The Amazons Attack ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island in 1973

My father said that his first impression of the film crew was, ‘What an awful mess of trucks and weird people!’  He’d just come from his office in the electronics industry where everybody wore suits and ties.  It’s true.  One of the Arthur Ransome Society members took one look at the footage Dad took of the making of Swallows and Amazons and said, ‘It looks like Woodstock.’ Woodstock on wheels. Dad couldn’t bear the notion of hanging around all day but he bought some paints with him to do what he never normally had time for while looking after us.

Painting with my father on the shore of Coniston Water ~ Martin Neville and Sophie Neville in 1973 during the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on location in Cumbria

My mother had to leave that Tuesday to spend four days at the Bath and West Show ~ a long term commitment that could not be cancelled. By this time she had been working for Harlech Television or HTV, as the station became known, for about four years. She started with the company as an ‘In Vision Announcer’, reading the News with Martyn Lewis from the studio in Cardiff, before moving on to present her own children’s programmes such as It’s Time for Me. By 1973 she was presenting a women’s afternoon programme made in Bristol called Women Only, with Jan Leeming.  No doubt they had to host the HTV stand at the Bath and West agricultural show. These are big events in rural Britain. My parents still have stands at about ten or twelve of them every year.

I have a horrible feeling that in this Woodstock-like atmosphere, where my father was probably feeling out of place, I might have taken on my mother’s role and got a little bit too bossy in the school bus. The result was a head-on attack from Sten, who must have been so offended that he not only fought me but would not let go. Perhaps this was a good sign in that we had become like a real family. Perhaps it was because the balance had been tipped by our real families turning up. Sten’s father had arrived with his little sister, and my little sisters were playing outside. Perhaps it had something to do with the red and yellow sweets we had started eating on the bus. Mum said that Sten was always picking fights. He was a nine-year-old boy.

Sophie Neville in her BOAC life jacket with her sister Tamzin on the shore of Coniston Water about to leave for the set of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Peel Island. Stephen Gredon’s father and little sister are in the background ~ photo: Martin Neville

Luckily for Claude, the director, we were filming the scenes on Wildcat Island where the Amazons attack.  ‘When we fell flat on our faces and the Amazons’ arrows flew over our heads.’ We loved this scene and it was great that Nancy and Peggy had at last arrived on Wildcat Island.

I don’t know if Mum had still been around to oversee that particular act of aggression. She had taught the Amazons to shoot.  The only photographs I have of her doing so are on slides, and I am yet to get them transferred, but they show her giving Nancy and Peggy archery lessons in the field outside the bus. They were using the hazel bows made for them on site by Bobby the Prop Man, which can’t have been very flexible, but my parents did know how to use the long bow. When they were first married they joined the Worcestershire Archery Society and went on to win quite a few prizes. I know all about this because the Chairman of that society was to become my father-in-law. Or rather, I too learnt to shoot and ended up marrying his son, the Worcestershire Archery Society’s Chairman of the day.

It  looks pretty scary when those arrows, fletched with green parrot feathers, fly over us.  Much to Nancy’s disappointment, these were actually fired by two prop men. They strung up fishing line and attached nylon loops to the arrows to ensure that we would not actually get hit, but it was quite thrilling – and still quite risky. I never forgot the trick though. When I became a BBC director myself I took much joy in using totally inexpensive visual effects, such as extended use of fishing line. I learnt how to use reflections from a very skilled director called Moira Armstrong and picked up on just how much could be achieved by juddering the camera when I worked on Doctor Who.  All that dramatic and complicated-looking Tardis malfunction was achieved simply by vibrating a studio camera.  However, I think that that fishing line was the only visual effect in the 1973 version of Swallows and Amazons.

After being on location for more than two weeks this was only the second day that Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett had appeared in front of the camera. All the hanging around must have been pretty frustrating for them. In 1983, when we were planning to make adaptations of the Arthur Ransome books at the BBC, I was hoping to cast the Amazons – if not all the children – from schools up in the Lake District. I don’t expect Claude had had the time to do that.  Luckily for me.

