RTE Guide declared, ‘The definitive adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows & Amazons’ is on BBC Two.’ More people than ever seemed to watch the classic film, starring Virginia McKenna, which attracted comments on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram while emails were being sent in.
Dr Lucie Bea D – And Swallows and Amazons is on! A very very early cinema memory for me; I saw it in Hereford and was given a colouring in picture of the Amazons hiding in the reeds watching Swallow.
I’ve just enjoyed watching the film on tv again (I watch it every time!) 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,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 uplifting. 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. Been looking at your website too – what a huge resource about the film – good time at the moment to look through it! Thank you for all the information and being in such a happy film, John Rose
Michael – I spent my summers up in the Lake District as a boy and loved/love the book
Peter Hamilton – Swallows and Amazon’s was one of my all time favourites as a child, it was an adventure that seemed more attainable than famous five etc. I really hope my son loves it as much as I did when he’s older…. I adore lake Coniston. Even in high summer that water is icy and very deep innocent happy times… I‘ve tried to sail out to the island on Coniston lake but there wasn’t enough wind so didn’t quite make it. I collected a fair few of the books in my 20s, brings back lots of memories
Duncan HallIt’s such a good film. Doesn’t feel dated at all, to me.
Peter Ashby something timeless about the film. I can happily sit and watch it any time
Graeme Wood – Just goes to show how timeless the story is..
Graeme Wood – It’s a lovely film. As a kid I wanted to jump through the TV screen and join in (ditto the BBC adaptations of Coot Club and The Big Six). Hopefully kids will watch and want to read the books.
Michael – I’ve loved it all my life. I remember my dad rowing me out to an island on lake Windermere and showing me holes in trees, he said they’re from arrows!!!!!!
Maddy Knibb – I also had a wooden swing that collapsed so I turned it into a boat, with broom handle and sheet mast and sail. Guess which books were played out – Swallows and Amazons! It was by a laurel hedge and the leaves made great fish to be cooked on pretend fires!
Perfect opportunity for children to replicate #WildcatIsland with homemade tents in the living room
Glenn Evans – Read this to all my children when they were toddlers. And saw the film in 1974 myself.
Michael – It was only yesterday as far as I’m concerned
Jude – Remember watching the boats on the lake being being filmed from my bedroom window – what a lovely way to slip back into my childhood
Mandy Morley The most classic, and my favourite quote: “I’ll shiver your timbers for you if you don’t stop chattering Peggy!”
Portway Junior School say, ‘the Portway Press also contained a link to the children’s classic ‘Swallows and Amazons‘ film – an excellent watch in this wet weather’.
At least one film fan held a TV party with and 1930’s theme to celebrate. Others stoked up the wood-burner and settled down to spend an afternoon re-living summer in the Lake District. It is as if Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – a timeless classic to watch again and again.
For the latest edition of the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ with details of where the film was made and what those who appeared in it are doing now, Please click here
The ebook, entitled ‘The secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ is the same with a few more stories for adult readers and has links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It can be downloaded from iTunes, Smashwords,Kobo and Amazon Kindle
It would be lovely to hear from anyone who saw it in the cinema when it first came out in cinemas in the summer of 1974 – more than forty-five years ago.
Simon Hodkin kindly sent in this cinema programme that he has kept since watching the movie when he was a boy growing up in North Wales.
Arthur Herbertson managed to track down these rare publicity sheets for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ typical of movie games of the period:
Arthur has a collection of the four jigsaw puzzles and the Puffin paperback that came out with the film.
There was a vinyl LP narrated by the screenwriter David Wood that you can still purchase.
Arthur found a publicity brochure that I had never seen before.
To read comments from people who saw the film at the cinema in 1974, please click here
The original story was written by Arthur Ransome in 1929 ninety years ago, so the film hits the half-way mark between the original readers and today’s audience. It’s funny, the critics in 1974 are asking the same question as raised in the billing this week: Do ‘modern youngsters struggle to relate to such old-fashioned game playing’?
Do add your thoughts to the comments below.
~Billing in the Christmas edition of the Radio Times 2019~
In 1974, my mother, Daphne Neville, was commissioned to write an article about working on the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for Woman magazine, which claimed to be ‘The world’s greatest weekly for women’. Here are some extracts from her type script:
I was amazed to read some of this. ‘….a dirth of birds’? Was that really how my mother spoke in the early ‘Seventies? I had no recollection that ‘Nomansland’ had been displayed on the front of our double-decker bus. I never remembered there only being bathroom at Oaklands Guesthouse or that Mum had to wash out clothes. I do remember Ronald Fraser shouting, ‘Piss off you little monster’. I have the photo:
More to follow…. If you would like to see photos of Daphne Neville appearing in movies hereself, please click here
If you would like to read about what we did on 10th July 1973 – 45 years ago please click 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
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 McGill 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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
” 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.
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.
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:
Here is Jean in her red top talking to my mother in her Donny Osmond hat:
One of the questions asked by fans of the film Swallows & Amazons, produced by Richard Pilbrow in1973, 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.
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 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. 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 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: 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.
Please leave any questions about the making of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the comments 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