Tag Archives: How did Titty capture the Amazon?

The Secret of Secret Harbour ~ where Swallows and Amazons was filmed in 1973

Secret Harbour

Swallow in the Secret Harbour by Claudia Myatt

The Secret Harbour on Peel Island looks south over Coniston Water to the hills of Cumbria. It has to be one of my favourite places on Earth. Bringing a small dinghy in there gives you a special feeling either of exploration or of coming home. You need to go when no one else is about. On the 1st June 1973 we spent a whole day filming there with a crew of sixty or more people. It was still a magical place.

1st June 1973 ~ My Diary

Our secret of Secret Harbour was that although many of the scenes in Arthur Ransome’s story arfe set there at night, back in 1973 we only ever filmed them during the day. This was achieved by using the technique of Day-Night, or Day-for-Night filming, the use of filters over the camera lens so that we could film a scene that would come across as being dark even though it was shot in broad daylight.  This had obvious advantages. Filming at night is amazing, but very tiring. It demands considerable lighting set ups, which would have been impossible on Peel Island as they could not get a generator out there. The sun wouldn’t have set until very late on 1st June in the Lake District where mid-summer nights are short. Children are only permitted to work certain hours and need to be given rest days afterwards, so filming exteriors at night just wasn’t feasible. And yet, much of Swallows and Amazons, including the most dramatic of scenes,  is set at night.

Secret Harbour on the southern end of Peel Island when we were returning for lunch in the Capri whilst Richard Pilbrow’s dog looked on from the temporary jetty constructed by the crew: photo ~ Martin Neville

I remember Claude Whatham, the Director of the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) and Dennis Lewiston, our Lighting Cameraman or Director of Photography, being intensely absorbed in perfecting our Day-for-Night sequences. This was particularly tricky for them as many were set out on the water. Having already shot one night scene on Peel Island when we were in the girls’ tent, Dennis now started the day with a scene which was set on the island, yet looked out over the water. He explained that ideally he needed constant, bright sunlight, which would look like moonlight reflected on the ripples of the water. What he didn’t like were cloud banks. And for this we would wait. And waiting for children, while out on the water or in a confided space can be hard. In the scene where the Swallows set up the leading lights Dennis accepted the clouds. It looks fine, as it’s appropriate for it to be getting dark. The little fluffy clouds in the scene where the Amazons arrive aren’t so great as they landed on Wild Cat Island in the dead of night.

Even on land the Day-for-Night shots would take some time to line up. The candle lanterns had to be boosted with battery operated light bulbs. If you look at the lantern in Susan’s tent you can see a black electric wire coming off it, and even a bulb on the Big Screen. You don’t notice this because your attention is on the dialogue but it can easily be spotted.  You might think it would be a distraction for us children but we were all quite down-to-earth and the technical detail kept our interest and our minds on our work.

These were our favourite scenes, set in our favourite place. It was the Amazons’ big day with Kit Seymour emanating leadership as she portrayed Nancy Blackett ‘terror of the seas’, with all the confidence, grace and rugged beauty Arthur Ransome must have either known or envisaged. ‘By Gum, Able-seaman – I wish you were on my crew.’  There was much dialogue for Lesley Bennett who played Peggy. She did well, but acting opposite Suzanna Hamilton is always easy. It’s like rowing in a crew led my an excellent stroke or having a good man at the helm. The part of the practical Susan was not a charismatic one but Suzanna anchored us all. Her own performance is absolutely faultless. I had much to react to but not much to say. I did manage to handle the Amazon by myself and the long shot when I captured her was achieved in one take. A triumph at the end of a long day.

‘There are more of us Swallows…’ Stephen Grendon, playing The boy Roger and Simon West, playing Captain John in the Secret Harbour on Wildcat Island during the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Dinghy sailing, e-publication, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Filming The Swallow and The Amazon from a pontoon out on Coniston Water ~ 31st May 1973

The dinghies Swallow and Amazon with the camera pontoon at Peel Island on Coniston Water ~ photo: Martin Neville

How do you film two girls sailing a thirteen foot dinghy talking to their brothers sailing along in another small dinghy while calling out to two other girls in red bobble hats dancing about on a wooded island both the small boats are approaching?

The scene looks so simple on paper.  It is the one when the Swallows sail back to Wildcat Island with the captured Amazon to find Nancy dancing with rage and Peggy anxious to get home.  One page of script. Claude soon discovered that he was shooting the most complicated of sailing scenes. On a cold grey day in the Lake District. It is extreemly difficult to describe how he managed this, but I will attempt to do so.

There was no room in the dinghy Amazon to film Susan and Titty sailing. This had to be done from a boat or vessel lashed along side. The production had a pontoon especially built for this purpose. It was a 30 foot raft equipped with four outboard engines, surfaced with a number of flat ‘camera boards’. It was basically rectangular but with added arms on either side. The idea of this cross-shaped platform was to enable Claude to film us either side-on, from astern or across the bows of the dinghy, which was wired by its keel to the pontoon. The camera was normally on a tripod but could be mounted on a short section of track. Electric lighting was not something that could be used on this pontoon but two large reflector boards were used to light our faces instead.

As well as the Director and Camera crew, the Sound Recordist and ‘Boom Swinger’ were on board this pontoon along with Sue Continuity girl, Costume and Make-up, obviously the two boat men who drove it and David Blagen, the Sailing Director. He had to work with Claude, the wind and the boatmen so that we were sailing, while the pontoon travelled with us. This was tricky enough on open water. If we were near the shore it could become more difficult. As you can imagine the dinghy could easily start to sail away from the clumsy pontoon – or worse. Our mast socket broke that first day.  They needed my father on that pontoon. He there, quietly was watching from the shore.

The camera pontoon on Coniston Water with Amazon attached to it and Swallow sailing to the other side of Peel Island during the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973~ photo: Martin Neville

Although we had all read the book of Swallows and Amazons, and were devoted to adhering to every detail, no one remembered that John and Titty sailed the captured Amazon back to Wildcat Island. She had a centre board which was a new thing for the Walkers so John decided to let Susan helm their familiar boat. I wish this had been detailed in the script. In the film, John was with Roger in Swallow whilst Susan and I were in the Amazon, which was a pity. I can only imagine that Claude decided this because he was trying to achieve a very difficult ‘three shot’. He was relying on John – on Simon West, who was aged eleven – to keep sailing Swallow in the right position, whilst out on the water between Amazon and Wildcat Island. This wasn’t as easy as it looks. You can see from this photographs that Swallow kept racing ahead of the pontoon. It can be gusty around Peel Island and the rocks can be lethal. Roger was on lookout but he also had to deliver his lines.  Having no centre board and a shallow 1920’s rudder Swallow can be difficult to turn or get going if the wind slacks. This wasn’t actually a problem; Simon had wind and he did brilliantly. Suzanna Hamilton did too. She had no previous experience of sailing the Amazon. No one had remembered this sequence when we practiced before the filming began.

Molly Pilbrow and her dog with my sister, watching the camera pontoon from the shore of Coniston Water ~ photo: Martin Neville

Meanwhile Gareth Tandy, the third Assistant Director, was standing-by (probably for hours) on Peel Island with Nancy and Peggy. He had hide in the bushes and cue them at just the right time. They did so well. They had to deliver their lines while jumping from rock to slippery rock to keep up with both the Swallow, the camera and the story.

Capturing the Amazon ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

This picture was taken by Richard Pilbrow, the Producer of Swallows and Amazon, on a different, obviously warmer, sunnier day. It shows Susan climbing in to Amazon. I include it here to show the pontoon with its outboards and odd cross panels. Here there are at least twelve on board. I think that by this time costume, make-up and our chaperone would be in a separate safety boat, in this case a Capri. This would mill about with the life jackets, sunhats and warm clothes that we wore between set ups. The crew all started off wearing life jackets, but as you can see they were soon discarded. They were dangerous things, old BOAC ‘life vests’ with so many flappy straps that you were at risk of being trapped under water by them.

The Swallows and The Amazons in the Capri ~ Suzannah Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Daphne Neville, Stephen Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville and Lesley Bennett ~ photo: Martin Neville

When we filmed two of Arthur Ransome’s other books, Coot Club and The Big Six, on the Norfolk Broads in 1983 the BBC Producer Joe Waters used a 35 foot river cruiser as camera boat. It could be difficult keeping it stable during a take, especially with so many people on board, but being a proper boat it was much easier to manoeuvre than the pontoon. And faster. Andrew Morgan, the Director still managed to get his camera angles and it had the advantage of a cabin where sensitive equipment such as film stock and lenses could be stored. I can remember the Camera Assistant changing the film on board. I don’t know if the boat had Heads. May be.

On both productions we had the inevitable problem of modern boats coming into shot. We had to have one of two men in zoomy motorboats that could zip across the open water to ask them to move clear of the shot. Even with this control you can imagine what happens. You line up your shot with all your boats in position, the sun comes out and a modern motorboat roars across the lake leaving you all rocking in its wake.  Then it rains.

The good thing about having a Safety Officer in a frog-suit is that they can carry you to shore at the end of a long day. You don’t have to get your feet wet.

The Safety Officer and me, with Dennis Lewiston and Claude Whatham still standing in the Amazon ~ photo: Martin Neville

The question is – Did the DOP and the director get carried ashore too?

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