The original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ featured in the Radio Times as Film of the Day on Sunday 30th August 2020

‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) starring Virginia McKenna was broadcast on BBC 2 on Sunday 30th August 2020, recalling the adventures of the Walker and Blackett families on a ‘Lake in the North’ in August 1929 before the school term began. Hailed as ‘The feel-good film of Lockdown’, it transports us back to a time of freedom, celebrating the beauty of the English Lake District. It is available on BBC iPlayer here.

You can watch a short re-mix here:

It was wonderful to see the feature film heralded as Film of the Day but Hilary Weston of The Arthur Ransome Society pointed out that there are a few errors in the write up.

Arthur Ransome wrote the novel ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1929, published on 1st December 1930. There are 12 books in the series, however only five are set in the Lake District. ‘Missee Lee’ sees the Swallows and Amazons exploring the South China sea with Captain Flint, while Dick and Dororthea join them all on the Sea Bear to cruise the Otter Hebrides in ‘Great Northern’. The 13th story in the series, an unfinished manuscript entitled ‘Coots in the North’, is set in Cumbria.

Props used in the original film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

Arthur Ransome died in 1967, aged 83, so was not around to see this feature film made. He had been grumpy about the 1963 BBC serial made in black and white, which starred Susan George as ‘Kitty’ (rather than Titty). His wife Evgenia was determined to avoid what they called a ‘Disneyfication’ of the books and kept a tight hold on the script, character names, locations and casting of Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 adaptation. As a result, David Wood’s screenplay adheres to the story and was approved by Mrs Ransome who gave the go ahead. On watching the finished film, her only adverse comment was that one of the kettles used was of the wrong period.

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker with Sten Grendon as Roger

Arthur Ransome’s father died when he was thirteen and the theme of fatherlessness flows though his books granting the young characters independence. In ‘Swallows and Amazons’ it is Nancy and Peggy, the Amazon pirates, who have no father.

Kit Seymour as Nancy & Lesley Bennett as Peggy Blackett sailing Amazon

The story opens when the four elder Walker children are given permission to sail off to camp on an island by their father who is absent, in Malta with the Navy, and sends the famous telegram: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN (with no apostrophe)

Swallows and Amazons
Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton receiving the telegram from Father.

Vicky, the fifth sibling and baby of the Walker family, keeps the Swallows’ mother at Holly Howe farm on the mainland. Tension is created after the Amazons let off a firework on their uncle’s houseboat while he is absorbed in his writing and ignoring them. He shook his fist at the crew of the Swallow assuming they were responsible for the damage and was labelled ‘Captain Flint’.

A Theatre Project by Richard Pilbrow

Richard Pilbrow describes in his memoir, ‘A Theatre Project’, how the idea of adapting ‘Swallows and Amazons’ came to him as he watched the sun set over Windermere one night when visiting the Lake District. He put the idea to Nat Cohen of EMI who was looking for a classic book adaptation similar to ‘The Railway Children’, which had been a box office success. Nat Cohen hadn’t heard of Arthur Ransome but his assistant loved his books and raved about the idea. EMI Films provided the initial budget of £250,000 although more was spent. It was directed by Claude Whatham who may well have been influenced by the Children’s Film Foundation but he was regarded as avant guard at the time and, like Richard, motivated by the beauty of the Lakes.

Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water
Producer Richard Pilbrow with Director Claude Whatham in Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water

The original poster for the film used an ampersand in the title graphics but this was lost as it was translated, sold worldwide and remastered. Someone who must love the old film said the error in the write up was that it was only given three stars. The DVD now has a 4.5 star rating on Amazon but it only gets 6.5 out of 10 on IMDb – the International Movie Data base, which is equivalent to three stars. You can add a review on this site here.

 

Mark Walker of the Arthur Ransome Group added: And they got the title of the article completely wrong. “Film of *Day*”, indeed..!! Film of the Year, Decade, Century, Millenium….any of the above could have been more appropriate..!!

If you would like to learn more about the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ there is now a paperback entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’  It can be ordered direct from the publishers and is available from Waterstones

A second edition of the ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons(1974), the first section of which you can read for free here.

 

Can you remember ‘Swallows & Amazons’ coming out in the cinema?

Swallows and Amazons at the Belfast Film Festival
‘Swallows & Amazons’ at the Belfast Film Festival ~ photo by Debbie Davidson who said, ‘We had a fab day watching the movie, reliving our childhood.’
The film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) was screened at the Belfast Film Festival. Curiously, the ‘Terms and Conditions of Entry’ specified:
 
  • CHILDREN UNDER 16 MUST BE ACCOMPANIED BY AN ADULT
  • NO GLASSWARE OR CANS PERMITTED ON SITE
  • NO BARBEQUES OR NAKED FLAMES
This was quite funny since, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is about children cooking on campfires, eating canned bully beef or ‘pemmican’ while swigging ‘grog’ out of bottles, as far as possible form adult supervision. However, the movie was actually shown outside last Saturday – on a huge screen under the trees opposite Belfast City Hall. ‘THIS OUTDOOR EVENT’, they declared, ‘WILL HAPPEN REGARDLESS OF WEATHER CONDITIONS’. Since the story is about camping this did seem apt but as you can see from the photograph above, it was an idyllic sunny summer’s day.
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Ronald Fraser walking the plank
Ronald Fraser walking the plank in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

‘How lovely…we love seeing this wonderful film.’ Gerry Spiller, Suffolk’

My Mother took me to see the film when it was first released, it was in a double bill with ‘Born Free’, which also had Virginia McKenna in. In those days you could just sit in the cinema and see the film again if you wanted to. We did.’  Jon Ford

‘Ok, a confession. When I was twelve I was a spoilt little brat. My parents had decided to take my brothers and I out for a surprise. I refused to go until I was told what it was as I hated surprises. My parents wouldn’t tell me so I very nearly didn’t go. I went only after being told by my big brother that if I didn’t he would hit me. The surprise? A trip to the cinema to see Swallows and Amazons! ‘ Marc Grimston, Author

‘Can’t believe how long ago it was. I remember going to see the film at the Aylesbury Odeon and loving it.’ Kate Pearson

‘… the first film I saw in a cinema, Swallows & Amazons, ABC Colchester April 1974. Cinema now a pub.’ Fabian Breckels on Twitter

It was on at the local cinema. My son was too young to go so I offered to take a neighbour’s child on condition that the neighbour’s older child baby-sat for me.’ Janet Mearns

‘One of my all time favourite films. Watched it just the other day in fact. I never seem tire of it. Especially after a trip to the Lakes.’ John Heath

 

Nancy and Peggy on Wild Cat Island
Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour as the Amazons when filming in 1973
‘I don’t know why we missed it when it was first shown (I was six at the time)…  it came back to the cinema for another showing a few years later and the place was almost empty, so it felt as if they’d put it on specially for us.’ David Cooper

Rather like David, missed it as a child. Which makes me rather sad in retrospect. Had no idea it existed until I discovered it through ‘Google’! a few years ago. I now have two copies of it on DVD.’ Paul Thomas

‘I was 11 when the film came out and I was already a huge S&A fan. I loved the film and you, well Titty really, she became my first ever crush. Thank you for the excellent portrayal of Titty. Thanks also on behalf of my own daughters who also fell in love with the film, probably due to my regular screenings!’ Mike Embleton

swa_co_tra_ 008
Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville on Derwentwater in 1973
‘I finally got to see it while we stayed at Bank Ground Farm our first visit to England. Loved it, cried over it, was delighted to finally see it after many years of sharing a love of Swallows & Amazons books with my mother, my sisters & my children! Mrs. Batty kindly put it on for us to watch in the farmhouse living room.’ Elizabeth Rondthaler Jolley, USA

It was two years ago in my 36th year. I found it somewhere on internet after I have read the first (book) to my son. And then we watched together. It was perfect. In Czech republic where I live, Ransome was in my childhood one of the most favourite authors.’ Jiri Precek, Romania

‘In June 1973 I was 9 months into my 3 year teacher training course at Didsbury Teacher Training College…
It was not for many years – probably 15 that I contacted Cape for info about locations – still have the reply !!’
Martin Robinson

John and his Flagship with Nancy and Peggy
Sten Grendon, Simon West, Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett on Peel Island 1973
‘I was 9 in 1974 and saw the film about four times that summer (I think it was shown with Born Free as a double feature) and I had a huge crush on Lesley Bennett! (Where is she now?) I read all the books several times over during the 70’s . Reading your memories made me re-read the book and watch the film for the first time since the 70’s and I have to say the film holds up very well!’ Richard Meads, Worthing, West Sussex

The DVD reviewer Stuart McLean writes: ‘The cast were pretty much the same age as me in 1973 (when it was filmed) and I remember enjoying this tremendously when it came out in 1974, forty years ago. Back then, the idea that four school-kids could take off in a boat for days at a time with no life-jackets seemed perfectly plausible. These days it would be cause for 24 hour rolling news reports.’ Please click here to read on.

Simon Hodkin first went to see  Swallows & Amazons in Wales some forty years ago. He kept a scrapbook full of souvenirs, including a letter from Arthur Ransome.

 

Can you remember the first time you saw the film?  Please add to the Comments box.

To watch a filmbeat interview about making the film please click here

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