Great pushings in ~ filming in the Lake District on 2nd July 1973

Sophie Neville with Terry Needham and the unit radio at Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

Producer Richard Pilbrow and Director Claude Whatham discussing the script in the Capri on Derwentwater. Molly Pilbrow is in the boat with them ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

Ronald Fraser playing Captain Flint with Peter Robb-King and Ian Whittaker waiting on the houseboat moored on Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

Claude Whatham discussing plans with sailing director David Blagden (in white hat) and Richard Pilbrow with Molly Pilbrow in checked jacket, on the aft deck of the houseboat played by The Lady Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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?

Chaperone Jane Grendon on Derwentwater in a Dory with a local boatman

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 Needham with the crew on the Houseboat moored on Derwentwater, Cumbria ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

If you enjoyed this post, do think of getting a copy of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available from libraries, online retailers and Amazon here

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'

The lighthouse tree ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater 1st July 1973

Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West above Derwentwater in 1973
Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West above Derwentwater in 1973

‘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.

Captain John, played by Simon West, starts to climb the lighthouse tree at the Lookout Point: Photo ~ Daphne Neville

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?

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker hanging the lantern. Claude Whatham sits beside the camera crew including Eddie Collins, Dennis Lewiston and Bobby Sitwell, whilst first assistant David Bracknell looks on: photo ~ Daphne Neville

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.

Kit Seymour as Nancy Blackett with Lesley Bennett playing her sister Peggy Blackett in Amazon, who is still sailing today.

If you would like to read more, upload a copy of ‘The Secrets of Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1976)’ for sale on Amazon Kindle and other e-readers for £2.99

‘Here we are intrepid explorers…’ filming in Swallow on Derwentwater in 1973

The Swallows voyage to Wild Cat Island
Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West as the Walker children sailing to Wild Cat Island in Swallow

If you ever see a cormorant you must sing out, ‘They’ve got India-rubber necks!’

And then, if you are on a long journey you can add, ‘ Cormorants. We must be near the coast of China. The Chinese have cormorants. They train them to catch fish for them. Daddy sent me a picture.’

If you ever get lost – or the journey really is a long one, you can say,

‘Here we are intrepid explorers making the first ever voyage into unchartered waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets will be revealed?’

They were most complicated speeches to deliver afloat, ones I had to learn.  In the end the second part was heard OOV – out of vision. I could have read the lines.  But then they wouldn’t have stayed in my head forever, as they have.

The Swallows on their voyage to Wildcat Island
Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West sail Swallow on the voyage to Wild Cat Island, scenes shot on Derwentwater in 1973

If, on your journey, you happen to see a man sitting in a chair writing notes you score high and can say, ‘What’s that man doing?  He’s probably a retired pirate working on his devilish crimes.’

(I’m a bit hestitant about that one because my Aunt Hermione really was approached by pirates when she was sailing round the world. The Daily Mail published her dairy chronicling the adventure; a full page double- spread with photographs no less. Rather sadly they ran  headline ‘Intrepid Pensioners…’ What a swizz. She should have lied about her age and said she was 27 instead of 60. Well perhaps 57, what with the photos.)

The scene behind the camera that day on Derwentwater was rather different from from the scene in front of it.

28th June ~ my diary

28th June ~ my diary page two

28th June ~ my diary page three

28th June ~ my diary page four

I’m pretty sure that the photographs below were taken this same day. Please let me know if the far bank is indeed Derwentwater or if I am mistaken and this was shot on Coniston.

This shows the pontoon being used as a safety craft rather than a camera platform. Swallow is moored to it with Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Stephen Grendon onboard. Their chaperone Daphne Neville is standing-by with a track suit top as I was cold. First assistant David Bracknell is approaching in the Dory.

I got cold sailing but it was a glorious sunny day with a fair wind. We achieved a huge amount even if Cedric fell in. As you can see, some of the boatmen and crew were wearing life jackets, others were not – including my mother. We wore BOAC life jackets for rehearsals but Swallow is a safe little boat – her keel ensuring we didn’t capsize if we happened to jibe and we never fell in. The pontoon was really rather more dangerous being a raft with no gunwale. Any one could have misjudged their step and plopped overboard. Luckily we were not stiffled by Health and Safety in those days – only the rigorous demands of movie insurance companies.

