Tag Archives: houseboat

Captain Flint’s Houseboat revisited

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SY Gondola on Coniston Water today

When people see the Steam Yacht Gondola on Coniston today, in all her re-built glory, she seems rather plush to have been cast by Arthur Ransome as Captain Flint’s houseboat. The main reason for assuming that she was used as the model for the illustrations is because Arthur Ransome grabbed a post card of the Gondola and drew on it to give the first illustrators of Swallows and Amazons some idea of his vision. However Ransome’s biographer Roger Wardale tells me it was a former steamer on Windermere that he had in mind: the S.L Esperance. Ransome was known to have been spotted looking through her cabin windows and much admired her distinctive bow, designed to cut through cat ice as she went daily up the the Lakeside Railway station.  

Houseboat  bay in 1963

Esperance in Rayrigg Bay, Windemere ~ photographed by Martin Neville in about 1963

When I was first taken up to the Lake District in 1963 my father found what he thought was houseboat bay on Windermere and took this shot of a vessel that must be SL Esperance. She does look very like the first professional drawing submitted to illustrate Swallows and Amazons.

Stephen Spurrier's unused illustration of Swallow sailing past Captain Flint's houseboat

Stephen Spurrier’s unused illustration of Swallow sailing past Captain Flint’s houseboat

Arthur Ransome’s terse note reads: ‘The ass has forgotten the mast’. Today the Esperance is lying at the Steamboat Museum on Windermere, where we went to visit her in 2011. Built at Rutherglen in 1869 she is nearly 65 foot long with a 10 foot beam.

Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum

SL Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in 2011

She did not always have such a traditional appearance. Roger Wardale kindly sent me this photograph showing what she looked like in the 1930s.

'Esperance' in the 1930s when she was owned by Sir Oliver Scott.

‘Esperance’ in the 1930s when she was owned by Sir Oliver Scott.

The cabin has since been removed from her rear end.

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SY Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in 2011

SY Esperance now looks more like this illustration – or could do. Although she has a setting for a mast the reality is that she has seven windows, whereas Clifford Webb’s illustration shows her with only six.

Clifford Webb's illustration of Captain Flint's houseboat

Clifford Webb’s illustration of Captain Flint’s houseboat

I have no idea if anyone could film aboard her today when safety regulations are so strict.

Claude Whatham discussing plans with sailing director David Blagden (in the white hat) and Richard Pilbrow on the aft deck of the houseboat with Molly Pilbrow looking on ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Claude Whatham took advantage of the larger cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater whilst filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Back in 1973 Richard Pilbrow was obliged to use the Lady Derwentwater, still owned by the Keswick Launch Co. She has quite a different stern from the illustrations but was licensed to carry 90 passengers, which must have allowed him to take a seventy-strong film crew on board. At least she was given a mast. You can envisage Ronald Fraser, as Captain Flint, angrily stamping out the firework on the roof.

One advantage of the Lady Derwentwater was that the windows of her cabin enabled the director to get a good view of the lake, which he made use of when Captain John rowed over from Peel Island to visit Captain Flint and pass on the charcoal burners’ warning.  She couldn’t be moved to another lake, but Derwentwater is surrounded by such dramatic fells that the director, Claude Whatham used this to his advantage. A postcard of Friar’s Crag near Keswick was used by Ransome to give his illustrator an idea of what the Peak of Darien was like, even though he had originally based this on the rocky promontory at Waterhead on Windermere. Roger Wardale tells me the Ransomes would sail there in Swallow and stop for tea before heading back south.

Sophie Neville at the Windermere Steamboat Museum

Sophie Neville at the Windermere Steamboat Museum

Was the Gondola so very different? Ransome had known her since spending his own childhood holidays on Coniston, when she was in service.  While staying at Nibthwaite he became a good friend of the Captain, or so the story goes. Back in 1973 the Gondola looked like this – her roof too curved to run along, her bow rising up a little too dramatically to accommodate the foredeck of a retired pirate busy writing up his devilish crimes while his a cannon lies glinting in the sunlight, ready to fire.

Was this the houseboat Arthur Ransome had in mind? ~ photograph taken by Martin Neville in 1973

Photograph of the Gondola on Coniston Water taken by Martin Neville in 1973

To read more about Esperance, please click here

For more about the Steamboat Museum with a photograph of Esperance, please click here

To read more, from another perspective please click here

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Filed under 1973, Arthur Ransome, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Film, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie stories, Photography, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

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

Champain on the set of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ to celebrate the 500th slate

Ronald Fraser, Daphne Neville and Sophie Neville in her BOAC Life jacket

Ronald Fraser as Captain Flint with Daphne Neville and Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker on Derwentwater in 1973

Suzanna Hamilton’s first impression of Ronald Fraser was that, ‘he was quite nice but v.fussy.’ It seems to me that he loved three things: acting, ladies and laughter. Whilst he had a small mouth his capacity for alcohol of almost any kind was legendary. Funnily Enough this was the day that we all had a  drink on set. The clapperboard or slate had snapped shut on the 500th  shot of the movie and in, line with tradition, a bottle of champagne was cracked open.  Somehow I managed to end up with the dregs. I thought them utterly delicious.

Sophie Neville with director Claude Whatham, Ronald Fraser and DOP Denis Lewiston outside the catering bus at Derwentwater in the Lake District ~ photo: Daphne Neville

I’m not sure exactly what was going through Ronnie Fraser’s mind at this point but Denis Lewiston has a call sheet in one hand, so must have still had his mind on work. I think we’d reached the end of a pretty good day.

The fishing rod was such an excitment. Simon West was very generous and let us all catch fish with it. Arthur Ransome would have been proud of him.

Suzanna added another story ~

Suzanna refers to the 500th take, but she was mistaken. We rarely took more that 3 takes of each shot. It was the 500th slate. It doesn’t seem much to me now. I went on to work on drama serials with so many episodes that they would have amounted to films four or five hours long.

Sophie Neville on the set of 'My Family and other Animals'

Sophie Neville on the set of ‘My Family and Other Animals’ shot on Corfu in 1987

I remember operating the clapper-board on this occasion because the entire camera crew were involved in pulling off a 360 degree shot, the cameraman Andrew Dunn up on a crane while a stiff wind was blowing, but that’s another story. I was just the girl saying, ‘Shot one thousand and forty-nine, take three.’ Quite fun.

Did appearing in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ inspire me towards working on a film crew?  No, at the time the hanging around aspect of filming bored and frustrated us children. Later, when I did work on productions, any time I was able to relax on set was treasured, absolutely relished. I was an assistant director with a Motorola on my hip and rarely had a chance to take the weight off my feet.

Neville C Thompson, the Associate Producer, relaxing on set. To be fair, this shot may well have been taken on Sunday 24th July 1973, by Daphne Neville

I have just watched the scene shot in the cabin of the houseboat and have noticed an odd thing. We have a travelling chest of drawers exactly like Captain Flint’s and I set a mirror on top of it just as Ian Whittaker the set-dresser had.

One secret of the scene is that, once we start to clap and sing, ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’ Claude Whatham, the director shouted, ‘Go round’, not once but twice.  If you listen very carefully you can just hear him the second time. He wanted us to dance around the room. I knew this but couldn’t move much with the parrot, so went up and down. Kit Seymour was absolutely boiling in her red bobble hat and no on else could move much for fear of knocking the furniture. It was left to Suzanna to dance about – a tricky thing to do without seeming self conscious. All in all I think we needed a glass of champagne by the end of that day.

Ronald Fraser and Denis Lewiston and a Route Master bus

Ronnie Fraser and DoP Denis Lewiston with paper cups of champagne, a cigarette and the call sheet for the next day outisde the Route Master location catering bus ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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