The 45th Anniversary of filming the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater, when Ronald Fraser was obliged to walk the plank in a solar topi in July 1973, was marked by a special screening of the film at the Alhambra in Keswick.
Kerry Derbyshire, who played Vicky’s nurse came on stage and we demonstrated how one of the visual effects was achieved.
I brought one of the original arrows that the Amazon pirates fired over my head. It looks so dangerous on film that the shot was cut from the television version but is included in the re-mastered cinemascope edition that we are now able to watch on the big screen. You might be able to spot a few other things that went wrong while we were filming, such as the time I inadvertently slipped up to my waist in water.
Nick Newby from Nicole End Marine came along to tell us how the elegant Lakeland steamer, the Lady Derwentwater, had been converted for her starring role as Captain Flint’s houseboat. She was appropriately dressed for the part by the award-winning set designer Ian Whittaker, who went on to receive an Oscar for Best Art Direction on ‘Howards End’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. His astonishing list of nominations can been seen here.
Swallow, the 1930s sailing dinghy used in the original film, was at the lakeside for Arthur Ransome enthusiasts to admire. She is looked after by Rob Boden, from Kendal, who is happy to take people for a sail by prior arrangement via the SailRansome website here.
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 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. We had no mobile phones, only Motorollas.
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.
If you enjoyed this post, do think of getting a copy of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available from libraries, online retailers and Amazon here
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 envisaged 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 accurately 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 houseboat. 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 succeeding 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.”
You can read more about the adventures had making the original film of Swallows and Amazons in any one of these editions of Sophie Neville’s filmography available from Amazon and all the other usual places. You can read a little more about them on this website here.