If you enjoyed watching ‘Swallows & Amazons’ on ITV3 last weekend

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

If you would like to know how the movie of Swallows & Amazons was made and know where the real locations can be found, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon and Smashwords for £2.56.  The paperback was launched to mark the 40th anniversary of the film’s release, by Classic TV Press.

Do you know where the Peak of Darien can be found? photo: Roger Wardale
Do you know where the Peak of Darien can be found?

The book, which is suitable for any age group, is based on the diary that I kept when I played the part of Titty Walker in 1973. It is illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs and memorabilia such as one of the tickets to the Royal Gala premier in Shaftesbury Avenue held on 4th April 1974. You will also find out what the actors who played the Walker family ~ the Swallows ~ are doing now.

The joy of the ebook is that it includes a number of home-movie clips that my parents took of life behind the scenes that you can play wherever you have internet access.

Classi Boat magazine Books ~ Feb 2014
A review of the ebook in Classic Boat magazine ~ Feburary 2014

If you have any questions about making the film, please add them to the comments below, and I will get back to you.

Richard Kay's column in Daily Mail Friday Nov 22nd1
A review of ‘the Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ in Richard Kay’s column in the Daily Mail ~

There were rather over-excited headlines in the Times and Telegraph when the ebook was launched but they only spoke of the legendary drinking of Ronald Fraser. Please don’t worry – there is nothing X-rated about the book – it is just the price one pays for half a page in a daily newspaper, especially since it came out on a Saturday.

The Times Sat 23 Nov 20131

The ebook has been doing well in the Amazon charts and hit Number 1 in the category ‘Stage and Theatre’.

Lymington Times 4th Jan 2014

A preview of what the book holds in store can be watched here:

‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ – the book trailer

Very many thanks to all those who have left customer reviews on Amazon. It is always exciting to find out how the book has impacted others, especially those who love the Arthur Ransome books.

To read more reviews please click here

More memories of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 from David Stott

David Stott, the Ambleside lad who worked as a unit driver on the film of  Swallows & Amazons in 1973 after he left college at the age of 19, has written from America:

‘I really enjoyed reliving Swallows & Amazons through your book.’

‘Oh my, what a trip down memory lane it was for me – so much that l had forgotten was rekindled. I cannot believe that it was forty years ago.

‘I think that I started work (on the film in) mid-June, which would fit in with finishing college. From your daily schedule it was when you went back to Coniston with Virgina McKenna on her second visit.’

Map showing film locations around Coniston Water
Map showing film locations around Coniston Water

David remembers the problem of being locked out of Bank Ground Farm by Mrs. Batty.  ‘I really could not blame her as the whole place had been turned into a circus and her house ripped apart.’

‘The first morning I met Richard Pilbrow was in his bedroom for some strange reason and remember thinking, ‘What a total mess. How can anybody live like this?’

‘My main contacts were Neville Thompson (the On-line Producer) and Graham Ford (the Production Manager). They were all based at Kirkstone Foot Hotel that was owned by friends of my parents, Simon and Jane Bateman.  Others stayed at the Waterhead Hotel down by the lake, where I would pick them up and take them to the location.

‘On arrival at the location I remember well the catering van and the breakfast that awaited us.  Having just competed three years studying hotel management at college I was amazed how two people with very limited equipment could produce the number of meals they did.  The washing up was done on a trestle table outside the van with bowls of water carried to location in large milk churns.

Map of film locations on Derwentwater in the Lake District
~ Map of film locations on Derwentwater in the Lake District ~

‘I did not have much contact with you and the other children, as you were under the watchful eye of your Mum and Jean McGill. Jean’s Mum was called Girly McGill and used to run a nursing home in Ambleside. As a child I used to deliver eggs to the home with my Dad.  Jean had a brother who I think everybody called Blondie.

‘Sten was a bit of a handful at times and held up shooting on a number of occasions while he was calmed down. I rather envied Simon West; I wished I had the chance he did to act in a film. To this day I’m a frustrated actor.

‘Dennis Lewiston (the Director of Photography) always seemed to be holding a light meter in the air or perhaps he was warding off the clouds.  I found him a little unapproachable.

‘My recollection of Sue Merry the continuity girl was setting up her folding table and tapping away on a portable typewriter.

‘Ronnie Cogan the hairdresser and I spent hours chatting. Once the shooting started, we had nothing else to do. He was such a nice man.

‘I was thrilled when I met Virginia McKenna and had to drive her around. One day I had to drive her to Grange railway station. I was so fascinated by her tales of working with lions in Born Free that I drove slowly to maximise her story-telling time. We almost missed the train and had to run from the car park.

‘One of the wettest days I remember is when the scene of Octopus Lagoon was filmed above Skelwith Fold Caravan Site. I don’t remember the support buses being around that day, but I do remember having to sit in the car for hours on end. Maybe the buses were somewhere else.

‘I know I was invited to the wrap party but cannot remember a thing about it.’

Map showing some of the film locations around Windermere
Map showing some of the film locations around Windermere

Very Happy New Year!

Near the Amazon Boathouse with Sir Anthony Gormley ~ photo: Mountain Goat Tours
Sophie Neville with Sir Antony Gormley near the Amazon boathouse

This Christmas has been marked by a number of amusing cards, emails and comments that have come in from people who remember making the film of Swallows & Amazons in 1973.

David Stott has already sent in his memories of working as Ronald Fraser’s driver at the age of 19 while Peter Walker remembers literally  bumping into him in a pub in Ambleside. Various journalists added their recollections online below an article in the Telegraph. I hope to have gathered enough photographs to post a few more in the new year.

If you can remember anything about the filming of Swallows & Amazons, can recollect going to see it in the cinema when it was first released, or have memories about anyone connected to the movie, add a comment below or contact me on sophie@sophieneville.co.uk.

The Amazon boathouse on Coniston Water
The Amazon boathouse on Coniston Water

I have a list of those who appeared as supporting artists in the film that I would love to add to. Can you help me with more details and full names? It would be awful if I had incorrect spellings.

Kerry Dartisnine ~ Nurse

Tiffany Smith ~ Baby Vicky

Moira Late ~ Mrs Jackson

Brian Robey Jones ~ Mr Jackson

Mr Turner ~ Shopkeeper

Mr Price ~ Native on the Rio jetty

Mrs Price ~ Visitor at Haverthwaite Railway Station

Martin Neville ~ Native on the steamer

George Pattinson ~ Steamboat owner

Stanley Wright ~ Motorboat mechanic

James Stelfox ~ Boat mechanic

Herbert Barton ~ Casual holiday-maker

L. Lucas Dews ~ Man just returned from abroad

Jane Price ~ Girl at Rio

Simon Price ~ Boy at Rio

Tamzin Neville ~ Girl at Rio

Perry Neville ~ Girl at Rio

Pandora Doyle ~ Girl at Rio

Alan Smith ~ Boy at Rio

Jane Grendon ~ Rio visitor

Janet Hadwin ~ Rio visitor

Peggy Drake ~ Rio visitor

William Drake ~ Rio visitor

Mrs Jill Jackson ~ Rio visitor

Lindsay Jackson ~ Rio visitor

Nicola Jackson ~ Rio visitor

Fiona Jackson ~ Rio visitor

Shane Jackson ~ Rio visitor

Zena Khan ~ Rio Visitor

Lorna Khan ~ Lady on the Tern

Sarah Boom ~ Cyclist at Rio

Jack Hadwin ~ Motorcyclist

Kendal Borough Band

Beauty Proctor ~ Polly, the green parrot

The following people worked on the crew of Swallows & Amazons  but I am not sure of their exact job titles:

Gay Lawley-Wakelin, Richard Daniel, John Slater, Lee Apsey, Craig Hillier, Les Philips, Ron Baker, John Pullen, Harry Heeks, Graham Orange, Mike Henley, Joe Ballerino, Ted Elliot, Eddie Cook, John Engelman, John Mills, Ernie Russell, Clive Stewart, Toni Turner, Phyllis B, Pinewood Caterers John and Margaret ……, Robert Wakeling, David Stott. and other Drivers: Browns of Ambleside

Have I left anybody Out?

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Memories of filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) from Jane Grendon

Jane Grendon and Sten Grendon
Sten Grendon with his mother Jane Grendon in 1973

When Sten Grendon was given the part of Roger in Swallows & Amazons (1974), his mother Jane Grendon came up to the Lake District with him to work as a chaperone, looking after all the children appearing in the movie.

Jane Grendon opposite Peel Island
Jane Grendon keeping an eye on the children watching ‘Swallows & Amazons’ being filmed on Coniston Water in 1973 – seen here opposite Peel Island

Jane said that before filming began,

‘…one of the very first things we were asked was, ‘can Sten swim?”

‘I know he could doggy paddle. Neville 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 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)
A page of David Wood’s original screenplay: ‘Swallow & Amazons’ (1974)

‘There are some personal memories.  An aunt gave  me the book for my birthday and I tried reading it but I hated all the technical boating details and I thought the children rather priggish so I didn’t enjoy it one bit and so was rather downhearted for Sten to be part of a story I hadn’t liked.’

Jane and her husband lived deep in the Cotswold countryside, at the rural Whiteway community, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. As I recollect, they had both qualified as teachers.

‘At the time of casting and during all the arrangements we had no phone at home and had to rely on a neighbour and the production team used to hold on while Ros came and fetched me!  They must have really been fed up as it must have taken 10 minutes or so sometimes for me to get to the phone!’

Jane hadn’t imagined that she would end up in costume herself, if only for a day. She looked wonderful.

Jane Grendon and the bus
Jane Grendon in 1929 costume whilst filming the Rio scenes for ‘Swallows & Amazons’ at Bowness-on-Windermer in 1973

‘…. so there I was – a naïve, country girl flung into this alien world of a film unit.  I was like a fish out of water!  But I think it came out in your account that I related to you children better than I did to the adults around.’

Jane’s husband Michael was able to bring Sten’s sister, their little daughter Jo, up to watch the filming over half-term.

Jane Grendon with Martin Neville
Jane Grendon with Martin Neville, taking part in a Weetabix commercial shot on location near Bisley in the Cotswolds in 1973

That summer Jane appeared in costume once more when Claude Whatham asked if Sten Grendon could also appear in a commercial he was directing for Weetabix, back in Gloucestershire at harvest time. This time she found herself on location not far from her own home and was always smiling.

Jane still lives the same house. Her husband Michael has retired from teaching and they have just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

Sophie Neville with Jane Grendon in 1973
Sophie Neville with Jane Grendon, filming at Runnymede in September 1973

A unit driver on the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ has written in with his memories of 1973

View from Bank Ground 2
A comment from someone who worked on the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973 ~
l had just finished my three years at college and was at a loose end before l started my working life. I was living in Ambleside at the heart of the English Lake District where Arthur Ransome’s children’s story “Swallows and Amazons” was being filmed at the time. I landed myself a job working for the film unit. I was full of my own importance as l was driving the stars and director of the film.
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Virginia McKenna playing Mrs Walker
Virginia McKenna playing Mrs Walker at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water

The stars were Virginia McKenna of “Born Free” fame and Ronald Fraser. I was reminded of this period of my life when l read the headline ‘X-RATED antics of Swallows and Amazons’ in The Times. The title related to the release of an e-book by Sophie Neville one of the child actors in the film. Sophie was 12 at the time and I was 19.

Sophie recalls how Ronnie (Ronald Fraser) was always drunk. Well this is not strictly true. In the morning Ronnie was reasonably sober and for this reason the director Claude Whatham would try and get most of the shooting with Ronnie in the can before the lunch hour came around when I would be summoned to take him to the nearest hostelry. Ronnie would then order his own concoction “The Fraser’. I cannot for the life of me remember what it consisted of, but believe you me these disappeared at a rapid rate of knots down Captain Flint’s (his character’s) throat. By the time the liquid lunch came to an end l would have to bundle him into the back of the car and deposit him back on set, much to the dismay of the producer Richard Pilbrow and the director Claude Whatham. Afternoon shooting was often a disaster when Ronnie was involved and I’m sure he frightened the children from time to time.

Well if the children were sometimes scared by Uncle Jim, as Captain Flint is known, then l was scared of the parrot that Uncle Jim had on his boat. The first day that I had to collect the parrot the old lady who owned him travelled with him to the location on Derwent Water. However she soon became bored with all the hanging around and after that she entrusted me with the parrot. Now birds are not really my thing and I really did not like handling him. He would travel to the location in an old shopping bag with a zipper, where l would hand him over and he would be placed in his cage. This was all well and good, then came the day that was so wet they did not use him, but instead he stayed in the production office at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel where the crew were hanging out. I was told he was in the bathroom, l expected him to be in his travel bag, but no he was sat on the edge of the bathtub looking at me. By this time he hated being put in the bag it took me all my time with a towel to catch him, finally after being scratched and bitten I got him home to his Mum.

The hardest thing to stomach was the fact that the parrot was paid more per day than l was.

David Stott

One of the daily unit call sheets issued on 'Swallows & Amazons' (1974)
One of the daily unit call sheets issued on ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

I replied:

Thank you so much for writing in, David. Your story about the green parrot had me roaring with laughter. I am told that he was a male parrot called Beauty, who belonged to Mrs Proctor of Kendal. Her grand-daughter rang in when I was interviewed on Radio Cumbria recently. She told me that her gran, old Mrs Proctor could do anything with him, and was well know for walking around Kendal with him sitting on her arm.  I don’t think anyone else dared get close. Since I played the part of Titty, I had to have him sitting on my shoulder in the cabin of the houseboat, while delivering the most important lines in the film. We were then meant to leap about singing, What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? This was a bit ironic since Ronnie was half-plastered by then. He was pretty permanently pickled. In the penultimate shot of the film, while pretending to play the accordion, he was still drunk from the Wrap Party 36 hours before. The parrot was not invited to the party but did receive a fee of £25 for appearing in the film. His owner used this to buy him a bigger cage.

Daily Express Article

I don’t know who thought up the ‘X-rated’ headline at the Times (which was absurd) but a reporter from the Daily Express provided the receipt for ‘The Fraser’ in 1973 – I have the clipping (above). Geoffrey Mather wrote: ‘A Fraser is a drink of his own invention. It consists of a large vodka with a kiss of lime and a ton of ice, topped up with soda in a large glass’. We all bought the copies of the newspaper in Ambleside. My mother was horrified as instead of being a story about making the film it was a half-page article about Ronnie’s antics in the bar of the Kirkstone Foot Hotel on Windermere.

Daily Express Article page two
Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Lesley Bennett, Simon West, Sten Grendon and Kit Seymour with Ronald Fraser. Who is operating the boat?

 

‘Don’t all child actors get into drink and drugs?’

Outside the ABC in Shaftesbury Avenue at the premier of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1974.  The nuns were amused to find ‘The Exorcist’ was on at the same time.

An editor at the Sunday Telegraph magazine asked me recently,

‘Don’t all child actors get into drink and drugs?’

Not I, said the fly. I’m afraid I was far too Swallows and Amazons-ish and sensible. And I lived deep in the countryside, out of the reach of dealers  looking for kids with a little bit of money.

Sophie Neville in Secret Harbour2
Simon West working with Claude Whatham in 1973

Simon West told me that spent the money he earned from appearing in films and television on sailing dinghies. It was a good investment. At the age of about fifteen he won the British Championships in what must have been the new fibreglass model of Optimist. Until that time they had been constructed of plywood.

Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West sailing Swallow on Derwentwater
Suzanna Hamilton looking at her scar while sailing Swallow with Simon West

I remember that Suzanna Hamilton spent the extra cash she was given from being brave about swimming in Coniston Water on a Swiss Army penknife.  I had never seen one before.  She cut her finger so badly making arrows from hazel saplings with the Property Master that the director banned her from using it. I was rather envious of her scar.

Suzanna wrote to tell me:

‘I wasn’t allowed to spend much of my money until I bought an extremely good oboe. A few pounds (were spent) on some budgies (one lovely male named Ransome and one named Rio – a flighty female).  She was a bad influence and they both flew out the window in the end. Ransome used to sit on my head very happily when I only had him.’
Stephen Grendon playing Roger
Sten Grendon aged eight, as Roger Walker

We really didn’t earn that much back in 1973, but all children dream of what they could do if they had a little bit of cash. Sten Grendon told me that he spent some of his first BBC fee on a bike. All he wanted to do with his earning from appearing in Swallows & Amazons was to buy the biggest Lego set in the world. His father found one for £20 and put the rest into a savings account.

Any money I made from being in films was immediately locked up in Barclay’s Unicorn Unit Trusts. My riding teacher tried to persuade Mum to let me buy a decent horse I could use to compete with. A very beautiful Palamino was offered. This wasn’t a bad idea, as I would have gained skills and confidence, although I couldn’t see myself as a British Champion.

DSCF0661
‘The real Queen Bess didn’t grow up on Sydney Harbour’

Instead I eventually spent my savings on a ticket to Australia where I took a boat up Sydney Harbour and I learnt to dive on the Great Barrier Reef.

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Sophie Neville (right) diving off the east coast of Australia

I had just finished directing a drama-documentary that featured children at a west London school. Whilst we were busy filming in the art room a teacher rushed in to tell us not to let anyone go outside. Drug addicts had been mugging kids crossing the playing fields for their dinner money.  I was obliged to pay the eleven-year-olds who took the lead roles by sending their parents a decent set of professional photographs. Paying them in cash was too risky.

Sophie Neville directing a sequence with BBC cameraman Lorraine Smith
Sophie Neville directing a sequence with BBC cameraman Lorraine Smith

‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ in the headlines

The Times Sat 23 Nov 2013

The Times. What author would not be thrilled to have their ebook profiled in a Saturday feature article? But look at the headline. I shall never live it down. Far from being scandalous, my story is appropriate reading for any age group.

The Times Sat 23 Nov 20131
‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ by Sophie Neville, featured in The Times

Richard Kay’s piece in the Daily Mail seems to have sparked off quite a bush fire. A News journalist from the Telegraph rang, as mentioned in my last post. Before I knew it, there was an over-excited headline on the internet

I was told-off by our Church Warden, who then handed me a clipping from the Saturday Telegraph, which read: ‘Swallows and Amazons a debauched adventure’. I didn’t dare look in the tabloids.

I was worried that I would be asked to step down as President of The Arthur Ransome Society but some of the members think it’s hilarious. The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook have been busy thinking up Newspaper headlines for his novels, such as ‘Soviet agent indoctrinates all British children’.
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Ronald Fraser and Ian Whitaker on the houseboat1
Ronald Fraser, Make-up artist Peter Robb-King & Set Dresser Ian Whitaker on Captain Flint’s houseboat

Anecdotes about Ronald Fraser’s legendary drinking habits are mounting up.  Spare me from being a prattler, but Ronnie would have loved this. Star of thirty post-war movies and numerous television programmes, he liked nothing more than to sit in a pub sharing scandalous stories with his friends from the press.  A showman to the end, his coffin was carried by Sean Connery, Peter O’Tool, Simon Ward and Chris Evans.

DSCF7719
Can anyone tell me who took this photo? If you click on the shot you will get to my Swallows & Amazons page which has a photo of the photographer.

Peter Walker e-mailed me from Cumbria:

In 1973 I worked for Post Office Telecommunications (now BT) as a local maintenance engineer. One summer’s day I had been given the job of repairing a fault on the payphone in the White Lion Hotel in the centre of Ambleside. As I pushed open the door to the bar it slipped out of my hand and the handle caught a customer in the back who happened to be taking delivery of a large drink.

I apologised, and he said “No damage done my boy… haven’t spilt a drop!”

I said I was referring to his back, “Don’t worry,” he said, “being stabbed in the back is normal in my line of business!”

Ronald Fraser on the cover of the VHS
Ronald Fraser on the cover of the VHS

A wonderful story that I have already added to the ebook:

long after the filming, when Ronald Fraser was having a pint with his friends, he was fond of muttering ‘Natives!’ especially if someone ate the last of his crisps.(As you probably know, this was one of Titty’s lines in the film used when the Swallows were nearly run down by a Windermere steamer.)

Ronnie Fraser and DoP Denis Lewiston with paper cups of champagne and the call sheet for the next day ~ photo: Daphne Neville
Ronnie Fraser and DoP Denis Lewiston with paper cups of champagne in 1973

His fans and old drinking pals added comments below the online feature in Friday’s Telegraph:

Ronald Fraser sounds like he was well cast for the part, the black sheep of the family who was also the favourite uncle and usually totally p-ss-ed.

Ronald Fraser – a joy and wonderfully in-character as the freeloading drunk on the trans-Atlantic liner in the original TV adaptation of Brideshead.

“Debauchery” implies REAL shennanigans. Ronnie was usually too plastered to do more than stand, let alone move, let alone “do” anything. I assume the word is used ironically.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ronnie Fraser several times in the Richard Steele on Haverstock Hill in 1969/70, and of conversing and drinking with him. He was a total lush, but charming, funny and scandalous. His fund of acting stories was endless. I’m surprised he made it safely through S&A! (Swallows and Amazons)

I also remember Ronnie Fraser from the Richard Steele. One evening he was serving behind the bar, in his cups he served me 4 drinks and instead of adding up the price he just said “that looks about 10 shillings worth to me!”

The Richard Steele was a proper boozer with a mixed clientele which included Anthony Booth, Rupert Davies and Eric Sykes. And a great selection of posters on the walls. I went back in there a couple of years ago and it has lost the buzz it had back in those days.

he also was in the star in st.johns wood too dont think i ever saw him sober either.that would be about 1975 -1979

Yep. I too drank with him in The Richard Steele in 1976/7. Total gentleman and a great character. He used to drink with Alan Browning. Glynn Owen was another regular and one or two others of note.

I loved that film and thought it very faithful to the source book. My sister has met Ronald Fraser and as well as being a boozer he was also apparently something of a swordsman.

I thought that Ronald Fraser was miscast – he was too much the buffoon and his speech impediment wasn’t appropriate to the role.

With Ronald Fraser
With Ronald Fraser in 1973

General comments about the film were also added to the Telegraph site:

I had a slightly surreal experience 10 or 12 years after it came out. It was on TV and I sat happily through it, then I put in the video of the John Hurt movie 1984. In it, the girl I’d just been watching playing Susan as a 12 year old instantly aged 10 years.

It was raining in the Lake District- that’s a major surprise. One place there has recorded 200 inches of rain in a year!

It’s good to find someone else who shared those lovely £sd days!! I remember the posters vividly.

It was indeed largely a time of great adventure for a child at that time. As kid’s, at weekends & holidays, we often wouldn’t be seen from morning ’till evening, off exploring our surroundings. Totally unlike the generally mollycoddled, world wrapped in cotton wool that you usually see with today’s parents and their children.

Great book and an excellent, very English film! Pity that Arthur Ransome was a traitorous Communistic Guardian hack! I imagine that Soviet Commissars, used to Black Sea dachas, would have found The South Lakes far too drizzly for a summer holiday. No doubt Mr Ransome would have been keen to host them.

Well, you have to admit it was excellent cover for his job of reporting everything the Bolsheviks did to MI6.

Ronald Fraser being transported to the Houseboat
Ronald Fraser being transported to the Houseboat on Derwentwater

Your comments are invited below.

For those who have not already seen it, here is some behind the scenes footage of filming on that houseboat in 1973.

 

‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ covered in today’s national press ~

Richard Kay article Swallows and Amazons ebook by Sophie Neville Nov 20131

~ In today’s Daily Mail and Mail Online – third article down on the website ~

While I was at Rugby School unveiling the commemorative plaque in honour of Arthur Ransome, invited as President Elect of The Arthur Ransome Society, Richard Kay’s office at the Daily Mail was desperately trying to reach me.

Unveiling the Arthur Ransome plaque at Rugby School

~ Unveiling the Arthur Ransome plaque at Rugby School on 21st November 2013 ~

They were keen to ask about ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’, which had already started to outsell Stephen Fry and Julian Clary in the category of Stage & Theatre memoirs on Amazon Kindle. It has also outranked pre-orders of June Brown’s autobiography ‘Before the Year Dot’ about her life as an actress. I worked with her on Eastenders when the soap opera first started back in the 1980s.

I woke up this morning to find an email from Hayley Dixon of The Telegraph saying that she had seen that  my new behind-the-scenes book of Swallows & Amazons was out, and asking me to ring her. By one o’clock her article appeared in The Telegraph online,  featuring my book trailer.

Sophie Neville on the south coast

I then heard from Paul Kendall of the Sunday Telegraph’s magazine, Seven, who had read about my book launch in Richard Kay’s column today. Hayley had told me it was in the Daily Mail, but I had only just bought a copy myself.

Paul wrote:

“Would you be able to send me a copy of the book? We might be able to do a nice extract in the magazine!”
It has been a very exciting day – and thanks to all of your hugely valued support I am now at #1 in Stage & Theatre memoirs!
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The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons
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‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ ebook is out now

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

Thanks to the encouragement and help of my blog followers and Arthur Ransome enthusiasts around the world, I have managed to put my diaries, letters, old photographs and documents together into a 68,000-word memoir.

s&A book launch 2013 005

“Sometimes extraordinary things do happen to ordinary people. Little girls can find themselves becoming film stars. Long ago, and quite unexpectedly, I found myself appearing in the EMI feature film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons, made for a universal international audience. I played Able-seaman Titty, one of the four Swallows. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I became Titty for a while, wearing thin cotton dresses and elasticated navy blue gym knickers, which the camera crew soon referred to as passion killers. The book was written in 1929 and although the film adaptation was made in the early 1970s it had an ageless quality and has been repeated on television year after year, typically on a Bank Holiday between movies starring Rock Hudson or Doris Day.

I got the part of Titty because I could play the piano. Although I had no ambition to be an actress, at the age of ten I was cast in a BBC dramatisation of Cider with Rosie. They needed a little girl to accompany the eleven-year-old Laurie Lee when he played his violin at the village concert. I plodded through Oh, Danny Boy at an agonising pace.

‘Do you think you could play a little faster?’ the Director asked.

‘No,’ I said, flatly. ‘These are crotchets, they don’t go any faster.’

Claude Whatham must have remembered my crotchets, for two years later, in March 1973, my father received a letter. It arrived completely out of the blue, from a company called Theatre Projects.

We are at present casting for a film version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS which Mr Whatham is going to direct. We were wondering if you would be interested in your daughter being considered for one of the parts in this film.

Amazing!”

From ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ by Sophie Neville

Preview copies of the print version of 'The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons'Preview copies of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’  at the Cruising Association dinner at the Water’s Edge Bar and Restaurant, Mermaid Marina on the River Hamble.

“This heart-warming memoir is illustrated with colour photographs, most of them taken at the time by Sophie’s family, and contains links to behind-the-scenes home movie footage for readers with browser-enabled tablets. It delivers a double helping of nostalgia for both fans of the era of Arthur Ransome, and the groovy times of the early 70’s.” ~ from the Amazon Kindle description

Map of Derwentwater by Sophie

Also available for other reading devices on Smashwords

Thank you again for all of your time and patience, and to those of you who contributed comments, questions, and aspects of local history on this blog. I would love to know what you think of the book!

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Sophie Neville on the pontoon during the filming of 'Swallows and Amazons'
Richard Pilbrow, Denis Lewiston, Claude Whatham, David Cadwallader and Sophie Neville aged 12 playing Titty. Eddie Collins looks on ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Captain John, Master of the Swallow, played by Simon West in 1973

Simon West and Sophie Neville on Peel Island in 1973
Simon West and Sophie Neville  as brother and sister on Peel Island in 1973

I had dinner with Captain John last night. It was extraordinary meeting up after forty years; a lifetime had whizzed by.

Tall, with dark hair, Simon West is no longer recognisable as John Walker but he looks back fondly on our time making the film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons in 1973, when we spent seven weeks of the summer term on location in the Lake District. To my surprise he doesn’t remember being cold at all. I claim that he was given a few more clothes to wear than me and had more to concentrate on. He was at the helm whilst I was a mere able-seaman in Swallow. He said that he hated it when she was wired to the pontoon and he had to pretend he was sailing.

BW Swallow about to jibe
Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton sailing Swallow from Peel Island where Sophie Neville stands shivering on the shore. Was this shot filmed from a camera pontoon?

Simon thought that I probably remember more about the experience than he did because my mother was there, chatting about what was going on every evening and naturally re-enforcing the shared experience.

‘I must have kept a diary, as it was part of our schoolwork, but I haven’t seen it since. I’ll look in my parent’s attic.’ Simon thought that it was his mother who put together an album from the black and white photos that Richard Pilbrow gave us after the filming.

Simon West as Captian John sailing Swallow . Sten Grendon plays the Boy Roger in the bows
Simon West as Captain John sailing Swallow near Peel Island on Coniston Water. Sten Grendon plays the Boy Roger in the bows.

Simon said that he remembers more about filming the six-part BBC serial, ‘Sam and the River’, in which he had the title role in 1974. Much of it was shot on the Thames Tideway east of London. ‘Of course all those places have changed enormously since then, whilst the Lakes are very much the same. I have never been able to find a copy of that series, which is a shame. I’d love to see it.’ We can’t find a copy in English, but there is a version in German entitled ‘Tom und die Themse’  currently for sale on DVD here.

Simon’s own children grew up watching Swallows & Amazons, which is still broadcast once or twice a year on television. He said that when they went to see the Warner Bros. Studios in Hertfordshire where much of the Harry Potter movies were made he felt hugely appreciative of the fact that we had been out on location the whole time, rather than boxed up on a film stage, acting against a green back ground.

Director Claude Whatham wearing his American Parker coat, looking on as Dennis Lewiston and Eddie Collins line up a shot over Derwentwater at dawn
Claude Whatham wearing his American Parker coat, as Dennis Lewiston and Eddie Collins line up a shot over Derwentwater at dawn

Simon did remember the great Parker coats that Richard and Claude found to cope with the Cumbrian weather. So do I. My father bought one too. They were blue-grey and enormous, lined with fake sheepskin, their hoods edged with Eskimo-like fake fur.

‘They had recently come over from America,’ he explained, ‘And were a real innovation. Before that we just had tweed coats.’

‘And Mackintoshes. Dennis Lewsiton wore a blue Mac.’

‘Those dreadful nylon anoraks,’

‘That are back in fashion.’

‘The American Parkers are fashionable now too – all that fake fur around the hood. Uggh.’

Suddenly the cogs of close association clicked in. Simon tossed his head in a certain way that I recognised as his own expression of humour. He said that he was really pleased that Bobby Moore chatted to him at the film Premier at Shaftesbury Avenue.

‘Sir Booby Moore? Was he there?  Did we meet him?’

‘Yes.’

I’d totally forgotten.

Simon said that he had become very attached to his Parker fountain pen from Aspreys, engraved with the words ‘Swallows & Amazons- 1973’, that Claude Whatham gave to each of us as a gift after the filming. ‘Stupidly I left in the boot of my car when I was in Paris, aged about twenty-seven. It was stolen with a load of other things.’ I had lost mine too. I dropped it on a footpath somewhere in Durham.

‘What did you spend your fee on?’

‘Oh, sailing dinghies.  It was good to know I had £500 in the bank around the time I was heading towards the British Championships. You know, at first we had ply board hulls but the time came when I needed to buy a fibreglass boat.’ It was with this that he became the National Optimist Champion. We agreed it was money put to good use.

After the age of about sixteen, Simon’s family became interested in orienteering. Maps seems to have had a strong influence on both our lives.

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

Simon and his wife now have four grown children. ‘We are split down the middle: three of us sail, three of us do not.’ But every year he takes the family up to the Lake District to go fell walking, something they all enjoy very much.

If anyone sees a brushed steel Parker pen on eBay engraved with the words ‘Swallows & Amazons 1973’ please let me know.  I’d love to be able to return it to Captain John.

Here you can see Simon appearing in ‘Sam and the River'(1975). This is the German version entitled Tom und die Themse: