The process of editing a film can be terrifying for a director. There is always the prospect of finding a sequence that will not cut together. But working with a good film editor is hugely creative and fulfilling. Problems do arise but great things can happen. Richard Pilbrow says in his new book, A Theatre Project that he was completely captivated by the process. ‘Moving a few frames from here to there, could change the whole emphasis of a scene.’ On the whole editing is an exciting, yet more relaxing time for the director than having to lead a massive crew out on location. And the actors are never around.
Sadly I never met Michael Bradsell who edited Swallows and Amazons. Like many others on our film crew he’d worked with Claude Whatham before on the movie That’ll be the Day. He went to on edit many great movies; Local Hero for Bill Forsyth and David Puttman, Henry V for Kenneth Branagh and Wilde, which starred Stephen Fry. Oh, to think that he hauled my image over his Steenbeck.
I remember that when I saw Henry V at the Curzon Cinema in Mayfair, in 1989, there was something terribly wrong with the projection. The lip-sync was out. Kenneth Branagh’s voice was delivered after his lips started moving. It was most off-putting. I knew all about lip-sync because I had been involved in dubbing movies since I was twelve. For, it was back in 1973, when Claude Whatham was working on the sound track for Swallows and Amazons that, rather unusually, I was summons to the EMI Elstreee Studios.
Visiting Elstree Studios was exciting. I remember meeting the Dubbing Mixer and being there with the other Swallows, but I don’t think we saw anyone else in the cast. Suzanna came along with her nine-year-old cousin who was called Seymour – a very bright boy who was wearing stripey canvas trousers like a deck chair. Mummy had bought me a smart new dress that was the height of fashion. Looking at the photograph I rather wish she hadn’t bothered.
We were led into a huge dubbing theater hung with long black drapes around a high white screen. Claude explained that he needed to re-record our dialogue for various sequences. This was because the original soundtrack had been spoilt by the sound of motorboats, car horns or simply the wind. At first we were handed dubbing scripts, but it was difficult to look at them as well as the screen. As we could still remember our lines we didn’t need them. Instead, we stood in front of microphones on spindly stands and sung out the words we knew as sections of the film were projected. To help up a thick black cue-line would pass across the scene. When it hit one side it was time to start speaking. This was to ensure that our voices would be in sync with out lips. It could help, it could be off-putting. In the end we just went for it naturally. After each ‘take’ the film would be re-wound and we would go-again. There is a scene in at the Amazon Boathouse when John scrunches up the Amazon’s message and throws it in the water. It amused us to see this in reverse.
The post-syncing was a chance to improve on our performances and diction. Some time was spent in re-recording our sea shanty, Adieu and Farewell to you Fair Spanish Ladies. I made a mistake here that I have always regretted. Instead of singing sweetly and true I went for volume, which was not only unnecessary, but disastrous. It is acceptable on the film when you can see I am singing out on the water but sounds horrid on the LP. We had no idea at the time that EMI were going to bring out an album to accompany the movie, but they did.
The one line that I simply could not replicate was the dialogue Titty delivered when saying goodbye to the charcoal burners: ‘Thank you so much for letting us see your lovely serpent.’ We went over it again and again, but Jack Woolgar wasn’t at the dubbing studio and I couldn’t do it without looking at him. The charm and sincerity of the moment was not something I could reproduce. In the end Claude said he just had to use the original despite the sound of the roaring wind.
After we had left sound effects would have been added. Richard Pilbrow said that, ‘Bill Rowe was our masterful sound mixer, working magic with birdsong, a rustle of leaves, a broken twig – all the tiniest details that went into making the story spring to life.’ When I watch the film of Swallows and Amazons now I so admire the technique of using sound to illustrate the soaring of Titty’s imagination. The storm bell on Robinson Crusoe’s ship heralds the roaring wind and lends reality to scene when I play the shipwrecked sailor, dragging my parched body towards the island campsite. You can hear parrots and monkeys in the palm trees. I am sure Arthur Ransome would have approved.
Bill Rowe, I read, was the director of Post Production and Sound at Elstree Studios until he died at the age of sixty in 1992. He’d worked on an amazing number of movies winning an Oscar for The Last Emperor and BAFTAs for The Killing Fields, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Alien with nominations for Chariots of Fire, A Clockwork Orange, The Mission and Batman. And to think, we had been playing Hide and Seek behind his sound drapes.
One thing that really worried me was that I saw Swallow lying outside Elstree Studios. She looked forlorn, a ship out of water. Looking back on it they must have needed her to record sound effects. I was concerned that we would not see her again, but we did. The next time we Swallows gathered was to publicize the film. We found ourselves climbing aboard Swallows again, albeit in a very different location from the Lake District. And this I will write about in my next post.
Later in life, when I worked in television production, I spent many months at Elstree Studios at Borehamwood. However these were the BBC Studios on the other side of the road where we recorded endless episodes of Eastenders and the wartime romance Bluebell, programmes that were never post-synced. I’d drive past the old EMI/ATV Studios and never breathe a word that I’d worked there once as an actress.
On 14th June we were back at Ickenthwaite Forest, in Cumbria, to film the sequence when the Swallows visit the Charcoal Burners.
‘He doesn’t look much like a son.’ The real Young Billy was almost indistinguishable from the actor. He seemed to take a wry interest in the filming but what he thought of us, of the crew, I dread to think. We were aliens on his planet. Terribly bossy ones.
Our polystrene coffee cups look so out of place. They were. How much had changed in the art of producing charcoal between 1973 and 1929 when Arthur Ransome set our story?
The Call Sheet for the day scheduled Scene 110 with the adder, but I recorded in my diary that we had completed that the previous day. I must have meant my part in it. The Director, Claude Whatham, was probably using the time to pick-up the shots of Young Billy working with his dampened fire.
