This autumn, the Nancy Blackett Trust presented another screening of the classic film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ at the Riverside in Woodbridge. The cinema was celebrating 100 years of film and were thrilled to welcome a large and enthusiastic audience of children and Arthur Ransome enthusiasts one of whom told us he saw the film in Shaftesbury Avenue when it first came out in 1974.
Swallow, the original dinghy used in the film was on display outside the cinema and I went along to answer questions about how the movie was made. Here are some of those asked by children in the audience:
Had you ever been on a boat before you started filming? Yes, my father was a great sailor and I’d crewed for him. As Titty, I had to row quite a bit – back from the charcoal burners, later when I captured Amazon and alongside Roger when we went to find the treasure on Cormorant Island.
How did you do the night time? We used Mrs Batty’s barn at Bank Ground Farm as a studio.
Which lake did you film on? Arthur Ransome wrote about an imaginary lake based on real places that we found on Windermere, Coniston Water, Derwentwater, Elterwater and a smelly lilly pond. the great thing is that you can go and find them too.
Did you enjoy filming? Yes, very much, but it could be chilly.
How long did it take to film? Forty-five days in all. It’s a 90 minute film so you can work out just how much we managed to film per day. It was well under the 4 minutes-a-day scheduled.
Did Titty actually keep the parrot? Titty did in the story but the parrot in the film was rather savage and had to be returned to Mrs Proctor of Kendal. However my parents bought a very tame green parrot called Chico who would sit on my shoulder, even when I went rowing.
Were you cold when you we filming the swimming scenes? Yes! We nearly passed out.
Why didn’t you wear life jackets? The film was set eighty-six years ago in 1929 when children didn’t wear life-jackets. We wore BOAC life-vests during rehearsals and when being taken out to the location.
What are the children doing now? Working! Suzanna Hamilton is the only one of us to kept acting. She’s appeared in two feature films this year including ‘My Feral Heart’. Simon West has an engineering company that invents machines, Sten Grendon is a gardener, Kit Seymour is spending this year in Australia and I believe Lesley Bennett lives in the Netherlands, but I’m not sure. I’d love to make contact with her. Virginia McKenna is still acting as well as figure-heading her charity Born Free that does so much to relieve the suffering of animals.
In reality, how old were you all when you acted? Roger was 8, I was aged 12 pretending to be aged 9, Susan was 12 and John 11. Nancy was about the right age as she celebrated her 13th birthday towards the end of the filming. The secret was that Peggy was the eldest at 13.
Do you have a cameo role in the new film? You might just see me on the platform of the railway station but I am wearing a wig!
Why is Swallow’s flag brown? Because it a little elderly.
The camping kit – was it all packed in Swallow? We children didn’t know it at the time but it didn’t all fit in, although they did keep taking the tents down. Why we had a rolling pin on board, I do not know.
What happened to Amazon? The Amazon Arthur Ransome knew, which was originally called Mavis, can be seen at the Coniston Museum. The dinghy we used in the film was also used in the black and white BBC TV serial made in 1962. She is now in Kent – and still sailing. You can see her on ‘Country Tracks’ by clicking here.
This beautifully made documentary, presented by Griff Rhys Jones, examines Ransome’s life as a war correspondent in Russia from 1913 to 1919 when he was close to the action and in dialogue both with Lenin and Leon Trotsky. It raises the question as to whether he was a British spy.
Hugh Brogan, Ransome’s biographer explains that Ransome had originally ran off to Russia to escape from his melodramatic wife, Ivy Walker, in 1913. After using his time to record Russian fairy stories, that can be read today in his book, ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales‘, he was employed by a national British newspaper to report on events leading up to the Russian Revolution. Black and white archive footage, along with photographs Ransome took himself, illustrate this well.
The BBC’s erstwhile political correspondent John Sergeant, explains the significance of certain survival strategies Ransome used, such as using ‘his practical skill to outwit people’, over extracts from the original feature film ‘Swallows & Amazons‘, produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1974.
The scenes from the movie also show how the story Ransome wrote when back in the Lake District, was in many ways an outworking of feelings accumulated while he was working in Russia. By concentrating on his writing, he neglected his own daughter just as Uncle Jim was not around for the Blackett girls.
In the dramatised documentary, the beautiful actress Alina Karmazina plays Evgenia, the girl Ransome fell in love with while he was filing reports from Petrograd. They later escaped over the border, trading her copper kettle for freedom of passage.
