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What do children of today think of ‘SWALLOWS & AMAZONS’ (1974)?

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Daphne Neville,

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Daphne Neville, Stephen Grendon, Lesley Bennett, Kit Seymour and Simon West promoting SWALLOWS & AMAZONS in 1973 ~ photo Woman magazine

My mother had found a purple suede Donny Osmond hat. Amazing. We were shivering, wearing our costumes in London to promote the film of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ produced by Richard Pilbrow back in 1973 and released by EMI in April 1974. It’s forty years since we went up for a sailing weekend at Burnham-on-Crouch to audition for the parts.

What do children of today think of the story – of the DVD of the movie we made back in 1973? Into Film say it is one of their ‘most popular titles’.

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Director Claude Whatham wearing my mother’s Donny Osmond hat. This is the one that sunk to the bottom of Derwentwater. Here they are on Peel Island on Coniston Water filming SWALLOWS & AMAZONS in 1973 with a 35mm Panavision camera

There are some very well considered reviews of the DVD on the Amazon site. Those who mention how children feel include:

Swallows and Amazons Forever! I recently bought this for my 9 year old daughter and 7 year old son for Christmas, the film having been one of my favorite children’s films when I was young – before animated space-zombie-machines ruled the earth. Both children thoroughly enjoyed the film and after the first 5 minutes of watching, I felt like I’d only watched it very recently: The genuine proof of a time-less classic. A great film even by today’s standards if you like to let your kids just be kids……  S.Tully, 2011

A really lovely DVD: My 8 year-old daughter loves Famous Five style adventure books so hoped she might enjoy the Swallows and Amazons DVD. I was however a little concerned that she might find it a little old fashioned. I needn’t have worried, as she loved it and watched it over and over again. A very sweet and enjoyable adventure. ~ Smudge, 2012

A double helping of nostalgia For adults, this DVD is a double scoop of nostalgia – for the original Swallows and Amazons books and the era they were set in and for the 1970s when this film was made. The film is a pretty good adaptation of the book, with just a few incidents omitted, such as the final stormy night on the island. The actors, child and adult, are well-cast. Seeing Virginia McKenna again recalls films of the 1960s such as ‘Born Free’ and ‘Ring of Bright Water’.

I wondered how children would react to this, brought up as they are these days on CGI, Harry Potter and all the rest. However, my son (9) was gripped from start to finish. I think what is appealing is the sheer independence of the children, their capability and the good old-fashioned adventures outdoors messing about in boats. Overall, a good unpretentious piece of family entertainment. ~ Secret Spi, Germany 2010

This is a fantastic movie. My daughter (6 yr old) loves the adventures that the children put together using their imagination. It is a fabulous childhood, the one we all use to have. Good clean fun for the whole family and the child actors are obviously having a great time as well. Highly recommended. J.Kennedy, Sydeny Australia 2010

Excellent kids adventure: I loved this as a kid and I bought it having read the story to my two boys. It is as good as I remembered it and I was completely amazed that my two boys love it as much as I did, if not more. They watch it again and again ~ Aldous Huxley, 2010

Classic kids film – just watch it with a group from 4 years to 11 and they all loved it. ~ Mike, 2011

Great film for children: we were extremely pleased to find this on DVD after our daughter, aged 5, is loving reading through the books together. It is a very informative & sweet adventure tale. It is so nice to find a traditional film she can safely watch & enjoy. ~ KTP, 2011

Still as good as I remember!! I have watched with my girls and they both love this as much as I did and still do!!! Good adventurous fun with no bad language, I would recommend. ~ Angel, 2011

Excellent DVD for children 5 and upwards. My grandchildren greatly enjoyed it as I enjoyed the books when I was a youngster. ~ John 2011

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I found very different reviews written by children on an online Film Club site:

‘I liked this film it was adventurous to be honest but at the same time it was boring. I would love to have an uncle like him and I would love to be allowed to be free and go anywhere without my mum FREAKING out. I like how amazons were enemy’s to swallows but they became friends and they were a good group. The character I liked most was titty because she was the HERO!’ ~ Sade (2008)

This film is brilliant but what i don’t get is that there mother just let them sail onto this adventurous island, putting that behind it is brilliant, Mr Loftus said i look like one of the actors. Wouldn’t you love to go and camp on a island in the middle of a lake, i certainly would. Ellis (14) 24:1:11

I did’nt think it was as good as James Bond.I did’nt engoy the old English or the music because it did not fit in the film. from dominic (8) 8:10:12

‘I really liked this film because it was fun and adventerous’ ~ Robbie (12)

this film was ok but when i heard what we were watching i thought it was a non-fiction film about birds in the amazon not about two groups of children on adventures i do not reccomend this to anyone. Max (9) 20:11:12

I fourt that it was good. Daniel (5) 14:11:12

It was really good when the children were having a pillow fight with the Amazons (they are the baddies). Carly (10) 13:11:12

I thought Swallows and Amazons was a brilliant movie . I especially liked how there is a lot of adventure and excitement!My favourite part is when there on the young pirates uncles bout and they push the uncle into the water. The only bad thing is that there weren’t many funny bits and I like a bit of humour. Other thing I liked was that it was set on a deserted island and they had to look after themselves and they had to buy their own food and cook their own food. I’d like to do that!!! For Swallows and Amazons I would give it a 4 star rating.  Issy (9) 8:11:12

I thought swallos and Amazons was very wonderous,adventerous,inspiering and competative.They are brilliant actors.Even though it was made in 1974 it is mind blowing Sophie is my faverout actor she is very brave and kind but the rest are very nice to.I dont know what else to write.If you ever watch this movie you will know what im saying and im sure you will think what i writ to Megan (9) 2:10:12

The film was excellent! I shown me how people camped in the olden days (even though it was discusted when they used dirty water wich had mud in it to drink.) Where did the amizons get their weapons from? I haven’t seen a film like this before. Fabian (9) 8:11:12

‘This very facinating film from the 1970’s has a very swashbuckling theme to it as in a war people in a family set off to a island in a boat called swallow and end up finding another twin set of girls shipwrecked off of their uncles house boat and then the girls start to try and get cunning and vicios and start to wreck all of the things that are nice going on on the island and I would reccomend this film to children aged 6-10 years old as it has a a lot of singing that might put people off a bit from liking this film that has a lot of songs and sing alongs so I would encourage lots of younger children to like or even watch this film so stay tuned to find out some of the other daredevil acts that these people perform in the film……

I loved Swallows and Amazons because I love adventure films.I’d like to stop on the island myself with a couple of my friends.It was really exiting when the children tried to capture each others boats.I really liked the parrot.The film was really exiting and I enjoyed it. Amelia, (9) 28:01:13

This film had some good points and bad points, the director Cluade Whatham could have possibly made a bit more of an effort? Another downside was the fact that the film didn’t really excite me much as it came to the end and it went on a bit too long. Four childeren discover an island and decide (with thier mothers permssion of course) to sail over to the island and make a camp, but when they get to the island they bump into the Amazons (to young sisters who came to the island for summer and formed a mini crew) who drag them into an adventurous war with thier uncle, will it all work out for this mischievous bunch of childeren? I reccomend this film mainly to any adventurous childeren who want to grow up and explore the world! Even though I’m into adventures I was a bit boring, but thats my opinion, other people may be excited out thier socks! So to sum it all up in two words- Mildly entertaining Annie (11) 28:9:12

What an adventurous movie! this film was awesome!!. Its really hard to tell what genre it was though, its like all these different things mashed into one movie. The children take a boat and find an island in the middle of the lake. I would love to go on that island!. I would recommend this movie to anyone because its spectacularly amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Gracie (11) 25:9:12

I’m Surprised, I thought’ Yeah its a classic BORING but when I watched it I actually quite enjoyed it. I liked it when Roger looked in a telescope and said “I cant see anything!” but actually he still had the cap on.  Sophie (9) 3:6:12

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Please add your views in the Comments box below.

‘Wouldn’t you love to go and camp on a island in the middle of a lake, i certainly would.’

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour with David Blagden on Peel Island on Coniston

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour with David Blagden on Peel Island on Coniston Water in 1973

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, British Film, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Emi film, Entertainment news, family Entertainment, Family Film, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Vintage Film

The Duchess of Cambridge in Cumbria

The Duchess of Cambridge cooking on a campfire in Cumbria

The Duchess of Cambridge cooking on a campfire in Cumbria

The Duchess of Cambridge showed she was fully prepared when she braved the snowy weather to visit a Scout camp in the Lake District today.” (22nd March 2013)

“Her Royal Highness, who is a volunteer in the Scout Association, joined fellow adult volunteers as they trained to work with Beaver and Cub Scouts at the Great Tower Scout Camp near Newby Bridge in Cumbria.

She used her training to help look after a group of Cub Scouts from Cumbria and Manchester taking part in a pack holiday event at the 250-acre activity centre close to Lake Windermere.

As part of their programme, the Cub Scouts will get a chance to try outdoor cooking, fire-lighting and tree-climbing under the guidance of The Duchess and the other volunteers.”

To read more, visit princehenryofwales.org

According to Claudia Joseph’s biography of Kate ‘Princess in Waiting’, the Duchess is distantly related, not only to Beatrix Potter, but to Arthur Ransome.

My mother, Daphne Neville wearing a Donny Osmond hat in 1973 on location for SWALLOWS & AMAZONS

My mother, Daphne Neville wearing a Donny Osmond hat in 1973 on location in the Lake District  filming Richard Pilbrow’s movie  SWALLOWS & AMAZONS

The Duchess is obviously fond of Donny Osmond hats. My mother wore one on location in the Lake District whilst filming SWALLOWS & AMAZONS  (1974) . She can be seen here teaching Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy Blackett, to shoot with a bow and arrow for the scene on Wild Cat Island when the Amazons attack the Swallows who are occupying their camp.

Claude Whatham in Mum's hat with Brenda Bruce

Claude Whatham in Mum’s hat with Brenda Bruce

Our Director, Claude Whatham took a shine to it and would put it on to amuse us, although in this instance he was wearing it for warmth, probably like the Duchess on Friday. Click on the photo above to see me wearing the original purple velvet, 1973 winter season designer version, bought in Carnaby Street. I wear it all the time. It is very useful in this weather.

Peter Walker has found more photos of the Duchess in Cumbria in the Westmorland Gazette ~ she was visiting a scout camp next door to Low Ludderburn where Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ about a mile above Blakeholme, the island on Windermere he originally envisaged as Wild Cat Island.

Is the Duchess a ‘Swallows and Amazons’ fan?

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‘Now then, Miss Nancy’ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Wild Cat Island in 1973

Director Claude Whatham and Bobby Sitwell with Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker and Ronald Fraser as Jim Turner aka Captain Flint in 1973

I love this photograph of Suzanna with Claude Whatham and the Bobby the focus puller. It somehow captures the atmosphere of filming on Peel Island back in 1973. I was meant to be sitting on the biscuit tin where I have left my empty cup, but Claude must have been reading my lines as he took Suzanna Hamilton’s close-ups. I was never sure about the blouse she is wearing. We hadn’t heard of Margaret Thatcher at the time but it now seems to be edging a little too close to her style. I doubt if she took inspiration from us.

‘It was quite a nice day weather-wise,’ one of the others had noted, but obviously not the solid sunshine needed for the big scenes yet to be shot out on the lakes. However our sailing director David Blagden was back with us, his hair cut short in order to appear in vision as Sammy the Policeman, a part he played beautifully. Although there is a cheerful photograph of him taken straight after he gained a short-back-and-sides we can only find rather a distant and visually confused one of him in uniform at the camp site on Wild Cat Island. He was so desolate to have had his hair cut short that he took off his helmet during the scene to prove that he really had been shorn.

We were excited that David was on the set, in costume. He’d always been behind the camera before. But he made a very serious Policmen and didn’t let the persona of his character fall whilst he was in uniform. What works best in the film is the edit. ‘No more trouble of any kind, ‘ Virginia McKenna insists – and the shot cuts to the boots of a Policmen arrving in camp.

It looks as  if this was one long scene – but the section where the content of Uncle Jim’s book was discussed while we sipped tea had been shot a week previously when Ronald Frazer first arrived in the Lake District.

David Blagden who played Sammy the Policeman

David Blagden who played Sammy the Policman ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The clapper-loader, Sophie Neville and David Blagden as the Policeman on Peel Island ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Director Claude Whatham having lunch with his leading ladies, Suzanna Hamilton and Lesley Bennett ~ photo: Daphne Neville

It was a long day, but a happy one. Any secrets?  It was really in the scene when John declares ‘a dead calm’ and we decide to visit the charcoal burners that it became apparent that I was taller than my elder brother played by Simon West. A box was provided for him to stand on so that I look shorter when I run into shot. It was a shot I remember we did in one take – despite being fairly complicated. Everyone was amazed that we moved on so quickly. We needed to.

The pre-occupation of the producer was that, since the bad weather had caused delays, we still had an awful lot to film. We must have been about a week behind schedule – a huge worry for Richard Pilbrow. The next day we just had to get out on the water come what may.

The huge sadness was that David Blagden, so vibrant and good looking with so much to live for,  lost his life to the sea in the late 1970s. After Swallows and Amazons he presented an ITV series brooadcast on Sundays called ‘Plain Sailing’. It featured Willing Griffin the 19′ Hunter in which he’d crossed the Atlantic despite  horrific weather in 1972 and the survey of a 39′ wooden boat I think he intended to take on another crossing.  Apparently he set off in this yawl from Alderney in a Force 11 gale and was never seen again. The harbourmaster had begged him not to go.  They found his girlfriend’s body and parts of the boat but there was no trace David.

Very Willing Griffin by David Blagden sailing director on 'Swallows and Amazons'

The cover of ‘Very Willing Griffin’ by David Blagden. ‘An exciting adventure of persuing and living a dream against many odds’, this sort after book was reviewed in The Journal of Navigation.

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Suzanna’s diary ~ about filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Suzanna Hamilton as Susan with Sophie Neville as Titty busy writing the ship’s log

Something very exciting happened last week. Suzanna Hamilton came to see me, bringing the photographs that she was given during the filming of Swallows and Amazons along with a bundle of papers. I immediately recognised the blue bound diary that she had kept.  Her God-given sense of humour fills the pages.

Although Titty was the one who always kept the ship’s log in Arthur Ransome’s stories, we children all kept journals during the filming as part of our school work. It was quite a task.

Suzanna Hamilton's Diary prior to the fiming of 'Swallows and Amazons'

Suzanna’s diary gives the story of making the film of Swallows and Amazons from the perspective of an actress, the actress she was then and ever more will be. Even before we began filming she was  getting as excited as Susan about grog and molasses, calling us by our charcter names as Claude Whatham suggested.

Suzanna Hamilton's Diary on the filming of 'Swallows and Amazons' 1973

Anna Scher ran the most wonderful children’s theatre club in Islington, which Zanna went to after school, along with Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson. I visited Anna Scher’s Theatre Club ten years later when I was casting children for the BBC drama serial of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. Although I didn’t find anyone there who could sail I held Anna Scher in huge admiration and respect, using her exercises when I was auditioning kids in Norfolk. She did so much for the young people of east London, giving children confidence with self-discipline aquired during their drama lessons and workshops.

David Wood, who wrote the screenplay of Swallows and Amazons, was already well known as an actor. Mum was rather in awe of him since he had played Johnny in Z Cars and had starred the feature film ‘If…’   alongside Malcolm McDowell. He had been a storyteller on the BBC Childrens Television programme we all adored called Jackanory.  Suzanna had been involved in the same series when E.Nesbit’s ‘The Treasure Seekers’ had been read.  She had also appeared in ‘The Edwardians’  form the book by E.Nesbit directed by James Cellan Jones in 1972. By coincidence Pauline Quirke played Eliza in ‘The Story of the Treasure Seekers’ in 1982 and I worked with her a few years later on Rockliffe’s Babies. My mother appeared in a pantomine David Wood wrote called The Gingerbread Man when it was produced at The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham. She wore red with a pill-box hat as Miss Ginger.

Suzanna Hamilton's diary of filming 'Swallows and Amazons in 1973

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker with Stephen Grendon as Roger Walker camping on Peel Island, Coniston Water in Cumbria, the Lake District

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Dark secrets revealed – the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville as Titty in ‘Swallows and Amazons’

‘Here we are, intrepid explorers making our way into uncharted waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets shall be revealed?’

The dark secret was that the inky black night scenes had to be shot in Mrs Batty’s barn. At Bank Ground Farm. During the day.  The design team strung up thick light-proof drapes and made the dusty out-building into a studio. The director, Claude Whatham had no choice.  We had quickly run out of interior scenes and the weather was so bad that we could do little else.

‘While the rest of England melted in a heat wave, the Lakes seemed wrapped in mist and rain,’ Richard Pilbrow the Producer remembers. I have a press cutting from The Guardian dated 7th July 1973, which opens with the words:

  • ‘THE WEATHER report follows in half a minute. Richard Pilbrow is obcessed with the weather. Every morning he wakes around 4 o’clock and crosses his room at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel to cock a weather eye at the sky above Wansfell Pike. Most mornings it is the same story… Pilbrow looks out of the window. Raining. ‘ 

What a worry and concern that rain was. Swallows and Amazons is firmly set in an idlyic childhood summer, August of 1929, when the water was warm enough to swim daily and the only disapointment was a total lack of wind. When we arrived to start filming at Derwent Water on 12th June 1973 it was too windy to even go out on the lake.

I loved filming in the barn.  The Third Assistant, Gareth Tandy, lead me through the high wooden doors and into a magical version of our camp on Peel Island, beautifully recreated by Ian Whittaker the Set Dresser. A real camp fire was burning. Blankets (goatskins in Titty’s imagination) and pillows from out tents had been laid out so I could be ‘shrouded in my cloak’ while I was waiting up for the Swallows to return from the Amazon River. The scene was beautifully lit with branches held in stands in front of the lights with a gentle wind produced by the prop men wafting a board to lift my hair at the right moment.  I don’t think there was an owl hoot for me to hear. I had to imagine that so they could add a real owl call later. Someone has written in to ask if I learnt how to make an answering hoot. I’m afraid not. I tried and tried. I still can’t.  John could do it but Claude asked us both to just pretend so that he could lay the sound on afterwards.

I think what we gained, despite or perhaps because of the weather, was a camaraderie that forms a foundational basis to the film. We had to be stoic and get on with filming despite getting cold and wet. Rain doesn’t show up on screen unless it is really pelting down. You can see the effects – wet hair and soggy costumes, but you actually have to use rain machines if you want to show rain in a drama.  We could film our trek up the hill to visit the charcoal burners without a problem but going out on the lake was impossible. You’d have seen the rain drops falling on the water.  And it was too windy.  As it was, we had a brilliant Director of Photography who used what light he had to capture that limpid quality you find in the Lakes, so quintessentially English it draws you in, reeling back to childhood days when we had time to make camps and rush about in the woods.

The rain did deter my mother from taking photographs. She didn’t have a flash to use in the barn but she took lots – masses – the following day…

Dressed for the Cumbrian weather: Daphne Neville with Liz Lomas, Richard’s assistant at Theatre Projects who had come up from London ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

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‘But we never touched his horrible houseboat…’ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island 30th May 1973

Peel Island on Coniston Water in the English Lake District whilst we were filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the summer of 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

An extract from the journal I kept aged twelve:

Stephen Grendon, Suzannah Hamilton and Sophie Neville on the cover of the LP of the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’

I must have lost my pen on this wet day in May 1973, for the diary on the making of the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ is written in pencil. I don’t know if Claude Whatham, the Director, ever remembered me writing but when the film ended he kindly sent me an engraved  Parker pen and propelling pencil. I loved the pen and wrote all my essays at university with it. Sadly I lost it just before my Finals but I still have the pencil. Somewhere. Although we had a late start it was a good day, a day when Claude encouraged us to improvise. The dialogue in the little scene when we were gutting fish is our own. I’ve always thought improvisation can be magical. When I started to direct at the BBC we were very conscious of the cost of film stock – the footage – so were reticient about taking chances, but I made a drama on school bullies that turned out to be very powerful, purely because I let the children improvise. The only problem was that it came across as almost too frighteningly real. I found that although short scenes always worked well, I had to write the story as a whole as I went along, which was a bit daunting. When I went on a BBC Studio Director’s Course I tried improvising a scene where a couple go camping in true Mike Leigh style. I asked the actors to erect a tent in the studio, and left them at it while I spoke to the Cameramen from the galley, as normal, via inter-com with the Vision-Mixer at my side. She also improvised.  The scene was to end with the couple going inside the tent, which then collapses on top of them. I used a dome tent of my own and I showed them just how easy it was for them to collapse it. It was quite fun, and worked surprisingly well. Up to a point. The problem was that I was working with actors and the actors, being actors, enjoyed themselves so much they didn’t want the scene to end. It nearly didn’t end at all. And I ended up with the longest studio show reel of all time. Suzanna Hamilton was very good at gutting fish. She is not a remotely squeamish person, in fact she loves snakes and other reptiles. A stoic, who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster, she is probably the most gutsy film actress there is. No fuss or over long scenes for her. I was more interested in examining the the high dorsal fin of the perch and could have spent all morning standing on the rock. I seem wired to illustrate stories. I am sure Arthur Ransome used a line drawing of one of the perch he caught. Is it in Swallows and Amazons?

Claude Whatham, the Director of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, on the shore of Coniston Water ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Claude did not shoot many ‘takes’. His aim was to get fresh performances. By this time he had started to film the rehearsal, and then one ‘take’ as a back-up, to give the Film Editor an option. Then he would change the camera angle. It is probably a good policy when filming with children – as charm is difficult to replicate. When I started to direct on Beta-cam I attempted to shoot quite long scenes on one shot by using ‘jib-arms’, small cranes or camera track to move the camera. This was all the rage in the late 1980s. I remember using one long shot for the opening scene of a comedy drama called Thinkabout Science that starred Patsy Bryne ~ she who had become known to the nation as Nursie in the BBC sitcom Blackadder . Patsy played a grandmother collecting two sisters and their friends from school. The children poured out of the front door, down some steps, met their granny and chatted to her as they skipped along the pavement. I had about 120 metres of camera track laid down the street, far more than any scene on Swallows and Amazons. We had a  rehearsal and shot the three minute scene. It worked perfectly. It was fresh and funny and active. I was all set to move the whole crew to the next location when my producer descended from the Scanner, the truck where she was watching on three monitors, to tell me that one of the Extras had waved at the camera. I should have recorded the rehearsal. It took us twelve more takes to get the scene right after that. Luckily Beta tape costs were negligible – certainly in comparison with the 35mm Technicolor stock that Claude was using. Richard Pilbrow must have been pleased to hear that we gained a reputation as ‘One take Wonders’ on Swallows. When it came to the scene when we returned to the camp to find the abrupt note from Captain Flint, Claude took me to one side and suggested I added a line of dialogue at the end when it came to the take, without letting the others know. He told me to say, ‘And he used my crayons too.’  I wish he had edited it out. I didn’t deliver the line well. I think Suzanna would have said it perfectly but the secret made me too self conscious.

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon and Sophie Neville in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ filmed on location in the English Lake District in 1973

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25th May ~ When I first started drawing maps

I did not know it at the time but Titty’s chart had a profound influence on my life.

I loved drawing the map. I had prepared it earlier with Simon Holland, the Art Director, and always regret pressing too hard. If you look very carefully you can see that I had already written ‘Rio’ and rubbed it out, only to write Rio again when it came to the take.  I also wish that I had been taught the song Away to Rio before this scene as I would had said that line differently. Never mind.

 I think that the map on the end papers of Arthur Ransome’s book of Swallows and Amazons, originally drawn by Steven Spurrier, are an inspiration to millions. I’ve gazed and gazed at it.

When I grew up and went to university, I took a course in cartography that was to stand me in good stead.  In the spring of 1992 I migrated to Southern Africa with the swallows and soon started drawing decorative maps. These were all very much like Spurrier’s. I added small pictures of settlements, trees, animals, and always a compass with a black and white border to give the scale. In the process I was able to explore the most wonderful country. Most of my commissions have been of game reserves or great swathes of Africa. I have mapped areas of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, the Waterberg Plateau in South Africa, one of the Malilangwe Conservation Trust in Zimbabwe and a map showing how to cross the Namib Desert on a horse. I’ve mapped Jembisa Game Reserve, Triple B Ranch  and Ongava on the Etosha border. I have also drawn maps of military zones, ski resorts and stately homes.  Some have been for charities such as Save the Rhino Trust, others for books, others for marketing holidays. They all gave me the excuse to go on living a Swallows and Amazons life, camping in wild places and exploring wilderness areas – uncharted territory. My final map – for I don’t think my eyesight will let me draw any more – was to direct guests to my own wedding, not so very long ago.

As I expect Titty would have done, I am now writing about these maps and the adventures I had in making them, currently putting everything together in a travel book call Ride the Wings of Morning. I have a couple of very early maps in my first book Funnily Enough. These were just sketched in my diary but one is of Windermere, where I went with my father and the Steam Boat Association, so I think it would be of interest to Arthur Ransome enthusiasts.

A map of Windermere sketched in Sophie Neville’s Diary of 1991 that has been recently published as the book ‘Funnily Enough’

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“It was really horrible” ~ filming the swimming scenes for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

“…it was really horrible,” I told Tim Devlin, of The Times. “We had to run into the water and enjoy it. It was icy. I had to try to be a cormorant with my feet  in the air. Then I had to step water as Susan taught Roger to swim.  We were in for about three minutes and they had to do two takes of the scene. It was horrible.”   This was the day when we shot the swimming scenes ~

The first scene of the day was actually was the one when Titty emerged from her tent in her pyjamas, wiped the dew off the top of a large biscuit tin and started writing her diary. I always regret writing Titania Walker on the cover but I had been contracted to play the part of TITANIA WALKER. My mother, Daphne Neville, who is quite theatrical, loved Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and encouraged me to write out the full name, but I do wish I had simply labelled by notebook ‘Ship’s Log’.

I am told that the real little girl who inspired my character, Titty Altounyan, was given the nickname after reading a horrible story of mousey death entitled Titty mouse and Tatty mouse’  from English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs.  Her family called her Titty mouse, then Titty for short. People were concerned that I would be teased for being associated with a name like Titty, but I never was. It’s a sweet name. However, it seems Arthur Ransome did not object when the BBC altered it to Kitty in 1962, when Susan George played the part.

Our knitted swimming costumes, with their little legs were a real novelty to us. I do wish mine hadn’t been red. It was such a cold, grey day I went blue. I remember the entire crew were clad in overcoats – even parkers with fur lined hoods. Looking back it was silly to have gone ahead with the scene in May. Child cruelty.

35m Panasonic, Eddie Collins the Camera Operator in (wet suit), Dennis Lewiston the DOP (in cap) Claude Whatham the Director (in waders) on Peel Island, Coniston Water ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

The director, Claude Whatham shot the scene using two cameras. The continuity would have been impossible otherwise. Eddie Collins the Camera Operator had a 16mm camera in the water with us. He was being steadied by another chap in a full wet-suit. Fitted neoprene was quite an unusual sight then when divers were known as frogmen.

Filming the swimming scene

Eddie Collins opperating the 16mm camera to capture the pearl diving scene ~photo: Richard Pilbrow

Suzanna Hamilton, who played Susan, did well but it simply wasn’t possible to pretend we were enjoying ourselves.  My rictus smile was not convincing. Later on in the summer the Lake District became so hot that we begged to be taken swimming in rivers on our day off. I wish we had re-shot the scene in July with an underwater camera capturing my pearl diving antics. I was a good swimmer. I still love snorkelling – but only in warm seas. As it was, I had to be extracted from Coniston Water by Eddie’s frogman. I’d almost passed out.

Sophie Neville in 1973 attempting to strangle Terry Smith the Wardrobe Master on ‘Swallows and Amazons’

Quite a few people almost learnt how cold we had been for themselves later that day in May. The boats used to ferry us back and forward to the island were blue Dorys with outboard motors. You don’t want to have too much weight in the bows of those boats. Water can come in very quickly.

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Filming with Swallow and on Peel Island in the Lake District ~ in 1973

If you drive south down the narrow East of Lake road along by Coniston Water, passing Bank Ground Farm, Brantwood and a cottage where Arthur Ransome once lived, you will eventually see Peel Island. It is not that far from the shore.

Richard Pilbrow had permission from the Lake District  National Park for his film crew to gain access and use the fields and woodland opposite Peel Island as a base. One proviso was that our two red double-decker buses had to be swathed with camouflage netting in an attempt to make them less conspicuous. As a result they looked comic – like huge monsters from Doctor Who. In addition to these we had a caravan for Make-up and Hair, the caterers’ mobile kitchen or chuck-wagon, a prop lorry, a lorry belonging to Lee Electric who provided the lighting and huge reflector boards, the Lee Electric generator and the regrettable and very basic mobile loos. I can not remember what kind of vehicle David Cadwallader the Grip used but I half remember a Land Rover. On top of this would be parked our mini-bus, the unit mini-bus, everyone’s cars and the boat trailers. Mum thinks that Terry Smith’s Range Rover could have been orange. ‘He was a very orange man.’

It must have been a bit of an effort to avoid getting the whole entourage in shot when John and I launched Swallow and rowed around to the harbour. You can tell that it was a greyer day than the one before.

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker and Simon West as John Walker  rowing Swallow towards Peel Island on Coniston Water in the Lake District National Park

A temporary jetty made from scaffold and planks had been built out into the water so that we could climb into any boat going to the island without getting wet. It must have been quite something lugging the camera out.  It travelled in a big black wooden box lined with foam rubber, with handles at either end that David had had made. The Panasonic was thus transported by two men like the Arc of the Covenant , holy and revered. Once on the island it would be set on the complex mounting, which enabled it to pan and tilt. This in turn usually sat on sections of track so that moving shots could be achieved.

Denis Lewiston, the Director of Photography, had a Camera Operator but insisted on doing most of the camera work himself. If you watch the scenes of the Swallows making up camp you can see that he must have just followed what Susan and Roger were doing. It has a wonderful, busy natural quality with the result that all one wants to do is to leave real life behind and go camping. I imagine that the scenes when the kettle is being filled were shot in the morning, while I was at my lessons, but I joined them after lunch.

We loved shooting any scene at our camp on the island, especially when we were eating. As I think I have said before, when Suzanna swung her frying pan of buttered eggs she really did burn Roger on the knee. He was very brave about it. It was a heavy pan.

David Cadwallader is still working as a grip, recently operating the crane on the 2011 movie of Jane Eyre, which stars Mia Wasikowska as Jane, Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester and Judi Dench as Mrs Fairfax. I’d been reading Jane Eyre on that day in May 1973. It was my set book. My set book for school and the book I read on set. I should have been reading Robinson Crusoe.

****************************

Richard Pilbrow has just written from Connecticut to say~

You can read my side of the story, if you care to, in ‘A THEATRE PROJECT’, that you can get from Amazon.UK.

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Secrets of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island, Coniston Water ~ in 1973

Arthur Ransome’s description of Wildcat Island is based on two real islands. The landing place and open grassy camp site illustrated in the books can be found at Blake Holme on Windermere but when Richard Pilbrow went there in 1972 he was so disappointed by the sight of caravans, and the fact it was so near the shore, that he decided to make the film almost entirely on Peel Island where you find Ransome’s Secret Harbour. We never went to Blake Holme.

It was Peel Island on Coniston Water where the real Swallows, the Altounyan children, camped. Roger Altounyan told Bill Frankland that he secretly spent the first three nights of his honeymoon camping there. It must have been magical. We loved going there – it was hugely exciting, even in the rain. There is something about the steep sides, which makes it like a fortress, the ancient Viking settlement WD Collingwood believed it to be.

Had I been producing Swallows and Amazons I would have used Peel island for the unique Secret Harbour but used the peninsular nearby on the mainland for the landing place, if at all possible. There is a nice open beach there and one wouldn’t have had to lug all the heavy paraphernalia of filming over the water – you can imagine time and effort  involved in taking a 35mm Panavision camera across with its mountings and track. I don’t know how they powered the arc lamps we needed to light the campsite, which was quite dark beneath the trees.  They must have run the cables under water. We loved crossing over there but getting us back for lessons and lunch wasn’t easy. There was no loo.

Sophie Neville, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Stephen Grendon on Wildcat Island in the scene where the Swallows find a place to camp

But – the wonderful thing is that now, when children reach the island, nearly all the places from the film are there. The Landing Place has nearly washed away.  We never knew it at the time but one great secret is that it was created for the film. They must have dumped a huge amount of shingle there.  The other secret is that there weren’t actually enough trees for the Swallows to erect the tents their mother had made for them. Two had to be added by the construction team. Arthur Ransome’s tents are not as easy to put up as you’d imagine. It is difficult for children to get the rope taut enough between the trees to take the weight of the canvas. You need to use wagon knots or twist it with a stick. If you tie the rope too high the tents ruck up. The reality was that Suzanna had Bobby-the-prop-man to help her.

One thing that is not a secret, but can take you unawares, is that there never seems to be any firewood on Wildcat Island.  It is the reason why the Swallows went to the mainland in the book. Roger really did struggle to find sticks to pick up on that wet day in May. Mine were carefully set out for me to find by the Designer.  Poor Roger did fall over and he did get quite badly scratched by thorns. Claude gave him a bit of  ‘Danger Money’ for being brave about it and not complaining.

Stephen Grendon playing young Laurie in the BBC Play ‘Cider with Rosie’

I’m not sure if Sten had ever received Danger Money when he played Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie, which Claude had made two years before. We watched it that night when it was broadcast on television. It must have been shown quite late as it was was labelled as avant garde.  We had to stay up as of course VHS machines hd not been heard of.

Rosemary Leach played Laurie’s long-suffering mother, Mrs Lee, quite beautifully. She was later to take the role of Mrs Barrable, the Admiral, in the BBC series Coot Club. Mike Pratt, who played Mr Dixon in Swallows and Amazonswas Uncle Ray, and Young Billy – John Franklin-Robbins was The Stranger.  Claude cast me as a little girl from Slad called Eileen Brown, who Laurie Lee always said was the first person he ever fell in love with. He was a friend of Mum’s and was around during the filming, since he still had a cottage in Slad. I’d been to a village school in the Cotswolds myself and enjoyed being in the classroom scenes, despite have to wear a drab and rather itchy green dress.

Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham on location at Slad in 1971

I was too shy to put myself forward when Claude asked if anyone knew the chants to playgound skipping games, but I did work hard to prepare for my big scene. I had to play quite a difficult piece on the piano, accompanying the ten-year-old Laurie Lee as he sawed away on his violin at the village concert, while his motherlooked on with tears in her eyes. I was only given the music three days before the filming and had to practice eight hours a day, for those three days, before I got it right. We plodded through Oh, Danny Boy but were so relieved to get it right that our smiles were real enough. At one point Claude took a deep breath and said, ‘Do you think you could play a little faster?’  I looked at him and replied, ‘They’re crochets. They don’t go any faster.’ He claimed that he didn’t know what a crotchet was.

Wilfred Josephs, who was familiar with crochets, wrote the most beautiful music for Cider with Rosie. You can listen to some of it on You Tube ~

Sophie Neville as Elieen Brown and Philip Hawkes as Laurie Lee in ‘Cider with Rosie’ directed by Claude Whatham in 1971.

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