In the summer of 1973, I was transported to the shores of Windermere, ‘The Great Lake in the North’ to appear as ‘Titty Walker’ in the classic movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, starring Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser.
We were fortunate enough to film the scenes set in Rio at Bowness-on-Windermere before the original green boat sheds were demolished in favor of an amusement arcade.
George Pattinson brought along his steamboat the Lady Elizabeth, which you can see here beyond the Windermere skiffs pulled up on the shore.
George’s personal collection made up the basis of the Steamboat Museum now rebuilt and known as Windermere Jetty, where we found the Lady Elizabeth under restoration.
Eighteen foot long, she was built in New York State in about 1900 and brought to England, so was likely on Windermere in 1929 when Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’. She sank off Cockshott Point beyond Bowness, but Mr Pattinson salvaged and renovated her in 1955. You can read more here.
Other exhibits included the exquisite steam launch Osprey, in fine fettle with her copper steam kettle kept brightly polished. I knew her from taking part in a Steam Boat Association rally on Windermere in 1991.
The RNSA dinghies used to play Swallow and Amazon in the 2016 movie can also be seen in the wet dock at Windermere Jetty.
Look up, and you can spy a green beetle on an old burgee.
Arthur Ransome’s dinghy Conch-y-bonddhu, known as Scarab in his books, is on display with Beatrix Potter’s rough, flat-bottomed rowing boat (the pointed bows of which can be seen here hanging on the wall to the right).
I spoke on BBC Radio Cumbria, asking if I could meet anyone involved in filming the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974). It was made on location in the Lake District with a young crew.
~Nick Newby of Nicole End Marine~
Nick Newby of Nichol End Marine in Portinscale came to find me while I was in the Keswick. As a young man in the 1970s, he provided boats for a number of films and was contacted by Graham Ford, the production manager of Swallows and Amazons in the Spring of 1973. Graham had began working with Mike Turk who had started building boats for TV and films at his family firm, Turk’s Launches, but this was based on the Thames in London. They needed help from someone in the Lake District who knew about traditional boats.
~Ronald Fraser being trransported by Dory to The Lady Derwentwater in 1973~
Arthur Ransome had clearly based Captain Flint’s houseboat on the Esperance, originally a steam launch cruising on Windermere. You can read more about her and see photos here. ‘Since she was sitting on the bottom of Whitecross Bay at the time,’ Nick told me, ‘the film crew decided to use the Lady Derwentwater.’ This was a launch licensed to carry 90 passengers that Nick had worked on and knew well. ‘She is about 58 foot long and quite a rigid boat, having four full length steel RSJs set inside her. She was built the Lakes in 1928. We moored her at Brandelhowe in Great Bay for the filming. You need to be careful getting in, as there is a rock shelf.’ The advantage of using her was that you could see the view over the lake from her large cabin windows, which enhanced interior scenes. The Lady Derwentwater, whose nick-name is Dishy, has since been re-built with a different stern, but you can book a passage and go out on the lake in her yourself.
~The Lady Derwentwater today~
Nick told me that Captain Flint’s eight foot Wright’s dinghy, the houseboat’s tender, had been made by Wright’s Brothers of Ipswich. The Jackson’s ‘native canoe’, rowed out to Peel Island by Virginia McKenna was ‘a family fourteen’ Wright’s sailing dinghy with a centre case. He knew many of the traditional boats in the Lakes. ‘I served me time as a yacht and boat builder at Shepherd’s in Bowness Bay.’ This company was based the green double-story boat sheds featured in the ‘Rio’ scenes. ‘During the winter we used to have to break the ice on the buckets of water when we were rubbing down boats. The sail lofts had a square panel in the apex so we could poke the 8 to 10 metre masts inside. A boom could go up the stairs but a mast certainly couldn’t. ‘
~Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville and DoP Denis Lewiston~
‘Amazon belonged to a chap called Vosey who was rather reluctant to let her be used for the filming,’ Nick said. ‘We did her up a bit after the filming.’ I gather she had been used in the black and white BBC serial of Swallows and Amazons made in 1962 when Susan George played the party of Kitty.
~Swallow sailing towards the filming pontoon in 1973~
I believe Swallow had been found at Burnham-on-Crouch as she was built by Williams King and Sons. Mike Turk, who had built a shallop for the 1966 movie ‘A Man For All Seasons’, purchased her for the film and brought her up to the Lakes. She had no added buoyancy. Nick claims that being a wooden boat she would never sink but I reminded him that we came close to hitting the MV Tern on Windermere when loaded with camping gear, which was a bit scary.
Swallow was later used at Elstree Studios when the sound was dubbed onto the finished film. Mike kept her out of the water in his store at Chatham until SailRansome bought her at auction in 2010. She was sensitively restored by Pattersons, has a new sail, added buoyancy bags and is now available for anyone to sail in Cumbria.
~Mike Turk’s filming pontoon with Swallow attached in 1973~
‘Mike already had the flat-bottomed filming pontoon. It had originally been used for carrying a vehicle. We added twin outboard engines and rigged scaffold under the water so that either Swallow or Amazon could be attached to it but still keel over naturally as they sailed. When the dinghy went about, I would turn one outboard and thrust the other into reverse so that the pontoon went about with them.’ I remembered that the first time they tried this Swallow’s mast footing broke. Amazon’s mast-gate broke on another occasion. Nick had to persuade a friend to let him borrow his welding workshop and managed to mend it over night, so that she could be ready on set first thing the next day.
~The camera pontoon, Capri and one of the Dorys used behind-the-scenes~
Nick went on to say the pontoon leaked a bit. ‘We would have to pump out hull every morning.’ The Capri used behind the scenes was Nick’s equivalent of a marine Land Rover. ‘It had a reinforced glass fibre hull for increased capability and a 55-horse power engine that had been used for the Olympics. We used it for Ken Russell’s film ‘Tommy‘, the rock opera with Roger Daltry and The Who. Once, when we were using it for Swallows and Amazons, Clive Stuart shoved it into gear with rather too much gusto. Someone only just managed to grab the director, Claude Whatham, before he was flung over the back. ‘Claude was spitting feathers after that.’
~Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Sten Grendon with David Stanger at the helm of the Dory in 1973~
Mike Turk provided two Dorys, built at his yard, to use as run-around boats. One was driven by David Stanger who is now skipper of a launch on Ullswater. It was a stable boat but you needed to watch how it was not overloaded. Water came over the bows one day giving my mother rather a shock.
~Nick Newby at the Alhambra cinema in 2018: photo Marc Grimston~
‘The boating world is a small world,’ Nick assured me. This July, forty-five years after making the film, he brought his grand-daughter to watch ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick and gamely came up on stage for a Q&A to explain how some of the sailing scenes were achieved.
Mike Turk, Swan Upper and Queen’s Waterman, who provided boats for numerous films from Moonraker to Hornblower, sadly passed away aged 78. You can read his obituary here. He went on to work on a number of James Bond movie. You can see his film credits here.
A group of Arthur Ransome enthusiasts clubbed together to buy Swallow from Mike’s collection in 2010. She is currently kept on a trailer at Kendal in the Lake District. If you would like to sail her, please visit SailRansome.com
For Nicol End Marine, about two miles outside Keswick on Derwentwater please click here
You can see Swallow – and learn of her value – on BBC Antiques Roadshow, towards the end of the first episode recorded at Windermere Jetty museum in September 2020. It is on BBC iplayer here
The long-awaited second edition of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS (1974)’ was being published in paperback by The Lutterworth Press in May 2017. It is available from their website here
This memoir of an odd thing that happened in the early 1970s is similar to the first edition but has a new cover and includes a few more stories, photographs and names from the ‘seventies that have floated to the surface. It compliments StudioCanal’s 40th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray and makes a good present for anyone who has grown up watching the 1974 film.
Sophie signed copies of her books at the Tavistock Festival and gave a talk at the Roseland Festival in St Mawes before a screening of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) at the lovely Hotel Tresanton cinema.
‘Forty years after she enchanted film-goers as Titty in Swallows and Amazons, Sophie Neville has found a new audience… telling the behind-the-scenes secrets of the film of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel.’ The Daily MailThe Making of Swallows & Amazons ‘…is based on diaries, letters and old photographs which Sophie has turned into a heart-warming account of making the movie, which starred Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser.’
’The Telegraph~ Culture: ‘Set in the Lake District in 1929, the film follows four young adventurers who sail a dinghy around Lake Coniston, cook for themselves over campfires and sleep in makeshift campsites.’
‘…The occasional chaos and terrible weather during filming contributed to the eventual popularity of the extraordinary and very much loved film.’ The Times
‘The film Swallows & Amazons is 40 years old, but thanks to its careful period evocation, its respect for Arthur Ransome’s original book and the performances of its child actors, it’s become a timeless classic. One of those children was Sophie Neville, who played Titty, and who kept a diary during the filming. That diary, with her adult recollections, is this book. It’s a fascinating insight into filming on location in the Lake District… Classic Boat
‘… The result is compulsive reading as she recalls that cold wet summer, while the camera crew wrapped up warm and she shivered in her skimpy dress as Able Seaman Titty Walker. Sophie brings to life all the many memorable characters who worked on the film and in particular the other children, the Director Claude Whatham who developed a great relationship with his young cast and the stars Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser. Nor are the other young actors forgotten for there are diary contributions from Suzanna Hamilton who played Susan, Stephen Grendon who played the Boy Roger and Kit Seymour who played Nancy Blackett. The text is supported by numerous illustrations showing life on and off the set.’ Roger Wardale, author of Arthur Ransome: Master Storytellerand other books
‘You don’t need to be a Swallows & Amazons fan to enjoy this book – it’s universal!’ Winifred Wilson, Librarian of The Arthur Ransome Society
‘This was a most unusual and interesting book. I picked it up expecting to browse through it, and found myself so drawn in to Sophie Neville’s detailed, amusing and insightful description of film making in the 1970’s that I was unable to put her book down. As Arthur Ransome fans, my family and I have always loved the film, and felt that Sophie Neville was ‘just right’ as Titty. What fun it has been to be introduced to the young twelve year old Sophie with her intelligent awareness of the challenges facing the production crew while she shivered in her cotton dresses. The many photographs and illustrations contribute richly to bringing the 1970s setting to life. Sophie recorded her experiences beautifully, and in so doing, added one more valuable book to the cultural heritage of all Arthur Ransome fans.’ Juliet Calcott, English teacher,South Africa
If you would like to know how the movie of Swallows & Amazons was made and know where the real locations can be found, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ is currently available as an ebook on Amazon and Smashwords for £2.56. The paperback was launched to mark the 40th anniversary of the film’s release, by Classic TV Press.
The book, which is suitable for any age group, is based on the diary that I kept when I played the part of Titty Walker in 1973. It is illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs and memorabilia such as one of the tickets to the Royal Gala premier in Shaftesbury Avenue held on 4th April 1974. You will also find out what the actors who played the Walker family ~ the Swallows ~ are doing now.
The joy of the ebook is that it includes a number of home-movie clips that my parents took of life behind the scenes that you can play wherever you have internet access.
If you have any questions about making the film, please add them to the comments below, and I will get back to you.
There were rather over-excited headlines in the Times and Telegraph when the ebook was launched but they only spoke of the legendary drinking of Ronald Fraser. Please don’t worry – there is nothing X-rated about the book – it is just the price one pays for half a page in a daily newspaper, especially since it came out on a Saturday.
The ebook has been doing well in the Amazon charts and hit Number 1 in the category ‘Stage and Theatre’.
A preview of what the book holds in store can be watched here:
The Times. What author would not be thrilled to have their ebook profiled in a Saturday feature article? But look at the headline. I shall never live it down. Far from being scandalous, my story is appropriate reading for any age group.
Richard Kay’s piece in the Daily Mail seems to have sparked off quite a bush fire. A News journalist from the Telegraph rang, as mentioned in my last post. Before I knew it, there was an over-excited headline on the internet
I was told-off by our Church Warden, who then handed me a clipping from the Saturday Telegraph, which read: ‘Swallows and Amazons a debauched adventure’. I didn’t dare look in the tabloids.
I was worried that I would be asked to step down as President of The Arthur Ransome Society but some of the members think it’s hilarious. The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook have been busy thinking up Newspaper headlines for his novels, such as ‘Soviet agent indoctrinates all British children’.
Anecdotes about Ronald Fraser’s legendary drinking habits are mounting up. Spare me from being a prattler, but Ronnie would have loved this. Star of thirty post-war movies and numerous television programmes, he liked nothing more than to sit in a pub sharing scandalous stories with his friends from the press. A showman to the end, his coffin was carried by Sean Connery, Peter O’Tool, Simon Ward and Chris Evans.
Peter Walker e-mailed me from Cumbria:
In 1973 I worked for Post Office Telecommunications (now BT) as a local maintenance engineer. One summer’s day I had been given the job of repairing a fault on the payphone in the White Lion Hotel in the centre of Ambleside. As I pushed open the door to the bar it slipped out of my hand and the handle caught a customer in the back who happened to be taking delivery of a large drink.
I apologised, and he said “No damage done my boy… haven’t spilt a drop!”
I said I was referring to his back, “Don’t worry,” he said, “being stabbed in the back is normal in my line of business!”
A wonderful story that I have already added to the ebook:
…long after the filming, when Ronald Fraser was having a pint with his friends, he was fond of muttering ‘Natives!’ especially if someone ate the last of his crisps.(As you probably know, this was one of Titty’s lines in the film used when the Swallows were nearly run down by a Windermere steamer.)
His fans and old drinking pals added comments below the online feature in Friday’s Telegraph:
Ronald Fraser sounds like he was well cast for the part, the black sheep of the family who was also the favourite uncle and usually totally p-ss-ed.
Ronald Fraser – a joy and wonderfully in-character as the freeloading drunk on the trans-Atlantic liner in the original TV adaptation of Brideshead.
“Debauchery” implies REAL shennanigans. Ronnie was usually too plastered to do more than stand, let alone move, let alone “do” anything. I assume the word is used ironically.
I had the pleasure of meeting Ronnie Fraser several times in the Richard Steele on Haverstock Hill in 1969/70, and of conversing and drinking with him. He was a total lush, but charming, funny and scandalous. His fund of acting stories was endless. I’m surprised he made it safely through S&A! (Swallows and Amazons)
I also remember Ronnie Fraser from the Richard Steele. One evening he was serving behind the bar, in his cups he served me 4 drinks and instead of adding up the price he just said “that looks about 10 shillings worth to me!”
The Richard Steele was a proper boozer with a mixed clientele which included Anthony Booth, Rupert Davies and Eric Sykes. And a great selection of posters on the walls. I went back in there a couple of years ago and it has lost the buzz it had back in those days.
he also was in the star in st.johns wood too dont think i ever saw him sober either.that would be about 1975 -1979
Yep. I too drank with him in The Richard Steele in 1976/7. Total gentleman and a great character. He used to drink with Alan Browning. Glynn Owen was another regular and one or two others of note.
I loved that film and thought it very faithful to the source book. My sister has met Ronald Fraser and as well as being a boozer he was also apparently something of a swordsman.
I thought that Ronald Fraser was miscast – he was too much the buffoon and his speech impediment wasn’t appropriate to the role.
General comments about the film were also added to the Telegraph site:
I had a slightly surreal experience 10 or 12 years after it came out. It was on TV and I sat happily through it, then I put in the video of the John Hurt movie 1984. In it, the girl I’d just been watching playing Susan as a 12 year old instantly aged 10 years.
It was raining in the Lake District- that’s a major surprise. One place there has recorded 200 inches of rain in a year!
It’s good to find someone else who shared those lovely £sd days!! I remember the posters vividly.
It was indeed largely a time of great adventure for a child at that time. As kid’s, at weekends & holidays, we often wouldn’t be seen from morning ’till evening, off exploring our surroundings. Totally unlike the generally mollycoddled, world wrapped in cotton wool that you usually see with today’s parents and their children.
Great book and an excellent, very English film! Pity that Arthur Ransome was a traitorous Communistic Guardian hack! I imagine that Soviet Commissars, used to Black Sea dachas, would have found The South Lakes far too drizzly for a summer holiday. No doubt Mr Ransome would have been keen to host them.
Well, you have to admit it was excellent cover for his job of reporting everything the Bolsheviks did to MI6.
Your comments are invited below.
For those who have not already seen it, here is some behind the scenes footage of filming on that houseboat in 1973.
Thanks to the encouragement and help of my blog followers and Arthur Ransome enthusiasts around the world, I have managed to put my diaries, letters, old photographs and documents together into a 68,000-word memoir.
“Sometimes extraordinary things do happen to ordinary people. Little girls can find themselves becoming film stars. Long ago, and quite unexpectedly, I found myself appearing in the EMI feature film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons, made for a universal international audience. I played Able-seaman Titty, one of the four Swallows. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I became Titty for a while, wearing thin cotton dresses and elasticated navy blue gym knickers, which the camera crew soon referred to as passion killers. The book was written in 1929 and although the film adaptation was made in the early 1970s it had an ageless quality and has been repeated on television year after year, typically on a Bank Holiday between movies starring Rock Hudson or Doris Day.
I got the part of Titty because I could play the piano. Although I had no ambition to be an actress, at the age of ten I was cast in a BBC dramatisation of Cider with Rosie. They needed a little girl to accompany the eleven-year-old Laurie Lee when he played his violin at the village concert. I plodded through Oh, Danny Boy at an agonising pace.
‘Do you think you could play a little faster?’ the Director asked.
‘No,’ I said, flatly. ‘These are crotchets, they don’t go any faster.’
Claude Whatham must have remembered my crotchets, for two years later, in March 1973, my father received a letter. It arrived completely out of the blue, from a company called Theatre Projects.
We are at present casting for a film version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS which Mr Whatham is going to direct. We were wondering if you would be interested in your daughter being considered for one of the parts in this film.
From ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ by Sophie Neville
Preview copies of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ at the Cruising Association dinner at the Water’s Edge Bar and Restaurant, Mermaid Marina on the River Hamble.
“This heart-warming memoir is illustrated with colour photographs, most of them taken at the time by Sophie’s family, and contains links to behind-the-scenes home movie footage for readers with browser-enabled tablets. It delivers a double helping of nostalgia for both fans of the era of Arthur Ransome, and the groovy times of the early 70’s.” ~ from the Amazon Kindle description
Also available for other reading devices on Smashwords
Thank you again for all of your time and patience, and to those of you who contributed comments, questions, and aspects of local history on this blog. I would love to know what you think of the book!
Hillary Warwick from Bolton-le-Sands near Carnforth rang in to say that her grandma owned the green parrot, telling us that he was called ‘Beauty’. They used the £25 appearance fee to buy him a new cage. Hilary’s gran, Elizabeth Proctor, had been quite a character. She’d walk around Kendal with Beauty on her shoulder. He was known to be a one-woman bird and Hilary was quite impressed that I managed to stroke him and keep him on my shoulder as he was liable to nip. She was quite wary of him!
Do you live in the Lake District?
Did you take part in the film in anyway?
If so do write in using the comments box below!
~ click on the image to enlarge ~
Here is another newspaper article from 1973 that mentions Lakeland people involved in the filming forty years ago, including a photograph of Mrs Lucy Batty and her grandson Peter and Margaret Causey who taught the children in the movie, pictured below with Lesley Bennett, Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville and Mark Hedges – who didn’t appear in the movie but came up over half-term as his Dad, Bob Hedges was working as the property master.
Virginia McKenna is photographed above talking to Ian Whittaker, the set dresser who went on to win a number of Oscars.
An extract from this article of Brenda Colton’s reads:
‘When Mrs Lucy Batty was asked if her house could be used for the setting of the film Swallows and Amazons, with guest star Virginia McKenna, she was delighted. After all, her home, Bank Ground Farm on the east side of Coniston Water, near Brantwood, was the setting chosen by Arthur Ransome for his children’s book Swallows and Amazons.
Mrs Batty thought it a good idea that the story should be filmed in an authentic location, and she felt she should be able to put up with a few cameras and film men for a while. But she just did not realise the scale of a “medium budget” film like this one, or what the production staff could do to her house. It was not the two double-decker buses coming down the path and parking on the farm that she minded, nor the numerous vans, lorries, cars and caravans. It was not even the difficulty of having 80 men and women wandering round the farmhouse carrying equipment here, there and everywhere.But when art director Simon Holland started tearing up her lino and carpet in the kitchen to get to the bare stone floor, she did get a little annoyed. Especially when he removed all the electric sockets, lights and switches, pushed all the kitchen furniture into the larder and whitewashed the newly papered walls.
“Have you seen the kitchen?” Mrs Batty said to me. “The larder is piled high with my furniture; and you would not believe the tip my lounge is in. But they are a funny lot. I asked if I could wash the beams in the kitchen for them, and they said ‘Oh no, we want them to look old.’ I have even had to hunt out a lot of old pottery from the cellar for them.
“But I have given up now. I have just left them to it.”