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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. 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….

 

 

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Launching the second edition of The Secrets of Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)

front-cover-1974

A second edition of the ebook ‘The Secrets of Filming ‘SWALLOWS & AMAZONS'(1974) is now avaialble 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

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More memories of making the original film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973

Following my last post, David Stott has written in to say, “When l got the job driving for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ l think I took over the production car when Jean started driving you children around in the mini-bus.” This must have been in May 1973 when the original film of Arthur Ransome’s classic book was being made in Westmorland.

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David explained that, although he lived in Ambleside, he has not seen Jean since the filming, so enjoyed reading that I had been in touch with her. “Jean’s Mum was called Girlie and she used to run a nursing home on Lake Road. Jean had a brother who was nicknamed Blondie.  We would often have a cup of tea with Girlie in the nursing home kitchen.”

Lake District 6

David has all sorts of memories of filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the Lake District that I knew nothing about. “Jean mentioned that she took Ronnie Fraser for an early morning glass of champagne to get him going.  I remember having to take him to the Lodore Swiss Hotel in Borrowdale while filming on Derwentwater.  He would order what he called, ‘A Frazer’, which was some sort of vodka cocktail.” David was only about seventeen at the time. Driving Ronald Fraser around must have been something of an eye-opener.  “I remember bringing him back to film ‘walking the plank’ and he was very drunk at the time. Expect he needed it for the cold water.  He could be a little difficult when he had had a few.”

Boats at Lake 2

“I was rather star struck when l was driving Virginia McKenna,” he admitted.  “On one occasion I had to drive her from the farmhouse on Coniston to Grange railway station. She was telling me all about filming ‘Born Free’ with the lions and I drove a bit slowly as l was enjoying her company.  We arrived rather late and l had to throw her and her luggage onto the train just as it was leaving.” I asked Virginia about this but she couldn’t remember ever being late for the train. I can only imagine that David must have coped well.

 

Rydal Water Summer

“On another occasion I think l had Richard Pilbrow in the car,” he was the producer of the film. “We were driving back from Derwentwater when a cow jumped off a bank and landed on the bonnet, causing quiet a lot of damage.  I was dreading going back to Browns Motors and telling Alan Faulkener the owner what had happened.” Richard is still alive and well.

Lake Jetty 2

David, who now owns Crossways Hotel near Glynebourne,  comes from an old Cumbrian family. His  grandmother lived at High Green Gate, the farm next door to Beatrice Potter  Hilltop. “My great grandfather was Farmer Potatoes in the ‘Tale of Samuel Whiskers’. It was sketched from a photograph that my mother still has.  There is shortly to be an article in Cumbria Magazine about Beatrice Potter’s relationship with the Postlethwaite family.”

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One of our locations – Haverthwaite Station today

“My father was the local joiner in Ambleside. He also kept about 1000 hens and delivered eggs around the hotels at the weekends.  My brother and l would often help him on a Saturday morning.” David obviously knew the roads of Cumbria well.

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Memories of making the original movie of ‘Swallows & Amazons’

The phone in my office rang at about 6.30pm.

“Is that my little Titty?” a voice asked.

“Well…”

“Do you know who I am?”

I had no idea.

“I haven’t seen you since 1973!”

“It’s Jean!” It was Jean McGill ringing from Bowness in Cumbria. She had been our driver and the unit nurse on the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ made in the Lake District from May to July 1973, released a year later in 1974.

Jean our driver and location nurse operating the radio with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

Jean McGill our unit driver and location nurse with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

“I’ve never seen the film,” Jean declared, “but I loved your book about making it.  It brought back such memories.”  I urged her to tell me more. “I remember when Suzanna Hamilton cut her hand whittling wood. It was bleeding like anything. I bandaged it up nicely but the director was horrified and made me take the dressing off again.”  I think this was when we were in the middle of filming on Peel Island. The accident put an end to our wood carving hobby, which was a shame. We’d been using a Swiss Army knife to make our own bows and arrows with Bob Hedges the prop man.

Ronnie Fraser and DoP Denis Lewiston with paper cups of champagne and the call sheet for the next day ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Ronnie Fraser outside the dining bus on location with a paper cup of champagne

” You children persuaded me to go out to dinner with Ronnie Fraser! Why I went, I haven’t the foggiest. He was a rough character – very coarse.” Ronald Fraser was the movie actor playing Captain Flint. “I used to have to drive him to the local hotel in the mornings and order champagne to sober him up.”

“How would champagne have helped to sober him?”

“I don’t know. He told me it would.”

“I think he’d been divorced for a while at the time.”

“I wouldn’t have married him in the first place,” Jean assured me.

Terry Smith and Jean McGill on Derwentwater

Terry Smith wearing the safety officer’s wetsuit with unit nurse and driver Jean McGill

Jean had been taken on as the unit nurse after the first nurse proved rather out of her depth. I thought she was a State Registered Nurse but she corrected me. She had 26 years experience in nursing becoming a hospital sister but was never an SRN. “I was a driver for Browns (of Ambleside)” and as such was paid to work on the film. “I wasn’t paid to be the unit nurse. It didn’t matter, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

I only found out recently that my mother hadn’t been paid to be a chaperone either, despite the responsibility as well as her legal obligations. It was hardly a big budget movie. Like Jean, she was simply thanked with a bouquet of flowers at the end of the filming.

Jean was one of the few local people who worked on the film throughout the seven weeks we were on location. Her local knowledge made all the difference as she knew the roads well, took short cuts to avoid the traffic and knew the best swimming spots when the weather warmed up.

A Day Off in Blackpool

Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville (kneeling) Blackpool, 1973

I reminded Jean about the early 1970s – what we ate and how we dressed.  ” I bought a pair of jeans for the first time in my life. It was so hot that I changed into shorts while we were on set. You children took the jeans and stitched a big red heart on the backside.” There was a craze for adding embroidered patches to denim clothing. These were expensive to buy but we persuaded to Sten Grendon’s mother to make red hearts for everyone’s jeans. “It made walking through Ambleside very embarrassing.” Jean sounded as if she was still recovering from the indignity 43 years later. “It mucked me up!”

Jean went on to drive for Mountain Goat Tours in Cumbria and worked in a doctor’s surgery before becoming a registrar for ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’. “I’m a coffin-kicker now,” Jean told me cheerfully. She never worked on another film but kept a copy of the original screenplay and other memorabilia.

Not long after I spoke to her a brown paper package arrived in the post.  It contained an envelope with the writing,

FOR THE ATTENTION OF TITTY

‘Still looking for the photographs. Will send to you when I find them. 43 years old?  It was this tatty when I got same! Jean.’

And this is what the envelope contained:

Original Screenplay of Swallows & Amazons page 1

Here is Jean in her red top talking to my mother in her Donny Osmond hat:

 

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Changes to the original screenplay of the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

One of the questions asked by fans of the film Swallows & Amazons, produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973, is whether any of the scenes  written by David Wood ever hit the cutting-room floor. Looking back through the original screenplay I can see that the answer is, not many.

The shots of finding Swallow in the boatshed, bringing her out and raising her flag were moved forward, under the Voice Over of the Walker children reading out the letters to their father. Claude Whatham at the Boathouse with Simon West and Sophie Neville

Simon West talking to director Claude Whatham with Sophie Neville

There is a scene in the book set at Holly Howe when medical supplies are being packed for the voyage. This was shot with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water, but must have slowed down the pace of the film as it was replaced by a montage of shots, which are much more exciting. Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville

Virginia McKenna as Mother with Sophie Neville as Titty making Swallow’s flag

Making patterans on the way to the charcoal burners, was a lovely scene from the book that was recorded but never included in the film.  Captain John can been seen explaining how gypsies use them as secret markers in this black and white still from the film. It was shot on a mossy bank in oak woodland so very characteristic of the Lake District. BW The Swallows make Patterans It was at this dramatic location, high above Derwentwater that this behind-the-scenes shot of the director, Claude Whatham was taken. You can see Cat Bells in the background. Claude Whatham and his cast of Swallows

Claude Whatham talking to his cast: Sten Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Suzanna Hamilton

Mrs Ransome, who worked closely with the screenwriter agreed that the storm scene on Wild Cat Island would not to be included in the screenplay, which we all thought a great pity as children.  Such a violent gale blew in one day when we were filming on Peel Island that we would have had the right weather conditions, but you can not include everything. Jane Grendon, whose son Sten played Roger wrote to tell  me that before filming began, ‘…one of the very first things we were asked was, ‘can Sten swim?” ‘I know he could doggy paddle,’ she continued. ‘ Neville (Thompson, the online Producer) organised swimming lessons at Pitville Pool, Cheltenham which included jumping off the diving boards.  At the time I didn’t know why and I don’t think Sten is a natural in the water and the swimming lessons didn’t prove very successful.  Claude (Whatham) told me – at the end of filming I think, when he gave me a copy of he original script – these lessons were because in the original script Roger was to jump in the water after Uncle Jim walked the plank.’ Jane sent me a copy of the page in question. I had not seen it before: A page of David Wood's original screenplay: 'Swallow & Amazons' (1974) It was a page of the script we never had the time or enough fine weather to shoot. I am so glad.

Readers often ask if any scenes involving the Amazons were cut, but none were left out. Nancy and Peggy simply do not appear in the book as much as one might remember. Amazon Boathouse

Please leave any questions about the making of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the comments below.

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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..

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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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