The facts behind the concept of a ‘Swallows & Amazons’ childhood

What strikes me about Arthur Ransome’s whole series of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books is that they are set almost exclusively outside in the open – or afloat. When we made the film in 1973 it rained so much in the Lake District that the producer must have longed for the existence of a few more interior scenes. As it was, the longest one ended up on the cutting-room floor. Is this because the essence and appeal of the stories is that they occur beyond the confines of domestic realms?

Blu-ray reading telgram

‘If not duffers, won’t drown.’ Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

When I appeared on Channel 5 last year I learnt the most depressing facts about the decline in the amount of time children spend outdoors. Recent research shows that children tend to stay indoors, watching television, playing computer games or even spend time doing homework, rather than go out to play. Kids today play outside for less than five hours a day at weekends and only for an hour or so during the week, which is half the time their parents spent outdoors, whatever the weather. You’d have thought they must have had higher levels of vitamin D. Apparently only 21% children today play outside near their homes, as compared to 71% of their own parents when they were young.

Blu-ray Swallow's stern


  • 44 % of parents wish their children played outdoors more often.
  • 54 % seriously worry their child doesn’t spend enough time playing outdoors.
  • But 43 % of parents admitted they rely on school to ensure their children are getting plenty of time outdoors through PE and play times, and spend very little outdoor time with their children themselves.
  • One study found that eight in ten parents said their favourite activities as children involved being outdoors. But only half their children lead the same active life.

Apparently parents have forgotten how to play with their kids. While nine of ten parents recognise that it is vital for children to use their imaginations, 16 per cent of parents say they have no idea how to make up stories or create imaginative play. What would Titty say?

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‘X marks the spot where they ate six missionaries!’ Simon West, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon on Peel Island in the English Lake District.

So what’s changed?

  • 32% of parents quote safety fears as the reason their children didn’t play out more often.
  • 19% said it was due to a lack of time.
  • 16% said their children would rather do other things.
  • 53% of parents were reluctance to letting children out of their sight on the danger posed by traffic
  • 40% feared their child would be snatched by a stranger.
  • Over 25% worry their neighbours would disapprove if their children played outdoors unsupervised.

 Blu-ray gutting fish

The Arthur Ransome Society have organised a number of activities for families this summer, including a camp at Cobnor Point on Chichester Harbour from Friday 14th August to Sunday 16th August. The idea is that you bring your own tent, food, drink and a boat if you have one but the cost is very low at £20 for adults and £10 for children. Activities include nature walks, archery, games, signalling and water divinging with sailing when the weather permits. The cost includes a barbeque on the Saturday evening. Please click here for details.

If you missed Dan Damon’s programme on BBC Radio 4, when I spoke on the appeal of a Swallows and Amazons childhood, you can listen to the full recording on BBC World Update by clicking here.

If you would like to read more about the making of the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, please click here:

Better drowned than duffers ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

SSophie Neville on the Daily Telegraph front cover

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker

My diary of  Thursday 14th June 1973 continued…

14th June ~ my Diary at Bank Ground Farm

14th June ~ My diary at Bank Gound Farm

Claude Whatham had no Peak of Darien at Bank Ground Farm,  Arthur Ransome’s location for Holly Howe. But he did have buttercups and daisies, the flowers so evocative of childhood summers spent in the English countryside.  The field that runs down to Coniston Water looked glorious that sunny day in June 1973.  It was glowing.

Claude had used wild flowers to good effect when he made Laurie Lee’s memoir Cider with Rosie for the BBC in May 1971. It had been one of those months of endless sunny days in Gloucestershire but we were in Westmorland now, where buttercups bloomed later in the year and sunny days were cherished. This was Claude’s afternoon for low angle shots.

The view from Bank Ground Farm
The view from Bank Ground Farm over Lake Coniston as it was in 1973

We arrived to find that a huge hole had been dug in the meadow for the camera, with a picnic for us spread out the other side of it.  We thought this was very exciting.  I’m not sure whether Mrs Batty throught quite the same way about the excavations in her field. I was sad that we didn’t have a fire with a kettle, as they do in the book of Swallows and Amazons, but that was kept as a feature of island life and camping yet to come.

Sophie Neville, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Gay Lawley Waklin, Bobby Sitwell, Dennis Lewiston, Albert Clark: photo~ Daphne Neville

Roger came sailing down clutching the telegram from our father, reaching out to deliver it over the hole. I understand that this was based on the cryptic telegrams that Ernest Altounyan sent his children Taqui, Susie, Titty and Roger, the real Swallows. It has become the iconic response to Health and Safety ever since.

Bank Ground Farm
Claude Watham having just spoken to Stephen Grendon playing Roger at Bank Ground Farm. Who is in the foregound? : photo~ Daphne Neville

What we ended up saying altered slightly from David Wood’s original screenplay. ‘Dispatches?’ – Ransome spells the word ‘Despatches’ but apparently both spellings are correct. John referred to Daddy as Father. I’m not sure why. He did so in his letter. It is daddy in the book but perhaps Claude considered ‘Father’ as having a more period feel.  I stuck more to Ransome’s dialogue, as you can see if you compare the film script with my diary entry above. This was only because I knew his book so well, and never saw the script. The acting credit must go to Simon West who sat holding the telegram, graciously absorbing my bossiness, whilst I grappled with the words.

David Wood's screenplay  of 'Swallows and Amazons'
David Wood’s original screenplay of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

Sue Merry typing up continuity notes on location at Bank Ground Farm: photo ~ Daphne Neville

Back in 1973 it was the job of  the ‘Continuity Girl’ to take notes on any changes made to the script. Sue Merry, ever present in her dark coat, took on this role. Today she would probably be known as a Script Supervisor but her Aviator sunglasses and black polo-necked jersey would be the height of fashion. Sue also took notes technical notes for the film editor and director, indicating which Takes were favoured and which had been spoilt, giving the reason. In those days we had no monitors. The camera lens would be unscrewed after each take and checked carefully. If any fluff was found, Bobby Sitwell the Camera Assistant would call out, ‘Hair in the gate!’  Sue would quietly note this down and David Bracknell, the First Assistant, would call out, ‘Set up to go again’. And we’d go again.

Sue was also responsible for the continuity, and would take numerous Polaroid photographs as an aide-memoir. This scene followed the one of Mother giving Roger the telegram, which had not yet been shot. Virginia McKenna hadn’t arrived back inCumbria. Looking back, this seems a huge gamble. Would they ever get another sunny day while the buttercups were still blooming, a day to match – exactly – the weather of 14th June?

Sue would sit and type up her notes on location, using a portable typewriter that sometimes was set up for her on a spindly picnic table. This method of working was different from the BBC, when the ‘Production Assistants’ would type up their notes at the end of each day. Would it have been so that one copy of her notes, typed on triplicate paper, could be sent to the laboratory with the exposed film. It meant that her evenings were free.

Sue Merry had worked for Neville C. Thompson before on The Boyfriend, Ken Russell’s movie that starred Twiggy with Tommy Tune, Barbara Windsor and Glenda Jackson. She later worked on The Wicker Man, Anthony Shaffer’s harrowing film directed by Robin Hardy that featured Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee and Diane Cliento, Britt Ekland and Ingrid Pitt. She went on to work with Dennis Lewiston and other members of our crew on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the movie that starred Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and such unexpected artists such as Meatloaf, Christopher Biggins and Prince Andrew’s old flame Koo Stark,  who played a bridesmaid. Sue also did the continuity for Nicolas Roeg on The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie,  before moving into television to work on The Professionals and The Comic Strip Presents… All quite fun!

But on that day in June 1973, she was the girl with the daisies in her hair, wearing a coat thick enough to indicate that although sunny it was still quite chilly in the Lake District.

You can read more in ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’

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