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Do you have any questions about the making of ‘Swallows & Amazons’

“They’re pirates!” Sophie Neville as Titty

The Telegraph listed ‘Swallows & Amazons’ as Film of the Week when it was broadcast on ITV3 in the UK recently. It was also shown on GEM television in Australia last Friday. Sophie has been answering questions about making the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ at the Curious Arts Festival. If you have one, please use the comments box below.

On 26th July Sophie Neville, spoke to Dan Damon on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday morning programme ‘Broadcasting House’ about the enduring success of the film. To read more, please click here.

Sophie Neville shaking cocktails

Sophie Neville at the Curious Arts Festival

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“40 years on…” Speaking on BBC Radio Cumbria on Friday 14th June

Local article on Swallows and Amazons written in 1973

What is happening now? Not sure, but a number of people who love the Lake District have expressed an interest in what was happening there forty years ago today.

On Friday 14th June Sophie Neville was interviewed by Mike Zeller on BBC Radio Cumbria’s Breakfast Programme at 7.20am and again at 8.50am. 

Hillary Warwick from Bolton-le-Sands near Carnforth rang in to say that her grandma owned the green parrot, telling us that he was called ‘Beauty’. They used the £25 appearance fee to buy him a new cage.  Hilary’s gran, Elizabeth Proctor, had been quite a character. She’d walk around Kendal with Beauty on her shoulder. He was known to be a one-woman bird and Hilary was quite impressed that I managed to stroke him and keep him on my shoulder as he was liable to nip. She was quite wary of him!

Do you live in the Lake District?

Did you take part in the film in anyway?

If so do write in using the comments box below!

Local article on Swallows

~ click on the image to enlarge ~

Here is another newspaper article from 1973 that mentions Lakeland people involved in the filming forty years ago, including a photograph of Mrs Lucy Batty and her grandson Peter and Margaret Causey who taught the children in the movie, pictured below with Lesley Bennett, Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville and Mark Hedges – who didn’t appear in the movie but came up over half-term as his Dad, Bob Hedges was working as the property master.

Virginia McKenna is photographed above talking to Ian Whittaker, the set dresser who went on to win a number of Oscars.

The News article on Swallows

An extract from this article of Brenda Colton’s reads:

‘When Mrs Lucy Batty was asked if her house could be used for the setting of the film Swallows and Amazons, with guest star Virginia McKenna, she was delighted. After all, her home, Bank Ground Farm on the east side of Coniston Water, near Brantwood, was the setting chosen by Arthur Ransome for his children’s book Swallows and Amazons.

Mrs Batty thought it a good idea that the story should be filmed in an authentic location, and she felt she should be able to put up with a few cameras and film men for a while. But she just did not realise the scale of a “medium budget” film like this one, or what the production staff could do to her house. It was not the two double-decker buses coming down the path and parking on the farm that she minded, nor the numerous vans, lorries, cars and caravans. It was not even the difficulty of having 80 men and women wandering round the farmhouse carrying equipment here, there and everywhere. But when art director Simon Holland started tearing up her lino and carpet in the kitchen to get to the bare stone floor, she did get a little annoyed. Especially when he removed all the electric sockets, lights and switches, pushed all the kitchen furniture into the larder and whitewashed the newly papered walls.

Have you seen the kitchen?” Mrs Batty said to me. “The larder is piled high with my furniture; and you would not believe the tip my lounge is in. But they are a funny lot. I asked if I could wash the beams in the kitchen for them, and they said ‘Oh no, we want them to look old.’ I have even had to hunt out a lot of old pottery from the cellar for them.

But I have given up now. I have just left them to it.”

~ From The News, Friday 25th May, 1973 ~

 Bank Ground Farm is very much smarter today ~ Click here for their website

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‘We sailed the length of the lake’ ~ filming on Derwentwater, 9th July 1973

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker with Stephen Grendon as the Boy Roger and Simon West playing Captain John Walker on Derwentwater

Sten Grendon as the Boy Roger, Sophie Neville as Able-seaman Titty and Simon West playing Captain John, Derwentwater in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Monday morning on Derwentwater in the Lake District and we had no lessons. The Cumbrian schools had broken-up for the summer holidays so we were free to play, or as freely as you can be when you are wearing a costume that can not under any circumstances get wet or dirty.

Terry Smith, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville on location in the Lake District

Behind-the-scenes: wardrobe master Terry Smith with Sophie Neville and her chaperone outside the Make-up caravan on location near Keswick.

Although Claude Whatham was operating with a skeleton crew our wardrobe master Terry Smith was still getting us into the right kit for each scene. My mother said that he either got muddled or distracted at one point as a whole sequence was shot with all of us wearing the wrong costumes. It caused quite a fuss. It would have been expensive in time and money. She thought he had been given the sack, but this doesn’t appear to have been the case.

Simon West, Stephen Grendon and Sophie Neville whilst on location in the Lake District in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

One of the secrets of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is that, on this day, Terry Smith adapted Ronald Fraser’s costume and white colonial pith helmet for our property master Bob Hedges to wear. It was he that fired the cannon on the houseboat.

The secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons in 1973

A boatman working on Derwent Water in 1973

Clive Stewart our boatman with the houseboat and the dinghies, Amazon and Swallow, on Derwentwater in 1973 ~ photo Daphne Neville

Clive Stewart of the Keswick Launch Co. was one of a number of Cumbrian boatman who worked on the support crew for the filming of Swallows and Amazons in 1973. They played a vital role not only ferrying us to the location but acting as safety boats and keeping modern boats out of shot. They were certainly busy once the wind got up on this particular day. Claude Whatham handed over the direction of montage sequence of the Swallows’ first voyage to the island to David Blagden, our sailing director. At last we had the sun and wind for it – if not too much wind. By now were were pretty experienced but the little ship was challenged to the full as wind gusted down from Cat Bells.

Suzanna Hamilton wrote in her diary that, ‘…it was very rough. We thought we were going to do a Chinese jibe but it was OK. We sailed the whole length of the lake.’  What must have been tricky for Simon West was that he had Denis Lewiston, the lighting-cameraman, on board with a 16mm camera, as well as all our clumsy camping equipment. You can see me heaving the crockery basket past the camera on the movie. The result was probably the most exciting sequence in the film, or so my father later declared.

Filming the voyage to the island in Swallow

Jean McGill, our unit nurse and driver, was ever around to scoop us up and keep everyone cheerful when we came in feeling a bit chilly.

Terry Smith and Jean McGill on Derwentwater

Wardrobe master Terry Smith wearign the safety officer’s wetsuit with unit nurse and driver Jean McGill on Derwentwater. Kit Seymour is sitting behind them to their right ~ photo: Daphne Neville

In the evening Richard Pilbrow, his girl-friend Molly Friedel and his assistant Liz Lomax came up to our guesthouse in Ambleside to show us the cine footage they took on the sailing weekend that had been the final audition for our parts. This had taken place in March at sailing town of Burnham-on-Crouch in the Maldon District of Essex when were stayed on board a moored vessel and went out sailing with David Blagden in quite grey, chilly weather. The conditions had been pretty rough then. I remember telling Claude that we ‘helmed like anything’.  I felt terribly embarrassed later when I realised that ‘helmed’ was not exactly what I had meant to say but I don’t think Claude was familiar with sailing terminology at the time.  He would have like the spirit of what I said.

It had been choppy but none of our days had been as rough as David Blagden’s Atlantic crossing, famously made in his tiny orange-hulled 19 foot yacht Willing Griffin.  I wonder if the footage of this still exists?

Richard Pilbrow must put me right on this, but the theory is that he acquired Swallow that weekend. We were told at the London Boat Show that she was originally the all-purpose run-around dinghy built by and for William King & Sons’ boatyard at Burnham-on Crouch in the 1930s.  She has the initials WK carved on her transom. They designed her well – a stable little ship with plenty of room inside and no centre-board to worry about. You can see detailed photographs of her on the Sailing Swallow website.

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Being a cormorant ~ filming more swimming scenes for Swallows and Amazons on 4th July 1973

Stephen Gredon as Roger Walker being taught to swim by Suzanna Hamilton playing his elder sister Susan Walker on location at Peel Island on Coniston in 1973

Roger still couldn’t swim, but he was trying to. Very hard.  The production manager had kindly scheduled the second of our swimming scenes as late in the summer as possible. The weather was warmer – we’d elected to go bathing in a river up near Rydal Water on our day off – but it was still pretty chilly out on Coniston.

Whilst we tried to acclimatise by running around in our swimming costumes the crew were all in their thick coats as you can see from this home movie footage shot by my mother. We had bought her 8mm camera by saving up Green Shield stamps. (Can you remember collecting Green Shield stamps from petrol stations? They were an icon of the early 1970s all by themselves.) I remember someone on the crew calling out ‘Second unit!’ as Mum lifted what looked like a grey and white toy to her face. It was a bit noisy so she was not able to record during a take. You only see us before and after the sequences in the film, but her footage shows quite a few of the members of the crew – all smoking away, even when they were trying to warm us up after each sequence. You can watch Jean McGill, from Cumbria, our unit nurse who was dressed in red popping Dextrose into our mouths and giving us hot drinks to warm us up. Jean made Gareth Tandy, the third assistant, who was aged about 18, wear a sun hat because he had previously suffered from sun stroke. David Blagden can be glimpsed as one of the only other men with short hair.

