I recently found a family photograph album with pages illustrating holidays spent under sail in the 1930’s.
Not all the black and white photographs are as horizontal or as sharply in focus as one might wish but they show the glorious boats available for hire
and reflect what fun was had out on the water.
We were rather shocked by the cigarettes held in the mouths of the young men but Joan is ninety-nine now and still agile.
Having sailed on the Broads with friends, my father hired a Hullabaloo boat to take us out when we were little.
We went out of season, when boat hire was cheaper. As there was no one on the water my father let me take the helm mile after mile, despite the fact that I was only about seven years old.
We loved living aboard and were often surrounded by wild geese.
It seems Arthur Ransome, who had fished on the Broads with Titty’s father, Ernest Altounyan, in 1923, also enjoyed cruising in the spring. His biographer, Roger Wardale, said that ‘Both the Ransomes liked to visit the Broads just after Easter, before most of the motor cruisers had started the season and it was the best time of year for birdlife.’ He went on to describe how Arthur Ransome kept a log of his three weeks spent in a Fairway yacht, the essence of which he used to write Coot Club in 1933/34. ‘As well as visiting Roy’s of Wroxham, tying up at Horning Hall Farm and watching the racing boats go by, towing through bridges, mooring beside a Thames barge at Beccles and watching a fisherman catching eels with a bab, there are numerous details that combine to make Coot Club a valuable account of the social and natural history of the Broads as they were more than 70 years ago.’
Roger Wardale illustrated his book Arthur Ransome Master Stroyteller , using wonderful photographs and sketches by Arthur Ransome, including a very jolly one of the Hullabaloos that had not been published before. Do get hold of a copy of the book, to read the chapter on Coot Club for yourself.
I saw so many children when I was casting Coot Club and The Big Six that I could have left the BBC and set myself up as an independent casting director, but I was twenty-two and all I wanted to do was to join the film crew on location in Norfolk. I was just not sure how.
Andrew Morgan was a lovely director with two children the same age as those in our cast. To my surprise, I met him with his family one weekend on Port Meadow near Oxford. They had a narrow-boat moored at Bossom’s Boatyard where my father kept his steamboat Daffodil. Arthur Ransome would have approved.
Andrew had previously directed action dramas such as Secret Army, Blakes 7, Buccaneer, Triangle, Kings Royal and two episodes of Squadron, which Joe Waters had produced. Andrew, who was good at delegating, later declared himself, as he cued the steam train on the North Norfolk Railway, to be a director who specialised in films about different forms of transport. He very graciously asked me if I would work on location in the formal role of chaperone to the children whilst preparing their performances for the scenes ahead. He anticipated being out on the water in a boat without enough time to go through the children’s lines with them.
Once the casting was complete and licenses for each child safely lodged with various education authorities I took a weeks’ leave before returning to the production office on Shepherd’s Bush Green, where I helped book transport and accommodation. Filming on the Norfolk Broads for three months took quite a bit of preparation. While Joe and Andrew were casting the adult parts, we had to find a local tutor, buy life jackets and make numerous arrangements idiosyncratic to our particular production. The most exciting of these was commissioning the animal handler, Jan Gray of Janimals, to find a pug dog to play William. She bought a puppy so that he could be accustomed to his character name, travelling by boat, working with children and specifically trained to walk across mud. William had no idea of the stardom that awaited him. He ended up spending a great deal of his life in Gretchen Franklin’s arms playing Willy in Eastenders.
The day came when I packed up the little room I had been renting in Shepherd’s Bush from the actress Zelah Clarke and drove to the Dimblebys’ house in Putney to collect Henry. As he had just passed his Common Entrance he’d been let off school earlier than most thirteen-year-olds and we motored up to Norwich in a jubilant mood, singing most of the way. Whilst most of the production team and crew had found holiday cottages, I was to live at Sprowston Manor, the unit hotel with Caroline Downer, Henry and the other actors including the Matthews twins who travelled up with their mother. It was terribly grand. We had small quiet rooms at the back.
Liz Mace, our production manager, had taken my advice and scheduled ‘running around scenes’ for the first few days of filming, so that the children could get used to working with the film crew. The whole series was shot on 16mm by a wonderful, patient lighting-cameraman called Alec Curtis. We were very lucky to get him. He’d just finished The Kenny Everett Television Show and had worked on a huge number of well known comedy dramas ~ The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin with Leonard Rossiter, Fawlty Towers for John Cleese, The Morecambe & Wise Show, Sorry!, To the Manor Born and a BBC thriller called Scorpion. Alec had made God’s Wonderful Railway and was more than happy working with Andrew on the Bluebell Line for the opening scenes of Coot Club. Filming from a boat presented many more challenges, not least simply keeping the camera horizontal, but Alec was ever patient and kind. And always wearing a sun hat.
I had drawn Andrew endless diagrams of Claude Whatham’s camera pontoon, built with a flat surface to accommodate camera track, that used to make Swallows and Amazons in the Lake District. However a more normal and faster vessel was chosen as the camera boat for the Broads. It had to travel around quite a bit since a far greater variety of locations was required than we had in Cumbria. We also had a couple of glass fibre run-around boats which would sometimes be used for the camera, especially in backwaters too shallow for the larger boat.
When Suzanna Hamilton brought me the diary she kept during the filming of Swallows and Amazons we had time to reflect on the seven weeks we spent together in the Lake District during that far off summer of 1973.
‘We were beautifully looked after,’ she said. ‘I mean we were really well cared for. Look – Jane took me fell walking.’ Our diaries record that our local driver Jane McGill also went to endless lengths to make things fun for us – ever with safety afore-thought.
She was right. My own mother and Jane Grendon, Sten’s mother, who had both been appointed our official chaperones, worked day and night with very little time to themselves. They had both left younger children at home in Gloucestershire with their husbands, which can’t have been easy. Mum told me that she wrote an article for Woman magazine saying that being a chaperone was ‘Fascinating, Fattening and Fun’ but it must have been exhausting. It would have been quite a trial preventing us from getting sunburnt let alone keeping us entertained.
When we had to do anything scary or unpleasant during the filming of Swallows and Amazons, such as walk through scratchy brambles, Claude Whatham would assuage any moans by awarding us ‘Danger Money’. It was a huge encouragement. He gave me £2.00 for being good about diving into the chilly water for the swimming scenes. It was a lot of money back then. My mother would make a careful note of it whilst we were still in costume.
We spent our gains in Ambleside buying presents to take back for the stay-at-homes. I think we might have received a little more after Swallow was nearly mown down by the Windermere Steamer, an incident which had actually been dangerous. I am not sure what Kit and Lesley had been doing to recieve £1 each. They may have just got wet and cold sailing.
After all the rushing about in boats, the risks taken clambouring from one vessel to another and inevitable dangers that we faced out on the water, it was the boredom involved in filming that proved most dangerous; children’s games that went terribly wrong ~
This was the swing in question, strung from a tree on the shores of Coniston Water opposite Peel Island where a couple were living in a wooden caravan. The white Make-up caravan, that had previously been used as a dressing room for Virginia McKenna, and later Ronald Fraser, is parked beside it. It was there that I was sent to lie down.
It was a shame that the baseball game ended so abruptly. We really enjoying it and longed to keep playing but Molly realised that it could so easily have been one of us who ended up with a black-eye.
At one stage we all got into whittling wood. Bod Hedges, the property master, made a number of props on location. Different versions of the Amazons’ bows and arrows were carved from hazel on the banks of Coniston Water. He also made forked uprights for the fireplace and various stakes for the charcoal burners’ scene. Suzanna bought a penknife with her Danger Money and became quite a keen carver until the knife slipped. Jean treated the cut finger with such a massive bandage that Claude put a firm stop to any future whittling. It had been the one thing that kept us quite. We were active children yet not allowed to climb trees or get wet. Instead Lesley Bennet plucked away at a tapestry and I painted pictures.
Possibly the biggest danger was getting too fond of the primary objective – catching the bug that is film-making. Richard and Claude still had a few vital scenes to record and yet the weather forecast was bleak.
Roger still couldn’t swim, but he was trying to. Very hard. The production manager had kindly scheduled the second of our swimming scenes as late in the summer as possible. The weather was warmer – we’d elected to go bathing in a river up near Rydal Water on our day off – but it was still pretty chilly out on Coniston.
Whilst we tried to acclimatise by running around in our swimming costumes the crew were all in their thick coats as you can see from this home movie footage shot by my mother. We had bought her 8mm camera by saving up Green Shield stamps. (Can you remember collecting Green Shield stamps from petrol stations? They were an icon of the early 1970s all by themselves.) I remember someone on the crew calling out ‘Second unit!’ as Mum lifted what looked like a grey and white toy to her face. It was a bit noisy so she was not able to record during a take. You only see us before and after the sequences in the film, but her footage shows quite a few of the members of the crew – all smoking away, even when they were trying to warm us up after each sequence. You can watch Jean McGill, from Cumbria, our unit nurse who was dressed in red popping Dextrose into our mouths and giving us hot drinks to warm us up. Jean made Gareth Tandy, the third assistant, who was aged about 18, wear a sun hat because he had previously suffered from sun stroke. David Blagden can be glimpsed as one of the only other men with short hair.
The camera pontoon must have been left up on Derwentwater. Claude was obliged to shoot these scenes from what we called the camera punt, which was smaller but quite useful. Richard Pilbrow sent me a picture. He has included others in a new book that he has written about his career, including a section on the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ called ‘A Theatre Project’
Do please let me know if you can tell me the names of the three Cumbrian boatmen featured in this photograph who helped us. Others are featured in the home-movie footage. They all look like pirates. Real ones.
Goodness knows that Health and Safety would say about that punt today. The DoP managed to get two sizeable electric lights, on stands, into a boat already overloaded with personel and expensive equipment. You can see for yourself. Were these ‘Filler’ lights powered by portable batteries? The Lee Electric generator was on the shore. I was in the water. Busy being a cormorant.
We had an interesting afternoon filming with both dinghies. At one point we had the camera with us in Swallow. I found these photographs of us on the internet.
I was given the honour of clapping the clapper-board and calling out, ‘Shot 600, Take one!’ for a close-up of Suzanna Hamilton.
‘The worse possible kinds of natives’… Tourists were beginning to arrive for their summer holidays in the Lake District and we still had quite a bit more to film.
If you ever see a cormorant you must sing out, ‘They’ve got India-rubber necks!’
And then, if you are on a long journey you can add, ‘ Cormorants. We must be near the coast of China. The Chinese have cormorants. They train them to catch fish for them. Daddy sent me a picture.’
If you ever get lost – or the journey really is a long one, you can say,
‘Here we are intrepid explorers making the first ever voyage into unchartered waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets will be revealed?’
They were most complicated speeches to deliver afloat, ones I had to learn. In the end the second part was heard OOV – out of vision. I could have read the lines. But then they wouldn’t have stayed in my head forever, as they have.
If, on your journey, you happen to see a man sitting in a chair writing notes you score high and can say, ‘What’s that man doing? He’s probably a retired pirate working on his devilish crimes.’
(I’m a bit hestitant about that one because my Aunt Hermione really was approached by pirates when she was sailing round the world. The Daily Mail published her dairy chronicling the adventure; a full page double- spread with photographs no less. Rather sadly they ran headline ‘Intrepid Pensioners…’ What a swizz. She should have lied about her age and said she was 27 instead of 60. Well perhaps 57, what with the photos.)
The scene behind the camera that day on Derwentwater was rather different from from the scene in front of it.
I’m pretty sure that the photographs below were taken this same day. Please let me know if the far bank is indeed Derwentwater or if I am mistaken and this was shot on Coniston.
I got cold sailing but it was a glorious sunny day with a fair wind. We achieved a huge amount even if Cedric fell in. As you can see, some of the boatmen and crew were wearing life jackets, others were not – including my mother. We wore BOAC life jackets for rehearsals but Swallow is a safe little boat – her keel ensuring we didn’t capsize if we happened to jibe and we never fell in. The pontoon was really rather more dangerous being a raft with no gunwale. Any one could have misjudged their step and plopped overboard. Luckily we were not stiffled by Health and Safety in those days – only the rigorous demands of movie insurance companies.
I’m sure we had already shot the first two scenes of the day when I was in Amazon, setting the anchor and later hearing the robbers. I expect Claude needed to re-shoot for technical reasons. Day-for-Night filming requires clear, sunny days and he would have needed still water.
I have some of my father’s 16mm footage showing us at around this stage in the filming. It was shot on a different day but shows us on the shores of Derwentwater, waiting around before rushing off across the lake in motor boats to finish filming before Claude lost the light. You see the pontoon and a safety boat towing Swallow, me snapping bossily at Roger to get a move-on, (unforgiveable but I was 3 years older than him and irritated to distraction), the third assistant Gareth Tandy in blue with glasses, our sound recordist Robin Gregory throwing his arms wide open, Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett by the lake shore, David Blagden with his short hair-cut splicing rope, me in my Harry Potter-ish blue nylon track-suit top with Albert Clarke the stills photographer, Swallow and some mallard duckings.
A bright sunny day on Derwentwater. I wore what was my favourite costume, not least because I had the option of wearing a vest beneath the blouse and I didn’t have to worry about the divided skirt. I went to such an old fashioned school that I had a pair of grey flannel culottes myself, to wear on the games field, and thought them very much the sort of thing Titty would have worn. Roger, meanwhile was in long shorts or knickerbockers as the real Altounyan children would have called them, kept up with a snake belt. His even longer underwear was an item requested by Claude Whatham the director who, being born in the 1920s himself, had worn exactly the same sort of underpants as a child. As the day warmed up Claude stripped down to a pair of navy blue taylored shorts and sailing shoes. We were on a desert island after all. Even if it was a desert island in the Lake District.
In Arthur Ransome’s book of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ the hunt for the treasure is slightly different and Captain Flint’s trunk lies buried under rocks. I wasn’t expecting the set-up with the tree trunk, although I think it works well and looks good, giving movement to the sequence. The only hesitation was that Claude didn’t want me to get hit by the rocks as they slid off. This was a pity as I would have jumped aside.
I am not sure why the Amazon had not been bailed out. I can remember having to lie in the bilge water, which proved cold and uncomfortable. Perhaps it gave my performance an edge. Titty would have been cold and stiff aftrer a night wrapped in the sail. Great grey clouds were gathering by then and we were all getting tired.
Being together in a confinded space becomes difficult to endure after while, not least when the space is a pontoon on a lake with not much to sit on. Small boys tend to muck about and become annoying when they are bored. The time had come when someone was going to crack – and they did. The result was silence. A sobering moment. And one very wet pair of knickerbockers.
In the end three of us went home in wet underwear. Gareth Tandy, the third assistant director – who I think was only about 18 – was pushed in to the lake, this time to great hilarity.
The big question, of course, it what is the name of the island on Derwentwater that we used as the location for Cormorant Island? Duncan Hall has written in to suggest it is called Lingholm Island (or possibly One Tree Island)What is the name of the larger island, seen in the background of shots, that represents Wildcat Island? Is it Rampsholme Island?
I have one behind-the-scenes clip of the crew on the pontoon – shot on a sunny day, I think at the southern end of Coniston Water. It looks most bizarre. It was. You can see how crampt and overloaded we were and guess at the patience demanded of us all. Imagine how long it took to set up shots, while totally exposed to the elements. It was quite a stable raft but when we went for a take it was vital that everyone kept comepletly still or there would have been camera wobble. We used a conventional boat with a cabin when we filmed ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ on the Norfolk Broards ten years later in 1983. It proved much easier – but had more wobble.
Something very exciting happened last week. Suzanna Hamilton came to see me, bringing the photographs that she was given during the filming of Swallows and Amazons along with a bundle of papers. I immediately recognised the blue bound diary that she had kept. Her God-given sense of humour fills the pages.
Although Titty was the one who always kept the ship’s log in Arthur Ransome’s stories, we children all kept journals during the filming as part of our school work. It was quite a task.
Suzanna’s diary gives the story of making the film of Swallows and Amazons from the perspective of an actress, the actress she was then and ever more will be. Even before we began filming she was getting as excited as Susan about grog and molasses, calling us by our charcter names as Claude Whatham suggested.
Anna Scher ran the most wonderful children’s theatre club in Islington, which Zanna went to after school, along with Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson. I visited Anna Scher’s Theatre Club ten years later when I was casting children for the BBC drama serial of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. Although I didn’t find anyone there who could sail I held Anna Scher in huge admiration and respect, using her exercises when I was auditioning kids in Norfolk. She did so much for the young people of east London, giving children confidence with self-discipline aquired during their drama lessons and workshops.
David Wood, who wrote the screenplay of Swallows and Amazons, was already well known as an actor. Mum was rather in awe of him since he had played Johnny in Z Cars and had starred the feature film ‘If…’ alongside Malcolm McDowell. He had been a storyteller on the BBC Childrens Television programme we all adored called Jackanory. Suzanna had been involved in the same series when E.Nesbit’s ‘The Treasure Seekers’ had been read. She had also appeared in ‘The Edwardians’ form the book by E.Nesbit directed by James Cellan Jones in 1972. By coincidence Pauline Quirke played Eliza in ‘The Story of the Treasure Seekers’ in 1982 and I worked with her a few years later on Rockliffe’s Babies. My mother appeared in a pantomine David Wood wrote called The Gingerbread Man when it was produced at The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham. She wore red with a pill-box hat as Miss Ginger.