Members of the Arthur Ransome Group have recently raised questions about what ‘fell onto the cutting room floor’ after we shot the movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the English Lake District in 1973.
‘I have always had the feeling that the Amazon’s role in the 1974 film was very much secondary to the Swallows.’ Stephen O’Brien posted. ‘This was probably down to much of the Amazon’s footage ending up on the cutting room floor. What do you think?’
The answer is that there were few scenes excluded from the film.
Virginia McKenna as Mrs Walker with Sophie Neville as Titty
The only other scene from Swallows & Amazons that I know was excluded was when the Swallows lay patterans on their way to visit the charcoal burners. The location was in a beautiful spot up above Derwentwater, the dialogue was straight from Arthur Ransome’s book and our performances would have been fluent by the time we shot the sequence.
Suzanna Hamilton, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West as the Swallows
I can only expect that when the movie came in over-length, these scenes were cut as the action had no influence on the plot.
In the original script, the Amazons do not really appear until page 41 – which would equate to nearly half-way into the the film. I thought that there might have been one or two shots of the Amazons sailing that were never used, because there was a day spent filming on Derwentwater when Kit and Lesley who played Nancy and Peggy weren’t feeling very well, but I’ve checked the script and nothing that they said was excluded. Not one word. Perhaps David Wood who dramatised the book could somehow have increased the Amazons’ parts. However, as Janet Means points out:
‘…in the book we find out more about what the Swallows think but only about what the Amazons do. There is little about the Amazons except when the Swallows are present too (hiding Amazon in the reeds and Nancy berating Peggy for losing Amazon when Titty’s made off with her). There’s lots about the Swallows without the Amazons.’
One scene in the DVD of the film actually gets cut out of the television version. The clue is that it comes just before this photo was taken in Bowness-on-Windermere for Lancashire Life kindly sent to be by Stephen Sykes of Hill Top near Haverthwaite.
Sten Grendon, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville as the Swallows in Rio, an official still from the film published in Lancashire Life in 1974
The process of editing a film can be terrifying for a director. There is always the prospect of finding a sequence that will not cut together. But working with a good film editor is hugely creative and fulfilling. Problems do arise but great things can happen. Richard Pilbrow says in his new book, A Theatre Project that he was completely captivated by the process. ‘Moving a few frames from here to there, could change the whole emphasis of a scene.’ On the whole editing is an exciting, yet more relaxing time for the director than having to lead a massive crew out on location. And the actors are never around.
Sadly I never met Michael Bradsell who edited Swallows and Amazons. Like many others on our film crew he’d worked with Claude Whatham before on the movieThat’ll be the Day. He went to on edit many great movies; Local Hero for Bill Forsyth and David Puttman, Henry V for Kenneth Branagh and Wilde, which starred Stephen Fry. Oh, to think that he hauled my image over his Steenbeck.
I remember that when I saw Henry V at the Curzon Cinema in Mayfair, in 1989, there was something terribly wrong with the projection. The lip-sync was out. Kenneth Branagh’s voice was delivered after his lips started moving. It was most off-putting. I knew all about lip-sync because I had been involved in dubbing movies since I was twelve. For, it was back in 1973, when Claude Whatham was working on the sound track for Swallows and Amazons that, rather unusually, I was summons to the EMI Elstreee Studios.
Visiting Elstree Studios was exciting. I remember meeting the Dubbing Mixer and being there with the other Swallows, but I don’t think we saw anyone else in the cast. Suzanna came along with her nine-year-old cousin who was called Seymour – a very bright boy who was wearing stripey canvas trousers like a deck chair. Mummy had bought me a smart new dress that was the height of fashion. Looking at the photograph I rather wish she hadn’t bothered.
We were led into a huge dubbing theater hung with long black drapes around a high white screen. Claude explained that he needed to re-record our dialogue for various sequences. This was because the original soundtrack had been spoilt by the sound of motorboats, car horns or simply the wind. At first we were handed dubbing scripts, but it was difficult to look at them as well as the screen. As we could still remember our lines we didn’t need them. Instead, we stood in front of microphones on spindly stands and sung out the words we knew as sections of the film were projected. To help up a thick black cue-line would pass across the scene. When it hit one side it was time to start speaking. This was to ensure that our voices would be in sync with out lips. It could help, it could be off-putting. In the end we just went for it naturally. After each ‘take’ the film would be re-wound and we would go-again. There is a scene in at the Amazon Boathouse when John scrunches up the Amazon’s message and throws it in the water. It amused us to see this in reverse.
The post-syncing was a chance to improve on our performances and diction. Some time was spent in re-recording our sea shanty, Adieu and Farewell to you Fair Spanish Ladies. I made a mistake here that I have always regretted. Instead of singing sweetly and true I went for volume, which was not only unnecessary, but disastrous. It is acceptable on the film when you can see I am singing out on the water but sounds horrid on the LP. We had no idea at the time that EMI were going to bring out an album to accompany the movie, but they did.
The one line that I simply could not replicate was the dialogue Titty delivered when saying goodbye to the charcoal burners: ‘Thank you so much for letting us see your lovely serpent.’ We went over it again and again, but Jack Woolgar wasn’t at the dubbing studio and I couldn’t do it without looking at him. The charm and sincerity of the moment was not something I could reproduce. In the end Claude said he just had to use the original despite the sound of the roaring wind.
After we had left sound effects would have been added. Richard Pilbrow said that, ‘Bill Rowe was our masterful sound mixer, working magic with birdsong, a rustle of leaves, a broken twig – all the tiniest details that went into making the story spring to life.’ When I watch the film of Swallows and Amazons now I so admire the technique of using sound to illustrate the soaring of Titty’s imagination. The storm bell on Robinson Crusoe’s ship heralds the roaring wind and lends reality to scene when I play the shipwrecked sailor, dragging my parched body towards the island campsite. You can hear parrots and monkeys in the palm trees. I am sure Arthur Ransome would have approved.
Bill Rowe, I read, was the director of Post Production and Sound at Elstree Studios until he died at the age of sixty in 1992. He’d worked on an amazing number of movies winning an Oscar for The Last Emperor and BAFTAs for The Killing Fields, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Alien with nominations for Chariots of Fire, A Clockwork Orange, The Mission and Batman. And to think, we had been playing Hide and Seek behind his sound drapes.
One thing that really worried me was that I saw Swallow lying outside Elstree Studios. She looked forlorn, a ship out of water. Looking back on it they must have needed her to record sound effects. I was concerned that we would not see her again, but we did. The next time we Swallows gathered was to publicize the film. We found ourselves climbing aboard Swallows again, albeit in a very different location from the Lake District. And this I will write about in my next post.
Later in life, when I worked in television production, I spent many months at Elstree Studios at Borehamwood. However these were the BBC Studios on the other side of the road where we recorded endless episodes of Eastenders and the wartime romance Bluebell, programmes that were never post-synced.
I’d drive past the old EMI/ATV Studios and never breathe a word that I’d worked there once as an actress.