Dame Virginia McKenna and her work on the classic film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Virginia McKenna in 'Swallows and Amazons' (1974) by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu
Virginia McKenna in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) immortalized by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu (c) StudioCanal

I was so thrilled to read that Virginia McKenna has been awarded a DBE for services to wildlife conservation and to wild animal welfare in the New Year Honours. When I last spoke to her, she was working tirelessly for the Born Free Foundation that she co-founded with her son Will Travers OBE.

I first met Dame Virginia in 1973 when she agreed to star in the first big screen adaptation of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, produced by Richard Pilbrow, directed by Claude Whatham and released by EMI Films in 1974. She played the part of my mother, Mary Walker. The movie was shot entirely on location in the Lake District where Arthur Ransome set his classic series of children’s books.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm
Dame Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

The film has been broadcast on British television more than any other but it is when you watch it on the big screen that you can appreciate what made Virginia McKenna such a great star. Her face conveys a thousand tiny emotions that sweep you into a long-forgotten time when children were able to run free. 

Virginia McKenna holding the telegramme
Dame Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground in Cumbria ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

Dame Virginia had originally been scheduled to come up to Cumbria for the first ten days of the seven-week shoot but, since wet weather closed in, she was obliged to return when the sun came out for the famous scene when Roger tacks up the field at Holly Howe to receive ‘despatches’ in the form of the cryptic telegram BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN. 

Virginia McKenna with Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan
Dame Virginia McKenna with Ronnie Cogan ~ photo:Daphne Neville (c)

Dame Virginia enjoyed the discipline and focus of concentration on set and helped centre us from the start. If you watch other movies made at the time, such as ‘The Railway Children’ (1970), most of the adult actresses are wearing wigs with a district nineteen-seventies feel to their costume and make-up.  ‘Swallows and Amazons’ owes its timeless appeal to the fact that Virginia simply had had lovely thick hair scooped into a bun and wore her original 1929 garments with grace.

Sophie Neville as Titty
Sophie Neville as Titty in 1973 – photo: Daphne Neville (c)

I played Titty Walker who inveigled her mother into playing Man Friday to her Robinson Crusoe when she came to visit Wild Cat Island. The sequences were shot on Peel Island on Coniston Water where Ransome was taken as a boy by his own parents and met the Collingwood family in the 1890’s. He later became a good friend of Dora Collingwood whose five children became the inspiration for the story ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Her third daughter, the dreamer, was nicknamed Titty.

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island
Dame Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

It can not have been easy for Virginia to act with me, a child of twelve, while frying pemmican in butter on a camp fire. I was self-conscious about having lost an eye-tooth the night before and had rather a sore mouth and she later had to row from the island with a 35mm Panavision camera in her boat.

What I’d forgotten until recently was that Bill Travers watched the filming that day on Peel Island. He’d been a hero of mine ever since he played George Adamson in ‘Born Free’ and Gavin Maxwell in ‘Ring of Bright Water’ opposite Virginia. Their film, ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’, was released as a double bill with ‘Swallows and Amazons’

You can see a few more behind-the-scenes photos here and I’ve written more about being Robinson Crusoe here.

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville
‘They were very savage savages’ ~ Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

Looking back, I realise how fortunate we were to be able to play out the scenes from the iconic book in the actual locations, such as Bank Ground Farm where the Collingwood children had stayed one holiday as children, so they could visit their grandparents who lived at Tent Lodge next door and were too unwell to have them in the house.

The Walker Family at Holly Howe
Sten Grendon, Simon West, Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville at Bank Ground Farm, in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

We were not so keen on the publicity photographs taken for the film even though Virginia tried to make it fun. Right from the the very first day of filming, she worked hard to bring us together as a cast, playing games such as ‘Consequences’ to help us laugh and relax, while concentrating on the task of bringing the book to life.

The Walker family played by Suzanna Hamilton Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Virginnia McKenna and Simon West at Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria
Suzanna Hamilton Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Dame Virginia McKenna and Simon West – photo Daphne Neville (c)

In 1980, I went to work for Ginny and her husband Bill Travers, as a housekeeper for a few months. She needed domestic help while she was appearing with Yule Brynner in ‘The King and I’ at the London Palladium, for which she won an Olivier Award for Best Actress in a musical.  I looked after her youngest son, Dan, who later worked as a safety officer and consultant on the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I met him at the cast and crew screening in Leicester Square.

– Dan Travers and Sophie Neville in 2016 –

Ginny and I kept in touch. She was ever-supportive, encouraging me to keep raising funds for anti-poaching in South Africa, where she had been evacuated as a child during WWII. 

It was only when I heard her speak at the Kempsford  Literary Festival in the Cotswolds that I learnt that other ships in her convoy to Cape Town had been torpedoed and sunk crossing the Bay of Biscay. By some miracle, her ship had been delayed in Liverpool but she described finding the flotsam left by the ships that had been hit.

Having written a number of books herself, Ginny encouraged me to write, urging me to keep focused on one thing.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground

Her letters and cards also inspired me to keep raising funds for wildlife conservation in Africa.

Merry Christmas African animals card design by Sophie Neville
A Christmas card design by Sophie Neville

In turn, I supported the Born Free Foundation, printing them greeting cards, donating a Christmas card design for their catalogue and a picture that was auctioned at the Big Cat Open Day in Kent.

Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2000
Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001 – photo Daphne Neville (c)

In 2014, StudioCanal invited us both to appear in the DVD Extras package for the 40th anniversary DVD of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974). While we were waiting for the crew, she told me that she’d appeared in more than thirty movies. I know she’s made a few more since then.

You can watch her interview here:

Interview with Virginia Mckenna

I released the first edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ for which Virginia graciously provided a quote. You can read the first few pages in the preview of the ebook, entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons 1974’ here

To hear Virginia and her son Will Travers talking about receiving her DBE, please click here for BBC Sounds

~ ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons 1974’~

The original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was broadcast on BBC Two on Friday 17th April 2020 at 3.00pm

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The 1974 adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s iconic book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ starring Virginia McKenna was screened on BBC Two on Friday 17th April at 3.00pm and was available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days here

Please add any questions about how the movie was made to the Comments below.

Swallows & Amazons film billing

For the latest edition of the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ with details of the film locations and what those who appeared in it are doing now,  Please click here

The Making of Swallows and Amazons' by Sophie Neville

You can read the first section for free in the ebook, entitled ‘The secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ This is similar to the paperback but has a few more stories for adult readers and links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It can be downloaded from iBooks, iTunes, Smashwords, Kobo and Amazon Kindle

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

For homeschooling ideas, why not get hold of a copy of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in French or enter Into Film’s movie review writing contests? Read more here.

Hirondelles et Amazones

It would be lovely to hear from anyone who saw it in the cinema when it first came out in cinemas in the summer of 1974 – more than forty-five years ago.

If you enjoy ‘Swallows and Amazons’, think of joining The Arthur Ransome Society  or the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook where you will meet like-minded people – of all ages. Most are dinghy sailors who love the books.

Swallows and Amazons mugs
Mugs printed with maps used to illustrate Sophie’s books

There seems to be a great interest in Swallows and Amazons mugs. To find out more about these, please click here

Sophie Neville's booksPlease click here for Sophie Neville’s other books

It is always great to hear from readers on Facebook or Instagram and on-line reviews of the DVD and books are welcome. Please click here for Sophie’s Amazon page.

Screenshot of The Making of Swallows and Amazons book cover on Instagram

Swallows, Amazons and Archery

Much has been written of the legacy left by Arthur Ransome who inspired so many go camping, fell walking or sail the seven seas. I hope he would be amused to learn it has been the arrow, fletched with green parrot feathers, that has flown through the pages of my life.

Sophie Neville the archer c 1969~Sophie Neville dressed as a medieval archer in 1969~

Archery became a popular sport for ladies in Victorian England. The influence was not lost on Arthur Ransome who writes in his autobiography that his Great-aunt Susan was a keen toxophilite who attended bow meetings at Belle Isle, the long island on Windermere. Another great-aunt was shot in the bonnet by an arrow when the Boxer Rising reached Peking. She was serving as a missionary.

I gather it was Arthur Ransome’s sister, Joyce, who owned a green parrot whose feathers made good pipe cleaners. Did they ever get used for flighting arrows? Arthur doesn’t seem to have taken up a bow beyond, perhaps, playing Red Indians as a child with his friend Ric Eddison.

Titty Walker may not have known that the real Queen Bess was a proficient archer, but Roger certainly expected savages to be armed with poison-tipped arrows as he took dispatches across the Peak at Darien. Did Nancy and Peggy ever don Red Indian head-dresses? Since they are described as wearing red caps when the Swallows first encounter them, I assume this idea was instigated by Helen Edmundson’s musical and reinforced by the 2016 film of Swallows and Amazons. Although far from nautical, this is akin to certain antics in Secret Water and certainly adds visual drama to the confrontation.

Practicing with bows and arrows

~Sophie Neville with Peter Robb-King, Ronnie Cogan, Lesley Bennett, Kit Seymour and Terry Smith~ 

I learnt how to shoot in 1973 when the Amazons were being taught how to pull a bow made of Lakeland hazel for the original movie of Swallows and Amazons. As children, we all wanted a go. I still have a practice bow and a couple of arrows whittled on location by Bob Hedges, our property master. I remember one hitting the campfire. ‘Don’t touch the point – it might be poisonous!’ Please note that the shot of the arrows zooming over our heads looks so dangerous on screen that it was cut from the television version of the feature film. This was no snazzy visual effect. The arrows were genuine, however they were strung on taut nylon fishing line rigged over our heads to ensure we would not get hit. They were fired by the prop men and not the Amazons.

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~Daphne Neville who won many archery prizes teaching Lesley Bennett (Peggy Blackett)~

As female Amazon warriors were redoubtable archers it is easy to imagine Captain Nancy bent a sapling to her will and had Peggy making arrows. It is reasonable to assume they used longbows on Wild Cat Island, but in Swallowdale it is a crossbow that graces Ransome’s illustration. How Nancy got her hands on one is unknown but it must have been simpler to use in a boat with discretion and accuracy. Did Ransome ever try this out?

Sophie Neville shooting

~Sophie Neville shooting with a compound bow in the Emirates~

What happened to the bows and arrows after Swallowdale? Archery is something you usually grow into, rather than out of. By the age of fifteen, I’d gained the part of an archery champion in an adventure movie called The Copter Kids. This necessitated target practice with a modern re-curve bow and ended with me shooting from a helicopter.

I now belong to a number of archery societies and, like Great-aunt Susan, set out with my tabs and tassel, quiver and longbow. Luckily the skill, much like an appreciation of Arthur Ransome’s writing, is something that tends to improve with age. I met my husband at one bow meeting, have held three Ladies’ Championship titles and managed to reach a distance of 145 yards when we celebrated the 600th Anniversary of Agincourt.

I have never fired a crossbow. Since they are potentially lethal weapons, Nancy could have been detained for firing hers even if the tip was not deemed poisonous.

Author Sophie Neville

 ~Sophie Neville at a West Berks bow meeting~

A version of this article was originally published in Mixed Moss, the journal of The Arthur Ransome Society.

You can read more in ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ available online:

Boats used for making the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

I spoke on BBC Radio Cumbria, asking if I could meet anyone involved in filming the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974).  It was made on location in the Lake District with a young crew.

~Nick Newby of Nicole End Marine~

Nick Newby of Nichol End Marine in Portinscale came to find me while I was in the Keswick. As a young man in the 1970s, he provided boats for a number of films and was contacted by Graham Ford, the production manager of Swallows and Amazons in the Spring of 1973. Graham had began working with Mike Turk who had started building boats for TV and films at his family firm, Turk’s Launches, but this was based on the Thames in London. They needed help from someone in the Lake District who knew about traditional boats.

Ronald Fraser being transported to the Houseboat

~Ronald Fraser being trransported by Dory to The Lady Derwentwater in 1973~

Arthur Ransome had clearly based Captain Flint’s houseboat on the Esperance, originally a steam launch cruising on Windermere. You can read more about her and see photos here. ‘Since she was sitting on the bottom of Whitecross Bay at the time,’ Nick told me, ‘the film crew decided to use the Lady Derwentwater.’ This was a launch licensed to carry 90 passengers that Nick had worked on and knew well. ‘She is about 58 foot long and quite a rigid boat, having four full length steel RSJs set inside her. She was built the Lakes in 1928. We moored her at Brandelhowe in Great Bay for the filming. You need to be careful getting in, as there is a rock shelf.’ The advantage of using her was that you could see the view over the lake from her large cabin windows, which enhanced interior scenes. The Lady Derwentwater, whose nick-name is Dishy, has since been re-built with a different stern, but you can book a passage and go out on the lake in her yourself.

Lady Derwentwater 2018

~The Lady Derwentwater today~

Nick told me that Captain Flint’s eight foot Wright’s dinghy, the houseboat’s tender, had been made by Wright’s Brothers of Ipswich. The Jackson’s ‘native canoe’, rowed out to Peel Island by Virginia McKenna was ‘a family fourteen’ Wright’s sailing dinghy with a centre case. He knew many of the traditional boats in the Lakes. ‘I served me time as a yacht and boat builder at Shepherd’s in Bowness Bay.’ This company was based the green double-story boat sheds featured in the ‘Rio’ scenes. ‘During the winter we used to have to break the ice on the buckets of water when we were rubbing down boats. The sail lofts had a square panel in the apex so we could poke the 8 to 10 metre masts inside. A boom could go up the stairs but a mast certainly couldn’t. ‘

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville on Wild Cat Island - contact sheet

~Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville and DoP Denis Lewiston~

‘Amazon belonged to a chap called Vosey who was rather reluctant to let her be used for the filming,’ Nick said. ‘We did her up a bit after the filming.’ I gather she had been used in the black and white BBC serial of Swallows and Amazons made in 1962 when  Susan George played the party of Kitty.

~Swallow sailing towards the filming pontoon in 1973~

I believe Swallow had been found at Burnham-on-Crouch as she was built by Williams King and Sons. Mike Turk, who had built a shallop for the 1966 movie ‘A Man For All Seasons’, purchased her for the film and brought her up to the Lakes. She had no added buoyancy. Nick claims that being a wooden boat she would never sink but I reminded him that we came close to hitting the MV Tern on Windermere when loaded with camping gear, which was a bit scary.

MV Tern of 1891 on Windermere
~MV Tern on Windermere today~

Swallow was later used at Elstree Studios when the sound was dubbed onto the finished film. Mike kept her out of the water in his store at Chatham until SailRansome bought her at auction in 2010. She was sensitively restored by Pattersons, has a new sail, added buoyancy bags and is now available for anyone to sail in Cumbria.

Swallow and the pontoon

~Mike Turk’s filming pontoon with Swallow attached in 1973~

‘Mike already had the flat-bottomed filming pontoon. It had originally been used for carrying a vehicle. We added twin outboard engines and rigged scaffold under the water so that either Swallow or Amazon could be attached to it but still keel over naturally as they sailed. When the dinghy went about, I would turn one outboard and thrust the other into reverse so that the pontoon went about with them.’ I remembered that the first time they tried this Swallow’s mast footing broke. Amazon’s mast-gate broke on another occasion. Nick had to persuade a friend to let him borrow his welding workshop and managed to mend it over night, so that she could be ready on set first thing the next day.

Behind the scenes while filming Swallow fromthe pontoon

~The camera pontoon, Capri and one of the Dorys used behind-the-scenes~

Nick went on to say the pontoon leaked a bit. ‘We would have to pump out hull every morning.’ The Capri used behind the scenes was Nick’s equivalent of a marine Land Rover. ‘It had a reinforced glass fibre hull for increased capability and a 55-horse power engine that had been used for the Olympics. We used it for Ken Russell’s film ‘Tommy‘, the rock opera with Roger Daltry and The Who. Once, when we were using it for Swallows and Amazons, Clive Stuart shoved it into gear with rather too much gusto. Someone only just managed to grab the director, Claude Whatham, before he was flung over the back. ‘Claude was spitting feathers after that.’

BW Wearing Life Jackets in the Safety Boat - trimmed

~Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Sten Grendon with David Stanger at the helm of the Dory in 1973~

Mike Turk provided two Dorys, built at his yard, to use as run-around boats. One was driven by David Stanger who is now skipper of a launch on Ullswater. It was a stable boat but you needed to watch how it was not overloaded. Water came over the bows one day giving my mother rather a shock.

‘The boating world is a small world,’ Nick assured me. This July, forty-five years after making the film, he brought his grand-daughter to watch ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick and gamely came up on stage for a Q&A to explain how some of the sailing scenes were achieved.

In his time, Nick Newby has worked a number of films made in the Lake District including Mahler – a Ken Russell film starring Robert Powell, a movie called Gothic (1986) starring Julian Sands and Natasha Richardson, Julia (1977) starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, Brazil (1985), Planet of the Apes, a couple of episodes of Sherloch Holmes with Ben Kingsley, and a number of adverts.

Mike Turk, Swan Upper and Queen’s Waterman, who provided boats for numerous films from Moonraker to Hornblower, sadly passed away aged 78. You can read his obituary here. He went on to work on a number of James Bond movie. You can see his film credits here.

Swallow on the Alde

A group of Arthur Ransome enthusiasts clubbed together to buy Swallow from Mike’s collection in 2010. She is currently kept on a trailer at Kendal in the Lake District. If you would like to sail her, please visit SailRansome.com

For Nicol End Marine, about two miles outside Keswick on Derwentwater please click here

You can see Swallow – and learn of her value – on BBC Antiques Roadshow, towards the end of the first episode recorded at Windermere Jetty museum in September 2020. It is on BBC iplayer here

You can read more about making the 1974 film Swallows and Amazons here

‘I Chaperoned Six Film Stars’ Daphne Neville’s memories of making the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 part three

Daphne Neville in about 1973
Daphne Neville in about 1973

I clearly remember my mother winding carbon paper into the roller of her portable typewriter and bashing out articles. Ping! the bell would ring as she reached the end of a line. She would then pull left on a shiny paddle, with relish, to begin a new paragraph. She seemed to type like the wind, it was only a pity she didn’t write more. Was it more time-consuming when making changes was so laborious and a dictionary needed to be flicked through to check spelling? I was forever pouring through a thesaurus and looking for reference books in libraries as a child in the ‘seventies but find computers seems to steal more time.

Sophie Neville with the cast of Swallows

~The photograph that illustrated an article in Woman magazine taken at the Commonwealth Institute in 1974~

Here is the second part of the article Mum wrote for Woman magazine when the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was screened in cinemas around the country in April 1974. Earlier pages can be read in a previous post here and there is also a programme she wrote for BBC Radio Bristol on the same subject here.

Jean McGill, Jane Grendon, Sten Grendon, Kit Seymour, Sophie Neville, Claude Whatham, Simon West, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Ronnie Cogan, 1973

Daphne Neville giving Lesley Bennett (Peggy Blackett) archery lessons, 1973

The Saucepan and her mother, Daphne Neville in 1973

Terry Smith, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville on location in the Lake District
Wardrobe Master Terry Smith with Sophie Neville and her mother Daphne Neville outside the Make-up caravan on location near Keswick in Cumbria

I’d forgotton that Kit was sent half a Birthday cake but do remember Ronnie Fraser arrived at her party quite tiddly. I am amused to learn we finally left Oaklands Guest House with fifty peices of luggage but I still have a hazel bow and arrow set, which I don’t expect ever fitted into a suitcase.

Please let me know if you would like to see old scripts and letters relating to the original publicity for the film, kept in my mother’s archives.

