Riding the waves of film critics ~ after the release of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1974

Virginia McKenna, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon and Ronald Fraser appearing in the film premiere programme

I opened the pages of the programme at the film premiere to find one of the publicity photographs of us taken at Bank Ground Farm. I wasn’t sure the face Simon was making would sell a cinema ticket.

Simon West, Kit Seymour, Ronald Fraser, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton with half of Stephen Grendon on the second page of the premier programme

But the film was now out. It had to sell itself. Everyone was waiting to hear what critics from within the movie industry felt about it.

Would this photograph ever sell the film?

I think my mother must have written to Barry Norman, inviting him to bring his daughters to one of the promotional events held at the Commonwealth Institute. I wonder if she met him at the Preview of the Premiere.  He was then presenting BBC Television’s Film 74  and writing a weekly column in The Guardian newspaper. Here is his reply:

Barry Norman enjoyed it!  The Radio Times says that he was looking at ‘films for the family over the Easter holidays’.  Film 74 was shown on BBC TWO  at 10.15pm – and repeated on Fridays even later so he must have been speaking to parents. Here’s his theme tune.

One thing that strikes me when I open the March 1974 copy of ‘Films and Filming’, kept by my mother, is that ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has to be one of the most enduring movies to come out at the time. Sean Connery opted to appear with Charlotte Rampling in Zardoz’. I’ve neither seen or heard of it. Why couldn’t he have played Captain Flint with us? I did see Steve McQueen in  ‘Papillon’  but had no desire to watch it more than once. Richard Lester’s version of ‘The Three Musketeers’ was also made in 1973. Even though it stared Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Richard Chamberlain, Michael York and dear Spike Milligan I don’t think it can have been broadcast on television as many times as ‘Swallows and Amazons’.  The magazine goes on to review ‘The Optimists of Nine Elms’ starring Peter Sellers, ‘Magnum Force’ starring Clint Eastwood, ‘Herbie Rides Again’ starring Stephanie Powers and many others, films I have never heard of. ‘American Graffiti’ came out in the States, directed by George Lucas starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat and Harrison Ford. It made gross profits of more than U$200 million becoming one of the most profitable films of all time  but I wonder how many times it has been shown on British television this year? Do your children know anything about it? Has it been projected in the pouring rain for loyal fans sitting on a lake shore?

I his book, ‘A Theatre Project’ Richard Pilbrow says, ‘We had a success.’ He quotes Variety magazine, “Charming, delightful, beautifully made film,” but said it was, ‘Not a hit but a reasonable success that continues to play, principally on television, around the world.’ Richard goes on to quantify how it did financially. ‘The world of film finance is a distinct mystery. Our production costs were just under £300,000. Over the years, income trickled in from an international market. Curiously the costs inexorably rose to match the income. The costs of marketing the movie always seemed to equal receipts at the box office. In 2004 our film actually recouped. That’s why I have the temerity to call it a success.

Not all the newspapers thought so in 1974. I’ll find some of the articles for the next posting.

Publicity photographs used to promote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the early 1970s – or how we hated having our photographs taken.

Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Virginia McKenna, Simon West and Kit Seymour gathered at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water for a publicity photograph. This one was taken by Daphne Neville.

When a television drama is ready to be transmitted there is a little publicity, but not much. Photographs might be taken for the cover of the Radio Times or a book to accompany the series, there might be a Preview at BAFTA to which journalists from the colour supplements and daily newspapers are invited, but, because the programme can be advertised on air, the actors are not intensively involved in the promotion. A feature film is very different.

Whilst we didn’t mind our photographs being taken while we were acting, and were fine about Mum clicking away with her little instamatic, we all hated having promotional photographs taken for ‘Swallows and Amazons’. They were usually so posed, set up by strangers who had no idea of the story. Virginia McKenna tried to make it fun for us but this is what we all felt about this photo-call:

Virginia McKena, Lesley Bennett, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Simon West, Kit Seymour for 'Swallows and Amazons'
~ How not to set up a publicity shot for a feature film ~

Why were the Amazons at Holly Howe? Why weren’t we with any of the boats? It was all terribly hot and difficult to squint into the sunshine. Only Mrs Batty’s dog seemed to be enjoying the attention.

The glare of the flash bulbs had started on day one. As Suzanna said in her diary, it made us feel ‘right twits.’

Claude Whatham was very good at explaining things to children. Looking back I wish that he had explained why the publicity was so important, but of course this was not his job and he would have been busy setting up the next shot. Certainly once the filming had finished we needed to know how important it was to promote the film. Richard Pilbrow really wanted to make a sequel, particularly an adaptation of Ransome’s twelfth book in the series – ‘Great Northern?’  He loves the Outer Hebrides and has a house on Col. I think we might have been a little keener about publicity shots if we had been told that the out-come could have been going up there for another summer. We would have been able to look forward to the possibility, but I don’t suppose he was at leave to even suggest it.

Journalists were introduced to us and looked after by our unit publicist Brian Doyle.  Brian had worked on Straw Dogs’ in 1971, the thriller that starred Dustin Hoffman, Susan George and Peter Vaughan. Susan George had of course played Titty, or ‘Kitty’ in the black and white BBC adaptation of Swallows and Amazons in the early 1960s. She was now regarded as glamorous sex symbol in British cinema – setting me rather a daunting example. Much easier for Brian to publicise her then me. She had a gorgeous figure with beautiful, thick, blonde, hair. I had what my sister still calls ‘tendrils’ and my mother calls ‘bits’. And was skinny with crooked teeth.

Brian was a lovely man. He had an amazing career, going on to work on films such as Ken Russell’s Valentino with Rudolf Nureyev and Leslie Caron, The Wild Geese, Alien, Educating Rita starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters and the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only – with Roger Moore in the lead role . He even has his name on the credits of one of George Lucas’ Star Wars films.

This was the profile he wrote for me:

Brian adored Children’s literature. His own children came up to stay on location over their half-term and spent hours playing with my sisters, indeed they all appeared together as extras in the scenes shot at Bowness, and can be seen playing on the beach. Sadly Brian died, very suddenly, in 2008. His daughter told me that he left a collection of 35,000 books.

I still have Brian’s announcement:

At this the journalists moved in. From all over the place!

There was a very trendy women’s magazine in the early 1970s called Over 21, which the senior girls at school used to read. My mother was thrilled to find that Celia Brayfield had written a double page feature. I was amazed. I didn’t mind the picture of us gutting fish, but started reading with trepidation.

(If you can read this, I’m afraid page one comes second.)

Over 21 ~ December 1973

I read it, looked up the word etiolated in the dictionary and burst into tears.

Far worse was to come.