Riding the waves of film critics ~ after the release of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1974

Virginia McKenna, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon and Ronald Fraser appearing in the film premiere programme

I opened the pages of the programme at the film premiere to find one of the publicity photographs of us taken at Bank Ground Farm. I wasn’t sure the face Simon was making would sell a cinema ticket.

Simon West, Kit Seymour, Ronald Fraser, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton with half of Stephen Grendon on the second page of the premier programme

But the film was now out. It had to sell itself. Everyone was waiting to hear what critics from within the movie industry felt about it.

Would this photograph ever sell the film?

I think my mother must have written to Barry Norman, inviting him to bring his daughters to one of the promotional events held at the Commonwealth Institute. I wonder if she met him at the Preview of the Premiere.  He was then presenting BBC Television’s Film 74  and writing a weekly column in The Guardian newspaper. Here is his reply:

Barry Norman enjoyed it!  The Radio Times says that he was looking at ‘films for the family over the Easter holidays’.  Film 74 was shown on BBC TWO  at 10.15pm – and repeated on Fridays even later so he must have been speaking to parents. Here’s his theme tune.

One thing that strikes me when I open the March 1974 copy of ‘Films and Filming’, kept by my mother, is that ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has to be one of the most enduring movies to come out at the time. Sean Connery opted to appear with Charlotte Rampling in Zardoz’. I’ve neither seen or heard of it. Why couldn’t he have played Captain Flint with us? I did see Steve McQueen in  ‘Papillon’  but had no desire to watch it more than once. Richard Lester’s version of ‘The Three Musketeers’ was also made in 1973. Even though it stared Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Richard Chamberlain, Michael York and dear Spike Milligan I don’t think it can have been broadcast on television as many times as ‘Swallows and Amazons’.  The magazine goes on to review ‘The Optimists of Nine Elms’ starring Peter Sellers, ‘Magnum Force’ starring Clint Eastwood, ‘Herbie Rides Again’ starring Stephanie Powers and many others, films I have never heard of. ‘American Graffiti’ came out in the States, directed by George Lucas starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat and Harrison Ford. It made gross profits of more than U$200 million becoming one of the most profitable films of all time  but I wonder how many times it has been shown on British television this year? Do your children know anything about it? Has it been projected in the pouring rain for loyal fans sitting on a lake shore?

I his book, ‘A Theatre Project’ Richard Pilbrow says, ‘We had a success.’ He quotes Variety magazine, “Charming, delightful, beautifully made film,” but said it was, ‘Not a hit but a reasonable success that continues to play, principally on television, around the world.’ Richard goes on to quantify how it did financially. ‘The world of film finance is a distinct mystery. Our production costs were just under £300,000. Over the years, income trickled in from an international market. Curiously the costs inexorably rose to match the income. The costs of marketing the movie always seemed to equal receipts at the box office. In 2004 our film actually recouped. That’s why I have the temerity to call it a success.

Not all the newspapers thought so in 1974. I’ll find some of the articles for the next posting.

Swallows in Egham ~ a pick-up day, filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Simon West, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville as the Walker children dressed as they arrived at Holly Howe at the start of their holiday in the Lake District
Simon West, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville playing the Walker children, as they arrived at Holly Howe at the start of their summer holiday in the Lake District ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

Sophie Neville with Sten Grendon, Jane Grendon, Claude Whatham and Neville Thompson
Sophie Neville looks on as Stephen Grendon organises his costume helped by Jane Grendon with Claude Whatham and Neville C Thompson.

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.

Stephen Grendon playing Roger Walker having his hair cut by Ronnie Cogan

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.

Photograph of movie hair-stylist Ronnie Cogan giving a boy a short back and sides hair cut
Ronnie Cogan giving Sten Grendon a hair-cut. I was in the Make-up caravan beyond.

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.

Simon West playing John Walker and Suzanna Hamilton as Susan Walker
Simon West playing John Walker and Suzanna Hamilton as Susan Walker

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.

Director Claude Whatham with Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West. Producer Richard Pilbow looks on ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Although he had a freelance camera operator in a stripey 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.

DoP Denis Lewiston, Claude Whatham, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West with Gordon Hayman behind the 35mm Arriflex Camera ~ photo: D.Neville

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.

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker with Stephen Grendon as Roger Walker with Gordon Hayman, Denis Lewiston and Claude Whatham behind the camera

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 Windemere , recorded back in May, I had put on about seven pounds and grown taller than my elder brother and sister.

Daphne Neville with Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Jane Grendon and Simon West

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.

Simon West writing his address for me on a scrap of paper

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.

Sophie Neville saying goodbye to director Claude Whatham

Leaving the Lake District ~ 13th July 1973

Daphne Neville with Sophie Neville while filming 'Swallows and Amazons' in Cumbria

 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.

Sophie Neville in 1973, in the garden at home with a swan
Back in the garden at home with a swan

‘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.

Signatures of the cast, director and producer of the movie 'Swallows and Amazons' in my hardback copy of Arthur Ransome's book
Signatures of the cast, director and producer of the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in my hardback copy of Arthur Ransome’s book

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.

Signatures of the rest of the cast and crew of 'Swallows and Amazons' in the back of my Jonathan Cape edition of Arthur Ransome's book
Signatures of the rest of the cast and crew of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the back of my Jonathan Cape edition of Arthur Ransome’s book

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.

David Blagden's signature and sketch

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.

The crew as I remember them filming with Swallow and Amazon from the pontoon ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow
The crew as I remember them filming with Swallow and Amazon from the pontoon ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow taken on Derwentwater in 1973

The 50th Day ~ making the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, 11th July 1973

Producer Richard Pilbrow with Neville C Thompson on Derwentwater in the Lake District in 1973
Producer Richard Pilbrow with production associate Neville C Thompson on Derwentwater in the Lake District in 1973

This photograph of Richard and Neville sitting on the deck of Captian Flint’s houseboat in the pouring rain must epitomise the struggles they went through to work around the weather and bring ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in on budget.

It was Claude Whatham’s dream to end the movie with an aerial shot of Swallow and Amazon sailing away from Captian Flint’s houseboat.  He had a helicopter pilot standing-by with a special cameraman, but it wasn’t to be. He needed bright sunshine for the shot to cut with our farewell sequence after the battle. We waited three days but the weather was too dull and wet to film anything useful.  I’m so glad.  Claude ended up freezing the simple shot that captures Arthur Ransome’s book completely. It was used on the front of one of the first VHS copies of the movie.

'Swallows and Amazons' on VHS
The Amazons, played by Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennet and the Swallows, played by Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West and Stephen Grendon on the cover of the original VHS version of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

 

I’m afraid we hung about the very nice Water Head Hotel in Ambleside getting bored and precocious, or so the evidence suggests. Since John and Margaret, our location caterers, had returned to Pinewood Studios, we were taken to the hotel restaurant for lunch.

We loved that cinema in Ambleside. Was it the same then as Zeffirellis, the cinema in Compston Road operating today?  The adults must have found it a good means of keeping us peacefully entertained, but then again they were all film-makers, who loved movies. Zanna didn’t come to the cinema that afternoon. She walked four miles up Wanstell Pike with Jane Grendon.

Albert Clarke, the stills photographer on the film crew, had given us contact sheets of the black and white photographs that he had taken during the filming. I spent my time at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel, where Claude and Richard were  staying, with a tube of Copydex ~ or ‘rubber solution glue’, as they kept saying on Blue Peter,  sticking the tiny photographs into the scrap books that I had been keeping.

The Real Charcoal Burners a contact sheet

Richard Pilbrow kindly let us choose large 10’x 8′ versions of the photographs, which we are able to take home to our families. I kept mine all these years, never using them for anything, but treasuring them as a memory of those happy, fulfilling days spent in Cumbria in 1973.

Black and White photograph of a waterfall in the Lake District
‘It’s Niagara!’ Titty declared. ‘We could get a barrel and bounce down it.’ Sten Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West and Sophie Neville as the Swallows on their way to visit the charcoal burners

You can now read about making the movie in the ebook ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ or the paperback entitled, ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ available at most online distributors or to order from your library or local bookshop.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'
published by The Lutterworth Press

‘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.

‘Four out of six missed him and hit me’ ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’, 8th July 1973.

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

I am sure that as children we could be intensely irritating, especially when we were hanging around with not enough to do. Although we had found our lessons tiresome they’d kept us occupied and out of mischief. It was now a Sunday, right the end of the summer term and the red double-decker school bus was no longer with us. Neither was the large camera box that the crew put Sten in to keep him quiet.

Sten Grendon in the camera box
Stephen Grendon resting between set-ups in the Panavision camera box, wearing the Grip’s cap and eating a bun ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Although  the day was full of essential activity there was no major scene to focus on. It was the last day Ronald Fraser could be with us. Claude Whatham must have had vital shots to pick up so that the scenes set in the houseboat would cut together. It was probably just as well there was no dialogue to record. Ronnie, it has to be said, was a little the worse for wear. Although he managed to play the accordion as Swallow and Amazon sailed into the distance, Uncle Jim was still drunk from the Wrap party two days before.

Diary of a young girl on a film set kept in 1973

Then, as a twelve-year-old I wrote:

“…now and again Captain Flint played his accordion to camera. They told us to lie on the floor. Ronald Fraser started throwing books at Sten. Four out of six missed him and hit me. One hit me in the face and the cover fell off. The others he hit. Then he threw all the parrot’s food over us. Plus the tin. ”  Scandalous!

The diary of a young movie actress

Perhaps I ought to explain that when the parrot’s cage was lowered into Swallow there was no parrot inside. Instead there were four children finding parrot seed that had made its way inside their costumes.

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville in Swallow about to leave Captain Flint’s Houseboat. Property Master Bob Hedges is on deck approaching the cannon. Amazon’s white sail can be seen the other side ~ photo: Daphe Neville

My father was not pleased to hear that Ronnie Fraser had flung books around the cabin, htting me in the face. ‘They were valuable first editions!’

Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West with the parrot's cage
Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West with the parrot’s cage, standing-by to sail away from the Houseboat ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Our little ship still had much work to do. David Blagden was with us, making plans with Claude and Denis Lewiston to film more shots of us sailing in, what we hoped, would be sunny weather.

The Swallows about to lower sail having come alongside Captain Flint's Houseboat
The Swallows about to lower sail having come alongside Captain Flint’s Houseboat ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Claude was desperate to get the shot of us arriving for the first time at the Peak of Darien ~ Friar’s Craig on Derwent Water. He wanted to capture this just before the sun went down. Peter Robb-King, the Make-up Artist was insistent that the tans we had naturally gained over the summer be toned down.  He had no help and preparation time had not been scheduled. Dabbing the four of us with a tiny sponge took ages. I don’t know why he bothered with my legs, as I really hadn’t changed colour, but he was a perfectionist. Mum kept saying that it was getting so dark no one would ever notice. ‘Who’s going to be looking at your legs?’ as Nancy Mitford’s nanny would have said. By the time we were ready the sun had set. Claude missed the chance to film this vital scene. Again. It was the second time we had arrived too late for it to be captured.

Did we feel silly travelling back to Ambleside in full costume? We were cheeky and full of beans one minute, shy the next. It is difficult to reach the balance between becoming confident and being over confident when you are twelve years old. But, we were learning, and we learnt a great deal on those days spent out on the water in the Lake District.

This home-movie footage my mother shot shows the actors and crew relaxing after lunch on the shore of Derwent Water in Cumbria. Suzanna Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Simon West and Sophie Neville wait for Ronald Fraser, playing Captain Flint, who walks down the jetty and leaves for his houseboat with hair stylist Ronnie Cogan and Make-up Artist Peter Robb-King. Sophie Neville can be briefly seen sitting in the motoboat wearing the yellow Donny Osmond hat. Daphne Neville appears at the end presumably having handed her camera to someone else.

The Wrap Party ~ trying to film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on 6th July 1973

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker on Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville
Sophie Neville as Titty Walker on Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

A letter from my father

Before Jean McGill arrived at the Oaklands Guesthouse in Ambleside, to transport us to the location, a letter arrived. It was from my Daddy who somehow must have found time to post a quick note while taking my sisters to school. We were, indeed, all looking forward to the wrap party to be held that evening. There was much to do before it started. Twelve scenes are listed on the Unit Call Sheet and it was pouring with rain.

Unit Call Sheet for Movie shot on location in the English Lake District

Here we are – it was Ernie Russell who was in charge of the action and support boats. Does anyone knowwhere he is now? The day proved difficult and wet, but everyone was in high spirits. It was the last day for most.

Diary of a young girl acting in a movie

Diary of a young girl acting in a family film

It was a great Wrap party, held at the unit hotel. Suzanna noted that it didn’t start until 10 O’clock. 10pm! Very grown up. It must have been the talk of Ambleside. Mum took off her Donny Osmond hat and wore a long high-collared dress in pink gingham. I wore the brown and black velvet pinafore dress Mummy and Daddy had bought me in Carnaby Street when we went up to London for my first interview with Claude Whatham. Everyone was kind and jolly. For a while the party revolved around us. We enjoyed the dancing so much didn’t want to leave, but it was evident that the adults wanted to start to play. As you can imagine, no one could persuade us to go to bed. Jean McGill saved the evening by organising a conga. Having led a sheltered life I had never danced the conga before and thought it the greatest fun. Luckily the Carnaby Street dress was well designed for the job. We conga-ed around the Kirkstone Foot Hotel with the entire crew. Somehow we ended up conga-ing into her mini-bus and were whisked back to Oaklands before midnight.

The Lady Deerwentwater starring in 'Swallows and Amazons' as Captin Flint's Houseboat
Ronald Fraser as Captain Flint on his houseboat, played by The Lady Derwentwater, with set dresser Ian Whittaker, photographer Albert Clarke and the props guys ~ photo: Daphne Neville

This clip shows Jean McGill (in red) with Sophie Neville (in blue tracksuit top) and Albert Clarke our stills photographer. Our Chaperone, Jane Grendon, is teasing Terry Needham, the second assistant director. Simon West, playing John Walker, stands by Derwentwater in costume. Neville C Thompson (in yellow shirt) smiles at our glamorous tutor Margaret Causey while Graham Ford and others get into a support boat. Actor Ronald Fraser walks towards the lake and waiting boat, followed by hairdresser Ronnie Cogan. You can see Swallow in the background whilst Jean McGill chats to my mother, Daphne Neville who is wearing her yellow, flowery Donny Osmond hat. She originally had a pink flowery version, which Claude admired (and wore himself) but it blew off and sunk to the bottom of the lake.

Walking the Plank – The Battle of Houseboat Bay, 5th July 1973

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:

Director Claude Whatham in blue demin talks to DoP Denis Lewiston. Terry Needham stands on deck ~ Photo: Daphne Neville

The 16mm camera in the grey punt.

The film crew with Director Claude Whatham talking to Simon West, Lesely Bennett, Ronald Fraser and Stephen Grendon on the foredeck ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I think the chap in the swimming trunks is a boatman from Keswick. Does anyone recognise him?

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DoP Denis Lewiston with his assistant camerman, Sue Merry in black Claude Whatham and the film cast ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The 16mm camera was noisy. This would have been the shot taken when I said we just went through the movements.

Molly Pilbrow in the plaid jacket witht he cast and crew on the houseboat ~ photo: Daphne Neville who was acting as chaperone.

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:

Production Manager Graham Ford in Derwent Water: photo ~ Daphne Neville

It had been a productive day; a battle well fought, the treasure returned.

The Battle of Houseboat Bay on Derwentwater, 5th July 1973

Battle of Houseboat Bay ~ Sophie Neville as Titty Walker in Swallow
Sophie Neville at Titty Walker in Swallow on Derwentwater in 1973: photo~ Daphne Neville

Sunlight on the water tells the story of my life.  At last the skies cleared and fine weather we had hoped and prayed for settled over the Lake District. It enabled us to film the climax of Arthur Ransome’s adventure set on the high seas of Cumbria. It was the day we went to war. The day the Swallows and the Amazons took on Captain Flint at the Battle of Houseboat Bay.

Suzanna's Diary
An extra page in Suzanna’s Diary for 5th July 1973

‘There won’t be a leeside to him, ‘ said Captain John. ‘The houseboat’ll be lying head to wind. Our plan will be to reach into the bay, and then come head to wind one on each side of him.’ Arthur Ransome wrote. ‘If you’ll lay yourself aboard his starboard side, I’ll bring Swallow up on his port.’

To my everlasting regret, while some of the others managed to yell, ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’ my battle cry was, ‘Kill, kill!’ The script was pretty sketchy. I have the original and the re-writes, not that I saw either on the day.

This is the revised version of David Wood’s screenplay typed up on 16th June ~

And suddenly I was up on the roof of the houseboat with the Siamese flag~

Simon West and Sophie Neville on  Captian Flint's Houseboat
Simon West as Captain John and Sophie Neville as Titty taking Captain Flint’s Houseboat on Derwentwater : photo~ Daphne Neville

We loved capturing Ronald Fraser and of course making him walk the plank. He was very good about it. Here is the shot used for the cover of the 1977  VHS issue of the movie made available in the USA ~

A cover for the 1977 VHS copy of 'Swallows and Amazons' ~ US a version

Actually filming this was tricky. The entire film crew with all their equipment including two cameras, two huge reflector boards and a second costume for Ronald Fraser, had to be accommodated either on the house boat or other craft on the bay in Derwentwater. It was a squash.

Battle of Houseboat Bay ~ The film crew on Derwentwater
The film crew on Captin Flint’s Houseboat on Derwentwater. Ronald Fraser, with a rope around his chest, can just be seen between the reflector boards: photo~ Daphne Neville

The good thing was that by now we were all pretty experienced with the procedure of getting out to what amounted to an inaccessible location with no lavatories – and certainly no room for tea urns.

Battle of Houseboat Bay ~ The film crew record Captin Flint walking the plank
Director Claude Whatham stands on the plank whilst Bobby Sitwell and DoP Denis Lewiston prepare the 35mm Panavision camera on board the Houseboat: Photo~ Daphne Neville

My mother recorded quite a bit of 8mm cine footage that day, showing life behind the scenes ~

The scraggy looking man alone in a glass fibre boat with a paddle was the chap who drove the mobile lavatories from one location to another and yet managed to persuade the girls of Ambleside that he was producing the film.

‘They’re Pirates!’ ~ secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons on 3rd July 1973

Captian Flint on the houseboat with Swallow
Roanld Fraser playing Captin Flint on his houseboat with Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West in Swallow on Derwentwater, 1973

It was found on e-bay, a hand-coloured print that must have been used to publicise the movie in cinema foyers. It has to be one of my favorite stills, bought by someone who kindly brought it to Coniston Water on the day in April 2011 when we re-launched Swallow beside the pier at the Bluebird Cafe. Everyone was facsinated. I’d never seen it before but it has memories of a good day, spent not on Coniston but further north on Derwentwater.

When Richard Pilbrow’s movie of Swallows and Amazons was first shown on British television in 1977 a trailer was made by ITV to advertise it. This started with the shot of me saying, ‘They’re pirates!’  People loved that trailer. Everyone was going around saying, ‘They’re pirates!’ If it was my best performance the reason was that I had been lying on a red ant’s nest – and they were biting. The other secret is that that lighthouse tree is not a tree. Not one that was growing. It was a big log that Bobby Props had stuck in the ground making the ants very angry indeed.

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker in Swallows and Amazons
Sophie Neville as Titty Walker in the ITV trailer for the movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when it was first shown on television in 1977

This was the second location for ‘Lookout Point on Wild Cat Island’.  It was on a promentary that overlooks the bay where the houseboat was moored on Derwentwater. There were bushes but no sadly big pine trees. The log was planted so that our director Claude Whatham could get what is called a two-shot of the Swallows watching Nancy sail past Captain Flint’s houseboat, while Peggy raises the skull and crossbones. As we were keeping low the height of the lighthouse tree was not an issue. So, the secret of Wild Cat Island is that it was filmed in three different places as well as being depicted in the opening titles as Rampsholme, an island on Derwentwater. I think this is faithful in that Arthur Ransome indicated by using anotated postcards that wanted the fells that one would see from Castle Hill as a backdrop for his story.  In her book, In the footsteps of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’   Claire Kendall-Price provides a wonderful map and guide showing how you could walk from Keswick to find some of the locations. We didn’t use Blake Holme on Windermere at all even though Arthur Ransome had invisaged the camp fire as being there. Richard told us it had become a real camp site by 1973 with caravans on the nearest shore.

The Swallows at the Lighthouse tree Lookout point
Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Stephen Grendon as the Swallows at the Lookout Point on Wild Cat Island

Just prior to this scene when we spot the Amazons for the first time, I was working on the chart while Susan was sewing a button onto Roger’s shirt. The needle stuck into him as he flung himself down on the grass beneath the lighthouse tree. Since needles are small you can hardly see what is happening but I think it is a detail that Arthur Ransome would have appreicated. I wonder if the same sort of thing had happened to him as a child? He used his memories of Annie Swainson throwing him across her lap to darn his knickerbokers whilst they on him, just as Mary Swainson frequently has to darn Roger’s shorts after sliding down the Knickerbockerbreaker rockface in Swallowdale. Claire Kendall-Price discribes this and where it all happened beautifully.

Stephen Grendon as Roger having a button sewn back on by Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker in the previous scene.

Here is the diary entry I kept for that day in the Lake District ~

Suzanna’s diary is more susinct ~

I don’t know why she felt depressed. Perhaps it was the ants. She was on more of them than me and they were not waving. They were very angry.

Sophie Neville with Swallow outside the Bluebird Cafe on Coniston Water
Sophie Neville in 2011 holding the original photograph in front of the newly restored dinghy at the Bluebird Cafe on Coniston Water. If you look carefully you can see that Swallow is being inspected by a modern day pirate ~ photo: Kitty Faulkner

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