Points to add to the third edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) – part four

Windermere in the English Lake District

When I was last in the Lake District, I grabbed the chance to climb to the top of Gummer’s Howe to look down on the ‘Great Lake in the North’. Arthur Ransome, who once lived at High Nibthwaite, must have gazed at this exact, same view. ‘Native shipping’ was passing a wooded island and a bay where I could see a yacht was moored. It was like looking down on the chart I once drew for the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ first screened in cinemas forty-seven years ago in April 1974.

Looking to the south, I could see Lakeside Station and the Haverthwaite steam railway running alongside the River Leven where we began filming back in May 1973. The renovated line had only been running for two weeks but we were instantly transported back to 1929, when Ransome wrote the book in a grey barn nearby.

Blake Holme, one of the wooded islands on which Wild Cat Island was modelled

Michael Johnson left a comment on the Arthur Ransome Group Facebook page saying, ‘The Lakeside & Haverthwaite is a lovely line, but frustratingly slow. It’s such a short line that the journey would be over within a few minutes even at a modest speed, like 25mph. Drivers are under standing instructions to drive at little more than walking pace so the journey takes at least 15 minutes. That way everybody thinks they’ve got their money’s worth!’ I hadn’t noticed when travelling on the line myself a few years ago.

The River Leven and southern end of Windermere in Cumbria

Ransome wrote: ‘Windermere is the lake, a bit disguised’ although he used many locations found on Coniston Water that perhaps he wanted to keep more secret. However, it is clear that Rio is his name for Bowness-on-Windermere, which I was able to explore recently. This was the jetty where the Boy Roger was left guarding Swallow.

Bowness-on-Windermere

Charles Elliot from Bowness remembers us, “filming in the bay with some actors in a rowing boat. There was no security so I walked down the jetty right behind the camera.” Was this captured by the Guardian newspaper here?

It’s possible find some of the locations and even some of the traditional boats that appeared in the movie. The natives may be able to help you. Brian Salisbury said, “The village store was my grandfather, Tom Kirkbride’s cobblers shop from mid-1930s to mid-1950s.

Woodland Road, Windermere

Stan Cropper took it over and added the LH extension.” He said of our set designer, “They did it up with the original red wooden finish.” The cat was called Rusty.

Simon West as Captain John in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) – StudioCanal

After he posted this photo on Facebook, Harry Hodgson wrote to say, “I remember looking at all the 1930’s products in the windows.”

This behind-the-scenes cine footage shot by my father in 1973 shows the film extras getting off the coach at Bowness and a scene being shot on the jetty:

Stephen Newton and Phil Procter would go and watch the filming in their dinner break from Borwicks Aquatics. “There was a band playing in the bandstand and a bloke on a pushbike with a front box selling ice cream. You can see this in the film when the kids are on the pier in the background.”

Windermere skiffs at Bowness-on-Windermere

In many ways, the 1974 film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has become a touchstone to re-set our lives. Nigel Young writes: “On arrival back from touring, I’d get to Oxenholme station and rush home, change into my boots and head to the hills passing through Bowness…. I’d look across the lake and count the trees on the small beach, seven in all? and in my mind’s eye try to place the bandstand which features in the film so prominently. I’d look for the jetty where Roger was confronted by a blazered gent in whitened shoes asking him about his boat and think… ‘What have they done with it?’  

Lakeland steamers embarking from Bowness-on-Windermere

“Then I’d look at the landscape and note all the changes since the making of the film before heading home where I’d immediately put the film on, grab a glass of white wine and just sit and watch it, getting transported back in time to another way and another space, but that space still exists in some strange dimension for me, and I feel in touch with the lakes and in touch with a past I can totally relate with.  John wears one of those stripy  S buckle belts on his shorts.  I had one too!

Sophie Neville in Bowness, Cumbria
Sophie Neville, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Stephen Grendon in Bowness in the summer of 1973

“You were well cast, almost as if you were a family before you all started and the cinematography, especially where the sailing sequences are concerned, is something out of this world. Whoever shot and edited the footage for the film were totally at one with the story and the locations…..   And Ronald Fraser !!  …well I would say he really did ‘Swim’ …… I was Principal of an Outdoor Education Centre on Windermere for over a decade and I am aware of just how cold the lake can be in winter or summer….and there goes ‘Ronald’ getting thrown off the plank by you guys into Coniston or Windermere which ever, they are both as cold as each other!”

To read a previous post on finding the film locations and taking the Lakeside and Haverthwaite steam train, please click here

Bowness-on-Windermere

You can read more about the film locations used in ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ published by The Lutterworth Press who can send you a copy.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'

Adaptations of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ discussed in the Independent by Jonathan Brown

Author Arthur Ransome loathed BBC’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’, his diaries reveal

Swallow in 'Swallows and Amazons' 2016

When the BBC announced plans to recreate the classic outdoor children’s sailing adventure Swallows and Amazons it was hailed as a blockbusting antidote to the health and safety culture of the mollycoddled video-game generation…

However, previously unread diaries of its creator, Arthur Ransome, reveal that the author considered the corporation’s last attempt to bring his much-loved story to life to be a “ghastly mess” marred by “dreadful ham” acting. The diaries reveal how Ransome clashed repeatedly with BBC executives in the early 1960s when the BBC commissioned a six-part dramatisation for television, starring Susan George, then aged 12, as Kitty (changed from the original Titty) Walker.

Ransome, then in declining health, was living in virtual retirement in his remote Cumbrian cottage Hill Top overlooking the spectacular Rusland valley with his wife Evgenia – the former secretary to Leon Trotsky, whom he met while working as a foreign correspondent and spying for Britain in revolutionary Russia. It was a spartan existence, often with no electricity or running water.

In a series of brusque entries at odds with his generally affable demeanour, he describes how he repeatedly fought with BBC executives over attempts to introduce two new characters – Ernie and Sam – to the story. Both he and his wife attempted to rewrite the script after concluding that one episode was “bad beyond belief”.

Rupert Hart-Davis with Arthur Ransome

At his home Hill Top with his publisher Rupert Hart-Davies

“I have agreed to Genia’s proposal that we shall wash our hands of the film leaving it to Mr Walls [of the BBC] to play the farceur as much as he likes. They may be right in thinking that vulgar ham acting is what the T.V. gapers want,” he wrote in July 1962.

Ransome was particularly unimpressed with the performance of popular British actor John Paul as Captain Flint – the character… said to be based on Ransome himself – describing it as “dreadful HAM”.

On attending a screening at the Hammer Theatre in Wardour Street, central London in October 1962, he concluded: “Saw the ghastly mess they have made of poor old Swallows and Amazons … MacCullogh [his friend Derek MacCullogh, former head of children’s broadcasting at the BBC who was also known as the presenter Uncle Mac] did not come possibly to avoid trouble with his employers.” It was eventually broadcast the following year.

Stephen Sykes now owns Hill Top and has restored the Ransomes’ former home. He is also helping transcribe the author’s sparsely detailed diaries from his years at Hill Top, which are kept at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library. Sykes said the writer received £3,500 for agreeing to the BBC broadcast – a considerable amount of money. “He was clearly making a very good living out of the rights to Swallows and Amazons. This was his baby and he had obviously pored over it. It is a very leanly written story and it was pretty clear it was written by a journalist because of its clarity, because there is nothing extraneous,” he said.

Hill Top - P1020298-lr

Hill Top in the Lake District today

“He is extremely protective of his own work. He felt he didn’t want a word changing, and that he had honed the story down and it was what it was,” he added.

swallows and amazons map tea towel

Swallows and Amazons was first published in 1930. It recounts the adventures of the children from two families who while away an idyllic summer getting into scrapes sailing their dinghies across Coniston Water and Lake Windermere. As well as the television series, many theatrical and musical adaptations have been staged, and the story was made into a film in 1974 staring Ronald Fraser and Sophie Neville.

When the latest project was announced in 2011, head of BBC Films Christine Langan said it would seek to encapsulate a forgotten era of childhood adventure “from the pre-health and safety generation”.

Producer Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, who is collaborating on the film with the BBC, the Arthur Ransome Society and the author’s literary estate, said it had not been decided yet whether the children would be shown sailing without their life jackets.

But he said viewers could expect to experience the full majesty of the book’s setting. “The lakes and the mountains are very big and we are keen to recreate that grandeur of the scenery in the film,” he said. A spokeswoman for BBC Films said: “The film is still in development.”

To see a copy of the original article online, please click here

To contact Stephen Sykes at Hill Top, the Ransome’s last home, please click here

Hill Top - P1020151-lr

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