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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

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Autobiography, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Film, Film Cast, Film Catering, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized

Stories from one of the unit drivers on ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) ~ part two

Chris Stott - unit driver on S&A

~ David Stott aged 19, far right ~

David Stott has emailed me, sending a photo of himself with his friends in the summer of 1973:

‘It was taken at college just before l started work on Swallows and Amazons… I am the one on the right with the yellow sweater. Love the hairstyles.  Fashion-wise it was the era of Crimplene, as evident in my friend Pauline’s dress.  I remember I wore a brown Crimplene jacket when I was driving the unit car.’

For the last twenty-six years David has been the resident proprietor at the Crossways Hotel near Willmington, a beautiful Georgian restaurant with rooms in East Sussex near Glynebourne, which makes the perfect place to stay if you are lucky enough to get tickets for the opera.

David recently added more tales of impro-parrot-y to the comments:

‘I also remember the incident when Ronnie Fraser sang “Drunken Sailor”. I delivered him back to location from a very drunken session at The Lodore Swiss Hotel, dragging him from the bar. He was not a pretty sight. Was it that the same afternoon that he had to fall into the lake? My memory is a little sketchy, but l seem to remember he was pretty far gone on that occasion as well.’

Ronald Fraser as Captain Flint in 'Swallows & Amazons' (1974)

Ronald Fraser as Captain Flint in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

‘My neighbour Mrs. Dora Capstick was employed to show Captain Flint how to play the accordion. Of course I think the music was dubbed at a later date.’  I can only suppose that she taught him how to play the sea shanty, What shall we do with the drunken sailor? since that is what he was playing in the shot at the end of the film.

‘I had forgotten the name of the parrot lady, Mrs. Proctor, she lived in a cottage in one of the old yards in Kendal. I was scared to death of Beauty and I don’t know how you could bear to have him on your shoulder.

‘I vaguely remember your mother and I was friendly with Jean McGill the unit nurse who was another local Ambleside Girl.’

Jean our driver and unit nurse operating the radio with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

Jean McGill our unit nurse operating the radio with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

‘I was friendly with some of the production assistants but cannot remember their names.  Quiet a few hours were spent on the double-decker buses that were used on location.

‘Another memory I have is having to wait for the London train to collect the rushes then get them back to the Kirkstone Foot Hotel for an evening screening and felt very privileged when l was allowed to stay and watch them.’

Graham Ford giving Mick a cake

Outside the double-decker bus: Production Manager Graham Ford giving scenic painter Mick Guyett a Birthday cake just before filming ended in July 1973. Who else is in the photo?

Does anyone else remember helping to make the movie Swallows & Amazons, or coming to watch the filming in 1973? Please do add your memories in the comments box below.

Outside the red double-decker dining bus at tea time. Kit Seymour and Suzanna Hamilton can be spotted.

Outside the red double-decker dining bus at tea time. Kit Seymour and Suzanna Hamilton can be spotted along with Mick and various film unit drivers

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Amazons in Ambleside ~ 7th July 1973

Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennett and Sophie Neville at the Ambleside Rushbearing Festival in July 1973

Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennett and Sophie Neville at the Ambleside Rushbearing Festival in July 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

What with all the buckets of water being flung about after yesterday’s filming, Mummy had lost Lesley’s ring. It was a gold ring. Since it would not have been appropriate for an Amazon Pirate of 1929, Lesley couldn’t wear it with her costume. Mum slid it onto her little finger to keep it safe for her. It slid off. We looked and looked, but couldn’t find it anywhere.

And what with all the nocturnal pushings-in Graham Ford our production manager, had broken his ankle.  Although we were up and about it became clear that the entire film crew were comatose after the Wrap Party. There was certainly no sign of the director. Since it was also raining, an unexpected day off from filming was called. Instead of heading for Derwent Water we went exploring the Lake District – in different ways. I made a discovery about Rio, or at least the origin of its name.

It seemed normal to have lunch at the Waterhead Hotel. It would be a great treat now. We split up into two groups for the afternoon, which is how I came to explore Rio with the Amazon pirates.

It was so sweet of Gareth and Jean to give us presents. I wonder what happened to the pendant with the cross?  It would be the height of fashion now. I remember Jean explaining that she wanted to give us a little bit of the Lake District to take home. This came in the form of a bedside lamp made out of a chunk of slate. Mine soon had a pink shade on top. I used it for years.

Ambelside Rushbearing Parade

The Ambelside Rushbearing Parade in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The Ambleside Rushbearing Parade was amazing. I can see exactly why Arthur Ransome thought of Rio as the town on Titty’s chart. The festival was like a colourful Rio carnival. Crowds came out to watch as the procession came down the hill. If you click on the snap-shot Mum took above, you will find photographs of what it must have looked like when he was a boy with a brass band and everyone out in their best hats as they walked down to St Mary’s Church.

Ambleside Rush Bearing Christian Ceremony

Again, if you click on the shot of above, you will find details of what happens today. The wonderful photographs on the Visit Cumbria site show rushbearing ceremonies held on Saint’s days at different churches in Cumbria throughout the summer.

Traditionally the children of Ambleside are given a piece of homemade gingerbread if they have carried one of the rushes. We hadn’t done this but we did join in with the hymn and the kind neighbours living nextdoor to Mrs Price and the Oakland Guesthouse gave us some gingerbread for tea.

 a festival celebration associated with the ancient custom of annually replacing the rushes on the earth floors of churches

St Mary's Church Ambleside Rush Bearers' Hymn

This leaflet was indeed ‘retained’, pasted into my scrapbook

We met the Price family at the festival. The two girls where both carrying dressed reeds. You may recognise Mr Price. He  appeared in Swallows and Amazons as the Native who came up to Roger at the jetty in Rio and said, ‘That’s a nice little boat you have there.’ Roger said, ‘Yes.’

The Price Family of Oaklands Guest House in Ambleside, Cumbria

Mr Price who played the part of the Native in Rio with his family in Ambleside. They ran Oakland’s Guesthouse where we stayed for 9 weeks ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Mrs Price must have worked so hard. She had three children ~ a little boy as well as the girls ~ and a number of students from the Charlotte Mason College of Education staying at the guesthouse while cooking our breakfast and high tea. I expect the demands of the filming, what with drivers coming and going, was a little more that she had originally imagined. No one knew what would be happening next. Although most of the crew were leaving ~ going away from Rio ~ we knew we had to be back on location the next day.

Here is a snippet of footage Mum took of the festival. Blink and you’ll miss me ~

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Walking the Plank – The Battle of Houseboat Bay, 5th July 1973

Filming on location in Cumbria in 1973 ~ nearly forty years ago.

Our designer Simon Holland was rowing Swallow without his shirt. Producer Richard Pilbrow was hanging on the side of the houseboat clad in denim.  Terry Smith, the wardrobe Master, was busy drying off Ronald Fraser’s wet costume on the aft deck.  The white pith helmet was being touched up by the unit painter.  Unions must have been strict back then.

Director Claude Whatham was making the most of the rare but glorious Lake District weather to complete the scene on the foredeck of the houseboat. The Swallows, the Amazons and their Uncle Jim, who had just been made to walk the plank and was now dripping wet, waited patiently while I delivered Titty’s immortal line: ‘Captain Flint – we’ve got a surprise for you.’ Not quite the same as in Arthur Ransome’s book but it worked well.

War cries from everyone…

Kit Seymour, who was playing Nancy, must have dropped on top of us all.

The cabin of the houseboat had been turned into a dressing room for Ronald Fraser.

A long day’s filming out on the lake.

My mother took a series of photographs showing how the crew managed in the limited space:

Director Claude Whatham in blue demin talks to DoP Denis Lewiston. Terry Needham stands on deck ~ Photo: Daphne Neville

The 16mm camera in the grey punt.

The film crew with Director Claude Whatham talking to Simon West, Lesely Bennett, Ronald Fraser and Stephen Grendon on the foredeck ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I think the chap in the swimming trunks is a boatman from Keswick. Does anyone recognise him?

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DoP Denis Lewiston with his assistant camerman, Sue Merry in black Claude Whatham and the film cast ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The 16mm camera was noisy. This would have been the shot taken when I said we just went through the movements.

Molly Pilbrow in the plaid jacket witht he cast and crew on the houseboat ~ photo: Daphne Neville who was acting as chaperone.

And all the time Molly Pilbrow was keeping an eye on the script. I don’t think there was any room for Graham Ford. He was looking after the base camp:

Production Manager Graham Ford in Derwent Water: photo ~ Daphne Neville

It had been a productive day; a battle well fought, the treasure returned.

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Octopus Lagoon ~ the trials of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Coniston Water in the rain

‘The rain poured down.’ Cumbria was covered in cloud, the Lake District dark and dismal. What a nightmare for Richard Pilbrow and his production team. We were behind schedule, Lesley Bennett who played Peggy was ill in bed and we had run out of ‘rain cover’.

A dull weather call: Rain clouds over Windermere in the Lake District, Cumbria

There was one sequence left that could be recorded in dull weather. Today was the day Claude Whatham shot the haunting scenes of Octopus Lagoon. After finishing our school work Kit Seymour and I sat watching the filming from the sloping field above the beautiful but rather smelly lily pond.

Sophie's diary about filming 'Swallows and Amazons' in 1973

I do not have the Call Sheet for 29th June 1973 but have an extract from this earlier one detailing the ‘Alternative Dull Weather Call’:

Call Sheet for Octopus Lagoon filming Swallows and Amazons in 1973

I can’t say whether the weather allowed for the scene set on the Amazon River to be shot. Lesley had ‘flu so they would have had to somehow manage without her. I think Claude devoted his time to capture the conundrum and challenges faced by Captain John in the lagoon. The location chosen for this was on private property near Skelwith Fold Caravan Park. Those who are interested in finding the film locations used might find this old hand-typed ‘Movement Order’ useful:

Addresses of rural locations used for the film of 'Swallows and Amazons'

Roger Wardale sites Octopus Lagoon as being Allan Tarn a short distance up the River Crake at the Southern end of Coniston Water, near High Nibthwaite. This is the place Arthur Ransome had in mind. He spent time there with is brother and sisters as a child when they spent their summers on Swainson’s Farm at Nibthwaite nearby. His father went there to fish for pike. It you have a shallow bottomed boat you can get there but it is not exactly on a footpath. The lily pond we used was in a high sided dip, which made it appropriately dark and gloomy. It was also more accessible for the film crew.

Graham Ford, who signed the Movement Order was our Production Manager. I only have a photograph of him taken on a sunnier day.

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

Graham Ford would have been responsible for the film schedule, putting together the whole logistical jigsaw puzzle posed by factors such as the availability of leading actors and locations with the movement of vehicles and boats, including the massive camera pontoon. It was Graham who took the stress of problems caused by wet weather.  I guess that he also took on the responsibilities of managing the locations, negotiating with owners and the Lake District National Park, something that authors such as Arthur Ransome would not have had to face.

Although young, Graham was pretty experienced. He had previously worked as an assistant director on such classic films as Steptoe and Son and had been the Unit Manager on The Devils, a film that starred Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed. After Swallows he went on to work as Production Manager on S.O.S Titanic, The Honorary Consul and Princess Daisy as well as Time Bandits and Brazil directed by Terry Gilliam starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist and Robert de Niro. Imagine being Terry Gilliam’s right hand man. He was a Location Manager for David Lynch on The Elephant Man and for Richard Attenborough on Ghandi in 1982. Graham’s career progressed. He produced The Nightmare Years and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in the late 1980s before working on Gettysburg, the massive four hour long movie about the American civil war, in 1993. A life in film. He died in Ontario in 1994 aged only 48.

Waterfall above Windermere in the Lake District

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Being Robinson Crusoe on Wildcat Island ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville, playing Titty Walker in Swallows and Amazons

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker, who envisaged herself as Robbinson Crusoe alone on Wildcat Island

I did not invisage it beforehand, but at this point in my life I became one of the actors who played Robinson Crusoe in film, with Virginia McKenna taking the part of Man Friday. It would come across rather well on a chat show.  The audience would be taken unawares and we could meet the other actors who took the same parts after us. I am sure they were stranded on warmer desert islands.

Losing a milk tooth when you are twelve-and-a-half years old is really rather embarrassing. When you are in the middle of appearing in a feature film it’s disastrous. Not only was the gap sore but since it was an upper tooth at the front of my mouth the continuity of the whole movie was blown.  I think today they may have tried to fit a bridge but Claude Whatham, the Director decided he would just have to live with the problem. I spent the next few days trying not to let my teeth show, but even today, all these years later, those who know the film well comment on the fact that I lost an eye tooth.

Virginia McKenna playing Man Friday in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

As it was, I had to concentrate on pushing the hideously heavy Holly Howe rowing boat away from our desert island in the scene when I bid farewell to Virginia McKenna who was galantly playing Man Friday. This was more tricky than it would be in real life as the massive 35mm camera, the Cameraman and Sound Recordist where in the boat with Virginia. The water was cold, the rocks rather slippy.

And I had the telescope in my hand. This was in order to deliver Arthur Ransome’s line, ‘Duffer. That’s with looking too hard. Try the other eye,’ whilst lowering the telescope to wipe away a tear. I’m afraid that what came out was ‘That’s for looking too hard.’  I busy thinking of terribly sad things, all geared up to produce the tears, when glycerine was produced and carefully blown into my eyes. The most enormous tears, far more difficult to contain than real ones, gushed forth. And I think that the Wardrobe Master must have forgotten about a hanky. You can tell that the square of white cotton I had tucked in my knickers is just a frayed piece of cloth.

Daniel Defoe’s hero Robinson Crusoe has been portrayed on the big screen by Douglas Fairbanks, Dan O’Herlihy – who earned an Oscar nomination for playing the part in 1952, Aidan Quinn, Pierce Brosnan and me. Or rather me playing Titty being Robinson Crusoe. Oh, dear, Oh dear.

The scene opens with Titty sitting on a biscuit tin, reading from her log. ‘Twenty-five years ago this day, I Robinson Crusoe, was wreck-ed on this desolate place.’ The fact that I had missed the -ed from wrecked was real. I hadn’t written the word down properly.  As you can see in my actual diary there was then a dash ______ . At this point I flung myself  to the ground and dragged my exhausted body into the camp grasping my throat so as to portray the fact that Robinson Crusoe was virtually dying of thirst.

I hauled myself to my feet by grabbing the forked stick by the fire. What I didn’t realise was that Graham Ford, the Sound Recordist had hidden his microphone there. You can still hear the sound crunch as I grasp the crossbar that held the kettle. He was a perfectionist and, despite my apologies, was really rather annoyed about it.

‘Make a good place for a camp,’ Titty declares heartily, whilst looking around. ‘I’ll build my hut here out of  branches and moss.’ And so continued my solo performance. ‘Can’t have two tents for one ship-wrecked mariner.’

As I have mentioned before my mother is very theatrical. In her eyes this was my great soliloquy. The most embarrassing thing I have to admit is that for ages after the film, during my sensitive teenage years, Mum would insist that I used this scene as my audition piece.  Can you imagine? It was dotty. Instead of something appropriate for a young girl, like a scene from I Capture the Castle, which Virginia McKenna had been in, or even something from Shakespeare such as Romeo and Juliet, I would fling myself to the floor of the audition space and enact Titty playing a bearded man. Even now I blush as I remember doing all this in front of five amazed executives, who had never seen Swallows and Amazons. They were looking for nothing more than a normal girl – to be in an advertisement for Parker Knoll armchairs.

Have you ever read the book?  I don’t think many nine-year-olds would manage it. Despite the impression given by the poster above there are no girls in it. It’s about slavery. And cannibals. And rearing goats.

Douglas Fairbanks’ film was released in 1932, too late for Titty. The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was released as a movie in 1922 and in 1929. I wonder if Arthur Ransome ever saw either version? I have to say that if there is every a Hollywood line-up of actors who have played the part I want to be included in it. I might make up for the ignomity I suffered.

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