An editor at the Sunday Telegraph magazine asked me recently,
‘Don’t all child actors get into drink and drugs?’
Not I, said the fly. I’m afraid I was far too Swallows and Amazons-ish and sensible. And I lived deep in the countryside, out of the reach of dealers looking for kids with a little bit of money.
Simon West told me that spent the money he earned from appearing in films and television on sailing dinghies. It was a good investment. At the age of about fifteen he won the British Championships in what must have been the new fibreglass model of Optimist. Until that time they had been constructed of plywood.
I remember that Suzanna Hamilton spent the extra cash she was given from being brave about swimming in Coniston Water on a Swiss Army penknife. I had never seen one before. She cut her finger so badly making arrows from hazel saplings with the Property Master that the director banned her from using it. I was rather envious of her scar.
Suzanna wrote to tell me:
‘I wasn’t allowed to spend much of my money until I bought an extremely good oboe. A few pounds (were spent) on some budgies (one lovely male named Ransome and one named Rio – a flighty female). She was a bad influence and they both flew out the window in the end. Ransome used to sit on my head very happily when I only had him.’
We really didn’t earn that much back in 1973, but all children dream of what they could do if they had a little bit of cash. Sten Grendon told me that he spent some of his first BBC fee on a bike. All he wanted to do with his earning from appearing in Swallows & Amazons was to buy the biggest Lego set in the world. His father found one for £20 and put the rest into a savings account.
Any money I made from being in films was immediately locked up in Barclay’s Unicorn Unit Trusts. My riding teacher tried to persuade Mum to let me buy a decent horse I could use to compete with. A very beautiful Palamino was offered. This wasn’t a bad idea, as I would have gained skills and confidence, although I couldn’t see myself as a British Champion.
Instead I eventually spent my savings on a ticket to Australia where I took a boat up Sydney Harbour and I learnt to dive on the Great Barrier Reef.
I had just finished directing a drama-documentary that featured children at a west London school. Whilst we were busy filming in the art room a teacher rushed in to tell us not to let anyone go outside. Drug addicts had been mugging kids crossing the playing fields for their dinner money. I was obliged to pay the eleven-year-olds who took the lead roles by sending their parents a decent set of professional photographs. Paying them in cash was too risky.
You can read more about what it was like to find ourselves in such extraordinary circumstances in The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons, available as an ebook from all the online retailers or in the paperback entitled, ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’.
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:
When I look back on our lives as they were forty years ago I can’t help smiling. Whilst one is impacted by fashions that were too unfortunate to be revived – those collars we thought so groovy – other things haven’t changed at all. I don’t think sailing shoes or jean jackets have ever been out of circulation.
In July 1973 Claude Whatham, pictured above in his Levis, had my sisters and I in a series of three Weetabix commercials that depicted life in 1933, forty years before, when the Great British breakfast cereal was first launched on the market. There seemed to have been a wider difference between the thirties and children’s lives in the seventies than in the last forty years. But am I right?
Whilst we had never seen stocks of corn until we went on the set especially constructed for the advertisement, Percy Baxter had made them himself back in 1933 when he lived and worked on the Cotswold hills.
The Land Rover in this behind-the-scenes shot could the same vehicle used on a film set today.
Meanwhile, my mother was presenting her afternoon television programme for HTV West called ‘Women Only’ – dressed in her Donny Osmond hat. I would happily wear her suede coat today and can often be seen in the hat. The lace-up boots looked good recently with a Wonder Woman fancy dress outfit but were terribly uncomfortable. My sister still hasn’t forgiven me for giving them away.
As always, well made things of quality have endured, and those faithful goods from Land Rovers to Levi jeans, Puffin Books and Weetabix are, thankfully, still being produced.
I have been sent a newspaper clipping dated 15th June 1973, which appears to have been published in The Mirror, a national daily newspaper here in the UK. It describes a scene shot for Swallows & Amazons (1974) that was never used in the finished film and proved something of a discovery for me.
Whilst on their way to visit the charcoal-burners, Captain John shows the crew of the Swallow how to lay a patteran, a secret gypsy sign, usually made from twigs or vegetation, to point the way. I remember the scene from Arthur Ransome’s book with affection but I have no recollection of filming this in the Lake District.
~ click on the image to enlarge ~
I do recall that our director, Claude Whatham would take us on a quick run just before shooting a scene so that we would be both energised and genuinely breathless as we delivered our lines. I expect it was his secret way of obtaining natural performances out of us children. Here we can be seen in rehearsal wearing our Harry Potter-like nylon track-suit tops for warmth, while the big old 35mm Panavision camera was tilted down on us. Claude can be seen holding the script we never read. We were much more interested in the patterans.
Claude loved running. When he retired from film making he would regularly run around Anglesey in North Wales, where he lived, covering miles each day even in his early eighties. I have always been more excited about galumphing, the art of running down hill, taking leaps as you go to cover more ground. Arthur Ransome must have tried this as a boy on holiday in the Lake District as he has the Swallows galumphing like anything at this stage in the story, on their way back from visiting the charcoal-burners. They get so carried away that some of them miss the patterans that had been so carefully laid on their way up the hill. There must simply have not been enough time to include this detail in the finished movie. I wonder if the original footage still exists.
While I had been at home with my family, Claude Whatham had been busy in the film editing suite putting ‘Swallows and Amazons’ together with Michael Bradsell. They had previously worked together on ‘That’ll be the Day’. Our Continuity supervisor Sue Merry must have known Michael too, as he’d edited Ken Russell’s film ‘The Boyfriend’. Claude found that they definitely needed the sequence when the Walker children run up to the Peak at Darien and see Wild Cat Island for the very first time.
It is the scene that heralds the start of the adventure and indeed the opening titles of the movie. Richard Pilbrow had always wanted it to be shot at Friar’s Craig on Derwent Water. There is a postcard of this headland with notes written on it by Arthur Ransome who labelled it for the first illustrator of the Jonathan Cape edition of the book, and it seemed just right for the Peak of Darien despite being a long way from Bank Ground Farm. Although there had been two attempts made to record the handful of shots needed as the evening light lit up the islands across the water, we had always been held up and reached the spot too late in the day.
Richard must have already been over budget but the money was found to mount a pick-up shoot at Runnymede near Egham in Surrey one Saturday at the beginning of September. We were told that King John signed the Magna Carta under an oak tree there.
We loved the idea of meeting up again. Claude said he made an effort to get as many members of the same crew together as possible so it wouldn’t seem strange but it was a big unit.
The one thing that was striking was how much our hair had grown. We all needed a trim. Sten needed a full hair cut. Luckily Ronnie Cogan was free.
Neville Thompson had even managed to book the same Make-up caravan. It was here that Peter Robb-King the make-up designer toned down our summer tans in an effort to match the skins of the pale Walker children who’d been sitting in the railway compartment with their mother at the beginning of the film.
The ironic thing was that it was Make-up that held us up when we were first failed to record the scene in the Lake District. It took so long for Peter Robb-King to sponge down all four of us with pale foundation that the sun had set before we arrived on location. I can remember my mother hurrying him along, claiming it was ridiculous as it was too dark to see our freckles anyway. I was keen on the importance of continuity and had contradicted her. Claude couldn’t believe how long it had taken us to change. He had been furious when we turned up late but tried hard not to let us think it had been the fault of us children.
There was no Peak of Darien at the farm in Surrey, but a field had been found where we could run up to an oak tree. We just had to pretend we were looking out over the lake.
If you click on the shot below it should take you to a post I wrote on the opening locations of the film. Scroll down and you’ll see the shot of us running down the meadow at Bank Ground farm. This was the shot Claude had to cut from to the sequence that we were currently filming. Scroll right down to the end of the post and you’ll see me on Friar’s crag looking exhausted after a long day’s filming. I am so glad we were not able to continue that day.
Although he had a freelance camera operator in a stripy shirt who we did not know, we met our Director of Photography Denis Lewiston who was setting up the shot with Claude under the oak tree, using a 35mm Arriflex camera on ‘short legs’.
If you click on the photo above you should get to a Post written about a location that was set on Derwentwater near Friar’s Crag – or on part of Friar’s crag that will give you an idea of what the real Peak of Darien would look like. However, the day in September in Egham was hotter than any day we’d experienced in Cumbria. Claude was soon wearing my straw hat.
If you click on the photo above it will take you to the day on 8th July when we had tried and failed to shoot this scene despite rushing around.
Although we look a bit hot and stiff in these photographs that my mother took when we were lining up the shots I think that the movie was probably made by this scene. We had learnt how to magic-up performances by this stage. If you watch the finished film our faces can be seen glowing with excitement. This was also partly because we were happy to be together again, on a sunny day in a lovely place.
I’ve just realised this image of Titty, clutching her school hat as she looked out over an entirely imaginary lake, was the last actual shot recorded. Soon my close-up was ‘in the can’ and ‘a wrap’ was called. It had been the 1003rd slate of the movie. We celebrated with tins of Fanta rather than champagne.
Since the first shot in the compartment of the steam train as it travelled between Haverthwaite Station and Windermere, recorded back in May, I had put on about seven pounds and grown taller than my elder brother and sister.
I can’t help thinking that this photograph is symbolic of the futures we were to step into. Sten Grendon is holding an apple, Suzanna seems to have a framed photograph and I’d been given a roll of camera tape. What Simon West is holding is something of a mystery, but it is tightly clasped.
Soon it was time to go. We changed back into our own clothes and said goodbye.But it wasn’t long before we saw Claude again. Once he’d finished editing the film we were called to the work on the sound. The movie was still in the making.
I didn’t know that we would spend that Sunday cooking on the camp fire.
I didn’t know that Virginia had come up with her husband Bill Travers.
I still don’t know how Lee Electric managed to get so many lights working out on Peel Island. I can’t remember having them for any other scene. They must have had the generator on the bank and run cables under the water. It looks as if it was a pretty dark day. It was wonderful having the flood lights – they kept us warm.
There was a hushed reverence when Virginia McKenna was on set. Gone were the saucepan jokes. Funny really, as it was frying-pan scene. ‘I waited til no-one was looking and jumped out of the pot and escaped!’ The pemmican potato cakes she made me were delicious. And very hot.
Working with Virginia and Arthur Ransome’s dialogue was altogether an exercise in charm, or managing charm. I hope I didn’t over-cook it. I was rather pre-occupied by my loose tooth but loved being involved in a proper scene around the camp fire.
Then Virginia was gone and I was a saucepan once more. A saucepan now with a very wiggly tooth indeed. Saucepan-lid, kid. No more lights. I was sitting up a tree above Coniston Water in my navy blue knickers, and descended feeling a bit like Pooh Bear.
It is still there, the mossy tree. You can climb it.