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Meeting up with Peggy Blackett – from the film ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974)

Lesley Bennett in 1973

When the original feature film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ was made in 1973, Peggy Blackett was played by Lesley Bennett. She can be seen here on location at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District.

For the last thirty-four years, Lesley has been living in the Netherlands. I met up with her for lunch at Schiphol Airport on my way back from sailing Arthur Ransome’s cutter, the Nancy Blackett, through the inland waterways of Zeeland. (Please see the last two previous posts.) I nearly didn’t make the meeting. A man had been arrested for planting a bomb on a train just north of Middleberg, but the authorities must have acted quickly as I wasn’t delayed for long.

Lesley had brought along a blue file of documents and a number of black and white movie stills that she’d been given by Richard Pilbrow, the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on one of our last days in Ambleside after filming had finished. We could both remember them spread out on a table at the unit hotel so we could each chose the ones we appeared in. I had picked one where Lesley and I are sitting together, our hair bobbed in line with the 1930’s, I wearing a cream silk dress, Lesley in a dark top looking very pretty:

With Virginia McKenna on the first day of filming

~A publicity shot featuring Virginia McKenna, with Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton, published in the Guardian and other newspapers~

Lesley’s parents, who lived near Tonbridge in Kent, originally learnt that Theatre Projects were looking for children to take part in the film when the Associate Producer, Neville Thompson, wrote to their local sailing club. Lesley explained that her father, who was very well organised, kept a copy of the letter sent to the Secretary of the club in January 1973.  Plans were made for Lesley to be interviewed for a part with her younger sister Lyn, who sadly fell ill and couldn’t make the audition. The letter contains a mistake that might explain why Lesley ended up playing Peggy when she was thirteen years old.

Lesley got on well with Kit Seymour who ended up playing her elder sister, Nancy Blackett – ‘terror of the seas’. Both girls would sail well and enjoyed being out on the lakes. Lesley told me that the reason why she held her hands between her legs in this photograph is that it was so cold when we were filming on Peel Island.

‘Kit would fold her arms and I’d try to keep my hands warm.’ Although I wore a cardigan in this scene, Swallows had been cold too. I remember thinking that at least the Amazons wore knitted hats. Otherwise their costumes were simple short-sleeved shirts and long shorts with black plymsols, worn without socks.

~Kit Seymour as Captain Nancy and Lesley Bennett as Mate Peggy in 1973~

Lesley told me their hats had been quite a problem – not quite a full-blown movie disaster but a they caused consternation in Consiton. The first scene the Amazons shot was set in the garden of Beckfoot, the Blacketts’ house. Although it does not lie on the ‘Amazon River’ at the northern end of the lake, Brown Howe on the western shore of Coniston Water was used as the location and the crew set up the 35mm Panavision camera, along with reflector boards and enough lighting to bring sunshine to Westmorland. When everyone on the production was ready, Gareth Tandy, the third assistant led the Amazons down to the set wearing red knitted stocking caps – with no bobbles. Beanies were not quite what either the director or producer had expected. Lesley has a photo showing the great discussion that ensued:


~Director Claude Whatham, Producer Richard Pilbrow, 3rd Assistant Director Gareth Tandy, Make-up Artist Peter Robb-King, Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan and Associate Producer Neville Thompson with Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett at Brown Howe on Coniston Water in May 1973 ~

In the end Claude Whatham shot the scene with the girls bare-headed, their hair blowing all over the place, even though it was meant to be ‘dead-calm’ in the story.  This looked natural as they were at home but they needed to look like pirates in every other scene.

~Nancy and Peggy running down to Amazon at the Blackett’s house Beckfoot~

Wooly hats with ‘longer ends’ were knitted locally at some speed. Red is not a good colour on the screen. I remember a couple of bright pink ribbed bobble-hats arrived when we were filming on Peel Island but they were deemed a complete disaster and rejected in favour of scarlet ones originally described by Arthur Ransome even if the colour might look a bit jarring on screen.

No one on the production knew anything about knitting or subtle shades of wool and Emma Porteous, the costume designer, was back in London. When the third pair of hats arrived we were all a bit worried about the fatness of the bobble-end, as they didn’t quite match the illustrations in the books, but no one knew what else to do. Time ran out and the producer was forced to compromise. ‘They were warm but prone to flop about,’ Lesley said, ‘and sometimes flopped forward, which looked a bit silly.’ I’d never noticed this but it was captured in one photograph:

~Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett as Nancy and Peggy Blackett on Wild Cat Island in 1973~

Mum was given the pink version of the hats. She kept them for years but no one ever wore them.

To be continued….

 

 

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News of 2nd edition of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS and AMAZONS (1974)’ published by The Lutterworth Press on 25th May 2017

9780718894962_cover Amazons.indd

The long-awaited second edition of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS (1974)’ is being published in paperback by The Lutterworth Press on 25th May. Pre-orders are now available from their website here
This memoir of an odd thing that happened in the early 1970s is similar to the first edition but has a new cover and includes a few more stories, photographs and names from the ‘seventies that have floated to the surface. It compliments StudioCanal’s 40th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray and makes a good present for anyone who has grown up watching the 1974 film.
StudioCanal DVD cover
The new paperback edition will be stocked by the vast majority of book retailers including Amazon, Waterstones, Blackwells, Paperback Bookshop, Books Etc. and is available direct from The Lutterworth Press  who also publish ‘Swallows, Amazons and Coots’ by Julian Lovelock that has a forward by Sophie Neville.  Those in North America can order copies from the US distributor Casemate Academic
 Swallows & Amazons flags for book

Sophie hopes to be signing copies at events around the country this summer.

Please click here for details

Roseland Festival 2017
Last weekend Sophie was signing copies of her books at the Tavistock Festival and gave a talk at the Roseland Festival in St Mawes before a screening of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on Sunday evening at the lovely Hotel Tresanton cinema.
Arthur Ransome Pin Mill Jamboree
We are hoping copies of the 2nd Edition will be available by Saturday 13th May when Sophie will be opening the Arthur Ransome Pin Mill Jamboree in Suffolk, to celebrate the  20th Anniversary of the Nancy Blackett Trust and Visit England’s Year of Literary Heroes. As we Discover the Land of Literary Greats, Sophie will be giving a talk on the adaptations of Ransome’s books set in East Anglia and the English Lake District.

Map of the Jamboree

 this Saturday 22nd May at 2.00pm

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Recent comments on ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’

‘I bought a signed copy of The Making of Swallows & Amazons and have just finished reading it. It’s a lovely, flowing read and I loved all the interesting details, especially chapters 12 to 18 in the later half of the book… I shall treasure it.’ Nigel

Blu-ray fishing scene

‘I am thoroughly enjoying reading your diary entries and hearing how life was on set etc… All the things I have always wanted to know about the film are in the book! I do hope you have lovely memories of all the locations you filmed at, especially Bank Ground Farm. Jonathan, who now owns the place and does all the farming has made my family and I very welcome indeed! (only) we can not tack up the field as they are growing it for Silage!!!! Thank you for inspiring my family and I so much! Yours sincerely, Benjamin’ (aged 10) ‘P.S. We’re off to Wild Cat Island tomorrow!’

Blu-ray Lookout tree

Simon West as Captain John by the lighthouse tree

‘All of your recollections are insightful and tinged with humour (as always). In particular the story about Mrs Batty locking out the film crew and all the Cumbrian characters that were involved in the film. I didn’t know George Pattinson appeared in the Rio scene either, and I can just imagine the giggles you must have had when watching the double-deckers playing footsie with one another!’ David.

Blu-ray Amazon Pirates

Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour as the Amazons stranded on Wild Cat Island

‘Good little book full of information and funny tales.’ Jennifer

‘This book has rekindled my interest and memories from the 70’s when I first saw the film and read all the books, so well written and very entertaining, in some ways it ll seems a long time ago but this book makes it seem like yesterday! Thoroughly recommended.’ Richard on Amazon.co.uk

‘Loved your book about filming Swallows & Amazons – my favourite childhood film, very nostalgic.’ Nicola

‘Just wanted to say how much I am enjoying The Making of Swallows & Amazons. What a wonderful time you all had… I have all the books & love the film & TV series Coot Club and The Big Six, so it’s fab to read about them.’

Blu-ray John rowing swallow

Sten Grendon, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton in Swallow

If you would like to write a short book review, please click here for the link.

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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

However:

  • 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?

Blu-ray X marks the spot

‘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.

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Do you have any questions about the making of ‘Swallows & Amazons’

“They’re pirates!” Sophie Neville as Titty

The Telegraph listed ‘Swallows & Amazons’ as Film of the Week when it was broadcast on ITV3 in the UK recently. It was also shown on GEM television in Australia last Friday. Sophie has been answering questions about making the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ at the Curious Arts Festival. If you have one, please use the comments box below.

On 26th July Sophie Neville, spoke to Dan Damon on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday morning programme ‘Broadcasting House’ about the enduring success of the film. To read more, please click here.

Sophie Neville shaking cocktails

Sophie Neville at the Curious Arts Festival

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‘The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome’ along with a letter from Mrs Ransome herself

Members of The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook have alerted me to the fact that ‘The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome’ is currently available for viewing on BBCiPlayer.

Griff Rhys Jones

This beautifully made documentary, presented by Griff Rhys Jones, examines Ransome’s life as a war correspondent in Russia from 1913 to 1919 when he was so close to the action, in dialogue both Lenin and Leon Trotsky, that the question has been raised as to whether he was a British spy.

Hugh Brogan, Ransome’s biographer explains that he’d originally ran off to Russia to escape from his melodramatic wife, Ivy Walker in 1913. After using his time to record Russian fairy stories, that can still be read today in his book, ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales‘, he was employed by a national British newspaper to report on events leading up to the Russian Revolution. Black and white archive footage, along with photographs Ransome took himself, illustrate this well.

The BBC’s erstwhile political correspondent John Sergeant, explains the significance of certain survival strategies Ransome used, such as using ‘his practical skill to outwit people’, over extracts from the feature filmSwallows & Amazons, produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973.

Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West above Derwentwater in 1973

Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West, 1974

The scenes from the movie also show how the story Ransome wrote when back in the Lake District, was in many ways an outworking of feelings accumulated while he was working in Russia. By being away and concentrating on his writing, he neglected his daughter just as Uncle Jim was not around for the Blackett girls.

Captian Frlint with Nancy and Peggy

In the dramatised documentary, the beautiful actress Alina Karmazina plays Evgenia, the girl Ransome fell in love with while he was filing reports from Petrograd.  They later escaped over the border, trading her copper kettle for freedom of passage.

If the BBC had contacted Richard Pilbrow he would have been able to send them this letter. It was written to Neville Thompson, the online producer of the film, by Evgenia, who had become the second Mrs Ransome. It has never been published before. She gives the address as her retirement home near Banbury but it shows what kind of girl she was:

Mrs Ransome1

Page two:

Mrs Ransome page 2 trimmed

When Mrs Ransome saw the finished film in 1974, her only comment was that the kettle was of the wrong period.

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker with Stephen Grendon as Roger Walker camping on Peel Island, Conioston Water in Cumbria

Was Susan a portrayal of Evgenia? Here she is played by Suzanna Hamilton.

The story of the Ransome’s escape from Russian has been told by Hugh Lupton, Arthur Ransome’s great nephew, who gave us a rendition recently at The Arthur Ransome Society meeting near Bungay. It can be listened to on CD, available on CD from Burning Shed.

The Homing Stone by Hugh Lupton

The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome can be watched on BBC iPlayer

by clicking on the photo here

Griff Rhys Jones - BBC

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Changes to the original screenplay of the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

One of the questions asked by fans of the film Swallows & Amazons, produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973, is whether any of the scenes  written by David Wood ever hit the cutting-room floor. Looking back through the original screenplay I can see that the answer is, not many.

The shots of finding Swallow in the boatshed, bringing her out and raising her flag were moved forward, under the Voice Over of the Walker children reading out the letters to their father. Claude Whatham at the Boathouse with Simon West and Sophie Neville

Simon West talking to director Claude Whatham with Sophie Neville

There is a scene in the book set at Holly Howe when medical supplies are being packed for the voyage. This was shot with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water, but must have slowed down the pace of the film as it was replaced by a montage of shots, which are much more exciting. Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville

Virginia McKenna as Mother with Sophie Neville as Titty making Swallow’s flag

Making patterans on the way to the charcoal burners, was a lovely scene from the book that was recorded but never included in the film.  Captain John can been seen explaining how gypsies use them as secret markers in this black and white still from the film. It was shot on a mossy bank in oak woodland so very characteristic of the Lake District. BW The Swallows make Patterans It was at this dramatic location, high above Derwentwater that this behind-the-scenes shot of the director, Claude Whatham was taken. You can see Cat Bells in the background. Claude Whatham and his cast of Swallows

Claude Whatham talking to his cast: Sten Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Suzanna Hamilton

Mrs Ransome, who worked closely with the screenwriter agreed that the storm scene on Wild Cat Island would not to be included in the screenplay, which we all thought a great pity as children.  Such a violent gale blew in one day when we were filming on Peel Island that we would have had the right weather conditions, but you can not include everything. Jane Grendon, whose son Sten played Roger wrote to tell  me that before filming began, ‘…one of the very first things we were asked was, ‘can Sten swim?” ‘I know he could doggy paddle,’ she continued. ‘ Neville (Thompson, the online Producer) organised swimming lessons at Pitville Pool, Cheltenham which included jumping off the diving boards.  At the time I didn’t know why and I don’t think Sten is a natural in the water and the swimming lessons didn’t prove very successful.  Claude (Whatham) told me – at the end of filming I think, when he gave me a copy of he original script – these lessons were because in the original script Roger was to jump in the water after Uncle Jim walked the plank.’ Jane sent me a copy of the page in question. I had not seen it before: A page of David Wood's original screenplay: 'Swallow & Amazons' (1974) It was a page of the script we never had the time or enough fine weather to shoot. I am so glad.

Readers often ask if any scenes involving the Amazons were cut, but none were left out. Nancy and Peggy simply do not appear in the book as much as one might remember. Amazon Boathouse

Please leave any questions about the making of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the comments below.

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