Tag Archives: John Walker

Captain John, Master of the Swallow, played by Simon West in 1973

Simon West and Sophie Neville on Peel Island in 1973

Simon West and Sophie Neville  as brother and sister on Peel Island in 1973

I had dinner with Captain John last night. It was extraordinary meeting up after forty years; a lifetime had whizzed by.

Tall, with dark hair, Simon West is no longer recognisable as John Walker but he looks back fondly on our time making the film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons in 1973, when we spent seven weeks of the summer term on location in the Lake District. To my surprise he doesn’t remember being cold at all. I claim that he was given a few more clothes to wear than me and had more to concentrate on. He was at the helm whilst I was a mere able-seaman in Swallow. He said that he hated it when she was wired to the pontoon and he had to pretend he was sailing.

BW Swallow about to jibe

Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton sailing Swallow from Peel Island where Sophie Neville stands shivering on the shore. Was this shot filmed from a camera pontoon?

Simon thought that I probably remember more about the experience than he did because my mother was there, chatting about what was going on every evening and naturally re-enforcing the shared experience.

‘I must have kept a diary, as it was part of our schoolwork, but I haven’t seen it since. I’ll look in my parent’s attic.’ Simon thought that it was his mother who put together an album from the black and white photos that Richard Pilbrow gave us after the filming.

Simon West as Captian John sailing Swallow . Sten Grendon plays the Boy Roger in the bows

Simon West as Captain John sailing Swallow near Peel Island on Coniston Water. Sten Grendon plays the Boy Roger in the bows.

Simon said that he remembers more about filming the six-part BBC serial, ‘Sam and the River’, in which he had the title role in 1974. Much of it was shot on the Thames Tideway east of London. ‘Of course all those places have changed enormously since then, whilst the Lakes are very much the same. I have never been able to find a copy of that series, which is a shame. I’d love to see it.’ We can’t find a copy in English, but there is a version in German entitled ‘Tom und die Themse’  currently for sale on DVD here.

Simon’s own children grew up watching Swallows & Amazons, which is still broadcast once or twice a year on television. He said that when they went to see the Warner Bros. Studios in Hertfordshire where much of the Harry Potter movies were made he felt hugely appreciative of the fact that we had been out on location the whole time, rather than boxed up on a film stage, acting against a green back ground.

Director Claude Whatham wearing his American Parker coat, looking on as Dennis Lewiston and Eddie Collins line up a shot over Derwentwater at dawn

Claude Whatham wearing his American Parker coat, as Dennis Lewiston and Eddie Collins line up a shot over Derwentwater at dawn

Simon did remember the great Parker coats that Richard and Claude found to cope with the Cumbrian weather. So do I. My father bought one too. They were blue-grey and enormous, lined with fake sheepskin, their hoods edged with Eskimo-like fake fur.

‘They had recently come over from America,’ he explained, ‘And were a real innovation. Before that we just had tweed coats.’

‘And Mackintoshes. Dennis Lewsiton wore a blue Mac.’

‘Those dreadful nylon anoraks,’

‘That are back in fashion.’

‘The American Parkers are fashionable now too – all that fake fur around the hood. Uggh.’

Suddenly the cogs of close association clicked in. Simon tossed his head in a certain way that I recognised as his own expression of humour. He said that he was really pleased that Bobby Moore chatted to him at the film Premier at Shaftesbury Avenue.

‘Sir Booby Moore? Was he there?  Did we meet him?’

‘Yes.’

I’d totally forgotten.

Simon said that he had become very attached to his Parker fountain pen from Aspreys, engraved with the words ‘Swallows & Amazons- 1973’, that Claude Whatham gave to each of us as a gift after the filming. ‘Stupidly I left in the boot of my car when I was in Paris, aged about twenty-seven. It was stolen with a load of other things.’ I had lost mine too. I dropped it on a footpath somewhere in Durham.

‘What did you spend your fee on?’

‘Oh, sailing dinghies.  It was good to know I had £500 in the bank around the time I was heading towards the British Championships. You know, at first we had ply board hulls but the time came when I needed to buy a fibreglass boat.’ It was with this that he became the National Optimist Champion. We agreed it was money put to good use.

After the age of about sixteen, Simon’s family became interested in orienteering. Maps seems to have had a strong influence on both our lives.

Simon West as John Walker studying the chart at Holly Howe before the voyage.

Simon West as John Walker studying the chart at Holly Howe before the voyage.

Simon and his wife now have four grown children. ‘We are split down the middle: three of us sail, three of us do not.’ But every year he takes the family up to the Lake District to go fell walking, something they all enjoy very much.

If anyone sees a brushed steel Parker pen on eBay engraved with the words ‘Swallows & Amazons 1973’ please let me know.  I’d love to be able to return it to Captain John.

Here you can see Simon appearing in ‘Sam and the River'(1975). This is the German version entitled Tom und die Themse:

31 Comments

Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Dinghy sailing, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Zanna Hamilton

Filming the night scenes for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker

Sophie Neville as Titty Walker

The Lake District is very beautiful. The problem about filming there is that it can rain quite hard – heavely – was the word I used in 1973. By this stage in the filming of Swallows and Amazons Claude Whatham only had one ‘rain cover’ option. We were kept busy recording sea shanties with Virginia McKenna at the Kirkstone Foot Hotel by Lake Windermere while Dennis Lewiston, the DOP, lit Mrs Batty’s barn at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water. Arthur Ransome must have done much to revive the songs of the sea ~

Farewell and adieu to you, fair Spanish ladies, Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain; For we’ve under orders for to sail for old England, And we may never see you fair ladies again.

We never got as far as the ranting and roaring bit in the film.

No one really knows how old this naval song is. The Oxford Book of Sea Songs, mentions it in the logbook of the Nellie of 1796, long before shanties really came extablished as a genre. All I know is that Titty loved it and was still singing it in Peter Duck when the song became quite useful for navigating the English Channel.

‘The first land we sighted was called the Dodman, Next Rame Head off Plymouth, Start, Portland and Wight; We sailed by Beachy, by Fairlight and Dover, And then we bore up for the South Foreland light,’  or sort of.

Walking into Mrs Batty’s barn that day was hugly excting. Simon Holland, the designer, had mounted Swallow on a cradle so that she could be rocked, as if by water, as the scenes of her sailing at night were shot.  It was brilliant, she even went about. Moonlight wasn’t not a problem. Richard Pilbrow can correct me, but I think it was produced by a lamp called a ‘tall blonde’. I don’t think we had a wind machine. The Prop Men used a large sheet of cardboard to produce a breeze.

‘Wouldn’t Titty have liked this?’

‘Liked what?’

‘Sailing like this in the dark.’

’57, 58, 60, 61…’

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Can’t you hear it? The wind in the trees?  We must be near the bank. Quick, Susan lower the sail! Roger, catch the yard as it comes down!’ Then there is a crunch as the Swallows hit a landing stage. All mocked up. Quite fun.

‘What about Titty?’

Amazon was placed on the same mounting. I climbed aboard and started wrapping myself up in her white sail.

Children always love the irony of John saying, ‘She’s at the camp. She’ll be allright. She’s got a tent,’ when the shot cuts to me looking damp and uncomfortable about sleeping in Amazon, anchored out on the water.

Later I wake up and come out from under the sail to hear the burgulars heaving  Captain Flint’s trunk across Cormortant Island. All in all we achieved quite a bit on that wet day in Westmorland. Much safer and easier than being out on the water.  Because the cradle was at waist height Claude was able to get lower angle shots than when out on the camera pontoon. I think Simon West, who played John, did really well.  He managed to convince me that he was really sailing when I watched the film and I knew he wasn’t.

Back at our guest house in Ambleside there was a real life drama. Little Simon Price had gone missing.  He was the small boy last seen on the beach at Rio, having his shorts pulled up by his sister. The Police were called and everything. But as in a lot of real life situations, things were sorted out, and we returned to the mundane world of maths lessons. I was tutored by Helen, one of the students at the Charlotte Mason College of Education who was also lodging at Oaklands as Mrs Causey, our teacher, could not ‘do modern Maths.’

5 Comments

Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, e-publication, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

‘It’s a shark! It’s a shark!’ One of the most enjoyable days filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

Sophie Neville and Simon West on the cover of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ pub by the Daily Mail

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.

Filming the fishing scene

Filming the fishing scene from the camera punt on Elterwater

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.

Property Master Bob Hedges keeping the perch alive  ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

The local fisherman, Ian Whittaker, Simon Holland and Gareth Tandy with the fish  photo: Daphne Neville

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.

The general Store in Rio

Sophie Neville in Rio with four bottles of grog ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

2 Comments

Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Letters, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized

Setting sail from Wildcat Island during the filming of Swallows and Amazons in 1973

If it is tricky navigating in and out of the Secret Harbour on Peel Island, leaving from the Landing Place under sail in a clinker built dinghy can prove even more hazadous. You need a decent shove to get going so you can catch the wind, escape from snaring tree branches and avoid the danger of flat rocks lurking just under the surface of Coniston Water.  This was my job on a rainy, grey day in the Lake District in 1973. With a telescope in one hand.

On the filming of 'Swallows and Amazons' in 1973

In the finished film you don’t see the shot when I slipped in the water up to my waist, and kept on shoving.  The “Don’t forget about the lights, Titty ” scene had to be re-shot on a sunnier day.

What you see is a long-shot on a grey day with Titty waving furiously from the shore, as Swallow leaves Wildcat Island. You can not see that her dress is soaking wet but the trees on the island indicate just how windy it is. While Susan is waving back, Roger is looking out for rocks for all he is worth. John is sailing hard, running with the wind, with the boom right out and white water on his bow. He hung on, as he had to, until Swallow passed the big rock, before coping with a massive, dramatic jibe. You see him rise to handle this, while Susan ducks. She needed to. It was so violent the mast nearly broke, but John ‘scandalised’, spilling excess wind and sailed on. The film cuts to two closer shots of the jibe taken on the sunny day, then cuts back to the long shot when Susan bobs up and Swallow sails at speed, north up Coniston towards grey clouds and rain over Langdale.

My father watched all this from the shore, knowing the risks, knowing Stephen Grendon aged nine, who played Roger couldn’t swim. But Simon West was proving himself yet again as a very good sailor. He was totally confident. You can tell – even from a distance – how calm he was, how instinctively he read the wind. He knew it would hit him with force as he left the lee of the island.

These wet windy days in the Lake District were a worry to the Producer and a challenge for the crew. They had already lost a number of days to rain. Whilst Claude Whatham, the Director was always trying to find a way of making the best use of his time, David Bracknell, his First Assistant Director had to make things happen. The practicalities of each day rested on his shoulders.

David Bracknell, First Assistant Director on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on the shore of Coniston Water near Peel Island ~ photo: Martin Neville

Just co-ordinating our transport out to Peel Island, so that we while the camera crew were never waiting for us we were not missing time at our lessons – would have been difficult. Getting the tea urns out there twice a day, must have been a struggle. I’m not sure what we did about anyone wanting the loo. There wasn’t even a bucket on the island. Working in purple trousers, with a Motor-roller on his hip, David kept things safe and kept things going whatever the weather. He would call for ‘Quiet’, before each take, calling, ‘Camera? Sound? then: Mark it!’  The clapper board would be named and snapped shut before Claude the Director shouted ‘Action!’  Then off we’d go.  And the rule was to keep going – whatever happened – come the hell of slippery rocks or high water – until the Director shouted ‘Cut!’ David would then take over command and set up either for a re-take or a subsequent shot. Once a scene was completed he’d move the crew on for a new sequence.

The cast of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ setting off in the Capri for Peel Island, my mother in her bobble hat, a journalist taking photographs and Brian Doyle, the film Publicist, wrapped up warm ~ photo: Martin Neville

David Bracknell was very experienced. He’d worked on a number of hugely popular Carry-on movies, which according to Maureen Lipman, were made at terrific speed. Prior to Swallows and Amazons his credits included Carry on Abroad, Carry on at your Convenience, (I’d seen this at school; it’s all about lavortaries) Carry on Henry and Carry on Loving with Kenneth Williams, Sid James and Charles Hawtrey.  He’d worked on Far from the Madding Crowd  with Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Trevor Stamp, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg with Janet Suzman and Peter Bowles, Bless this House with Sid James, Diana Coupland and Sally Geeson and Battle of Britain, which starred Michael Caine, Trevor Howard and Harry Andrews, Ian McShane, Susannah York and Laurance Olivier. By 1984 he was working on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in 1986 on Shaka Zulu with Edward Fox, Robert Powell and Trevor Howard again.  We were in capable hands.

My father recognised this, watching patiently from the base camp with Perry and Tamzin, my younger sisters. I fear it must have been terribly dull for them, especially on the cold grey days, but we were all together and did have a chance to explore Westmorland, as you will see when I reach tomorrow.

My sister Tamzin Neville on the shore of Coniston Water in Cumbria with Stephen Grendon and Peel Island beyond~ photo: Martin Neville

Leave a comment

Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Dinghy sailing, e-publication, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized