Tag Archives: Captain Flint’s houseboat

Boats used for making the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

I went on BBC Radio Cumbria recently, to ask if I could meet anyone involved in filming the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the summer of 1973, since it was made on location in the Lake District with a young crew.

~Nick Newby of Nicole End Marine~

Nick Newby of Nicole End Marine in Portinscale came to find me when I was helping at the Keswick Convention. As a young man in the 1970s, he provided boats for a number of films and was contacted by Graham Ford, the production manager of Swallows and Amazons in the Spring of 1973. Graham had began working with Mike Turk who had started building boats for TV and films at his family firm, Turk’s Launches, but this was based on the Thames in London. They needed help from someone in the Lake District who knew about traditional boats.

Ronald Fraser being transported to the Houseboat

~Ronald Fraser being trransported by Dory to The Lady Derwentwater in 1973~

Arthur Ransome had clearly based Captain Flint’s houseboat on the Esperance, originally a steam launch cruising on Windermere. You can read more about her and see photos here. ‘Since she was sitting on the bottom of Whitecross Bay at the time,’ Nick told me, ‘the film crew decided to use the Lady Derwentwater.’ This was a launch licensed to carry 90 passengers that Nick had worked on and knew well.  ‘She was quite a rigid boat, having two steel RSJs set inside her. We moored her at Brandelhowe in Great Bay for the filming. You need to be careful getting in, as there is a rock shelf.’ The advantage of using her was that you could see the view over the lake from her large cabin windows, which enhanced interior scenes. The Lady Derwentwater has since been re-built with a different stern, but you can book a passage and go out on the lake in her yourself.

Lady Derwentwater 2018

~The Lady Derwentwater today~

Nick told me that Captain Flint’s eight foot Wright’s dinghy, the houseboat’s tender, had been made by Wild Shepherd on the Isle of Wight. The Jackson’s ‘native canoe’, rowed out to Peel Island by Virginia McKenna was fourteen foot Wright’s sailing dinghy with a centre case. He knew many of the traditional boats in the Lakes. ‘I served me time as a yacht and boat builder at Shepherd’s in Bowness.’ This company was based in one of the green boat sheds featured in the ‘Rio’ scenes.

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville on Wild Cat Island - contact sheet

~Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville and DoP Denis Lewiston~

‘Amazon belonged to a chap called Vosey who was rather reluctant to let her be used for the filming,’ Nick said, ‘but we did her up a bit.’ I gather she had been used in the black and white BBC serial of Swallows and Amazons made in 1962 when  Susan George played the party of Kitty.

~Swallow sailing towards the filming pontoon in 1973~

I believe Swallow had been found at Burnham-on-Crouch as she was built by Williams King and Sons. Mike Turk, who had built a schllop for the 1966 movie ‘A Man For All Seasons’, purchased her for the film and brought her up to the Lakes. She had no added buoyancy. Nick claims that being a wooden boat she would never sink but I reminded him that we came close to hitting the MV Tern on Windermere when loaded with camping gear, which was a bit scary.

MV Tern of 1891 on Windermere

~MV Tern on Windermere today~

Swallow was later used at Elstree Studios when the sound was dubbed onto the finished film. Mike kept her out of the water in his store at Chatham until SailRansome bought her at auction in 2010. She was sensitively restored by Pattersons, has a new sail, added buoyancy bags and is now available for anyone to sail in Cumbria.

Swallow and the pontoon

~Mike Turk’s filming pontoon with Swallow attached in 1973~

‘Mike already had the filming pontoon. It had originally been used for carrying a vehicle. We added twin outboard engines and rigged scaffold under the water so that either Swallow or Amazon could be attached to it but still keel over naturally as they sailed. When the dinghy went about, I would turn one outboard and thrust the other into reverse so that the pontoon went about with them.’ I remembered that the first time they tried this Swallow’s mast footing broke. Amazon’s mast-gate broke on another occasion. Nick had to persuade a friend to let him borrow his welding workshop and managed to mend it over night, so that she could be ready on set first thing the next day.

Behind the scenes while filming Swallow fromthe pontoon

~The camera pontoon, Capri and one of the Dorys used behind-the-scenes~

Nick went on to say the pontoon leaked terribly. ‘We would have to pump out hull every morning.’ The Capri used behind the scenes was Nick’s equivalent of a marine Land Rover. ‘It had been used for the Olympics, had a 35 horse-power engine and a reinforced glass fibre hull for increased capability. ‘We used it for Ken Russell’s film ‘Tommy‘ and The Rock Opera with Roger Daltry. Once, when we were using it for Swallows and Amazons, Clive Stuart shoved it into gear with rather too much gusto. Someone only just managed to grab the director, Claude Whatham, before he was flung over the back. ‘Claude was spitting feathers after that.’

BW Wearing Life Jackets in the Safety Boat - trimmed

~Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Sten Grendon with David Stanger at the helm of the Dory in 1973~

Mike Turk provided two Dorys to use as run-around boats. One was driven by David Stanger who is now skipper of a launch on Ullswater. It was a stable boat but you needed to watch how it was not overloaded. Water came over the bows one day giving my mother rather a shock.

Nick Newby with Sophie Neville in Keswick

~Nick Newby at the Alhambra cinema in 2018: photo Marc Grimston~

‘The boating world is a small world,’ Nick assured me. This July, forty-five years after making the film, he brought his grand-daughter to watch ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick and gamely came up on stage for a Q&A to explain how some of the sailing scenes were achieved.

Mike Turk, Swan Upper and Queen’s Waterman, who provided boats for numerous films from Moonraker to Hornblower,  sadly passed away aged 78. You can read his obituary here. A group of Arthur Ransome enthusiasts clubbed together to buy Swallow from his collection in 2010. She is cuyrrently kept on a trailer at Kendal in the Lake District. If you would like to sail her, please visit SailRansome.com

For Nicol End Marine, about two miles outside Keswick on Derwentwater please click here

 

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‘Swallows and Amazons’ in Keswick

This summer marked the 45th Anniversary of filming the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater when Ronald Fraser was obliged to walk the plank in a solar topi in July 1973.

Ronald Fraser walking the plank

To celebrate the anniversary, Sophie Neville, who played Titty, introduced a screening of the 1974 film at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick on Saturday 28th July.

Captain Flint having walked the plank

She demonstrated how one of the visual effects was achieved and signed copies of her book ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ after a Q&A.

‘I brought one of the original arrows that the Amazon pirates fired over my head. It looks so dangerous on film that the shot was cut from the television version but is included in the re-mastered cinemascope edition that we are now able to watch on the big screen. You might be able to spot a few other things that went wrong while we were filming, such as the time I inadvertently slipped up to my waist in water.’
‘The elegant Lakeland steamer, the Lady Derwentwater, had the starring role as Captain Flint’s houseboat. She was adapted for the part by the award-winning set designer Ian Whittaker, who went on to receive an Oscar for Best Art Direction on ‘Howards End’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. His astonishing list of nominations can been seen here
Swallow, the 1930s sailing dinghy used in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was at the lakeside for Arthur Ransome enthusiasts to admire. She is looked after by Rob Boden, from Kendal, who is happy to take people for a sail by prior arrangement via the SailRansome website here.

Secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons

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Captain Flint’s Houseboat revisited

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SY Gondola on Coniston Water today

When people see the Steam Yacht Gondola on Coniston today, in all her re-built glory, she seems rather plush to have been cast by Arthur Ransome as Captain Flint’s houseboat. The main reason for assuming that she was used as the model for the illustrations is because Arthur Ransome grabbed a post card of the Gondola and drew on it to give the first illustrators of Swallows and Amazons some idea of his vision. However Ransome’s biographer Roger Wardale tells me it was a former steamer on Windermere that he had in mind: the S.L Esperance. Ransome was known to have been spotted looking through her cabin windows and much admired her distinctive bow, designed to cut through cat ice as she went daily up the the Lakeside Railway station.  

Houseboat  bay in 1963

Esperance in Rayrigg Bay, Windemere ~ photographed by Martin Neville in about 1963

When I was first taken up to the Lake District in 1963 my father found what he thought was houseboat bay on Windermere and took this shot of a vessel that must be SL Esperance. She does look very like the first professional drawing submitted to illustrate Swallows and Amazons.

Stephen Spurrier's unused illustration of Swallow sailing past Captain Flint's houseboat

Stephen Spurrier’s unused illustration of Swallow sailing past Captain Flint’s houseboat

Arthur Ransome’s terse note reads: ‘The ass has forgotten the mast’. Today the Esperance is lying at the Steamboat Museum on Windermere, where we went to visit her in 2011. Built at Rutherglen in 1869 she is nearly 65 foot long with a 10 foot beam.

Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum

SL Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in 2011

She did not always have such a traditional appearance. Roger Wardale kindly sent me this photograph showing what she looked like in the 1930s.

'Esperance' in the 1930s when she was owned by Sir Oliver Scott.

‘Esperance’ in the 1930s when she was owned by Sir Oliver Scott.

The cabin has since been removed from her rear end.

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SY Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in 2011

SY Esperance now looks more like this illustration – or could do. Although she has a setting for a mast the reality is that she has seven windows, whereas Clifford Webb’s illustration shows her with only six.

Clifford Webb's illustration of Captain Flint's houseboat

Clifford Webb’s illustration of Captain Flint’s houseboat

I have no idea if anyone could film aboard her today when safety regulations are so strict.

Claude Whatham discussing plans with sailing director David Blagden (in the white hat) and Richard Pilbrow on the aft deck of the houseboat with Molly Pilbrow looking on ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Claude Whatham took advantage of the larger cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater whilst filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Back in 1973 Richard Pilbrow was obliged to use the Lady Derwentwater, still owned by the Keswick Launch Co. She has quite a different stern from the illustrations but was licensed to carry 90 passengers, which must have allowed him to take a seventy-strong film crew on board. At least she was given a mast. You can envisage Ronald Fraser, as Captain Flint, angrily stamping out the firework on the roof.

One advantage of the Lady Derwentwater was that the windows of her cabin enabled the director to get a good view of the lake, which he made use of when Captain John rowed over from Peel Island to visit Captain Flint and pass on the charcoal burners’ warning.  She couldn’t be moved to another lake, but Derwentwater is surrounded by such dramatic fells that the director, Claude Whatham used this to his advantage. A postcard of Friar’s Crag near Keswick was used by Ransome to give his illustrator an idea of what the Peak of Darien was like, even though he had originally based this on the rocky promontory at Waterhead on Windermere. Roger Wardale tells me the Ransomes would sail there in Swallow and stop for tea before heading back south.

Sophie Neville at the Windermere Steamboat Museum

Sophie Neville at the Windermere Steamboat Museum

Was the Gondola so very different? Ransome had known her since spending his own childhood holidays on Coniston, when she was in service.  While staying at Nibthwaite he became a good friend of the Captain, or so the story goes. Back in 1973 the Gondola looked like this – her roof too curved to run along, her bow rising up a little too dramatically to accommodate the foredeck of a retired pirate busy writing up his devilish crimes while his a cannon lies glinting in the sunlight, ready to fire.

Was this the houseboat Arthur Ransome had in mind? ~ photograph taken by Martin Neville in 1973

Photograph of the Gondola on Coniston Water taken by Martin Neville in 1973

To read more about Esperance, please click here

For more about the Steamboat Museum with a photograph of Esperance, please click here

To read more, from another perspective please click here

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The Battle of Houseboat Bay on Derwentwater, 5th July 1973

Battle of Houseboat Bay ~ Sophie Neville as Titty Walker in Swallow

Sophie Neville at Titty Walker in Swallow on Derwentwater in 1973: photo~ Daphne Neville

Sunlight on the water tells the story of my life.  At last the skies cleared and fine weather we had hoped and prayed for settled over the Lake District. It enabled us to film the climax of Arthur Ransome’s adventure set on the high seas of Cumbria. It was the day we went to war. The day the Swallows and the Amazons took on Captain Flint at the Battle of Houseboat Bay.

Suzanna's Diary

An extra page in Suzanna’s Diary for 5th July 1973

‘There won’t be a leeside to him, ‘ said Captain John. ‘The houseboat’ll be lying head to wind. Our plan will be to reach into the bay, and then come head to wind one on each side of him.’ Arthur Ransome wrote. ‘If you’ll lay yourself aboard his starboard side, I’ll bring Swallow up on his port.’

To my everlasting regret, while some of the others managed to yell, ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’ my battle cry was, ‘Kill, kill!’ The script was pretty sketchy. I have the original and the re-writes, not that I saw either on the day.

This is the revised version of David Wood’s screenplay typed up on 16th June ~

And suddenly I was up on the roof of the houseboat with the Siamese flag~

Simon West and Sophie Neville on  Captian Flint's Houseboat

Simon West as Captain John and Sophie Neville as Titty taking Captain Flint’s Houseboat on Derwentwater : photo~ Daphne Neville

We loved capturing Ronald Fraser and of course making him walk the plank. He was very good about it. Here is the shot used for the cover of the 1977  VHS issue of the movie made available in the USA ~

A cover for the 1977 VHS copy of 'Swallows and Amazons' ~ US a version

Actually filming this was tricky. The entire film crew with all their equipment including two cameras, two huge reflector boards and a second costume for Ronald Fraser, had to be accommodated either on the house boat or other craft on the bay in Derwentwater. It was a squash.

Battle of Houseboat Bay ~ The film crew on Derwentwater

The film crew on Captin Flint’s Houseboat on Derwentwater. Ronald Fraser, with a rope around his chest, can just be seen between the reflector boards: photo~ Daphne Neville

The good thing was that by now we were all pretty experienced with the procedure of getting out to what amounted to an inaccessible location with no lavatories – and certainly no room for tea urns.

Battle of Houseboat Bay ~ The film crew record Captin Flint walking the plank

Director Claude Whatham stands on the plank whilst Bobby Sitwell and DoP Denis Lewiston prepare the 35mm Panavision camera on board the Houseboat: Photo~ Daphne Neville

My mother recorded quite a bit of 8mm cine footage that day, showing life behind the scenes ~

The scraggy looking man alone in a glass fibre boat with a paddle was the chap who drove the mobile lavatories from one location to another and yet managed to persuade the girls of Ambleside that he was producing the film.

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The lighthouse tree ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater 1st July 1973

Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West above Derwentwater in 1973

Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West above Derwentwater in 1973

‘It would make a superb lighthouse,’ but not for a good few years yet.  The scots pine planted by The Arthur Ransome Society on the northern end of Peel Island was growing well when I last paid it homage. I hope I don’t spoil the magic if I explain that the pine used in the 1973 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is on a promentary above Derwentwater.  An appropriate tree was chosen that overlooked the location we used for Houseboat Bay.

Captain John, played by Simon West, starts to climb the lighthouse tree at the Lookout Point: Photo ~ Daphne Neville

If you can avoid being distracted by Bavid Bracknell’s trendy two-tone trousers you can see a bit more of the lighthouse tree location with the lake beyond.  I’ve been told it is Friar’s Crag.  Can anyone tell me more  about the bay on Derwentwater where Captain Flint’s houseboat was moored for the film?

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker hanging the lantern. Claude Whatham sits beside the camera crew including Eddie Collins, Dennis Lewiston and Bobby Sitwell, whilst first assistant David Bracknell looks on: photo ~ Daphne Neville

As a child reading Swallows and Amazons I was always deeply impressed that Captain John managed to climb the pine tree in Arthur Ransome’s drawing. Simon West was able to use branches but he really did climb quite high.  The camerman had a scaffold tower.

Suzanna wrote that, ‘In the late afternoon the Amazons were filming on the pontoon. Kit wasn’t feeling well.’  Lesley was feeling a bit better. There was a ‘flu-like bug going around.  Neither of them look that well in the resultant photograph but they survived.

Kit Seymour as Nancy Blackett with Lesley Bennett playing her sister Peggy Blackett in Amazon, who is still sailing today.

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