she is based. please click here.
‘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
‘…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
‘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
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.
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.
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
If you have views on the subject, or want to see more on outdoor pursuits discussed on the programme, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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…
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 publisher Rupert Hart-Davies
“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… 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.
Hill Top in the Lake District today
“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.
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, who 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.”
Thanks to the encouragement and help of my blog followers and Arthur Ransome enthusiasts around the world, I have managed to put my diaries, letters, old photographs and documents together into a 70,000-word memoir.
“Sometimes extraordinary things do happen to ordinary people. Little girls can find themselves becoming film stars. Long ago, and quite unexpectedly, I found myself appearing in the EMI feature film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons, made for a universal international audience. I played Able-seaman Titty, one of the four Swallows. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I became Titty for a while, wearing thin cotton dresses and elasticated navy blue gym knickers, which the camera crew soon referred to as passion killers. The book was written in 1929 and although the film adaptation was made in the early 1970s it had an ageless quality and has been repeated on television year after year, typically on a Bank Holiday between movies starring Rock Hudson or Doris Day.
I got the part of Titty because I could play the piano. Although I had no ambition to be an actress, at the age of ten I was cast in a BBC dramatisation of Cider with Rosie. They needed a little girl to accompany the eleven-year-old Laurie Lee when he played his violin at the village concert. I plodded through Oh, Danny Boy at an agonising pace.
‘Do you think you could play a little faster?’ the Director asked.
‘No,’ I said, flatly. ‘These are crotchets, they don’t go any faster.’
Claude Whatham must have remembered my crotchets, for two years later, in March 1973, my father received a letter. It arrived completely out of the blue, from a company called Theatre Projects.
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.
From ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ by Sophie Neville
Preview copies of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ at the Cruising Association dinner at the Water’s Edge Bar and Restaurant, Mermaid Marina on the River Hamble.
“This heart-warming memoir is illustrated with colour photographs, most of them taken at the time by Sophie’s family, and contains links to behind-the-scenes home movie footage for readers with browser-enabled tablets. It delivers a double helping of nostalgia for both fans of the era of Arthur Ransome, and the groovy times of the early 70’s.” ~ from the Amazon Kindle description
Also available for other reading devices on Smashwords
Thanks to those of you who contributed comments, questions, and aspects of local history on this blog. I would love to know what you think of the book!
If you would like a copy but don’t have a Kindle, you can download a free Kindle app.
People often ask what auditioning for the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was like for us, back in 1973, long before the advent of email and Youtube when casting directors only ever worked in Hollywood.
For me, the process was pretty quick. I had worked for the Director, Claude Whatham before, when I had a small part in the BBC film of Laurie Lee’s book, ‘Cider with Rosie’. He must have remembered me, as a letter arrived in the post:
After meeting Claude again at an interview held at Richard Pilbrow’s Theatre Project’s offices in Long Acre on a sunny day in March 1973, I was invited to go to Burnham-on-Crouch for a sailing weekend that was to constitute the final audition. This proved something of an endurance test. It was miles from where we lived. The weather was awful with driving rain and rough seas. The only warm piece of clothing I had was a knitted hat. We slept in cabins aboard a permanently moored Scout Boat with flowery orange curtains. There were no parents around to boost our moral. The sailing was challenging and I felt bitterly cold.
Our producer Richard Pilbrow bought his two children, Abigail and Fred. With him was Neville Thompson, director Claude Whatham, and David Blagden who was to be the sailing director. He told us that he had read ‘Swallows and Amazons’ forty-two times, which sounded daunting. I had read all the books but could not see myself as Titty. She had thick dark hair in all the pictures and I was bossy – far more like Mate Susan. We didn’t read from a script. We weren’t asked to improvise or act out a scene. There was no film-test, but 8mm movie footage was taken. I wonder if it still exists.
Out of an initial 1,800 who applied, twenty-two children were short-listed for the six parts of the Swallows and the Amazons. While there were only two or three boys up for the role of Roger there were five girls auditioning to play Titty. At one stage Claude had a chat with all five of us in our cabin, all the Tittys. The others were all so sweet that I didn’t think I stood a chance. I was undeniably gangly and felt that I kept saying the wrong thing.
‘Did you take the helm?’
‘Oh, we all helmed like any-thing.’
One of the other girls auditioning for Titty looked incredibly together. She had pretty, fashionable clothes and would make a point of brushing her hair and wearing jewelry, just as Mummy would have liked me to have done. While I was used to boats my sailing wasn’t up to much. I was completely in awe of Kit Seymour’s seamanship and how the fast she got the dinghies to whizz through the driving rain.
A decision must have been made pretty quickly as all local education authorities demanded at least six weeks to process our licences to work on a film. It was 1973, casting time must have been scarce and I’m afraid the children finally cast all ended up coming from the south of England: Middlesex, Berkshire, Gloucestershire and London. None of us went to stage schools or had theatrical agents, apart from Suzanna Hamilton who went to the Anna Scher after-school Drama Club in Islington. But before we knew it our hair was cut, transporting us back to 1929 and we were out on Lake Windermere realising the dream.
‘Did you have a pushy Mum?’ I am asked.
‘Oh, yes!’ She was brought up reading Noel Streatfield’s ‘Ballet Shoes’, longed to act herself and so was keen for me to be in ‘Cider with Rosie’. She made the effort to take me along to a drama club and to a huge audition in the Stroud Subscription Rooms, however I only got the little part of Elieen Brown was because I could play the piano. My mother did force me to take my music to the third audition, which of course enabled me to out-shine the others. I was not a hugely talented pianist and ended up having to practice for eight hours a day before I could master the accompaniment to ‘Oh, Danny Boy’ featured in the film. It was shear hard work that won through in the end.
We were all lucky to be the right age at the right time. I was perhaps the most fortunate because at twelve I was really too tall for the part of Titty. I was a year older and a good two inches taller than Simon West who played my elder brother, but Claude must have known that he could cheat this on-screen.
‘Are you glad you did it?’
Yes, it was fun – wonderful to spend a summer in the Lake District. A chance grabbed. I had not been yearning to act but took a great interest in how the movie was made. In the end the experience set me up for something of a career in television behind the camera and gave me the confidence to a number of things that might otherwise have remained a dream.
You can read about the adventures we had making the film of Swallows and Amazonshere:
A few days ago I was able to grab a chance and sail a yacht once owned by Arthur Ransome called the Nancy Blackett, ‘The best little ship I ever owned.’
Nancy had been brought up from her birth at Woolverstone on the River Orwell in Suffolk to Buckler’s Hard on the edge of the New Forest in Hampshire for The Arthur Ransome Society International Annual General Meeting held at Brockenhurst College near by.
Apart from being Arthur Ranomse’s model for the Goblin in two of his books in the Swallows and Amazons series ~ We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Secret Water ~ the Nancy Blackett has recently appeared in Sally Potter’s feature film Ginger and Rosa.
We emerged having wondered how Arthur Ransome managed to fit himself into the heads, which are right in the bows. Apparently he used to sit there smoking his pipe. How his wife squeezed herself in I do not know – she was 6’3″ tall.
On the morning of 27th May we had a quick look around the historic village of Bucklers Hard,
including the Master Builder’s Hotel,
before finding Nancy at the marina.
After climbing into our life-jackets, we left the mooring and motored down the Beaulieu River.
Once we reached the Solent, our sails were hoisted and we were sailing towards the Isle of Wight.
Peter Willis, Chairman of the Nancy Blackett Trust was with us.
It was exciting to take the helm as we made our way up to Lymington on a broad reach at about 4 knots, at first against, then with the tide.
Having left at about 10.00am we reached the Royal Lymington Yacht Club soon after 3.00pm and moored up for the night.
We had enjoyed perfect conditions and the most wonderful experience.
Nancy’s crew then welcomed aboard sailors from the Royal Lymington Yacht Club who were keen to see around her.
If you would like to sail the Nancy Blackett do visit her website and join the trust. The next meeting will be on Saturday 6th July when Sophie Neville has been asked to give a talk on ‘Filming ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ in Norfolk’.
The Nancy Blackett was recently profiled on BBC 1 by Coutryfile when Matt Baker went out on her first sail of the season.
Here is a compilation of the programme made up by the Nancy Blackett Trust: