‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘Ooh. The original ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has come onto Amazon Prime. The one with Titty. The real one. The only one.’
‘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:
When the original feature film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ was made in 1973, Peggy Blackett was played by Lesley Bennett. 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:
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.
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 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.
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.
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
‘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.
‘I also had the jigsaw of the campsite scene, which I thought was an incredible piece of merchandising (and it was, for its day).
‘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
‘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!’
‘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
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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..
‘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 MailThe 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
‘… 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 Storytellerand 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
Members of the Arthur Ransome Group have recently raised questions about what ‘fell onto the cutting room floor’ after we shot the movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the English Lake District in 1973.
‘I have always had the feeling that the Amazon’s role in the 1974 film was very much secondary to the Swallows.’ Stephen O’Brien posted. ‘This was probably down to much of the Amazon’s footage ending up on the cutting room floor. What do you think?’
The answer is that there were few scenes excluded from the film.
Virginia McKenna as Mrs Walker with Sophie Neville as Titty
The only other scene from Swallows & Amazons that I know was excluded was when the Swallows lay patterans on their way to visit the charcoal burners. The location was in a beautiful spot up above Derwentwater, the dialogue was straight from Arthur Ransome’s book and our performances would have been fluent by the time we shot the sequence.
Suzanna Hamilton, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West as the Swallows
I can only expect that when the movie came in over-length these scenes were cut as the action was not exciting and 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.
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
Our sad news is that Denis Lewiston, the brilliant Director of Photography on Swallows & Amazons (1974), died recently. After a long and fulfilling career he will be remembered fondly and admired for the numerous films he made, seeking excellence with every sequence.
When the movie Swallows & Amazons was released forty years ago the mere idea of Blu-ray or DVD recordings had not been dreampt of. When my father asked about acquiring a copy of the film he was quoted £450 for a set of 35mm reels designed to be projected on a cinema screen. The sum was more than I received for working on location, even though I had a lead part. I was, however, sent a copy of the LP brought out to accompany the film. It was narrated by David Wood who wrote the screenplay and included Wilfred Joseph’s full score. You can still buy these online today.
Although we were never informed, I now discover that at one time you could buy film clips on Supper 8, to project at home. You could probably still find this on eBay.
When home video recorders first came out in the late Seventies I was working for Virginia McKenna. I remember her husband Bill Travers telling me that they had decided to go for Beta rather than VHS. Almost inevitably Swallows & Amazons was released on VHS, in a big fat box, and came into its own as families snuggled down to watch it at home on rainy afternoons. There were a number of cover designs:
This one distributed by Warner Bros. is featured on the international movie data base. Click on the image more information and other cover designs.
Readers have sent in an image of the reverse:
There have been different versions marketed all over the world. The movie became so popular in the Baltic and Czech Republic that it has been dubbed a number of times:
For years the DVD has been sold as a double bill with The Railway Children, which was also financed by EMI Films.
This is the double-bill released by StudioCanal:
In 2008 a DVD of very good quality was released by the Daily Mail, with a picture of me looking like a baby monkey on the wrapper. We were given absolutely no warning. The first I knew of it was a friend ringing up to ask me if I could spare a DVD for his kids, ‘Someone’s swiped the office copy.’
It was featured on the front cover for seven days, as well as in the magazine. I am often asked if we get residuals for distribution rights or when our images are used to promote newspapers but I have never received anything. This version did at least have end credits. There are reviews on Amazon about a DVD that lacked these. I was amazed that anyone even noticed but viewers assured me it was an outrage.
I am glad the movie can be watched and enjoyed by successive generations of children. The most inspirational cover of all was on that very first boxed VHS, which featured us sailing up Derwentwater:
In 2014 a remastered Blu-ray and DVD with an Extras package was launched by StudioCanal to celebrate the 40th Anniversay. If you are thinking of buying a copy, this is the one to get. It is available on Amazon by clicking here.
There was also an edition in French:
They later issued a DVD (without extras) adding striking new graphics to the old poster. A sticker advertising the 2016 film of Swallows and Amazons was added to promote the release:
Does anyone know of any other VHS or DVD covers? Do add your comments in the box below.
