The classic movie of Swallows & Amazons is often broadcast on BBC TV. If you would like to know more about how the film was made you can find the details on this site or leave any questions in the comments box below.
To read about our first day’s filming at Haverthwaite Railway Station click here and keep reading.
Do you know what lake we were on in the photograph below? We were busy loading urns of tea into a run-around boat to take out to the film crew who might have been on Cormorant Island. If you click on the photo you will get to the page of my diary, kept in June 1973, which describes this day.
There are still many questions about the making of the movie that remain unanswered.
This shot was taken while setting up the scene at Peel Island when Captain Flint brings Sammy the Policeman to question the Swallows. If you click on the photo you will find the photograph that the journalist ended up with. Titty’s hand is still on Captain Flint’s arm.
Making a movie is very different from watching one. Here is a record of Titty rehearsing the shot when she moves the camping equipment for fear of a tidal wave. It was a cold day on Coniston Water. The jersey came off when they went for a take.
Here you can see Lesley Bennett, playing Peggy Blackett, careening Amazon at Beckfoot. The same 35mm Panavision camera was focused on Kit Seymour, playing Captain Nancy.
The location used for Beckfoot and the Amazon boathouse can be found at Brown Howe on the western bank of Coniston Water. If you click on the photograph of Peggy you can read more about what happened that day.
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You can read the full story about the making of Swallows and Amazons here:
Monday morning on Derwentwater in the Lake District and we had no lessons. The Cumbrian schools had broken-up for the summer holidays, so we were free to play, or as freely as you can be when you are wearing a costume that can not under any circumstances get wet or dirty.
Although Claude Whatham was operating with a skeleton crew our wardrobe master Terry Smith was still getting us into the right kit for each scene. My mother said that he either got muddled or distracted at one point as a whole sequence was shot with all of us wearing the wrong costumes. It caused quite a fuss. It would have been expensive in time and money. She thought he had been given the sack, but this doesn’t appear to have been the case.
One of the secrets of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is that, on this day, Terry Smith adapted Ronald Fraser’s costume and white colonial pith helmet for our property master Bob Hedges to wear. It was he that fired the cannon on the houseboat.
Clive Stewart of the Keswick Launch Co. was one of a number of Cumbrian boatman who worked on the support crew for the filming of Swallows and Amazons in 1973. They played a vital role not only ferrying us to the location but acting as safety boats and keeping modern boats out of shot. They were certainly busy once the wind got up on this particular day. Claude Whatham handed over the direction of montage sequence of the Swallows’ first voyage to the island to David Blagden, our sailing director. At last we had the sun and wind for it – if not too much wind. By now were were pretty experienced but the little ship was challenged to the full as wind gusted down from Cat Bells.
Suzanna Hamilton wrote in her diary that, ‘…it was very rough. We thought we were going to do a Chinese jibe but it was OK. We sailed the whole length of the lake.’ What must have been tricky for Simon West was that he had Denis Lewiston, the lighting-cameraman, on board with a 16mm camera, as well as all our clumsy camping equipment. You can see me heaving the crockery basket past the camera on the movie. The result was probably the most exciting sequence in the film, or so my father later declared.
Jean McGill, our unit nurse and driver, was ever around to scoop us up and keep everyone cheerful when we came in feeling a bit chilly.
In the evening Richard Pilbrow, his girl-friend Molly Friedel and his assistant Liz Lomax came up to our guesthouse in Ambleside to show us the cine footage they took on the sailing weekend that had been the final audition for our parts. This had taken place in March at sailing town of Burnham-on-Crouch in the Maldon District of Essex when were stayed on board a moored vessel and went out sailing with David Blagden in quite grey, chilly weather. The conditions had been pretty rough then. I remember telling Claude that we ‘helmed like anything’. I felt terribly embarrassed later when I realised that ‘helmed’ was not exactly what I had meant to say but I don’t think Claude was familiar with sailing terminology at the time. He would have like the spirit of what I said.
It had been choppy but none of our days had been as rough as David Blagden’s Atlantic crossing, famously made in his tiny orange-hulled 19 foot yacht Willing Griffin. I wonder if the footage of this still exists?
Richard Pilbrow must put me right on this, but the theory is that he acquired Swallow that weekend. We were told at the London Boat Show that she was originally the all-purpose run-around dinghy built by and for William King & Sons’ boatyard at Burnham-on-Crouch in the 1930s. She has the initials WK carved on her transom. They designed her well – a stable little ship with plenty of room inside and no centre-board to worry about. You can see detailed photographs of her on the Sailing Swallow website.
Ronald Fraser with Wardrobe Master Terry Smith being transported to the Houseboat played by The Lady Derwentwater
My diary entry for 24th June 1973 is not exactly revealing. As it was raining steadily in the Lake District, I was given a second day off. ‘We had a quirte morning,’ I wrote. I am sure I needed one. After a heavy week’s filming I’d spent the official ‘Unit Day Off’ writing five end-of-year exam papers, answering correspondence from school friends and going to Kit Seymour’s thirteenth Birthday party. I must have been exhausted. Legally I was meant to have two days off a week. This was the first time it had been possible.
Suzanna Hamilton’s diary adds little more, but my mother was on set, as was a journalist from The Guardian, so I can tell you what happened. I can even tell you what the location caterers from Pinewood cooked that day: Melon, followed by roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, boiled or roast potatoes, peas and carrots with apple crumble or tinned peaches served with custard or evaporated milk. It was a Sunday. Suzanna noted that we had ‘salad for super’, her favorite food.