Daphne Neville's publicity photograph c.1973
Daphne Neville ~ presenter on HTV

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

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

Martin Neville in Cumbria with his dog

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

Sophie Neville as a small child visiting the Lake District

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

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

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

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

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

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

27th May page 2

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

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

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

“It was really horrible” ~ filming the swimming scenes for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

“…it was really horrible,” I told Tim Devlin, of The Times. “We had to run into the water and enjoy it. It was icy. I had to try to be a cormorant with my feet  in the air. Then I had to step water as Susan taught Roger to swim.  We were in for about three minutes and they had to do two takes of the scene. It was horrible.”   This was the day when we shot the swimming scenes ~

24th May 1973

24th May 19731

24th May 19732

The first scene of the day was actually was the one when Titty emerged from her tent in her pyjamas, wiped the dew off the top of a large biscuit tin and started writing her diary. I always regret writing Titania Walker on the cover but I had been contracted to play the part of TITANIA WALKER. My mother, Daphne Neville, who is quite theatrical, loved Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and encouraged me to write out the full name, but I do wish I had simply labelled by notebook ‘Ship’s Log’.

I am told that the real little girl who inspired my character, Titty Altounyan, was given the nickname after reading a horrible story of mousey death entitled Titty mouse and Tatty mouse’  from English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs.  Her family called her Titty mouse, then Titty for short. People were concerned that I would be teased for being associated with a name like Titty, but I never was. It’s a sweet name. However, it seems Arthur Ransome did not object when the BBC altered it to Kitty in 1962, when Susan George played the part.

Our knitted swimming costumes, with their little legs were a real novelty to us. I do wish mine hadn’t been red. It was such a cold, grey day I went blue. I remember the entire crew were clad in overcoats – even parkers with fur lined hoods. Looking back it was silly to have gone ahead with the scene in May. Child cruelty.

35m Panasonic, Eddie Collins the Camera Operator in (wet suit), Dennis Lewiston the DOP (in cap) Claude Whatham the Director (in waders) on Peel Island, Coniston Water ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

The director, Claude Whatham shot the scene using two cameras. The continuity would have been impossible otherwise. Eddie Collins the Camera Operator had a 16mm camera in the water with us. He was being steadied by another chap in a full wet-suit. Fitted neoprene was quite an unusual sight then when divers were known as frogmen.

Filming the swimming scene
Eddie Collins opperating the 16mm camera to capture the pearl diving scene ~photo: Richard Pilbrow

Suzanna Hamilton, who played Susan, did well but it simply wasn’t possible to pretend we were enjoying ourselves.  My rictus smile was not convincing. Later on in the summer the Lake District became so hot that we begged to be taken swimming in rivers on our day off. I wish we had re-shot the scene in July with an underwater camera capturing my pearl diving antics. I was a good swimmer. I still love snorkelling – but only in warm seas. As it was, I had to be extracted from Coniston Water by Eddie’s frogman. I’d almost passed out.

Sophie Neville in 1973 attempting to strangle Terry Smith the Wardrobe Master on ‘Swallows and Amazons’

Quite a few people almost learnt how cold we had been for themselves later that day in May. The boats used to ferry us back and forward to the island were blue Dorys with outboard motors. You don’t want to have too much weight in the bows of those boats. Water can come in very quickly.

The end of our first week’s filming and all was not well ~

Suzanna was ill.  ‘I told Claude that it was because she wouldn’t eat anything,’ my mother said. ‘Oo she was difficult.’ But it can’t have just been that. We’d all got cold filming out on the lake in our flimsy costumes and she went down hill from there. The Producer, Richard Pilbrow, called a unit day off. As it happened the Saturday was a glorious sunny day and it rained on the Sunday, when the crew were originally scheduled to have the day off.

I made the most of it. Mum hardly ever took my sisters and I either shopping or walking when I we were children, but Sten’s mother, Jane Grendon was happy to take us around the craft shops of Ambleside and up into the fells. I am sure it was just what we needed while Mum stayed with Suzanna, and I expect had a snooze herself.  She was the better chaperone on location, where she felt happy and relaxed, Jane was better at taking us hill walking and encouraging us to sing on what could be long mini-bus journeys through the Lake District.

My diary

My diary 19th May page two

The norm when filming on location is to work six days a week, resting on Sundays. This, however, quite often has to be changed to a Saturday as some locations, such as busy town centres, can only be used on Sundays. The Police will only give you clearance for tricky sequences when it’s very quiet.  We didn’t have any gun fights in Swallows and Amazons but when I was a location manager myself on Rockcliffe’s Babies I once had to get everyone out working at 6.00am on a Sunday. We were recording a car chase going the wrong way around the Harrow Road roundabout above Paddington Station in West London with four Policemen employed to stop the traffic. We did have an actor clinging to the bonnet of the baddies’ car by the windscreen wipers. And they were moving.

I look back through my diary and am so touched. Virginia McKenna was incredibly kind to take such an interest in us, bringing Suzanna strawberries and talking us all to the cinema.  I wrote that Garth brought a pocket chess set. I’m afraid I couldn’t spell properly. This was meant to read Gareth. I have known two Gareths in my life.  A  Gloucester Old Spot pig, living in North Wales and Gareth Tandy, our third assistant director. His aunt Jessica Tandy was the famous Hollywood actress who had appeared in Alfred Hitchcock dramas such as The Birds.  In later life she went on to star in Driving Miss Daisy with Morgan Freeman, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and Nobody’s Fool with Paul Newman, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith.

Gareth had acted in all sorts of things as a boy from Oliver Twist to Dr. Findlay’s Casebook. If I’m not mistaken Swallows and Amazons was his first film as an Assistant Director but he made a career of it, going on to work on amazing moviesthe original Superman, For Your Eyes Only ~ the Bond film with Roger Moore, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Johnny Depp, Nanny McPhee, with Emma Thompson and Colin Firth, Johnny English Reborn with Rowan Atkinson and is currently the First Assistant Director on A Fantastic Fear of Everything.  

Gareth signed himself  ‘The whipcracker’ in my going-away book. It think this was because it had been his job to get us through costume and make-up and onto the set at the right time but I was left puzzled because he had done this with such charm we had never noticed any whips cracking at all. There must have been. Poor Gareth had been the runner with a walky-talky stopping unwanted traffic, cue-ing various boats and lugging tea urns about, but he did this with good grace and we all loved him. And no wonder, seeing as he’d given us a chess set just because Suzanna was ill in bed.

Sophie Neville with Jane Grendon in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

A letter from behind the scenes on the third day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

16th May 1973, was the third day of filming the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, recorded in this letter that my mother wrote to my father who was at home in Gloucestershire with my two younger sisters.

Mum kept her letters, my diaries and scrapbooks in a smart carrier bag. It once contained an expensive velvet dress bought for me in Carnaby Street when we met Claude Whatham, the director of Swallows and Amazons back in April 1973

1970’s English food ~

The food at our guest house was talking its toll. It was not a good idea to feed children on packet soups and baked beans in the days when 35mm film stock was so extremely expensive.  No one realised why, but the ingredients made Sten hyper-active, or as my mother put it, ‘causing a little hoo hah.’  A visiting  journalist wrote, ‘By the end of the day Roger, aged seven, had mown down the entire film crew using a hammer as a mock machine gun. He had fallen down several times and emerged with grazed knees all splattered with mud.’

Location catering ~

Suzanna Hamilton, who was playing Susan, simply refused to eat the revolting food.  Mum said,  “I couldn’t get her to eat anything.” Location catering is excellent now but back in the early 1970’s it could be pretty basic canteen food produced from a ‘chuck wagon’. We’d queue up for a tray of meat and two veg, which was usually consumed in a red London double-decker converted into a dining bus.  There were no salads, no fruit, just a working man’s lunch with coffee in plastic cups and paste sandwiches provided later with tea. The tea was good.

Pinewood location catering ~ Suzanna Hamilton pearing into the chuck wagon ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The fruit bowl in our bus ~

Mum started to order fruit and we relished it.  Back then, it was a huge treat to have bananas or melon, oranges and grapes.  A bowl sat in our bus where we were given lessons on Formica tables downstairs. The upper deck was used by Terry the Wardrobe Master as as our changing room. It was furnished with bunk beds. Mum made us rest in these after lunch. I don’t think she could pin down the Amazons easily but she made me use them. I know I objected at first but I must have needed to lie down and rest properly, especially when it was cold.

Molly and Richard Pilbrow

Molly and Richard Pilbrow on location with the two red London Double Decker buses where coffee was being served ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The film crew ~

Apart from Sue Merry the ‘Continuity Girl’ the film crew consisted entirely of men, forty-five of them. I include the Hair and Make-up Designers, the Wardrobe Master, the Art Director, Set Dresser, Propmen and Carpenters, Sound Recordist and Boom Operator, the Director of Photography, Camera Operator, Focus Puller and Grips with the Electricians from Lee Electric who looked after the lights and generators, Lorry Drivers and Sailing Director, the Director, three Assistant Directors and the Production Associate and Producer. I think there might have been a Film Accountant and Location Manager. Being a feature film we had a permanent Stills Photographer and a Publicity Manager.  And this was a small crew as Terry seemed to cope without Wardrobe Assistants or Dressers. They all knew each other pretty well from being on previous movies. I have a list of where they had digs in Ambleside. It’s quite interesting to see who shared with who.  Whenever we needed boats up to six local boatmen could also join the queue for the chuck wagon – and the mobile loos.  Mum wouldn’t let me use them. They were looked after by a ratty looking chap who later managed to persuade one of the Ambleside girls that he was the film’s Producer.

Neville  Thompson, who was effectively the on-line Producer, had a production secretary called Sally Shewing, but she must have been stuck in the production office as we never saw her.  Molly Friedel, Richard Pilbrow’s girl friend and assistant, was often on location. We adored her.  She was American, tall with long brown hair and always had time for us. I remember her working on the lighting design for the next Rolling Stones Concert by the shore of Lake Coniston while we milled about, playing on the rocks.

We had our tutor, Mrs Causey and a wonderful mini-bus driver called Jean McGill. She had been a top British Airways air hostess but had returned to Cumbria to look after her ailing mother and was driving us around the area she so loved to keep busy. As soon as my mother found out that she was also a qualified nursing sister she made sure that Jean was taken on as the official location nurse, which was great as it meant she could be around the whole time and we never had to wait for the bus. We found we soon needed a nurse too. Someone was always hurting themselves.

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

So in all, with our chaperones there were usually about six women around as well as journalists, friends and relatives who came to watch. It was a huge circus with often eighty people milling about. Certianly the Call Sheet asks the caterers to provide lunch for seventy on normal days. It would be much more when we had crowd scenes such as when we explored Rio.

The male:female ratio on crews is very different today. There are often more women than men, perhaps not on movies but certainly on BBC drama crews. It was already different by 1983 when Richard and Molly Pilbrow came to visit us on the location of  Coot Club in Norfolk, where there were about equal numbers of men and women on set. It made for a better, family atmosphere, certainly more appropriate with so many children involved.  Since he still held the rights to Arthur Ransome’s series of Swallows and Amazons books, Richard was the Executive Producer on the BBC serial Joe Waters produced. It was so good to see him again. I gather he is still going strong having just been awarded the Knights of Illumination Lifetime Recognition Award for more than 50 years of work in theatre lighting.

The third day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the Lake District in 1973

At Beckfoot: The Amazon’s garden and boat house ~

Day 3 of the diary

Day 3 of the diary  page 2

The Amazon’s time had come. In the script, the short scene where Nancy and Peggy careen their dinghy is set in the Amazon boathouse, but Claude Whatham shot them scrubbing the underside of their dinghy on the lakeside with Beckfoot behind. Nancy threw a bucket of water over him for his pains. It was a complete accident.  She actually chucked the water onto the bottom of the boat but it splashed back.  He was squatting below the camera to the bottom right and got well and truly soaked by what must have been very cold, lake water. Kit Seymour roared with laughter and he took in it good spirit but only up to a point. I don’t think he had anything else to wear.

David Blagden, David Cadwallader, and David Bracknell looking at the Amazon’s bottom with DPO Denis Lewiston in the backround with the Panavision

I was a conscientious child and keen not to fall behind with my school work.  Children under the age of sixteen have to be issued with a licence by their local education authority before they can act in films.  Mum, who was our legal chaperone, decided it would be quite fine if we did fifteen schooling hours a week rather than a minimum of three hours a day, as stipulated in the rule book.  I spent the day catching up in our school bus.

Mum was equally fluid about the time we spent on set – or indeed on location. Sten Grendon, who played Roger, was aged nine. I now know he was meant to go home every day at 4.30pm but we all returned together whenever it was deemed practical. But his mother, Jane, was with him and if ever there was a child who needed to expend energy it was Sten. Sending him back to the Oaklands Guest House early could have endangered the people of Ambleside.  It did us a lot of good to work hard, and cope with real, if channelled, responsibility.

We were all busting with energy, so much that I grazed my leg badly climbing a tree at lunch time that day. Claude put a stop to any more tree climbing as a result. He couldn’t risk any of us getting injured. My sister Tamzin Neville broke her ankle when she was in the middle of playing Anthea, the leading role in a BBC serialisation of E.Nesbit’s  The Phoenix and the Carpet. It could have been a disaster but she wore long Edwardian dresses with petticoats that covered up her splint. My legs were fully on display in Swallows and Amazons. If I hadn’t have been wearing dungarees when I climbed that tree the world would have seen the scratch.

I can remember admiring the large house featured as Beckfoot, the Blackett’s house on the lakeside, and wandering past towering the rhododendrons in the garden, but I have no idea where is is.  Christina Hardyment felt that Arthur Ransome must have modelled Beckfoot on Lanehead, the Collingwoods’ house on the East of Lake road above Coniston, but the film required a big house with lawns going down to a lake.  I don’t have the call sheet for that day. Can anyone tell me where the location was?   Is it on the south western shore of Coniston?  And is the Amazon Boathouse in the same place?  My mother thought it was at Elterwater but John Ward has written in to say that the ‘big house’ was Brown Howe House on the western Shore of Coniston Water south of Peel Island. The boathouse is also there on the edge of the lake.

****************************

I have just found an article in The Times which includes an extract from Kit Seymour’s diary:

‘This is the day I had been waiting for. The Amazons had at last begun filming. We got changed and had to be made up sunburnt. We then rehearsed what to do. We did the second scene. I quite accidently threw a bucket of water at Claude. After lunch we had to film the interior of the boat house. Peggy had to say, ‘Not a breath of wind.’ This was quite funny becasue our hair was flying about everywhere. They had to film this scene quite a lot of times.’ 

The clock is, indeed, still on the mantelpiece at Bank Ground Farm

It is aways wonderful to hear how the film of Swallows and Amazons has effected people’s lives.  I have just had such an interesting e-mail from Australia that I asked if I could post hit here. I only wish that Claude Whatham was alive to read it.

Did anyone else know about the the clock on the mantelpiece at Bank Ground Farm?

                                                                          then                                                                       now
Dear Sophie,
I can not tell you how much I am enjoying your website. I’ve searched for scraps of material regarding the making of Swallows and Amazons for decades, but you post more information in one day than I gleaned in a lifetime. It’s a fabulous insight, and one I really appreciate.
I became a film-maker largely because of Swallows and Amazons. I’ve written a small piece about this, which is going to be published in a promo for one of my film-making books. As a nine year old, I stumbled across Wild Cat Island just days after seeing the film. I was so thrilled to be standing where the film had been made, and so excited to see how clever use of the camera could exaggerate the feeling of a location and capture the magic of performance, that I set out to discover everything I could about film. It was a life-changing moment.
My daughters (5 and 7) adore Titty, and we are all impressed by your acting. I’ve directed my girls in a couple of things, and I know they gained confidence from having seen you perform. When Tabitha, my eldest daughter, saw the film for the first time, she burst into tears at the end. It was a release of pure joy, and is testament to the quality of the film.
I live in Australia now, but returned to the island in 2010 with Tabitha and Harriet (rowing all the way from the other end of the lake). We stayed at Bank Ground Farm. This months we went back and were lucky enough to sail Swallow into the Secret Harbour. It was a windy October day, and quite a frantic sail, but I can honestly say it was one of the highlights of my life.
When reading your recent post about set dressing at Bank Ground Farm, I wondered if you’d noticed that the clock on the mantlepiece is still there. It’s on the other mantlepiece, I believe, but it is still there. I have no idea whether it is a prop that was left behind, or whether the film-makers used the clock that belonged to the farm.
Thanks again.
Best wishes,
Chris
Christopher Kenworthy
Our set designer or ‘Art Director’ on Swallows and Amazons was Simon Holland. He worked tirelessly with his assistant Ian Whittaker and team of Prop men, making every effort to use absolutely authentic props and set dressing. It must have involved quite a bit of research. Holly Howe, for instnace would not have had mains electricity or back in 1929, so he made sure oil lamps were on set. These would have been modified by the Sparks so that it looked as if they lit the room in those evening scenes when we were busy packing.
The people of the Lake District still remember Simon asking if he could buy old tins of food. It seemed such an unusual request. When it came to making labels for the cans of ‘Pemmican’ he painted them himself ~
Art Director Simon Holland
Art Director Simon Holland painting labels for cans of Pemican on Mrs Batty’s lawn at Bank Ground Farm in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville
Simon had worked as the set dresser on the thriller Callan starring Edward Woodward, that we all saw in 1974. He had earlier been the Art Director on Bartleby, which featured Paul Scholfield with John McEnery in the title role Swallows and Amazons must have been one of his first features. He was only thirty-two that summer of 1973.
Simon Holland went to to work on well known movies such as Equus, Greystoke, Quadrophenia, The Sleeping Dictionary set in Sarawakand Tales of the Riverbank which starred Stephen Fry as the Owl and Miranda Hart as Miss March. He sadly died in 2010 at the age of 70 but will be remembered fondly by us all.
I have found the entry that Suzanna wrote in her diary at this time when we were filming at Bank Ground Farm. She drew a picture of the blue and white checked dress she wore and drescribed an interview with a reporter.

