Memories to add to the third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ – part three

“One pandemic discovery for my family was 1974’s ‘Swallows and Amazons,’ a charming British film about kids just playing on a lake. On their own, they’re plenty capable of making their own tents and adventures”, the US film critic Jake Coyle wrote in a review for the Associated Press of a new movie released on Netflix called ‘Yes Day’.

Many people have fond memories of watching the original movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when it first came out in cinemas nearly forty-seven years ago and list it in their Top Ten feature films of all time.

David Kerr wrote: “I first saw the film while I was a junior projectionist. I was 17 at the time. My cinema was called the Astor in Bromley, part of south east London. While an independent cinema, we took the ABC circuit films. Somewhere, I have the LP record and a poster of the film. I went on to a career spanning 40 years in international film distribution.”

“It remains one of my top ten films even to this day. I worked for 20th Century Fox…Polygram…and United International Pictures which distributed Universal, Paramount and Dreamworks films. I had a good career and witnessed the good the bad and the ugly during my travels.”

Simon West and the camera crew at Bank Ground Farm

“From memory, I can recall that the film was released over the Easter school holidays in 1974. It’s just been helped as I have found a press ad online and it lists South London unusually running the film first on April 14th.”

Finding Swallow
Simon West, Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville with the director Claude Whatham

“I believe the film was supported by ‘The Lion at Worlds End’ …the documentary that Virginia and Bill Travers made with George Adamson about returning an African lion to the wild. I know I ran the film again either in 1975 or ’76 as an afternoon matinee only with a Kung Fu adult programme in the evenings.”

Brenda Bruce and Simon West on location above Coniston Water

“The film means a lot to me and has done so since 1974. It made me revisit the books…which I still read (currently dipping in and out of an old hardback edition of ‘Pigeon Post’) but I believe I had only read one during my childhood, which I think was ‘Swallowdale’. I also embarked on a number of holidays in the lakes because of the film. That first year I camped on a farm at Torver on the west side of Coniston.”

Simon West as John Walker studying the chart at Holly Howe before the voyage.

“The reason I include it in my top ten is simple. It is pure storytelling that takes the viewer on an adventure. You do not notice the individual aspects of film making you just become engrossed in the story. And that is what a good film should do. I watched it again just last week on a streaming service… It makes me smile ….what more can I say.”

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville on location at Bank Ground Farm

John Rose wrote: “I can remember watching the film in 1974 with my mum and grandma when I was a nine or ten year-old, at the then called Mecca Cinema in Horsham, Sussex (sadly now demolished). I remember loving the natural setting and the adventure in the film and remember it being thrilling and suspenseful! Still my favourite film, so cheerful and up-lifting. The lovely music! All still brings a tear to my eye.  Back then in the ’70s we didn’t have the lakes but at every opportunity our little band of local children would run off over the fields playing, building camps and climbing trees in the woods – such happy, carefree days.”

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Sten Grendon in Swallow

Last time the film was broadcast on BBC Two, David Stott, who worked as a unit driver on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when he was fresh out of college, wrote in to say: “I remember how cold you all were whilst filming the swimming scene.  The lily pond scene brought back memories of a very wet day on Pull Wyke caravan park.  Most of the day was spent in the two double decker buses that were your school room and the canteen waiting for the rain to clear. Everyone was so grateful to pack up and go home.”

Sten Grendon as Roger with Suzanna Hamilton as Susan

 

“I had many incidents with the parrot that I had to collect in the morning and return at night.  I hated the bird, often it was let free in a bathroom at Kirskstone Foot and l would have to catch it and put it in its travel bag. I notice in the film that it is chained down whilst it is sitting on your shoulder.”

Kit Seymour as Nancy, Sophie Neville as Titty and Beauty playing Polly the green parrot.

 

“I would spend a lot chatting to Ronnie Logan the hairdresser while the shooting was taking place, such a nice man.”

“The day they filmed the walking the plank scene I remember very well.  I took Ronnie Fraser to the Lodore Swiss hotel at  lunchtime and he was really very well plastered by the time I got him back for the afternoon filming.  I suppose it was the only way they managed to get him in the water.  He was not a happy chappy that afternoon when I eventually took him back to Ambleside.”

“I had to put the rushes on the train to London in the evening and collect developed film (how times have changed).  One of my treats was that I was allowed to watch the rushes with the production team in the evening. Watching it again this afternoon was a real trip down memory lane.  I cannot believe that I was a student starting out in life at the time and now l am a pensioner.  Where has all that time gone?”

Simon West and Sophie Neville on Peel Island in 1973
 
You can read more in the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’
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You can see some of the illustrations here:

At Windermere Jetty museum – to see the amazing boats

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) 

In the summer of 1973, I was transported to the shores of Windermere, ‘The Great Lake in the North’ to appear as ‘Titty Walker’ in the classic movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, starring Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser.

The Swallows approach the jetty in Rio. Which launch is moored outside the boat sheds?

We were fortunate enough to film the scenes set in Rio at Bowness-on-Windermere before the original green boat sheds were demolished in favor of an amusement arcade.

Rio – or Bowness-on-Windermere in 1973 – with SL Elizabeth ~ photo: Martin Neville

George Pattinson brought along his steamboat the Lady Elizabeth, which you can see here beyond the Windermere skiffs pulled up on the shore.

George Pattinson in his steam launch Elisabeth ~ photo: Martin Neville

George’s personal collection made up the basis of the Steamboat Museum now rebuilt and known as Windermere Jetty, where we found the Lady Elizabeth under restoration.

Eighteen foot long, she was built in New York State in about 1900 and brought to England, so was likely on Windermere in 1929 when Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’. She sank off Cockshott Point beyond Bowness, but Mr Pattinson salvaged and renovated her in 1955. You can read more here.

The Lady Elizabeth under restoration at Windermere Jetty
The Lady Elizabeth under restoration at Windermere Jetty

Other exhibits included the exquisite steam launch Osprey, in fine fettle with her copper steam kettle kept brightly polished. I knew her from taking part in a Steam Boat Association rally on Windermere in 1991. 

The RNSA dinghies used to play Swallow and Amazon in the 2016 movie can also be seen in the wet dock at Windermere Jetty.

Look up, and you can spy a green beetle on an old burgee. 

Arthur Ransome’s dinghy Conch-y-bonddhu, known as Scarab in his books, is on display with Beatrix Potter’s rough, flat-bottomed rowing boat (the pointed bows of which can be seen here hanging on the wall to the right).

It was good to be able to examine Conchy’s rigging. You can read about her here.

The museum has many other treasures including the hull of the oldest yacht in existence in the Lake District.

Every one of the forty boats exhibited has a story to tell.  You can find out more about visiting Windermere Jetty on their website here.

The Windermere skiffs can still be seen up the road in Bowness where you can begin to look for locations used in the original film.

If you don’t already have a copy you can read about ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ here. This includes maps and chapters on how to find the film locations.

To learn more about the film locations, please click here.

The ebook on ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, which is similar, is available on all ebook platforms, including Kindle here.

A weekend spent steam boating on Windermere in 1991, is featured in ‘Funnily Enough’, a diary of a year when everything changed, can be found here.

Looking towards the jetty featured in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) at Bowness-on-Windermere

I look forward to returning to Windermere Jetty when the Lady Elizabeth is on back the water! The museum will be opening soon.

You can read about the 1901 steam launch Daffodil that I helped to renovate here.

Sophie Neville visiting Windermere Jetty – photo: Caroline Robinson

The original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ featured in the Radio Times as Film of the Day on Sunday 30th August 2020

‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) starring Virginia McKenna was broadcast on BBC 2 on Sunday 30th August 2020, recalling the adventures of the Walker and Blackett families on a ‘Lake in the North’ in August 1929 before the school term began. Hailed as ‘The feel-good film of Lockdown’, it transports us back to a time of freedom, celebrating the beauty of the English Lake District. It is available on BBC iPlayer here.

You can watch a short re-mix here:

It was wonderful to see the feature film heralded as Film of the Day but Hilary Weston of The Arthur Ransome Society pointed out that there are a few errors in the write up.

Arthur Ransome wrote the novel ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1929, published on 1st December 1930. There are 12 books in the series, however only five are set in the Lake District. ‘Missee Lee’ sees the Swallows and Amazons exploring the South China sea with Captain Flint, while Dick and Dororthea join them all on the Sea Bear to cruise the Otter Hebrides in ‘Great Northern’. The 13th story in the series, an unfinished manuscript entitled ‘Coots in the North’, is set in Cumbria.

Props used in the original film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

Arthur Ransome died in 1967, aged 83, so was not around to see this feature film made. He had been grumpy about the 1963 BBC serial made in black and white, which starred Susan George as ‘Kitty’ (rather than Titty). His wife Evgenia was determined to avoid what they called a ‘Disneyfication’ of the books and kept a tight hold on the script, character names, locations and casting of Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 adaptation. As a result, David Wood’s screenplay adheres to the story and was approved by Mrs Ransome who gave the go ahead. On watching the finished film, her only adverse comment was that one of the kettles used was of the wrong period.

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker with Sten Grendon as Roger

Arthur Ransome’s father died when he was thirteen and the theme of fatherlessness flows though his books granting the young characters independence. In ‘Swallows and Amazons’ it is Nancy and Peggy, the Amazon pirates, who have no father.

Kit Seymour as Nancy & Lesley Bennett as Peggy Blackett sailing Amazon

The story opens when the four elder Walker children are given permission to sail off to camp on an island by their father who is absent, in Malta with the Navy, and sends the famous telegram: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN (with no apostrophe)

Swallows and Amazons
Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton receiving the telegram from Father.

Vicky, the fifth sibling and baby of the Walker family, keeps the Swallows’ mother at Holly Howe farm on the mainland. Tension is created after the Amazons let off a firework on their uncle’s houseboat while he is absorbed in his writing and ignoring them. He shook his fist at the crew of the Swallow assuming they were responsible for the damage and was labelled ‘Captain Flint’.

A Theatre Project by Richard Pilbrow

Richard Pilbrow describes in his memoir, ‘A Theatre Project’, how the idea of adapting ‘Swallows and Amazons’ came to him as he watched the sun set over Windermere one night when visiting the Lake District. He put the idea to Nat Cohen of EMI who was looking for a classic book adaptation similar to ‘The Railway Children’, which had been a box office success. Nat Cohen hadn’t heard of Arthur Ransome but his assistant loved his books and raved about the idea. EMI Films provided the initial budget of £250,000 although more was spent. It was directed by Claude Whatham who may well have been influenced by the Children’s Film Foundation but he was regarded as avant guard at the time and, like Richard, motivated by the beauty of the Lakes.

Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water
Producer Richard Pilbrow with Director Claude Whatham in Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water

The original poster for the film used an ampersand in the title graphics but this was lost as it was translated, sold worldwide and remastered. Someone who must love the old film said the error in the write up was that it was only given three stars. The DVD now has a 4.5 star rating on Amazon but it only gets 6.5 out of 10 on IMDb – the International Movie Data base, which is equivalent to three stars. You can add a review on this site here.

Mark Walker of the Arthur Ransome Group added: And they got the title of the article completely wrong. “Film of the *Day*”, indeed..!! Film of the Year, Decade, Century, Millenium….any of the above could have been more appropriate..!!

If you would like to learn more about the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ there is now a paperback entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’  It can be ordered direct from the publishers and is available from Waterstones

A second edition of the ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons(1974), the first section of which you can read for free here.

Letters and quotes from fans of the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 1974, currently on BBC iPlayer

AsASwallows and Amazons 1974

~Contact sheet shots taken from Albert C Clarke’s film stills~

‘I have just been watching on BBC catch-up, the famous and wonderfully entertaining film ‘Swallows and Amazons’. As a 12 year old boy in 1974, my little brother and I were taken to watch the James Bond film ‘Live and Let Die’ in Coulsdon. As we sat down to watch it we found ourselves sat at the wrong place. We were so upset! When the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ started playing we totally forgot about 007 and found ourselves glued to the screen watching this wonderfully entertaining film. In short, even at 58 years of age I still enjoy this beautiful film about four children and their adventures.’ George

Virginia McKenna as mother in Swallows and Amazons
Virginia McKenna as Man Friday in Swallows and Amazons 1974

‘My best #lockdown viewing so far has been the 1974 film version of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons‘. Reliving the joy of discovering those books, and remembering the freedom of grubbing about in the wildness…’  Judy Darley

Sophie Neville as Titty on Peel island
Sophie Neville as Robinson Crusoe the shipwrecked sailor

‘Never read Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows & Amazons’ or seen an adaptation until yesterday. What a delight the 1974 film was. Captured the spirit of childhood adventure so charmingly. Didn’t stop smiling for a moment during the whole thing.’ David Rattigan

Filming Swallows and Amazons on Peel Island in 1973
The Swallows on Wild Cat Island

‘Watching the original ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with daughter. Get to the “better drowned than duffers, if not duffers won’t drown” telegram and daughter remarks: “I see. So their dad’s gone mad and is writing gibberish.”’ Patrick Kidd – Times Diaryist 

Claude Whatham in 1973
Behind-the-scenes at Bank Ground filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

‘Ooh. The original ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has come onto Amazon Prime. The one with Titty. The real one. The only one.’

Sophie Neville as Titty getting her makeup done
Sophie Neville being made up for the part of Titty in 1973

‘Best children’s film ever made. Perfect lockdown viewing. BBC iPlayer – ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – Tim Bonner

For homeschooling ideas relating to the films, such as watching the DVD in French, please click here

You can read the first section of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ for free in the preview here:

The Making of Swallows and Amazons 1974

Meeting up with Peggy Blackett – from the film ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974)

Lesley Bennett in 1973

When the original feature film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ was made in 1973, Peggy Blackett was played by Lesley Bennett, who was aged thirteen at the time. She can be seen here on location at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District.

For the last thirty-four years, Lesley has been living in the Netherlands. I met up with her for lunch at Schiphol Airport on my way back from sailing Arthur Ransome’s cutter, the Nancy Blackett, through the inland waterways of Zeeland. (Please see the last two previous posts.) I nearly didn’t make the meeting. A man had been arrested for planting a bomb on a train just north of Middleberg, but the authorities must have acted quickly as I wasn’t delayed for long.

Lesley had brought along a blue file of documents and a number of black and white movie stills that she’d been given by Richard Pilbrow, the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on one of our last days in Ambleside after filming had finished. We could both remember them spread out on a table at the unit hotel so we could each chose the ones we appeared in. I had picked one where Lesley and I are sitting together, our hair bobbed in line with the 1930’s, I wearing a cream silk dress, Lesley in a dark top looking very pretty:

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

Lesley’s parents, who lived near Tonbridge in Kent, originally learnt that Theatre Projects were looking for children to take part in the film when the Associate Producer, Neville Thompson, wrote to their local sailing club. Lesley explained that her father, who was very well organised, kept a copy of the letter sent to the Secretary of the club in January 1973.  Plans were made for Lesley to be interviewed for a part with her younger sister Lyn, who sadly fell ill and couldn’t make the audition. The letter contains a mistake that might explain why Lesley ended up playing Peggy when she was thirteen years old.

Lesley got on well with Kit Seymour who ended up playing her elder sister, Nancy Blackett – ‘terror of the seas’. Both girls would sail well and enjoyed being out on the lakes. Lesley told me that the reason why she held her hands between her legs in this photograph is that it was so cold when we were filming on Peel Island.

‘Kit would fold her arms and I’d try to keep my hands warm.’ Although I wore a cardigan in this scene, Swallows had been cold too. I remember thinking that at least the Amazons wore knitted hats. Otherwise their costumes were simple short-sleeved shirts and long shorts with black plymsols, worn without socks.

~Kit Seymour as Captain Nancy and Lesley Bennett as Mate Peggy in 1973~

Lesley told me their hats had been quite a problem – not quite a full-blown movie disaster but a they caused consternation in Consiton. The first scene the Amazons shot was set in the garden of Beckfoot, the Blacketts’ house. Although it does not lie on the ‘Amazon River’ at the northern end of the lake, Brown Howe on the western shore of Coniston Water was used as the location and the crew set up the 35mm Panavision camera, along with reflector boards and enough lighting to bring sunshine to Westmorland. When everyone on the production was ready, Gareth Tandy, the third assistant led the Amazons down to the set wearing red knitted stocking caps – with no bobbles. Beanies were not quite what either the director or producer had expected. Lesley has a photo showing the great discussion that ensued:


~Director Claude Whatham, Producer Richard Pilbrow, 3rd Assistant Director Gareth Tandy, Make-up Artist Peter Robb-King, Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan and Associate Producer Neville Thompson with Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett at Brown Howe on Coniston Water in May 1973 ~

In the end Claude Whatham shot the scene with the girls bare-headed, their hair blowing all over the place, even though it was meant to be ‘dead-calm’ in the story.  This looked natural as they were at home but they needed to look like pirates in every other scene.

~Nancy and Peggy running down to Amazon at the Blackett’s house Beckfoot~

Wooly hats with ‘longer ends’ were knitted locally at some speed. Red is not a good colour on the screen. I remember a couple of bright pink ribbed bobble-hats arrived when we were filming on Peel Island but they were deemed a complete disaster and rejected in favour of scarlet ones originally described by Arthur Ransome even if the colour might look a bit jarring on screen.

No one on the production knew anything about knitting or subtle shades of wool and Emma Porteous, the costume designer, was back in London. When the third pair of hats arrived we were all a bit worried about the fatness of the bobble-end, as they didn’t quite match the illustrations in the books, but no one knew what else to do. Time ran out and the producer was forced to compromise. ‘They were warm but prone to flop about,’ Lesley said, ‘and sometimes flopped forward, which looked a bit silly.’ I’d never noticed this but it was captured in one photograph:

~Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett as Nancy and Peggy Blackett on Wild Cat Island in 1973~

Mum was given the pink version of the hats. She kept them for years but no one ever wore them.

To be continued….

The second edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)’ available as an ebook

front-cover-1974

A second edition of the ebook ‘The Secrets of Filming ‘SWALLOWS & AMAZONS'(1974) is now available on Amazon Kindle, Smashwords, itunes, Kobo, and Nook for £2.99 . You can download this free of charge if you already own the first edition.

If you would like a copy but don’t have a Kindle, worry not. We have added a link whereby you can download a free Kindle app. Please go to my Book Page and scroll down for the details.

If you already have a copy of the ebook, contact a Customer Advisor and ask for a free update. You just need to give Kindle the ebook’s ASIN number. The ISBN for all online editions except Kindle is: ISBN 9781311761927

Since being contacted by others who were involved in the filming, I have been able to add a few more anecdotes and images, including this beautiful shot of Virginia McKenna in 1973 kindly sent in by the photographer Philip Hatfield.

virginia-mckenna-photo-by-philip-hatfield

I found a copy of my original contract for the film and when Jean McGill rang from Bowness, a few more secrets floated to the surface.

Sophie Neville and David Wood

CBBCTV’s Cinemaniacs  interviewed the screenwriter David Wood and myself on how the original movie of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was made back in the summer of 1973.  The idea was to use 30 second clips, so please excuse my over-the-top reactions, but you can watch the whole recording below.

‘This has to be one of the most delightful interviews in my recent memory.’ Tim Lewis, USA

What did you think of ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’?

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

‘I’ve just read this delightful ebook – thank you so much for writing it! I’m sure you must get messages all the time like this, but I hope you will deservedly enjoy hearing that I absolutely adored the film of S&A and learned your name, along with all of the other actors and actresses off by heart from the record, which I played and played.

LP of Swallows and Amason with vinyl record

‘I also had the jigsaw of the campsite scene, which I thought was an incredible piece of merchandising (and it was, for its day).

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‘I read my first S&A book (Swallowdale, but never mind) in the summer holidays when I was 7, and rapidly recruited my best friend Linda to being a fan. One of our mums spotted that the film was on at our local cinema in Dundee that Christmas, but the next day was the last date it was showing – so we were collected early from our school Christmas party, so that we could make it in time. We were in heaven. The next Easter, our families took us to the Lake District (staying in Coniston) for the first of many holidays there. We remember “finding” Gondola submerged in the reeds, and sailing with our dads over to Bank Ground and seeing the two dinghies named Swallow and Amazon. We soon found a favourite picnic on the shore close to Peel Island, and in later years, my dad and I rowed over to the Island in a rubber dinghy, which was tremendously exciting. Fascinating to hear about the artificial shingle beach!

I was interested to read that one of your qualifications for getting the job was that you could row, and that you’d practised at home in a Thames Skiff.  Many thanks again for giving me such a delightful film to immerse myself in as a child. Helena Smalman-Smith

Fan letter for Swallows & Amazons -

‘We love your book and tales of filming.’  Love Ambleside – on Twitter

‘…the girls adore your film of Swallows and Amazons. In fact, I fear it is thanks to your film rather than the book that my Swallows and Amazons camping weekend was full to bursting. I also have friends in Suffolk who would happily hot foot it across the country with their three children to hear you!’  Grainne Dennison (teacher and Ransome fan).

‘My daughter is 11 today & this is her favourite present!  Titty was always Moira’s favourite character from the books AND the film, she is thrilled!’

Fan mail

‘My daughter LOVED your book! She couldn’t help sharing gems & finished it in a few days on hols. Magic! My turn now!’

‘I have been hesitating to write, but I do want to tell you how much I enjoyed reading ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’. It made watching the film so much more enjoyable. I came to Arthur Ransome late in life, but I’ve read all of them, and have a complete collection of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adventures.’ Mark Cheng, Bedford

Puzzels

‘I really love the Swallows and Amazons movie. I actually went to see it at the pictures in London, with my family when it first came out, but I was only about 4 or 5 years old, so I don’t remember much about that day. But of course I have watched it many times over the years and since I have the DVD I make a point to watch it at least once every year. You are my favourite as you are so charming!!’ Robert Newland, Dorset

If you have a memory of the film, do leave a comment in the box below.

If you would like to write a short review on Amazon, here is the link for readers in the UK

A publicty photograph for 'Swallows and Amazons'
Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Virginia McKenna, Simon West and Kit Seymour gathered at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water

 

More behind the scenes footage of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

We have just found another reel of 16mm home movie footage shot, not on location in the Lake District, but at Runneymede near Egham in Surrey. It captures the essence of a hot day in September 1973 when we were re-called for pick-up shots after the main body of the film of Swallows & Amazons had already been edited.

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Ronnie Cogan trimming Sophie Neville’s hair for the part of Titty in September 1973

The clip opens with the film hairstylist Ronnie Cogan cutting my hair. It had been a good six weeks since I had last played Titty in front of the camera and I needed a trim to restore it to the same length it had been on 14th May when we had first started filming on the Lakeside and Haverthwaite railway. Suzanna Hamilton’s thick dark hair had grown a great deal, as had Sten Grendon’s.

Cutting Sten's hair
Sophie Neville watching Ronnie Cogan cut Sten Grendon’s hair.

Peter Robb-King the Make-up artist had been toning down out complections inside the same Make-up caravan we’d used while on location for seven weeks in Cumbria. I remember it had orange flowery curtains, a pattern much in vogue at the time.

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.

Neville C Thompson, the Associate Producer, who was wearing a red shirt that day, seemed happy to be back on location. The film director, Claude Whatham was working, as I will always remember him, in a pair of navy blue shorts and sailing shoes. I loved putting on the school hat and silk dress I’d worn in the train but was difficult for the boys to climb into their woolen costumes on such a bright sunny day.

Theatre Projects Call Sheet for 'Swallows and Amazons'

Richard Pilbrow, the Producer, who you can see wearing a white stripy cheese-cloth shirt so typical of the early 1970’s, seemed rather on edge. Bringing a camera crew along for what amounted to three shots must have been expensive, stretching his budget to the limit.

Sophie Neville, Claude Whatham and Simon West with Richard Pilbrow in the foreground ~photo:Daphne Neville
Gordon Hayman with a 35mm Ariss camera, Sophie Neville, Claude Whatham and Simon West, with Richard Pilbrow in the foreground ~photo:Daphne Neville

The oak tree, under which the 35mm Arriflex camera was set, was chosen to represent the Peak of Darien from which we looked out over an imaginary lake to an imaginary island. The finished movie cuts from the Walker children’s faces to a shot taken of Derwentwater at sunset with the opening title graphics superimposed over what is in reality Blakeholme, or Wild Cat Island as it is called in Arthur Ransome’s world.

Opening Titles

Denis Lewiston, the Director of Photography, was working with the Cameraman Gordon Hayman, using reflector boards to light our faces. At one stage he had me standing on a cream coloured blanket to reflect light from below. You can see it in this shot:

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

What I had forgotten was that two little girls came along that day to stand-in for us when the shot was being lined up. You can see them in the home-movie footage, one wearing a pale blouse with puffed sleeves.

Claude was very keen on running. He often took us for a short run before going for a shot to aerate our minds and freshen up our faces. In the story we had run down the hill from Holly Howe, so he had us running quite far before we landed on the marks that the cameraman had given us so that we’d be in focus. We had no dialogue, but the expressions on our faces were crucial to engaging the audience.

Denis Lewiston, Claude Whatham, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West and the cameramen
Denis Lewiston, Claude Whatham, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West and the cameramen

You see a few other people on location, not least Sten’s mother, Jane Grendon, my little sister, Molly Pilbrow and a few others who were watching. My mother had been taking the footage.

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

To read about this day from another angle, please click here to visit an earlier post with a few more photos.

On Friday 21st November 2014, I was invited to talk about the making of Swallows & Amazons on the CBBC movie show with David Wood, who wrote the screenplay. I’ll let you know when this will be broadcast. While I was at Novel Entertainment I met Dexter Fletcher and Bonny Langford as well as Justin Johnson from the British Film Institute who is an adviser on the series of 6 x 30 minute programmes..

Announcing the publication of ‘The Making of SWALLOW & AMAZONS’

The Making of SWALLOWS & AMAZONS

The long-awaited paperback published by Classic TV Press

Sophie Neville at home with the S&A flags

Sophie Neville who played Titty Walker

Swallows & Amazons flags for book

‘Forty years after she enchanted film-goers as Titty in Swallows and Amazons, Sophie Neville has found a new audience… telling the behind-the-scenes secrets of the film of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel.’ The Daily Mail  The Making of  Swallows & Amazons ‘…is based on diaries, letters and old photographs which Sophie has turned into a heart-warming account of making the movie, which starred Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser.’

The Telegraph ~ Culture:  ‘Set in the Lake District in 1929, the film follows four young adventurers who sail a dinghy around Lake Coniston, cook for themselves over campfires and sleep in makeshift campsites.’

‘…The occasional chaos and terrible weather during filming contributed to the eventual popularity of the extraordinary and very much loved film.’ The Times

‘The film Swallows & Amazons is 40 years old, but thanks to its careful period evocation, its respect for Arthur Ransome’s original book and the performances of its child actors, it’s become a timeless classic. One of those children was Sophie Neville, who played Titty, and who kept a diary during the filming. That diary, with her adult recollections, is this book. It’s a fascinating insight into filming on location in the Lake District… Classic Boat

Sophie Suzanna and Sten

‘… The result is compulsive reading as she recalls that cold wet summer, while the camera crew wrapped up warm and she shivered in her skimpy dress as Able Seaman Titty Walker. Sophie brings to life all the many memorable characters who worked on the film and in particular the other children, the Director Claude Whatham who developed a great relationship with his young cast and the stars Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser. Nor are the other young actors forgotten for there are diary contributions from Suzanna Hamilton who played Susan, Stephen Grendon who played the Boy Roger and Kit Seymour who played Nancy Blackett. The text is supported by numerous illustrations showing life on and off the set.’ Roger Wardale, author of Arthur Ransome: Master Storyteller and other books