This shows the camera crew climbing aboard the pontoon in order to film Swallow sailing. Daphne Neville sits in the Dory safety boat in the foreground.
A reflector board, wrapped camera mount and microphone are already on board.

I’m sure we had already shot the first two scenes of the day when I was in Amazon, setting the anchor and later hearing the robbers. I expect Claude needed to re-shoot for technical reasons. Day-for-Night filming requires clear, sunny days and he would have needed still water.

I have some of my father’s 16mm footage showing us at around this stage in the filming. It was shot on a different day but shows us on the shores of Derwentwater, waiting around before rushing off across the lake in motor boats to finish filming before Claude lost the light. You see the pontoon and a safety boat towing Swallow, me snapping bossily at Roger to get a move-on, (unforgiveable but I was 3 years older than him and irritated to distraction), the third assistant Gareth Tandy in blue with glasses, our sound recordist Robin Gregory throwing his arms wide open, Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett by the lake shore, David Blagden with his short hair-cut splicing rope, me in my Harry Potter-ish blue nylon track-suit top with Albert Clarke the stills photographer, Swallow and some mallard duckings.

If you are enjoying this blog, please find an expanded version of the story in the ebook, available from all online retailers such as Amazon Kindle for £2.99 and on Goodreads here It has also been published in two illustrated paperback versions, which make good presents.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

Champain on the set of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ to celebrate the 500th slate

Ronald Fraser, Daphne Neville and Sophie Neville in her BOAC Life jacket
Ronald Fraser as Captain Flint with Daphne Neville and Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker on Derwentwater in 1973

Suzanna Hamilton’s first impression of Ronald Fraser was that, ‘he was quite nice but v.fussy.’ It seems to me that he loved three things: acting, ladies and laughter. Whilst he had a small mouth his capacity for alcohol of almost any kind was legendary. Funnily Enough this was the day that we all had a  drink on set. The clapperboard or slate had snapped shut on the 500th  shot of the movie and in, line with tradition, a bottle of champagne was cracked open.  Somehow I managed to end up with the dregs. I thought them utterly delicious.

Sophie Neville with director Claude Whatham, Ronald Fraser and DOP Denis Lewiston outside the catering bus at Derwentwater in the Lake District ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I’m not sure exactly what was going through Ronnie Fraser’s mind at this point but Denis Lewiston has a call sheet in one hand, so must have still had his mind on work. I think we’d reached the end of a pretty good day.

The fishing rod was such an excitment. Simon West was very generous and let us all catch fish with it. Arthur Ransome would have been proud of him.

Suzanna added another story ~

Suzanna refers to the 500th take, but she was mistaken. We rarely took more that 3 takes of each shot. It was the 500th slate. It doesn’t seem much to me now. I went on to work on drama serials with so many episodes that they would have amounted to films four or five hours long.

Sophie Neville on the set of 'My Family and other Animals'
Sophie Neville on the set of ‘My Family and Other Animals’ shot on Corfu in 1987

I remember operating the clapper-board on this occasion because the entire camera crew were involved in pulling off a 360 degree shot, the cameraman Andrew Dunn up on a crane while a stiff wind was blowing, but that’s another story. I was just the girl saying, ‘Shot one thousand and forty-nine, take three.’ Quite fun.

Did appearing in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ inspire me towards working on a film crew?  No, at the time the hanging around aspect of filming bored and frustrated us children. Later, when I did work on productions, any time I was able to relax on set was treasured, absolutely relished. I was an assistant director with a Motorola on my hip and rarely had a chance to take the weight off my feet.

Neville C Thompson, the Associate Producer, relaxing on set. To be fair, this shot may well have been taken on Sunday 24th July 1973, by Daphne Neville

I have just watched the scene shot in the cabin of the houseboat and have noticed an odd thing. We have a travelling chest of drawers exactly like Captain Flint’s and I set a mirror on top of it just as Ian Whittaker the set-dresser had.

One secret of the scene is that, once we start to clap and sing, ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’ Claude Whatham, the director shouted, ‘Go round’, not once but twice.  If you listen very carefully you can just hear him the second time. He wanted us to dance around the room. I knew this but couldn’t move much with the parrot, so went up and down. Kit Seymour was absolutely boiling in her red bobble hat and no on else could move much for fear of knocking the furniture. It was left to Suzanna to dance about – a tricky thing to do without seeming self conscious. All in all I think we needed a glass of champagne by the end of that day.

Ronald Fraser and Denis Lewiston and a Route Master bus
Ronnie Fraser and DoP Denis Lewiston with paper cups of champagne, a cigarette and the call sheet for the next day outside the Route Master location catering bus ~ photo: Daphne Neville

 

If you are enjoying this blog, please think of buying an updated version of the story, available as a paperback or ebook from all online retailers including Amazon here

The Making of Swallows and Amazons by Sophie Neville
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ by Sophie Neville

The day of the green parrot ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on the houseboat in 1973

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker on Captain Flint's houseboat
Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker aboard Captain Flint’s houseboat on Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Do all children dream of living on a houseboat?  Going out across Derwentwater for tea in Captain Flint’s cabin was fun. He had laid on such a lavish one. It was a feast.

Sophie Neville's diary written whilst filming 'Swallows and Amazons'

We hadn’t actually seen Captain Flint walk the plank at this point, but together as Swallows and Amazons, we could all imagine it.

Suzanna described the afternoon quite differently. Her focus was on the food.

An extract from Suzanna Hamilton’s diary of 25th July 1973

The green parrot had very sharp claws. If my eye’s are watering in this scene it is because they were digging into my shoulder. A piece of foam rubber was slipped under my blouse but it didn’t do much good. He really wasn’t a very tame parrot and had to have a chain around one leg in case he took flight. I was really rather worried he would nip me but ploughed on with the dialogue. If this is convincing it was because I needed to get through my close-ups before I lost part of an ear.

The parrot being taken to the Houseboat
Property Master Bob Hedges with his assistant Terry Wells taking the parrot to Captain Flint’s houseboat in the style of Amazon Pirates ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Despite this concern, I did rather want a parrot of my own. A tame one. Not long after we finished filming my parents came across a green parrot called Chico who was remarkably friendly, a sweet bird who soon came to live with us. He chatted away in Spanish and was good company. I went everywhere with him – even taking him out rowing on the lake.

Roger Lee with our green parrot Chico
Chico, our green parrot, on the shoulder of an old friend called Roger Lee

Tamzin Neville with our parrot Chico
My sister Tamzin with our parrot Chico who like having his neck stroked

I am often asked if Captain Flint’s parrot really did speak. He could certainly talk. I remember something along the lines of , ‘Who’s a pretty boy, then?’ delivered in a broad Lancashire accent. ‘Pieces of Eight’ was beyond his natural vocabulary and was dubbed on later along with music from the accordion. Ronald Fraser couldn’t really play this. Having said that, all music from instruments played on screen is added later so that the sound runs seamlessly no matter how the editor cuts the shots together. The accordion had been muted by Bobby Props.

Did the wishful lines given to Titty by the screen-writer David Wood cast light on my future? Rather unusually for an English child of the 1970’s I had already been to Africa. My family grew coffee on a farm between Arusha and Moshi in Northern Tanzania where I had been the summer before we made Swallows and Amazons.

Sophie Neville, aged 11, with Baroness Reinhild von Bodenhausen and rather a shy Masai warrior at our coffee factory near Usa River in Tanzania in 1972

I did not see forests of green parrots there, although, much later in my life I often saw Meyer’s parrots in the palm trees above our camp in Botswana.  They would clatter about looking for wild dates while I sat painting maps I had made, just as Titty would have done.

The question is ~ did Arthur Ransome ever have a parrot, or was it just a wish?

Macatoo Camp in the Okavango Delta, Botswana
A map by Sophie Neville depicting the area around Macatoo Camp in the Okavango Delta in Botswana where you find wild parrots in the trees

Ronald Fraser and the Houseboat

Ronald Fraser being transported to the Houseboat

Ronald Fraser with Wardrobe Master Terry Smith being transported to the Houseboat played by The Lady Derwentwater

Ronald Fraser being transported to the Houseboat
Ronald Fraser with wardrobe master Terry Smith being transported to Captain Flint’s Houseboat played by The Lady Derwentwater. Richard Pilbrow sits amid geraniums on the aft deck in his white hat. ~ photo: Daphne Neville

My diary entry for 24th June 1973 is not exactly revealing. As it was raining steadily in the Lake District, I was given a second day off. ‘We had a quirte morning,’ I wrote. I am sure I needed one. After a heavy week’s filming I’d spent the official ‘Unit Day Off’ writing five end-of-year exam papers, answering correspondence from school friends and going to Kit Seymour’s thirteenth Birthday party. I must have been exhausted. Legally I was meant to have two days off a week. This was the first time it had been possible.

24th June ~ my diary

Suzanna Hamilton’s diary adds little more, but my mother was on set, as was a journalist from The Guardian, so I can tell you what happened. I can even tell you what the location caterers from Pinewood cooked that day: Melon, followed by roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, boiled or roast potatoes, peas and carrots with apple crumble or tinned peaches served with custard or evaporated milk. It was a Sunday. Suzanna noted that we had ‘salad for super’, her favorite food.

Set dresser Ian Whittaker, Ronald Fraser and one of the Prop Men on the houseboat ~ photo: Daphne Neville

“The houseboat has been converted from a pleasure steamer,” wrote Michael McNay in the Features section of The Guardian, “the whole of the superstructure fore faked up by props, the cabin aft converted into a retired colonist’s sittingroom – African rug, flowery curtains, assegais on the walls, an ebony elephant with silver howdah and trappings, a walnut wireless cabinet, tall brass oil lamps, a pile of 78rpm records, a silver mounted cricket ball (presented to G.Gumbleton, 1899, for the highest individual score of the season), a chest, a writing desk and an ancient upright Imperial.” I have typed this up exactly as it was published on 7th July 1973.

By props, I don’t think Michael McNay meant pit-props. He was talking about the work of the design team headed by Simon Holland. Ian Whittaker, who later won an Oscar for set dressing, helped Simon to create Captain Flint’s cabin with one of the Prop men who is photographed here. Does anyone know his name? I think it might be Terry Wells. I expect the cane chairs and side table were being temporally stored on the roof when this snap shot was taken so as to make space for camera and lights. The gaffer and camera crew would have been in the process of setting up inside the cabin. Sound would not have settled in yet. How do I know that after all these years? I can see the recordist’s arm at the left of the photograph. I still remember his coat.

“Ronald Fraser, alias Uncle Jim, is tapping away at a book.” Michael continues. “Last minute panic: who can type out quickly a folio of copy to leave nonchantly in the roller?”  That would have been Sue Merry, the continuity girl.  The first scene was probably the one in which Uncle Jim is typing with the green parrot on his shoulder when a firework goes off on his cabin roof. I wonder if Arthur Ransome had ever been disturbed by the Altounyan children in such a way. Did he use an Imperial typewriter?

The film crew were on location on Derwentwater. “By now, the houseboat has been moved and moored to the western shore just off a promontory that is being faked up as one end of Wild Cat Island.” The houseboat, really one of the stars of the movie,  was being played by a long-time resident of Cumbria, The Lady Derwentwater. A 56 foot motor launch, owned by the Keswick Launch Company since 1935, she returned to real life after the filming, rather like I did. She still carries up to 90 passengers. You can go out on her today.

Was this the houseboat Arthur Ransome had in mind?  The photograph was taken by Martin Neville in 1973

My father, who is keen on steamboats, had been off to find the real houseboat that Arthur Ransome had in mind. Am I right in thinking this must have been the original Gondola? I expect she was too un-seaworthy for the production team to contemplate using in 1973.  A reliable, water-tight boat that could be towed into the location used for Houseboat Bay was needed. Last year we went to see TSSY Esperance   at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in Cumbria, which is another Victorian steam yacht invisaged by Ransome as a possible model for Captain Flint’s houseboat. It is a beauty but we did get a better view of the lake from of the cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater.

TSSY Esperance, the 1869 Steam Yacht, at the Windermere Steamboat Museum, Cumbria in Apirl 2011

“The rain has stopped, the mist is lifting from the 1,500 foot ridge of Cat Bells. Fraser climbs gingerly aboard, awkward in co-respondent’s brown and white shoes, rosy make-up and moves into the aft cabin.” McNay continues. He is describing the main scene to be shot that day. “John, alias Simon West, is in a rowing boat 15 feet away… The problem this time is that the rowing boat has to remain anchored but look as though Simon is pulling steadily in towards the houseboat and the anchor rope has to remain hidden.” This must have been so that Swallow could be lined up acurately and remain in focus for the camera.  It is one of the secrets of making the film that I have been asked about directly.

“Simon shows Claude Whatham how he’ll manage it. Quick rehearsal inside the cabin. Ronald Fraser on his knees by the chest folding a white pullover, catches sight of approaching boat, mimes angry surprise. Told not to jerk head so far back. Instead jerks eyebrows up. The cabin is no more than eight foot by ten and contains besides Fraser and the props, four men on a camera, one on lights, and the continuity girl.” McNay had not included Claude the director, who I know would have squeezed in since these were the days before monitors from the camera feed. And he was small. The sound recordist was bigger but may have just planted a microphone on the desk.

“On the small aft deck Pilbrow is for the next few minutes going to be redundant.” This is Richard Pilbrow, who now lives in Conneticut and I am sure will read this post. “He is a mild, inoffensive looking man producing his first film. He is 40… looks like your friendly local antiques dealer.  He and Whatham are a good team: Whatham is slight, energetic and calm. He has time, even as a sequence is being set up, to ask the Press if they can see enough of what’s going on from the crampt aft deck of the housebaot. It’s a cheerful crew, (Denis Lewiston the DOP) watching clouds overhead with benign suspicion, taking light meter readings inside and out-side the cabin every 30 seconds.

‘Stand-by Simon.’

‘Action,’ said quietly into the cabin.

‘ACTION,’ across the lake to Simon. The clapperboard shows 461 take 1. Fraser folds the pullover, looks up, jerks eyebrows in angry surprise, camera swings round to follow Fraser’s gaze through the window, Simon pulls on left oar, keeps the rope hidden.

‘CUT.’

Pause.

‘Stand by. Quiet everybody. Action. ACTION (461 take 2) … CUT.’

‘Once more please. Stand by. Action. ACTION (461 take 3) …. CUT.’

There’s a consensus that the third take was best. Ten minute break while the suceeding sequence is prepared: Fraser rushes out on deck and tells Simon to clear off. That too is filmed in triplicate. The time is 12.45. They started work at 6.30, began filming at 12.25 and they’ve got maybe 45 seconds in the can. Everybody seems pleased.”

The Gondola
The Gondola on Coniston Water today, re-built and restored by the National Trust, powered by steam and taking passengers down the lake from April to November.

Cormorant Island ~ and the day one of the camera crew cracked

22nd June - my diary - filming 'Swallows and Amazons' 1973

22nd June - my diary page two - filming 'Swallows and Amazons' 1973

Cormorant Island - Sophie Neville as Titty filming 'Swallows and Amazons' 1973
Sophie Neville as Titty about to discover the Captain Flint’s trunk hidden on Cormorant Island ~ photo: Daphne Neville

22nd June - my diary - page three - filming 'Swallows and Amazons' in 1973

What a day!

A bright sunny day on Derwentwater. I wore what was my favourite costume, not least because I had the option of wearing a vest beneath the blouse and I didn’t have to worry about the divided skirt.  I went to such an old fashioned school that I had a pair of grey flannel culottes  myself, to wear on the games field, and thought them very much the sort of thing Titty would have worn. Roger, meanwhile was in long shorts or knickerbockers as the real Altounyan children would have called them, kept up with a snake belt. His even longer underwear was an item requested by Claude Whatham the director who, being born in the 1920s himself, had worn exactly the same sort of underpants as a child. As the day warmed up Claude stripped down to a pair of navy blue tailored shorts and sailing shoes. We were on a desert island after all. Even if it was a desert island in the Lake District.

Amazon moored near Cormortant Island on Derwentwater with the pontoon and safety boats. What is the real name of the island used for the location?

In Arthur Ransome’s book of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ the hunt for the treasure is slightly different and Captain Flint’s trunk lies buried under rocks. I wasn’t expecting the set-up with the tree trunk, although I think it works well and looks good, giving movement to the sequence. The only hesitation was that Claude didn’t want me to get hit by the rocks as they slid off. This was a pity as I would have jumped aside.

I am not sure why the Amazon had not been bailed out. I can remember having to lie in the bilge water, which proved cold and uncomfortable. Perhaps it gave my performance an edge. Titty would have been cold and stiff after a night wrapped in the sail. Great grey clouds were gathering by then and we were all getting tired.

Being together in a confined space becomes difficult to endure after while, not least when the space is a pontoon on a lake with not much to sit on. Small boys tend to muck about and become annoying when they are bored. The time had come when someone was going to crack – and they did. The result was silence. A sobering moment. And one very wet pair of knickerbockers.

In the end three of us went home in wet underwear. Gareth Tandy, the third assistant director – who I think was only about 18 – was pushed in to the lake, this time to great hilarity.

The big question, of course, it what is the name of the island on Derwentwater that we used as the location for Cormorant Island? Duncan Hall has written in to suggest it is called Lingholm Island (or possibly One Tree Island)What is the name of the larger island, seen in the background of shots, that represents Wildcat Island?  Is it Rampsholme Island?

Sophie Neville on the pontoon during the filming of 'Swallows and Amazons'
The pontoon on Derwentwater with Richard Pilbrow, Bobby Sitwell, Denis Lewiston, Claude Whatham, David Cadwalader and Sophie Neville aged 12 playing Titty. Cameraman Eddie Collins looks on ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I have one behind-the-scenes clip of the crew on the pontoon – shot on a sunny day, I think at the southern end of Coniston Water. It looks most bizarre. It was. You can see how cramped and overloaded we were and guess at the patience demanded of us all. Imagine how long it took to set up shots, while totally exposed to the elements. It was quite a stable raft but when we went for a take it was vital that everyone kept completely still or there would have been camera wobble. We used a conventional boat with a cabin when we filmed ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ on the Norfolk Broads ten years later in 1983. It proved much easier – but had more wobble.

You can read more about ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974) in an ebook available on Amazon Kindle and other platforms.

‘Country Tracks’ with Ben Fogle

At last!

We have the clip from Country Tracks presented by Ben Fogle, that includes interviews with Director Claude Whatham, Lucy Batty of Bank Ground Farm, Suzanna Hamilton and myself discussing the swimming scenes, with the unique behind-the-scenes footage my father shot on 16mm film, with his Bolex camera back in 1973. You might have seen a longer version of this on Countryfile and Big Screen Britain. I am yet to receive residuals.

If you would like to read about ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974) in detail, the illustrated, multi-media ebook is available on Kindle and from other ebook retailers.

Rowing to Cormorant Island ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville rowing to Cormorant Island
Sophie Neville as Titty and Stephen Grendon as Roger rowing to Cormorant Island

‘Pull harder, Roger!’ ~ hardly a line from Shakespeare, but one that has lodged deep in my memory.Titty was even bossier in Arthur Ransome’s books ~”You keep time with me, Boy,” said the able-seaman.”All right.”Titty lifted her oar from the water. Roger gave one pull.”Boy,” said the able-seaman, “you mustn’t say ‘All right’.””Aye, aye, sir, ” said the boy.**

When we auditioned for Swallows and Amazons the emphasis was on sailing. Could we sail? In fact I needed to be good at rowing. Titty and Roger row back form the Charcoal Burners, I rowed the Amazon from Wildcat Island and here we were rowing across Derwentwater to Cormorant Island. This was more difficult than normal as Swallow was wired to the camera pontoon.

Cormorant Island

When I look at the 16mm footage my father took of me rowing at home before we left to film in the Lake District I cringe. My blades were high above the water, hitting the surface with terrible splashes but I seemed to achieve my objective.   I managed to fit an improvised mast to our Thames skiff and even made my own sail. It doesn’t look great, but I think Arthur Ransome would have approved.

Cormorant Island and the camera boats
Swallow finding Amazon anchored near Cormorant Island on Derwent Water with the camera pontoon and safety boat: photo~ Daphne Neville

Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton joined us for the scene when the Swallows lower the Jolly Roger and start to sail the captured the Amazon back to Wildcat Island.  I can only imagine that I changed my costume in one of the support boats. I think the scene may have been shot with two cameras on different boats ~

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in the captured Amazon, with David Cadwallader, Bobby Sitwell, Dennis Lewiston, Claude Whatham and two electricians holding reflector boards on the camera punt: Photo ~ Daphne Neville

This shot shows Claude Whatham using the punt,* which somehow managed to accommodate Dennis Lewiston, the 35mm Panavision and quite a few crew members, while Richard Pilbrow remained on the camera pontoon with Eddie Collins operating the 16mm camera.

Richard Pilbrow and his film crew on the camera pontoon with Eddie Colluins opperating the 16mm camera. Simon West and Stephen Grendon sail Swallow. Suzanna Hamilton is cilmbing aboard the Amazon with Sophie Neville

I remember the scene itself as being difficult to achieve in terms of sailing. Swallow has a keel, and Amazon with her centre board is much the faster dinghy. It is not like racing two boats of the same class. After hauling up the anchor Suzanna and I battled to turn the Amazon, not wanting to wiggle the rudder and jeopardise her pins. I remember Simon calling advise over the water.  He stalled and we caught up, trying to get close together for the shot. The result was a photograph used on the front cover of the next Puffin edition of the book.

Swallows and Amazons book cover 1974
Stephen Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton on the cover of the 1974 Puffin edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

* I may be wrong about these photographs. The still surface of the water in the shot of Titty alone in Amazon suggests that it was taken later on, when we filmed the burglars landing on Cormorant Island with Captain Flint’s trunk, but we probably had a very similar set up on this more sparking day ~ 15th June 1973.

We went on to film various shots of us sailing on to Wildcat Island, when I think the camera was in Swallow capturing close-ups of a triumphant Captain John. He did indeed do well.

**Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, 1970 Jonathan Cape edition

You can read more about our adventures here:

Dark secrets revealed – the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville as Titty in Swallows and Amazons

‘Here we are, intrepid explorers making our way into uncharted waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets shall be revealed?’

The dark secret was that the inky black night scenes had to be shot in Mrs Batty’s barn. At Bank Ground Farm. During the day.  The design team strung up thick light-proof drapes and made the dusty out-building into a studio. The director, Claude Whatham had no choice.  We had quickly run out of interior scenes and the weather was so bad that we could do little else.

‘While the rest of England melted in a heat wave, the Lakes seemed wrapped in mist and rain,’ Richard Pilbrow the Producer remembers. I have a press cutting from The Guardian dated 7th July 1973, which opens with the words:

  • ‘THE WEATHER report follows in half a minute. Richard Pilbrow is obcessed with the weather. Every morning he wakes around 4 o’clock and crosses his room at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel to cock a weather eye at the sky above Wansfell Pike. Most mornings it is the same story… Pilbrow looks out of the window. Raining. ‘ 

What a worry and concern that rain was. Swallows and Amazons is firmly set in an idlyic childhood summer, August of 1929, when the water was warm enough to swim daily and the only disapointment was a total lack of wind. When we arrived to start filming at Derwent Water on 12th June 1973 it was too windy to even go out on the lake.

I loved filming in the barn.  The Third Assistant, Gareth Tandy, lead me through the high wooden doors and into a magical version of our camp on Peel Island, beautifully recreated by Ian Whittaker the Set Dresser. A real camp fire was burning. Blankets (goatskins in Titty’s imagination) and pillows from out tents had been laid out so I could be ‘shrouded in my cloak’ while I was waiting up for the Swallows to return from the Amazon River. The scene was beautifully lit with branches held in stands in front of the lights with a gentle wind produced by the prop men wafting a board to lift my hair at the right moment.  I don’t think there was an owl hoot for me to hear. I had to imagine that so they could add a real owl call later. Someone has written in to ask if I learnt how to make an answering hoot. I’m afraid not. I tried and tried. I still can’t.  John could do it but Claude asked us both to just pretend so that he could lay the sound on afterwards.

I think what we gained, despite or perhaps because of the weather, was a camaraderie that forms a foundational basis to the film. We had to be stoic and get on with filming despite getting cold and wet. Rain doesn’t show up on screen unless it is really pelting down. You can see the effects – wet hair and soggy costumes, but you actually have to use rain machines if you want to show rain in a drama.  We could film our trek up the hill to visit the charcoal burners without a problem but going out on the lake was impossible. You’d have seen the rain drops falling on the water.  And it was too windy.  As it was, we had a brilliant Director of Photography who used what light he had to capture that limpid quality you find in the Lakes, so quintessentially English it draws you in, reeling back to childhood days when we had time to make camps and rush about in the woods.

The rain did deter my mother from taking photographs. She didn’t have a flash to use in the barn but she took lots – masses – the following day…

Dressed for the Cumbrian weather: Daphne Neville with Liz Lomas, Richard’s assistant at Theatre Projects who had come up from London ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

If you would like to read more, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ is available as on Amazon Kindle and other ebook platforms.

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