The camera pontoon must have been left up on Derwentwater. Claude was obliged to shoot these scenes from what we called the camera punt, which was smaller but quite useful. Richard Pilbrow sent me a picture. He has included others in a new book that he has written about his career, including a section on the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ called ‘A Theatre Project’

Claude Whatham and his crew on the camera punt

First assistant David Bracknell, director Claude Whatham, grip David Cadwallader and DoP Dennis Lewiston (seated) with three local boatmen ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

Do please let me know if you can tell me the names of the three Cumbrian boatmen featured in this photograph who helped us. Others are featured in the home-movie footage. They all look like pirates. Real ones.

Goodness knows that Health and Safety would say about that punt today. The DoP managed to get two sizeable electric lights, on stands, into a boat already overloaded with personel and expensive equipment. You can see for yourself. Were these ‘Filler’ lights powered by portable batteries?  The Lee Electric generator was on the shore. I was in the water. Busy being a cormorant.

We had an interesting afternoon filming with both dinghies. At one point we had the camera with us in Swallow. I found these photographs of us on the internet.

Sophie Neville, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton

I was given the honour of clapping the clapper-board and calling out, ‘Shot 600, Take one!’ for a close-up of Suzanna Hamilton.

Suzanna Hamilton as Susan Walker sailing Swallow on Coniston Water in 1973

‘The worse possible kinds of natives’… Tourists were beginning to arrive for their summer holidays in the Lake District and we still had quite a bit more to film.

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West sailing Swallow in 1973

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30th June 1973 – Finding our photographs in the Daily Express

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The secret was out; ‘his anecdotes which are many, o u t r a g e o u s, and largely unrepeatable.’ Whilst we had been busy filming on a smelly lily pond the ‘joker’s joker’ had been languishing in the bar of the Kirkstone Foot Hotel just outside Ambleside saying that, ‘he was a lousy lover but loved to practice.’ Oh deary me.  Worse was to come.

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‘…baby, you’ve got to be a bit dotty.’ At least we were described as ‘bright and vivacious’.

 

David Blagden, our sailing director, had a small part of a prison officer in the movie Kidnapped, that we went to watch at the local cinema. It starred Michael Caine, Trevor Howard and Lawrence Douglas, with Jack Hawkins, Donald Pleasence and Gordon Jackson, but sadly not Ronald Fraser. He was still in the bar.

Suzanna Hamilton’s perspective on the day is not so very different but it is in purple.

Mediculs. A sure sign that our movie was over-schedule and over budget, with nothing much anyone could do about it but keep going. We still had to capture the houseboat. And make that splendid gentleman walk the plank.

The distinguished actor Ronald Fraser fishing with Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Sophie Neville and Stephen Grendon whilst filming on location in the Lake District ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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‘Now then, Miss Nancy’ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Wild Cat Island in 1973

Director Claude Whatham and Bobby Sitwell with Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker and Ronald Fraser as Jim Turner aka Captain Flint in 1973

I love this photograph of Suzanna with Claude Whatham and the Bobby the focus puller. It somehow captures the atmosphere of filming on Peel Island back in 1973. I was meant to be sitting on the biscuit tin where I have left my empty cup, but Claude must have been reading my lines as he took Suzanna Hamilton’s close-ups. I was never sure about the blouse she is wearing. We hadn’t heard of Margaret Thatcher at the time but it now seems to be edging a little too close to her style. I doubt if she took inspiration from us.

‘It was quite a nice day weather-wise,’ one of the others had noted, but obviously not the solid sunshine needed for the big scenes yet to be shot out on the lakes. However our sailing director David Blagden was back with us, his hair cut short in order to appear in vision as Sammy the Policeman, a part he played beautifully. Although there is a cheerful photograph of him taken straight after he gained a short-back-and-sides we can only find rather a distant and visually confused one of him in uniform at the camp site on Wild Cat Island. He was so desolate to have had his hair cut short that he took off his helmet during the scene to prove that he really had been shorn.

We were excited that David was on the set, in costume. He’d always been behind the camera before. But he made a very serious Policmen and didn’t let the persona of his character fall whilst he was in uniform. What works best in the film is the edit. ‘No more trouble of any kind, ‘ Virginia McKenna insists – and the shot cuts to the boots of a Policmen arrving in camp.

It looks as  if this was one long scene – but the section where the content of Uncle Jim’s book was discussed while we sipped tea had been shot a week previously when Ronald Frazer first arrived in the Lake District.

David Blagden who played Sammy the Policeman

David Blagden who played Sammy the Policman ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The clapper-loader, Sophie Neville and David Blagden as the Policeman on Peel Island ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Director Claude Whatham having lunch with his leading ladies, Suzanna Hamilton and Lesley Bennett ~ photo: Daphne Neville

It was a long day, but a happy one. Any secrets?  It was really in the scene when John declares ‘a dead calm’ and we decide to visit the charcoal burners that it became apparent that I was taller than my elder brother played by Simon West. A box was provided for him to stand on so that I look shorter when I run into shot. It was a shot I remember we did in one take – despite being fairly complicated. Everyone was amazed that we moved on so quickly. We needed to.

The pre-occupation of the producer was that, since the bad weather had caused delays, we still had an awful lot to film. We must have been about a week behind schedule – a huge worry for Richard Pilbrow. The next day we just had to get out on the water come what may.

The huge sadness was that David Blagden, so vibrant and good looking with so much to live for,  lost his life to the sea in the late 1970s. After Swallows and Amazons he presented an ITV series brooadcast on Sundays called ‘Plain Sailing’. It featured Willing Griffin the 19′ Hunter in which he’d crossed the Atlantic despite  horrific weather in 1972 and the survey of a 39′ wooden boat I think he intended to take on another crossing.  Apparently he set off in this yawl from Alderney in a Force 11 gale and was never seen again. The harbourmaster had begged him not to go.  They found his girlfriend’s body and parts of the boat but there was no trace David.

Very Willing Griffin by David Blagden sailing director on 'Swallows and Amazons'

The cover of ‘Very Willing Griffin’ by David Blagden. ‘An exciting adventure of persuing and living a dream against many odds’, this sort after book was reviewed in The Journal of Navigation.

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‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~ haircuts and other preparations for the film back in 1973

Saturday 12th May 1973

Haircuts ~

In the early ’70s most people had long hair.  Ours had to be cut and bobbed to match the 1929 hair styles in Arthur Ransome’s well-known illustrations. I wrote in my diary that, ‘Sten went first and came out looking much older with all his locks cut off!  Simon was next. He looked much the same, except with his ears showing.’  We thought they looked so much better with short-back-and-sides. Mum said that Sten really did have long, flowing hair, which looked extraordianry on a nine year old boy.

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

I’ve just been reminded that the production company really struggled to find male Extras to be in Swallows and Amazons because no one wanted this cut. The actors were the same. Mike Pratt, who played Mr Dixon the diary farmer, couldn’t have his hair cut as he was in the middle of filming a television series, The Adventures of Black Beauty, set in the Victorian era – a good excuse to avoid being shorn.  His hair had to be pinned up under a flat cap, which looked weird on the big screen.  You could see the kirby grips.

My mother had huge reservations about my straggly blonde hair being chopped off and said she nearly refused to let them.  I am very glad she didn’t.  It was wonderful having short hair.  My haircut proved such a great success that I believe it set a fashion for having a graduated bob or ‘Titty Haircut’.

Swallows and Amazons preparations for filming

The dentist ~

I am sure that as well as having our teeth cleaned that they were checked over before they caused a problem.  As it was I lost a fairly conspicuous milk tooth during the filming at a time when it caused havoc with the continuity. The director was not pleased but there was nothing he could do.  Because the film could not always be shot in sequence you’ll see a full set of teeth in one shot and one missing in another. People still comment on it today.

The sailing director ~

Because Claude Whatham, the film director, was not a sailor himself he appointed a sailing instructor or ‘Sailing Director’,  David Blagden who took us sailing in both Swallow and Amazon before the filming, as my diary relates.

David Blagden and my mother, Daphne Neville ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

We needed to get used to handling the dinghies, was great fun. David made it fun. He was a tall, dark, good looking actor who had been in Kidnapped and was given the part of the Sammy the Policeman, which he did very well. ‘Now then, Miss Nancy.’  Having his hair-cut was such a big thing that he took off his helmet during scene to make the most of it, displaying his very short hair to the the world. We all adored David, who was well known for having sailed across the Atlantic. He had come in tenth, out of fifty-nine competitors, in the 1972 Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Race. He made the crossing in Willing Griffin a Hunter 19, the smallest yacht ever to offically participate in a transatlantic race. I’m afraid that my father thought that he over estimated his abilities. He was of the opinion that crossing the ocean was not quite the experience needed for clinker built sailing dinghies, which could jibe viciously without warning when wind blustered down from the fells, and didn’t rate him highly for the job.  Dad was concerned about our safety.  After the film David attempted to cross the Atlantic once more.  He was never seen again.

Richard Pilbrow and the other boats ~

Richard Pilbrow, who was producing Swallows and Amazons loved boats and was often out on the water with us. It seemed that he came on on this day with us in a motor boat – it was one of those typical glass-fibre ones with a small cabin that were thought quite snazzy at the time.  Along with the gaff-rigged dinghies, Swallow and Amazon there were quite a number of other period boats used during the filming – not least Captain Flint’s Houseboat, one of the Windermere Steamers and the Holly Howe rowing boat, or native canoe, in which Virginia McKenna so gallantly rowed out to the island when as Mother she came to visit her children only to find Robinson Crusoe (me) in residence. Richard loved them all. So did we.

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