Being Robinson Crusoe on Wildcat Island ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville as Titty on Peel island
Sophie Neville as Robinson Crusoe the shipwrecked sailor

I did not envisage it beforehand, but at this point in my life I became one of the actors who played Robinson Crusoe in film, with Virginia McKenna, now Dame Virginia, taking the part of Man Friday. It would come across rather well on a chat show.  The audience would be taken unawares and we could meet the other actors who took the same parts after us. I am sure they were stranded on warmer desert islands.

Losing a milk tooth when you are twelve-and-a-half years old is really rather embarrassing. When you are in the middle of appearing in a feature film it’s disastrous. Not only was the gap sore but since it was an upper tooth at the front of my mouth the continuity of the whole movie was blown.  I think today they may have tried to fit a bridge but Claude Whatham, the Director decided he would just have to live with the problem. I spent the next few days trying not to let my teeth show, but even today, all these years later, those who know the film well, comment on the fact that I lost an eye tooth.

Virginia McKenna playing Man Friday in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

As it was, I had to concentrate on pushing the hideously heavy Holly Howe rowing boat away from our desert island in the scene when I bid farewell to Virginia McKenna who was gallantly playing Man Friday. This was more tricky than it would be in real life as the massive 35mm camera, the Cameraman and Sound Recordist where in the boat with Virginia. The water was cold, the rocks rather slippy.

And I had the telescope in my hand. This was in order to deliver Arthur Ransome’s line, ‘Duffer. That’s with looking too hard. Try the other eye,’ whilst lowering the telescope to wipe away a tear. I’m afraid that what came out was ‘That’s for looking too hard.’  I busy thinking of terribly sad things, all geared up to produce the tears, when glycerine was produced and carefully blown into my eyes. The most enormous tears, far more difficult to contain than real ones, gushed forth. And I think that the Wardrobe Master must have forgotten about a hanky. You can tell that the square of white cotton I had tucked in my knickers is just a frayed piece of cloth.

Daniel Defoe’s hero Robinson Crusoe has been portrayed on the big screen by Douglas Fairbanks, Dan O’Herlihy – who earned an Oscar nomination for playing the part in 1952, Aidan Quinn, Pierce Brosnan and me. Or rather me playing Titty being Robinson Crusoe. Oh, dear, Oh dear.

The scene opens with Titty sitting on a biscuit tin, reading from her log. ‘Twenty-five years ago this day, I Robinson Crusoe, was wreck-ed on this desolate place.’ The fact that I had missed the -ed from wrecked was real. I hadn’t written the word down properly.  As you can see in my actual diary there was then a dash ______ . At this point I flung myself  to the ground and dragged my exhausted body into the camp grasping my throat so as to portray the fact that Robinson Crusoe was virtually dying of thirst.

I hauled myself to my feet by grabbing the forked stick by the fire. What I didn’t realise was that Graham Ford, the Sound Recordist had hidden his microphone there. You can still hear the sound crunch as I grasp the crossbar that held the kettle. He was a perfectionist and, despite my apologies, was really rather annoyed about it.

‘Make a good place for a camp,’ Titty declares heartily, whilst looking around. ‘I’ll build my hut here out of  branches and moss.’ And so continued my solo performance. ‘Can’t have two tents for one ship-wrecked mariner.’

As I have mentioned before, my mother is very theatrical. In her eyes this was my great soliloquy. The most embarrassing thing I have to admit is that for ages after the film, during my sensitive teenage years, Mum would insist that I used this scene as my audition piece.  Can you imagine? It was dotty. Instead of something appropriate for a young girl, like a scene from I Capture the Castle, which Virginia McKenna had been in, or even something from Shakespeare such as Romeo and Juliet, I would fling myself to the floor of the audition space and enact Titty playing a bearded man. Even now I blush as I remember doing all this in front of five amazed executives, who had never seen Swallows and Amazons. They were looking for nothing more than a normal girl – to be in an advertisement for Parker Knoll armchairs.

Have you ever read the book?  I don’t think many nine-year-olds would manage it. Despite the impression given by the poster above there are no girls in it. It’s about slavery. And cannibals. And rearing goats.

Douglas Fairbanks’ film was released in 1932, too late for Titty. ‘The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’ was released as a movie in 1922 and in 1929. I wonder if Arthur Ransome ever saw either version? I have to say that if there is ever a Hollywood line-up of actors who have played the part, I want to be included in it. I might make up for the ignominy I suffered.

You can read more about working with Virginia McKenna on the film here:

Holly Howe on the 5th day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ near Coniston in 1973 ~

Holly Howe or Bank Ground Farm ~

My diary

Lesely Bennett's photo of the double decker buses at Bank Ground Farm in 1973

Fifty years ago in the Lake District

My diary

When you next go to Bank Ground Farm you must stand outside the front door and imagine the sight of two red London Route Master buses making their way down the drive back in 1973. They swayed from side to side.

We thought it comic. I still can’t work out how they managed to avoid how bringing down the dry stone walls. While sheep grazed outside in the rain, we made ourselves comfortable at the Formica tables in one of these converted buses and got down to our lessons.

Bank Ground FArm above Coniston Water in Cumbria

Meanwhile Ian Whittaker, the set dresser, and Simon Holland, the art director on ‘Swallows and Amazons’, transformed Mrs Batty’s upstairs rooms into the Walker children’s bedrooms of 1929. I changed on the top deck of our bus and was rushed through the rain with a coat over my nightie to the magical atmosphere of the film set. This was warmed by arc lights. Everyone became focused what was just in front of the camera: me reading an early edition of Daniel Defoe’s classic book, Robinson Crusoe. The director, Claude Whatham needed to establish that he was Titty’s hero. I can remember having to hold the book in special way so the cover could be seen clearly.

You can see that in my diary, I described this as ‘a bed scene’, which might amuse some actors, especially those who are not at all keen on doing bed-scenes (every actor I know). The beds themselves are probably still at the farm.

The LP
Sophie Neville, Virginia McKenna and Simon West on the cover of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ LP, which is still available on

They may have shot the scene where Captain John is learning Morse Code in the same room. Simon West then had to be made very brown indeed, the Make-up Designer dabbing away with a tiny sponge. This was for the uneasy sequence, much later in the story, when he returned to Holly Howe to explain himself to his mother. This was shot with Virginia McKenna writing letters at a desk in the square bay window, with the view of Coniston Water beyond. I had used it when stitching Swallow’s flag in the scene recorded the day before.

Virginia McKenna and Lucy Batty at Bank Ground Farm on 15th May 1973

Mrs Batty later told me that the bay window leaked terribly and that she was glad to get rid of it. She built a lounge area in its place, which became a dedicated Swallows and Amazons room. I’d been chatting to her back in 2002 when we were waiting for Ben Fogle and the BBC crew of Countryfile. They had been looking for other locations used in the 1974 film before a planned interview with me and Suzanna Hamilton, who had played my sister Susan. I remember Suzanna’s train had been terribly delayed.

We’d  waited and waited and waited. It got later and later. When Suzanna’s taxi finally arrived, I was so excited to see her that I encouraged her to run down to the lake as we once had as children.

Homes and Gardens April 1974
Sten Grendon, Simon West, Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville on location at Bank Ground Farm in 1973

The Countryfile director must have been at her wit’s end. Ben Fogle came down to fetch us. My excuse was that Suzanna needed a stretch after her a long journey from London.

CountryfileThe Westmorland Gazette captured the three of us plodding back up the field.I did the whole interview holding a bottle of grog, given to me by Arthur Ransome fans who were staying at the farm. You can see it in the photographs if you look closely. I don’t think Ben knew what it was.

Ben Fogle, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and the BBC crew recording Countryfile at Bank Ground Farm in October 2002

My father’s 16mm home movie footage of the making of Swallows and Amazons was cut into this interview with such success that the documentary was re-shown on Big Screen Britain  along with other landscape movies such as Whistle Down the Wind and The Dambusters.

You can find out more in the paperback ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ or here on Kindle where the first section can be read for free:

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