This is the newspaper clipping that Suzanna stuck in her dairy that featured Virginnia McKenna and the six of us children in one of the old motors that Simon Holland found to dress the Railway Platform set at Haverthwaite Station on the first day of filming.

A clipping from The Guardian Newspaper 15th May 1973

Filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria in 1973

Bank Ground Farm ~

If you take the East of the Lake road along Coniston Water you will find Bank Ground Farm. It lies between Brantwood,  John Ruskin’s former home, and Lanehead where Arthur Ransome’s friends the Collingwoods lived. Ransome was particularly good friends of Dora Collingwood, who married an Irish-Armenian doctor keen on sailing called Ernest Altounyan. They went to live in Syria but every five years or so would bring their children to visit their Grandparents for the holidays. The would stay at Bank Ground Farm next door. Ernest bought two 14 foot sailing dinghies called Swallow and Mavis in which his family learnt to sail.

It was for the five Altounyan children, Taqui, Susie, Titty , Roger – and Bridget, the ships’s baby, that Arthur Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons after they gave him a pair of bright scarlet Turkish slippers as a birthday present.  I don’t think I knew that Titty was a real girl when I played her in the film, but I did know her character in the books and only felt rather bad that I didn’t have her thick dark hair.

Bank Ground Farm
Bank Ground Farm with its views over Coniston Water in the Lake District

Bank Ground Farm is much smarter now. Lucy Batty, who let us take over her home in 1973, is still around but the guest house is now run by her grandson Jonathan. You can either stay in the main house, where there is a lovely corner bedroom with views right down Langdale, or you can take a self catering cottage or flat, since they have been able to convert the barn and stables into further accommodation. I’ve just received post from Peter Willis of The Nancy Blackett Trust who said,

“I stayed at Bank Ground in the summer – it was utterly lovely, exactly as it ought to be – Jonathan Batty and his wife are really hospitable, and one of the great pleasures was the friendliness and interstingness of the other guests, who included a Japanese Ransome fan. Do have dinner if they’re doing it. Food’s great, but so’s the sociable atmosphere.”

16th May 1973

15th May 1973

Int: Holly Howe ~ Bank Ground Farm near Coniston

It was grey and raining in the Lake District on 15th May 1973. Instead of filming the scene when Roger tacks up the field, Denis Lewiston, the Director of Photography, lit Mrs Batty’s living room at Bank Ground Farm for an evening scene. Simon Holland the Art Director dressed the room in the style of a Cumbrian farmhouse in the 192os with oil lamps, Bobby the prop man brought in all the camping gear we were to be packing, while Virginia McKenna was having her hair done up and we had lessons in our red double-decker bus. Then we recorded a scene, the dialogue of which was never used in the finished film.

Int/Ext: Holly Howe

Int/Ext Holly Howe
The Screenplay: David Wood’s adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’

You do see Susan packing bars of soap and me making heavy weather of sewing our flag, my hair pinned back in a hideous way, with rather a modern reel of white cotton laying on the desk.  John packed the telescope in a biscuit tin, which to me now seems a mistake as we used it on the voyage, very much not in a tin, but then one always re-packs many times before an important trip.

Virginia McKenna as Mary Walker with Sophie Neville playing her daughter Titty Walker busy stiching Swallow’s new flag in preparation for the voyage to the island

After lunch we shot the scene when Mother is teaching us how to erect a tent on rocky ground, as she did with Father when they were young. Titty asks if she is really old.

‘Not really. But I was younger then,’ Virginia McKenna replied looking dubious.

This is rather how I feel now, all these years later, especially when I walk into a room when people are expecting me as Titty. I’m not really old, but I do look different from when I was only twelve. This always happens when I return to Bank Ground Farm. Everyone is a bit taken back by my height but say I sound just the same. And I am married now with a family of my own. It is a bit like when Peter Pan flew back to see Wendy and found she looked just like her mother – not least because in the play the adult Wendy is always played by the actress who formerly takes the role of Mrs Darling.

Sophie Neville
Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton in the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with Sophie Neville today, photographed at the recent Arthur Ransome Society Literary Weekend

I was standing outside the front door of Bank Ground once, talking to Lucy Batty, when two Japanese girls arrived to stay at the farm. They were fans of the film. They looked up at me and declared, ‘Ooo Titty!’ and bowed their heads whilst clasping their hands together in greeting. They had come from the other side of the world and yet recognised me immediately. Perhaps I haven’t changed that much after all.

The weather must have cleared up a bit by teatime on 15th May as we recorded the scenes in the boat house when John discovers Swallow, brings her out to the stone jetty and steps the mast. I’m pretty sure that the sunlight comes from an arc-lamp. They must have had to take the generator down to the lakeside. Suzanna got her shorts wet as she pushed out the clinker-built dinghy but we loved being by the water.

To be continued…

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

The screenplay~

Arthur Ransome’s book was adapted for the big screen by David Wood.  The first time I saw this script was early in 2011 when my mother pulled it from the back of a wardrobe. It’s really only now that I fully appreciate how beautifully it was crafted.

The opening scenes ~

Talking to the engine driver at the Haverthwaite Railway Station on the first day of filming 'Swallows and Amazons' in 1973 (Photo: Daphne Neville)
Talking to the engine driver at the Haverthwaite Railway Station on the first day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The film opens with a shot of a steam train passing through Cumbria. This does not feature in the book but was a powerful first image and good way of introducing the Walker family, setting the period and the very Englishness of travelling up to the Lake District for the summer holidays. It was a wonder that this was possible; The Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway , with it’s restored steam train, had only been open and running for two weeks ~ on 2nd May 1973 to be precise. It was a private concern run by a bunch of enthusiasts on the old Furness Railway branch line. The engine was a Fairburn 2-6-4 tank locomotive of 84 tons, of approximately 1930s vintage, standard guage and coloured black-berry black

Swallows Script page 1
The origianl screenplay of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adapted from Arthur Ransome’s immortal book by David Wood in 1973

~ The crossings out were made by my mother, in the tradition of marking a scene that has been recorded ~

Swallows Script page 2
The original screenplay of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adapted by David Wood for Theatre Projects in 1973

What I never knew until I read the third scene today was that we added quite a bit of dialogue. I can’t remember if it was improvised or given to me by Claude but I said quite a bit more than was scripted, and recoded the fact in my diary.

notes to the text ~ Mrs Price was the lady who owned and ran our guest house. Our tutor, Margaret Causey, taught us in a converted red London double decker bus.
Swallows Diary 14th May page two
I took note of my dialogue in the pages of my diary. Here it was supplimentary to the script

Swallows Diary 14th May page three

The railway carriage ~

Claude Whatham was keen to shoot the film in ‘story order’ as much as possible as he thought this would be easiest for us to comprehend. INT.RAILWAY CARRIAGE. DAY was, however, a difficult scene to execute. Once the railway carriage contained movie lights, the director, a huge 35mm Panavision camera, the cameraman and assistant, with microphones and an assistant sound recordist there wasn’t any room for me.  When it came round to the shots of me I had to give my lines to imaginary family members. They were no longer there – the camera had taken their place. It also got extremely hot.

Virginia McKenna, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennett and Sophie Neville at the Haverwaite Railway Station in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Story order ~

I look back on all this now and feel our opening performances, so vital to capture the audiences attention, were understandably rather wooden. Later on, when I was directing films that featured children I tried to schedule unimportant, ‘running around scenes’, which were easy for them, so that they could get used to working with the crew before tight close-ups were required.  I found that even six year-olds were unfazed by recording scenes out of story order, in fact they were probably less disorientated than the adults.

Continuity ~

With Virginia McKenna’s magazine, our picnic and Susan’s tapestry the matter of continuity in this scene was important. We greatly enjoyed learning about this technicality, so vital if the shots that make up the scene are to cut together smoothly. Numerous Polaroid shots were involved, which was exciting as these cameras had not been around for long and we enjoyed watching the photographs develope.  We did our best to be helpful and keep an eye on the picnic, but somehow it all went wrong. The continuity in this opening scene is out. This probably because Sue Merry, the Continuity Girl could not get in –  into the railway carriage, that is. There was simply no room for her.

A transcript of the entire screenplay of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)  can be found by clicking here

‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~ getting used to sailing our boats in preparation for making the film back in 1973

Sunday 13th May 1973

Sailing on the lakes ~

Swallows Diary 13th May

Swallows Diary 13th May page 2

…And so we spent the Sunday before the filming began sailing. I’m afraid I can’t remember a thing about it.  I imagine we sailed out from the Kirkstone Foot Hotel on Lake Windermere.

I’ve always felt the cold.  Back then I only had a terrible blue nylon anorak that I don’t think enabled me to enjoy the sailing, which is such a pity. I seemed to have got very cold even when sailing with the wind.

The Amazon has a centre board and was always a much faster boat than Swallow.  It proved a bit of a problem during the filming as she always gained more distance when the director wanted a shot with both dinghies sailing together.  But, even as old boats with very limited sail, they can go at quite a lick.  I remember both were difficult to turn unless you did have a bit of speed up. Swallow’s long keel makes her roomy and stable but I sailed her recently and she’s not a boat that wants to go home. I’m used to modern rudders now, whereas Swallow and Amazon have shallow ones shaped like the letter ‘b’.

Swallow photographed by Martin Neville
A photograph of Swallow in 1973 taken by Martin Neville

We had lunch with Virginia McKenna who was to play our Mother, Mrs Walker.  She was sweet and so enthusiastic about what we were doing. I remember that she made a great effort to entertain us at the hotel, instigating games of Consequneces, which we adored. We roared with laughter as she read out the results.

Virginia McKenna photographed by Daphne Neville
Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground Farm ~ photo:Daphne Neville

As my father said recently, Virginia McKenna was completely right to play the part of a Naval Commander’s wife.  A darling of the British public she is, and was, the star who carried the film. I knew her from having loved the animal movies she’d been in ~ Ring of Bright WaterAn Elephant Called Slowly, Born Free and my favorite wartime story A Town Like Alice, for which she won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress.  She was also nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Violette Szabo in the WWII story Carve Her Name With Pride and played Julie Hallam in The Cruel Sea, another superb wartime classic.  Married to Bill Travers she had four children of her own by the time she made Swallows and Amazons. I don’t know how she managed to do so much, all with with so much grace and time for others.

Claude Whatham, the director, Richard Pilbrow, the producer and David Blagden, the sailing director were with us, along with Mum and Jane Grendon, Sten’s mother who was our other chaperone. Neville Thompson, the Associate Producer who was in charge of the budget and schedule, was also with us that first weekend.  He later worked on the Mosquito Coast, Time Bandits, Sharpe’s Rifles and produced The Missionary with Michael Palin. He must have been a good man to have on board.

Richard Pilbrow and Neville Thompson ~ photo:Daphne Neville