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’
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.
I was given the honour of clapping the clapper-board and calling out, ‘Shot 600, Take one!’ for a close-up of Suzanna Hamilton.
‘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.
I am often asked about my career in acting. I was even asked about it by the crew of Swallows and Amazons as we climbed in and out of boats on Derwentwater back in 1973.
‘Are you going to be another Bette Davis?’ (I gathered I looked vaguely like her but didn’t really know who she was.)
‘Will you get stuck as a child actress like Shirley Temple?’ (I didn’t really know who she was either.)
There was much speculation. The truth was that I was always really more interested in what was happening behind the camera, and how the story was told, than I was in our performances. I had an empathy for the men who had to keep changing carefully made arrangements when the clouds rolled in. Whilst I was always interested in set dressing I loved aiding and abetting Terry Needham, the second assistant director, with whom we naturally spent a great deal of time. The 2nd July 1973 must have been a busy day for him. A maddening day really.
Whilst I was in front of the camera, delivering the line that fore-shadows the adventurous section of Arthur Ransome’s story, Terry Needham would have been busy planning who would go out in which boat and when. Just as important really.
Whilst filming out on the lakes ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was far more complicated than most movies to stage manage. Terry needed to have what Claude Whatham called his ‘Artistes standing-by, ready on set’ when the set in question was a boat moored out in a lake. In reality this meant that the film actor Ronald Fraser had to wait around on the houseboat with Costume, Make-up and Props, whilst the sun tried to decide whether to come out.
Terry Needham, ever straight forward and prosaic, also had to make provision for a number of extra people who wanted to try and watch the action, notably Albert Clarke, the stills photographer, and the Producer, Richard Pilbrow who was often looking after journalists from major newspapers and magazines. We were making a movie that needed to be well publicised if it was to succeed.
What made Terry’s job even more demanding than usual was that since we were all under the age of sixteen we still had to complete at least three hours schooling a day. I was only meant to spend three hours a day in front of the camera and leave at 5.00pm. This meant that, unlike Ronnie Fraser, we had to be collected from our red bus and taken over the water to our set at the last possible moment when the camera and crew were ready to roll.
As Swallow, our clinker-built dinghy, was wired to a floating pontoon, the job of our loyal Lakeland boatmen was particularly important. Can anyone tell me the name of this chap, in the photo below?
Terry Needham also had to take into consideration the numbers of people licensed to be in each support boat. Although a period film, our clothes were simple, so we didn’t need the contingent of dressers and make-up artists typically demanded by costume dramas. However life-jackets were a must and wherever we went one of our licensed chaperones had to come too. Since Mum stayed at our guesthouse in Ambleside with Kit Seymour who was ill with ‘flu that day, it was Jane Grendon came out on the lake with us. It was her son Sten, playing the Boy Roger, who walked off the jetty into the water. Poor Jane was pushed in fully clothed. Suzanna Hamilton also fell in – or so she claims. What a nightmare for Terry Needham.
Terry survived to have the most prestigious career in film. Whilst he worked as an assistant director for Stanley Kubrick on The Shining (would Jack Nicholson have been easier to manage than us lot?) Terry was unit manager on Empire of the Sun for Stephen Speilberg and the first assistant director on such classic movies as Full Metal Jacket, Rambo III, A Man for All Seasons, The Field, The Golden Compass and Clash of the Titans. I only list a few of his many credits. He worked for Ridley Scott as Associate Producer and First Assistant on White Squall, G.I.Jane, Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down – all gigantium tasks – and was Executive Producer of Red Dragon, and Kingdom of Heaven, again for Ridely Scott. He is still working on movies. What changes he must have seen. I wonder if he can remember that far distant summer spent in the Lake District?
I would not have had the physical strength to follow in Terry’s footsteps. It was his job – plus a bit of work with action props and set dressing – that I found myself busy doing at the BBC when I was an Assistant Floor Manager on big costume dramas. I was exhausted after about four years. The walky-talky I found so attractive aged twelve became rather heavy on my hip. I have a Polaroid photograph of myself looking tired out when working as a Location Manager in Bayswater, kept to remind myself not to accept such work again. Perhaps I should have taken the Bette Davis route after all. I might have had Terry looking after me again.
You can see Terry Needham with his portable radio at the end of this short 16mm film clip that was shot a couple of days later on Coniston Water. The pushings-in were still all the rage.
‘It would make a superb lighthouse,’ but not for a good few years yet. The scots pine planted by The Arthur Ransome Society on the northern end of Peel Island was growing well when I last paid it homage. I hope I don’t spoil the magic if I explain that the pine used in the 1973 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is on a promentary above Derwentwater. An appropriate tree was chosen that overlooked the location we used for Houseboat Bay.
If you can avoid being distracted by Bavid Bracknell’s trendy two-tone trousers you can see a bit more of the lighthouse tree location with the lake beyond. I’ve been told it is Friar’s Crag. Can anyone tell me more about the bay on Derwentwater where Captain Flint’s houseboat was moored for the film?
As a child reading Swallows and Amazons I was always deeply impressed that Captain John managed to climb the pine tree in Arthur Ransome’s drawing. Simon West was able to use branches but he really did climb quite high. The camerman had a scaffold tower.
Suzanna wrote that, ‘In the late afternoon the Amazons were filming on the pontoon. Kit wasn’t feeling well.’ Lesley was feeling a bit better. There was a ‘flu-like bug going around. Neither of them look that well in the resultant photograph but they survived.
Forty years ago today we were filming with Virginia McKenna at the location used for Arthur Ransome’s Holly Howe above Coniston Water. It was a day of days – the sunshiny day that we had all be waiting for.
The buttercups and daisies were still out in the field that flows from Holly Howe to the lake. Roger was able to tack up the meadow to receive the despatches from Mrs Walker, described in the opening pages of Arthur Ransome’s book.
‘…Each crossing of the field brought him nearer to the farm. The wind was against him, and he was tacking up against it to the farm, where at the gate his patient mother was awaiting him.’
I don’t think you can tell that this section of the scene was recorded seven whole days later than the sequence that runs directly on from this when the Boy Roger delivers the very same ‘If not duffers’ telegram to Captain John. The hole that had been dug for the camera alongside our picnic had been filled in. You can see this from Mother’s perspective when I was milling about near the lake looking towards the island I couldn’t actually see.
Poor Sten, he had to run up the field on what proved to be our hottest day. I remember Jean McGill, the Unit Nurse ministering cool drinks and a flannel soaked in cool eau de Cologne to make sure he did not get dehydrated. We all wanted a go with the cool cloth on the back of our necks at lunch time.
It was good to escape the heat by getting out on the water. We shot the scene set on the old stone jetty at the boat houses below the farm when Titty leads ‘Good Queen Bess’ down to the harbour to inspect her ship. I didn’t realise she had a large box of matches in her hand. Virginia kept it a surprise from us in real life. I was excited to find out that Simon Holland, the Designer had painted the branded cover by hand.
As the Call Sheet specifies, our dinghy Swallow had been loaded with all the tents and camping equipment that had been on Peel Island the day before. I didn’t realise at the time quite how often the design team had struck camp and made it up again. I just sat on top of the equipment singing Adieu and Farewell, not very well, as we sailed out onto Coniston Water, waving goodbye to our Fair Spanish Ladies.
I am sure that we had already recorded the scene in David Wood’s screenplay when the Walker family arrive at Holly Howe, but Claude decided to take advantage of the golden light and shoot it again. I am sure this was a good decision. It had been a long day and we were tired but the excitement of our arrival is tangible.
My mother thought that Mrs and Mrs Jackson, Mrs Walker’s nurse and Vicky the ship’s baby, who are listed as Extras on the Call Sheet, were particularly well cast. It must have been a long day for them. It was a long hot day for all of us, but a happy day.
The girls who had been taken on as our Stand-in’s the day before did not seem to be around to help limit the hours we spent on set, but perhaps I am muddled. They may have only materialized on Peel Island at a later date.
What I really did not know, until I watched the documentary broadcast last Sunday, was that Mrs Batty, who held the lease on Bank Ground Farm, had locked out the crew. She explained that when she was originally asked if we could film on her property she did not quite realise the scale of operations and only asked for – or accepted – a location fee of £75. The arrival of the two red double-decker buses, the Lee Electric van, the generator and other lorries, not to mention the Make-up caravan rather daunted her, as did the furniture moving activities involved at the start of the filming when we shot the interior scenes. She said that she decided that £75 was not enough, padlocked her front gate and wouldn’t let them back in until they agreed to pay her £1,000. It was a lot of money, more than double the fee I received.
You may have seen the BBC documentary about the making of Swallows and Amazons, when Ben Fogle interviewed Suzanna Hamiltonand myself at Bank Ground Farm for ‘Big Screen Britain’. This was re-packaged last year on a programme called Country Tracks. My father’s 16mm footage had been skilfully inter-cut with an interview with our Director, Claude Whatham.I did not know that it was being broadcast but was able to watch on-line.
I didn’t know that we would spend that Sunday cooking on the camp fire.
I didn’t know that Virginia had come up with her husband Bill Travers.
I still don’t know how Lee Electric managed to get so many lights working out on Peel Island. I can’t remember having them for any other scene. They must have had the generator on the bank and run cables under the water. It looks as if it was a pretty dark day. It was wonderful having the flood lights – they kept us warm.
There was a hushed reverence when Virginia McKenna was on set. Gone were the saucepan jokes. Funny really, as it was frying pan scene. ‘I waited til no-one was looking and jumped out of the pot and escaped!’ The pemmican potato cakes she made me were delicious. And very hot.
Working with Virginia and Arthur Ransome’s dialogue was altogether an exercise in charm, or managing charm. I hope I didn’t over-cook it. I was rather pre-occupied by my tooth but loved being involved in a proper scene around the camp fire.
Then Virginia was gone and I was a saucepan once more. A saucepan now with a very wiggly tooth indeed. Saucepan-lid, kid. No more lights. I was sitting up a tree above Coniston Water in my navy blue knickers, and descended feeling a bit like Pooh Bear.
It is still there, the mossy tree. You can climb it.
If it is tricky navigating in and out of the Secret Harbour on Peel Island, leaving from the Landing Place under sail in a clinker built dinghy can prove even more hazadous. You need a decent shove to get going so you can catch the wind, escape from snaring tree branches and avoid the danger of flat rocks lurking just under the surface of Coniston Water. This was my job on a rainy, grey day in the Lake District in 1973. With a telescope in one hand.
In the finished film you don’t see the shot when I slipped in the water up to my waist, and kept on shoving. The “Don’t forget about the lights, Titty ” scene had to be re-shot on a sunnier day.
What you see is a long-shot on a grey day with Titty waving furiously from the shore, as Swallow leaves Wildcat Island. You can not see that her dress is soaking wet but the trees on the island indicate just how windy it is. While Susan is waving back, Roger is looking out for rocks for all he is worth. John is sailing hard, running with the wind, with the boom right out and white water on his bow. He hung on, as he had to, until Swallow passed the big rock, before coping with a massive, dramatic jibe. You see him rise to handle this, while Susan ducks. She needed to. It was so violent the mast nearly broke, but John ‘scandalised’, spilling excess wind and sailed on. The film cuts to two closer shots of the jibe taken on the sunny day, then cuts back to the long shot when Susan bobs up and Swallow sails at speed, north up Coniston towards grey clouds and rain over Langdale.
My father watched all this from the shore, knowing the risks, knowing Stephen Grendon aged nine, who played Roger couldn’t swim. But Simon West was proving himself yet again as a very good sailor. He was totally confident. You can tell – even from a distance – how calm he was, how instinctively he read the wind. He knew it would hit him with force as he left the lee of the island.
These wet windy days in the Lake District were a worry to the Producer and a challenge for the crew. They had already lost a number of days to rain. Whilst Claude Whatham, the Director was always trying to find a way of making the best use of his time, David Bracknell, his First Assistant Director had to make things happen. The practicalities of each day rested on his shoulders.
Just co-ordinating our transport out to Peel Island, so that we while the camera crew were never waiting for us we were not missing time at our lessons – would have been difficult. Getting the tea urns out there twice a day, must have been a struggle. I’m not sure what we did about anyone wanting the loo. There wasn’t even a bucket on the island. Working in purple trousers, with a Motor-roller on his hip, David kept things safe and kept things going whatever the weather. He would call for ‘Quiet’, before each take, calling, ‘Camera? Sound? then: Mark it!’ The clapper board would be named and snapped shut before Claude the Director shouted ‘Action!’ Then off we’d go. And the rule was to keep going – whatever happened – come the hell of slippery rocks or high water – until the Director shouted ‘Cut!’ David would then take over command and set up either for a re-take or a subsequent shot. Once a scene was completed he’d move the crew on for a new sequence.
David Bracknell was very experienced. He’d worked on a number of hugely popular Carry-on movies, which according to Maureen Lipman, were made at terrific speed. Prior to Swallows and Amazons his credits included Carry on Abroad, Carry on at your Convenience, (I’d seen this at school; it’s all about lavortaries) Carry on Henry and Carry on Loving with Kenneth Williams, Sid James and Charles Hawtrey. He’d worked on Far from the Madding Crowd with Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Trevor Stamp, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg with Janet Suzman and Peter Bowles, Bless this House with Sid James, Diana Coupland and Sally Geeson and Battle of Britain, which starred Michael Caine, Trevor Howard and Harry Andrews, Ian McShane, Susannah York and Laurance Olivier. By 1984 he was working on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in 1986 on Shaka Zulu with Edward Fox, Robert Powell and Trevor Howard again. We were in capable hands.
My father recognised this, watching patiently from the base camp with Perry and Tamzin, my younger sisters. I fear it must have been terribly dull for them, especially on the cold grey days, but we were all together and did have a chance to explore Westmorland, as you will see when I reach tomorrow.