Much later, when I asked Claude what made a good director he said, ‘You need to use your time well.’ This probably makes you an employable director, but I think Claude had other assets. We all adored him for one thing, and would do anything for him. We knew that he wanted us to keep going, no matter what happened. Susan really did leave her basket behind at the Charcoal Burners’. When Old Billy called her, she was truly taken aback and sweetly ran to collect it. It’s something that rings true, a natural quality that Claude brought to the film.
The interior of the hut must have been tricky to light. I think we had a real fire burning in the stone grate and Claude was keen for the scene to be atmospherically smoky. The wood smoke itself was fine but the crew were working with smoke guns, since they were more directional and considered more controllable. The acrid fumes produced by their oil canisters choked me but Jack Woolgar was absolutely stoic and kept our attention. I loved drawing with the charcoal. I wish I had drawn him. Apart from the amount of smoke it was lovely inside the mossy wigwam. I could have stayed there quite happily. It was nice and warm.
Albert Clarke, our Stills Photographer, later gave us his unwanted contact sheets to stick in the scrap-books we kept of the filming. Amongst them are these photos he took of the Producer Richard Pilbrow with the charcoal burners of Ickenthwaite Forest.
Audrey Steeley told me that the older chacoal burner is Jack Allonby who lived at Spark bridge, a well known local character. However, Myles Dickinson has written in to say that it is Norman Allonby, Jack’s brother, who lived at Bandrake Head. Audrey thinks the other chap could be Bill Norris, who was an authority on charcoal burning and also from Spark bridge, but that the picture doesn’t look much like him. Does anyone else remember them?
As the Call Sheet decreed, we were scheduled to to move to Bank Ground Farm after lunch to film the receiving of despatches, a scene I look forward to describing in another post…
‘Let’s just run though our lines, shall we?’ Old Jack Woolgar said, in a gentle Cumbrian accent. We were waiting about for some reason, so did just that, sitting by a woodstack. Titty had a lot to say in the scene where we went to see the charcoal burners, but the dialogue was straight out of Arthur Ransome’s book so I it was easy. Or I thought so, until there was Old Billy saying – ‘Ehh, then you’ll be climbing into that mini-bus and off back to Ambleside, I expect.’ I thought, ‘That’s not in Swallows and Amazons! That’s real life.’ ‘Eee, lass! You forgot to come in on your cue.’ I had too. I was so entranced by Old Billy, so lulled by the music of his voice, that I had simply gone on listening to him.
We were still having problems with the weather. It was grey at first but grew to be a bright sunny day in Cumbria, cold with a gale blowing that was knocking the tops of the trees about and making life hard for Graham Ford, the Sound Recordist. This was all a bit difficult as it was meant to be dead calm. ‘It’s blowing up a bit,’ Old Billy put in. I don’t think anyone watching would have noticed if we’d left it at that but our hair was blowing about so madly that Young Billy had a few savage-like words with John about why we weren’t sailing. These are not in the book.
I think Mum did well with her photographs. She only had a small camera but she tried to capture what it was like to be on set, involved in the filming, rather than just focusing on the story. Because her camera made a clicking noise she was only really able to take shots when we were in rehearsal, wearing our Harry Potter-like nylon tracksuit tops, me in a sun-hat, the rest of the crew wrapped up in their warm jackets.
When I watch this scene I notice one technical bit about acting that is never talked about much. You have to hit your mark. Without this being obvious. No looking down. Your mark is the exact position established when the shot is lined up. The camera focus, certainly back then, required actors to be consistent and hit the same position in each take as established in the rehearsal. Look at the opening shot at the top of this post and you can see it is carefully composed – a nice triangle, with all our faces in vision. The important bit – Roger holding my hand is not masked. Do I spoil the magic if I say we are standing on our marks?
If feet can’t be seen a piece of tape was usually placed on the floor in front of the actors’ toes to provide an mark. I used to use different coloured tape for different artistes later on when I was an assistant director. We used chalk on tarmac roads. Tape didn’t stick to most of the locations on Swallows and Amazons so we used sticks or tree bark, taking quite a pride in disguising them. Sometimes a box would be placed on the ground so we could feel it and not have to look down. This could not be done at the charcoal burners’. We all came out of their dark wigwam blinking in the bright sunlight shuffling onto our secret marks, Suzanna glancing down quickly to check she was on her’s.
My diary read:
Was the charcoal heap was a real one? I’m afraid I think, since that hole had to start smoking on cue, that it was constructed for us with a prop man called Terry inside with a smoke gun. I know he suffered rather from getting too much smoke in his eyes and had to be treated by the nurse. There was certainly a great deal of smoke around, which had a wonderful effect.
We could all see the adder but the Sound Recordist wanted to hear her so he buried one at our feet. She was a lovely serpent. Suzanna, who loves snakes with a passion, got close to touching it. She was very disappointed that you can’t see this in the movie. I was a bit scared. Ransome had added that frisson of danger – real life danger – there for us to see.
Jean Woodhouse wrote to say that, ‘ I came to watch Swallows and Amazons being filmed. It was the charcoal burner’s scene. We walked down from our village Primary School (Satterthwaite) but the scene was actually just down the road from where I lived… we were all terrified re-the snake.’ She was about 10 years-old at the time. ‘…because I used to go up and down through the wood each day, I knew the real charcoal burners who worked in there and so that scene in the film has always felt quite special to me.’
One of the most magical things for my mother was meeting the real charcoal burners. They looked exactly like the actors playing the Billies. I will include their photographs in the next posting, as we returned the following day to record the scene inside the wigwam.
Does anyone know the name of the snake wrangler?!