StudioCanal, who distribute the 1974 feature film of Swallows & Amazons (U), have a huge treat in store for film fans:
“40th Anniversary Restoration of SWALLOWS & AMAZONS, starring Virginia McKenna and based on Arthur Ransome’s classic novel, will be released on brand new Special Edition DVD and first ever Blu-ray release on 4th August! Pre-order your copy here: amzn.to/1pmF7fe. Special anniversary screenings will be taking place – ”
The Hackney PictureHouse will host the first London screening with Q&A by me, Sophie Neville, on Thursday 31st July at 11.00am. Please click here for details. Do join us!
It has been a difficult secret to keep. Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and I were interviewed for the DVD extras, which I believe also feature Christina Hardyment exploring the film locations this summer while imparting information about Arthur Ransome who drew on his own childhood holidays in the Lake District to add detail and authenticity to the original story.
The 16mm behind-the-scenes footage that my parents took when they were with us on location back in 1973 was handed over to the technicians to use in the extras package. I haven’t seen the finished version yet, although I did record a commentary to explain what was going on.
Arthur Ransome first visited the Lake District as a tiny baby. He said that his father, ‘carried me up to the top of Coniston Old Man at such an early age that I think no younger human being can ever have been there.’ Thereafter the family traveled up by train every summer, from 1884 – 1897, to stay on the Swainson’s farm at High Nibthwaite at the southern end of Coniston Water.
The four children were allowed to run wild in the hills or slide down the knickerbocker-breaker rocks above the farm whilst their mother painted and their father fished the River Crake. They had the use of a rowing boat, which they would take a mile up the lake to Peel Island for a picnic.
I’d love to take my family to spend a week at Low Water End, a holiday cottage at the southern tip of Coniston Water, which has boats, lake frontage and a small slipway.
Another lovely place to stay is Hill Top Farm, a traditional Lakeland house built in the 1700s and now owned by Martin Altounyan, son of Roger Altounyan and grandson of Dora Collingwood who was such a great friend of Arthur Ransome’s. They say you can see the Crake estuary from the garden. It is near Penny Bridge village, four miles from Coniston Water and just three miles away from Hill Top at Haverthwaite where Arthur Ransome lived at the end of his life.
As a young man Ransome escaped from London for a holiday in Coniston village and found himself invited to stay nearby at Lanehead by WG Collingwood, Dora’s father. Ransome writes in his autobiography that had originally meet the family in 1896 on Peel Island. ‘Mrs Collingwood told me that she remembered that meeting on the island and her surprise that my mother, who was a very pretty young woman, could have a family of such very ugly children.’
By 1904 Arthur Ransome was being taught to sail by Dora, Barbara, and Robin Collingwood in a heavy old dinghy called Swallow that they were able to take out on Coniston Water. He later stayed at Low Yewdale at the north end of Coniston, which I believe still offers Bed and Breakfast or a self-catering cottage. Ransome would set up ‘a tent on a small mound close to Yewdale Beck a hundred yards up the valley’ so that he could sleep outside when it was fine. In her guide-book,In the Footsteps of the Swallows and Amazons Claire Kendall-Price shows you how you can walk from Low Yewdale to Ambleside via The Drunken Duck, a pub you can now stay at that I believe Ransome visited.
It is easy to see how all this experience, the houses Ransome loved and places he knew of since childhood were poured into his Swallows and Amazons series of books. You will have to tell me which of his stories were written here:
After many adventures in Russia and the Baltic, Arthur Ransome bought his second wife Evgenia to live at Low Ludderburn on Cartmell Fell above Windermere where they lived from 1925 until 1935. He loved the work room made for him at the top of the grey barn outside. They moved to Suffolk for a while but returned during WWII to live at The Heald, which overlooks Coniston Water.
It was here that Ransome wrote The Picts and The Martyrs. They had a jetty there where he kept his boat Coch-y-bonddhu, which is used as the model for the Scarab, a sailing dinghy bought for Dick and Dorothea Callum in the novel. The gardener’s cottage to The Heald has recently been rebuilt and is for sale.
In their later years, the Ransome’s loved at Hill Top Farm near Ealingshearth, where the views are stunning. It has been renovated but retains many of the original features.
The Amazon’s time had come. In the script, the short scene where Nancy and Peggy careen their dinghy is set in the Amazon boathouse, but Claude Whatham shot them scrubbing the underside of their dinghy on the lakeside with Beckfoot behind. Nancy threw a bucket of water over him for his pains. It was a complete accident. She actually chucked the water onto the bottom of the boat but it splashed back. He was squatting below the camera to the bottom right and got well and truly soaked by what must have been very cold, lake water. Kit Seymour roared with laughter and he took in it good spirit but only up to a point. I don’t think he had anything else to wear.
I was a conscientious child and keen not to fall behind with my school work. Children under the age of sixteen have to be issued with a licence by their local education authority before they can act in films. Mum, who was our legal chaperone, decided it would be quite fine if we did fifteen schooling hours a week rather than a minimum of three hours a day, as stipulated in the rule book. I spent the day catching up in our school bus.
Mum was equally fluid about the time we spent on set – or indeed on location. Sten Grendon, who played Roger, was aged nine. I now know he was meant to go home every day at 4.30pm but we all returned together whenever it was deemed practical. But his mother, Jane, was with him and if ever there was a child who needed to expend energy it was Sten. Sending him back to the Oaklands Guest House early could have endangered the people of Ambleside. It did us a lot of good to work hard, and cope with real, if channelled, responsibility.
We were all busting with energy, so much that I grazed my leg badly climbing a tree at lunch time that day. Claude put a stop to any more tree climbing as a result. He couldn’t risk any of us getting injured. My sister Tamzin Neville broke her ankle when she was in the middle of playing Anthea, the leading role in a BBC serialisation of E.Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet. It could have been a disaster but she wore long Edwardian dresses with petticoats that covered up her splint. My legs were fully on display in Swallows and Amazons. If I hadn’t have been wearing dungarees when I climbed that tree the world would have seen the scratch.
I can remember admiring the large house featured as Beckfoot, the Blackett’s house on the lakeside, and wandering past towering the rhododendrons in the garden, but I have no idea where is is. Christina Hardyment felt that Arthur Ransome must have modelled Beckfoot on Lanehead, the Collingwoods’ house on the East of Lake road above Coniston, but the film required a big house with lawns going down to a lake. John Ward has written in to say that we used Brown Howe House on the western Shore of Coniston Water south of Peel Island. The boathouse is also there on the edge of the lake.
I have just found an article in The Times which includes an extract from Kit Seymour’s diary:
‘This is the day I had been waiting for. The Amazons had at last begun filming. We got changed and had to be made up sunburnt. We then rehearsed what to do. We did the second scene. I quite accidently threw a bucket of water at Claude. After lunch we had to film the interior of the boat house. Peggy had to say, ‘Not a breath of wind.’ This was quite funny becasue our hair was flying about everywhere. They had to film this scene quite a lot of times.’
On the first day of making the original movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in May 1973, a huge effort was made to ‘dress’ Haverthwaite Railway Station, at the southern end of Windermere. The aim was to bring across the feel of a bustling holiday destination in the year 1929. Local people had been fitted with costumes in the Ambleside Church Hall, there was a horse and cart, porters’ trolleys laden with trunks and a number of old bikes, which were all of great interest to us.
Having stepped down from the steam locomotive, where the Times photographer must have taken this shot, we children were piled into an open-topped period vehicle, for further publicity photographs.
I thought the publicity photographs taken that day were silly, especially since Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett, who played the Amazons, were wearing ordinary clothes rather than period costumes, but the results were later published in both The Guardian and Woman’s Realm.
