This autumn, the Nancy Blackett Trust presented another screening of the classic film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ at the Riverside in Woodbridge. The cinema was celebrating 100 years of film and were thrilled to welcome a large and enthusiastic audience of children and Arthur Ransome enthusiasts one of whom told us he saw the film in Shaftesbury Avenue when it first came out in 1974.
Swallow, the original dinghy used in the film was on display outside the cinema and I went along to answer questions about how the movie was made. Here are some of those asked by children in the audience:
Had you ever been on a boat before you started filming? Yes, my father was a great sailor and I’d crewed for him. As Titty, I had to row quite a bit – back from the charcoal burners, later when I captured Amazon and alongside Roger when we went to find the treasure on Cormorant Island.
How did you do the night time? We used Mrs Batty’s barn at Bank Ground Farm as a studio.
Which lake did you film on? Arthur Ransome wrote about an imaginary lake based on real places that we found on Windermere, Coniston Water, Derwentwater, Elterwater and a smelly lilly pond. the great thing is that you can go and find them too.
Did you enjoy filming? Yes, very much, but it could be chilly.
How long did it take to film? Forty-five days in all. It’s a 90 minute film so you can work out just how much we managed to film per day. It was well under the 4 minutes-a-day scheduled.
Did Titty actually keep the parrot? Titty did in the story but the parrot in the film was rather savage and had to be returned to Mrs Proctor of Kendal. However my parents bought a very tame green parrot called Chico who would sit on my shoulder, even when I went rowing.
Were you cold when you we filming the swimming scenes? Yes! We nearly passed out.
Why didn’t you wear life jackets? The film was set eighty-six years ago in 1929 when children didn’t wear life-jackets. We wore BOAC life-vests during rehearsals and when being taken out to the location.
What are the children doing now? Working! Suzanna Hamilton is the only one of us to kept acting. She’s appeared in two feature films this year including ‘My Feral Heart’. Simon West has an engineering company that invents machines, Sten Grendon is a gardener, Kit Seymour is spending this year in Australia and I believe Lesley Bennett lives in the Netherlands, but I’m not sure. I’d love to make contact with her. Virginia McKenna is still acting as well as figure-heading her charity Born Free that does so much to relieve the suffering of animals.
In reality, how old were you all when you acted? Roger was 8, I was aged 12 pretending to be aged 9, Susan was 12 and John 11. Nancy was about the right age as she celebrated her 13th birthday towards the end of the filming. The secret was that Peggy was the eldest at 13.
Do you have a cameo role in the new film? You might just see me on the platform of the railway station but I am wearing a wig!
Why is Swallow’s flag brown? Because it a little elderly.
The camping kit – was it all packed in Swallow? We children didn’t know it at the time but it didn’t all fit in, although they did keep taking the tents down. Why we had a rolling pin on board, I do not know.
What happened to Amazon? The Amazon Arthur Ransome knew, which was originally called Mavis, can be seen at the Coniston Museum. The dinghy we used in the film was also used in the black and white BBC TV serial made in 1962. She is now in Kent – and still sailing. You can see her on ‘Country Tracks’ by clicking here.
The premier of the feature film Swallows & Amazons was held on 4th April 1974 in Shaftesbury Avenue, in London’s West End. Those who watch it on television today, or have the DVD, are amazed to hear it was first released almost forty years ago. Please forgive me if you have seen this photos before but it seems quite a date to celebrate.
The Royal Gala Matinee was held in aid of the charity KIDS, which works with disabled children, young people and their families. The society is still going strong and has been celebrating its own 40th anniversary recently.
We arrived by taxi with my house mistress, Sister Allyne, and head mistress Sister Ann-Julian, who had travelled up from Wantage in Oxfordshire for the occassion.
Of all films, they found The Exorcist was showing at the same cinema. I gazed up at the billing outside the entrance, more interested in seeing the names of Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser with the romantic design of the graphics spelling out Swallows & Amazons.
The first thing that happened was that I was whisked off for lunch with the five other children in the cast by Claude Whatham, the director. He chose a bistro where I chose hamburgers and chips. I’m not sure what the rest of my family did, but can only presume they found something to eat.
We arrived at the ABC cinema to find they had already taken their seats in the audience. We met up with Ronald Fraser and Richard Pilbrow, the film producer, who introduced us to Princess Helena Moutafian, Patron of KIDS, who the Earl and Countess of Compton had brought to celebrate the film’s release and help raise funds for the charity. Mummy had instead I made a curtsey to each person I was introduced to. Did this include members of the Press?
We also met a number of Ladies: Lady Bridport, Lady Onslow, Lady Nelson of Stafford, Lady Harford and others listed below who must have arrived with their children. It was all quite something.
Please note that Simon West, (to the right in the top photo) was wearing a tie that matched exactly with the floral print of his shirt. This was the height of fashion in 1974, something I have yet to see revived or replicated. Suzanna and I both wore pinafore dresses. These have not experienced a revival either, although Suzanna’s Laura Ashley print would be considered a treasured vintage piece. My mother was horrified that Ronald Fraser had his collar button undone, but I think that was a nod to trendy-ness. He also wore a badge in support of the charity pinned to his lapel. Badges were all the rage at the time and collected by all.
As you can see, we met Bobby Moore, the Hollywood actress Patricia Neal, the Norwegian Bond Girl Julie Ege and Spike Milligans’ family. Will Travers, now the CEO of the charity Born Free, came to represent his mother, Virginia McKenna who sadly couldn’t be with us.
A commemorative programme was being sold with a sepia version of the film poster on the cover:
Inside there were several pages about those who appeared in the film. I still have a copy:
The opposite page:
It wasn’t until years later that I was shown copies of the stills used to advertise the film inside cinemas.
The original film posters, which once hung in the London Underground, have become collector’s items, valued at about £240 each on eBay. Studiocanal, who now own the film rights, have a selection of posters available as framed prints if you click here.
This was the version used as an advertisement in the Sunday Times forty years ago.
You probably know that ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon Kindle and for other e-readers via Smashwords. It has been described by one reviewer on Amazon as the equivalent of DVD Extras, as it explains how we made the movie in the Lake District, back in the summer of 1973, as well as how the film was promoted and received in the UK. Hopefully the paperback and hardback versions will be out soon, but the ebook is unique in that it gives links to behind-the-scenes footage shot on location by my parents.