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

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

Father loves the Lakes. He’d say, ‘Just look at that scenery…’ He joined us, with my sisters Perry and Tamzin, to take part in filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

My father has always grabbed a chance to go to the Lake District.  As a young man he once took advantage of a military travel warrant to climb in the hills and later made it his job to visit the Colfast Button factory in Maryport, every month, when he worked for BIP. He would stay at the Pheasant Inn at Bassenthwaite Lake, latching visits onto a weekend, so he could explore Cumbria.

Martin Neville in Cumbria with his dog

This was in the late 1950s.  When I came along he took us to stay at Goosemead Farm. We climbed Castle Crag and you only have to glance at the photographs to see how happy I was to be there. We had a sheepdog called Luppy who came too. She was a great character and much loved. Found as a stray before I was born she was still around when I left home to be in Swallows and Amazons.

Sophie Neville as a small child visiting the Lake District

Arthur Ransome had been Dad’s favourite author as a boy. He said that he would wait in anticipation for another book to be published. He’d bought me the whole set, collecting them from various second hand shops. I had read the whole lot, bar Coots in the North,  by the time I was twelve.  He set my destiny.

My father left the dogs at home on 26th May so that he could drive my younger sisters up to join us for two weeks and watch the filming. He found Peel Island on Coniston Water and was there to meet us when the boat came in at the end of the day. My sisters stood smiling on the rocks, dressed for the weather in matching red jerseys, duffle coats and gumboots.

My sisters Perry Neville and Tamzin Neville waiting for me on the shore of         Coniston Water

My parents had booked a Bed and Breakfast in Ambleside across the road from the Oaklands Guest House. I immediatley noticed a sign declaring that you had to pay 10p to have a bath. ”Ten pee!’  Mum glarred at me, furious. ‘Do be quiet, they’ll hear you’.  I had moved to share Suzanna’s room, since Mrs Price had a long-standing booking for the back room Mum and I had been using. Her guest house was full to bursting since she had students from the Charlotte Mason College of Education lodging with her aswell as all of us and her own three children. The only real problem was that we had nylon sheets and the bedding kept slidding off in the middle of the night.

My sisters, Tamzin and Perry, who must have been about eight and nine, struck up an instant rapport with Suzanna Hamilton. She asked them to baby-sit her pet slow worms. These had come up from London with her in a small glass aquarium, which she had put in the fire place in our room. I don’t know what Mrs Price thought.  I wasn’t very keen on handling them and have no idea how she fed them but Perry was intrigued. Suzanna had also brought her ukulele. She would sit on her bed playing Ain’t She Sweet, Sunny side of the Street, Playing on my Banjo and other Norman Wisdom numbers, completley fluently and with great gusto. My sisters were entranced. They may have even shared the room with us and the slow-worms. Mum can’t remember.

Dad had already made plans for sailing that first Bank Holiday, when Richard Pilbrow had scheduled a break.

27th May page 2

I remember the Hula-hula girls well. Although it was only May they suddenly appeared on what seemed to be a remote, inaccessible island, clad in garish, brightly coloured bikinis – the kind that had little frilly skirts to them. We watched them splash about and swim in complete wonder as, although it was sunny, we knew how cold the water was.

We had seen something of the same kind of savage the day before. I can remember the dismay on the First Assistant’s face when he realised it really was the Saturday of the Bank Holiday. We had had Peel Island to ourselves, indeed it had become ours – our special place, our magical camp, our home. And suddenly it was being invaded by brash women from Manchester who certainly had no respect for anyone making a film.  I don’t know how they got out there. they seemed to arrive from no where when we were in the secret harbour, which was suddenly a secret no more. It was their holiday and there was no stopping them or their over-weight and noisy children. They were quite frightening.

The horrific Bank Holiday traffic queues were also unexpected, but my father took us up into the mountains and out on Derwent Water. He must have been trying to teach my mother to sail for decades but she has never begun to get the hang of it. She was in mourning that weekend as she had watched her favourite hat blow across the water and sink to the bottom of the lake. It was a bulbous pink and white Donny Osmond cap that Claude Whatham had enjoyed wearing on set to amuse us. She was able to find a yellow and white one to replace it but he never liked it as much. Said it didn’t suit his colouring.

‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) the opening locations of the classic film

Ext : Ulverston Railway Station ~ filmed at The Haverthwaite Railway Station

An article in The Times 1973
A photograph taken for The Times –  all aboard the steam train at Haverthwaite

On the first day of making the original movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in May 1973, a huge effort was made to ‘dress’ Haverthwaite Railway Station, at the southern end of Windermere. The aim was to bring across the feel of a bustling 1929 holiday destination. Local people had been previously fitted with costumes in the Ambleside Church Hall, there was a horse and cart, porters’ trolleys laden with trunks and a number of old bikes, which were all of great interest to us.

Having stepped down from the steam locomotive, where the Times photographer must have taken this shot, we children were piled into an open-topped period vehicle, for further publicity photographs.  I liked sitting on the car but thought the photograph was silly, especially since Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett, who played the Amazons, were wearing ordinary clothes rather than period costumes. The result was later published in both The Guardian and Woman’s Realm. Virginia McKenna was interviewed by journalists while we were hurried away to get on with our lessons. Our tutor taught us Art. I drew the a picture of the motor car.

With Virginia McKenna on the first day of filming
A publicity shot featuring Virginia McKenna, with Kit Seymour, Steven Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton, taken on the first day of filming and published in the Guardian and other newspapers

The yellow motor used in the film for our taxi was superb. I can only imagine it was far grander than a real Lakeland taxi would have been. Sten, playing Roger, hung out of the window as the director, Claude Whatham, ‘filmed us driving out of the station, along the platform at top speed,’ as I recorded in my diary.

Director Claude Whatham talking to Virginia McKenna

Ext: Holly Howe ~ filmed at Bank Ground Farm by Coniston Water

Arriving at Holly Howe in the yellow taxi was truly exciting. It was not filmed the next day, as I think rain had set in. Claude waited for good evening light. But I remember the thrill of drawing up outside the farmhouse in the old car and pulling on my hat as we spilled out and ran past the big farm horses Mr Jackson was leading into the yard. I’m afraid our OOV (out of vision) dialogue was added later.

The screenplay of the 1973 film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adapted from Arthur Ransome’s book by David Wood

If you ever go to Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, named Holly Howe by Arthur Ransome in his books, you must run down the field to the lake as we did. As soon as you arrive. And at top speed. And you will be filled by the same feeling of elation as we were when we played the Walker children.

Bankground Farm
Steven Grendon, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West at Bankground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District

The slope, formed by glacial scouring and subsequent deposits long ago, is steeper than you think.  You soon learn the art of glaumphing at which I became adept.  What struck me when I returned to Bank Ground Farm one Spring, was that sadly the great trees have gone from around the old farm gate and the boatsheds down by the lake.  They must simply have reached the end of their lives.

Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West with Mr Jackson at Holly Howe~ photo: Daphne Neville

Ext: Peak at Darien ~ filmed by Derwent Water

Most Arthur Ransome devotees will know that the Peak at Darien, where once stood stout Cortez, is familiar to readers as it appears in two of the illustrations in the book. Sadly it can not be found below the farm. Mrs Ransome said that you could find the headland on Windermere. In April 2011, when I was on an early recce with Nick Barton, CEO of Harbour Picture Productions, we did pass one promising spot:

A possible Peak in Darien by Lake Windermere

However Richard and Claude chose Friar’s Crag on Derwent Water for the location. I didn’t know it but Christina Hardyment writes in her excellent book, Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint’s Trunk that they had found the very place Ransome had in mind, “without the slightest idea that they were quite right to be doing so.”  She found that Ransome had marked up postcard of Friar’s Peak for his illustrator Clifford Webb to work from in 1930. It feels completely right when you are there, with the iconic view of an island under the towering mountains. It was over a shot of this that they added the opening titles.

Sout Cortez, however, was not there. Neither were we children. By the time we had been transported from Coniston to Derwent Water for this scheduled scene the sun was going down.  We’d been delayed by the make-up artist who was determined to tone down the tans we had developed.  This took ages. He used a very small sponge. My mother was frustrated as she thought that this would never have shown up, but he put his foot down with the result that we were ‘late on set’ for the evening shots. Claude Whatham was very cross about it.

Sophie Neville as Titty arriving too late in the day to film at Friar’s Crag on Derwent Water. The island portrayed as Wildcat Island can be seen in the distance ~ photo: Daphne Neville

One of the big secrets of the film ~

One of the big secrets of the film is that the sequence when we run up to the Peak at Darien and first set eyes on the island in the lake was shot under an oak tree in Runnymede, near the River Thames. We were not an island at all.  It must have been an expensive ‘pick-up shot’, but we enjoyed meeting up again immensely. Claude had made an effort to gather together the same crew members and I was back in my lovely silk dress once more. We knew how to act by then and the joy of being together again shows on our faces.  The result was a scene to set the film off on the right foot.  We were jubilant and so excited, that, like swallows, we could have taken flight.

Sophie Neville, Claude Whatham and Simon West with Richard Pilbrow, right ~photo:Daphne Neville

The opening titles ~

I would have to check with Richard Pilbrow to be certain but I think that Simon Holland, the Art Director, penned the SWALLOWS and AMAZONS graphics for the opening titles.  I remember a discussion about the font type. A very fashionable script used on the poster of the film was favoured. I said that I thought they ought to use the handwritten capitals that Clifford Webb had penned on the map in the opening cover of the book and copied by Simon Holland (and me) on our chart. This was chosen.

Click on this image to see the poster of the film

The Seventies’ font, above, had been used for the titles of  Lionel Jefferey’s movie The Railway Children, which starred Jenny Agutter. As a viewer I felt that this soon dated it, whilst Swallows and Amazons sailed onto our television screens in the 1980’s and 1990’s, indeed into the 21st century, without being spoilt by what became most unfashionable graphics. Of course now that particular retro font is all the rage.  For sometime a DVD has been available which gives you both films.

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the classic film by purchasing ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ published by the Lutterworth Press, available online and at all good bookshops.