The premier of the feature film Swallows & Amazons was held on 4th April 1974 in Shaftesbury Avenue, in London’s West End. Those who watch it on television today, or have the DVD, are amazed to hear it was first released almost forty years ago. Please forgive me if you have seen this photos before but it seems quite a date to celebrate.
The Royal Gala Matinee was held in aid of the charity KIDS, which works with disabled children, young people and their families. The society is still going strong and has been celebrating its own 40th anniversary recently.
We arrived by taxi with my house mistress, Sister Allyne, and head mistress Sister Ann-Julian, who had travelled up from Wantage in Oxfordshire for the occassion.
Of all films, they found The Exorcist was showing at the same cinema. I gazed up at the billing outside the entrance, more interested in seeing the names of Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser with the romantic design of the graphics spelling out Swallows & Amazons.
The first thing that happened was that I was whisked off for lunch with the five other children in the cast by Claude Whatham, the director. He chose a bistro where I chose hamburgers and chips. I’m not sure what the rest of my family did, but can only presume they found something to eat.
We arrived at the ABC cinema to find they had already taken their seats in the audience. We met up with Ronald Fraser and Richard Pilbrow, the film producer, who introduced us to Princess Helena Moutafian, Patron of KIDS, who the Earl and Countess of Compton had brought to celebrate the film’s release and help raise funds for the charity. Mummy had instead I made a curtsey to each person I was introduced to. Did this include members of the Press?
We also met a number of Ladies: Lady Bridport, Lady Onslow, Lady Nelson of Stafford, Lady Harford and others listed below who must have arrived with their children. It was all quite something.
Please note that Simon West, (to the right in the top photo) was wearing a tie that matched exactly with the floral print of his shirt. This was the height of fashion in 1974, something I have yet to see revived or replicated. Suzanna and I both wore pinafore dresses. These have not experienced a revival either, although Suzanna’s Laura Ashley print would be considered a treasured vintage piece. My mother was horrified that Ronald Fraser had his collar button undone, but I think that was a nod to trendy-ness. He also wore a badge in support of the charity pinned to his lapel. Badges were all the rage at the time and collected by all.
As you can see, we met Bobby Moore, the Hollywood actress Patricia Neal, the Norwegian Bond Girl Julie Ege and Spike Milligans’ family. Will Travers, now the CEO of the charity Born Free, came to represent his mother, Virginia McKenna who sadly couldn’t be with us.
A commemorative programme was being sold with a sepia version of the film poster on the cover:
Inside there were several pages about those who appeared in the film. I still have a copy:
The opposite page:
It wasn’t until years later that I was shown copies of the stills used to advertise the film inside cinemas.
The original film posters, which once hung in the London Underground, have become collector’s items, valued at about £240 each on eBay. Studiocanal, who now own the film rights, have a selection of posters available as framed prints if you click here.
This was the version used as an advertisement in the Sunday Times forty years ago.
You probably know that ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon Kindle and for other e-readers via Smashwords. It has been described by one reviewer on Amazon as the equivalent of DVD Extras, as it explains how we made the movie in the Lake District, back in the summer of 1973, as well as how the film was promoted and received in the UK. Hopefully the paperback and hardback versions will be out soon, but the ebook is unique in that it gives links to behind-the-scenes footage shot on location by my parents.
If you would like to know how the movie of Swallows & Amazons was made and know where the real locations can be found, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon and Smashwords for £2.56. The paperback was launched to mark the 40th anniversary of the film’s release, by Classic TV Press.
The book, which is suitable for any age group, is based on the diary that I kept when I played the part of Titty Walker in 1973. It is illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs and memorabilia such as one of the tickets to the Royal Gala premier in Shaftesbury Avenue held on 4th April 1974. You will also find out what the actors who played the Walker family ~ the Swallows ~ are doing now.
The joy of the ebook is that it includes a number of home-movie clips that my parents took of life behind the scenes that you can play wherever you have internet access.
If you have any questions about making the film, please add them to the comments below, and I will get back to you.
There were rather over-excited headlines in the Times and Telegraph when the ebook was launched but they only spoke of the legendary drinking of Ronald Fraser. Please don’t worry – there is nothing X-rated about the book – it is just the price one pays for half a page in a daily newspaper, especially since it came out on a Saturday.
The ebook has been doing well in the Amazon charts and hit Number 1 in the category ‘Stage and Theatre’.
A preview of what the book holds in store can be watched here: