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.
‘Forty years after she enchanted film-goers as Titty in Swallows and Amazons, Sophie Neville has found a new audience… telling the behind-the-scenes secrets of the film of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel.’ The Daily Mail The Making of Swallows & Amazons ‘…is based on diaries, letters and old photographs which Sophie has turned into a heart-warming account of making the movie, which starred Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser.’
The Telegraph~ Culture: ‘Set in the Lake District in 1929, the film follows four young adventurers who sail a dinghy around Lake Coniston, cook for themselves over campfires and sleep in makeshift campsites.’
‘…The occasional chaos and terrible weather during filming contributed to the eventual popularity of the extraordinary and very much loved film.’ The Times
‘The film Swallows & Amazons is 40 years old, but thanks to its careful period evocation, its respect for Arthur Ransome’s original book and the performances of its child actors, it’s become a timeless classic. One of those children was Sophie Neville, who played Titty, and who kept a diary during the filming. That diary, with her adult recollections, is this book. It’s a fascinating insight into filming on location in the Lake District…’ Classic Boat
‘… The result is compulsive reading as she recalls that cold wet summer, while the camera crew wrapped up warm and she shivered in her skimpy dress as Able Seaman Titty Walker. Sophie brings to life all the many memorable characters who worked on the film and in particular the other children, the Director Claude Whatham who developed a great relationship with his young cast and the stars Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser. Nor are the other young actors forgotten for there are diary contributions from Suzanna Hamilton who played Susan, Stephen Grendon who played the Boy Roger and Kit Seymour who played Nancy Blackett. The text is supported by numerous illustrations showing life on and off the set.’ Roger Wardale, author of Arthur Ransome: Master Storytellerand other books
‘You don’t need to be a Swallows & Amazons fan to enjoy this book – it’s universal!’ Winifred Wilson, Librarian of The Arthur Ransome Society
‘This was a most unusual and interesting book. I picked it up expecting to browse through it, and found myself so drawn in to Sophie Neville’s detailed, amusing and insightful description of film making in the 1970’s that I was unable to put her book down. As Arthur Ransome fans, my family and I have always loved the film, and felt that Sophie Neville was ‘just right’ as Titty. What fun it has been to be introduced to the young twelve year old Sophie with her intelligent awareness of the challenges facing the production crew while she shivered in her cotton dresses. The many photographs and illustrations contribute richly to bringing the 1970s setting to life. Sophie recorded her experiences beautifully, and in so doing, added one more valuable book to the cultural heritage of all Arthur Ransome fans.’ Juliet Calcott, English teacher,South Africa
If you would like to know how the movie of Swallows & Amazons (1974) was made and know where the real locations can be found, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons(1974)’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon and Smashwords for £2.99. The paperback was launched to mark the 40th anniversary of the film’s release and is available online here.
The paperback, which is suitable for any age group, is based on the diary that I kept when I played the part of Titty Walker in 1973. It is illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs and memorabilia such as one of the tickets to the Royal Gala premier in Shaftesbury Avenue held on 4th April 1974. You will also find out what the actors who played the Walker family ~ the Swallows ~ are doing now.
The joy of the ebook is that it includes a number of home-movie clips that my parents took of life behind the scenes that you can play wherever you have internet access.
If you have any questions about making the film, please add them to the comments below, and I will get back to you.
There were rather over-excited headlines in the Times and Telegraph when the ebook was launched but they only spoke of the legendary drinking of Ronald Fraser. Please don’t worry – there is nothing X-rated about the book – it is just the price one pays for half a page in a daily newspaper, especially since it came out on a Saturday.
The ebook has been doing well in the Amazon charts and hit Number 1 in the category ‘Stage and Theatre’.
A preview of what the book holds in store can be watched here:
A comment from someone who worked on the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973 ~
l had just finished my three years at college and was at a loose end before l started my working life. I was living in Ambleside at the heart of the English Lake District where Arthur Ransome’s children’s story “Swallows and Amazons” was being filmed at the time. I landed myself a job working for the film unit. I was full of my own importance as l was driving the stars and director of the film.
The stars were Virginia McKenna of “Born Free” fame and Ronald Fraser. I was reminded of this period of my life when l read the headline ‘X-RATED antics of Swallows and Amazons’ in The Times. The title related to the release of an e-book by Sophie Neville one of the child actors in the film. Sophie was 12 at the time and I was 19.
Sophie recalls how Ronnie (Ronald Fraser) was always drunk. Well this is not strictly true. In the morning Ronnie was reasonably sober and for this reason the director Claude Whatham would try and get most of the shooting with Ronnie in the can before the lunch hour came around when I would be summoned to take him to the nearest hostelry. Ronnie would then order his own concoction ‘The Fraser’. I cannot for the life of me remember what it consisted of, but believe you me these disappeared at a rapid rate of knots down Captain Flint’s (his character’s) throat. By the time the liquid lunch came to an end l would have to bundle him into the back of the car and deposit him back on set, much to the dismay of the producer Richard Pilbrow and the director Claude Whatham. Afternoon shooting was often a disaster when Ronnie was involved and I’m sure he frightened the children from time to time.
