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.
On 21st March and 28th March, the new CBBC TV show ‘Cinemaniacs’ included guest appearances from Sophie Neville and from David Wood, who wrote the screenplay for ‘Swallows & Amazons’ back in 1973.
Oli White, the vlogger and presenter of ‘Cinemaniacs’, asks a number of people involved in movies about making their first film. Others featured include Michael Sheen, Sir Ian McKellen and Matthew Lewis famous for playing Neville Longbottom in all eight Harry Potter movies.
To find out more about how the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) was made, along with how the children’s parts were cast, please see earlier posts or read the book! It includes more than 120 photographs taken on location in the Lake District.
Members of the Arthur Ransome Group have recently raised questions about what ‘fell onto the cutting room floor’ after we shot the movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the English Lake District in 1973.
‘I have always had the feeling that the Amazon’s role in the 1974 film was very much secondary to the Swallows.’ Stephen O’Brien posted. ‘This was probably down to much of the Amazon’s footage ending up on the cutting room floor. What do you think?’
The answer is that there were few scenes excluded from the film.
Virginia McKenna as Mrs Walker with Sophie Neville as Titty
The only other scene from Swallows & Amazons that I know was excluded was when the Swallows lay patterans on their way to visit the charcoal burners. The location was in a beautiful spot up above Derwentwater, the dialogue was straight from Arthur Ransome’s book and our performances would have been fluent by the time we shot the sequence.
Suzanna Hamilton, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West as the Swallows
I can only expect that when the movie came in over-length, these scenes were cut as the action had no influence on the plot.
In the original script, the Amazons do not really appear until page 41 – which would equate to nearly half-way into the the film. I thought that there might have been one or two shots of the Amazons sailing that were never used, because there was a day spent filming on Derwentwater when Kit and Lesley who played Nancy and Peggy weren’t feeling very well, but I’ve checked the script and nothing that they said was excluded. Not one word. Perhaps David Wood who dramatized the book could somehow have increased the Amazons’ parts. However, as Janet Means points out:
‘…in the book we find out more about what the Swallows think but only about what the Amazons do. There is little about the Amazons except when the Swallows are present too (hiding Amazon in the reeds and Nancy berating Peggy for losing Amazon when Titty’s made off with her). There’s lots about the Swallows without the Amazons.’
One scene in the DVD of the film used to be cut out of the television version. The clue is that it comes just before this photo was taken in Bowness-on-Windermere for Lancashire Life kindly sent to be by Stephen Sykes of Hill Top near Haverthwaite.
Sten Grendon, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville as the Swallows in Rio, an official still from the film published in Lancashire Life in 1974
When the movie Swallows & Amazons was released forty years ago the mere idea of Blu-ray or DVD recordings had not been dreampt of. When my father asked about acquiring a copy of the film he was quoted £450 for a set of 35mm reels designed to be projected on a cinema screen. The sum was more than I received for working on location, even though I had a lead part. I was, however, sent a copy of the LP brought out to accompany the film. It was narrated by David Wood who wrote the screenplay and included Wilfred Joseph’s full score. You can still buy these online today.
Although we were never informed, I now discover that at one time you could buy film clips on Supper 8, to project at home. You could probably still find this on eBay.
When home video recorders first came out in the late Seventies I was working for Virginia McKenna. I remember her husband Bill Travers telling me that they had decided to go for Beta rather than VHS. Almost inevitably Swallows & Amazons was released on VHS, in a big fat box, and came into its own as families snuggled down to watch it at home on rainy afternoons. There were a number of cover designs:
This one distributed by Warner Bros. is featured on the international movie data base. Click on the image more information and other cover designs.
Readers have sent in an image of the reverse:
There have been different versions marketed all over the world. The movie became so popular in the Baltic and Czech Republic that it has been dubbed a number of times:
For years the DVD has been sold as a double bill with The Railway Children, which was also financed by EMI Films.
This is the double-bill released by StudioCanal:
In 2008 a DVD of very good quality was released by the Daily Mail, with a picture of me looking like a baby monkey on the wrapper. We were given absolutely no warning. The first I knew of it was a friend ringing up to ask me if I could spare a DVD for his kids, ‘Someone’s swiped the office copy.’
It was featured on the front cover for seven days, as well as in the magazine. I am often asked if we get residuals for distribution rights or when our images are used to promote newspapers but I have never received anything. This version did at least have end credits. There are reviews on Amazon about a DVD that lacked these. I was amazed that anyone even noticed but viewers assured me it was an outrage.
I am glad the movie can be watched and enjoyed by successive generations of children. The most inspirational cover of all was on that very first boxed VHS, which featured us sailing up Derwentwater:
In 2014 a remastered Blu-ray and DVD with an Extras package was launched by StudioCanal to celebrate the 40th Anniversay. If you are thinking of buying a copy, this is the one to get. It is available on Amazon by clicking here.
There was also an edition in French:
They later issued a DVD (without extras) adding striking new graphics to the old poster. A sticker advertising the 2016 film of Swallows and Amazons was added to promote the release:
Does anyone know of any other VHS or DVD covers? Do add your comments in the box below.
Something very exciting happened last week. Suzanna Hamilton came to see me, bringing the photographs that she was given during the filming of Swallows and Amazons along with a bundle of papers. I immediately recognised the blue bound diary that she had kept. Her God-given sense of humour fills the pages.
Although Titty was the one who always kept the ship’s log in Arthur Ransome’s stories, we children all kept journals during the filming as part of our school work. It was quite a task.
Suzanna’s diary gives the story of making the film of Swallows and Amazons from the perspective of an actress, the actress she was then and ever more will be. Even before we began filming she was getting as excited as Susan about grog and molasses, calling us by our charcter names as Claude Whatham suggested.
Anna Scher ran the most wonderful children’s theatre club in Islington, which Zanna went to after school, along with Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson. I visited Anna Scher’s Theatre Club ten years later when I was casting children for the BBC drama serial of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. Although I didn’t find anyone there who could sail I held Anna Scher in huge admiration and respect, using her exercises when I was auditioning kids in Norfolk. She did so much for the young people of east London, giving children confidence with self-discipline aquired during their drama lessons and workshops.
David Wood, who wrote the screenplay of Swallows and Amazons, was already well known as an actor. Mum was rather in awe of him since he had played Johnny in Z Cars and had starred the feature film ‘If…’ alongside Malcolm McDowell. He had been a storyteller on the BBC Childrens Television programme we all adored called Jackanory. Suzanna had been involved in the same series when E.Nesbit’s ‘The Treasure Seekers’ had been read. She had also appeared in ‘The Edwardians’ form the book by E.Nesbit directed by James Cellan Jones in 1972. By coincidence Pauline Quirke played Eliza in ‘The Story of the Treasure Seekers’ in 1982 and I worked with her a few years later on Rockliffe’s Babies. My mother appeared in a pantomine David Wood wrote called The Gingerbread Man when it was produced at The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham. She wore red with a pill-box hat as Miss Ginger.
You can read more in the ebook ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974) available from Amazon Kindle and all ebook retailers.
Arthur Ransome’s book was adapted for the big screen by David Wood. The first time I saw this script was early in 2011 when my mother pulled it from the back of a wardrobe. It’s really only now that I fully appreciate how beautifully it was crafted.
The opening scenes ~
The film opens with a shot of a steam train passing through Cumbria. This does not feature in the book but was a powerful first image and good way of introducing the Walker family, setting the period and the very Englishness of travelling up to the Lake District for the summer holidays. It was a wonder that this was possible; The Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway , with it’s restored steam train, had only been open and running for two weeks ~ on 2nd May 1973 to be precise. It was a private concern run by a bunch of enthusiasts on the old Furness Railway branch line. The engine was a Fairburn 2-6-4 tank locomotive of 84 tons, of approximately 1930s vintage, standard gauge and coloured black-berry black
~ The crossings out were made by my mother, in the tradition of marking a scene that has been recorded ~
What I never knew until I read the third scene today was that we added quite a bit of dialogue. I can’t remember if it was improvised or given to me by Claude but I said quite a bit more than was scripted, and recoded the fact in my diary.
The railway carriage ~
Claude Whatham was keen to shoot the film in ‘story order’ as much as possible as he thought this would be easiest for us to comprehend. INT.RAILWAY CARRIAGE. DAY was, however, a difficult scene to execute. Once the railway carriage contained movie lights, the director, a huge 35mm Panavision camera, the cameraman and assistant, with microphones and an assistant sound recordist there wasn’t any room for me. When it came round to the shots of me I had to give my lines to imaginary family members. They were no longer there – the camera had taken their place. It also got extremely hot.
Story order ~
I look back on all this now and feel our opening performances, so vital to capture the audiences attention, were understandably rather wooden. Later on, when I was directing films that featured children I tried to schedule unimportant, ‘running around scenes’, which were easy for them, so that they could get used to working with the crew before tight close-ups were required. I found that even six year-olds were unfazed by recording scenes out of story order, in fact they were probably less disorientated than the adults.
With Virginia McKenna’s magazine, our picnic and Susan’s tapestry the matter of continuity in this scene was important. We greatly enjoyed learning about this technicality, so vital if the shots that make up the scene are to cut together smoothly. Numerous Polaroid shots were involved, which was exciting as these cameras had not been around for long and we enjoyed watching the photographs develop. We did our best to be helpful and keep an eye on the picnic, but somehow it all went wrong. The continuity in this opening scene is out. This probably because Sue Merry, the Continuity Girl could not get in – into the railway carriage, that is. There was simply no room for her.