‘You don’t need to be a Swallows & Amazons fan to enjoy this book – it’s universal!’ Winifred Wilson, Librarian of The Arthur Ransome Society

‘This was a most unusual and interesting book. I picked it up expecting to browse through it, and found myself so drawn in to Sophie Neville’s detailed, amusing and insightful description of film making in the 1970’s that I was unable to put her book down. As Arthur Ransome fans, my family and I have always loved the film, and felt that Sophie Neville was ‘just right’ as Titty. What fun it has been to be introduced to the young twelve year old Sophie with her intelligent awareness of the challenges facing the production crew while she shivered in her cotton dresses. The many photographs and illustrations contribute richly to bringing the 1970s setting to life. Sophie recorded her experiences beautifully, and in so doing, added one more valuable book to the cultural heritage of all Arthur Ransome fans.’ Juliet Calcott, English teacher, South Africa

Lots of photos throughout the book bring the scenes to life – a delightful read.’ Celia Lewis author of An Illustrated Country Year

Mark Forrest Evening Show

Sophie Neville has been chatting to Mark Forrest on The Evening Show.

Please see her post on the Funnily Enough, the website  or click on his image above and slide the cursor to 02:14:20

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The cutting room floor

Members of the Arthur Ransome Group have recently raised questions about what ‘fell onto the cutting room floor’ after we shot the movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the English Lake District in 1973.

‘I have always had the feeling that the Amazon’s role in the 1974 film was very much secondary to the Swallows.’ Stephen O’Brien posted.  ‘This was probably down to much of the Amazon’s footage ending up on the cutting room floor. What do you think?’

The answer is that there were few scenes excluded from the film.

BW Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville

Virginia McKenna as Mrs Walker with Sophie Neville as Titty

One featured Virginia McKenna and Mrs Battys clock, which can still be found at Bank Ground Farm, our location used for Holly Howe. It was shot on the second morning and I fear that our director Claude Whatham might have taken it out because my own performance was rather stilted. I had quite a bit to say, most of which was really rather bizarre:

15th May deatil of outtake
The pages of my diary written on 15th May 1973

15th May detail  page two

The only other scene from Swallows & Amazons that I know was excluded was when the Swallows lay patterans on their way to visit the charcoal burners. The location was in a beautiful spot up above Derwentwater, the dialogue was straight from Arthur Ransome’s book and our performances would have been fluent by the time we shot the sequence. BW The Swallows make Patterans

 Suzanna Hamilton, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West as the Swallows

I can only expect that when the movie came in over-length, these scenes were cut as the action had no influence on the plot.

In the original script, the Amazons do not really appear until page 41 – which would equate to nearly half-way into the the film. I thought that there might have been one or two shots of the Amazons sailing that were never used, because there was  a day spent filming on Derwentwater when Kit and Lesley who played Nancy and Peggy weren’t feeling very well, but I’ve checked the script and nothing that they said was excluded. Not one word. Perhaps David Wood who dramatised the book could somehow have increased the Amazons’ parts. However, as Janet Means points out:

‘…in the book we find out more about what the Swallows think but only about what the Amazons do. There is little about the Amazons except when the Swallows are present too (hiding Amazon in the reeds and Nancy berating Peggy for losing Amazon when Titty’s made off with her). There’s lots about the Swallows without the Amazons.’ 

One scene in the DVD of the film actually gets cut out of the television version. The clue is that it comes just before this photo was taken in Bowness-on-Windermere for Lancashire Life kindly sent to be by Stephen Sykes of Hill Top near Haverthwaite.

Lancashire Life May 1974 - S&A - Contents photo only Sten Grendon, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville as the Swallows in Rio, an official still from the film published in Lancashire Life in 1974

There are a few scenes in the screenplay that were never actually shot, but that’s on a different tack. To read more, please see: The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons.

Dennis Lewiston, director of Photography on 'Swallows and Amazons'  ~photo:Richard Pilbrow
Denis Lewiston, director of Photography on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow, taken on Derwentwater in Cumbria, 1973