Well if the children were sometimes scared by Uncle Jim, as Captain Flint is known, then l was scared of the parrot that Uncle Jim had on his boat. The first day that I had to collect the parrot the old lady who owned him travelled with him to the location on Derwent Water. However she soon became bored with all the hanging around and after that she entrusted me with the parrot. Now birds are not really my thing and I really did not like handling him. He would travel to the location in an old shopping bag with a zipper, where l would hand him over and he would be placed in his cage. This was all well and good, then came the day that was so wet they did not use him, but instead he stayed in the production office at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel where the crew were hanging out. I was told he was in the bathroom, l expected him to be in his travel bag, but no he was sat on the edge of the bathtub looking at me. By this time he hated being put in the bag it took me all my time with a towel to catch him, finally after being scratched and bitten I got him home to his Mum.
The hardest thing to stomach was the fact that the parrot was paid more per day than l was.
Thank you so much for writing in, David. Your story about the green parrot had me roaring with laughter. I am told that he was a male parrot called Beauty, who belonged to Mrs Proctor of Kendal. Her grand-daughter rang in when I was interviewed on Radio Cumbria recently. She told me that her gran, old Mrs Proctor could do anything with him, and was well know for walking around Kendal with him sitting on her arm. I don’t think anyone else dared get close. Since I played the part of Titty, I had to have him sitting on my shoulder in the cabin of the houseboat, while delivering the most important lines in the film. We were then meant to leap about singing, What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? This was a bit ironic since Ronnie was half-plastered by then. He was pretty permanently pickled. In the penultimate shot of the film, while pretending to play the accordion, he was still drunk from the Wrap Party 36 hours before. The parrot was not invited to the party but did receive a fee of £25 for appearing in the film. His owner used this to buy him a bigger cage.
I don’t know who thought up the ‘X-rated’ headline at the Times (which was absurd) but a reporter from the Daily Express provided the receipt for ‘The Fraser’ in 1973 – I have the clipping (above). Geoffrey Mather wrote: ‘A Fraser is a drink of his own invention. It consists of a large vodka with a kiss of lime and a ton of ice, topped up with soda in a large glass’. We all bought the copies of the newspaper in Ambleside. My mother was horrified as instead of being a story about making the film it was a half-page article about Ronnie’s antics in the bar of the Kirkstone Foot Hotel on Windermere.
More stories from the making of Swallows and Amazons can be found here:
Thanks to the encouragement and help of my blog followers and Arthur Ransome enthusiasts around the world, I have managed to put my diaries, letters, old photographs and documents together into a 70,000-word memoir.
“Sometimes extraordinary things do happen to ordinary people. Little girls can find themselves becoming film stars. Long ago, and quite unexpectedly, I found myself appearing in the EMI feature film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons, made for a universal international audience. I played Able-seaman Titty, one of the four Swallows. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I became Titty for a while, wearing thin cotton dresses and elasticated navy blue gym knickers, which the camera crew soon referred to as passion killers. The book was written in 1929 and although the film adaptation was made in the early 1970s it had an ageless quality and has been repeated on television year after year, typically on a Bank Holiday between movies starring Rock Hudson or Doris Day.
I got the part of Titty because I could play the piano. Although I had no ambition to be an actress, at the age of ten I was cast in a BBC dramatisation of Cider with Rosie. They needed a little girl to accompany the eleven-year-old Laurie Lee when he played his violin at the village concert. I plodded through Oh, Danny Boy at an agonising pace.
‘Do you think you could play a little faster?’ the Director asked.
‘No,’ I said, flatly. ‘These are crotchets, they don’t go any faster.’
Claude Whatham must have remembered my crotchets, for two years later, in March 1973, my father received a letter. It arrived completely out of the blue, from a company called Theatre Projects.
We are at present casting for a film version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS which Mr Whatham is going to direct. We were wondering if you would be interested in your daughter being considered for one of the parts in this film.
From ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ by Sophie Neville
Preview copies of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ at the Cruising Association dinner at the Water’s Edge Bar and Restaurant, Mermaid Marina on the River Hamble.
“This heart-warming memoir is illustrated with colour photographs, most of them taken at the time by Sophie’s family, and contains links to behind-the-scenes home movie footage for readers with browser-enabled tablets. It delivers a double helping of nostalgia for both fans of the era of Arthur Ransome, and the groovy times of the early 70’s.” ~ from the Amazon Kindle description
Also available for other reading devices on Smashwords
Thanks to those of you who contributed comments, questions, and aspects of local history on this blog. I would love to know what you think of the book!
If you would like a copy but don’t have a Kindle, you can download a free Kindle app.
While I had been at home with my family, Claude Whatham had been busy in the film editing suite putting ‘Swallows and Amazons’ together with Michael Bradsell. They had previously worked together on ‘That’ll be the Day’. Our Continuity supervisor Sue Merry must have known Michael too, as he’d edited Ken Russell’s film ‘The Boyfriend’. Claude found that they definitely needed the sequence when the Walker children run up to the Peak at Darien and see Wild Cat Island for the very first time.
It is the scene that heralds the start of the adventure and indeed the opening titles of the movie. Richard Pilbrow had always wanted it to be shot at Friar’s Craig on Derwent Water. There is a postcard of this headland with notes written on it by Arthur Ransome who labelled it for the first illustrator of the Jonathan Cape edition of the book, and it seemed just right for the Peak of Darien despite being a long way from Bank Ground Farm. Although there had been two attempts made to record the handful of shots needed as the evening light lit up the islands across the water, we had always been held up and reached the spot too late in the day.
Richard must have already been over budget but the money was found to mount a pick-up shoot at Runnymede near Egham in Surrey one Saturday at the beginning of September. We were told that King John signed the Magna Carta under an oak tree there.
We loved the idea of meeting up again. Claude said he made an effort to get as many members of the same crew together as possible so it wouldn’t seem strange but it was a big unit.
The one thing that was striking was how much our hair had grown. We all needed a trim. Sten needed a full hair cut. Luckily Ronnie Cogan was free.
Neville Thompson had even managed to book the same Make-up caravan. It was here that Peter Robb-King the make-up designer toned down our summer tans in an effort to match the skins of the pale Walker children who’d been sitting in the railway compartment with their mother at the beginning of the film.
The ironic thing was that it was Make-up that held us up when we were first failed to record the scene in the Lake District. It took so long for Peter Robb-King to sponge down all four of us with pale foundation that the sun had set before we arrived on location. I can remember my mother hurrying him along, claiming it was ridiculous as it was too dark to see our freckles anyway. I was keen on the importance of continuity and had contradicted her. Claude couldn’t believe how long it had taken us to change. He had been furious when we turned up late but tried hard not to let us think it had been the fault of us children.
There was no Peak of Darien at the farm in Surrey, but a field had been found where we could run up to an oak tree. We just had to pretend we were looking out over the lake.
If you click on the shot below it should take you to a post I wrote on the opening locations of the film. Scroll down and you’ll see the shot of us running down the meadow at Bank Ground farm. This was the shot Claude had to cut from to the sequence that we were currently filming. Scroll right down to the end of the post and you’ll see me on Friar’s crag looking exhausted after a long day’s filming. I am so glad we were not able to continue that day.
Although he had a freelance camera operator in a stripy shirt who we did not know, we met our Director of Photography Denis Lewiston who was setting up the shot with Claude under the oak tree, using a 35mm Arriflex camera on ‘short legs’.
If you click on the photo above you should get to a Post written about a location that was set on Derwentwater near Friar’s Crag – or on part of Friar’s crag that will give you an idea of what the real Peak of Darien would look like. However, the day in September in Egham was hotter than any day we’d experienced in Cumbria. Claude was soon wearing my straw hat.
If you click on the photo above it will take you to the day on 8th July when we had tried and failed to shoot this scene despite rushing around.
Although we look a bit hot and stiff in these photographs that my mother took when we were lining up the shots I think that the movie was probably made by this scene. We had learnt how to magic-up performances by this stage. If you watch the finished film our faces can be seen glowing with excitement. This was also partly because we were happy to be together again, on a sunny day in a lovely place.
I’ve just realised this image of Titty, clutching her school hat as she looked out over an entirely imaginary lake, was the last actual shot recorded. Soon my close-up was ‘in the can’ and ‘a wrap’ was called. It had been the 1003rd slate of the movie. We celebrated with tins of Fanta rather than champagne.
Since the first shot in the compartment of the steam train as it travelled between Haverthwaite Station and Windermere, recorded back in May, I had put on about seven pounds and grown taller than my elder brother and sister.
I can’t help thinking that this photograph is symbolic of the futures we were to step into. Sten Grendon is holding an apple, Suzanna seems to have a framed photograph and I’d been given a roll of camera tape. What Simon West is holding is something of a mystery, but it is tightly clasped.
Soon it was time to go. We changed back into our own clothes and said goodbye.But it wasn’t long before we saw Claude again. Once he’d finished editing the film we were called to the work on the sound. The movie was still in the making.
It was time to say goodbye. We’d had the most wonderful seven weeks filming on the Lakes but the end had drawn in with the clouds. It was time to go home.
Since we lived in Gloucestershire it was a long drive south. I’m not sure how Jane and Sten Grendon got back as I don’t think Jane drove, but we must have dropped off some of their things on our way past their village.
I can remember seeing my real sisters again and walking around the garden in the afternoon sunshine, looking at all that had changed. We’d left in early May, now it was full summer and the school holidays.
‘Shall we go and put flowers on Luppy’s grave?’ Perry asked. I hadn’t heard that our dear old dog, the sheep dog I had known all my life, had died while we were away. I was inconsolable. Mum explained that they hadn’t wanted to tell me when it happened as we were filming, she thought that the sadness on my face would have come through on camera. I understood this but was still desolate. Having had to cope with the grief of losing Luppy, on top of the heartbreak of leaving everyone I had grown so close to in the Lake District, I was not in a good way.
One of the most treasured things that I had returned with – apart from the lump of Cumbrian slate Jean McGill had given me – was a hardbacked copy of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ signed by the entire cast and crew.
Here you can see inscriptions from Virginia McKenna who had played my mother, Ronald Fraser, Mike Pratt and Brenda Bruce who appeared as Mr and Mrs Dixon, Jack Wolgar and John Franklyn-Robbins who embodied the Charcoal Burners with Brian Robylas (sp?) and Moria Late who played Mr and Mrs Jackson.
It is interesting that all the children signed their character names with their real names in brackets. We must have grown to associate ourselves more with the characters names than with our own. Claude Whatham wrote, with thanks, and Richard Pilbrow enchanted me by drawing a picture of Wild Cat Island at night. The only other signature on this page is from Brian Doyle, Mum’s friend the publicity manager on the movie who encouraged us to collect the autographs.
At the back of the book David Blagden, who played Sammy the Policeman as well as overseeing the sailing, drew me a picture of what must be a vision of himself, sailing into the sunset in his little yacht Willing Griffin.
Phyllis B was my tapestry-making stand-in. Simon Holland our art director (set designer) drew me a wonderful set of crossed flags that were also paint brushes ~ a logo for my life.
I have a signature from Kerry Dartisnine who played Bridget’s Nurse, our Fair Spanish Lady, who like the actors who played the Jacksons was not credited on the movie. Jean McGill was our driver and unit nurse, Eddie Collins the camera operator. Ronnie Cogan was our hairdresser, Toni Turner was a blonde lady who worked on a few days as Suzanna’s stand-in. Terry Smith was the wardrobe master, Terry Needham the second assistant director. Albert Stills is Albert Clarke.
On the last page I have a very classy signature from Robert – who I think was one of the unit drivers, and Denis Lewiston the DoP. Peter Robb-King signed himself ‘Make-up for the Stars’ and Gareth Tandy as ‘The Whip-cracker’, which surprised me as I had never seen his whip. Graham Ford obviously didn’t want me to change and Margaret Causey, our Tutor, sent her love.
Interestingly, I also have an inscription from Ian Fuller the sound editor listed as if he was around on location. I am sure he was the chap I would have met next. Claude and Richard would have gone straight down to the cutting rooms to edit the film. It is not usual for actors to enter such territory but our adventure was to continue. We were soon to be summons to the Elstree Studios of EMI at Borehamwood.
Filming on location in Cumbria in 1973 ~ nearly forty years ago.
Our designer Simon Holland was rowing Swallow without his shirt. Producer Richard Pilbrow was hanging on the side of the houseboat clad in denim. Terry Smith, the wardrobe Master, was busy drying off Ronald Fraser’s wet costume on the aft deck. The white pith helmet was being touched up by the unit painter. Unions must have been strict back then.
Director Claude Whatham was making the most of the rare but glorious Lake District weather to complete the scene on the foredeck of the houseboat. The Swallows, the Amazons and their Uncle Jim, who had just been made to walk the plank and was now dripping wet, waited patiently while I delivered Titty’s immortal line: ‘Captain Flint – we’ve got a surprise for you.’ Not quite the same as in Arthur Ransome’s book but it worked well.
War cries from everyone…
Kit Seymour, who was playing Nancy, must have dropped on top of us all.
The cabin of the houseboat had been turned into a dressing room for Ronald Fraser.
A long day’s filming out on the lake.
My mother took a series of photographs showing how the crew managed in the limited space:
The 16mm camera in the grey punt.
I think the chap in the swimming trunks is a boatman from Keswick. Does anyone recognise him?
The 16mm camera was noisy. This would have been the shot taken when I said we just went through the movements.
And all the time Molly Pilbrow was keeping an eye on the script. I don’t think there was any room for Graham Ford. He was looking after the base camp:
It had been a productive day; a battle well fought, the treasure returned.
You can read the full story of making the film here: