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Since being contacted by others who were involved in the filming, I have been able to add a few more anecdotes and images, including this beautiful shot of Virginia McKenna in 1973 kindly sent in by the photographer Philip Hatfield.
I found a copy of my original contract for the film and when Jean McGill rang from Bowness, a few more secrets floated to the surface.
CBBCTV’s Cinemaniacs interviewed the screenwriter David Wood and myself on how the original movie of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was made back in the summer of 1973. The idea was to use 30 second clips, so please excuse my over-the-top reactions, but you can watch the whole recording below.
‘This has to be one of the most delightful interviews in my recent memory.’ Tim Lewis, USA
“It’s Jean!” It was Jean McGill ringing from Bowness in Cumbria. She had been our driver and the unit nurse on the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ made in the Lake District from May to July 1973, released a year later in 1974.
“I’ve never seen the film,” Jean declared, “but I loved your book about making it. It brought back such memories.” I urged her to tell me more. “I remember when Suzanna Hamilton cut her hand whittling wood. It was bleeding like anything. I bandaged it up nicely but the director was horrified and made me take the dressing off again.” I think this was when we were in the middle of filming on Peel Island. The accident put an end to our wood carving hobby, which was a shame. We’d been using a Swiss Army knife to make our own bows and arrows with Bob Hedges the prop man.
” You children persuaded me to go out to dinner with Ronnie Fraser! Why I went, I haven’t the foggiest. He was a rough character – very coarse.” Ronald Fraser was the movie actor playing Captain Flint. “I used to have to drive him to the local hotel in the mornings and order champagne to sober him up.”
“How would champagne have helped to sober him?”
“I don’t know. He told me it would.”
“I think he’d been divorced for a while at the time.”
“I wouldn’t have married him in the first place,” Jean assured me.
Jean had been taken on as the unit nurse after the first nurse proved rather out of her depth. I thought she was a State Registered Nurse but she corrected me. She had 26 years experience in nursing becoming a hospital sister but was never an SRN. “I was a driver for Browns (of Ambleside)” and as such was paid to work on the film. “I wasn’t paid to be the unit nurse. It didn’t matter, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
I only found out recently that my mother hadn’t been paid to be a chaperone either, despite the responsibility as well as her legal obligations. It was hardly a big budget movie. Like Jean, she was simply thanked with a bouquet of flowers at the end of the filming.
Jean was one of the few local people who worked on the film throughout the seven weeks we were on location. Her local knowledge made all the difference as she knew the roads well, took short cuts to avoid the traffic and knew the best swimming spots when the weather warmed up.
I reminded Jean about the early 1970s – what we ate and how we dressed. ” I bought a pair of jeans for the first time in my life. It was so hot that I changed into shorts while we were on set. You children took the jeans and stitched a big red heart on the backside.” There was a craze for adding embroidered patches to denim clothing. These were expensive to buy but we persuaded to Sten Grendon’s mother to make red hearts for everyone’s jeans. “It made walking through Ambleside very embarrassing.” Jean sounded as if she was still recovering from the indignity 43 years later. “It mucked me up!”
Jean went on to drive for Mountain Goat Tours in Cumbria and worked in a doctor’s surgery before becoming a registrar for ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’. “I’m a coffin-kicker now,” Jean told me cheerfully. She never worked on another film but kept a copy of the original screenplay and other memorabilia.
Not long after I spoke to her a brown paper package arrived in the post. It contained an envelope with the writing,
FOR THE ATTENTION OF TITTY
‘Still looking for the photographs. Will send to you when I find them. 43 years old? It was this tatty when I got same! Jean.’
And this is what the envelope contained:
Here is Jean in her red top talking to my mother in her Donny Osmond hat:
David Stott, the Ambleside lad who worked as a unit driver on the film of Swallows & Amazons in 1973 after he left college at the age of 19, has written from America:
‘I really enjoyed reliving Swallows & Amazons through your book.’
‘Oh my, what a trip down memory lane it was for me – so much that l had forgotten was rekindled. I cannot believe that it was forty years ago.
‘I think that I started work (on the film in) mid-June, which would fit in with finishing college. From your daily schedule it was when you went back to Coniston with Virgina McKenna on her second visit.’
