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:
The 16mm camera in the grey punt.
I think the chap in the swimming trunks is a boatman from Keswick. Does anyone recognise him?
The 16mm camera was noisy. This would have been the shot taken when I said we just went through the movements.
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:
It had been a productive day; a battle well fought, the treasure returned.
I am often asked about my career in acting. I was even asked about it by the crew of Swallows and Amazons as we climbed in and out of boats on Derwentwater back in 1973.
‘Are you going to be another Bette Davis?’ (I gathered I looked vaguely like her but didn’t really know who she was.)
‘Will you get stuck as a child actress like Shirley Temple?’ (I didn’t really know who she was either.)
There was much speculation. The truth was that I was always really more interested in what was happening behind the camera, and how the story was told, than I was in our performances. I had an empathy for the men who had to keep changing carefully made arrangements when the clouds rolled in. Whilst I was always interested in set dressing I loved aiding and abetting Terry Needham, the second assistant director, with whom we naturally spent a great deal of time. The 2nd July 1973 must have been a busy day for him. A maddening day really.
Whilst I was in front of the camera, delivering the line that fore-shadows the adventurous section of Arthur Ransome’s story, Terry Needham would have been busy planning who would go out in which boat and when. Just as important really.
Whilst filming out on the lakes ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was far more complicated than most movies to stage manage. Terry needed to have what Claude Whatham called his ‘Artistes standing-by, ready on set’ when the set in question was a boat moored out in a lake. In reality this meant that the film actor Ronald Fraser had to wait around on the houseboat with Costume, Make-up and Props, whilst the sun tried to decide whether to come out.
Terry Needham, ever straight forward and prosaic, also had to make provision for a number of extra people who wanted to try and watch the action, notably Albert Clarke, the stills photographer, and the Producer, Richard Pilbrow who was often looking after journalists from major newspapers and magazines. We were making a movie that needed to be well publicised if it was to succeed.
What made Terry’s job even more demanding than usual was that since we were all under the age of sixteen we still had to complete at least three hours schooling a day. I was only meant to spend three hours a day in front of the camera and leave at 5.00pm. This meant that, unlike Ronnie Fraser, we had to be collected from our red bus and taken over the water to our set at the last possible moment when the camera and crew were ready to roll.
As Swallow, our clinker-built dinghy, was wired to a floating pontoon, the job of our loyal Lakeland boatmen was particularly important. Can anyone tell me the name of this chap, in the photo below?
Terry Needham also had to take into consideration the numbers of people licensed to be in each support boat. Although a period film, our clothes were simple, so we didn’t need the contingent of dressers and make-up artists typically demanded by costume dramas. However life-jackets were a must and wherever we went one of our licensed chaperones had to come too. Since Mum stayed at our guesthouse in Ambleside with Kit Seymour who was ill with ‘flu that day, it was Jane Grendon came out on the lake with us. It was her son Sten, playing the Boy Roger, who walked off the jetty into the water. Poor Jane was pushed in fully clothed. Suzanna Hamilton also fell in – or so she claims. What a nightmare for Terry Needham.
Terry survived to have the most prestigious career in film. Whilst he worked as an assistant director for Stanley Kubrick on The Shining (would Jack Nicholson have been easier to manage than us lot?) Terry was unit manager on Empire of the Sun for Stephen Speilberg and the first assistant director on such classic movies as Full Metal Jacket, Rambo III, A Man for All Seasons, The Field, The Golden Compass and Clash of the Titans. I only list a few of his many credits. He worked for Ridley Scott as Associate Producer and First Assistant on White Squall, G.I.Jane, Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down – all gigantium tasks – and was Executive Producer of Red Dragon, and Kingdom of Heaven, again for Ridely Scott. He is still working on movies. What changes he must have seen. I wonder if he can remember that far distant summer spent in the Lake District?
I would not have had the physical strength to follow in Terry’s footsteps. It was his job – plus a bit of work with action props and set dressing – that I found myself busy doing at the BBC when I was an Assistant Floor Manager on big costume dramas. I was exhausted after about four years. The walky-talky I found so attractive aged twelve became rather heavy on my hip. I have a Polaroid photograph of myself looking tired out when working as a Location Manager in Bayswater, kept to remind myself not to accept such work again. Perhaps I should have taken the Bette Davis route after all. I might have had Terry looking after me again.
You can see Terry Needham with his portable radio at the end of this short 16mm film clip that was shot a couple of days later on Coniston Water. The pushings-in were still all the rage.
Ronald Fraser with Wardrobe Master Terry Smith being transported to the Houseboat played by The Lady Derwentwater
My diary entry for 24th June 1973 is not exactly revealing. As it was raining steadily in the Lake District, I was given a second day off. ‘We had a quirte morning,’ I wrote. I am sure I needed one. After a heavy week’s filming I’d spent the official ‘Unit Day Off’ writing five end-of-year exam papers, answering correspondence from school friends and going to Kit Seymour’s thirteenth Birthday party. I must have been exhausted. Legally I was meant to have two days off a week. This was the first time it had been possible.
Suzanna Hamilton’s diary adds little more, but my mother was on set, as was a journalist from The Guardian, so I can tell you what happened. I can even tell you what the location caterers from Pinewood cooked that day: Melon, followed by roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, boiled or roast potatoes, peas and carrots with apple crumble or tinned peaches served with custard or evaporated milk. It was a Sunday. Suzanna noted that we had ‘salad for super’, her favorite food.
“The houseboat has been converted from a pleasure steamer,” wrote Michael McNay in the Features section of The Guardian, “the whole of the superstructure fore faked up by props, the cabin aft converted into a retired colonist’s sittingroom – African rug, flowery curtains, assegais on the walls, an ebony elephant with silver howdah and trappings, a walnut wireless cabinet, tall brass oil lamps, a pile of 78rpm records, a silver mounted cricket ball (presented to G.Gumbleton, 1899, for the highest individual score of the season), a chest, a writing desk and an ancient upright Imperial.” I have typed this up exactly as it was published on 7th July 1973.
By props, I don’t think Michael McNay meant pit-props. He was talking about the work of the design team headed by Simon Holland. Ian Whittaker, who later won an Oscar for set dressing, helped Simon to create Captain Flint’s cabin with one of the Prop men who is photographed here. Does anyone know his name? I think it might be Terry Wells. I expect the cane chairs and side table were being temporally stored on the roof when this snap shot was taken so as to make space for camera and lights. The gaffer and camera crew would have been in the process of setting up inside the cabin. Sound would not have settled in yet. How do I know that after all these years? I can see the recordist’s arm at the left of the photograph. I still remember his coat.
“Ronald Fraser, alias Uncle Jim, is tapping away at a book.” Michael continues. “Last minute panic: who can type out quickly a folio of copy to leave nonchantly in the roller?” That would have been Sue Merry, the continuity girl. The first scene was probably the one in which Uncle Jim is typing with the green parrot on his shoulder when a firework goes off on his cabin roof. I wonder if Arthur Ransome had ever been disturbed by the Altounyan children in such a way. Did he use an Imperial typewriter?
The film crew were on location on Derwentwater. “By now, the houseboat has been moved and moored to the western shore just off a promontory that is being faked up as one end of Wild Cat Island.” The houseboat, really one of the stars of the movie, was being played by a long-time resident of Cumbria, The Lady Derwentwater. A 56 foot motor launch, owned by the Keswick Launch Company since 1935, she returned to real life after the filming, rather like I did. She still carries up to 90 passengers. You can go out on her today.
My father, who is keen on steamboats, had been off to find the real houseboat that Arthur Ransome had in mind. Am I right in thinking this must have been the original Gondola? I expect she was too un-seaworthy for the production team to contemplate using in 1973. A reliable, water-tight boat that could be towed into the location used for Houseboat Bay was needed. Last year we went to see TSSY Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in Cumbria, which is another Victorian steam yacht invisaged by Ransome as a possible model for Captain Flint’s houseboat. It is a beauty but we did get a better view of the lake from of the cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater.
“The rain has stopped, the mist is lifting from the 1,500 foot ridge of Cat Bells. Fraser climbs gingerly aboard, awkward in co-respondent’s brown and white shoes, rosy make-up and moves into the aft cabin.” McNay continues. He is describing the main scene to be shot that day. “John, alias Simon West, is in a rowing boat 15 feet away… The problem this time is that the rowing boat has to remain anchored but look as though Simon is pulling steadily in towards the houseboat and the anchor rope has to remain hidden.” This must have been so that Swallow could be lined up acurately and remain in focus for the camera. It is one of the secrets of making the film that I have been asked about directly.
“Simon shows Claude Whatham how he’ll manage it. Quick rehearsal inside the cabin. Ronald Fraser on his knees by the chest folding a white pullover, catches sight of approaching boat, mimes angry surprise. Told not to jerk head so far back. Instead jerks eyebrows up. The cabin is no more than eight foot by ten and contains besides Fraser and the props, four men on a camera, one on lights, and the continuity girl.” McNay had not included Claude the director, who I know would have squeezed in since these were the days before monitors from the camera feed. And he was small. The sound recordist was bigger but may have just planted a microphone on the desk.
“On the small aft deck Pilbrow is for the next few minutes going to be redundant.” This is Richard Pilbrow, who now lives in Conneticut and I am sure will read this post. “He is a mild, inoffensive looking man producing his first film. He is 40… looks like your friendly local antiques dealer. He and Whatham are a good team: Whatham is slight, energetic and calm. He has time, even as a sequence is being set up, to ask the Press if they can see enough of what’s going on from the crampt aft deck of the housebaot. It’s a cheerful crew, (Denis Lewiston the DOP) watching clouds overhead with benign suspicion, taking light meter readings inside and out-side the cabin every 30 seconds.
‘Action,’ said quietly into the cabin.
‘ACTION,’ across the lake to Simon. The clapperboard shows 461 take 1. Fraser folds the pullover, looks up, jerks eyebrows in angry surprise, camera swings round to follow Fraser’s gaze through the window, Simon pulls on left oar, keeps the rope hidden.
‘Once more please. Stand by. Action. ACTION (461 take 3) …. CUT.’
There’s a consensus that the third take was best. Ten minute break while the suceeding sequence is prepared: Fraser rushes out on deck and tells Simon to clear off. That too is filmed in triplicate. The time is 12.45. They started work at 6.30, began filming at 12.25 and they’ve got maybe 45 seconds in the can. Everybody seems pleased.”
‘Here we are, intrepid explorers, making the first ever voyage into unchartered waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets shall be revealed?
We set off from the Lakeside Railway Station on the southern shore of Windermere to explore Arthur Ransome’s world full of excitement. I was wondering how many signs of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ we would find, if we’d see the crossed flags that have become a symbol of the bestseller he wrote back in 1929.
We found the first sign the East of Lake road above Coniston Water. And there was Holly Howe where the Walker Family came for their holidays. It is so exciting to know that you can stay there too, or go for tea, and run down the field full of buttercups to dip your hands in the lake, just as the real Altounyan children – the real Swallows – must have done. We passed Lanehead, their grandparents’ house next-door as we drove down to Coniston. I gather it is for sale.
Coniston Old Man or Kanchenjunga, as the Swallows and Amazons called the mountain, was snoozing under a thick blanket of cloud but the challenge of climbing to the summit was for another day. Below the village, mooring up to the jetty at the Bluebird Cafe, was Ransome, the Coniston Launch. Peter Walker introduced us to the Captain who welcomed us aboard. He asked after Swallow the little ship from the film that we had re-launched from the very same jetty in April 2011. If you join The Arthur Ransome Society you can sail Swallow on Coniston this summer.
As we set off across the lake we could see Swallow’s boatshed clearly from the Coniston launch. It has been renovated and repaired but the old stone jetty is still there, below the huge horse chestnut trees. I remember how cold the water was when we first brought Swallow out from the depths of that shed in May 1973 to shoot the opening scenes of the movie. Two sheep came down to see what we were doing. Richard Pilbrow, the Producer, gave me this black and white photograph that, unusually, shows Claude Whatham the Director setting up the shot. I was letting water drain from my shoe.
The Coniston Launch can take you right down the lake to Wild Cat Island or Peel Island as it is really called. You can see the Secret Harbour best from a boat and imagine Titty trying to get out through the rocks in Amazon, in the dark, when she captured her from the terrifying Amazon Pirates.
Peter Walker met us and drove us on down the lake to show us The Heald, a bungalow above the road where Arthur Ransome lived with his Russian wife, Evgenia and his dinghy, Coch-y-bonddhu. It was here that he wrote Picts and Martyrs. Coch-y-bonddhu played the part of Dick and Dot’s boat Scarab. The original ‘Dogs Home’ can be found in the woods above the house. Rob Boden is very keen to restore it.
It was in the Grizedale Forest that we went to see the charcoal burners and met the real men in the process. And an adder. It was real too.
I looked back at the island where I spent so much of my childhood. It was difficult to imagine how a location catering wagon let alone two Route-master London double-decker buses could have driven down the winding East of Lake road. They parked in the field opposite the islands so the crew could at least eat lunch in the dry and we could have our lessons. The National Parks Authority had to ask the Production Manager to drape wartime camouflage netting over them. You must have been able to see the red buses for miles.
As you drive south you can look over the water to see Brown Howe, the house that we used as a location for Beckfoot in the film of Swallows and Amazons and shortly after, the Edwardian boathouse, which Claude Whatham used for the Amazons. I don’t think this was the one Ransome envisaged. His was at the mouth of the Amazon River – a reedy place. The pictures in the illustrations show a building with a low-pitched roof.
Peter took us down to a farm the south of Coniston Water where the real Ransome children spent their summer holidays. You can walk down the footpath they must have taken to dip their hands in the lake. And there I found what must be the real Amazon boat house.
We have the clip from Country Tracks presented by Ben Fogle, that includes interviews with Director Claude Whatham, Lucy Batty of Bank Ground Farm, Suzanna Hamilton and myself discussing the swimming scenes, with the unique behind-the-scenes footage my father shot on 16mm film, with his Bolex camera back in 1973. You might have seen a longer version of this on Countryfile and Big Screen Britain. I am yet to receive residuals.
Of all the wonderful days we spent filming Swallows and Amazons in 1973, the fishing scene, shot in a reedy bay on Elterwater was one I enjoyed most. It was a cold, rather wet morning but the Third Assistant, Gareth Tandy, taught us how to use our rods and we were absorbed in a way that Arthur Ransome would have understood well.
The only problem we had that day was keeping the fish alive. A chap in waders, with hair so Bryl-creamed that it looked like black patent leather, had brought along a number of perch. Bob Hedges our Property Master, the Designer Simon Holland and Ian Whittaker, the Set Dresser, took it upon themselves to keep them as happy as they could, until they were – very carefully – attached to our hooks. Titty doesn’t catch one but John did. Despite everyone’s best efforts it wasn’t a very lively perch.
The big challenge was Roger’s great fish – a massive pike that meant to be snapping and ferocious. I’ve been told that it ended up being re-suscitated in Keswick Hospital ICU – the Intensive Care Unit.
Sadly this is the only photograph we have of the set designers at work together. Later that afternoon we went to one of the few interiors of the film – the general store in Rio or Bowness-on-Windermere where we bought the rope for the lighthouse tree and four bottles of grog. I’m not sure if it was a shop then or someone’s garage. It is a barber shop these days. Back then, Ian had dressed it with boxes of wooden dolly pegs and other things you’d buy in brown paper bags. A wonderful 1920’s radio set and two purring cats really made the scene come alive, especially since, being in reticent explorer mode, we were a bit gruff in our communications with the native shop keeper.
Ian Whittaker struck me as being rather different from everyone else on the crew. He was a very nice looking man and a gentleman of the old school. I remember him telling me that he’d originally set out to be an actor but had found it so difficult to get work that he grabbed a chance to become a Set-Dresser or Designer’s Assistant. He found he rather enjoyed it, and stuck to the job despite his family thinking it was not much of a career. He proved them wrong. By 1971 he was working for Ken Russell on The Boy Friend – a musical about a Musical starring Twiggy with Christopher Gable and Max Adian that I’d seen at school. After Swallows and Amazons he worked on Ridley Scott’s film Alien with Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and John Hurt and was nominated for an Oscar with the others on the design team. Eventually he won an Oscar for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration with the Designer Luciana Arrighi for Howards End – the movie of EM Forster’s book starring Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter. In 1994 he was nominated again, this time for Remains of the Day directed by James Ivory. After that he worked on Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson’s movie of the Jane Austen classic that launched Kate Winslet’s career, some of which was shot at Montacute in Somerset where my great-grandmother lived. Ian Whittaker received another Oscar nomination for Anna and the King in 2000 and a nomination for an Emmy Award for the TV movie Into the Storm in 2009.
So, it was rather a waste that Ian spent his time just building little stone walls in the lake to keep the perch alive on our set, but I think he enjoyed the fishing scene as much as I.
When you next go to Bank Ground Farm you must stand outside and imagine the sight of two red London Route Master buses making their way down the drive. They swayed from side to side. We thought it comic. I still can’t work out how they managed to avoid how bringing down the dry stone walls. While sheep grazed around us outside in the rain, we made ourselves comfortable at the Formica tables in our school bus and got down to our lessons. I am sure it was good for us to be kept busy.
Meanwhile Ian Whittaker, the Set Dresser, and Simon Holland, the Art Director, transformed two of Mrs Batty’s upstairs rooms into the Walker children’s bedrooms of 1929. I changed in the cold and was rushed through the rain with a coat over my nightie to the magical atmosphere of the set, warmed by the lights with everyone’s focus on what was just in front of the camera; me reading a beautiful edition of Daniel Defoe’s classic. Claude needed to establish that Robinson Crusoe was Titty’s hero. I can remember having to hold the book in special way so the cover could be seen clearly. I described this as ‘a bed scene’, which might amuse some actors, especially those who are not at all keen on doing bed-scenes (every actor I know). The beds themselves are probably still at the farm.
I expect they shot the scene where John is learning Morse Code in bed before my scene. Simon West had to be made very brown indeed, the Make-up Designer dabbing away with a tiny sponge, for the uneasy sequence, much later in the story, when he came to explain himself to his mother. This was shot with Virginia McKenna sitting at a writing desk in the square bay window, with the view of Coniston Water beyond. I sat there myself when I was making Swallow’s flag.
Mrs Batty later explained to me that the bay window leaked terribly and she was glad to get rid of it. She now has a lounge area there, which is dedicated as a Swallows and Amazons room. I was chatting to her back in 2002 when we were waiting for Ben Fogle and the BBC crew of Countryfile to return from looking for other locations used in the film before interviewing Suzanna Hamilton and myself at the farm. The problem was that Suzanna’s train was terribly delayed. We waited and waited and waited. It got later and later. When her taxi finally arrived I was so excited to see her I grabbed her and made her run down to the lake to see Amazon, the dinghy we had sailed together, which was there at the time. The poor director must have been at her wit’s end. Ben Fogle had to come down to fetch us. My excuse was that Suzanna must have needed a stretch after such a long journey. The Westmorland Gazette captured the three of us plodding back up the field before we sat on the grass for our interview.
I did the whole interview holding a bottle of grog, which the Arthur Ransome fans who were staying at the farm gave me. You can see it in the photographs if you look closely. I don’t think Ben knew what it was.
It was into this interview that my father’s 16mm footage of the making of Swallows and Amazons was cut, with such success that the documentary was re-shown as Big Screen Britain. What I didn’t know was that Ben Fogle was born in 1973 after we had made the movie. It was only once the crew had disappeared that Suzanna and I really began to talk.
It is aways wonderful to hear how the film of Swallows and Amazons has effected people’s lives. I have just had such an interesting e-mail from Australia that I asked if I could post hit here. I only wish that Claude Whatham was alive to read it.
Did anyone else know about the the clock on the mantelpiece at Bank Ground Farm?
I can not tell you how much I am enjoying your website. I’ve searched for scraps of material regarding the making of Swallows and Amazons for decades, but you post more information in one day than I gleaned in a lifetime. It’s a fabulous insight, and one I really appreciate.
I became a film-maker largely because of Swallows and Amazons. I’ve written a small piece about this, which is going to be published in a promo for one of my film-making books. As a nine year old, I stumbled across Wild Cat Island just days after seeing the film. I was so thrilled to be standing where the film had been made, and so excited to see how clever use of the camera could exaggerate the feeling of a location and capture the magic of performance, that I set out to discover everything I could about film. It was a life-changing moment.
My daughters (5 and 7) adore Titty, and we are all impressed by your acting. I’ve directed my girls in a couple of things, and I know they gained confidence from having seen you perform. When Tabitha, my eldest daughter, saw the film for the first time, she burst into tears at the end. It was a release of pure joy, and is testament to the quality of the film.
I live in Australia now, but returned to the island in 2010 with Tabitha and Harriet (rowing all the way from the other end of the lake). We stayed at Bank Ground Farm. This months we went back and were lucky enough to sail Swallow into the Secret Harbour. It was a windy October day, and quite a frantic sail, but I can honestly say it was one of the highlights of my life.
When reading your recent post about set dressing at Bank Ground Farm, I wondered if you’d noticed that the clock on the mantlepiece is still there. It’s on the other mantlepiece, I believe, but it is still there. I have no idea whether it is a prop that was left behind, or whether the film-makers used the clock that belonged to the farm.
Our set designer or ‘Art Director’ on Swallows and Amazons was Simon Holland. He worked tirelessly with his assistant Ian Whittaker and team of Prop men, making every effort to use absolutely authentic props and set dressing. It must have involved quite a bit of research. Holly Howe, for instnace would not have had mains electricity or back in 1929, so he made sure oil lamps were on set. These would have been modified by the Sparks so that it looked as if they lit the room in those evening scenes when we were busy packing.
The people of the Lake District still remember Simon asking if he could buy old tins of food. It seemed such an unusual request. When it came to making labels for the cans of ‘Pemmican’ he painted them himself ~
Simon had worked as the set dresser on the thriller Callan starring Edward Woodward, that we all saw in 1974. He had earlier been the Art Director on Bartleby, which featured Paul Scholfield with John McEnery in the title role. Swallows and Amazons must have been one of his first features. He was only thirty-two that summer of 1973.
Simon Holland went to to work on well known movies such as Equus, Greystoke, Quadrophenia, The Sleeping Dictionary set in Sarawakand Tales of the Riverbank which starred Stephen Fry as the Owl and Miranda Hart as Miss March. He sadly died in 2010 at the age of 70 but will be remembered fondly by us all.
I have found the entry that Suzanna wrote in her diary at this time when we were filming at Bank Ground Farm. She drew a picture of the blue and white checked dress she wore and drescribed an interview with a reporter.
This is the newspaper clipping that Suzanna stuck in her dairy that featured Virginnia McKenna and the six of us children in one of the old motors that Simon Holland found to dress the Railway Platform set at Haverthwaite Station on the first day of filming.