Tag Archives: ‘Great Northern?’

Other Arthur Ransome books adapted for film and television by David Wood

Sophie Neville in Secret Harbour

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in 1973

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David Wood, who wrote the screenplay for SWALLOWS & AMAZONS in 1973, has recently told me about his  work adapting other Arthur Ransome books – GREAT NORTHERN?, PIGEON POST, WE DIDN’T MEAN TO GO TO SEA and WINTER HOLIDAY – all for Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Project Films.
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Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water

Producer Richard Pilbrow with Director Claude Whatham in their wet weather gear at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water

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‘It was decided that GREAT NORTHERN? should be the follow-up to the SWALLOWS film, because it was ‘different’, being the only book set in Scotland. Also, the villainous birds’ egg collector was a strong adult role – Peter Sellers was mentioned….. We had great fun looking for locations, swooping around in a helicopter over Harris, Lewis etc.
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‘Word got out that I was working on GREAT NORTHERN? and I had a very firm letter from Mrs Ransome saying that no permission had been granted to work on this title, and that it would not be granted!! No reason was given. Years later, the Ransome autobiography suggested that Mrs R didn’t like GREAT NORTHERN? and criticised it to Ransome’s face.  Also, he used sometimes to swan off to the Highlands with his friend, Quiller-Couch (I think) to fish, leaving Evgenia on her own back in the Lake District. The only communication from him would be the occasional delivery on a horse and cart from the railway station of a salmon, caught in Scotland the day before! Maybe she resented Scotland for luring him away! But she was determined that GREAT NORTHERN? the movie would never see the light of day!! But I still wrote a complete screenplay! I did a film treatment for WINTER HOLIDAY, that never got off the ground either.’
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PIGEON POST was to be a six-part serial,  a BBC-Theatre Projects co-production.  David remembers that they got as far as looking for locations in the Lake District. I started making preparations to cast the children for this drama which Joe Waters wanted to produce in 1983, directly after making COOT CLUB and THE BIG SIX under the generic title SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS FOREVER! that had been adapted for television by Michael Robson.
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‘WE DIDN’T MEAN TO GO TO SEA was also to be a serial. I did a treatment, visited Pin Mill and other locations, and met the man who built one of Ransome’s boats, or maybe worked on it with his father. All the materials and scripts still exist, but they are probably a bit too ‘straight’ for contemporary taste.’
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David Wood will soon be directing his adaptation of Judith Kerr’s classic book  THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA  at The Arts Depot in North London. It will run from 3rd December to 5th January. His numerous other forthcoming events and theatrical releases, including two different productions of his musical THE GINGERBREAD MAN, are listed on his website.
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Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham on Peel Island
Can you help us?  Was Quiller-Couch the friend who whisked Arthur Ransome off to fish in the Hebrides?  Does anyone know where they went?
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Filed under 1973, 1983, Arthur Ransome, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Film, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

News from David Wood, who adapted Swallows & Amazons for the big screen in 1973

Sophie Neville with David Wood and Claude Whatham
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David Wood, who originally worked with Evgenia Ransome to adapt her husband’s book Swallows & Amazons for the big screen in 1973, has recently written to tell me:
‘Several attempts were made to follow up SWALLOWS. I did a screenplay of GREAT NORTHERN?, plus detailed treatments of WINTER HOLIDAY (for film) and WE DIDN’T MEAN TO GO TO SEA (for television), plus a six-part serial based on PIGEON POST. But all of them bit the dust!!!
Claude is the only director for whom I worked as an actor on film (SWEET WILLIAM), television (CHERI, DISRAELI) and stage (VOYAGE ROUND MY FATHER), as well as working with him as a writer (SWALLOWS and a film that never got made called THE HEYDAY).
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Mike Pratt with Brenda Bruce
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Claude Whatham must have made the BBC adaptation of Colette’s novel  Cheri just before Swallows & Amazons as it was broadcast in April 1973. Brenda Bruce, who I knew as Mrs Dixon, played Charlotte whilst David was Desmond, supporting Scott Anthony and Yvonne Mitchell as the lovers Cheri and Lea.
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David Wood played Lord Derby in the 1978 BBC costume drama Disreali that Claude Whatham directed. Whilst Ian McShane had the title role, the part of  Queen Victoria was given to Rosemary Leach, who later played Mrs Barrable in the BBC serial of Coot Club and The Big Six.  Suzanna Hamilton appeared in it too as one of the princesses. She must have been about seventeen – a good age to be zooming about in a crinoline with scooped up hair. It would have been quite a contrast to playing Mate Susan on Peel Island in the Lake District.
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Suzanna Hamilton with director Claude Whatham on Peel Island
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When he was in his twenties David starred in the feature film if….  with Malcolm McDowell.  You can get it on DVD or watch the Youtube pasted in the Comments below. I’d love to see the wartime drama Aces High, the movie directed by Jack Gold in which David played Lt Tommy Thompson opposite Simon Ward, Peter Firth and  Christopher Plumber as well as Malcomb McDowell. John Gielgud played the Headmaster in scenes shot at Eton in this film, while Arthur Lowe played his house master in if… I am not sure which school they used. You will have to let me know. Arundel?
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 In 2004  David was awarded an OBE for services to literature and drama. I was not surprised. His output has been prolific. To find out more about his work as an author and playwright do watch this short BBC documentary Meet the Author presented by Nick Higham.
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Kit Seymour with Claude Whatham

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Movie, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

How children responded to the film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1974

A fan letter!

The last thing that I had expected was to receive fan letters! They came pouring in. My mother kept them all. Because most of them were written to me by children I have cut out the names and addresses on the letters copied here, but since we are all thirty-eight years older,  I am sure everyone can cope with seeing their own handwriting. This letter cames from someone who, despite living half way across the world, now happens to be a friend of mine on Facebook.

EMI sent me these photographs of myself to sign and send on. I’m afraid I didn’t like them one bit. They had been taken as publicity shots and it still shows. The staged pose was exactly what Claude Whatham had been working hard to avoid. Sadly he hadn’t been around to direct this shot. I look like a Woodetop and Spot the Dog rolled into one.

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker in 'Swallows and Amazons'

Sophie Neville swinging on a gate at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in 1973

However, sending a photograph was not aways enough. I had the hard work of replying to the letters.

A fan letter

There were so many questions to answer.

A fan letter

And I felt beholden to reply immediately.

And once I replied, yet more letters arrived:

A fan letter

This was a good question, of course.

Fiona was 10. Everyone wanted to know if a sequel was coming out. I have a letter from Kit –

Kit Seymour, who seemed to know about Richard Pilbrow’s plans to adapt Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Great Northern?’ set in the Outer Hebrides.  She must have sent me this second letter in about January 1974 – between Christmas and the premiere.

I wish we had made ‘Great Northern?’  It was my favorite Arthur Ransome book. Dramatising it would have been such fun. I don’t know why I was so negative, but I remember writing to Richard Pilbrow and telling him that Ransome was mistaken and had his facts about Great Northern Divers quite wrong. I had looked up information in an ancient bird book belonging to my father and wrote the most facetious letter about their geographical distribution. I hope it didn’t put him off. I should had used my time to persuade my fans to write enthusiastic letters to EMI Films.  I’m sure this viewer would have convinced Nat Cohen.

It was clear that what children wanted was more of the same. I think it is true today. Parents tell me that even though the movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has no really terrifying moments or spectacular visual effects, children tend to snuggle down peacefully and identify with the characters. The outcome, especially if they are taken to the real locations, is that they often take on our names for themselves, enjoying the fun of camping and swimming, fishing and sailing in the Lake District.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Humor, Humour, Lake District, Letters, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story