If the BBC had contacted Richard Pilbrow he would have been able to send them this letter. It was written to Neville Thompson, the online producer of the film, by Evgenia, who had become the second Mrs Ransome. It has never been published before. She gives the address as her retirement home near Banbury but it shows what kind of girl she was:
When Mrs Ransome saw the finished film in 1974, her only comment was that the kettle was of the wrong period.
As you can see from these paintings, Fadi Mikhail, the artist famous in the UK for painting one of our Christmas stamps and being commissioned by the Prince of Wales, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, was certainly inspired by the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ made in 1973. He has kindly let me publish this remarkable series of paintings.
Since my last post, comments have flooded in as to why the simple story is so popular:
‘…the Swallows don’t own ‘Swallow’ – they’re having a farmhouse holiday and the boat belongs to the farm, and that could just have happened to any of us. Norman Willis… used to rise up against critics who considered that children from poorer backgrounds should read books full of gritty reality related to their daily lives: he pointed out that they wanted to escape from their daily lives for a few precious hours, not always into a zone of dragons and princesses but into an alternative realistic world.’ Jill Goulder of The Arthur Ransome Society.
‘What I liked most about these stories was that the Swallows and Amazons and their friends behaved like real children, but lived in a completely different world from the one I inhabited. I’d camped with the Girl Guides, but the Swallows and Amazons had astounding freedom – camping alone on an island, going out at night and sailing wherever they liked without needing to ask permission.’ Emily Lock ‘…the books gripped my imagination forever’. Please click here to read Emily Lock’s full review.
Christopher Tuft thought the enduring success is, ‘Because it’s a wonderful adventure story, with well rounded characters, played out in a beautiful setting, reminding us of a time now gone.’
‘The combination of practical realism – everything that happens could happen – and the child’s viewpoint makes the story and it’s sister volumes almost unique even now,’ Andrew Craig-Bennett of The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook.
The whole series of books clearly have a worldwide following popular from one generation to another. ‘I don’t find this surprising. I got my first Arthur Ransome book (Swallowdale) as a present, in 1948. At the time it was a copper-bottomed dead cert as a present for any child, couldn’t be criticised, known to be virtuous, and incidentally known to be good. All that is still true and has been for decades. I don’t think it could fail to be up there. Children may now prefer Star Wars, Lego books or Minecraft (my grandsons certainly do), but books are still *bought* by adults.’ Peter Ceresole ‘The book has lasting appeal, particularly for children, because there is nothing in the adventures of the Swallows and Amazons that readers feel they could not do themselves. They felt they could sail a dinghy like the Swallows. I know, because when adults came aboard Ransome’s restored boat Nancy Blackett in recent years, many had tears in their eyes and said: ‘I learned to sail from the books; and Arthur Ransome was the biggest influence on my life.’ The story is not like so many others an unachievable fantasy. This must stem in part from the fact that the characters are based on real children and on Ransome’s observation of those real children. The quality of the plotting is superb. Ransome was utterly clear about the stories he wrote, sometime writing chapters in the middle of the book before writing earlier ones. His prose is spare and simple and very easy to read, and bears comparison with the writing of Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels — another writer with appeal to both children and adults.’ Michael Rines Do add your own thoughts in the Comments below.
Hugh Shelley wrote, in his Bodely Head Monograph of Arthur Ransome, that it is the joy with which the story is written that makes Swallows and Amazons a great book. In many ways it is a reflection of Arthur Ransome’s own childhood holidays with his brother and sisters on Coniston Water. And even today, children can discover the places mentioned for themselves. Holly, aged six, wrote to me recently saying, ‘My Mummy and Daddy took me to Wild Cat Island. It was my favorite day… When I am bigger I want to be like Titty.’
While ‘nearly all enduring books do so because of the writing,’ as another reader commented, children enjoy the camaraderie and the action that have been captured in these semi-abstract oils.
On 21st March and 28th March, the new CBBC TV show ‘Cinemaniacs’ included guest appearances from Sophie Neville and from David Wood, who wrote the screenplay for ‘Swallows & Amazons’ back in 1973.
Oli White, the vlogger and presenter of ‘Cinemaniacs’, asks a number of people involved in movies about making their first film. Others featured include Michael Sheen, Sir Ian McKellen and Matthew Lewis famous for playing Neville Longbottom in all eight Harry Potter movies.
To find out more about how the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) was made, along with how the children’s parts were cast, please see earlier posts or read the book! It includes more than 120 photographs taken on location in the Lake District.