The yellow motor used in the film for our taxi was superb. Would a real Lakeland taxi have been so grand? I recorded in my diary that Sten, playing Roger, hung out of the window as the director, Claude Whatham, ‘filmed us driving out of the station, along the platform at top speed.’
Once this shot was ‘in the can’ Virginia McKenna was interviewed by journalists while we were hurried away to get on with our lessons. Our tutor taught us Art. I drew the a picture of the motor car.
Arriving at Holly Howe in the taxi was truly exciting. It was not filmed the next day, as I think rain had set in. Claude waited for good evening light. But I remember the thrill of drawing up outside the farmhouse in the old car and pulling on my hat as we spilled out and ran past the big farm horses Mr Jackson was leading into the yard. Our OOV (out of vision) dialogue was added later.
If you ever go to Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, named Holly Howe by Arthur Ransome in his books, you must run down the field to the lake as we did. As soon as you arrive. And at top speed. And you will be filled by the same feeling of elation as we were when we played the Walker children.
The slope, formed by glacial scouring and subsequent deposits long ago, is steeper than you might think. We became adept at the art of glaumphing, advocated by Ransome in the book.
What struck me when I returned to Bank Ground Farm one Spring, was that sadly the great trees have gone from around the old farm gate and the boatsheds down by the lake. They must simply have reached the end of their lives, but their glory was captured on celluloid to be remembered forever.
Most Arthur Ransome devotees will know that the Peak at Darien, where once stood stout Cortez, is familiar to readers as it appears in two of the illustrations in the book. Sadly it can not be found below the farm in real life. Mrs Ransome said that you could find the headland on Windermere. In April 2011, when I was on an early recce with Nick Barton, CEO of Harbour Picture Productions, we did pass one promising spot. However Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham chose Friar’s Crag on Derwent Water for the location. I didn’t know it but Christina Hardyment writes in her excellent book, Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint’s Trunk, that they had found the very place Ransome had in mind, “without the slightest idea that they were quite right to be doing so.” She found that Ransome had marked up postcard of Friar’s Peak for his illustrator Clifford Webb to work from in 1930. It feels completely right when you are there, with the iconic view of an island under the towering mountains. It was over a shot of this that the opening titles were added.
Sout Cortez was not around. Neither were we children. By the time we had been transported from Coniston to Derwent Water for this scheduled scene the sun was going down. We’d been delayed by the make-up artist who was determined to tone down the tans we had developed. This took ages as he used a very small sponge. My mother was frustrated, as she thought that this would never have shown up, but he put his foot down with the result that we were ‘late on set’ for the evening shots. Mum grabbed this photo but it was a disaster. Claude Whatham was very annoyed.
One of the big secrets of the film is that the sequence when we run up to the Peak at Darien and first set eyes on the island in the lake was shot under an oak tree in Runnymede, near the River Thames. We were not an island at all. It must have been an expensive ‘pick-up shot’ but Claude had made an effort to gather together the same crew members and I was back in my lovely silk dress once more. We knew how to act by then and the joy of being together again shows on our faces. The result was a scene to set the film off on the right foot. We were jubilant and so excited, that, like swallows, we could have taken flight.
I would have to check with Richard Pilbrow to be certain, but I think that Simon Holland, the Art Director, penned the SWALLOWS and AMAZONS graphics for the opening titles. I remember a discussion about the font type. A very fashionable script used on the poster of the film was favoured. I said that they ought to use the handwritten capitals that Clifford Webb had penned on the map in the opening cover of the book, which were copied by Simon Holland (and me) on our chart. This was chosen.
A snazzy Seventies’ font, had been used for the titles of Lionel Jefferey’s movie The Railway Children and the poster of Swallows & Amazons. For sometime a DVD has been available which gives you both movies released by EMI Films.
As a viewer I felt that this soon dated it, whilst Swallows and Amazons sailed onto our television screens in the 1980’s and 1990’s, without being spoilt by what became most unfashionable graphics. Of course that particular retro font is now all the rage.