Celebrities who love ‘Swallows and Amazons’

When Jonathan Cape first published Swallows and Amazons on 21st July 1930 for the price of 7/6d, it was eagerly received by numerous authors including JRR Tolkein and AA Milne. I’m often asked which well known people alive today have expressed an interest in Arthur Ransome’s series of books.

Griff Rhys Jones, who presented The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome using clips of the 1974 film of Swallows & Amazons in which I played Titty, joined me at Pin Mill in Suffolk for a marathon reading We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, the book that tells of the Swallows’ hair-raising voyage to Flushing. You can find Griff’s books here.

Griff Rhys Jones at Pin Mill for a reading of ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea’

John Sergeant, the veteran newscaster, has made a number of documentaries about Arthur Ransome, chatting to Griff on The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome, and The Secret Life of Books.

Geraint Lewis of The Arthur Ransome Trust sailing with John Sergeant

Ben Fogle interviewed Suzanna Hamilton and myself on Countryfile and Big Screen Britain after exploring the locations around Coniston Water. You can watch the episode here.

Ben Fogle interviewing Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville on Countryfile

Libby Purves, author and broadcaster, is now President of The Arthur Ransome Society. She refers to Swallows and Amazons in at least one of her novels.

Libby Purves afloat

A keen sailor, she also took part in the marathon reading of We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea organised by The Nancy Blackett Trust who own and look after Goblin, the yacht portrayed in the story.

Libby Purves reading ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’

Dame Ellen McArthur, yachtswoman and Patron of The Nancy Blackett Trust, claims that Arthur Ransome’s novels inspired her to sail. She gives Swallows and Amazons a good mention in her book Taking on the World. Ellen was portrayed by Suzanna Hamilton in a Stephen Sharkey play at a festival at the Southall Playhouse. Suzanna played Susan Walker in the 1974 film of Swalllows and Amazons.

Sir Richard Branson often says how much he loved the book as a boy, describing it as, “a lovely kids’ adventure book.” I met him years ago when I worked on The Russell Harty Show. To may amazement, he recognised me when I was filming in the street in Kensington, so perhaps he has watched the original film of Swallows and Amazons.

John McCarthy, the journalist and keen sailor, made a radio programme called Paddling with Peter Duck, sailing Swallow, the dinghy featured in the 1974 film. You can sail her yourself via SailRansome.com

Peter Willis on Ransome’s yacht Nancy Blackett with Kevin Dawson and John McCarthy

Theresa May said she loves Swallows and Amazons. ‘When she was young she appears to have enjoyed reading… listing… Swallows and Amazons among her favourites.’ Mirror and Daily Mail She gave a copy to Baroness Davidson, once leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.

Dame Judi Dench also read the book as a girl: “…Swallows and Amazons, I remember that very well indeed.” Good Housekeeping

David Dimbleby loves gaff-rigged boats and recently helped with PR at the London Boat Show. He visited us on the set of the BBC Drama serial Swallows and Amazons For Ever! filmed on location in Norfolk.

Sophie Neville with David Dimbleby on location in Norfolk back in 1983

Sir Ben Ainslie ~ Steven Morris of the Guardian reports: “He recalled how he started sailing in Cornwall on the creeks around Falmouth as a boy. Ainslie has called it a Swallows and Amazons kind of childhood. He had friends on the other side of the creek so he sailed over to see them.”

Ben lived in Lymington – and came to our club to celebrate after the Olympics.  

Congratulating Ben Ainslie on his Olympic gold medal

Nikki Henderson, the youngest ever Clipper Around The World yachtswoman was inspired by the book Swallows and Amazons naming Swallow and one of the coolest sailing boats ever in Yachting World as reported by the Nancy Blackett Trust.

Alan Smith of BBC Radio 4, appeared as a boy in the scenes shot at Bowness. He was on location at the Haverthwaite Railway Station in May 1973 on the first day of filming Swallows and Amazons(1974) with Virginia McKenna who starred in the film as Mrs Walker. To read more, please click here.

Alan Smith in the doorway of the train with his friend John Eccles

Miranda Hart (Miranda, Call the Midwife, Not Going Out) “Oh, I love these wonderful stories about outdoor life in one of the most beautiful parts of our country – the Lake District. Camping, sailing, exploring, discovering – it’s still the stuff of dreams for me. My favourite character was Peggy. She was shy and a little nervy but always kept up with her sister, who was captain of their boat. It was rather like me and my sister; although I was the elder, I was the shyer one, and often had to rely on my little sis to do the grown-up things. And I have to say Peggy is my favourite character still, because that’s partly who my dog is named after. I love that this book celebrates the importance and joy of friendship. But above all it harks back to a time when children had to use nature and their imagination to have fun through the long summer holidays. No iPads on tap here. I hope it inspires kids and adults who may have forgotten about the bliss and thrill and beauty of nature to rediscover it.” You magazine.

The list continues in the next post here.

The end-title theme music to ‘Swallows and Amazons’ composed by Wilfred Josephs

You can read about The Making of Swallows and Amazons in paperback or on Kindle. The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons is available on all the ebook platforms. There is a review here.

The Making of Swallows and Amazons by Sophie Neville
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ by Sophie Neville

‘Man Friday!’ found in the pages of an old copy of Lancashire Life

Virginia McKenna rowing
The 2014 Blu-ray of  ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (c) StudioCanal

This shot of Virginia McKenna valiantly playing Man Friday, was taken as she rowed away from what I had decided was a desert island. It was 1973 and we were filming on Coniston Water in the Lake District. She was playing my mother, concerned about leaving a small girl alone as the evening drew in. I’ve been set a copy of Lancashire Life, published in 1974, which describes the filming at length. Quite fun. You can see a still of Man Friday and I cooking Pemmican cakes for supper on the camp fire, top right.

Lancashire Life May 1974 - S&A2 - lr

Being awarded an OBE in 2004 for services to wildlife and the arts, Virginia has since become a national treasure. She will quickly deny this but you will find photographs of her at the National Gallery, along with Suzanna Hamilton, who played her daughter – and my sister, Susan in Swallows & Amazons (1974).

NPG x126895; Stars of the British Screen by Norman Parkinson
‘Stars of the British Screen’ by Norman Parkinson. Virginia McKenna sits bottom centre, Suzanna Hamilton bottom right, either side of Susannah York.

Having just celebrated her 84th birthday Virginia has also been heralded as one who inspires others. I concur. ‘Do one thing at a time,’ was her advice to me, ‘Otherwise you can’t do anything well.’

Virginai McKenna with an Oscar

Virginia has appeared in over thirty feature films, numerous television dramas and many fascinating documentaries. She won a  BAFTA Award for Best British Actress in ‘A Town Like Alice’ and was nominated Best Actress by BAFTA for playing Violette Szabo in the WWII story Carve Her Name With Pride.’. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Joy Adamson inBorn Free’ , which won the composer John Barry two Academy awards. She is still happy to work as an actress, soon to appear in ‘Golden Years’ with Simon Callow and her granddaughter, Lily Travers.

Virginin McKenna with Born Free composer John Barry
Virginia McKenna with ‘Born Free’ composer John Barry

If you interview her now, Virginia is more likely to talk about wildlife than acting. She uses her name to promote kindness. And to stop the slaughter of elephants. One of her latest missions is to urge schools to teach children about conservation. She has recently become patron of  Shropshire Cat Rescue’s Purr project. Arthur Ransome helped finance a similar project himself.

Virginia McKenna in Mail on Saturday 214

2015 marks the thirty-first anniversary of the Born Free Foundation, which Virginia established with her son Will Travers to help big cats and other large mammals held in captivity. She still travels the world to raise awareness and alleviate suffering, drawing on all she learned from George Adamson whilst filming Born Free in Kenya back in 1966, and An Elephant Called Slowly in 1970. You can read more about her work by clicking here.

Virginia McKenna onthe cover of Saga Magazine

Virginia has written about her career and conservation work in a number of books including Into the Blue and an autobiography entitled The Life in My Years available online from the Born Free shop.

Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001
Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001

42 years ago we were filming with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in the Lake District.

To read the sections of my diary on filming Swallows & Amazons please see:

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