David remembers the problem of being locked out of Bank Ground Farm by Mrs. Batty. ‘I really could not blame her as the whole place had been turned into a circus and her house ripped apart.’
‘The first morning I met Richard Pilbrow was in his bedroom for some strange reason and remember thinking, ‘What a total mess. How can anybody live like this?’
‘My main contacts were Neville Thompson (the On-line Producer) and Graham Ford (the Production Manager). They were all based at Kirkstone Foot Hotel that was owned by friends of my parents, Simon and Jane Bateman. Others stayed at the Waterhead Hotel down by the lake, where I would pick them up and take them to the location.
‘On arrival at the location I remember well the catering van and the breakfast that awaited us. Having just competed three years studying hotel management at college I was amazed how two people with very limited equipment could produce the number of meals they did. The washing up was done on a trestle table outside the van with bowls of water carried to location in large milk churns.
‘I did not have much contact with you and the other children, as you were under the watchful eye of your Mum and Jean McGill. Jean’s Mum was called Girly McGill and used to run a nursing home in Ambleside. As a child I used to deliver eggs to the home with my Dad. Jean had a brother who I think everybody called Blondie.
‘Sten was a bit of a handful at times and held up shooting on a number of occasions while he was calmed down. I rather envied Simon West; I wished I had the chance he did to act in a film. To this day I’m a frustrated actor.
‘Dennis Lewiston (the Director of Photography) always seemed to be holding a light meter in the air or perhaps he was warding off the clouds. I found him a little unapproachable.
‘My recollection of Sue Merry the continuity girl was setting up her folding table and tapping away on a portable typewriter.
‘Ronnie Cogan the hairdresser and I spent hours chatting. Once the shooting started, we had nothing else to do. He was such a nice man.
‘I was thrilled when I met Virginia McKenna and had to drive her around. One day I had to drive her to Grange railway station. I was so fascinated by her tales of working with lions in Born Free that I drove slowly to maximise her story-telling time. We almost missed the train and had to run from the car park.
‘One of the wettest days I remember is when the scene of Octopus Lagoon was filmed above Skelwith Fold Caravan Site. I don’t remember the support buses being around that day, but I do remember having to sit in the car for hours on end. Maybe the buses were somewhere else.
‘I know I was invited to the wrap party but cannot remember a thing about it.’
David Stott has emailed me, sending a photo of himself with his friends in the summer of 1973:
‘It was taken at college just before l started work on Swallows and Amazons… I am the one on the right with the yellow sweater. Love the hairstyles. Fashion-wise it was the era of Crimplene, as evident in my friend Pauline’s dress. I remember I wore a brown Crimplene jacket when I was driving the unit car.’
For the last twenty-six years David has been the resident proprietor at the Crossways Hotel near Willmington, a beautiful Georgian restaurant with rooms in East Sussex near Glynebourne, which makes the perfect place to stay if you are lucky enough to get tickets for the opera.
David recently added more tales of impro-parrot-y to the comments:
‘I also remember the incident when Ronnie Fraser sang “Drunken Sailor”. I delivered him back to location from a very drunken session at The Lodore Swiss Hotel, dragging him from the bar. He was not a pretty sight. Was it that the same afternoon that he had to fall into the lake? My memory is a little sketchy, but l seem to remember he was pretty far gone on that occasion as well.’
‘My neighbour Mrs. Dora Capstick was employed to show Captain Flint how to play the accordion. Of course I think the music was dubbed at a later date.’ I can only suppose that she taught him how to play the sea shanty, What shall we do with the drunken sailor? since that is what he was playing in the shot at the end of the film.
‘I had forgotten the name of the parrot lady, Mrs. Proctor, she lived in a cottage in one of the old yards in Kendal. I was scared to death of Beauty and I don’t know how you could bear to have him on your shoulder.
‘I vaguely remember your mother and I was friendly with Jean McGill the unit nurse who was another local Ambleside Girl.’
‘I was friendly with some of the production assistants but cannot remember their names. Quiet a few hours were spent on the double-decker buses that were used on location.
‘Another memory I have is having to wait for the London train to collect the rushes then get them back to the Kirkstone Foot Hotel for an evening screening and felt very privileged when l was allowed to stay and watch them.’
Does anyone else remember helping to make the movie Swallows & Amazons, or coming to watch the filming in 1973? Please do add your memories in the comments box below.
Monday morning on Derwentwater in the Lake District and we had no lessons. The Cumbrian schools had broken-up for the summer holidays, so we were free to play, or as freely as you can be when you are wearing a costume that can not under any circumstances get wet or dirty.
Although Claude Whatham was operating with a skeleton crew our wardrobe master Terry Smith was still getting us into the right kit for each scene. My mother said that he either got muddled or distracted at one point as a whole sequence was shot with all of us wearing the wrong costumes. It caused quite a fuss. It would have been expensive in time and money. She thought he had been given the sack, but this doesn’t appear to have been the case.
One of the secrets of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is that, on this day, Terry Smith adapted Ronald Fraser’s costume and white colonial pith helmet for our property master Bob Hedges to wear. It was he that fired the cannon on the houseboat.
Clive Stewart of the Keswick Launch Co. was one of a number of Cumbrian boatman who worked on the support crew for the filming of Swallows and Amazons in 1973. They played a vital role not only ferrying us to the location but acting as safety boats and keeping modern boats out of shot. They were certainly busy once the wind got up on this particular day. Claude Whatham handed over the direction of montage sequence of the Swallows’ first voyage to the island to David Blagden, our sailing director. At last we had the sun and wind for it – if not too much wind. By now were were pretty experienced but the little ship was challenged to the full as wind gusted down from Cat Bells.
Suzanna Hamilton wrote in her diary that, ‘…it was very rough. We thought we were going to do a Chinese jibe but it was OK. We sailed the whole length of the lake.’ What must have been tricky for Simon West was that he had Denis Lewiston, the lighting-cameraman, on board with a 16mm camera, as well as all our clumsy camping equipment. You can see me heaving the crockery basket past the camera on the movie. The result was probably the most exciting sequence in the film, or so my father later declared.
Jean McGill, our unit nurse and driver, was ever around to scoop us up and keep everyone cheerful when we came in feeling a bit chilly.
In the evening Richard Pilbrow, his girl-friend Molly Friedel and his assistant Liz Lomax came up to our guesthouse in Ambleside to show us the cine footage they took on the sailing weekend that had been the final audition for our parts. This had taken place in March at sailing town of Burnham-on-Crouch in the Maldon District of Essex when were stayed on board a moored vessel and went out sailing with David Blagden in quite grey, chilly weather. The conditions had been pretty rough then. I remember telling Claude that we ‘helmed like anything’. I felt terribly embarrassed later when I realised that ‘helmed’ was not exactly what I had meant to say but I don’t think Claude was familiar with sailing terminology at the time. He would have like the spirit of what I said.
It had been choppy but none of our days had been as rough as David Blagden’s Atlantic crossing, famously made in his tiny orange-hulled 19 foot yacht Willing Griffin. I wonder if the footage of this still exists?
Richard Pilbrow must put me right on this, but the theory is that he acquired Swallow that weekend. We were told at the London Boat Show that she was originally the all-purpose run-around dinghy built by and for William King & Sons’ boatyard at Burnham-on-Crouch in the 1930s. She has the initials WK carved on her transom. They designed her well – a stable little ship with plenty of room inside and no centre-board to worry about. You can see detailed photographs of her on the Sailing Swallow website.
What with all the buckets of water being flung about after yesterday’s filming, Mummy had lost Lesley’s ring. It was a gold ring. Since it would not have been appropriate for an Amazon Pirate of 1929, Lesley couldn’t wear it with her costume. Mum slid it onto her little finger to keep it safe for her. It slid off. We looked and looked, but couldn’t find it anywhere.
And what with all the nocturnal pushings-in Graham Ford our production manager, had broken his ankle. Although we were up and about it became clear that the entire film crew were comatose after the Wrap Party. There was certainly no sign of the director. Since it was also raining, an unexpected day off from filming was called. Instead of heading for Derwent Water we went exploring the Lake District – in different ways. I made a discovery about Rio, or at least the origin of its name.
It seemed normal to have lunch at the Waterhead Hotel. It would be a great treat now. We split up into two groups for the afternoon, which is how I came to explore Rio with the Amazon pirates.
It was so sweet of Gareth and Jean to give us presents. I wonder what happened to the pendant with the cross? It would be the height of fashion now. I remember Jean explaining that she wanted to give us a little bit of the Lake District to take home. This came in the form of a bedside lamp made out of a chunk of slate. Mine soon had a pink shade on top. I used it for years.
The Ambleside Rushbearing Parade was amazing. I can see exactly why Arthur Ransome thought of Rio as the town on Titty’s chart. The festival was like a colourful Rio carnival. Crowds came out to watch as the procession came down the hill. If you click on the snap-shot Mum took above, you will find photographs of what it must have looked like when he was a boy with a brass band and everyone out in their best hats as they walked down to St Mary’s Church.
Again, if you click on the shot of above, you will find details of what happens today. The wonderful photographs on the Visit Cumbria site show rushbearing ceremonies held on Saint’s days at different churches in Cumbria throughout the summer.
Traditionally the children of Ambleside are given a piece of homemade gingerbread if they have carried one of the rushes. We hadn’t done this but we did join in with the hymn and the kind neighbours living nextdoor to Mrs Price and the Oakland Guesthouse gave us some gingerbread for tea.
We met the Price family at the festival. The two girls where both carrying dressed reeds. You may recognise Mr Price. He appeared in Swallows and Amazons as the Native who came up to Roger at the jetty in Rio and said, ‘That’s a nice little boat you have there.’ Roger said, ‘Yes.’
Mrs Price must have worked so hard. She had three children ~ a little boy as well as the girls ~ and a number of students from the Charlotte Mason College of Education staying at the guesthouse while cooking our breakfast and high tea. I expect the demands of the filming, what with drivers coming and going, was a little more that she had originally imagined. No one knew what would be happening next. Although most of the crew were leaving ~ going away from Rio ~ we knew we had to be back on location the next day.
Here is a snippet of footage Mum took of the festival. Blink and you’ll miss me ~
Before Jean McGill arrived at the Oaklands Guesthouse in Ambleside, to transport us to the location, a letter arrived. It was from my Daddy who somehow must have found time to post a quick note while taking my sisters to school. We were, indeed, all looking forward to the wrap party to be held that evening. There was much to do before it started. Twelve scenes are listed on the Unit Call Sheet and it was pouring with rain.
Here we are – it was Ernie Russell who was in charge of the action and support boats. Does anyone know where he is now? The day proved difficult and wet, but everyone was in high spirits. It was the last day for most.
It was a great Wrap party, held at the unit hotel. Suzanna noted that it didn’t start until 10 O’clock. 10pm! Very grown up. It must have been the talk of Ambleside. Mum took off her Donny Osmond hat and wore a long high-collared dress in pink gingham. I wore the brown and black velvet pinafore dress Mummy and Daddy had bought me in Carnaby Street when we went up to London for my first interview with Claude Whatham. Everyone was kind and jolly. For a while the party revolved around us. We enjoyed the dancing so much didn’t want to leave, but it was evident that the adults wanted to start to play. As you can imagine, no one could persuade us to go to bed. Jean McGill saved the evening by organising a conga. Having led a sheltered life I had never danced the conga before and thought it the greatest fun. Luckily the Carnaby Street dress was well designed for the job. We conga-ed around the Kirkstone Foot Hotel with the entire crew. Somehow we ended up conga-ing into her mini-bus and were whisked back to Oaklands before midnight.
This clip shows Jean McGill (in red) with Sophie Neville (in blue tracksuit top) and Albert Clarke our stills photographer. Our Chaperone, Jane Grendon, is teasing Terry Needham, the second assistant director. Simon West, playing John Walker, stands by Derwentwater in costume. Neville C Thompson (in yellow shirt) smiles at our glamorous tutor Margaret Causey while Graham Ford and others get into a support boat. Actor Ronald Fraser walks towards the lake and waiting boat, followed by hairdresser Ronnie Cogan. You can see Swallow in the background whilst Jean McGill chats to my mother, Daphne Neville who is wearing her yellow, flowery Donny Osmond hat. She originally had a pink flowery version, which Claude admired (and wore himself) but it blew off and sunk to the bottom of the lake.
Forty years ago today we were filming with Virginia McKenna at the location used for Arthur Ransome’s Holly Howe above Coniston Water. It was a day of days – the sunshiny day that we had all be waiting for.
The buttercups and daisies were still out in the field that flows from Holly Howe to the lake. Roger was able to tack up the meadow to receive the despatches from Mrs Walker, described in the opening pages of Arthur Ransome’s book.
‘…Each crossing of the field brought him nearer to the farm. The wind was against him, and he was tacking up against it to the farm, where at the gate his patient mother was awaiting him.’
I don’t think you can tell that this section of the scene was recorded seven whole days later than the sequence that runs directly on from this when the Boy Roger delivers the very same ‘If not duffers’ telegram to Captain John. The hole that had been dug for the camera alongside our picnic had been filled in. You can see this from Mother’s perspective when I was milling about near the lake looking towards the island I couldn’t actually see.
Poor Sten, he had to run up the field on what proved to be our hottest day. I remember Jean McGill, the Unit Nurse ministering cool drinks and a flannel soaked in cool eau de Cologne to make sure he did not get dehydrated. We all wanted a go with the cool cloth on the back of our necks at lunch time.
It was good to escape the heat by getting out on the water. We shot the scene set on the old stone jetty at the boat houses below the farm when Titty leads ‘Good Queen Bess’ down to the harbour to inspect her ship. I didn’t realise she had a large box of matches in her hand. Virginia kept it a surprise from us in real life. I was excited to find out that Simon Holland, the Designer had painted the branded cover by hand.
As the Call Sheet specifies, our dinghy Swallow had been loaded with all the tents and camping equipment that had been on Peel Island the day before. I didn’t realise at the time quite how often the design team had struck camp and made it up again. I just sat on top of the equipment singing Adieu and Farewell, not very well, as we sailed out onto Coniston Water, waving goodbye to our Fair Spanish Ladies.
I am sure that we had already recorded the scene in David Wood’s screenplay when the Walker family arrive at Holly Howe, but Claude decided to take advantage of the golden light and shoot it again. I am sure this was a good decision. It had been a long day and we were tired but the excitement of our arrival is tangible.
My mother thought that Mrs and Mrs Jackson, Mrs Walker’s nurse and Vicky the ship’s baby, who are listed as Extras on the Call Sheet, were particularly well cast. It must have been a long day for them. It was a long hot day for all of us, but a happy day.
The girls who had been taken on as our Stand-in’s the day before did not seem to be around to help limit the hours we spent on set, but perhaps I am muddled. They may have only materialized on Peel Island at a later date.
What I really did not know, until I watched the documentary broadcast last Sunday, was that Mrs Batty, who held the lease on Bank Ground Farm, had locked out the crew. She explained that when she was originally asked if we could film on her property she did not quite realise the scale of operations and only asked for – or accepted – a location fee of £75. The arrival of the two red double-decker buses, the Lee Electric van, the generator and other lorries, not to mention the Make-up caravan rather daunted her, as did the furniture moving activities involved at the start of the filming when we shot the interior scenes. She said that she decided that £75 was not enough, padlocked her front gate and wouldn’t let them back in until they agreed to pay her £1,000. It was a lot of money, more than double the fee I received.
You may have seen the BBC documentary about the making of Swallows and Amazons, when Ben Fogle interviewed Suzanna Hamiltonand myself at Bank Ground Farm for ‘Big Screen Britain’. This was re-packaged last year on a programme called Country Tracks. My father’s 16mm footage had been skilfully inter-cut with an interview with our Director, Claude Whatham.I did not know that it was being broadcast but was able to watch on-line.
If you would like to read more, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ is available on Amazon Kindle and all ebook platforms.
16th May 1973, was the third day of filming the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, recorded in this letter that my mother wrote to my father who was at home in Gloucestershire with my two younger sisters.
Mum kept her letters, my diaries and scrapbooks in a smart carrier bag. It once contained an expensive velvet dress bought for me in Carnaby Street when we met Claude Whatham, the director of Swallows and Amazons back in April 1973
1970’s English food ~
The food at our guest house was talking its toll. It was not a good idea to feed children on packet soups and baked beans in the days when 35mm film stock was so extremely expensive. No one realised why, but the ingredients made Sten hyper-active, or as my mother put it, ‘causing a little hoo hah.’ A visiting journalist wrote, ‘By the end of the day Roger, aged seven, had mown down the entire film crew using a hammer as a mock machine gun. He had fallen down several times and emerged with grazed knees all splattered with mud.’
Location catering ~
Suzanna Hamilton, who was playing Susan, simply refused to eat the revolting food. Mum said, “I couldn’t get her to eat anything.” Location catering is excellent now but back in the early 1970’s it could be pretty basic canteen food produced from a ‘chuck wagon’. We’d queue up for a tray of meat and two veg, which was usually consumed in a red London double-decker converted into a dining bus. There were no salads, no fruit, just a working man’s lunch with coffee in plastic cups and paste sandwiches provided later with tea. The tea was good.
The fruit bowl in our bus ~
Mum started to order fruit and we relished it. Back then, it was a huge treat to have bananas or melon, oranges and grapes. A bowl sat in our bus where we were given lessons on Formica tables downstairs. The upper deck was used by Terry the Wardrobe Master as as our changing room. It was furnished with bunk beds. Mum made us rest in these after lunch. I don’t think she could pin down the Amazons easily but she made me use them. I know I objected at first but I must have needed to lie down and rest properly, especially when it was cold.
Molly and Richard Pilbrow on location with the two red London Double Decker buses where coffee was being served ~ photo: Daphne Neville
The film crew ~
Apart from Sue Merry the ‘Continuity Girl’ the film crew consisted entirely of men, forty-five of them. I include the Hair and Make-up Designers, the Wardrobe Master, the Art Director, Set Dresser, Prop men and Carpenters, Sound Recordist and Boom Operator, the Director of Photography, Camera Operator, Focus Puller and Grips with the Electricians from Lee Electric who looked after the lights and generators, Lorry Drivers and Sailing Director, the Director, three Assistant Directors and the Production Associate and Producer. I think there might have been a Film Accountant and Location Manager. Being a feature film we had a permanent Stills Photographer and a Publicity Manager. And this was a small crew as Terry seemed to cope without Wardrobe Assistants or Dressers. They all knew each other pretty well from being on previous movies. I have a list of where they had digs in Ambleside. It’s quite interesting to see who shared with who. Whenever we needed boats up to six local boatmen could also join the queue for the chuck wagon – and the mobile loos. Mum wouldn’t let me use them. They were looked after by a ratty looking chap who later managed to persuade one of the Ambleside girls that he was the film’s Producer.
Neville Thompson, who was effectively the on-line Producer, had a production secretary called Sally Shewing, but she must have been stuck in the production office as we never saw her. Molly Friedel, Richard Pilbrow’s girl friend and assistant, was often on location. We adored her. She was American, tall with long brown hair and always had time for us. I remember her working on the lighting design for the next Rolling Stones Concert by the shore of Lake Coniston while we milled about, playing on the rocks.
We had our tutor, Mrs Causey and a wonderful mini-bus driver called Jean McGill. She had been a top British Airways air hostess but had returned to Cumbria to look after her ailing mother and was driving us around the area she so loved to keep busy. As soon as my mother found out that she was also a qualified nursing sister she made sure that Jean was taken on as the official location nurse, which was great as it meant she could be around the whole time and we never had to wait for the bus. We found we soon needed a nurse too. Someone was always hurting themselves.
So in all, with our chaperones there were usually about six women around as well as journalists, friends and relatives who came to watch. It was a huge circus with often eighty people milling about. Certianly the Call Sheet asks the caterers to provide lunch for seventy on normal days. It would be much more when we had crowd scenes such as when we explored Rio.
The male:female ratio on crews is very different today. There are often more women than men, perhaps not on movies but certainly on BBC drama crews. It was already different by 1983 when Richard and Molly Pilbrow came to visit us on the location of Coot Club in Norfolk, where there were about equal numbers of men and women on set. It made for a better, family atmosphere, certainly more appropriate with so many children involved. Since he still held the rights to Arthur Ransome’s series of Swallows and Amazons books, Richard was the Executive Producer on the BBC serial Joe Waters produced. It was so good to see him again. I gather he is still going strong having just been awarded the Knights of Illumination Lifetime Recognition Awardfor more than 50 years of work in theatre lighting.