Tag Archives: Claude Whatham

Meeting up with Peggy Blackett – from the film ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974)

Lesley Bennett in 1973

When the original feature film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ was made in 1973, Peggy Blackett was played by Lesley Bennett. She can be seen here on location at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District.

For the last thirty-four years, Lesley has been living in the Netherlands. I met up with her for lunch at Schiphol Airport on my way back from sailing Arthur Ransome’s cutter, the Nancy Blackett, through the inland waterways of Zeeland. (Please see the last two previous posts.) I nearly didn’t make the meeting. A man had been arrested for planting a bomb on a train just north of Middleberg, but the authorities must have acted quickly as I wasn’t delayed for long.

Lesley had brought along a blue file of documents and a number of black and white movie stills that she’d been given by Richard Pilbrow, the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on one of our last days in Ambleside after filming had finished. We could both remember them spread out on a table at the unit hotel so we could each chose the ones we appeared in. I had picked one where Lesley and I are sitting together, our hair bobbed in line with the 1930’s, I wearing a cream silk dress, Lesley in a dark top looking very pretty:

With Virginia McKenna on the first day of filming

~A publicity shot featuring Virginia McKenna, with Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton, published in the Guardian and other newspapers~

Lesley’s parents, who lived near Tonbridge in Kent, originally learnt that Theatre Projects were looking for children to take part in the film when the Associate Producer, Neville Thompson, wrote to their local sailing club. Lesley explained that her father, who was very well organised, kept a copy of the letter sent to the Secretary of the club in January 1973.  Plans were made for Lesley to be interviewed for a part with her younger sister Lyn, who sadly fell ill and couldn’t make the audition. The letter contains a mistake that might explain why Lesley ended up playing Peggy when she was thirteen years old.

Lesley got on well with Kit Seymour who ended up playing her elder sister, Nancy Blackett – ‘terror of the seas’. Both girls would sail well and enjoyed being out on the lakes. Lesley told me that the reason why she held her hands between her legs in this photograph is that it was so cold when we were filming on Peel Island.

‘Kit would fold her arms and I’d try to keep my hands warm.’ Although I wore a cardigan in this scene, Swallows had been cold too. I remember thinking that at least the Amazons wore knitted hats. Otherwise their costumes were simple short-sleeved shirts and long shorts with black plymsols, worn without socks.

~Kit Seymour as Captain Nancy and Lesley Bennett as Mate Peggy in 1973~

Lesley told me their hats had been quite a problem – not quite a full-blown movie disaster but a they caused consternation in Consiton. The first scene the Amazons shot was set in the garden of Beckfoot, the Blacketts’ house. Although it does not lie on the ‘Amazon River’ at the northern end of the lake, Brown Howe on the western shore of Coniston Water was used as the location and the crew set up the 35mm Panavision camera, along with reflector boards and enough lighting to bring sunshine to Westmorland. When everyone on the production was ready, Gareth Tandy, the third assistant led the Amazons down to the set wearing red knitted stocking caps – with no bobbles. Beanies were not quite what either the director or producer had expected. Lesley has a photo showing the great discussion that ensued:


~Director Claude Whatham, Producer Richard Pilbrow, 3rd Assistant Director Gareth Tandy, Make-up Artist Peter Robb-King, Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan and Associate Producer Neville Thompson with Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett at Brown Howe on Coniston Water in May 1973 ~

In the end Claude Whatham shot the scene with the girls bare-headed, their hair blowing all over the place, even though it was meant to be ‘dead-calm’ in the story.  This looked natural as they were at home but they needed to look like pirates in every other scene.

~Nancy and Peggy running down to Amazon at the Blackett’s house Beckfoot~

Wooly hats with ‘longer ends’ were knitted locally at some speed. Red is not a good colour on the screen. I remember a couple of bright pink ribbed bobble-hats arrived when we were filming on Peel Island but they were deemed a complete disaster and rejected in favour of scarlet ones originally described by Arthur Ransome even if the colour might look a bit jarring on screen.

No one on the production knew anything about knitting or subtle shades of wool and Emma Porteous, the costume designer, was back in London. When the third pair of hats arrived we were all a bit worried about the fatness of the bobble-end, as they didn’t quite match the illustrations in the books, but no one knew what else to do. Time ran out and the producer was forced to compromise. ‘They were warm but prone to flop about,’ Lesley said, ‘and sometimes flopped forward, which looked a bit silly.’ I’d never noticed this but it was captured in one photograph:

~Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett as Nancy and Peggy Blackett on Wild Cat Island in 1973~

Mum was given the pink version of the hats. She kept them for years but no one ever wore them.

To be continued….

 

 

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A Little Bit of Film History

Contact sheet - Sophie Neville with Amazon's anchor

~ Titty with Amazon’s anchor ~

When I first posted an extract from ‘The Secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons’ on a literary website, someone wrote a review assuming it to be a novel. They must have thought that I was some poor creature who had imagined the whole thing. The reviewer considered the plot too far-fetched and fantastical – as you might if it had not been true.

‘You must have been dreaming.’

‘But Captain Flint, there were burglars, you’ve got to believe me.’

Poor Titty! No one ever believed her. Fortunately quite a bit of documentary evidence exists to support the fact that a certain feature film was made in the Lake District in 1973. I do wish I’d kept a copy of the book review though.

Contact sheet - finding Titty in Amazon

~ The Swallows find Titty sleeping in Amazon near Cormorant Island ~

Contact sheet - Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville sailing Amazon

~ Titty and Susan sail Amazon back to Wild Cat Island ~

Contact sheet sailing Swallow & Amazon in 1973

~ Sailing Swallow and Amazon on Derwentwater ~

Contact sheet - sailing Swallow & Amazon on Derwentwater

I was encouraged to collect things as a child, in case they might one day be of value. Back in 1973, I was given a number of black and white photographs and contact sheets of stills taken by Albert Clarke on the set of ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) – if you can call Derwentwater a movie set. I pasted some of these in a scrapbook but others remained in a roll that has only recently been returned to me. Each sheet looks roughly like this:

The Making of Swallows & Amazons contact sheet - both boats

The eye is easily tired by looking at the whole set but scanning and editing reveals a little bit of film history in every shot. I can see here that Titty wasn’t letting Amazon’s anchor down, she was hauling it in while Susan was at the helm, with a fair wind in her sails. This must have been quite tricky.

Sophie Neville pulling up Amazons' anchor

You can tell by the numbers above each shot how many were taken and in what sequence. presumably 2003 photographs had been snapped by the time the Swallows found Titty moored near Cormorant Island.

Contact sheet - filming Swallow

~ These bizarre shots show the film crew afloat on their pontoon ~

The photographs below show Virginia McKenna rowing away from Peel Island on Coniston Water in a native canoe with DoP Denis Lewiston and his 35mm camera, which is pretty unique.

One thing is certain, if these contact sheets had not been given to me they would have been thrown out and yet, over time, they have become precious. Do add a comment below if you would like to see more.

It is quite interesting to see which shots were chosen for the press. You can see a few of the action shots used in magazines of the time by clicking here. Newspapers tended to chose photographs akin to portraits as you can see here.

Recent newspaper articles tend to use a black and white film still that was clumsily tinted giving the lake water an unreal and bright blue hue as you find here.

Some of the black and white prints are now held at BFI. StudioCanal hold a vast selection of the best photos in their library and have an on-line shop here. I have included about a hundred behind-the-scenes snaps taken by my parents in the latest edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ recently published by The Lutterworth Press, available from libraries, bookshops and online stockists including The Nancy Blackett shop, where proceeds go towards the upkeep of Arthur Ransome’s favourite little ship.

9780718894962_cover Amazons.indd

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Launching the second edition of The Secrets of Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

front-cover-1974

A second edition of the ebook ‘The Secrets of Filming ‘SWALLOWS & AMAZONS'(1974) is now avaialble on Amazon Kindle, Smashwords, itunes, Kobo, and Nook for £2.99 . You can download this free of charge if you already own the first edition.

If you would like a copy but don’t have a Kindle, worry not. We have added a link whereby you can download a free Kindle app. Please go to my Book Page and scroll down for the details.

If you already have a copy of the ebook, contact a Customer Advisor and ask for a free update. You just need to give Kindle the ebook’s ASIN number. The ISBN for all online editions except Kindle is: ISBN 9781311761927

Since being contacted by others who were involved in the filming, I have been able to add a few more anecdotes and images, including this beautiful shot of Virginia McKenna in 1973 kindly sent in by the photographer Philip Hatfield.

virginia-mckenna-photo-by-philip-hatfield

I found a copy of my original contract for the film and when Jean McGill rang from Bowness, a few more secrets floated to the surface.

Sophie Neville and David Wood

CBBCTV’s Cinemaniacs  interviewed the screenwriter David Wood and myself on how the original movie of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was made back in the summer of 1973.  The idea was to use 30 second clips, so please excuse my over-the-top reactions, but you can watch the whole recording below.

‘This has to be one of the most delightful interviews in my recent memory.’ Tim Lewis, USA

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Swallows & Amazons in Aldeburgh

The beach at Aldebrugh

Lovely Aldeburgh on the Suffolk Coast where

StudioCanal’s special re-mastered version of the classic film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) 

Sophie Neville Q&A in Kendal

was shown at the Aldeburgh cinema with a Q&A afterwards with Sophie Neville who played Titty speaking to the actress Diana Quick.

'The Making of Swallows & Amazons' for sale after a cinema viewing

Sophie was signing the last first edition copies of ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’.

Aldebrugh Cinema seating 250

Opposite the cinema, books by Arthur Ransome, who once lived in Suffolk

Arthur Ransome's Books in Aldebrugh Bookshopadorn the shelves of the award-wining Aldeburgh Bookshop

Aldebrugh Bookshop in printThe sun shone and holiday makers enjoyed the beach

Aldebrugh fishing

where you can buy fresh seafood and chat to the fisherman.

Aldebrugh lobster pots.

Swallow, the lugsail dingy that starred in the 1974 film

Swallow with the initials WK

was sailing with the Aldeburgh Junior Lapwings who had a Swallows and Amazons regatta that weekend. You can read about what they got up to here.

blue chain on the sea shore

Thanks go to The Aldeburgh Bookshop for their sponsorship

Aldebrugh Bookshop bag

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Memories of making the original movie of ‘Swallows & Amazons’

The phone in my office rang at about 6.30pm.

“Is that my little Titty?” a voice asked.

“Well…”

“Do you know who I am?”

I had no idea.

“I haven’t seen you since 1973!”

“It’s Jean!” It was Jean McGill ringing from Bowness in Cumbria. She had been our driver and the unit nurse on the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ made in the Lake District from May to July 1973, released a year later in 1974.

Jean our driver and location nurse operating the radio with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

Jean McGill our unit driver and location nurse with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

“I’ve never seen the film,” Jean declared, “but I loved your book about making it.  It brought back such memories.”  I urged her to tell me more. “I remember when Suzanna Hamilton cut her hand whittling wood. It was bleeding like anything. I bandaged it up nicely but the director was horrified and made me take the dressing off again.”  I think this was when we were in the middle of filming on Peel Island. The accident put an end to our wood carving hobby, which was a shame. We’d been using a Swiss Army knife to make our own bows and arrows with Bob Hedges the prop man.

Ronnie Fraser and DoP Denis Lewiston with paper cups of champagne and the call sheet for the next day ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Ronnie Fraser outside the dining bus on location with a paper cup of champagne

” You children persuaded me to go out to dinner with Ronnie Fraser! Why I went, I haven’t the foggiest. He was a rough character – very coarse.” Ronald Fraser was the movie actor playing Captain Flint. “I used to have to drive him to the local hotel in the mornings and order champagne to sober him up.”

“How would champagne have helped to sober him?”

“I don’t know. He told me it would.”

“I think he’d been divorced for a while at the time.”

“I wouldn’t have married him in the first place,” Jean assured me.

Terry Smith and Jean McGill on Derwentwater

Terry Smith wearing the safety officer’s wetsuit with unit nurse and driver Jean McGill

Jean had been taken on as the unit nurse after the first nurse proved rather out of her depth. I thought she was a State Registered Nurse but she corrected me. She had 26 years experience in nursing becoming a hospital sister but was never an SRN. “I was a driver for Browns (of Ambleside)” and as such was paid to work on the film. “I wasn’t paid to be the unit nurse. It didn’t matter, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

I only found out recently that my mother hadn’t been paid to be a chaperone either, despite the responsibility as well as her legal obligations. It was hardly a big budget movie. Like Jean, she was simply thanked with a bouquet of flowers at the end of the filming.

Jean was one of the few local people who worked on the film throughout the seven weeks we were on location. Her local knowledge made all the difference as she knew the roads well, took short cuts to avoid the traffic and knew the best swimming spots when the weather warmed up.

A Day Off in Blackpool

Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville (kneeling) Blackpool, 1973

I reminded Jean about the early 1970s – what we ate and how we dressed.  ” I bought a pair of jeans for the first time in my life. It was so hot that I changed into shorts while we were on set. You children took the jeans and stitched a big red heart on the backside.” There was a craze for adding embroidered patches to denim clothing. These were expensive to buy but we persuaded to Sten Grendon’s mother to make red hearts for everyone’s jeans. “It made walking through Ambleside very embarrassing.” Jean sounded as if she was still recovering from the indignity 43 years later. “It mucked me up!”

Jean went on to drive for Mountain Goat Tours in Cumbria and worked in a doctor’s surgery before becoming a registrar for ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’. “I’m a coffin-kicker now,” Jean told me cheerfully. She never worked on another film but kept a copy of the original screenplay and other memorabilia.

Not long after I spoke to her a brown paper package arrived in the post.  It contained an envelope with the writing,

FOR THE ATTENTION OF TITTY

‘Still looking for the photographs. Will send to you when I find them. 43 years old?  It was this tatty when I got same! Jean.’

And this is what the envelope contained:

Original Screenplay of Swallows & Amazons page 1

Here is Jean in her red top talking to my mother in her Donny Osmond hat:

 

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Notes for the second edition of ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’

Since Classic TV Press published ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’ in 2014, a number of facts have floated to the surface. The most amazing recollection was one that occurred to my mother.

‘The letter inviting you to come for an interview for a part in the film was addressed to your father. He was working abroad when it arrived. I never, ever opened his mail but something urged me to open that one envelope. It was a good thing I did as he was away for three weeks and we would have missed the opportunity altogether.’  She was amazed by the contents and replied at once, sending a photograph to Theatre Projects. I think it was this rather miserable one of me wearing a Laura Ashley dress.

Sophie Neville  wearing Laura Ashley in 1972

Sophie Neville in 1972

A date was made to meet the director. I now remember that I was taken up to Long Acre in the West End to meet Claude Whatham very soon after Dad arrived back from his business trip. We walked through Soho and visited a Chinese grocery store on the way home.

 

Daphne Neville presenting 'Women Only'1

Daphne Neville on HTV in 1973

‘I was never paid to work on the set as chaperone,’ Mum told me. ‘Neither was Jane. We were just happy that our expenses were covered but it ended up costing me quite a bit as I had to travel back to Bristol to work now and again.’ She was working for HTV as a television presenter alongside Jan Leeming, who is currently appearing on ‘The Real Marigold Hotel’. For the photo of them both on an HTV West show, please click here

Jean McGill said she didn’t get paid for acting as the Unit Nurse, as far as she could remember, ‘But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.’

Nurse with Baby Vicky, the ship's baby

Kerry Darbishire playing Nurse

The most exciting thing was meeting Kerry Darbyshire, who played Vicky’s nurse, at Zeffirelli’s cinema in Ambleside for the 40th Anniversary screening of the film. I learnt to my horror that I had mis-spelt her name in the credits I gave the actors. All I had to go on was her signature in the back of my copy of the hardback book of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ where I’d collected autographs.

Signatures of the rest of the cast and crew of 'Swallows and Amazons' in the back of my Jonathan Cape edition of Arthur Ransome's book

Kerry Darbishire’s signature

Kerry laughed, telling me, ‘I should have had more legible handwriting.’ She  appeared in the film quite a bit. ‘It was a pity I wasn’t able to bring my own child. She was the exact same age and colouring as the little girl they found to play baby Vicky.’ Kerry was with us in the compartment of the train on day one of the shoot. ‘I found it very difficult to laugh with you when the train went into the tunnel.’ I couldn’t think what she meant at first but it was the laughter that followed Virginia McKenna’s line: ‘He’d say, “Just look at that scenery”.’ at the moment the train goes into a dark tunnel. ‘You children found it no problem at all, but I couldn’t laugh. I was too shy.’ Zeffirelli’s are next screening ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) at 7.30pm on 2nd March.

I never knew the name of the snake wrangler – who brought the charcoal burners’ adder along, but Ken Foster wrote in recently to say it was his father, John Foster whose family farmed near Satterthwaite. He was once employed as an assistant at the fresh-water biology research establishment at Windermere and became a biological specimen supplier. You can read more about his unusual occupation here

To read more about the day the adder arrived on location, please click here.

Charcoal Burners' Adder

John Foster & the charcoal burners’ adder

Simon West, who played Captain John, remembered that Claude Whatham often used to take us for a quick run before going for a take. It freshened us up and was appropriate when we had to run into shot, slightly out of breath.

One little girl wrote to tell me how she pulls her dress over her knees just as I did when I played Titty, as I got rather cold in a scene when were were first sailing Swallow to the island.

Sophie Neville with Terry Needham and the unit radio at Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Sophie Neville with Terry Needham

George Marshall, the veteran film accountant, assured me we had a very talented film crew. Mark Birmingham, a film producer currently working on the bio-pic of Noel Coward, knew quite a few of the individuals working on ‘Swallows & Amazons’ and told me of the amazing careers they went on to lead. ‘Your Best Boy, Denis Carrigan, went on to run Sherperton Studios.’ Denis worked closely with Ridley Scott who made many great films there. ‘Sadly one of the other electricians died when he grabbed a live cable.’

Other people have written with interesting stories relating to the film locations.

Swallows & Amazons filmography - ebook_html_m52e3dc61

‘The shop in Woodland Road was my grandfather Tom Kirkbride’s cobblers shop from 1930s to 1956,’ Brian Salisbury wrote. ‘After he retired, the wooden building became Stan Cropper’s sweet shop doing a roaring trade with the boys at St Mary’s Boys School just along the road and the newly built Droomer Estate.’  This was the shop where we bought rope for the Light House Tree that is now a barber’s in Windermere. To read more about this location and others in Windermere, please click here

Is there anything you would like to add?

Daphne Neville, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Jane Grendon and Simon West after the last shot was taken.

Daphne Neville, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Jane Grendon and Simon West.

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Were there any disasters? and other questions asked about making the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1974

On Saturday 26th September at 3.00pm the original film of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was screened at the Riverside cinema in Woodbridge, Suffolk as part of their celebration of ‘100 Years of Film’.

I was on stage to answer questions about how we made the film after the screening.  Swallow, the dinghy we used on the movie was rigged up outside the cinema and admired by many.

Q&A title on screen

Back in April, I was invited to a similar screening of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) also held to raise funds for the up-keep of Arthur Ransome’s yacht Nancy Blackett. As the film ended I was invited up on stage to answer questions about how it was made. Marc Grimston sent a list of these, so I could answer them here for those unable to get cinema seats.

As a child were you like Titty? In 1973, I was aged twelve and at five-foot two, was really too old and too tall for the role of Titty but it was easy enough to pretend to be nine years old. I was on-screen a great deal so it probably a good thing that I was old enough to cope with long filming days. I thought I was much more like Mate Susan but perhaps that made it easier for me to play Titty.

How many tried for the role of Titty? About 1,800 children originally auditioned for the six parts in ‘Swallows & Amazons’. Claude Whatham, the director, wrote inviting me to an interview. In the end there were five girls up for the part of Titty. You can read more about the final audition here.

Q&A at Cinema Screening

Sophie Neville on stage with Peter Willis, President of the Nancy Blackett Trust

Had you read the books before? I had read most of the books in the series and loved them, so it was very easy to take on the part. We never had to sit down and learn lines because we knew what to say from reading the book.

Q&A to packed house

Sophie Neville  taking about Swallows & Amazons

Were they any disasters during filming? Swallow’s mast broke!

How did you stay safe with the snake? It was a real adder, but quite a tame one. I think they lowered its metabolism by keeping it cool.

How did they make the lion noises? It was a recording of a real lion.

How did you capture their boat? In one take!

How did they film the night scenes? We shot many of them inside Mrs Batty’s barn.

Q&A ar Riverside Screening

Sophie Neville with Swallow’s flag

When you filmed the approach to the houseboat it seamed as if Amazon was coming in fast, was she? Yes, she hit it quite hard!

How long did it take to film? We spent forty six days onset in total, which meant spending about seven weeks in the Lake District.

Do you still have the parrot? I don’t. The green parrot belonged to Mrs Proctor of Kendal where the residents were terrified of him.

What happened to Amazon? She is owned by a family living in Kent who love sailing her in the lakes. She was the same Amazon as used in the BBC serial of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ made in 1962, when Susan George played Kitty.

Have you been back to the island? Yes! I last returned with Nick Barton who is planning a new film adaptation of ‘Swallows and Amazons’.

Are there adaptations of any other Swallows and Amazon books? Yes, in 1983 I was able to work on the BBC serialisation of ‘Coot Club and The Big Six’, starring Rosemary Leach, Colin Baker, Henry Dimbleby and Julian Fellowes as one of the Hullabaloos. It was my job to cast the children and look after them during the three months we spent on location, which was great fun.

Q&A at Woodbridge Screening

Click here for further details: Riverside Cinema in Woodbridge

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