Great pushings in ~ filming in the Lake District on 2nd July 1973

Sophie Neville with Terry Needham and the unit radio at Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I am often asked about my career in acting. I was even asked about it by the crew of  Swallows and Amazons as we climbed in and out of boats on Derwentwater back in 1973.

‘Are you going to be another Bette Davis?’ (I gathered I looked vaguely like her but didn’t really know who she was.)

‘Will you get stuck as a child actress like Shirley Temple?’ (I didn’t really know who she was either.)

There was much speculation. The truth was that I was always really more interested in what was happening behind the camera, and how the story was told, than I was in our performances. I had an empathy for the men who had to keep changing carefully made arrangements when the clouds rolled in. Whilst I was always interested in set dressing I loved aiding and abetting Terry Needham, the second assistant director, with whom we naturally spent a great deal of time. The 2nd July 1973 must have been a busy day for him. A maddening day really.



Whilst I was in front of the camera, delivering the line that fore-shadows the adventurous section of Arthur Ransome’s story, Terry  Needham would have been busy planning who would go out in which boat and when. Just as important really.

Producer Richard Pilbrow and Director Claude Whatham discussing the script in the Capri on Derwentwater. Molly Pilbrow is in the boat with them ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Whilst filming out on the lakes ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was far more complicated than most movies to stage manage. Terry needed to have what Claude Whatham called his ‘Artistes standing-by, ready on set’ when the set in question was a boat moored out in a lake. In reality this meant that the film actor Ronald Fraser had to wait around on the houseboat with Costume, Make-up and Props, whilst the sun tried to decide whether to come out.

Ronald Fraser playing Captain Flint with Peter Robb-King and Ian Whittaker waiting on the houseboat moored on Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Terry Needham, ever straight forward and prosaic, also had to make provision for a number of extra people who wanted to try and watch the action, notably Albert Clarke, the stills photographer, and the Producer, Richard Pilbrow who was often looking after journalists from major newspapers and magazines. We were making a movie that needed to be well publicised if it was to succeed.

Claude Whatham discussing plans with sailing director David Blagden (in white hat) and Richard Pilbrow with Molly Pilbrow in checked jacket, on the aft deck of the houseboat played by The Lady Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

What made Terry’s job even more demanding than usual was that since we were all under the age of sixteen we still had to complete at least three hours schooling a day. I was only meant to spend three hours a day in front of the camera and leave at 5.00pm. This meant that, unlike Ronnie Fraser, we had to be collected from our red bus and taken over the water to our set at the last possible moment when the camera and crew were ready to roll. We had no mobile phones, only Motorollas.

The Production Team on 'Swallows and Amazons' in 1973
Second Assistant Terry Needham, Associate Producer Neville C Thompson and Production Manager Graham Ford with the unit radio on a sunny day in June 1973

As Swallow, our clinker-built dinghy, was wired to a floating pontoon, the job of our loyal Lakeland boatmen was particularly important. Can anyone tell me the name of this chap, in the photo below?

Chaperone Jane Grendon on Derwentwater in a Dory with a local boatman

Terry Needham also had to take into consideration the numbers of people licensed to be in each support boat. Although a period film, our clothes were simple, so we didn’t need the contingent of dressers and make-up artists typically demanded by costume dramas. However life-jackets were a must and wherever we went one of our licensed chaperones had to come too. Since Mum stayed at our guesthouse in Ambleside with Kit Seymour who was ill with ‘flu that day, it was Jane Grendon came out on the lake with us.  It was her son Sten, playing the Boy Roger, who walked off the jetty into the water. Poor Jane was pushed in fully clothed. Suzanna Hamilton also fell in – or so she claims. What a nightmare for Terry Needham.

Terry Needham with the crew on the Houseboat moored on Derwentwater, Cumbria ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Terry survived to have the most prestigious career in film. Whilst he worked as an assistant director for Stanley Kubrick on The Shining (would Jack Nicholson have been easier to manage than us lot?) Terry was unit manager on Empire of the Sun for Stephen Speilberg and the first assistant director on such classic movies as Full Metal Jacket, Rambo III, A Man for All Seasons, The Field, The Golden Compass and Clash of the Titans. I only list a few of his many credits. He worked for Ridley Scott as Associate Producer and First Assistant on White Squall, G.I.Jane, Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down – all gigantium tasks – and was Executive Producer of Red Dragon, and Kingdom of Heaven, again for Ridely Scott. He is still working on movies. What changes he must have seen. I wonder if he can remember that far distant summer spent in the Lake District?

I would not have had the physical strength to follow in Terry’s footsteps. It was his job – plus a bit of work with action props and set dressing – that I found myself busy doing at the BBC when I was an Assistant Floor Manager on big costume dramas. I was exhausted after about four years. The walky-talky I found so attractive aged twelve became rather heavy on my hip. I have a Polaroid photograph of myself looking tired out when working as a Location Manager in Bayswater, kept to remind myself not to accept such work again.   Perhaps I should have taken the Bette Davis route after all. I might have had Terry looking after me again.

You can see Terry Needham with his portable radio at the end of this short 16mm film clip that was shot a couple of days later on Coniston Water. The pushings-in were still all the rage.

If you enjoyed this post, do think of getting a copy of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available from libraries, online retailers and Amazon here

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'

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
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