“The houseboat has been converted from a pleasure steamer,” wrote Michael McNay in the Features section of The Guardian, “the whole of the superstructure fore faked up by props, the cabin aft converted into a retired colonist’s sittingroom – African rug, flowery curtains, assegais on the walls, an ebony elephant with silver howdah and trappings, a walnut wireless cabinet, tall brass oil lamps, a pile of 78rpm records, a silver mounted cricket ball (presented to G.Gumbleton, 1899, for the highest individual score of the season), a chest, a writing desk and an ancient upright Imperial.” I have typed this up exactly as it was published on 7th July 1973.
By props, I don’t think Michael McNay meant pit-props. He was talking about the work of the design team headed by Simon Holland. Ian Whittaker, who later won an Oscar for set dressing, helped Simon to create Captain Flint’s cabin with one of the Prop men who is photographed here. Does anyone know his name? I think it might be Terry Wells. I expect the cane chairs and side table were being temporally stored on the roof when this snap shot was taken so as to make space for camera and lights. The gaffer and camera crew would have been in the process of setting up inside the cabin. Sound would not have settled in yet. How do I know that after all these years? I can see the recordist’s arm at the left of the photograph. I still remember his coat.
“Ronald Fraser, alias Uncle Jim, is tapping away at a book.” Michael continues. “Last minute panic: who can type out quickly a folio of copy to leave nonchantly in the roller?” That would have been Sue Merry, the continuity girl. The first scene was probably the one in which Uncle Jim is typing with the green parrot on his shoulder when a firework goes off on his cabin roof. I wonder if Arthur Ransome had ever been disturbed by the Altounyan children in such a way. Did he use an Imperial typewriter?
The film crew were on location on Derwentwater. “By now, the houseboat has been moved and moored to the western shore just off a promontory that is being faked up as one end of Wild Cat Island.” The houseboat, really one of the stars of the movie, was being played by a long-time resident of Cumbria, The Lady Derwentwater. A 56 foot motor launch, owned by the Keswick Launch Company since 1935, she returned to real life after the filming, rather like I did. She still carries up to 90 passengers. You can go out on her today.
My father, who is keen on steamboats, had been off to find the real houseboat that Arthur Ransome had in mind. Am I right in thinking this must have been the original Gondola? I expect she was too un-seaworthy for the production team to contemplate using in 1973. A reliable, water-tight boat that could be towed into the location used for Houseboat Bay was needed. Last year we went to see TSSY Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in Cumbria, which is another Victorian steam yacht envisaged by Ransome as a possible model for Captain Flint’s houseboat. It is a beauty but we did get a better view of the lake from of the cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater.
“The rain has stopped, the mist is lifting from the 1,500 foot ridge of Cat Bells. Fraser climbs gingerly aboard, awkward in co-respondent’s brown and white shoes, rosy make-up and moves into the aft cabin.” McNay continues. He is describing the main scene to be shot that day. “John, alias Simon West, is in a rowing boat 15 feet away… The problem this time is that the rowing boat has to remain anchored but look as though Simon is pulling steadily in towards the houseboat and the anchor rope has to remain hidden.” This must have been so that Swallow could be lined up accurately and remain in focus for the camera. It is one of the secrets of making the film that I have been asked about directly.
“Simon shows Claude Whatham how he’ll manage it. Quick rehearsal inside the cabin. Ronald Fraser on his knees by the chest folding a white pullover, catches sight of approaching boat, mimes angry surprise. Told not to jerk head so far back. Instead jerks eyebrows up. The cabin is no more than eight foot by ten and contains besides Fraser and the props, four men on a camera, one on lights, and the continuity girl.” McNay had not included Claude the director, who I know would have squeezed in since these were the days before monitors from the camera feed. And he was small. The sound recordist was bigger but may have just planted a microphone on the desk.
“On the small aft deck Pilbrow is for the next few minutes going to be redundant.” This is Richard Pilbrow, who now lives in Conneticut and I am sure will read this post. “He is a mild, inoffensive looking man producing his first film. He is 40… looks like your friendly local antiques dealer. He and Whatham are a good team: Whatham is slight, energetic and calm. He has time, even as a sequence is being set up, to ask the Press if they can see enough of what’s going on from the crampt aft deck of the houseboat. It’s a cheerful crew, (Denis Lewiston the DOP) watching clouds overhead with benign suspicion, taking light meter readings inside and out-side the cabin every 30 seconds.
‘Action,’ said quietly into the cabin.
‘ACTION,’ across the lake to Simon. The clapperboard shows 461 take 1. Fraser folds the pullover, looks up, jerks eyebrows in angry surprise, camera swings round to follow Fraser’s gaze through the window, Simon pulls on left oar, keeps the rope hidden.
‘Once more please. Stand by. Action. ACTION (461 take 3) …. CUT.’
There’s a consensus that the third take was best. Ten minute break while the succeeding sequence is prepared: Fraser rushes out on deck and tells Simon to clear off. That too is filmed in triplicate. The time is 12.45. They started work at 6.30, began filming at 12.25 and they’ve got maybe 45 seconds in the can. Everybody seems pleased.”
You can read more about the adventures had making the original film of Swallows and Amazons in any one of these editions of Sophie Neville’s filmography available from Amazon and all the other usual places. You can read a little more about them on this website here.