To read more about Daphne Neville’s adventures in film and television please click here

‘I chaperoned six film stars’ my mother’s memories of working on the 1974 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’-Part Two

Daphne Neville presenting 'Women Only'1

In 1974, my mother, Daphne Neville, was commissioned to write an article about working on the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for Woman magazine, which claimed to be ‘The world’s greatest weekly for women’. Here are some extracts from her type script:

Simon West, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville playing the Walker children in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 1973 ~photo: Daphne Neville

Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville and Simon West on Coniston Water

Our guests: Jane, Michael, Clare and Lucy Selby and their dog, Minnie on the shore of Conniston Water with my sisters Perry and Tamzin in 1973

I was amazed to read some of this. ‘….a dirth of birds’? Was that really how my mother spoke in the early ‘Seventies? I had no recollection that ‘Nomansland’ had been displayed on the front of our double-decker bus. I never remembered there only being bathroom at Oaklands Guesthouse or that Mum had to wash out clothes. I do remember Ronald Fraser shouting, ‘Piss off you little monster’.  I have the photo:

Sten Grendon irriating Ronnie Fraser
Sten Grendon sitting on top of Ronald Fraser during a break in the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

More to follow…. If you would like to see photos of Daphne Neville appearing in movies herself, please click here

You read about how we made the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in any of these books that retail online and can be ordered from bookshops or libraries:

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

‘I Chaperoned Six Film Stars’ – Daphne Neville’s memories of working behind-the-scenes on the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 49 years ago.

My mother is a squirrel. She arrived at my house, not with nuts, but a large envelope. Amongst other things, this contained the transcript of a piece she wrote almost forty-nine years ago for BBC Radio Bristol, when she presented a programme called ‘Come Alive’.  The four flimsy sheets of copy paper have only just been unearthed, along with a similar article for Woman magazine.

Daphne Neville was commissioned to write about her experience working on the original feature film, Swallows and Amazons, filmed on location in the Lake District in the summer of 1973 and brought to cinemas in 1974. Sold worldwide, has been broadcast on television for the last forty years and was last shown on TV in Australia on Boxing Day.

Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville while filming 'Swallows and Amazons' in Cumbria
Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville while filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

It is interesting to have Mum’s perspective. Some of the details are new to me. She timed this piece for BBC Radio as taking ‘8 minutes’ to read:

Suzanna Hamilton, Lesley Bennett, Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour and Simon West before their hair was cut for the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Daphne Neville Chaperone

~ On Derwentwater in 1973: Suzannah Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Daphne Neville, Sten Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Lesley Bennett ~ photo: Martin Neville

'Swallows and Amazons'(1974) Daphne Neville with Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, fellow chaperone, Jane Grendon and Simon West on location in 1973
Daphne Neville with Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, fellow chaperone, Jane Grendon and Simon West on location in 1973

A Day Off in Blackpool - Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville kneeling at Blackpool funfair in 1973
Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville kneeling at Blackpool fun fair in 1973

But Mum, were we ever ‘Film Stars’?

We scowled at the terminology at the time. Ten years later and I thought of us a merely puppets, marionettes of the director who carefully honed our performances. I can now see the contribution we made when I watch the film, but we were never film stars.

What do I wish? I wish that we’d been able to make a sequel and develop our work more fully. The flip-side of this would have been that any more success, or more publicity, might have stripped us of our anonymity, which is the bain of real film stars. We’d have had to go around wearing sunglasses.

The film star Ronald Fraser with Daphne Neville and Sophie Neville in 1973

If you would like to see what we were filming 49 years ago, on 1st July 1973, please click here.

Do let me know, via the comments below, if you would like to see more archive material. I have the draft of my mother’s article for Woman magazine – it’s a different version of the same but with added detail. She needed permission from Anglo EMI Film Distributors before it could be published. There is also a draft of another radio script and a number of letters. If you would like to see vintage photos of Mum appearing on television herself, please click here

If you would like to read more about our adventures filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’, please click here

You can read the first pages for free here:

Out of the archives: a 1974 script for a BBC Radio Bristol show about the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’

Swallow and Amazon sailing on Derwentwater in the Lake District 1973

When the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ first came out in cinemas it stirred up quite a bit of interest in the media.

This script for a programme made for BBC Radio Bristol has recently been discovered in a box in my mother’s attic. Typical of the early ‘seventies, it is a carbon copy, so is rather feint, but it a little bit of media history in itself:


It’s intriguing. What did we say in the interviews that they ran in?

Sadly, two of the first newspaper reviews of the movie were not complimentary. Last year, when interviewed by Tim Fenton at Pin Mill on the Orwell, Professor Hugh Brogan said that one of these articles was so ignorant and so angered him that he resolved to write the truth about Ransome’s distinguished career. This involved years of research but resulted in his biography, ‘The Life of Arthur Ransome’.

I haven’t been able to find the article Hugh read but he remembered it being ignorant of Arthur Ransome’s politics rather than the film. His beautifully written book sparked an enormous amount of additional research and television documentaries, including ‘The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome’, which can be viewed on iPlayer.

Since The Lutterworth Press published the seconded edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ in May last year, a number of other stories and facts have reached me. I’ve learned that the creamy yellow taxi in which the Walker family arrived at Holly Howe was a Vauxhall 20/60 R type saloon, 1928 – 1930 model hired for the film by the property buyer Ron Baker, whose name I must add to the credits. When the Altounyan children stayed at the same farmhouse, which in reality is called Bank Ground Farm, their hostess was called Mrs Jolly. Apparently her husband, Mr Jolly, did not live up to his name.

The lady in blue who waved from the deck of MV Tern after the Swallow’s near miss was played by Lorna Khan. Here she is with her daughter Zena and a yellow Austin Heavy 12/4 tourer, after they appeared in the Rio scenes. You can see other film extras and supporting artists in 1929 costume, patiently sitting in the Browns of Ambleside coach behind them.

 Photograph (c) Zena Ashbury

Did you know that missionaries in Africa used semaphore? Until I read a Russian edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ I’m afraid I didn’t know that Darien was the former name of the Isthmus of Panama, that the Rio Grande flows from South Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico or that ‘Shiver my timbers’ was a curse used by R. L Stephenson in Treasure Island.

Nick Owen had been living at Elterwater for seventeen years before he learnt the fishing scene from ‘Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ was shot there.

It had not occurred to me that the film was recorded in the annals until I was sent this excerpt from the third edition of ‘Time Out Film Guide’ (1993). Perhaps I should bring out a third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’.

Please let me know if you would like to see more archive material from the attic.

To read more about Cider With Rosie (1971) directed by Claude Whatham, starring Sten Grendon as Laurie Lee please click here

Meeting up with Mate Peggy – part two

Amazons meet the Swallows

The Amazons confronting the Swallows on Peel Island in the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

In the feature film ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) the part of Peggy Blackett was played by Lesley Bennett. She was an experienced dingy sailor and enjoyed the scenes on the houseboat although she told me she didn’t want the parrot to flap onto her shoulder, which was understandable. Its claws dug into mine.

Sophie Neville with Lesely Bennett and a green parrot in 19730003

~Sophie Neville as Titty with the green parrot and Lesley Bennett as Peggy~

When I met up with Lesley in the Netherlands this summer, we looked though the photographs she’d been given by the producer and kept for posterity.

Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett at Brown Howe boathouse on Coniston Water in 1973

If you don’t recognise the scene above it is because, although the  shot was taken at Brown Howe, where the Amazon boathouse can be found, they were rehearsing the scene at Secret Harbour on Peel Island when the Blacketts find their boat has been captured. ‘She can’t have drifted against the wind.’ This was the first I knew of this. Perhaps they were waiting around for the camera to be set up or for a decision to be made about their red hats, which they were not wearing. This was rare. They wore them in every other scene.

The Amazons sailing on Derwentwater

Lesley didn’t have much time for Ronald Fraser, who played her Uncle Jim, renamed by Titty as Captain Flint. “He wasn’t very nice to us. I think he regarded us as a bit of a nuisance but as soon as the cameras were on him, he’d change!”

Ronald Fraser with Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour on Peel Island, Coniston Water in 1973

Lesley, who grew up in Kent, remembered my mother taking her shopping in Ambleside on one of our rare days off. “She had an appreciation of how important it is to buy a good top, explaining that she needed a selection for her work as a television presenter. I remember her waiting for ages while I tried on one after another.” I was amazed when I heard this. My mother only ever took me shopping once or twice when the first Laura Ashley shop opened in Cheltenham. This was deeply exciting but a rare treat. It was my poor father who was dragged from one shoe shop to another. It was difficult to find decent shoes in the ‘seventies.

Leaving London for the Lake District in May 1973 – photo Evening Standard

It was difficult to find decent clothes, that didn’t cost a fortune. There was a reason why dressmaking was so popular – we had to make our own garments. At the age of twelve I made a navy blue skirt for school so that it had a fashionably broad waist band. Flared dungarees were all the rage, worn with a stripy polo-neck or blouse with a large collar. Kit, Lesley and I all wore these, although sadly my brushed-cotton dungarees grew rather short during the filming.

Lesely Bennett's visit to Chiddingstone School's Boat Fair in 1974

Lesley signing autographs at the Chiddingstone School Book Fair in 1974

Lesley managed to find what I’d thought was the ideal outfit for our afternoon film premiere, which I’m pretty sure she is wearing in the shot above. Although we were almost obsessed with clothes, they were not a subject people discussed with new acquaintances, which was a pity as it would have provided us something neutral to discuss with the press.

“I remember the journalists at the hotel in the Lake District,” Lesley said, “and Claude saying, ‘Be careful what you say to journalists because they will turn it against you.'” However, when it came to film publicity Lesley was both enthusiastic and gracious turning up at a local school book fair and posing for newspaper photographers. I can see that tank-tops had come in by this time and it was possible to blow-dry your own hair.

Lesley Bennett in 1974

Lesley enjoyed drama at school and looked into going to RADA, but after auditioning for one film decided the acting profession was too precarious. I think we were both interviewed for parts, possibly the same part in the same film. It was set in Wales and involved rock climbing. I said I wasn’t scared of heights, which was a lie! Sadly it was never made. I told her that Ronald Faser wanted us both to appear in another movie but that the funding fell through. She wasn’t disappointed. I was able to tell her that there was an actress called Lesley Bennett of about our age who once had a part in the long-running soap opera ‘Coronation Street’ but she confirmed that this was not her.

Lesley always loved meeting people wanted to travel, so went into marketing, working for Unilever on the first ‘Just one Cornetto’ campaign. She later branched out into international event management, which took her all over the world. She married a tall Dutchman and has two grown sons. They have a policy of visiting a different place each holiday, there by exploring different places, and they lived in Dubai for a while before returning to the Netherlands where she has been based since the early 1980s.

The cast of Swallows and Amazons with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in 1973

Lesley looks back fondly on what she calls “The Swallows and Amazons era”, appreciating what recollections mean to those who have grown up with the movie and enjoy Arthur Ransome’s books. “Innocent films like ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) appeal to those who know exactly how the books were written.” One thing she kept was the original film poster. Here she is with it more than forty-three years after the release. And she hasn’t changed a bit.

Lesley Bennett, 2017

Lesley today, with her original film poster of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

2nd edition of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS and AMAZONS (1974)’ published by The Lutterworth Press

9780718894962_cover Amazons.indd

The long-awaited second edition of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS (1974)’ was being published in paperback by The Lutterworth Press in May 2017. It is available from their website here
This memoir of an odd thing that happened in the early 1970s is similar to the first edition but has a new cover and includes a few more stories, photographs and names from the ‘seventies that have floated to the surface. It compliments StudioCanal’s 40th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray and makes a good present for anyone who has grown up watching the 1974 film.
StudioCanal DVD cover
The new paperback edition will be stocked by the vast majority of book retailers including Amazon, Waterstones, Blackwells, Paperback Bookshop, Books Etc. and is available direct from The Lutterworth Press who also publish ‘Swallows, Amazons and Coots’ by Julian Lovelock that has a foreword by Sophie Neville. Those in North America can order copies from the US distributor Casemate Academic
 Swallows & Amazons flags for book

Sophie will be signing copies at events around the country.

Please click here for details

Roseland Festival 2017

Sophie signed copies of her books at the Tavistock Festival and gave a talk at the Roseland Festival in St Mawes before a screening of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) at the lovely Hotel Tresanton cinema.

Arthur Ransome Pin Mill Jamboree

Sophie opened the Arthur Ransome Pin Mill Jamboree in Suffolk to celebrate the  20th Anniversary of the Nancy Blackett Trust and Visit England’s Year of Literary Heroes. She gave a talk on the adaptations of Ransome’s books set in East Anglia and the English Lake District.

Map of the Jamboree

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